harrybingham

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

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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

OK. More dialogue today.

Three little bits of housekeeping first.

Number One. The Summer Festival was such a massive hit, we’ve decided to bring that vibe into our JW membership package – lots of regular, live material, from a whole range of different, brilliant speakers. You can see our autumn line-up here. We’ll be making big plans for next year as well. There’s no extra cost for any of this – it’s all free within your membership. Hooray.

Number Two. We’ve always been keen to help people where we can and, to celebrate the end of the Summer Festival, we’re going to give 10 under-represented writers free memberships for a year. More about how to enter at the end.

Number Three. We got into a fight with Jeff Bezos last week – and lost. Your email this week comes on a Friday. Next week, it might be either Thursday or Friday, and it will sizzle with good things.

Right. Nuff of that.

Dialogue.

I was going to offer up a couple more snippets with comments this week, but I picked one to start with, and that one ran away with me.

So just one snippet this week. Take a look at how contrary, how twisty this one three-hundred word chunk is. Look at how silence can operate in the same was as actual dialogue. How silence can push back at the reader, at the listener. And how the real thing being revealed by dialogue isn’t so much the content of what’s being talked about as the emotional reactions of the speakers to that content.

Here goes:

REBECCA / NO TITLE

Ida has recently lost her hand and had a vicious go at her best friend as a result of which she has locked herself away in her room. She set her maid outside her door to stop people from entering but her lover, who is also a military General, has come to see her.

The door clicked shut and a momentary silence fell over the room. Why was he here?

"If you've come to lecture me then you are too late," she said. "I've already had enough lectures for the day."

It wasn't true. She hadn't had any. Agatha had come yesterday and given her an earful. She had told her 'This is not how a young woman behaves…', and 'You should know better than to be so vulgar in public…', that she had '…been raised to be more tactful'. They were nothing new, but coming from the woman who was more of a surrogate grandmother made them sting just as much as if Agatha had taken Ida over her knee and smacked her.

"That is not the reason I came," he said. "Though all I will say on the matter is while Vastian was clearly not thinking when he opened his mouth, your outburst was inappropriate."

Her fingernails dug deeper into the wood of the chair.

"No, the reason I came is to tell you, in case you didn't know, he's gone."

There was a tightening in her chest. She did know. Aidric did not need to elaborate. She had woken early that morning and gone to her balcony for air. From there she saw Vass leave on his horse, its saddle bags heavily laden.

"I know," she said.

"He'll be back."

"I doubt it."

Vass had only done what any sensible person would do if their friend had treated them in such a way.

"Of course he'll come back. Friendships don't end because of one argument."

No, she guessed they didn't. Still this felt more final, worse than an argument.

My comments

The reason I picked this is because it’s a really nice example of how fluid and mobile and surprising even quite a short piece of dialogue-led text can be. It’s also a good example of how silences can register as effectively as sentences.

Take the silences first. 

When Aidric enters the room, he says nothing. The question looms, “Why was he here?”. That’s a question for the character, of course, but it becomes one for the reader too. The silence is a little marker of the question’s importance. It’s like there’s something too holy, too important, about the question for it simply to be asked out loud.

And, crucially, if you set up a question like that, you have to not answer it – or not answer it quickly.

So instead, the speaker turns her back on the question. Instead of saying, “Why are you here?”, she starts telling him about lectures.

Then, the passage that follows turns its back on the character’s own statements. (“It wasn’t true. She hadn’t had any.”) Then proceeds to give a true statement of events.

So we start with a legitimate question about her lover’s presence. Then the character bats that question away with what she says. Then the text bats what the character says away, and takes us off into a little surrogate grandmother moment. (That grandmother moment has one bad sentence, by the way. The sentence starting ‘They were nothing new …’ is a bit of a mess grammatically. That happens weirdly often when a sentence gets over a certain length – this one is 34 words. The trick, of course, is editing with care and paying extra attention when a sentence starts to feel unwieldy.)

But, OK, we’re now one hundred words into the snippet. The original question is still hanging, of course, but it’s got more urgency and interest than if we hadn’t – twice – turned away from it. Its charge has been increased, not reduced, by the delay.

That’s nice.

But then the military man drags the question back into the room – but still backwards. (“That’s not the reason I came. Though all I will say on the matter…”)

So now we – the character and the reader together – know the real reason is about to emerge.

Time for another silence. You need to approach these big moments slowly.

As it happens, I don’t like the “fingernails dug deeper” bit. To me, those sentences feel like authorial shorthand, a type of cliché. (“Oh, shucks. I’ve got a moment of unbearable tension coming up. How do I signify that quickly? Oh yes. Fingernails digging into something. That’ll do. Bish bosh, OK, what next?”)

All the same, I like the silence. We just need any little trench between Aidric’s first comment (“That’s not the reason I came”) and the comment that follows. We just need a way to extend the reader’s suffering.

Lovely. And even better – that comment, “She did know.” This whole passage has played a kind of double game with us. The passage presents as though something of great significance is about to be revealed. Only – ta-daa! – it turns out that the protagonist is already well aware of it. And presumably was well able to guess what Aidric was about to tell her.

Now all this might seem like a damn stupid way to convey information, except that the passage isn’t really there to convey information about the departed Vass at all.

I mean, yes, the reader needs to know that Vass has left. And it does the job, right at the end, by saying, “she saw Vass leave on his horse”, nice and clear and simple.

But really, that piece of information is secondary to the question of how does Ida feel about it? And that question doesn’t have a nice, simple, tidy answer. Ida is in a muddle and so is the text. She evades the question, she lies, she goes silent, she delivers information well after it was logically time to release it. And that’s how Ida feels.

And that’s what dialogue does. It doesn’t just tell readers how Ida feels, it shows them. And the twisty, resistant, contradictory untruthfulness of the dialogue is reflective of a complicated mess of feelings in Ida. There’s no way you could tease those feelings out any other way.

Dialogue? I love it. It’s probably my favourite-favourite thing to write and I have a lot of favourites. That’s all from me.

I’m going to saddle up my horse and ride away from this castle. I’m pretty sure there’s a ghost in the Great Hall and its battlements smell of raven poo. Giddy-up.

Let me know what you think about all this, folks. And again, if you're a JW member, do remember our fab, free line up of autumn events here. It includes me juggling eels live online, so - what can I say? - it's gonna be good. And if you are keen to grab one of our bursaries, then:

  • To enter, simply email us at info@jerichowriters.com
  • Use the subject line ‘MEMBERSHIP BURSARY ENTRY’
  • Do this by 24 September
  • Tell us, in fifty words, why you want to join Jericho Writers as an under-represented writer. 

That's it. Toodle-pip!

OK, youse.

It’s Dialogue Day – based on your submissions to Townhouse. I realise, already, that I’m going to have to write a little dialogue mini-series based on the submissions I’ve received, so we’ll be on dialogue next week for sure, and quite likely the week after too. So if your submission isn’t picked this week, I may be able to pick it up later.

Oh yes, and no housekeeping to announce this week except that some of you will get next week’s Friday email on a Thursday. Which will be like opening your Christmas presents in November, but there it is. It’s a strange world.

Right. Dialogue. Here goes …

 

JJ Barrett / Triangle of Time
Stefan is reliving the same life over and over again and must convince PJ of that fact…

A quizzical expression appeared on his face as he refolded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. ‘That was quite accurate, up to half-way.’

‘We’ll discuss that shortly. You know the game Paper, Scissors, Rock?’ 

PJ nodded. ‘An open hand is paper, two extended fingers are scissors, a fist is a rock. Scissors cuts paper and wins, paper wraps rock and wins, rock smashes scissors and wins. Why?’

Stefan held out his right hand. PJ mirrored his action. 

‘On the count of three,’ Stefan said.

Their eyes were locked together. From afar it would have appeared as if the pair were about to fight, such was the intensity in their faces.

Stefan counted slowly, his half open hand rising and falling in time with the count. PJ followed like a shadow. ‘One… Two… Three.’

Stefan didn’t need to look. He knew they both selected scissors. 

‘Again,’ he said. ‘One… Two… Three.’ This time both Rock.

‘One… Two… Three.’ Scissors again.

‘One… Two… Three.’ Scissors for a third time.

Two more attempts and both times PJ and Stefan selected Scissors.

PJ was looking extremely uncomfortable by now.

‘Last one PJ. One… Two… Three.’ This time they both chose paper.

My comments:

This is slicker than it might first appear. The dialogue itself looks fairly ordinary – there are quite a lot of ‘one, two, three’s, for example – but dialogue is actually made up of multiple elements, not just the actual speech. That medley of ingredients includes:

  • Speech itself
  • Speech markers (he said, she answered, and so on.)
  • Observations of emotional reaction
  • Snippets of action
  • Physical description

Here, the writer – JJB, I’ll call him or her – has thrown these things together with great deftness and terrific economy. Here’s the passage again, with my comments.

A quizzical expression appeared on his face [very succinct way to note a feeling. I don’t like “expression appeared on his face”, mind you, because I don’t know where else an expression could appear] as he refolded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. ‘That was quite accurate, up to half-way.’

[Little dab of intrigue. Why quite accurate? Why half-way? The reader’s interested.]

‘We’ll discuss that shortly. You know the game Paper, Scissors, Rock?’

[Brilliant refusal to engage. There’s an interesting question hanging – and the speaker immediately moves away from it. That hanging question therefore gives us a reason to read on. It also feels like a very peculiar subject to move on to – which is also intriguing.]

PJ nodded. ‘An open hand is paper, two extended fingers are scissors, a fist is a rock. Scissors cuts paper and wins, paper wraps rock and wins, rock smashes scissors and wins. Why?’

[Here, I think the writer is concerned that the reader doesn’t know what Paper/Scissors/Rock is, and gives a brilliantly compact explanation – try explaining the game in fewer words than that. It’s as though the reader knows the explanation is basically necessary-but-boring, so is trying to move on as quickly as possible. I’d have the same worry as JJB, but I’d probably reckon that enough readers knew the game that I didn’t have to worry. But this feels like a way to engage with the issue, no matter what.]

Stefan held out his right hand. PJ mirrored his action. 

‘On the count of three,’ Stefan said.

[Again, very compact. The author wants to move us into the action and the game as fast as possible …]

Their eyes were locked together. From afar it would have appeared as if the pair were about to fight, such was the intensity in their faces.

[And of course the emotion! I’ve written elsewhere about how one of the easiest tricks in fiction is just making your characters really care about whatever it is you want the reader to care about. In my case, that means getting my detective character to really, really love murder investigations. Here, we, the reader, are really going to care about what happens in the game, because the players obviously do – they look like they’re about to fight, for heaven’s sake! The fact that that emotion is suppressed and silent is actually more powerful. It makes the bland ‘one, two, three’s that follow all the more powerful. And the way the author (unshowily) moves in and out of dialogue, transitioning easily between dialogue / emotion / physical action, is all very deft.]

Stefan counted slowly, his half open hand rising and falling in time with the count. PJ followed like a shadow. ‘One… Two… Three.’

["Followed like a shadow" is good. It echoes the ‘eyes were locked together’ in the previous para. In some metaphorical way the two young men have been joined here – and the reader is joined in with them too. We’re bound in to whatever happens here.]

Stefan didn’t need to look. He knew they both selected scissors. 

[More good stuff – unshowy, but good. The obvious thing would be to have shown them both choosing scissors. But that’s not the interesting thing here. The interesting thing is that Stefan knew they would choose scissors, so that’s where the author focuses our attention.]

‘Again,’ he said. ‘One… Two… Three.’ This time both Rock.

[So simple. But so compact. The utter economy of description is impressive. I’m an economical author too, and I love this!]

‘One… Two… Three.’ Scissors again.

‘One… Two… Three.’ Scissors for a third time.

[Double ditto.]

Two more attempts and both times PJ and Stefan selected Scissors.

PJ was looking extremely uncomfortable by now.

[Marker of an emotional change that has happened through the course of this oddly static action. Nice.]

‘Last one PJ. One… Two… Three.’ This time they both chose paper.

Verdict:

The dialogue itself is almost painfully simple but the movement between the different elements of the scene gives that dialogue real weight and hypnotic force. That force is made greater by all those little touches – the two men as mirrors of each other, their intensity, the little dab of intrigue at the start, the way that intrigue is swiftly discarded. None of those things amounts to much on its own but, cumulatively, this reads to me like proper professional text. There are plenty of published novels that aren’t as well-handled as this.

 

Karen Hough / no title
Cate is 29 and deciding to be more responsible. Here she is with her financial advisor.

He pulled up the Canadian Tire website and pointed out two coffee makers. One brewed coffee, one had all the bells and whistles and ground the beans, made cappuccinos and americanos and other frothy things. It was $800.

[Minor points, but you’re contrasting two machines there and only giving the price for one. I think we need both. And an americano isn’t frothy. You need to use a different coffee-type there, or change ‘frothy’. But it’s basically a nice clean opening to the scene.]

“That’s crazy. I can’t afford that,” I said. 

He pulled up a calculator. “Your $3 latte—” his eyes flicked to mine. I made a “higher” motion with my thumb. I tend to get a large. “We’ll stick with a small for our purposes,” he continued. “Add in two new travel mugs, a bag of beans every month, and some fancy syrup—”

“And whipping cream,” I added helpfully. Another reason that I work out a lot.

“…and whipping cream, and a dusting of cinnamon and chocolate shavings.” He was obviously the sort of man that took his coffee black and looked down on the rest of us. “And you will still have paid the whole thing off in less than a year.”

“So you’re telling me to buy it?” I asked.

“I’m telling you that you are spending more than $1000 a year on coffee. If you’re getting a large—”

“Grande,” I corrected him.

He looked pained. “If you’re getting a large cappuccino every day, you are spending upwards of $1500.”

My comments:

Again, this is mostly neat and slick. I like the way the scene neatly avoids dialogue in places where that dialogue would just be dull. So, he “pointed out two coffee makers”. Presumably, he did that by saying something, but actually noting what he said would have been dull, so Karen just reports, compactly, that he pointed them out. That keeps focus on what the reader will be interested in, and avoids the dull stuff.

Nowhere does it say that if you write a page of dialogue, you have to report every word that’s said. Really smart authors often jump from direct speech (the stuff in inverted commas) to reported speech (eg, “he pointed out …”). That way you get the live, mobile feel of dialogue with all the boring bits trimmed.

On the same theme, I like the way the conversation flits from oral (“Your $3 latte”) – to eyes flicking – to a movement of the thumb – to an observation from the first-person narrator about herself – and back to speech again. That’s so swift – it’s just two lines – but it accomplishes so much. The bit of self-observation, in this context, isn’t quite a joke but it’s a flicker of self-awareness that feels close to humour. It’s definitely part of what gives this dialogue a mobile, unpredictable surface.

And then the conversation slides apparently sideways into a conversation about chocolate shavings and the narrator’s comment about working out … before ramming back to what appears to be a purely financial conversation … except then she corrects his ‘large’ to ‘grande’ and his eyes rebuke her for the pretension.

Yes, all this is a conversation about finance, but it’s also a conversation about personalities and values. It’s a conversation about her. The iron rod of “you spend too much on coffee” is just a line from which any number of other curlicues and detours can be drawn.

It’s a very good example of the mobility of good dialogue – the way you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. And also the way it forces the reader to pay close attention. This is real show-don’t-tell stuff. You’re forcing the reader to pay close attention to the emotional movements of the  scene, because you’re not telling the reader what’s happening, you’re making them figure it out for themselves.

Another passage that feels very proficient, really confident. Again, this feels like publication standard material. Bravo.

***

That’s it from me. More on dialogue next week. Sorry I couldn’t fit in more passages this week, but in my defence this email is 2000 words long already.

Go well, my friends. I’m off to buy a $2,000 coffee machine. I shall pay for it with a selection of hand-curled commas and a few unneeded exclamation marks.

If you want to add your dialogue snippet for review, just add it to the original thread on Townhouse here. Do just remember that by uploading your snippet, you may get your work seen by tens of thousands of people and, ultimately, it might appear in a book-form collection of these emails. There'll probably be a TV show and a parade as well. So: don't put your head above the parapet, unless you want it there. More on all this next week.

I was going to talk dialogue this week, only then I noticed the date. The last Friday of August, a tipping point for the year. The last golden breath of summer. The last week of vacation, before:

  • Return to school
  • Blackberry collecting
  • Apple scrumping
  • Hello again to socks
  • Hedges gather little jewels of purple and red (haws, sloes, damsons, crabapples, all of which are abundant near me)
  • Tints of yellow in the leaves
  • The long poles of cow parsley have dried out

I live rurally in the fine county of Oxford and – if you have the misfortune to live anywhere else at all – my experience of late summer and early autumn will be different from yours. So, I don’t know, if you live in Australia, you probably associate this season with even more massive spiders than usual, yellow dust storms that last a month, the croc vs kangaroo Olympics, and the chatter of wallabies high up in the eucalyptuses. (Disclosure: I have never been to Australia, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the country nailed.)

Now we’re talking about time this week, but first a little announcement:

Dialogue

We’ll talk about dialogue next week, and we’ll do that via your own submissions.

Give me some chunks of dialogue to examine next week. Here are the rules:

  1. Drop your offerings into the comments below this post.
  2. Max 300 words per submission, please.
  3. One submission per person.
  4. Make sure you give us a line or two of explanation first off, so we can understand the context of your scene.
  5. Don’t email me anything. If it ain’t on Townhouse, I ain’t looking at it. 
  6. If you pop anything in the comments below, I'm gonna assume you're OK me RIPPING YOUR WORK APART MERCILESSLY IN PUBLIC. If you're not, then keep your tin hat on and your head below that sandbag parapet.
  7. Specifically, your work and my comments on it may appear in an email to a lot of people, here on Townhouse and potentially one day in a book. If you don't want that happen, then please see above in relation to tin hats and parapets.

I only pick work that I basically like, though, so if I pick your work, you're doing OK.

Okiedoke ...

Now back to time:

Movies struggle with Big Time. They can do day to day stuff easily. We see a character going to bed. We see them eating a croissant and drinking coffee. The audience easily conjectures that this is the morning after. Boof.

But Big Time? For movies, that’s hard. The old Hitchcock era movies used to handle those things by pages flipping off a wall calendar, shots of the changing seasons. (Wind! The universal signal of autumn. Snow! The universal signal of winter. And so on.)

Now all that’s a bit crass, a bit heavy. These days, movie makers attempt something slicker, even if it’s just a caption at the bottom of the screen or a speeded-up, CGI of the wind-snow-crocuses model of passing time.

You, a novelist, don’t have the same problem. If you want to tell the reader it was two years later, you can just say “Two years passed.” That’s simple, clean narration. It doesn’t have that CGI, calendar flying clunkiness. No one will resent your simple captioning.

But time offers so much more. It’s not a problem to be dealt with, but a dimension to be embraced. Think of it like place, a silent character, a huge extra richness in your broth.

Here are some examples of how you can use it – but there are a million more. Think of these examples as mere appetite prompters.

Cold Time

Changes in weather is a technique so obvious, it could come close to a flipping calendar in terms of crassness. But it really doesn’t have to be like that. The novel of mine that made most use of the weather was Love Story, with Murders. There, I carefully seeded the earlier chunks of the book with hints of chill and forecasts of something much colder on the way.

Then, before the cold had actually arrived, my character was fussing around with giant red snow shovels and the like, but in a context where those things felt odd and out of place.

Then – the snow arrived. Canadian levels of snow and cold in a country that doesn’t normally get much of either. The snow wrought huge changes in the landscape, but also in Fiona’s life.

Alone in a remote cottage with inadequate provisions, she is forced to adapt her diet:

Make tea. There’s nothing herbal here, so I make do with a regular tea-bag. No milk either, so just brew a pint of hot, black tea in a huge pottery mug. Contrary to my usual habit, I add sugar, to take away the taste of the metallic mountain water, the strongly tannined tea. It tastes like sweetened bog-water, but is nevertheless somehow welcome. A comfort against the cold.

That’s not strictly about either weather or time, and yet it is both. By compelling us to register change, we notice both the cold and the time. And those changes register not just in feelings-of-being-chilly and making-of-log-fires, but also in unexpected ways – earthenware cups and sweet, tannined tea. Time and the cold become multidimensional: they disrupt habits, force giant earthenware cups into our hands, change the taste of tea.

And then, of course, time and the story proceed.

Fiona almost dies in the cold. And then the snow melts, and she encounters her normal landscape, post-snow with its dirty urban water and gritted streets.

Because the changes of weather were viscerally felt by the character herself, the timescape in the book also registered acutely. And the felt passage of time is so close to the actual experience of story, the reader ends up having a deeper experience than they otherwise would. It’s kind of magical, but it definitely happens.

Big Time

My Lieutenant’s Lover began a love story in St Petersburg in 1917 – separated the characters for a quarter of a century – then brought them together again in post-War Berlin.

Any love story needs to achieve the ache of longing, and there are probably more subtle techniques than the one I used. But dropping two world wars, one revolution, plenty of gulag, and a thousand miles of separation between the two characters certainly did the trick. A character only had to glance back over that past – a sentence, two sentences – for the reader to feel the scale of the loss and the longing.

And all those little markers of age – an attractive seventeen-year-old girl turning into a middle-aged Red Army sergeant – made that weight of time present on every page

Also, my choice of time and place meant that the physical world always reflected the passage of time. The Berlin of my love story was a place of rubble. The factory that had once belonged to my male protagonist was so completely bombed out that virtually nothing remained. A youth using its slim remaining shelter christened it the Nichtsfabrik, the Nothing Factory.

That book with its huge, tragic timescape, just felt big to a reader. It wasn’t (by my standards) massively long, but the love story took on an epic quality simply by virtue of the passing years – and the weight with which the readers felt those years.

Precise Time

One of my books, some time back, was struggling in its near-to-final draft. Everything that needed to be there was there. The story had no fundamental problems, but it didn’t yet have the iron hardness of something ready to print.

A couple of things fixed that book. One was just hard editing. Literally, an edit that looked for and deleted spare words, eliminated unwanted sentences. My character’s voice is always taut, even if my writing’s only at 95%. But that extra 5% brought that tautness to a line of constant tension. A glittering brightness.

But the other thing was: nailing the timeline. Figuring out if the gap between Event A and Event B was four days or five days and being explicit about it. The surprising thing about correcting that timeline was that I’d unconsciously been avoiding proper description, because I knew I was blurry about time. So if my character was out and about in central Cardiff, and I didn’t know what day of the week it was, I’d pull back from really describing the streets. A Wednesday quietness? Or a Saturday bustle? The hubbub of a rugby match at the Millennium Stadium? Or pensioners enjoying a discounted Thursday morning haircut?

The precision of timing didn’t just help my readers sort timings through in their heads. More important, it helped me. That last twist of the lens helped achieve that final, defining focus.

That book turned out a good ’un in the end.

***

That’s it from me. The blackberries are early this year, but not sweet. I think we need a day or two of sunshine. Which, oh my merry non-British friends, is something you can completely and utterly rely on in the fine county of Oxford.

Don't forget I want to see your dialogue snippets. Chuck em below. Follow them thar rules above.

I’m a crime writer, a genre famous for its gritty realism. Raymond Chandler and his important predecessor, Dashiell Hammett, took the crime novel away from Agatha Christie’s country houses – with their butlers and colonels and candlesticks – and thrust it down the mean streets of 30s and 40s America.

That transformation was wholly good for the crime novel and in the Christie vs Chandler wars, I’m Team Chandler all the way.

And yet, though the crime novel was irrevocably changed by Chandler, I’ve been a poor student of his lessons.

None of my crime novels is massively realistic and the most recent, The Deepest Grave, is a modern police procedural that concerns itself with the hunt for Arthurian relics. The book ends – massive spoiler alert – with an actual swordfight.

Chandler would have choked on his lime juice and gin cocktail at that, and at much else. But you know what? I don’t care.

I do believe in methodical research, but I also believe in imagination. In a contest between the two, imagination should always win. Or rather – to phrase the same thing more accurately – the story should always win. The story is the only thing that matters.

So take one obvious problem with the modern crime novel. Here are two simple truths:

  1. Modern police services uses a wide range of specialists and a major investigation may well involve dozens of officers across a huge range of job roles.
  2. Readers want stories that involve a relatively tight group of investigators. If you started to have a dozen or more significant investigators, readers would lose track, stop caring and stop reading.

How do I solve that problem? In a word: merrily.

I just toss my policing manual out of the window and have my character do what I want her to do

 A well-known crime novelist, who is also a former police officer, once started reading one of my books. Two days after she started, she contacted me. She told me that she loved my writing (and thank you for that, ma’am), but she was unable to read the book because of the gazillion procedural errors I had committed in my first fifty pages.

And – I don’t care. My readers don’t care. Indeed, even most police officers don’t care. I’ve also been told, by police officers, that my books capture the exact flavour of the police service – the rules, the hierarchy, the banter, the awkward shift of a macho culture towards something more twenty-first century in its habits.

And, whether that’s true or not, I STILL DON’T CARE.

I care about just four things: the story, the characters, the characters and the story.

Plausibility

Now, it’s also true that, in caring about my story, I need to care about my readers’ reactions. Suppose I committed some obvious howler in my opening fifty pages – let’s say I arrested a character and held them for seven days without charge. That might be plausible in some parts of the world. In modern Britain, it’s inconceivable. Any crime reader would know that. They’d bridle at the story I was trying to tell.

At the same time, my character operates best and most interestingly alone. Police forces often require officers to work in twos, because then if evidence is acquired, there are two eye-witness reports not one. So one of my constant juggling acts is to find ways to spring Fiona Griffiths away from the rules. Sometimes that’s her own rule-breaking. Sometimes it’s because a superior officer, short of resources, winks at a short-cut he or she expects not to matter too much. Sometimes, it’s simply the force of circumstance.

I need to dance along the line of reader-acceptability and story-intrigue. Both of those things matter, always.

There’s another thing too.

Detail

Detail matters. It’s often the little specks of quartz in a story that give it its dazzle. Some examples:

The custody cell / Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths

Fiona, undercover, is put into a custody cell with a woman who has secrets to spill. I clicked around online to find out what those custody cells looked like and found two intriguing facts.

One, they’ve built horrible little stainless-steel units that have a sink built into the top of the toilet. That means there’s just one appliance to install and one that’s pretty much destruction-proof.

Two, UK rules require custody cells to enjoy natural sunlight, which you might think involves an actual window, except that the Cardiff custody suite has solar tubes bringing sunlight down from the roof into the depths below.

Those weird little facts that gave a feeling of utter realism to those moment in the cells. And not just realism. They brought a kind of dislocated strangeness that was utterly right for the scene.

Oil strikes / The Sons of Adam

Back when I was writing historical fiction, I wrote a story about two brothers who were involved in the oil business. One struck oil in the Middle East, in Persia as it was then known. The other struck oil on Signal Hill in California and then, later, in West Texas.

Those oil strikes weren’t really fictitious. I dug out accounts of the original strikes and kept very close to the actual facts of what happened. Oil strikes aren’t all the same and the real-life details I used – a hollow booming sound, a leak of gas, a dead goat, the violent upthrust of a genuine gusher – gave utter life and plausibility to my story.

I also told readers in my author’s note that I’d kept close to the truth, so readers had a real sense of, yes, this is how it was, this is what an oil strike felt like, back in that golden age of oil-discovery.

Detail, plausibility and the freedom to jump

I’ve talked so far about two big benefits of research – even if, like me, you are not exactly famous for the exactitude of your research.

Keeping within the bounds of plausibility – that matters. The details research can give you – those matter even more.

But I want to add a third ingredient too. The freedom to jump. Quite often, I think writers feel constrained from letting their imaginations rip, because they worry, “What if it’s just not like that? I can’t write about the Battle of the Whatever, because I don’t know if they used spears / slingshots / muskets / spiny molluscs / laser guns. Better just to skirt the issue.”

So – find out about the Battle of the Whatever. Go read a book. You’ll be able to settle the spear / slingshot / musket issue. Better still, you’ll find out that, say, a rainstorm early in the battle caused a lot of problems with wet gunpowder and you might find yourself writing interesting details about how Musketeer Jones was grappling with the problem of how to open a paper-wrapped cartridge without ruining the powder inside. Your research is giving you a springboard into the story. Actively making an entrance, not passively permitting access.

Weirdly, all this remains true if you’re writing SFF.

Andy Weir’s The Martian was a work of pure imagination – but one that depended on intense, brilliant research.

And, OK, he was limited by the chains of near-future science and technology, but suppose you were writing steampunk fiction involving the Battle of the Whatever.

Brilliant! So on the ground you have Musketeer Jones grappling with her paper-wrapped cartridges. And up above, you have two warlocks in a zeppelin, hurling spiny molluscs down from the sky. The minute, detailed realism of the former somehow rubs off on the latter. Your actual historical research is lending a baffling kind of authenticity to your warlock / zeppelin / mollusc combo. Throw in some quick Wikipedia research on spiny molluscs, and bingo! You have a scene set to sizzle, my friend.

(And hey. I just opened up a Wikipedia page on spiny mollusks and whaddaya know. Some species are cannibalistic and can eat through each other’s shells. Your scene just got better again.)

That’s it from me. Summertime calls. I am off to barbecue a mollusc.

What about you? Are you Trappist? Do you love a barbecued mollusc? Why would anyone want to bite a bullet? How can an oil strike kill a goat? Oh my, we have a lot of problems to solve, my friends. Let's get started.

This week, I had a plan. I had an actual plan for what to write to you about – a plan inspired by a publishing contract that happened to fly across my desk. (Or, OK, not fly, because those things are always overweight. It waddled. And panted. Then flopped.)

Ah well. It was a good enough plan and that email will come to you some other time. But then, into my inbox, crept this little beauty from Cameron:

Hi Harry

Inspired by your own recent releases, I thought it would be a fruitful exercise to compile a list of things I wish I had known before embarking on a writing journey. 

It has been quite liberating and given me great perspective on how far I've truly come as a writer.

But I am curious: Of the many hard-fought lessons you've learned throughout your career, could you identify one as the single most important? Or, phrased another way, which one do you wish you would have learned first?

The short answer, of course, is that I don’t know and can’t quite engage with the question.

Most writing wisdom is born of experience and interlocks with every other piece of wisdom. So a question of characterisation is also one of plotting which is also one of theme which is also to do with sense of place, and so forth.

So mostly I come out with some stupid line that gets me away from the question and we move onto the next thing.

Only –

Actually –

It did occur to me that there is one big piece of writing wisdom that I don’t talk about as much as I ought to. It’s simply this:

You are many writers.
You aren’t just one.

I started out writing books in the same broad vein as Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer. I hope there was a little more to my books than those comparisons suggest, but they were big, old-fashioned, non-violent romps, with plenty of family drama. They were fun to write.

My first two books were contemporary dramas, but then, for no especial reason, I turned to a historical theme. The books were still in the same broad mould, but they had an extra richness because of the early twentieth century backgrounds.

And then –

Well, fashions changed and sales dwindled. My publisher would have been happy for more of the same, but not at the kind of advances I wanted. So I moved on again.

I wrote popular non-fiction.

I wrote niche non-fiction.

I did some ghostwriting work. One of those projects was a really lovely one which hit the hardback and paperback bestseller lists. Another one sold in plenty of territories, made me a big fat bundle of money, and was just a joy to work on.

And then, I changed again. I came back to fiction, to crime fiction this time, and found a character and niche I loved.

I do still love that niche, but (as you may have noticed) I’ve also had time to update some old how-to books and republish those. And I’ve turned a bundle of these emails into a whole new book. Oh yes, and I have a mad-as-a-box-of-snakes literary project on the back-burner. And I get a glitter in my eye when I think of some new non-fiction work I’d love to write.

I’ve also been traditionally published, self-published and am half-minded to flirt with digital-first publishing via a specialist firm.

Almost none of that was in the game plan when I started out, and I’m not unusual.

Yes, you have a few careers like John Grisham’s. His first book did OK. His second book (published in 1991) spent almost a year on the NYT bestseller list and sold a bazillion copies. After that, he’s bashed out a book a year, pretty much. His name has become almost synonymous with legal thrillers.

And even so – Grisham has written non-legal novels. He’s written kids’ books. He’s written non-fiction. He’s written short stories.

All those things are side dishes to the main thrust of his work – the raita to the tikka marsala – but I bet when he was writing those other things, he was fully engaged by them too. Even when you’re a hugely productive author who dominates your particular genre, it turns out you are multiple writers too. More than you ever imagined at the outset.

So my answer to Cameron is simply:

Be multiple.

Find other stories, other genres, other wings.

You can’t know yet what will work for you and what won’t. It’s not even a question of your ability to read the market. When my Fiona Griffiths series launched in the States, I had brilliant reviews from a ton of major outlets. Yay! My work was being published by the same editor who looked after Lee Child and Karin Slaughter. Yay! But my work bombed completely, because something to do with the cover or the marketing or the unknown something was wrong.

As it happened, in that instance, I just bought back the rights, and relaunched the books, very successfully, as an indie author. But that had never been the game plan.

Life, it turns out, is not that interested in game plans.

And look, I don’t know your exact position. But I do sometimes see writers working for seven years, ten years, some huge stretch of time, in order to bring one piece of work to publication.

And sometimes that’ll be the right thing to do. But mostly it won’t. Mostly you try one thing – learn lots – see if it works – and if it doesn’t, put it down. Try a new thing. Something else in the same broad genre or something totally unrelated.

Your passions are like a pack of monkeys. They want to skip chattering across the jungle.

So let them. Chase them with your notebook. Catch the fruit they fling down from the trees. Watch them in the rain and in their nests at night.

You may not be the writer you think you have to be. That a frightening thought, but it’s also a liberating one. It liberated me, not once, but repeatedly.

My guess? My guess is, that if your writing career has any longevity, you’ll find the same is true of you too.

What's your experience? Have you switched genres abruptly and what did it feel like when you did? Tell us more ....

A friend of mine is a painter. He was in a grump the other day because he’d been working all morning on a new canvas, then decided the picture wasn’t going anywhere. His plan was to scrape the canvas down – scrap it, in effect – and start on something else the following day. He moaned about a morning’s wasted effort.

Well, he didn’t get much sympathy from me.

(I’ll tell you why in half a second, but the last of my triumvirate of writing books is out at the end of this month. It’s called HOW TO WRITE and – in its previous, Bloomsbury, incarnation – it got lots of nice comments from readers. We’re looking for people who would like an Advance Review Copy. The e-book will be yours totally free. Your only commitment is that you’ll leave an honest review on Amazon when we publish. More info in the PS. And here endeth the public service announcement.)

Right. Back to painting and all that.

Now, for one thing, a painter’s decision whether to commit to a project is just a much smaller deal. My buddy thought he had a good subject for a painting. He tried it out. He didn’t like it. He decided to do something different.

For a painter, that’s a day. For a novelist, that’s a year. And – especially if you rely on your writing income for a living – that’s a year you literally can’t afford.

That’s one reason why I make a big deal about elevator pitches. You just can’t afford to go bombing off on a project where the basic idea is flawed.

But also – editing.

My painter buddy can just step back from his canvas and see, at a glance, if he’s happy with it. He literally has to take one backwards step. That’s all.

A screenwriter has more of a challenge, but even so, she has only 20,000 words to deal with – an easy hour’s read.

You lot – you brutes – have work that often runs to 100,000 words or more. My first novel weighed in at 180,000 words. The final book was like a blue and gold brick. And don’t get me wrong. I love long work; I’m almost incapable of writing briefly.

But the editorial challenge is huge, even at the basic level of evaluating your own project. Instead of the painter’s simple backwards step and visual assessment, we might have to spend six hours reading the damn manuscript. And having done that, we’ve got a ton of intersecting thoughts and issues. We’ve half-forgotten our opening thoughts by the time we get to our closing ones. And the implementation phase is even more arduous than the evaluation one.

So: what to do?

The obvious answer is: you just plunge in.

Gotta problem with Character A? Dive into your 100,000 word swimming pool, find references to Character A, tweak what you need to tweak, then get out dripping and wet.

Got a plot problem with that bit after the escape from the castle? Then dive in again, tweak again, do what you have to do.

And so on. Given that you may have a whole string of editing issues to fix, that’s a lot of dives into your swimming pool – or, worse, you decide you’re going to deal with everything at once, which means you soon start drowning in word-porridge. You fix one thing but accidentally break two others, and because you can never just step back and see your manuscript at a glance, you don’t even see the breakages.

Now, any pro author ends up evolving their own methods for handling these issues. (Common elements include: washing less, drinking a lot of coffee, sleeping at weird times, forgetting about your family and developing a tic.)

But watching the magnificent Rachael Herron at the Summer Festival brought a new clarity for me.

Assuming you’ve written your first draft, here’s what she suggests you should do:

You go through your entire manuscript. You note down every scene and summarise it in a sentence. Like this:

  • Jed and Tania argue
  • Tania drives to her mother’s
  • Arrives with mother – encounters sobbing Elinor
  • Jed smashes up holiday cottage

And so on.

That exercise, for the whole book.

To make this work, it’s critical that your scene summaries are as brief as possible. A maximum of one line of text. That way, you can print off your summary of the book on two or three sheets of paper – and you can just see it. The whole damn book. The entire skeleton laid out before you.

That brevity is illuminating. Take those little bullet points above. Do you need the “Tania drives to her mother’s” scene, yes or no?

Well, OK, that depends on the story. If Tania, while driving, has thoughts / reflections / memories that shift her world a bit, so the Tania who gets out of the car is different from the one who got it, then the scene probably stays.

But not all scenes are like that. Maybe, you just wrote the scene because you thought “gotta get Tania to her mother’s” and forgot you could just write, So Tania drove over to her mother’s house, where she …

In that case, you certainly don’t need the scene – but that extraneous material only becomes obvious once you don’t have the texture of a fully-written scene to seduce you.

Rachael Herron encourages us to take things a step further. She likes you to define your theme in a phrase: ‘Family is chosen’, ‘Love wins’, ‘Heroes can be unsung.’

Now, I’m not sure my books would be happy to get reduced in that way. For me, theme is best understood more loosely. For me, it’s more like a collection of words and ideas, rich in opposites. (So underclass is a theme of my Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, for example. But that also means power is a theme, because you understand the powerless via the powerful and vice versa.)

So you can define your themes narrowly or loosely, but Rachael says you should take your skeleton outline and ask of every scene whether it somehow embodies or reflects on that theme.

If it does, then great. The scene probably belongs in the book and your editorial task is simply to make that theme as strong as it can be. So that Tania-in-a-car scene might have her grappling with her “heroes can be unsung” thoughts and memories, in which case it certainly belongs. But if the scene has no thematic resonance, you ditch it.

Or you change it.

You might, for example, need a particular character to die to advance your plot. But then how to do they die? Is their manner of death one that harmonises with the moods and melodies of the book, or not? And if not, then what might work better?

Personally, I don’t get quite as systematic as Rachael does, but I’m generally quite a messy worker, anyway. I also like my books to have some rough edges. Some elements that don’t quite fit into a system.

What I do love, though, is the absolute clarity of her approach. Your book in three pages.

I’m knee deep in my detective story at the moment. I’m at about 60,000 words and (because I never write short) I’m still a good 50,000 words from the end.

But I already know that some of my earlier text needs redoing. There’s a character, Anders, who needs to enter the story way earlier than he does.

In my pre-Rachael Herron life, I’d have just gone back and created the scene. My forward motion through my text would have been put on hold while I dealt that little episode. In Herron-world, I don’t need to do that. I just keep a skeleton log of my book as I go and enter a note or a post-it which says, “Introduce Anders here”. By the time I get to the end of my book, I’ll have a whole flapping horde of those notes, which I can just deal with one by one.

And yes, those notes will breed more notes, but that three-page skeleton will remain the iron spine running through all the editorial work I do – the organising principle.

I think that, thanks to these disciplines, I’ve just figured a midpoint sequence in my book that may yet make the whole damn thing hang together. (Think highly trained & physically capable psychos spilling out en masse across the Welsh countryside. Yum.)

That’s it from me. The children think they’ve found a coronavirus in the garden and want me to come and look at it. It’s green, apparently, and the size of a walnut.

_______

As mentioned above, we have some free e-copies of HOW TO WRITE to give away. It’s a really big writer’s guide to writing a novel, from first conception to final editing, with everything else included along the way. If you would like an advance review copy, then:

  1. Please email publishing@jerichowriters.com with “HOW TO WRITE” in the subject line please
  2. Please let us know if you usually shop from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or some other Amazon store. If you never shop at Amazon, then they won’t let you leave a review, I’m afraid.
  3. We will send you a free e-book, which will be yours to keep.
  4. Your commitment is that you will leave a review on Amazon promptly on the book’s publication at the end of this month (or, maybe, the start of Sept; we haven’t yet finalised details.) We’ll be in touch at the time to nudge you and we’ll tell you exactly how to leave a review.

We’re are especially keen to get plenty of US reviewers for this book, so if you’re based in the States, do please get in touch.

Oh ye merry folk of writing, I have tidings to bring … but, in the best traditions of suspense, I’m not going to tell you just yet.

Instead, a question:

Suppose you were told that your book cover wasn’t allowed to centre on an image of any kind?

Fine, perhaps you might be allowed a doodle, or watermark, or something clearly secondary to the actual text – but mostly, you’d be allowed words, colours and nothing much else.

How would you feel?

I think most of us would feel disappointed. Text feels a good way to communicate data, but a lacklustre way of communicating emotion. And, since novels are mostly about an emotional journey, a text-only cover seems certain to disappoint.

And, OK, all my fiction covers use imagery of some sort. At times, that imagery has been very scanty indeed. The American cover of This Thing of Darkness features a cloud. That’s literally all. The US version of Love Story, with Murders features a tree in a snowy landscape and, again, nothing else. (The tree, by the way, plays no part in the story. It just looked nice.)

But what you have to remember about really good cover designers is that they’re really good designers. They’re creatives. You have to tell them the outcome you want – roughly, “This is the genre, here is the emotion I want to generate, and here are some visual ingredients that may or may not be useful.”

So when I talked to my cover designer about the Thing of Darkness cover, the basic mission statement could have been reduced to:

  • Crime thriller
  • Excitement / danger
  • Trawler / storm / waves

I assumed we’d have some shot of a trawler deck, tipped at some terrifying angle, with black water sluicing across the deck. Throw a crimey-title in a crimey-font across the image and – badda-boom – there’s your cover.

And sure. I’ll bet you a dollar to a dime that my designer explored covers like that. Dug out pictures of trawlers (from massive image libraries that have got shots of absolutely everything.) But in the end, a designer has to be guided by what works.

Try trawler. Does it work? Dammit. Not quite. Explore lighthouse. Does that work? Dammit. Not quite. Try waves-smashing-on-rocks. Does that work? Dammit. Not quite.

A creatively-led and experimental design process ended up with a cover – the storm cloud – that we hadn’t anticipated, but worked just great. Here it is:

image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=179&dpx=1&t=1596186407

That cover, however, walked only halfway to pure abstraction; it didn’t go the whole hog. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, on the other hand, used text. And colour. And nothing else. Here it is:

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Ask yourself honestly: would this cover have been better with imagery? And what would the images have been? The book tells a heart-rending story of the Jewish experience of Ukraine – and of the Second World War. You could have had some sepia-tinted photos of some long-ago shtetl. But those images would have been reductive. They’d have limited the book instead of hugely expanding it.

And ask yourself. What do you feel when you see the Everything is Illuminated cover? The black and white looks sober, but the billowing colour keeps telling you: yes, there is illumination, it is joyous, and it is magical, and this book will open those doors.

Or look at this version of Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me:

image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=183&dpx=1&t=1596186625

It’s utterly simple. The title already sells the book. The font and colours hint at the book’s classic status. And the two singed bullet holes: they give you all the promise you need to pick the book up and starting reading. More would have given less.

I make these points because, oh merry folk of writing, I have news. And the news is:

I’ve written a book! And it’s just been published!

And not to beat about the bush too much:

You know what the book is – because you’ve already read it!

The book is called 52 LETTERS and it’s a compilation of these weekly emails from me to you – but squidged into book form, drained of any residual marketing nonsense, and tied with a ribbon woven from rainbow beams and unicorn kisses.

Now, I have to say, I love writing these weekly emails and I loved-loved-loved squidging them together into a book. An email, inevitably, a bit of a throwaway thing. Even if you read one and it really hits a spot, the likelihood is that you absorb some of the message, then move on. Forget it.

A book just has more status than that. In the world, yes, but also mentally. Anything tucked up in a book is asking to be stored in a different way – read differently, absorbed differently.

So though I remembered writing all those emails, the actual book feels like a different thing. Different and better. I love it already.

But – gulp – to remove my (sober, black felt) writing hat and put on my (jaunty, yellow) marketing one: how the hell do you sell a book like that?

I mean: it’s not a book about writing, or editing, or publishing, or marketing. It’s a little bit of all those things, plus a big fat helping of whatever nonsense is in my brain at the time.

And what kind of image do you put on the cover to say: “here’s quite a general, discursive yet practical and entertaining book for writers?”

A pen? A typewriter? A quill? An inkpot?

If you browse the Authorship category on Amazon, you’ll find books that make use of all of those icons … even though damn few of us actually use a pen, or typewriter or inkpot to write with. They’re icons used by non-creative visual folks as a kind of angry shorthand: “You know that inkpot symbolises things-for-writers, so here’s a book with yet another damn inkpot on it. Now buy it, OK?”

So. What did we do, me and my numberless colleagues at Jericho Writers Publishing?

Well, the title we came up with – in the form it appears on Amazon – is:

52 Letters:
 A year of advice on writing, editing, getting an agent, writing from the heart...

But the actual cover delivers a much longer title / subtitle combo:

52 Letters:
A year of advice on writing, editing, getting an agent, writing from the heart, the world’s oldest book, marketing your work, battling copyeditors, the secret of style, probable vs plausible, what’s up with Barnes & Noble, cannibalism, empathetic characters, writing phonetically and much more.

We liked that title because it told you what a rich, glorious, unembarrassed mish-mash the book contains. It feels like, at a textual level, a title that delivers the promise of the book.

But in a way, by choosing such a massively convoluted title, we were giving our designer an even bigger problem than he might have had to begin with. Not only was the book hard to pigeonhole, but we’ve given him a title so long that it wouldn’t even fit on Amazon’s title box.

But you know what? That wasn’t our problem. It was the designer’s. The sort of problem he loves to solve.

We just threw a book description and our enormous title at our designer, Kelly Finnegan, and said, “Hey Kelly, here’s a ridiculously long title for a hard-to-categorise book. The book is about writing and editing and all that, but it’s definitely not a textbook. We think it’s useful but entertaining, practical but discursive. And also – well, hell, we want it to be joyous and inspirational and anarchic and personal and fun. So please can we have a book cover that says all that – and looks incredible? Thanks.”

I had no idea what Kelly would come back with, but he came back to us with this:

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And honestly? I think that may be the best book cover I’ve ever had. Any country, any title, any edition.

The fact is that, although Kelly’s used just three main colours, a watermark version of me, and the text, the result delivers exactly the message we wanted.

What’s striking is just how much creativity there is in the design.

We didn’t tell Kelly to make the actual book title (“52 Letters”) small; he just did it. We didn’t tell Kelly to put in the “Love from” before my author name; he just did it. And we certainly didn’t tell him to use that sprawling handwritten font for the subtitle, but his decision to do that immediately signified something personal, creative and fun.

We sent some advance review copies out to people and got lots of lovely comments back, including this doozy from John David Mann:

“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, to and for writers of all stripes and stages of accomplishment.”

Now that’s a lovely quote, of course. (Thanks, John!) But that ‘love letter’ comment feels absolutely consistent with the cover Kelly created. And when you have that kind of merger between what the cover promises to a reader and what it ends up delivering, you have a kind of sweet perfection – and one not of my making.

Lovely.

And finally, my little pickled pumpkin, because you are one of the people to whom I have addressed all these letters, we have made the book available at a small fraction of its normal price. The paperback ($8.99 / £6.99) is just about as cheap as we’re permitted to price it: we literally earn almost nothing at that price. The ebook too ($2.99 / £1.99 / or free via KU) is priced to be more like a giveaway than an actual purchase.

So, please: I hope you pick up a copy, because it was written, quite literally, for you – and because you helped create it.

The fact is, that if you lot weren’t such a totally brilliant audience, I’d never have written as many emails as I have done, and they’d have been a lot more boring too. You guys are the best.

You can buy the book here.

And please, buy it fast, because when the clock strikes midnight on Saturday, we shall ratchet those prices up higher than a stilt-walking giraffe on a stepladder.

I think Kelly Finnegan is a wee bit of a genius. And best of all? No inkpots.

An interesting thought this week, arising from my Summer Festival conversation with Jenny Geras, the CEO of Bookouture, on Tuesday this week.

If you’re a SFOW ticket holder and missed the session, do try to catch up with the replay. If you’ve no idea what Bookouture is, then it’s a British digital-first publisher, that went from being a one-person startup to selling almost 10,000,000 books a year, half of them in the US. Its success was born from aggressive pricing, fierce focus on data and experimentation, excellent social media and a willingness to advertise.

In the course of our chat, Jenny said something that surprised me.

Bookouture runs an open submissions policy. If you have an agent, your agent may well wish to submit to the firm. But you don’t need one. You can just send in your work.

Now, that part I already knew. But – because I always like to know the stats – I went on to ask what proportion of those open submissions went on to get accepted. Jenny didn’t instantly know the percentage. (It’s a stat that matters a lot to writers, but is of little more than curiosity value to publishers.)

I prompted her. ‘One per cent?’ I asked. ‘Maybe a bit less?’

And she told me no, the acceptance rate wasn’t that low. From her response, I guess two or three per cent might be about right.

Now, OK, not everyone has heard of Bookouture, so I’m going to guess that their submissions are of slightly higher quality than those going to the average literary agent.

But still.

Two or three manuscripts in every hundred submitted are good enough for Bookouture to take on.

Wow! The equivalent stats for most literary agents would be about one in a thousand, with, admittedly, quite a broad range of variation in that proportion.

And even when you get taken on by a literary agent, your chance of having your work taken up by a major publisher is perhaps not much better than 50% (with, again, a ton of variation.)

Even allowing for fuzziness in the data, it seems clear that Bookouture is simply accepting work that the traditional gatekeepers never used to consider.

What’s more, Bookouture has no underclass. It pays no advances and every book gets the same level of budget, love, and attention upfront. In Big 5 firms, there are authors who get the huge advances and the marketing budgets – and ones who don’t and don’t. That’s just not the case at Bookouture. All books get the same input – and it’s readers, nobody else, who determine the final outcome.

In a way, that’s the most exciting, and most revolutionary, aspect of Bookouture’s model. Buy widely, invest equally, and let readers decide.

Perhaps all along, those trad publisher gates were built too narrow. The issue wasn’t that good quality manuscripts weren’t there. Perhaps the issue was simply that in a world of limited shelf space – and very limited in the case of supermarkets – gatekeepers were forced to reject far more than they should.

Interesting thought, no?

And the practical takeaway from this? Well, maybe it’s this. That the standard you need to achieve is easier to reach than you thought. The gates that matter aren’t those held by the traditional industry, they’re the ones held by readers – does your book please them?

That’s how it ought to be, right? And the goal is one you can achieve. That doesn’t mean you can discard all those disciplines around writing well and editing hard, but it means you can shift the entire project from “never gonna happen” to “yes, really quite plausible.”

And that’s good, isn’t it? A hopeful message in a worrying age.

That's it from me? What about you? Have you submitted work to Bookouture? What was your experience? And would you want to do it, or do you still prefer a bricks-and-mortar led strategy from a traditional publisher? Let me know, and we can all have a Heated Debate ...

I once saw a documentary about dog sledding in the Arctic. The show had (I think) three teams racing to the Pole using broadly the same kind of technology that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen once used.


The Norwegian team won the race (obviously: they were Norwegian), but the TV show focused mostly on the exploits and struggles of the British team, all of whom were strong and committed - but who had no experience of the arctic. Or huskies. Or dog sleds. Or the arduous cross-country skiing involved. Or indeed, anything actually relevant to arctic travel. 


I’m thinking about that documentary because (drum roll, cymbals, and your choice of other percussive instruments) I AM ONCE AGAIN WRITING A FIONA GRIFFITHS NOVEL. 


I’ve been so busy with all things Jericho for the past year or two, I just haven’t written much. I’ve had a half-written novel on my laptop all this time and not had the time or clarity of thought to drive it forwards. But now I actually do. And I’m 50,000 words into a novel that’ll be about twice that length when cooked, which means … 


I am about halfway towards the North Pole ... 


Any map I once had has long ago been shredded by ice and wind … 


I’ve no damn idea how long this journey is likely to take … 


And I would quite like to go home, curl up in front of a log fire, and see how many crumpets I can eat. 


The simple fact is that there is something unnerving about being a long way into a book but also a long way from that blessed THE END. Most first drafts just are a bit shite. That’s not an original observation, I recognise, but it is one that intrudes quite forcefully at about the 50,000 word mark. 


As it happens, I’m free of a lot of standard author-angst. I know I put sentences together quite nicely. I know my characterisation works. If I write a scene that lacks colour, I know how to revive it swiftly and effectively. I know that I have the tools to identify and fix most problems. 


But still. 


In my head, I can’t help but compare this current draft to all the perfected drafts of previous novels that have now been published. And this book is, at the moment, just plain worse than all of them. Hurtling forwards into that arctic gloom seems like the only thing to do - but also a rather pointless one. It feels like a somewhat painful way of making a big dull thing instead of a small dull one. 


So this is where we have to separate brain and instinct. 


My instinct just says: “Go home. Eat crumpets.” 


My brain says, “No, look, don’t you remember that you felt roughly this way with ALL your books? Or perhaps not every single one of them, but certainly most, and every single time you went on to fix the issues.” 


And my brain’s right. I even know that my basic premise is fine. (Secure psychiatric hospital on the west coast of Wales. Stuffed full of veterans with Special Forces experience. Lots of shenanigans. Perfect for my character and my readership.) So really, I just need to bash out a draft, list the issues with that draft, then start fixing them. 


And that’s right. That’s the right advice. That’s what I’m going to do. 


But. 


Two plump little buts to offer you. 


But the first. 


The first but is simply that this midpoint anxiety often generates little flashes of insights. As I was worrying about my book, I realised that I hadn’t properly made characters of the key doctors at the hospital. But since the shenanigans needed to involve them, they had to feature properly in the early part of the book. And I need to do that in classic Agatha Christie style - where readers all suspect the irascible Italian, only to discover that the avuncular parrot-keeper is the baddie. 


If I fix that issue in the book now, my first draft will be that little bit closer to target and, overall, I’ll save myself work. 


If I had closed my mind to the worry, I wouldn’t have had that insight. My journey to the pole would have been longer and frozener that it needed to have been. So worry’s good. It’s creative. 


But the second. 


The second but is more vicious than the first. It’s a yawning crevasse camouflaged by the tiniest bridge of snow. And it’s this: 


Sometimes you really are writing a terrible book. Sometimes, it’s not simply that your execution of the idea is standard first-draft bad, it’s that the idea itself is beyond saving.


This is where I have a layer of shelter not available to most of you. I know that I have a readership for another Fiona Griffiths tale. I know this idea basically works for this genre and this detective. I know that I have publishers contracted to take the book I’ll give them (as well as a larger audience that comes to me via self-publishing.) 


But it’s not always like that. Not even for an author with a significant publishing history. 


The fact is that most writers, most of the time, have to ask, “Is this just a hideous mistake?” Sometimes the answer is yes, in which case the solution isn’t simply more labour, it’s the hard decision to abort proceedings. 


In that documentary I mentioned, the British team suffered with frostbite and wounds that needed antibiotics. But antibiotics hadn’t been available to Amundsen et al, so they weren’t available to the team. 


Continue or give up? 


It was a real question. As I remember it, one member of the team thought he could continue despite a nasty looking wound, and he was right. Another one - an international oarsman with a couple of Olympic golds - just took the view that his job was to continue marching, no matter what. Because his view was overly inflexible, he became detached from his team and would have been exceptionally vulnerable had he encountered a concealed crevasse, or picked up an ankle injury, or gone off route, or anything of that sort. He survived, but he might not have done. He made the wrong call. 


And you? 


I don’t know. I don’t know your book. 


But I will say that you must have an idea that works. That’s why I get so loud about the importance of a strong elevator pitch. That’s why it’s important to bake that elevator pitch right into the very essence of the novel. 


If you do that, if you have a powerful idea and your book truly delivers on that idea, you need to hurtle on to the Pole. Yes, you’ll have a draft with a whole frozen ocean of problems, but those things are fixable and you’ll get the job done. 


But if your idea is unworkable, then abort, abort, abort. Throw away your wooden skis. Discard that pemmican. Find yourself a helicopter ride back to somewhere civilised. Get home, light a fire, eat crumpets, start again. 


For me now, I’m confident in my idea. It really is just a word count challenge to complete the draft. 


Mush, mush, my lovable husky friends. That thing there, through the murk? That’s the Pole, that is. Onwards! 


But what about you, my fine parrot-keeping friends. How far are you towards your own Pole? What are your thoughts & feelings on the way And how do you get on with pemmican?

On Friday 26 June, we released a book: Getting Published, authored by me, and a major update on a book I first wrote ten years ago. (You can take a look at the book here, if you want to.)

You might think that releasing a book was an occasion for a little hoo-hah and hullaballoo, but in fact we released it in perfect silence. We didn’t tweet, didn’t blog, didn’t post on Facebook, didn’t send an email.

The one thing we did do was ask our Advance Review Copy team to submit their reviews for the book. Amazon, for obvious reasons, doesn’t permit reviews prior to the moment of publication, so you can only start to gather reviews in the day or two following launch.

Over that weekend therefore – the 26, 27, 28 June – we quietly nudged our ARC folk to submit reviews. Those reviews built gradually over the weekend, to a total of more than 50. We didn’t solicit only five-star reviews. We didn’t even do the “if you hated this book, tell me; if you loved it, tell others” thing. We just asked people to report their honest opinions via Amazon.

The result was that we got a mix of reviews. Mostly five-star. Some four-star. One three-star. Every author wants all five-star reviews of course, but the fact is that a mixture of opinions and comments lends absolute authenticity to the overall verdict. In the US and the UK, the reviews are knocking around the 4.7 to 4.8 level – highly positive, but just mixed enough to be real. Perfect.

We had some launch weekend issues, of course. Amazon started randomly and aggressively deleting reviews for absolutely no reason at all. It has form on this, of course, and there’s nothing much you can do except complain.

That wasn’t the only niggle.

The book cover didn’t show up properly for a while, because we’d inadvertently uploaded one that was marginally too large. It also took us a bit of time to get the paperback uploaded and available for sale.

But though we were working away behind the scenes, no one really noticed any problems – because the book, though published, was effectively invisible.

At this early stage, Amazon didn’t know who to market the book to. It made virtually no sales. Our beloved book was simply buried in a pile of 8 million other titles. By the end of the weekend, we had sold precisely four books: none on Friday, one on Saturday, three on Sunday. Four books across the entire English-speaking world.

But we didn’t care.

We wanted to make sure that when people did finally start landing on our book page, there would be plenty of reviews telling them what to expect – and basically validating the impulse to buy. (No one loves being the first idiot to buy an un-reviewed book.)

So over the weekend, we just sat tight and let our reviews build. Then, on Monday afternoon, we finally broke our weekend of silence. I started emailing you guys with a short email telling you about the book and inviting you to buy it. Some of you got the email on Monday, some on Tuesday, and so on through the week. As an extra little “buy it now” kicker, I told you that the price would double in a few days’ time.

The aim of this staggered email campaign was to build a gradually swelling mass of sales. If we’d judged it perfectly, sales would have run something like this:

Monday – 100
Tuesday – 110
Wednesday – 120
Thursday – 130
 Friday – 140

The aim in seeking to build that kind of profile is to send three messages to Amazon. Those messages are: (1) this book is selling, (2) there is steady demand for the book, not some temporary one-off spike, (3) that demand is, if anything, increasing.

And crucially, because you guys are all writer-types who love writer-stuff, we were in effect sending a critical fourth message too: (4) Look at the people who are buying this book; it’s that sort of person you need to market it too.

In effect, the purpose of our launch campaign was less about actually selling books and more about teaching Amazon how to sell our book – and making sure that it wanted to try. The sales campaign was all about prepping the machine.

How did we do? Well, I suppose we succeeded in achieving our aim, at least approximately. Our actual ebook sales profile looked like this:

Monday – 125
Tuesday – 141
Wednesday – 95
Thursday – 92
 Friday – 145

(Paperbacks, for some reason, started selling on the Wednesday, then increasing each day.)

That sales profile showed Amazon that the book was selling, that it was selling steadily, and taught Amazon’s bots about the kind of people who were its most likely buyers. It didn’t quite demonstrate a steadily increasing demand, but our strong Friday finale probably did enough on that front anyway.

On Sunday, we changed the ebook price from $2.99 in the US to $7.99. In Britain, we changed the price from £1.99 to £5.99.

Obviously enough, the reason for launching at a low price (but one that still delivers 70% royalties) was to maximise sales in that launch week and to give the book the best possible start in life.

The reason for switching to the $7.99 pricing was to give us a much better royalty on each sale - $5.59, in fact. At the same time, our book is still cheaper than its natural competitors (the ebook version of Writers Market retails at an exorbitant $19.99, for example.) So we’re both earning a good royalty on every sale – and making ourselves the easiest, cheapest entry-point in what is not a particularly cheap market.

Good. Some ebook pricing decisions are complicated. This one feels relatively straightforward.

We can’t play the same kind of games with paperbacks – printing costs just set a relatively high floor price – but we don’t really need to. Since ending the promo week and changing the price, we’re selling about 10-20 paperbacks a day and about half that number of ebooks daily.

In the UK, we’re still nestling at or near the top of the relevant category bestseller lists. That means the book will pick up sales passively, without any especial love from us.

In the US, we didn’t quite achieve the sales mass we wanted to in that first week, so the book’s visibility now is less than we wanted. For that reason, we’re about to start supporting the book with sponsored listings on Amazon. The purpose will be to drive sales to the point at which natural, organic sales can largely take over.

And that’s it. That’s pretty much you need to know about launch week and where it’s left us.

The key point from all of this? The absolute key? Simply this:

Selling on Amazon isn’t so much about how many books you can sell yourself, it’s about teaching Amazon how to sell your book – and making sure that it wants to.

That’s the trick. That’s the whole deal right there. If you really internalise that message, everything you do in terms of Amazon-selling will be easier and more fruitful than if you don’t.

Bish-bosh.

This email has yabbered on long enough. Me? I’m off to make a hashish and rose-petal jelly, which I will serve with mint tea and a dish of almond biscuits.


Reminder: If you want a free review e-copy of 52 LETTERS - a collection of these blog posts and emails from me - then email my colleague Rachael via publishing@jerichowriters.com. Put 52 LETTERS in the subject line, and please don't forget to tell us which Amazon store is the one you generally use. We have only a limited number of copies to give away, and it'll be first-come first-served.

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

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

Because …

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

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

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

Righty-ho. That’s one thing.

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

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

And that’ll be that.

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

Right.

Nuffothat.

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

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

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

Well – kinda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on the other hand – wow!

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

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

I’ll give you another example.

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

Jackson [Fiona’s boss] waves a hand.

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

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

I face the screen.

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

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

‘Aye, that’s fine.’

‘And? Is this the woman?’

There’s a pause.

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

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

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

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

And also –

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

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

Remember to take a peek at the UNWC info.

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

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

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

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

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