harrybingham

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

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Folks, we can avoid the subject no more. Pandemic is upon us. Around the world, we’re closing our doors to the outside, stocking up on handgel, and worrying about our elderly and vulnerable relatives.

We here at Jericho are all 100% OK.

Over the last year or two, as it happens, we’ve worked hard to build a team that mostly sits in the same small office in Jericho, Oxford because we reckon that physical proximity forms bonds and culture like nothing else. That said, we can all work remotely and that’s exactly what we’re now doing. Everyone is safe and well. Long may it remain that way.

I’m OK too. All the same, these are uncertain times. I have four kids under the age of 7 and my wife is immune-compromised and physically disabled. She is certainly in the vulnerable category and we have to hope that the waves of coronavirus don’t break too roughly on our little island here. I don’t think they will.

My wife and I both have elderly relatives, all of whom are being as safe and sensible as can be, and all of whom, aside from their age, are in pretty decent health.

I hope you and yours are spared any serious ill health in these next weeks and months. That, by far, is the most important thing. I’ll light a candle for you all.

And after that … a long way after that … we’re still all writers. And Shakespeare took advantage of the quarantine restrictions brought about by the bubonic plague to write King Lear. And Macbeth. And (damn the man) Anthony and Cleopatra.

If we’re safe, and our loved ones are safe, and we’ve watched enough funny Youtube videos about families surviving quarantine, our thoughts will start to turn to writing.

We’re here to help.

Same as before. Same as always.

If we can help, we will. If you have a dumb question, we can probably answer it. If you need help with your manuscript, we can certainly help with that. Our online courses will run just as before. We’ll still be available by phone and email.

What’s more, we’re giving serious thought as to how we can do still more to help people in an age when simply getting to the shops may be difficult.

Over the coming weeks, you’ll get a stream of announcements from us about things we’re doing to help out. First and foremost, we want you to be secure. After that, if you need our support, we’re aiming to do more than we’ve done before, not less.

In that context, I know a lot of you have wanted to try out JW membership. Perhaps you’re nervous of making a full-on commitment to an annual or rolling monthly subscription. Or perhaps you just want to nose into a few specific videos. (Want to get the detail on how to build a mailing list? Or need a refresher on how to produce great descriptive writing? Or get an insight into how big publishers work? Or use AgentMatch to build a list of agents. Or – well, anything really.)

Anyway. Whatever. We’ve created a free, no-strings, 14-day membership for you. You can access it whenever you want. (For example, if the next week or two looks frantic for you, the offer will still be there in 2 or 3 weeks’ time. We’ll give you plenty of notice before we withdraw it.)

And “no strings” means exactly that. The membership is free. We won’t ask you for a bank card. The membership won’t suddenly flip into a paying subscription. If at the end of the 14-day period, you choose to take out a full annual membership or our cancel-any-time monthly package, we’ll be delighted. If not, if the freebie was useful but sufficient for your needs, we’re also delighted. We’re here to help.

Access My Free 14-day Membership Here

That’s it from me. We’ve got some other ideas that I hope you’ll all love.

In particular, we haven’t forgotten our existing members. We want to do something lovely for you guys. Stay tuned. I don’t have anything to announce yet, but will do soon.

Stay safe, youse. Then go and write King Lear, you slackers.

You can add your draft ACT I below for scathing comment from the ghost of King James I. Or just chat about whatever the heck. We're all here.

My book of the moment is Amazon Ads Unleashed – a very useful guide to advertising your book on Amazon. Couple of warnings before you rush out and buy it. First, it’s written for more advanced users. If you just want a basic tour of Amazon ads, this isn’t the book for you. If a basic guide is what you’re after, you should head over to our Self-Pub course, which is free to JW members.

The second warning is that Amazon advertising in general works only for indie authors. If you’re traditionally published, your per-book royalties will be so small that it’ll be hard to make ads work for you. Not just that, but there are other problems with the way trad publishers price and market their books which mean conversion rates are likely to be poor.

So in a way, what I’m about to say won’t be of direct relevance to many of you … except that the heart of it is relevant to absolutely all of you.

Here’s what Robert Ryan, author of that Amazon Ads book, has to say about his own genre:

In my case, I might run an epic fantasy category ad. This targets all books listed in this category. That’s a lot. A whopping lot…

But I write traditional-style epic fantasy. The category, though, is a mixed bag of other things. First there’s grimdark versus noblebright – the more traditional flavour of epic fantasy. People tend to read one or the other. Much less often they read both. So, in a category ad, my noblebright books are being shown indiscriminately to grimdark readers. And those folks are numerous…

But things get worse. Extremely popular just at the moment is reverse-harem fantasy. It should have its own category, but it gets lumped in epic fantasy… And if reverse harem isn’t enough, litrpg fiction (literary role playing fiction) is thrown in with epic fantasy too.

My noblebright book ad could be shown on all these books in a category ad. It potentially gets a massive impression volume, but perhaps only twenty percent of the impressions are on similar noblebright books. And that’s where the readers I want to reach are mostly hanging out.

The point Ryan is making here is that seeking a wide audience for your books will always mean that you are chasing one that converts badly.

Those reverse harem readers just won’t buy your Tolkein-style fantasy. It’s just not what they want.

And, OK, that sounds like it’s just a lesson in how to use Amazon ads. But it’s not. It’s a lesson in book marketing, period.

You can’t make money by advertising your books widely on Amazon. Or via Facebook. Or via Bookbub.

If you seek to build your mailing list via large, indiscriminate giveaways, you will end up with a mailing list full of junk.

If you seek to boost your Facebook likes by posting funny cat videos (assuming you are not an author of funny cat books), you will end up with a Facebook profile that is absolutely useless for any marketing purpose.

If you go on a blog tour of 35 different blogs, where 34 of them are not perfectly attuned to the kind of book you write, you will be wasting your effort at least 97.1% of the time.

And so on.

Any kind of book marketing is about finding your most passionate audience and finding ways to make that audience adhere to you. (Of which, by far the most effective tool, is simply: write good books. If you can do that, the rest of your marketing challenge becomes a lot, lot simpler.)

In a funny way, what we think of as advertising – the Superbowl ad, or huge outdoor posters advertising beers or cars – is the exact reverse of what you should be thinking about. Those ads are aimed at everybody, and they work because Mercedes (let’s say) wants to target everyone. Either people are potential Mercedes buyers (so great; they get some effective advertising.) Or they are not potential Mercedes buyers, in which case they are being taught what the meaning of the brand is … which means that everyone knows … which means that Mercedes buyers know everyone around them will understand the brand meaning of the car they drive. That actively deepens the commitment of those Mercedes buyers, because there would be nothing stupider than paying top dollar for a car if people didn’t know it was a top dollar car.

Your book just isn’t like that. Your market is a niche in a niche in a niche and you just don’t need to establish some universal brand value. You need to find and talk to your readers. That’s it.

And it’s so easy to be tempted by the numbers. “If I wrote on this blog, I could get in front of X,000 readers.” “If I ran this ad, I could accumulate X,000 impressions.” And so on.

That way of thinking is always wrong.

Passion and specificity matters in book marketing perhaps almost more than in any other market you are able to think of. How come? Because books are utterly individual. Your market isn’t the market for fiction. Or the market for adult fiction. Or the market for fantasy. Or the market for epic fantasy. If you start to think of yourself as in the market for noblebright epic fantasy, you are getting closer. But is your book about warriors? Or a coming of age story? Or medieval tinted? Or what? Truth is, you are probably in a niche of a niche of a niche.

And that’s good – because that’s where passion, and readers, and success lies.

That’s it from me. We’ve got a brilliant self-pub day in London tomorrow. Hope to see loads of you there. If you haven’t yet bought tickets (shame on you!), you can turn up at the door and we’ll see if we like the cut of your jib. Details here.

Till soon.

What do you think? How do you market your work? What works, what doesn't? And are you more grimdark or noblebright?

The book I’m reading in the bath at the moment is the controversial American Dirt. The controversy is a bit silly, I think, but I’m not going to talk about that here. Rather, what I want to look at is two different ways of writing.

Here’s one way. The excerpt comes from the very start of the book – the mother (Mami) shoving her boy (Luca) towards safety during an attack on their home:

Her hands are not gentle; she propels him towards the shower. He trips on the raised tile step and falls forwards onto his hands. Mami lands on top of him and his teeth pierce his lip in the tumble. He tastes blood. One dark droplet makes a tiny circle of red against the bright green shower tile. Mami shoves Luca into the corner. There’s no door on this shower, no curtain. It’s only a corner of his abuela’s bathroom, with a third tiled wall built to suggest a stall. This wall is around five and a half feet high and three feet long – just large enough, with some luck, to shield Luca and his mother from sight. Luca’s back is wedged, his small shoulders touching both walls. His knees are drawn up to his chin, and Mami is clinched around him like a tortoise’s shell. The door of the bathroom is open, which worries Luca.

Now, it’s not just the content there which strongly suggests a thriller. The prose does too. In fact, this chunk has all the flavour of Modern American Thriller – clean, deft, unyielding. Writers in other genres and from other countries sometimes write this way, but there’s no question that American writers first constructed this way of writing and that they’re still the best at delivering it.

But before we discuss it in detail, let’s try to understand the beast. The writing involved in this MAT standard is typically:

  • Present tense.
  • Factual and declarative – not many qualifications or uncertainties.
  • Sentences are typically short.
  • Vocabulary is typically uncomplicated.
  • Point of view is often objective rather than personal. There are only two phrases in this passage which identify Luca as the point-of-view character (“He tastes blood” and “which worries Luca”.) Mostly, the viewpoint feels neutral and external.
  • Centred on factual / physical reportage, rather than emotional / intellectual reflection
  • A collage of one-off snapshots, more than a broadly connected picture. So if you look at the passage above, you could remove almost any sentence or clause and leave the rest of it undamaged. So “He tastes blood” stands alone – a specific snapshot of a specific sensation. Yes, the sentence makes sense given what has immediately gone before, but you could remove this sentence and the passage would still make perfect sense. That’s true, give or take, of nearly all of it.

It’s pretty obvious why thrillers work well this way. There’s something uncompromising in this kind of language. Something warriorlike. In battle, there’s no room for complex reflection or sifting through of what-ifs and maybes. You just need facts. You need to remove emotion from those facts. You tell it like it is.

There is a kind of simplicity in this writing, but there’s a simplicity in the workings of a well-made handgun too. It’s the same kind of simplicity and has nothing to do with a lack of sophistication. George Pelecanos is a particular adept, but there are plenty of others. It’s like these authors have taken the lessons of Hemingway and Chandler and polished them up into a silver pebble, round and indivisible.

But that’s not the only way to write. Here’s how you could take the same material and deliver it in a way that largely breaks those MAT rules:

With ungentle hands, she propelled him towards the shower. Clumsy with shock, and her attention still pulled to the sounds of the intruders outside, she misjudged things, or Luca did. He tripped on the green tiled step and fell forwards, face-first, biting his lip in the tumble. Mami scooped him up and held him close, her body a shield for his. The blood from his lip looked astonishingly bright on the green tiles. Mami, automatically, wiped the blood away, but her thoughts were elsewhere. The shower had no door or curtain, only a low tiled wall that formed a kind of stall. It was pitifully little by way of hiding place. Nothing at all, by way of shelter.

In that passage, the series-of-snapshots quality has largely gone. The sequence of actions and consequences is all made clearer and more smoothly joined. Mami pushes Luca. He trips. He cuts his lip. Mami cuddles him and wipes away the blood. They take stock of where they are, and its limitations. And the reflections / qualifications / uncertainties are there too. Why did Luca fall? Well, Mami ‘misjudged things, or Luca did.’ Reality isn’t always quite clear, and this kind of writing picks up on those unclarities.

Is that rewritten passage, better or worse? Well, neither really. It's just different. Let’s call this kind of prose writing deep rather than flat; the equivalent of painting with oils rather than acrylics.

Very broadly speaking, the more character-centred your story, the more you will tend to paint with oils, the more you’ll want to write deep.

The more your interest is in action-reportage, and especially thriller-action reportage, the more you are likely to write flat.

But you can mix them up. As your story floats in and out of reflective moments and action moments, you can adapt your prose style accordingly. Indeed, although I’ve quoted Jeanine Cummins / American Dirt for this email, most of her book isn’t really written in MAT. It’s more character-led, more reflective.

And if your story is mostly ‘written deep’, then passages of ‘writing flat’ will be that much more powerful, that much more shocking. Your action scenes will gain a sense of edge and that exciting lack of compromise. The mild disconnectedness between the sentences can almost suggest a mild shock or altered emotional response on the part of your protagonist. Those are things you can emphasise a bit with your dialogue and your character’s other responses to the situation.

My own writing borrows a lot from MAT and I have a lot of fun with it – including actual fun, as in making jokes. So here, for example, is my character, Fiona, who has just had an altercation with a couple of thugs. She’s broken the jaw of one of them, then ran away. She’s safe now, but in shock. She arrives at a bus-shelter, where there’s a man also waiting:

‘Hi,’ I say.

‘Hi.’

After a bit, he says, ‘Are you all right?’

I say, ‘I don’t know.’

I want to ask him to punch me on the arm, to see if I can feel anything, but I don’t.

He smiles and shifts his weight.

We stand there together until I see a taxi. I try to flag it down, but walk straight into the glass wall of the shelter instead. My bus-stop buddy does the honours, flags the taxi and sees me into it. He handles me as you’d handle a figurine of antique china.

Nothing there says, ‘I am in shock’ yet Fiona’s shock reverberates all through the passage. There’s no obvious joke / punchline in the text, but Fiona’s ability to walk straight into a glass wall is sort of funny all the same. Fiona doesn’t directly reflect on how she must look or is behaving but, because the man asks ‘Are you all right?’, we understand that she must be giving off something quite odd.

And so on.

This kind of writing fun comes directly from the tools and resources of MAT – writing flat, not writing deep. (More prose writing tips here.)

Have fun with it. Tomorrow week, Saturday 14th, I’m going to be in London talking about self-publishing and author-led marketing generally. We still have a few tickets left for that, so do come along if you can.

But tell me: how do you write? Do you paint with oils or acrylics? Do you write flat or write deep? Or do you mix em up? Tell me what works for you, and let's all have a Heated Debate.

In 1923, Coca-Cola’s CEO stated that he always wanted his product to be ‘Within an arm’s reach of desire’ – a terrific phrase.

Since, very likely, the product you are trying to create is going to sit on Amazon, and since your likely buyer is sitting at a screen of some kind, you aren’t actually even trying to get your customer to move their whole arm. A hand movement – a finger movement, even – will be enough.

Now, OK, there’s a whole Amazonian science of how to make sure that your book pops up in the right set of search results for the right kind of reader. There’s also work to be done in thinking about how to convert those readers once they click through to your Amazon page.

But, for today, let’s just focus on that moment, on screen or in store, when a reader is browsing a dozen or so books. They get to see, for now, just book cover and title. The next step is going to be reaching for the book and taking a look at blurb / inside material. But you’re not there yet. You have to make sure that your cover and your title convinces the reader to pick your book out, not any of the others.

What do you do? What should you be aiming to achieve? What’s your strategy here?

Well, now. A few years back, the only way to answer that question would have been to assemble a roomful of publishing brains, in New York or London, and just toss out the question. The basic answer would have been, roughly, ‘Leave it to us; we’re the experts.’

These days, however, we don’t need experts. We have data. And we have companies, like the Codex Group, which go out and collect it.

And what the Codex Group did was to take 50 or 60 books and place them in front of 4000 readers. Then see whether those readers clicked the “Read More” button placed next to the book cover. I've added the covers to this post, with some comments. We'll get there in a second. First, though, some general comments. (more comments on cover design here.)

General Comments (Lt. Gen. 3-star)

You can’t think of title or cover in isolation. Ideally, you are looking for a rich reverberation between the two. So your title ought to launch some kind of question. Your cover shouldn’t provide a direct answer, by any means, but it should offer an image or mood that seems to gesture at some ingredient in the likely answer.

So one of the books explored was The Dressmaker’s Gift. Now that is pretty obviously a good title. It launches a couple of questions: who is the dressmaker and what is her gift?

So far so good. Now a klutzy, dumb, close-down-those-questions kind of cover would depict a dressmaker making dresses. That kind of image would already kind of answer the first of the two questions. (‘Who is the dressmaker? Why here she is. We’ve provided you with a picture of her.’)

In fact, the cover depicts a somewhat sepia-tinted view of the Eiffel Tower, complete with birds. And that is an interestingly complementary addition to the set of questions first raised.

‘Who is the dressmaker? Don’t know, but Paris comes into it. The sepia suggests something from the past. Ooh, a book about a Parisian dressmaker maybe? 1950s? 1890s? I wonder what her gift is? That picture looks sort of romantic, but I wonder if it’s a bit sad?’

By reverberating with the title and adding complementary, but open-ended, ingredients, the title goes from being good to excellent. And – thank you Codex Group – we don’t need to guess if the combo worked. We know it did.

That’s one comment. The general rule for making any title / cover combination work.

But here’s another.

Obviously the Codex Group picked a bunchy of books by a bunch of different publishers. But one publisher won 8 out of the top 10 slots. 8 out of 10. Wowser.

Want to take a guess which publisher excelled to that extent? Take a moment to guess. I’ll send you a biscuit if you’re right.

And … drumroll …

The winner was …

Amazon Publishing, the publishing arm of Amazon. Penguin Random House and the rest of those guys were also rans.

Now that’s kind of intriguing. Presumably creating titles/covers is, or should be, a core skill of trad publishers, but they’re out-competed by a tech company / retailer. Odd.

Here’s how the APub creative director speaks of the creative process. (Text commentary is from Publishers Weekly.)

Another key in creating an effective cover is ensuring that the design works with the title, said Amazon creative director Courtney Dodson. She explained that Amazon prioritizes “the interplay between the title of the book and the visuals on the cover, because when they interact in meaningful ways, readers understand the world and tone of the book—which helps us reach readers who will enjoy the book.”

Dodson noted that, while there have been cases in which Amazon has changed a title to create a better partner for the artwork, the more common approach is for the team to look at how design “can support and augment the resonance of a title that we believe is right for its positioning message.”

Though Amazon also uses available data to check trends and customer feedback, cover designs are very much a collaborative effort involving the author, editor, and marketing and design teams.

“The cover has to work for everyone involved,” Dodson noted. “It is a rigorous process with lots of feedback.”

You know what struck me in those comments? That the author is a part of the collaborative effort. I’ve published a lotta lotta books with the trad houses and I’d say that the effort has never really felt collaborative. The outcome has sometimes been good, sometimes not, but it’s never felt like the design team really wanted to involve me in their thought process.

And you know what? An author is a creative soul who understands their book. Just might want to pick their brains. Just a thought.

OK. Nuff from me. Here are the winning covers with comments from me. But what do you think? Let us know in the comment line below, and let's all have a Heated Debate.

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image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=63&dpx=1&t=1582886637AFTER

OK. I have no idea why this came out a winner. It looks like pretty standard romance fare to me. I guess the "After" title suggests something a bit pricklier or more complicated than standard issue happily ever after stuff, but really, I don't know.

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THE SECRET OF LOST STONES

OK, this is obviously an intriguing title, and the image somehow personalises it. There is a woman looking meditatively over a river. What is she thinking? What are the lost stones? What are the secrets? By adding a clear human element to in intriguing but impersonal title, I think the cover nails it. It's a beautiful image with nice fonts too. Always helps.

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THE VINE WITCH

Another beautiful, rich cover. And here, actually, the cover just takes the promise of the title and spills it out on a table. It's as though the cover is saying, "No. Vine Witch. Really. We're talking spells and books and a kind of dark, lustrous beauty." Now the image is obviously not YA / fantasy fare, so we're looking at an adult book with some richly exotic ingredients. We want to know more about how the author is going to deliver the promise and the intrigue of the title. I'd turn this one over for sure.

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THE DRESSMAKER'S GIFT

Perfect. Great title and a complementary / intriguing / atmospheric / beautiful image. Simple but bang on.

image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=67&dpx=1&t=1582887218LITTLE VOICES

Brilliant, upside-down image takes a moment to figure out. The inversion and hint of drowning thrillerises what could otherwise be a rather gentler cover. The blue and orange/gold is very vogiush at the moment, but the combination does work. Likewise the very clear Open Sans / Helvetica style font is very modern thriller. The title is the one thing that really doesn't seem to yell thriller, but that's an element of intrigue in itself. I think this cover is quite bold in not emphasising genre more heavily. Brave, but clearly successful.

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DROWNING WITH OTHERS

Here again, I'm going to say this is Title 1 - Cover 0. All the intrigue comes from the title. The image is really just there to reinforce and deepen that promise. The car already provides a hint of what lies inside the book. Good, clear, effective.

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THIN AIR

OK. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this cover is a good, efficient thriller cover, but nothing more. Frankly, I don't know why this cover outcompeted so many of its peers.

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WHAT YOU DID

Nice to see Festival of Writing alumna, Claire McGowan, on this list. And here, the cover really, really builds on the relatively simple promise of the title. A smashed plate, shards still flying. And a hint of daggeriness in those shards, and blood in the colour of the font. Very simple ingredients, but you instantly want to know: What did she do? You have to click / turn the book to find out.

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THE LAST HOUSE GUEST

That blue and yellow again. And a great title. (Last guest because of murder? Or what? Why last?) The olde-worlde window panes suggest atmosphere but also prison bars. And the hint of landscape beyond give you something that's almost like the atmosphere of Agatha Christie's AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. All simple ingredients, but they kick off from that title.

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I'M FINE AND NEITHER ARE YOU

Again, this is a title / cover combo whose genius lies 90% in the title itself. The cover just has to deliver the promise - then enrich it. So the woman (whom we can see more completely than the man) is both smiling and looking sideways at her partner. Is that suspicion? Curiosity? Knowledge? What? We already want to get into the relationship implied in that title and that sideways glance. Because the title is so crucial, it takes up nearly the whole cover.

This week, I’m still fishing in our Oceans of Jewels post. I want to present one more snippet from one of you. I’m going to comment on that, in the same way was I did last time, but I also want to draw attention to an issue that crops up in probably the majority of your pieces, and especially the ones that include some real descriptive writing. That issue is so prevalent and so crucial – and so easy to get right – that it’s worth spending real time with.

So, let’s take a look at another one of your snippets, taken from this Ocean Of Jewels thread.

The piece is from THE TAXI, by Helen Parusel, and it runs like this:

My bare feet squelch in the cold, slick sludge that spreads vast and bleak before me. Linking arms with Stefanie on one side, and Anna on the other, I wonder if this was a good idea.

Yesterday, Anna pointed at the events board, and looked at me, her jade eyes glinting. ‘You are not fully integrated in North German culture until you have experienced a Wattwanderung.’

I’m not sure if trudging barefoot across the cold mudflats on the North Sea is a prerequisite for integration, but assured by Anna it would be a great laugh, I signed on the dotted line.

We are a group of fifteen. Our guide, Guido, white bearded and crinkly eyed, tells us that when the tide recedes, the treasures of the Wadden Sea are revealed. But he has a warning: venturing onto the mudflats without an experienced guide with knowledge of the tide time-table can be fatal. We all nod, grateful to be in Guido’s capable hands as he leads us across the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With infectious enthusiasm, he splodges along with broad, brown feet, pointing at the scuttling crabs amongst the seashells, nuggets of amber and the heaps of sand-worm burrows scattered on the beach. Our feet make strange sucking sounds as tiny shrimps shoot out between our toes. We laugh and shriek. 

Despite cancer. 

God, this is good. The gusty wind flinging grains of sand and droplets of seawater against my face. My soul rising and dancing on the wind with the Oystercatchers, screeching above. Drunk on elation. I am here.

There’s a lot of quality in this. The best bit is the paragraph about the scuttling crabs and the sand-work burrows. That kind of minute, specific observation forces you into the landscape precisely because it is so specific. Before reading that sentence, you probably didn’t know that sand-worms made burrows on tidal flats (I didn’t), but by calling attention to that detail, the author has brought the beach vibrantly to life. Indeed, even if you were actually on the beach, you might not notice the sand-worm burrows, so there’s a way in which this line of text makes you more aware of the beach than if you were there in reality. (More on writing evocative descriptions.)

That’s what good prose does. It explains the world – life – back to us, in a way that just being in the world can’t always manage.

OK, so good. As I say, there’s plenty of good stuff here, and I like it.

But let’s have a think about that very first sentence. This one:

My bare feet squelch in the cold, slick sludge that spreads vast and bleak before me.

What do you think of that? Do you like it? Or hate it? Or are you carefully sitting on the fence? Just take a moment to see how it feels.

And – full disclosure – I have a problem with it and my problem is simply this. That sentence feels like writing. And that’s not good.

Now in part, that’s just the result of adjectival overgrowth: five adjectives in a sixteen-word sentence.

My bare feet squelch in the cold, slick sludge that spreads vast and bleak before me.

I also think the word ‘sludge’ is a bit imprecise here. Almost anything can be sludge – apple puree, radioactive gloop, a mudflat. I think that, especially, this opening description needs something more precise, more specific.

So, OK, let’s fix the sentence to address those niggles. Something like this, maybe:

My bare feet squelch in the chilly mud that spreads out before me.

So, I’ve vaped three of the five adjectives, and I don’t really think we’ve lost anything. The phrase ‘spreads out’ implies extent, so I don’t think the word ‘vast’ added anything much. I don’t think we need the word bleak, because we’re on a North Sea mudflat which is – duh! – made out of mud. I think the bleakness is already baked in. And the word ‘slick’ – what is that really adding? How would you distinguish a slick sludge from any other kind of sludge? I’m not sure. Perhaps the writer is wanting to call attention to the smoothness and shine of mud that hasn’t yet been trampled, but the word ‘slick’ is just too compressed a way to suggest this.

Oh yes, and I’ve changed the word ‘cold’ to the word ‘chilly’. How come? Well, no reason, really. It just felt better. But I think it’s mostly because the sentence is made up almost entirely of single-syllable words and it just felt rhythmically better to break that up.

So the sentence has got better, but I still don’t love it and we’re now starting to get closer to my primary discomfort. The sentence has two chunks, which can be split up like this:

My bare feet squelch in the chilly mud – focus is on the narrator’s feet.

… the chilly mud that spreads out before me – focus is on the extent of the mud.

So that one sentence has a dual focus. Now that’s not, as it happens, usually a good thing to do with sentences, but sentences are flexible things and I’m not going to say that sentences can never point two ways at once. They can.

But, but, but.

Do you feel the problem? (And honestly, honestly, I’ll feel a gooey little thrill of pleasure if you do.)

The issue is this.

The sentence purports to convey the experience of the narrator. And the sentence sort of shouts out the kind of lessons learned in plenty of writing workshops.

Look, I’m speaking in the first person! And the present tense! And I’m using a full array of senses (squelch, chilly, spreads out)! I’m showing, not telling! I’m right here in the narrator’s head!

But phooey, says I.

And piffle, says I. 

And balderdash, bunkum, claptrap and poppycock.

The thing is: this sentence reads like something constructed in a writing workshop to sound like it conveys the experience of an alert narrator … without actually conveying a true first-person experience.

So let’s say you, right now, were transported to a chilly North Sea mudflat. Your shoes are torn from you (politely, of course; and you’re given a chit so you can reclaim them when you’re done.) You are then asked to walk out on the mudflat.

I think you experience one thing at a time. I think you bounce between sensations and thoughts. And I think you assemble the whole experience relatively slowly.

Indeed, I think your experience might run something like this:

It’s a strange experience stepping out on the mud. The mud appears as smooth as whalebone and I first assume it to be firm. My first steps give the lie to that. The mud is silky soft and squirts away between my toes, until I reach the hard sand beneath. It’s cold, too, the chill of January seawater. And as we start to walk, the group of us, it seems like the landscape broadens as we move. Spreading wider and wider, as we leave the dunes and beach-huts for the huge, open horizon.

And look: you could write that same passage in a hundred different ways, and they’d all be fine. But I think you do need to isolate one experience at a time. If that experience is a new, strange thing – the purpose of the paragraph, in fact – then I think you need to tease it out. I think it needs two or three lines, not just the one. I think you can only move onto the extent of the sands, once you’ve properly dealt with the feel of the mud. (Or vice versa, of course. I’m not fussed.)

And the real thing here – the Secret of Everything, in fact – is YOU NEED TO KEEP EVERYTHING FROM YOUR CHARACTER’S VIEWPOINT. Every detail. Every shade of every word.

That dual focus sentence didn’t feel like how we authentically experience things like walking barefoot on mud. And the only thing that really matters in that sentence is capturing that exact experience. Not compressing it. Or rushing it. But capturing it and expressing it.

I call that the secret of everything, because the issue is so widespread and infects even pretty good writing. Here’s another tiny snippet from that Ocean of Jewels collection. (This snippet is from Gabster’s Finding Charlotte.) Her opening para begins like this:

One minute the sky was clear, then dark clouds rolled in, casting ominous shadows. Flashes of lightning on the horizon; a sense of anticipation. She tugged her seat belt tighter as the plane plunged into a dense grey mass

Now, again, that extract comes from a page of perfectly decent writing. (It tells of Charlotte’s encounter with a peculiar character on a flight to Cambodia. If I were reading that page, I’d turn onto the next, wanting to know what happened next.)

But the problem here is pretty obvious, right? Charlotte, from her airplane seat, won’t really be able to see clouds roll in. She might see them thicken up as the plane moves, but she won’t really be able to distinguish rolling-cloud movement from travelling-plane movement. Likewise, what are the ominous shadows? They’re cast on the ground presumably, which Charlotte can’t see, because she’s in a plane. She can’t see a horizon, either, not in its normal sense of earth-meets-sky. And then “the plane plunged into a dense grey mass” might be a correct description of what happened … but that viewpoint would require an observer positioned outside the plane, so therefore not Charlotte.

And so on. The result is that we can’t stay close to Charlotte’s own experience because we are constantly being pushed out of it.

I could find probably fifty similar examples from that Ocean of Jewels collection with similar issues.

And the issues, by the way, arise because the writer is trying to do the right thing (get specific, get descriptive, get atmospheric) but in a way that detaches the reader from the character’s own experience. (More on developing characters here.)

And better to have a bland sentence that is authentically from the character’s viewpoint than an interesting one from the wrong viewpoint.

That, my friends, is the secret of everything.

That’s enough from me. If this email runs on any longer, somebody will shoot me.

Till soon

Harry


PPS: Now look, you probably know we’ve got some Lovely London Events on shortly. Tickets are starting to run short, so don’t be a chump. Do what you gotta do:

1.    Come to The Getting Published Day. Don’t fail to get published because you’re doing the basics wrong. We’ll tell you what to do and how to do it. Learn more.

2.    Come to our Self-Publishing Day. I love self-publishing. It’s magnificently powerful, But you must, must, must do it right and ninety-something percent of self-pubbers do it wrong. We’ll tell you what to do.

PPPS: If you are a member of Jericho Writers, you can submit your work to the upcoming Slushpile Live with the Soho Agency. That’s right: you get to pop a chunk of your work in front of a real live literary agent who is actively looking for new clients. We film the whole thing and stream it live so you can listen – and ask questions. Sign up page – for JW members only – is here.

And if you’re not a member of Jericho Writers, then what are you thinking of? Hurry over to this page and put things right at once. We do these Slushpile Live events regularly, but they’re members only, kids.

Harry - I just want to say thank you for the amazing self-publishing course. I watched the full recorded version this time last year, and my five-book post-Brexit YA dystopian series has now found its home on Amazon KDP. I couldn't have done it without Jericho Writers!

I was on holiday last week, and I decided to donate copies of the first three books to the library in the apartment block where I stayed. I snuck my books onto the shelf - and guess what I found on the shelf below?

I feel as if my books are in good company!

Rachel.

Hi Harry

I have a question that I’m hoping you can help with. There are a couple of instances in my novel where I want to use foreign language. I’m not expecting the reader to be fluent enough to understand but still need to get the message across. 

I’ve two small extracts below. 

I dip my head against the slant of rain that cuts the air like translucent needles, slogging headlong to the din of whining ropes. No other reckless souls on deck. It’s just us. 

I reach the railings, close enough for her to feel me. 

‘It’s so damn wild,’ I shout.

Her face is dismissive and set like slate.

‘I guess you don’t mind the weather, huh?’

‘Je suis marié, tu sais.’

I raise my eyebrows and shrug, feigning ignorance. ‘Sorry. Mon français…’

‘I said I’m married.’

 

For me the above works. My protagonist pretends not to understand and so allows her to tell him what she said, so we get the French translation. But I’m finding the next one problematic:

No accent. No beard. No lank blonde ponytail but heavy-gelled short black hair. No glasses either. His eyes are brown not blue. Contacts? Maybe. Right height but he’s lost weight. 

‘Can I help you inside with these?’ I ask.

‘No, no, they’re not heavy, thank you.’

He unloads quickly, stashing them inside the door. I get another thank you and he means to shut me out for good.

‘You have a good day now, Mr. Rathbone.’

‘Yes, you too.’

I start to leave but turn back. ‘Wir sehen uns morgen wieder.’ I say, like a native. See you again tomorrow.

‘Morgen?’

His frown evaporates replaced by a spark of fear, and I smile. 

 

Do I need the ‘See you again tomorrow’ after the German? I feel I need the translation from German to English but does it work this way? 

 Any advice would be gratefully received

Many thanks

Tedda 

 

Blimey.

Somewhere in the world today, there’s a bloke who woke up with a bit of a cough … and later figured out that he (or she) was the person who introduced a new coronavirus to the world. A little thing leading to a big one.

Well, last week, I muttered something about a change of subject: “Blah, blah. Let’s turn to your work. Blah, blah. Hey, why not upload something to Townhouse.”

Yeah. Good idea, Harry. I was expecting a trickle, perhaps even a decent flow. Instead – a deluge. More than 400 of you commented on that Ocean of Jewels post (here), and there are more comments still coming in. And that’s great. Really fantastic.

So.

I’ve picked out five of your pieces and given proper comments. 

Oh yes, and this post is all aboiut editing, right? If you want to read our thoughts on how to edit your book, you will find them here. If you want a proper manuscript assessment from one of our superpowered editors, you can get it here.

Right then.

Five writers. Five pieces. Five sets of comments from me. Here goes:


Evolution's Leap, by Ross Corrigan

Scene:  A failed attempt to track down a gifted individual:

A bitter Swiss morning brought with it an overcast sky and the threat of further flurries. Earlier, snowflakes had tumbled and drifted in the headlights of passing cars, like fluttering white moths of frozen rain, and the accumulation had managed to drape a first winter jacket on the sloping shoulders of the town’s picturesque Alpine buildings. 

Well-heeled and suitably wrapped-up locals hurried by, though not before glancing and shaking their heads in dismay. The town of Zug was used to many things: Maserati drivers, Swiss and foreign directors of businesses domiciled in the local Canton, or state, and well-off tourists attracted to its pretty lakeside old town. What it wasn’t used to was a drive-by shooting of a foreign national—a young Chinese woman—right in front of the exclusive Park Hotel.

Though the clothed body was obscured by the flapping, hastily erected cover, the corpse’s exposed head wasn’t. Disturbed by an ill-timed gust, the dead woman’s eyes stared lifelessly out towards the Metalli Shopping Mall. There was no doubting the cause of death. With the black humour typical of their secretive trade, the agents referred to it as lead poisoning—two shots: one to the chest, one to the centre of the forehead. 

My comments

This is already good, and isn’t that far from really good.

That final paragraph reads pretty much like a class piece of crime fiction. Good description of the corpse. Strong sense of place. Excellent bit of macabre police-humour at the end. (The one niggle in this paragraph has to do with a grammatical issue. The issue is that an adjective / adjectival phrase – “disturbed by an ill-timed gust” – is modifying the wrong thing. What the author wants us to think is that the cover over the corpse has been disturbed by an ill-timed gust. But grammatically, the sentence is saying that the dead woman’s eyes have been disturbed. I’m not normally one to fuss over grammar much, but the niggle in this case does create a tiny problem of comprehension, and those things are always bad.)

But mostly, give or take a copy-editor’s slicing pen, that last para feels like crime fiction wonderfully well done.

The first two paras – well, they’re almost there too. I’ve got one definite niggle there and one probable one.

The definite one is that the first paragraph reverses on itself. So it describes the morning weather, then jumps back into the prior night (“Earlier, snowflakes had …”), then catches up again with well-heeled locals. And all this is by way of preamble to the actual corpse. I don’t mind time-reversals too much in principle, but when you put them into a preamble, it all ends up feeling a bit confusing and congested.

So I’d definitely want to keep my timeline straightforward here: snow in the night, overcast morning, well-heeled locals, corpse. (And notice, by the way, that the author is slowly zooming in on the corpse. Going from large observations to increasingly specific ones, right on until you reach the dead woman’s eyes. That’s nice.)

But I’d probably also want to take a sentence or two out of this. Without the broader context, it’s hard to say, but it felt maybe a little longer than necessary.

Overall though: this feels like a book I’d like to read.


Benjamin Tate Lives Among Us, by “Alan”

The main character is a runner. Here, he is 18. His parents used to drive him to races, he now drives himself.

It was different now that he had learned to drive. For the last few years he’d grown increasingly embarrassed to arrive at the track with his parents in tow. He was taller than his mother and stronger than his father. He’d walk in front or behind them, pretending to be alone, and then remain in the changing rooms a long time after his shower so there were fewer people to see them leave together. Eventually his parents began to withdraw. They no longer cheered loudly from the stands when he led down the straight, they kept their distance before races and waited for him in the car afterwards. 

Then one day his father handed him the keys and stood in the road with his mother watching him drive away. Ben had seen them in the rear-view mirror getting smaller and smaller.

My comments

This is really simple, and really strong. The best line here is the closing one about the parents getting smaller in the rear-view mirror. Because of the set-up in the first para, we know this isn’t just a comment about them receding into the distance. It’s also about them becoming a smaller factor in his racing life, and in his life generally.

Another bit of skill here is the way the piece divides into three. First, some specific comments about the race track: walking in front, staying in the shower. That’s quite specific in focus. Quite close up. 

Then you have the bit that begins ‘His parents began to withdraw’. That withdrawal starts the process of exit. The parents are still at the track but physically distant. They are still in view of the camera, but this is a long shot, not a close up.

And then, with the rear view mirror, the parents come to disappear completely – but the withdrawal (physical and metaphorical) has been going on all through this passage.

No one sentence here reads like great writing, but this has the quiet skill of an Anne Tyler or an Elizabeth Strout. It’s class.


Ascetic of the Sword, by Chimpledus

Fantasy short story about martial arts, mastery and obsession. The main character aspires to achieve 'the Perfect Cut' in his swordsmanship but has severely injured himself in his narrow path to perfection.

We continue in silence as the day brightens and golden rays gleam on the dewy rice stalks. I look at the age spots on the back of the monk’s head, waiting for him to ask a question.

It does not come.

“Venerable Father, I am sick,” I say.

“Indeed? You look hale as a tiger. How are you sick?”

“I…my body is sick. My hand shakes.”

“So does mine.” The monk laughs gently. “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

“I cannot train. I am in pursuit of the Perfect Cut. I have attained it once, by accident, and I am unable to find it again. And now I am afraid I never will.”

“Perhaps you are never meant to.”

I pause. “Why?”

“What is the Perfect Cut to you?”

“The cut where the target is severed with such perfection that everything rings in harmony.”

“Why do you seek it?”

“Why train, if not to reach the epitome of skill?”

My comments

I just like this! It has the feel of poetry. Very spare. Lots of clarity. The dialogue has just enough twistiness in it – an obliqueness to the turns of thought – to keep us interested, but never confused. If I was editing this, I’d just do one thing: I’d kill one of the adjectives in that first sentence. I’d probably take out ‘golden’ – my Perfect Cut.


Untitled, by Liz

This is the beginning of my ghost story set in the late 1950s on the border of England and Wales. The story starts 1st December 1956.

And here I was, after a day of travelling and too many sleepless nights, back at the house where I had arrived as a newborn twenty-six years before. There was a neat symmetry to it, given the circumstances. Even in my exhaustion and misery I could appreciate the irony of a writer straying from her intended path in such a perfectly plotted, circular way. The thought was a useful distraction, if nothing else, as I climbed the last few yards towards the house, half-blinded by the stinging wind. 

The Black Hill was not a kind place on a December afternoon at the best of times, but winter had arrived early and resolute this year, storming down like an invasion from the north and blasting all traces of autumn away overnight. In London, fog had blunted the outlines of buildings and blurred the faces of passers-by, and I had moved from our rooms to the warmth of the library, on the tube, on buses, cushioned from the worst of the weather. Here, everything was sharp and cold. Gorse spiked above the rusty bracken. Hawthorns twisted spare, hoary branches towards the east. The bare mud of the track was frozen into jags. It was hard ground, even in the summer, with a meagre skin of soil over the old sandstone rock. 

My comments

This feels like it wants a quick edit, but I know this part of the world well, and its physical details are beautifully nailed – right down to the hawthorns that have twisted, east-pointing branches. (The prevailing wind is from the west, and the mountain trees are all lop-sided.) Rather than make specific comments, though, I thought I’d just show you how I’d edit this piece, if it were mine. It’s already good though. What follows is just a wash-and-brush-up.:

And here I was, after a day of travelling and too many sleepless nights, back at the house where I had arrived as a newborn twenty-six years before. There was a neat symmetry to it, given the circumstances. Even in my exhaustion, I could appreciate the irony of a writer straying from her intended path in such a perfectly plotted, circular way. The thought was a useful distraction, if nothing else.

I climbed the last few yards towards the house. The Black Hill was not a kind place on a December afternoon at the best of times, but winter had arrived early and resolute this year, with a wind to tear away the last traces of autumn. My eyes streamed in the blast. 

In London, fog had blunted the outlines of buildings and blurred the faces of passers-by, and I had moved from our rooms to the warmth of the library, on the tube, on buses, cushioned from the worst of the weather. Here, everything was sharp and cold. Gorse spiked above the rusty bracken. Hawthorns twisted spare, hoary branches towards the east. The bare mud of the track was frozen into jags. It was hard ground, even in the summer, a meagre skin of soil over sandstone. 


Wishing on a Dream, by Patricia Thomson

No intro – just “something I’ve been messing with for a while”.

But we’re here in the States, playing some dates to make up for ones we had to cancel when visas got screwed up.  Tonight was our first show in Hartford, Connecticut, and now we’re on our way to Sayreville, New Jersey.  My hometown is about forty minutes south of there. We’ve played around New Jersey but never in it so this is being looked at as a homecoming show for me.  I look out the bus window into the streetlight-lit darkness, knowing familiar sights are out there and wanting to see them, to be in territory I know for a change.

Then I see it, and just like when I was a kid I perk up.

The red and white and gold revolving neon sign above the Anheuser Busch bottling plant in Newark glows against the orange-tinged night sky.  Seeing the stylized A with a bald eagle in flight behind it meant that we were exactly halfway between our house in Oceanville and Aunt Marie’s house in North Arlington.  Not that there’s no reason to go to either anymore.  Aunt Marie retired to Florida two years ago and I have better things to do than listen to my father go on about September eleventh being fake and why I’m running around Europe with a bunch of hippies.  

“Where I’m from, not where I live,” I say into the night.

And no matter where I go, I never feel welcome.

My comments

Really easy, simple, terrific writing. The scatter of placenames already anchor the narrative in place. The Anheuser Busch bottling plant seems like a brilliant marker of location too.  That fine sense of place is matched by a nice sense of something like nostalgia – but more complex, because of the protagonist’s cautious self-distancing.

That complex relationship to the past is threaded all the way through this snippet. (hometown … homecoming show … familiar sights … wanting to see them … no reason to go to either … better things to do than listen to my father.) That collection of thoughts and feelings prepares the ground for the character’s own two-sentence, two-para summary at the end. And even the summary feels unsettled: she’s not settled in the past, she’s got no new place to settle now.

This is really strong stuff. My one real niggle? I think that compound word “streetlight-lit” should be run over by a steamroller and then pounded into dust. And then put on a rocket and fired at the sun.

But this book has class written all over it. If I were an agent, I’d be salivating.


That’s it from me. I’ll go back to these themes again next week. There’s a lot of meat here. I’ll also do my best to make these comment-athons a bit more regular. They’re clearly really working.

I’ll shut up now. I am going to build a rocket, destination Sun. If you want to read more of these pieces, or to upload your own, then the Monster Upload thread is right here: https://community.jerichowriters.com/page/view-post?id=73 

Till soon

Harry


PS: Oh heck. You don’t want a monster massive set of PSes. So I’m going to recycle this one from last week:

1.    Come to The Getting Published Day. Don’t fail to get published because you’re doing the basics wrong. We’ll tell you what to do and how to do it. Learn more.

2.    Come to our Self-Publishing Day. I love self-publishing. I think the modern Amazon- and ebook-led self-pub model has done more for authors than anything at all since the rise of literary agents. But if you self-publish, you have to do it right. We’ll tell you how.

Hi

Been following since reading Harry's excellent How to Write but new to Jerico Writers. I hope this is the right place to post my 250 words. 

Took Harry's advice and created a website with a free book to start a readers list. My excerpt is from the free book; 'An Assassin's Tale - Tuba'. It examines the transformation of an abused orphan to idealistic soldier and eventually, lethal assassin.

'Tuba' is a central character in my trilogy, 'Ned's Head - The Boy With The Unforgettable Memory'. One of fifty lethal agents, each named after a classical instrument, operated by a psychopathic banker code-named 'Conductor'.

*

He walked to the window with four foot-slaps on the bare linoleum and wiped frozen leaves of condensed breath off the single pane. The blurred red bricks of his neighbour shivered back at him. He dragged his clothes on and sat on the edge of the hollowed-out, single bed that had tortured him every night since leaving the orphanage. It squeaked its usual protest.
A cheap, plain table and doorless wardrobe – the only other furniture in his room – both stood within easy reach. Everything was brown. Floor, furniture and threadbare curtain. Even the ceiling was stained the dull, sticky caramel unique to nicotine. He examined the papers lying on the mug-ringed table and glanced once around the room.
“No contest,” he decided.
He grabbed his denim jacket – turning sideways to the window to put it on without hitting the wardrobe. Opening his wallet, he flicked a thumb across his entire life's worth. Two hundred and forty five dollars and change. It fitted perfectly under the button-down flap of his breast pocket. He took a black woollen beanie from the top of the wardrobe, beating it twice against his thigh and making a face at the dust. Lastly, he took the white sheets of paper off the table – his birth certificate, school report and diploma – sneering at the revulsion they still provoked every time he looked at them. He would never forget the look of triumph on Father Dooley's face as he tossed them on his desk – while the memory of Peder Swanbeck burned on the grate behind him. He rolled them together and slipped them into an inside pocket. Stepping out into the crisp air, he decided to walk the couple of miles to Tremont, and headed north with a light step and a head full of dreams.

*

Thanks

Seán.

OK. Next week, we’re going to change the subject completely. In fact, next week, it’s once again time to inspect your finest jewels. So, please, if you have a chunk of work – max 250 words – that you’d like me and the assembled company to look at and admire, please present it. We’ll do that via Townhouse, so everyone can see your chunk:

Upload your work this Townhouse post
 just add a comment at the bottom.

You won’t be able to upload your work if you’re not signed up, but sign up is free and easy, so don’t let that stop you. If you’re not yet on Townhouse, you can just sign up here.

Right.

That’s next week taken care of. First, though, a think I need to draw this little triumvirate of short and grumpy posts to an end.

On the one hand, it’s been really good to share some annoyance with the crapper end of agenting and publishing. I know from your responses that those annoyances are more frequent than they ought to be. More persistent.

But at the same time, I can’t help feeling that it would be wrong to leave it there. Publishing is an industry driven by passion above all, so it’s extremely common to find agents and publishers go above and beyond to bring work to market.

I’ll give just two examples, but I could give a hundred.

The first one is personal. I have a pretty fancy agent. He heads up London’s oldest independent literary agency. He has some pretty fancy clients, notably Hilary Mantel and George Orwell (or what’s left of him.) And I once came to him with a book project.

I wanted to sell a “how to write” book to Bloomsbury, because I thought it would help get the word out about the Writers’ Workshop (the forerunner to Jericho Writers.) The project was never going to be especially commercial from my agent’s point of view. It was, in fact, going to be largely unrewarded.

But Bill, my agent, didn’t so much as blink. His job is to sell books for his clients. He wasn’t about to push me to pursue something more lucrative. So I wrote the book. He sold it. His cut of that advance: £400. Once you make allowance for his support staff and his Central London offices, I would guess that Bill saw 25% of that, or maybe less.

And the contract that this particular bit of Bloomsbury came back with was – shocking. It was just a bit of Bloomsbury that had never really encountered Planet Agent and still used the kind of contracts that Dickens would have recognised. The balance of risks and rewards was grossly biased in favour of the publisher.

And Bill said no.

Just no. He wouldn’t have one of his clients sign the contract. So he renegotiated it, line by line, for weeks. When it was ready, he told me I could sign it. I did so, and he got his (tiny) share of the (very small) advance.

Now, over time, both Bill and I made more money via royalties, but still not vast amounts. And I grumbled to Bill that Bloomsbury weren’t supporting the book in the way that I’d expected. Bill looked into my grumbles and agreed that they were valid.

So he took my mini-battle – over a small book and a tiny advance – all the way to board level at Bloomsbury. He was willing to put some of his key relationships on the line because one of his clients wasn’t happy. It didn’t matter that the book was a small one. It mattered that the publisher wasn’t properly keeping its end of the bargain.

We didn’t, in fact, end up resolving the situation completely to our satisfaction. But by heaven, Bill tried.

For an advance that would have bought a fancy lunch and nothing else.

He didn’t do any of what he did for the money. He did it because I was a client and he had a duty towards me.

He, like many many agents, acts out of a belief in the book (and the author) and a sense of honour.

That sense of honour is still very frequent across publishing. (More on how to get an agent here. Oh yes, and our header image this week is designed to evoke a sense of honour and pride. That's my excuse for a totally random image, at any rate.)

One more little story.

Last year, at our Festival of Writing, we welcomed Anne Meadows, the Editorial Director at Granta Books.

Granta is a very fancy literary publisher. It’s the kind of outfit you’d be proud to be published by, stuffed full of prize winners and other esteemed authors.

But prizes and esteem doesn’t necessarily translate into book sales. And Granta still has to be commercially sensible. So it doesn’t often offer huge advances. Which means that literary agents are unlikely to keep themselves in Marc Jacobs and Laboutins by bringing their authors to Granta’s doors.

But agents don’t care.

They come anyway, bringing their authors. And Granta and agents and authors all work hard to achieve the best results they can, even though (in most cases, not all) financial reward will not be the thing that drives them.

And what does?

Well, simply bringing wonderful stories, wonderfully told, to the kind of readers that appreciate those things. That’s it. That’s the reason.

Take away that sense of passion and the authors wouldn’t write, the agents wouldn’t agent, and Granta wouldn’t exist.

In short, yes, there’s plenty to be grumpy at in the world of publishing. And because we at Jericho are, always, on the side of authors, we will go on venting our grumps rather frequently.

But at the same time, we’re not idiots. This industry loves writers. And you’re writers. So it loves you too. Really truly. Big love and squashy kisses.

That’s it from me on all matters short and grumpy.

Don’t forget to upload a sample of your favourite work here.

We’ll tuck into that lot next week.

If you want to talk about short-and-grumpy things, then just pile into the comments below.

Folks, next week - on 14 Feb - I want to take a look at some of YOUR work. I'll pick out my tipple-top favourites for praise and commentary, but I'll get to as much as I can in the comments as well.

To participate, please:

  1. FInd a chunk of work that especially pleases you
  2. Upload a maximum of 250 words via the comments below this post
  3. Give us a book title and a sentence or so to understand the characters / scene you're writing about.
  4. And also, please, feel free to comment (truthfully but constructively) on any work uploaded by others.

You've got all week to do this.

On 14 Feb, I'll fish through the work you've uploaded and pick out a few bits for my email that afternoon. I'll also add comments, where I can, to the thread below.

That's it from me. Any questions? No. So hop to it. Your finest work please. I look forward to seeing it.

If ever I feel alone or friendless, or fear that these emails are falling into the Great Void of Unknowing, all I have to do is to write a grumpy email about agents and/or publishers. The torrent – the surge, the tsunami, the deluge – of responses tells me that you are out there, and listening, and care as much as I do.

That surge of responses deserves a direct reply.

Before I get to that, though, I do need to ask for your help, please. We’re trying to figure out what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and what you’d like from us. We ask you about courses, membership, events and more. The survey runs to just ten questions. Your responses will shape what we do next.

Please take the survey here.

Thank you. And now for some short-and-grumpy thoughts about all things Agent and Publisher.


First:-

A lot of you – and I mean a lot – wrote to me with stories broadly similar to those I mentioned last week. Probably the commonest tale was the one which, simplified, runs: “A literary agent took on my manuscript with a lot of gushing excitement, but then, as time passed, stopped communicating with me at all.”

And I repeat: that’s not OK. Yes, they’re busy. Yes, until you have formally signed with an agent, you aren’t technically their client. You don’t have an actual contractual claim on their time.

But –

I don’t accept that as an excuse. I once had a shouting row with an official of the Association of Authors Agents. He claimed that agents owed nothing to non-clients, because they weren’t clients. I argued – and still do – that no honourable agent can treat the community of writers with disdain.

I still think that’s obviously true.

And don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with agents rejecting work. I don’t have a problem with them doing so with the blandest and least helpful of form-emails. But if an agent engages in a personal way with your work – perhaps they ask for a full manuscript, or they meet you at a Festival and tell you how great they think your work is, or they ask for editorial changes, or anything of that sort – then they owe you a timely, personal and considered response.

If that response is a “no, sorry, changed my mind” – well, OK. That’s not what you want, but if it’s honest, clear and timely, you can’t really complain. Just seize your manuscript and make it better.

Too many agents, too often, fail to give that personal, timely response, and it’s not OK. (Our advice on getting agents here.)


Second:-

One or two people who have had bad experiences wrote to tell me that they have basically given up. They’ll write for themselves, but will no longer seek publication.

People need to make their own decisions, of course, but I do think that’s a pity.

The fact is, that for all its problems, Planet Agent is genuinely open to new and unknown writers. If the story you write is blisteringly attractive, it will be picked up. It will secure an agent. It will secure a book deal. From the perspective of the individual writer, these things may feel like a matter of black chance and blind luck, but they’re really not.

At Jericho Writers, we see a lot of manuscripts and a lot of authors. When we see something that really dazzles, we basically know it will find an agent and a deal. Equally, some of the manuscripts we come across aren’t yet publication-ready. That doesn’t mean the author is an idiot. It just means they have more work to do. Those manuscripts, we know, are not yet ready to sell.

And then, yes, there is an intermediate category of good-but-not-yet-dazzling. Those books are sometimes picked up. Sometimes not. In those cases, it is more of a dice roll.

But the smart advice remains the same as it always has. Find a genius concept. Develop your craft. Tell your story well. Write better.

Most of what we do at Jericho Writers is to help you do those things. Do them well enough and the whole getting published bit is reasonably easy.


Third:-

Avoid, avoid, avoid the vanity presses.

Because it’s hard getting a literary agent, people are tempted into the vanity snake pit. As it happens, I think there’s a whole email’s worth of comments to make about those snakes, so I won’t say much now.

Simply this: if a publisher asks you for money – via ‘partnership contract’, ‘hybrid publishing’, or whatever other term they prefer – they aren’t a publisher at all.

Publishers make their money from selling books to readers.

Vanity publishers make their money from selling dreams to writers.

Please keep your money in your wallet and say no to the snakes. Vanity publishing, I do not love thee.


Fourth:-

Self-publishing is an utterly viable route to publication and readers. It’s not second best. It’s just different.

The only real caution here is that you have to commit. You can’t just toss a book out onto Amazon and hope that it flies. It won’t. You must view your writing as a business and your publishing as a career. Your first book won’t make money so don’t expect it to. If you do well, though, then by the time of your third or fourth book, you’ll be seeing results that make you think, Yes, this writing lark might actually pay me. I am finding readers. I have a community of fans. I’m an author, and proud of it.


Fifth:-

Protect yourself.

Even if you go trad, even if you have a wonderful agent, even if you have a terrific publisher, protect yourself.

The single best way you can do that is to write steadily and build a mailing list. That list will, if properly managed, guarantee your access to readers and income for years and years to come. Don’t neglect it, just because your publisher looks shiny and the excitement is palpable. That mailing list is your rock. You may one day need it.


Sixth – and last:-

Don’t forget why you write.

You never came into this game because you wanted this agent or that book deal. You came into this game because a story forced its way into your head and wouldn’t let you goi.

The joys and challenges of that story are real no matter what. So are the rewards. We writers are lucky. We carry joy in our heads.

 

That’s it from me. I promised you I’d be Mr Sunshine this week and – in a slightly undependable, British January way – I’ve delivered on that, at least approximately.

(Oh yes, and the granular, golden header image to this post is a photograph of the surface of the sun. Each one of those little granules is about the size of France. My six-year-old sun is currently planning to walk on the solar surface. I said, "Don't you think you might get too hot?" He looked at me with the joy of a six-year-old outsmarting his father and said, "Nooo. I'm going to wear a special suit." One-nil to him, I reckon.)

And again: over to you. What are your experiences? Your worries? Your hopes? Your beliefs? Are you bitter, hopeful, cautious, or just happily nuts? Tell me what you think below and let's have a Solar Heated Debate.

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