harrybingham

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

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As it happens, it’s the Festival that gives me my entry to today’s topic. A few year’s back, our keynote speaker was the brilliant Antonia Hodgson, author of the massively acclaimed, hugely bestselling debut, The Devil in the Marshalsea.

Because Antonia was also editorial director at Little, Brown, it seemed a little bit like this was just how publishing happened for the in-crowd. You have all these amazing connections. You hone your self-editing skills by editing professionally for many years. You have a glorious outcome.

That’s a nice story in a way, except it didn’t really feel like it was very relevant to an audience of aspiring writers not one of whom happened to be the editorial director of an internationally respected publisher.

Only here’s the thing –

The Devil in the Marshalsea wasn’t Antonia’s first book. It was her first published book.

Her first actual manuscript was a 250,000 word vampire novel written long after the whole vampire wave had risen and crashed.

It was, from the sound of it, a terrible book. And, for all her mighty editorial prowess, it took a literary agent to sit Antonia down and tell her the bad news.

So what do we make of that? What do we learn?

Well, we learn that Antonia Hodgson is like us after all. And that she had the guts to ditch one monster manuscript and start all over again.

But also: writing a first novel is hard. It may not work. It may not work, even if you put your intelligent damnedest into fixing up that first draft.

Indeed, we see this all the time with our editorial clients. Yes, some of them make a brilliant go of their first novel. But for others, the first novel is basically a learning experience. A sandbox where you can make every mistake in the book and then learn to fix it.

But you can make 100 mistakes and fix everyone and sometimes what you’re left with is a good novel. A technically proficient, interesting, decently written, good novel.

And (sorry!) that’s not enough in our game. The top few percent of every agent’s slushpile will consist of good, competent novels. No one ever woke up in the morning and thought, “Must head to Amazon and see if they have any good, competent novels in stock.”

The fact is that we – readers, agents, editors – want to be dazzled and transported. We want to be blown away. And a novel that gets laboriously worked and re-worked just may not retain that dazzle.

Indeed, it’s more than likely that the original concept was flawed. It’s quite likely that the writer didn’t really go for it when designing the basic story set-up. That they played safe rather than going all in. (Or, another error: they went all-in on a story that no audience actually wants.)

And look: writing is hard.

Nothing here is saying, “You’ve done this wrong. You’re a terrible human. Go and learn golf, because you don’t belong here on our planet.”

Quite the opposite. I’m saying that for many writers – not all, but most – there’ll come a point where you think, “This story isn’t working and I can’t fix it.”

And that’s OK. You’re learning. Sometimes a dodgy first novel is part of the learning. Fine. Don’t stress.

I do think it’s a good idea to self-edit the thing hard. There are two reasons for that. First, you learn by editing. Second, most great novels look pretty dire in those early drafts. You don’t quite know what you’re dealing with until you’ve done some editing work.

But let’s say you’ve self-edited hard. Perhaps you’ve worked with us editorially. Perhaps you’ve taken a course or come to the amazing Festival of Writing.

You’ve done all that good stuff and … the book still isn’t working.

Good.

You’ve achieved your most important task which was to learn a hell of a lot about writing. The best way to write a good book is often enough to write a bad one first. That’s not failure. That’s apprenticeship.

And you know what? Writing a first novel that goes on to become a bestseller isn’t necessarily the gift you might think it is.

My first novel did get picked up by agents, did get fought over at auction and did become a bestseller. So I thought, ha! I know how to write books.

But I didn’t, because I’d had a curtailed, weird apprenticeship. My second book was a total disaster. So bad, I deleted it and started again. That’s hard enough at any time, but I was mid-contract with HarperCollins and the whole episode felt seriously alarming. I rescued things, but the experience was no fun at all.

One last thing.

A lot of you will want to ask: how do I know? How can I tell when it’s time to move on?

Well, I don’t know. Sorry.

What I will say is that the experience of moving on can be both scary and liberating. Scary, because you have to release something you’ve been highly attached to. Liberating, because once you let go of that attachment, your imagination surges with all the other great things you could be writing about.

Antonia Hodgson started with vampires. She made her name with historical crime fiction. Who knows what could lie in store for you?

Tell me about your first novel dilemmas below ... consider it a Clinic for Worried Writers. The doors are open ...

August 4 2017, I got this terrific review from a reader named Anne Hill in the US.

THE MOST BORING BOOK EVER WRITTEN
I'm afraid this is the most boring book I have ever struggled through. Boring beyond belief. It really does not deserve any stars at all in my opinion. Although spelling and grammar were all they should be, the heroine is a most unbelievable and implausible individual ever created. What woman of 5ft 2 inches can be attacked simultaneously by four baddies and either kill or maim them without a scratch to herself. Through the book there were people mentioned without explanation as to who they were. So it did not feel as if one was reading the first book at all. Most confusing. The entire book did just not gel at all.

That was savage for sure, but it wasn’t nearly as concise as this one from Mary Claude:

ONE STAR
Didn’t read.

What I really want to know about that review, Mary, was whether you read any of it at all? I mean, was the one star an expression of bitter regret that you’d spent $0.99 on an ebook that wasn’t really your thing? Or did you read the first page and then just think, Aargh, this is terrible? I don’t know, but I love your economy of expression.

My absolute all-time favourite bad review, however, said this (thanks, Assegai):

FIONA GRIFFITHS LEAVES ME QUEASY
Sorry, but when the heroine of the book starts feeling around inside the skull of an autopsied murder victem it really doesn't leave me feeling warm and fuzzy or wanting to read more or learn what makes her tick... I can deal with quirky, but Fiona Griffiths is FAR beyond quirky and well into mentally ill! I skimmed through the chapters after the the night in the morgue scene just to see how the author resolved things. The answer is not in a particularly believeable fashion. Glad I didn't take the word of the critics and buy more than one book in the series. I found Hanibal Lecter a more understandable and sympathetic character.

And look, one of the reasons why I genuinely don’t care about these terrible reviews is that they’re in a tiny minority. My first Fiona Griffiths book has an average 4.4 rating on Amazon. The latest one hits 4.8 stars. Overall, I have hundreds, even thousands, of four and five star reviews. So I’m in the nice position of not really having to care about a few negative comments.

But bad reviews do something else as well. They start to segregate your audience, and that’s great.

Because here’s the thing. In the bad old days, nearly all marketing was quite untargeted. My first book came out in February 2000, and it got huge posters on the London Underground and mainline rail stations, probably a few airports too. They even – this is real – had women in blue sashes handing out little three-chapter samplers of the book to passing commuters.

All this was thrilling to see for a newbie author ... but the targeting behind that campaign was crazily broad. Based on the reach of some of those posters, my publisher saw my audience as “All British commuters using mainline railway stations into London.” And sure, there was an overlap between people-who-use trains and people-who-like-my-books, but there’s no marketing magic there. It’s blunderbus, not sniper’s rifle. And that wasn’t surprising. Back then, there was no alternative.

The internet has changed all that, of course. The trick of marketing anything online these days is to find your audience in the most granular way you possibly can.

That’s how come advertising on Facebook works so well. You don’t have to market to people-who-use-trains. You can market to people-who-read-and-enjoy-books-like-mine.

That’s why email marketing works so well, because you have a direct connection to people who have positively invited your efforts to keep in touch.

That’s how come Amazon itself works so well. Go to Amazon’s home page and look at the “Recommended for you” bit at the top. Now look at your sister’s version of the same page. Or your dad’s. Or your childrens’. Or your friends. Assuming they’re logged into their Amazon account, those pages will always be personalised according to what Amazon knows about your buying habits.

And that’s why negative reviews can actually be helpful.

Anyone who’s squeamish about my main character, the crimes she solves, and the scenes she generates - well, they're never going to be a great reader of my books. Yes, they might buy one book on the off chance, but then never again. If that person leaves a review because they didn’t like X, then readers who are similar will move away and select a more appropriate title for them. That’s a win! Increasingly, Amazon won’t just know who might buy a single book by Harry Bingham. It’ll know who’s likely to invest in the whole series. And because selling a whole series is more profitable than just a single book, Amazon will have ever greater confidence in marketing hard to the exact right readership.

It’s even the same thing with the reviewer who just said that my book was boring. That review stood alongside a zillion reviews that said it was great. So readers have to think, is this book boring or great? And, I think if you peruse the reviews in depth, an intelligent reader will figure out that my books don’t do a lot of gunfights and car chases, but do offer complex and absorbing plots led by a very complex and (I hope) absorbing character.

So the gun-fight-‘n-car-chase readership will go elsewhere. My readership will flock to me.

And again, that’s a win. I’d much, much rather a passionate following from a narrow segment of the reading population, than a “yeah, it’s OK” type reaction from a large segment.

I’ll say more about this kind of thing in future emails: why granularity matters so much and how to exploit it for your benefit.

For now though, just keep in mind the headline. Granularity matters. Passion matters. A passionate and narrow readership is worth ten times a ten times, unpassionate one.

And that headline should guide everything you do, including how you write your books. So if you write a scene and think “My aunt Marge [See picture in header - that's Marge] likes crime fiction, but she wouldn’t like this scene, so I’d better tone it down, you are thinking the exact wrong thing. You should think, “My aunt Marge would hate this, but my ideal reader would love it. I wonder if I can find a way to ramp things up even further.”

That strategy will work for you every single time. And it’s much, much more fun.

Sorry, Marge.

Harry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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

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

The Da Vinci Code

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

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

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all from me.

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

Till soon

Harry

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

Here are two facts about this ambition / profession of ours that can look daunting:

  1. It’s damn hard to write a good book
  2. It’s damn hard to sell it, once written.

On point 1: well, who cares? If it weren’t hard, it wouldn’t be fun. You wouldn’t have the joy and satisfaction that comes from doing a difficult thing well.

And on 2: well, yes. Good point. Gulp.

It’s true that you can write a great book, get a great agent, sell to a great publisher, work hard with a great editor, and then, yes, you stand a chance of selling very well.

It’s also possible that you complete those steps, but when the publisher’s sales team pitches to the supermarkets, the supermarkets just say no. And if they say no, that’s not because you’re a terrible author and you’ve written a terrible book. Those things might be true of course, but the supermarkets wouldn’t know. They haven’t read your book.

To a huge and underappreciated extent, the race for supermarket sales (as far as debut or near-debut authors is concerned) is like twelve fat men running for the same door. Only one of the runners is going to make it and which one actually does is a matter of chance more than athleticism.

In short, beyond a point, there’s not much you can do to influence sales through bricks and mortar retailers. You can go secure that great editor. You can work hard. You can smile sweetly at sales conferences (if you get asked) and all that stuff. But you just can’t influence those critical decisions. You aren’t even in the room, or anywhere near it.

But all that doesn’t mean you can’t be highly pro-active as a modern author. Nor do you have to self-publish to reap the rewards.

Here’s the thing:

The most powerful way to sell on Amazon is via your own mailing list – your very own group of fans.

The detail of building and using that list is relatively intricate. Not because it’s so inherently complicated, but because this is an area where detail matters. Exactly how do you solicit email addresses? What do you offer in exchange? What language should you use? How you solve those things can make a huge cumulative difference to how many emails you get (and what quality those emails are.)

But that’s detail.

The essence of selling via mailing list is really simple:

  1. You find people who like your books
  2. You offer them something that they want – probably a shortish story if you’re a novelist, something helpful if you’re writing subject-led non-fiction.
  3. People sign up to get the thing they’re after. They also (knowingly and happily) sign up to get regular emails from you.
  4. In those emails, you are charming, discursive, & helpful … and concentrate fiercely on the topic that brought these readers to you in the first place
  5. When you have a new book to sell, you say “Hey guys, do you want my book?”
  6. They buy it

But that’s not the clever bit! That’s not the bit that explodes your sales and stuffs dollars into your bank account until you fall back laughing, “Enough! Enough! Enough!”

The clever bit is this:

  1. Amazon notices the sales spike that your emails has generated
  2. Amazon’s little marketing robots get so excited that binary starts spouting out of their sockets
  3. Amazon itself starts to pump news of your book out to all the readers it thinks are most likely to love it. That’ll be via emails, via “recommended for you” banners, via Hot New Release promos, and much else.
  4. A ton more people start to come across your work … and to buy it … and to discover the wonderful news that you are giving away a wonderful short story …

And the whole process begins again.

This is the critical motor that powers every really successful self-pub author’s career. It’s the trick that took me to six-figure sales in the US on the back of just 6 self-published books. It’s why even really advertising-competent authors (like Mark Dawson) say that the three most important things in digital bookselling are “mailing list, mailing list, mailing list.”

And you can use that trick no matter whether you’re planning on a traditional publishing career, or on self-publishing, or on a hybrid of the two. I’d go so far as to say, there are almost no categories of author that shouldn’t be thinking of building and nurturing an email list. (More details here, if you need them.)

Say, for example, you are traditionally published and your publisher just messes up. You have the advance, but your book sales are disappointing, and your career looks fatally wounded. If you emerge from the wreckage with the start of a decent mailing list, then you have built an asset that will support and protect you for years and years to come. My US trad publishing career did crash and burn (thanks, Random House!), but my US publishing career just went from strength to strength.

Good books + mailing list = a strategy that never fails.

And two other plus points:

 A mailing list prompts you to write a “reader magnet”. That magnet doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – a full length book. I use two magnets for my fiction, one of 7,000 words, one of 13,000. Those things are too long for short stories. They’re way too short for any publisher to want to buy and print them.

But they’re fun to write! And great for readers! They feel like a holiday from work, while being absolutely core to the work you want to do.

And hey: once you have a mailing list, you can do almost anything. If you’re minded to write a 25,000 word story – for which, to repeat, no traditional publisher would pay – then you can write it and sell it via your mailing list, for $0.99 if you’re feeling generous, or $2.99 if you’re not. The basic mailing list strategy will still (once your list is somewhat mature) deliver real dividends.

If I had to pick just one brilliant thing about publishing in the last decade or so, I’d have to pick the rise of Amazon and the e-book. If I got to pick two, I’d pick the list-driven sales strategy every time. Nothing, but nothing, but nothing, has empowered authors more.

That’s true if you’re trad.

It’s true if you’re indie.

It’s true if you’re an exciting hybrid of the two, with the head of a goat on the body of donkey.

That’s it from me. It’s sunny. And in the cricket, England are about to start batting …

Till soon

Harry

Hi Harry,

                 I wanted to tell you and your team Jericho, how great an experience I had learning from my masterclass with Laurence. His lessons were so clear and concise that I gained insight from day one. Daren King, thank you.


                                                             

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well.

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

There is no secret sauce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

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

The negative:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till soon

Harry

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

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

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

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

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

And here’s another thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And look:

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

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

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

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

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

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

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

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon

Harry

Dear Harry,

I did a short course with writers workshop way back when and because of your newsletter, I joined Jericho.

I wanted to say thank you. I did the picture book writing course with Pippa Goodhart and have received editor reports from Haydn Middleton and Victoria Lee on other strands I have been working on. Doing courses really helps set deadlines and force you to write and working with different editors has been interesting. 

Life and full time work is so difficult and especially when you’re a newbie, even justifying the time or cost spent on writing is hard. My family are wonderful but see this as a hobby and are amused more than anything when I say I’m doing a course or writing.  

I have a good friend who writes so we talk a lot which is great but sending drafts to people to read is so hard as no one has time and you’re sitting around for ages waiting for feedback. 

I read steven pressfields book ‘nobody wants to read your shit’ and he made some really good points. 

I’m working my way through this unknown territory and see where I fit in.

I really like reading your emails.  

Thank you again. 

Farrah 

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

But –

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

And –

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

So –

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

Which bring us to –

You. Life. Books. Writing.

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

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

So Life vs Work?

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

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

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

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

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

So the solution is …?

Um.

Uh.

I don’t know. Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

And the gin, obviously.

Harry

Voice.

It’s the secret sauce of writing. The magical herb that transforms your stew. It’s the leaf of gold in a martini. The lemony brightness.

It’s also, no surprise, the single thing that agents most often look for in a debut work. A distinctive voice. The key to success.

Although agents are most vocal in wanting this, I’d say that the same issue matters almost as much to self-published debuts. After all, if you’re writing just another romance, the reader can buy any old romance to meet their needs. They don’t have to buy your #2 in the series. But if you write something so distinctive that there’s just no adequate substitute out there, they have to buy your #2, and then your #3, and then … No prizes for guessing which kind of self-pub author makes more money.

Right, so voice is good. But what is it? What actually are we talking about here?

Well, the dictionary definition would be something like Voice = the author’s stylistic fingerprint. A distinctive way of writing, unique to that specific author.

Voice is most obviously applicable to questions of prose style. So Raymond Chandler’s voice is immediately distinctive from the way he puts words on a page. This kind of thing:

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

Or this:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.”

But voice has to do with more than just prose.

So if you think about (for example) I Am Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, there’s nothing so very remarkable about the way she puts words on a page. For example, this:

“Then I understood I would never marry him. It's funny how one thing can make you realize something like that. One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about one's past, or one's clothes, but then--a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh.”

That doesn’t have anything like the showiness of Raymond Chandler. Each sentence is perfectly simple. The finish is rather flat, as though the author is painting in acrylics, not oils.

That sounds like a put-down. But the human / emotional insights are so precisely observed, so accurately and simply delivered, that their cumulative effect is overwhelming. The flatness of style is, in fact, closely married to the insight. The same kind of insight delivered in Chandler-ese would have deflected most of the attention to the writing, and removed the power of the actual observation.

It’s not hard to find voice in any author of real quality. Take Lee Child. He hardly operates at the literary end of the spectrum. You could slap a chunk of his prose down on the page and not find anything so remarkable. For example:

“Never forgive, never forget. Do it once and do it right. You reap what you sow. Plans go to hell as soon as the first shot is fired. Protect and serve. Never off duty”

That doesn’t look like authorial voice even a little bit. That looks like a chain of sentences lining up for the World Cliché Parade.

But – Jack Reacher. That’s the secret of Lee Child’s voice right there. The way Reacher thinks, acts, remembers, operates is a brilliant construct. Reacher certainly doesn’t have any of Elizabeth’s Strunk’s quietly piercing observations, but Child gives us a complete, brilliant, detailed picture of the way a fighting machine like Reacher works. The (mostly) unremarkable prose is absolutely a part of that. Reacher doesn’t do fancy, so the prose follows suit.

And, OK, all this is interesting. But we haven’t yet said anything useful.

I mean, if voice is so important, then it would be kind of useful to know where to get it, how to build it. [Stuff I also discuss in this blog post, incidentally.]

And – I don’t know.

Not really.

Or rather: I don’t think there’s a specific set of techniques you can use to go and get yourself a distinctive voice. In that sense, it’s not like problems with prose, or problems with plot, where you can simply run a fairly standard set of diagnostic tools to identify the specific issues and find solutions.

On the other hand, I can tell you what kind of person you have to be to have voice. What kind of writer.

Above all, you have to be a confident one. Confident in yourself. I love quoting Gore Vidal on this. He says:

"Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.”

The hardest bit there is the not giving a damn. It’s finding the mode of expression that works best for you, then just going for it. Taking off that inner handbrake. Following the logic of your path to its end. Ensuring, relentlessly, that you are satisfied with every last word on the page. That those words, in that order, spoken by those characters are what you want to express.

That means, in order to please an agent – you have to not give a damn about what an agent may think.

In order to please your eventual reader – you have to not care, or not care directly, about their judgements.

In effect, the finding-a-voice journey is an act of inner completion, that just happens to be executed via writing. Which is great. Which is uplifting. But which is also a real bummer, because what tools and techniques do you use to become a more complete human?

I don’t really have a useful answer to that question. I’d say my voice was kinda present in my first ever novel – it didn’t read exactly like anybody else’s debut novel. But before I had anything like a completely confident voice, I’d written five (maybe six) novels and three or four works of non-fiction. And yes, I think there’s something replicable about that technique. Write five or six published novels, and you’ll find yourself writing in a Vidal-ish, not-giving-a-damn kind of way.

But some of you might be a little more impatient than that. And yes, as a voice-acquisition technique, I’d say my own process was hardly speedy.

So instead let me recommend these two approaches:

1. Learn writing technique

One of the reasons why newbie writers end up sounding undistinctive is that they have so much else to grapple with. Is my plot working? Should I choose first person or third? Does this character feel vivid? Does this relationship have enough conflict? (etc, etc, etc).

The result is that they never really get to grapple with those Gore Vidal-ish things at all. Their minds (my mind, during those first few books of mine) are too pre-occupied with issues of mere technique.

So, lesson one, absorb writing technique until it’s second nature. The more you absorb and internalise those tools, the more your mind is freed for other things. For self-expression and self-finding.

2. Rewrite

You can’t be satisfied because something is OK. You can only afford to be satisfied when this is OK and expresses exactly what you wanted to say in the way that you wanted to say it.

And because you don’t even know what you want to say until you start saying it, you’ll find, almost inevitably, that you build your way towards something good by writing and unpicking, and then re-writing and re-unpicking, all the way until you’re finally done.

That’s lesson two.

3. Ignore anyone else’s model

The next thriller writer to be as successful as Lee Child will not write like Lee Child.

The next crime writer to make as much of a mark as Raymond Chandler will definitely not write like Raymond Chandler (because zillions of people have written in a Chandler-lite kind of way and absolutely none of them made any kind of mark.)

So forget about those models, great as they are.

Forget also about the endless peer-to-peer workshopping, practised by a lot of university creative writing programmes. That workshopping has plenty to be said for it, no doubt, but too much of it will turn your work into something that sounds like all those other creative writing MFA type products. And you don’t want that. You want to sound like you.


That’s lesson three, and here endeth all the lessons.

That’s it from me.

I am now going to take a hayfever pill and declare war on every blade of grass in Oxfordshire.

Sneezily,

Harry


PPS: The best place to learn writing technique? Duh. That would be on Jericho Writers, of course. Among your options:

  • The Ultimate Novel Writing Course. Does exactly what it says on the tin. I think this writing course might be the finest writing course in the whole world ever. That’s certainly the way we designed it. More here.
  • Mentoring, with the mighty Daren King. We’re looking to add more mentors to this programme soon, but Daren has been doing this for ten years and he’s very, very good. More here.
  • Jericho Writers Membership. Don’t forget that membership confers access to a really complete, detailed, joyous video course on writing. If you just watched all those videos over the course of a month, you would definitely be a better writer than you were at the start. If you have a manuscript on the go at the moment, that course will show you countless ways to improve it. More on the course here. More on membership here.

Here's the place to chat about my Friday May 17 email on the routes to publishing in 2019. The blog post I referenced can be found here:
https://jerichowriters.com/how-to-get-published/ 

Have I missed anything out? Is there anything where you violently disagree? What has your experience been? Here's the place to tell me ...

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

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

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