harrybingham

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

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Our family has a tradition in which my wife and I bury some ‘treasure’ and some time after Christmas the children find it.

A couple of times, we’ve led them to the treasure via maps and clues, but last year, accidentally, the kids found the treasure before we’d done the whole map ‘n’ clue thing, and their excitement was wildly greater than it had been in earlier years.

So this year, we aimed to follow that same basic template. The kids had already searched our garden and found nothing. They didn’t grumble exactly, but their disappointment was there.

Then, yesterday, Nuala and I led them up the road for a walk. It wasn’t a treasure-hunt, just a chance to walk in some rare January sunshine.

On the way out – nothing.

The light started to fade. We began to return home. As we did so, one of us saw a single gold (chocolate) coin shining from the mud on the verge.

Had that coin been there before? The kids weren’t sure, but no, it hadn’t been, I placed it there while they were running ahead.

They started to inspect the site more carefully and saw a second coin gleaming from a nearby tree.

We adults did the adult thing: warning that someone had probably just dropped a coin, it probably wasn’t really chocolate, none of these things really meant anything – but then one of the girls found a spade leaning up against a tree, a sure sign that there was digging to be done.

With a little bit of guidance, they found the right spot – a place where the ground ivy could be simply brushed aside and some clean, bare soil exposed. The kids were, by this point, almost leaping with excitement, except that the tremble of the impending discovery kept them almost hypnotically glued to the spot.

Then they started digging, made a mess of things, and asked me to help. I plunged the spade into the earth and we all heard the soft thud of a spade hitting up against a hard object in the soft earth.

Tabby, the older girl, then scraped away enough soil to expose an old metal box with yellow markings. At this point, the kids were literally jumping and screaming. Tabby had to hand me the spade, so she could jump and scream too.

We levered the box (an old army ammo tin, bought from eBay) out of the ground, brushed it off, opened it – and found a mass of gold coins, more than 100 of them.

And in all of that, it occurred to me that the whole adventure was a kind of story-making. The very faint grumbling discontent that this year, no treasure had materialised. An evening walk in end-of-day sunshine. A quiet, domestic ordinariness on the journey out – nothing to rouse suspicion. Then, on the way back, a tiny sign of something unusual. A sign repeated by that second gold coin in the tree. A sign affirmed, emphatically, by the presence of a spade. Then a frenzy of action – characters responding to their story situation – and the genuinely thrilling moment when spade thumped box,

For almost all of us, and perhaps for literally all of us, the appetite for story begins in childhood. My kids are aged 6 and 8, which is about the peak for make-believe play of all sorts. The world just shapes itself into story at least as easily as it shapes itself into an adult-style, empirical conversation about reality.

And it occurred to me that, if we’re writing for kids, it’s blooming obvious that we need to write those finding-treasure type scenes. We need to generate the sense of wonder, of discovery, of the quotidian breaking into the magical.

But isn’t that also, and equally, the case when we write for adults? If you’re a crime novelist, doesn’t the discovery of a corpse offer something like the same kind of thrill? Even in properly hi-falutin’ literary fiction, isn’t there a demand for something like that moment? The moment when, in Atonement for example, a lewd letter is misdelivered, when ordinary consensual sex is mistaken for something darker.

I won’t say that every published book out there has those moments, or even that every successful book does. But they nearly all do and they probably all should.

I think alive in all of us, as readers or writers, is the desire to re-stage and re-encounter those moments of magic. Unlike the kids, we know it’s fake, but we don’t care, we just want that feeling repeated.

And, for us as writers, I think that means we have to be honest about discarding some of our adulthood when we write. Of course, to get by in our complicated modern world, we need to reason, and study evidence, and build a picture of reality as it is. But as writers, we just have to drop some of those attitudes, or loosen them.

We need to allow ourselves the moment of watching a spade plunge into earth believing, that yes, really, there’ll be treasure beneath.

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Who owns your book? That sounds like a nice, simple question, so here are four answers to choose from. 

Who owns your book – the trad answer

The essence of a publishing contract is simple. You sell your book in exchange for (a) an advance and (b) sales-based royalties. But the first four words of that sentence are the really significant ones, the ones that count more than anything else in the contract. You sell your book.

The publisher, not you, will determine the cover, blurb, marketing plans and sales strategy. They will probably make a polite effort to keep you in the loop and not unhappy, but that’s about it. All the final decisions will be made by someone other than you. You can yell, cajole, persuade and reason – but the decisions lie elsewhere.

Furthermore, suppose that, as is increasingly common, you sell World rights or World English rights. (For example, let’s say you are a British author selling World rights to a British publisher. That publisher would publish the book in the UK, but then sell the rights to other territories to publishers operating in those territories. “World English” means the same thing, but in relation only to sales in the English language, so that translation rights are excluded.)

Once you’ve sold World rights, those rights are there for your publisher to exploit, not you. You will not get consulted about sales strategy. You won’t learn much about what is or isn’t happening with your book. Yes, deals will be presented to you for your approval, but only in a “take it, or leave it” way. There’s no meaningful choice on offer.

In short, once you sell a book to a trad publisher, it is not your book. Don’t be unhappy about that – it’s the culmination of everything that you wanted – but don’t be under any illusions as to what is happening.

 Who owns your book – the indie answer

If you’re an indie author, of course, the answer is stunningly different – and utterly simple: You own the book.

No ifs, not buts.

You can change the cover at any time. You can (and will) change pricing whenever you want. You can change your distributors. You can move in and out of different formats as you please.

It’s your book.

 Who owns your book – the book’s answer

The first two answers talk about your book as a product and in terms of commercial exploitation. And, OK, that’s important, but it doesn’t really get to any interesting artistic truth.

But think about this.

Let’s say you embark on your manuscript with a particular set of goals. Perhaps you want to write a modern country-house style murder mystery. You want to imitate the crystal elegance of an Agatha Christie plot, but brought into the modern day.

Fine. You need an investigator, of course, so perhaps you choose a former Paratrooper with combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. That combat experience has shattered him in some ways, but has also left him with something like higher sight in matters of murder and human conflict. He’s an excellent choice of detective. Terrific.

Now you, the author, have really only one task, which is to write the best book that you can.

Your choice of hero brings a challenge: do you honour the emotional complexity of his character? Or do you attempt to properly imitate those great Agatha Christie novels that elevate the puzzle way over any real psychological depth for the detective?

It’s a no-brainer.

When your manuscript comes into conflict with your original goals, you need to change those goals. The manuscript has to win every time. Yes, you are authoring your manuscript, but you are also constantly listening to it. What does it want? What does it need from you?

In this sense, your manuscript isn’t owned by anyone at all. It owns itself. It knows its mind. Your only task is to bend low and listen closely. Then do what you’re told.

Most relationships wouldn’t work well like that, but the author-manuscript relationship really thrives. Not only does the manuscript get better that way, but you have more joy in the writing. More belief.

 Who owns your book – an answer for January

But it’s January, the season of winter damps and New Year’s resolutions.

Sp the hell with publishers. The hell with self-publishing. And (whisper it softly) the hell with what your manuscript wants.

This is your year. It’s your book. Don’t be bossed around by what publishers want, or might want. Don’t be bossed around by what the Amazon algorithms are said to want. Don’t be bossed around by these damn emails or by any advice from the wise heads of Jericho.

Write.

You’ve got nothing to work with until you have words on a page. That first draft is just hauling a block of stone into your studio. The editing is where you start to carve it.

Jane Smiley says, “Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It's perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.”

So let it exist. Make it exist. Your task for the year.

Attaboy. Attagirl.

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I know an author – she works for Jericho Writers – who always wanted a two-book deal with a commercially ambitious Big 5 publisher. So she wrote a book and got an agent and the two of them got themselves in front of an outstanding imprint at a Big 5 publisher. The publisher said yes, please, they wanted the book.

I know an author – me – who had a perfectly successful career as a trad and self-pub author. Now admittedly life got a bit over-complex (kids, a business, disability in the family), but he’s still writing. The logical book would be #7 in the successful Fiona Griffiths series. It’s already mostly written.

I know a highly successful self-pub author – Debbie Young, who runs our brand-new self-publishing course – who has a very popular crime series. That series was badly in need of a next instalment and she felt perfectly able to write it.

But, but, but …

Last year was pretty damn grim. It was all about lockdown and anxiety and rampaging sickness statistics.

This year’s hardly been merry either. More lockdowns and more conflict over lockdowns. Some brilliant vaccine news (yay!) but also a succession of new variants. Here in the UK, the news cycle is, once again, crammed with a particularly grey shade of pre-Christmas gloom.

Which is why I ask: what do you want? What do you really, really want?

My colleague, the one with the two-book offer from the fancy publisher, said no.

The publisher in question wanted to dumb down her book, to strip it of personality. It was clear they wanted someone to deliver a commodity product which they would package up and sell as a commodity online. So she said no. Instead, she’s signed up with a smaller (but very able and ambitious) indie publisher instead, because they wanted the book she had actually written just as she had always envisaged it.

It’s a better solution for her.

And me? Well, that #7 Fiona Griffiths book just feels too large and complicated for where my life has been this year. So I’ve almost completed a literary book so barmy I don’t even quite know how to tell you about it. (Hmm: “It’s a literary novelty book about story-making, polar adventure and cannibalism.” Something like that.) I can’t tell you if the book will ever be published or not, but I can tell you that I’ve loved every minute I’ve had while writing it.

And Debbie? She confessed the following:

In the last few months, more and more indie authors have been telling me they are weary of the pay-to-play rollercoaster of certain publishing platforms. I know quite a few who are recalibrating to focus on quality rather than quantity. Particularly after the battering our mental well-being has taken from the Covid pandemic, stepping back from marketing pressures, while maintaining an effective author platform (website, social media, etc), can feel like a much-needed healing process.

… As to myself, I made a conscious decision this summer that whenever I start a new project, I’ll write whatever is in my heart, rather than necessarily what makes the most commercial sense. I took time out to write a standalone novella when I was overdue to write the third in a series of mystery novels. But I’m really glad I did it, and I will continue to take this approach for the foreseeable future. It feels controversial or even heretical as a successful indie author to be saying this, but I have a feeling that a significant number of authors out there when they read this will be thinking, “Oh please, yes, let me just write for a while! In 2022, I just want to write!”

I think it’s great to be commercial about what you write. Books are better for having readers. It’s hard enough getting published, let alone making any money. Manuscripts that start out without any feel for the market normally end up essentially unread.

But there’s a balance to be struck. Not one of us thought, “Gosh, I’d really like to be stupidly rich, so I’ll just write some books.” On the contrary, the passion came first. Thoughts about publication came second. Thoughts about making money from publication came a snail-like third.

So here’s the question: are you getting joy from your writing? Do you love the project you are currently working on?

And I don’t mean “love” as in “right now this minute”. Even with projects of passion there are dark passages that just need to be muscled through. I mean love, more like marital love: with its ups and downs, but still most definitely love.

Do you love your writing? I hope you do.

Have a very merry Christmas. I shan’t email next week or the week after. Normal service will resume in January.

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Last week we pondered the awkward prose and strange success of Dean Koontz. Today – rather stupidly – I’m going to do the opposite.

Our theme this week is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. The book deals with the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. (The two names, Hamnet and Hamlet were used more or less interchangeably in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare wrote the play a few years after the death of his son.)

The book is obviously Great Literature. My copy is jam-packed with superlative reviews and the book won both the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK and the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction in the US.

So: serious critical heft, plus it talks about Shakespeare, so what’s not to love?

Well, when we were looking at Dean Koontz last week, we thought that some of his writing habits are there to reassure his readers that they’re going to get what they came for.

Koontz’s readers don’t want fancy writing, so Koontz is quick to reassure them: buddy, you’re not going to get any. On the other hand, they do want big, clear, comic-book style characters, and Koontz makes sure he places one prominently on page one.

I suggested that that Koontz’s approach to prose was like a box of cheaper chocolates, where the point of the packaging was to reassure shoppers, “This is not too fancy. If you feel worried by fancy, expensive chocolates, we promise that you won’t find any of that stuff inside.”

But how about the opposite? If you’re buying fancy chocolates, you want the packaging to match. Elegant fonts, dark colours, plenty of layers of foil and fluffy packaging and fancy tissue. The packaging says, “You want fancy? We’re going to give you fancy. Worried that these chocolates won’t pass muster at your posh dinner party? Don’t worry. We’ve got six layers of fancy tissue and each chocolate comes in its own mini-wrapping, so your guests are just going to KNOW that you’ve spent real money on this box.”

OK. Hold that thought.

Here are some bits from Hamnet:

Quote 1

You might find the [edge of the forest] a restless, verdant, inconstant sight: the wind caresses, ruffles, disturbs the mass of leaves; each tree answers to the weather’s ministrations at a slightly different tempo from its neighbour, bending and shuddering and tossing its branches as if trying to get away from the air, from the very soil that nourishes it.

Quote 2

The words fly out of her mouth, like hornets, words she didn’t even know she knew, words that dart and crackle and maim, words that twist and mangle her tongue.

Quote 3

He gives a nod and a shrug, all at the same time, eyeing the broad back of his father, who looms behind his mother, still facing the street. He is, despite himself, despite the fact that he is clutching the hand of the woman he has vowed to marry, despite everything working out which way he will have to duck to avoid the inevitable fist, to feint, to parry, and to shield Agnes from the blows he knows will come.

Two things before we go on.

One, please look at those quotes and see what you think of them. Forget that you are reading a hugely successful work of literary fiction. What do you think of the quotes on the page?

Two, I’m going to have some challenging things to say about those snippets of writing, but I’m not so daft as to think that Maggie O’Farrell can’t write. There’s plenty of excellent writing in the book – just, I’m not sure she nails it every time.

Right-o. So let’s dig in.

Quote 1, comments

You might find the [edge of the forest] a restless, verdant, inconstant sight: the wind caresses, ruffles, disturbs the mass of leaves; each tree answers to the weather’s ministrations at a slightly different tempo from its neighbour, bending and shuddering and tossing its branches as if trying to get away from the air, from the very soil that nourishes it.

If I were being mean about this snippet (and I am), I think I’d point out the following:

  1. Verdant means covered with thick green foliage and it’s a word almost never used in ordinary speech. It’s what you might expect from a Victorian poetess. Any more recent usage tends to feel like it’s straining a bit too hard.
  2. Restless and inconstant mean much the same thing. Certainly, it’s not clear that both are needed here. What is the additional word supposed to add?
  3. On the topic of pointless repetition, caresses, ruffles and disturbs seems like repetition for the sake of it. 
  4. When O’Farrell writes the mass of leaves, she could just as well have written the leaves. The word mass adds a kind of pretension without any useful addition to meaning.
  5. The weather’s ministrations: the use of the word weather here seems like an awkward way of repeating the word wind. But she doesn’t really mean weather; she definitely means wind. So the sentence needed a bit of a rethink… 
  6. And the word ministrations is rather like verdant: do you ever actually use the word if you’re not straining to sound posh? I’d suggest mostly not.
  7. On the matter of a slightly different tempo from its neighbour – I actually liked this. Different trees do move in different ways, as do their leaves. So a poplar alternates rapidly between showing a darker upper leaf, and a more silvery underside. A beech behaves differently. An oak differently again. If O’Farrell had offered us some detail of observation along those lines, we might actually see something new in nature – taking stock of something we’d seen but never before noticed. As it is, the comment is blandly general and getting close to a statement of the obvious.
  8. When we get to bending and shuddering and tossing its branches, then once again I think we mostly have repetition for the sake of it. I’m not even sure that trees do shudder. That implies a rapid repetitive movement which is not really how trees behave.
  9. And trees moving in the wind suggests that they’re trying to escape from the air and the soil? Really? I mean, I love a tasty metaphor, but for me this just seems like a fail. A big, bold image that in the end just feels unconvincing.

Quotes 2 and 3, comments

I’m not going to comment on these passages at length, except that now we’ve noticed O’Farrell’s habit of repetition, it’s hard to un-notice it – and it doesn’t feel better on further acquaintance.

But do just take a note of this: ‘The words fly out of her mouth, like hornets’. These words are clearly not very like hornets, since they dart and crackle and maim none of which are things that hornets do. These words also twist and mangle the woman’s tongue and you’d have to be a very muscular (and peculiar) hornet to do that. The thing that hornets are best known for doing is stinging people, and there’s no mention of sting here. So: these words aren’t really like hornets at all, are they?

Presumably, O’Farrell knows that, so why does she write it?

Well, I think two things. First, there’s the literary attraction to the big, bold metaphor, and the attraction remains, even when the metaphor isn’t sound. And secondly, if you want to cut a dash with book critics, then some great tips are:

  1. Write about Shakespeare or adapt a story of Shakespeare’s (Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres) , or adapt another classic tale (Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles), or  …
  2. Make sure that, every now and then, you talk about words themselves, or sentences, or parts of speech, or vowels, etc. That way, you’re showing proper deference to the tools of the literary trade
  3. Use fashionable phrases where you can. ‘Freighted with a cargo of X’ for example is an excellent way to say “possesses X” for pretty much every possible instance of X.
  4. Use some fancy words (verdant, not green)
  5. Toss in plenty of verbs, in lists.
  6. Use semi-colons freely – or avoid them completely. Doesn’t matter which: you just need a clearly visible policy.
  7. And so on! This list is definitely not exhaustive.

The opposite of Mr Koontz

The truth is you can write a terrific novel and still fall prey to some of the weaknesses of Literary Writing – no novel is perfect, after all.

But as with Mr Koontz, I think part of it has to do with wrapping and how you appeal to your target market. In the end, it’s the chocolate itself that matters. But clever packaging is a smart way to market yourself to your target audience.

It’s not just Dean Koontz that does that, it’s prize-winning Maggie O’Farrell too. And hell, it’s not just those two: it’s all of us. Nowt wrong with that. But we still need to make sure that the writing passes muster. The writing has to come first.

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I have a question to ask you in a moment, and to answer it you will need to consider this passage:

The triple-pane floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollister’s study frame the rising plain to the west, the foothills and the distant Rocky Mountains that were long ago born from the earth in cataclysm, now dark and majestic against a sullen sky. It is a view to match the man who stands at this wall of glass. The word cataclysm is a synonym for disaster or upheaval but also for revolution, and he is the leader of the greatest revolution in history. The greatest and the last. The end of history is near, after which his vision of a pacified world will endure forever.

The question: What do you make of this passage? And let’s get specific. To start with, what do you make of the very first sentence?

***

A little pause for thought.

***

I hope you agree that the sentence is bad. If the sentence just ran like this:

The triple-pane floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollister’s study frame the rising plain to the west.

you could just about digest it. Even in that much abbreviated form (14 words versus 39) you’re being asked to compose these elements:

  • The windows are triple-paned
  • They run floor-to ceiling
  • They are in the study belonging to someone called Hollister
  • A rising plain is visible through the windows.
  • The plain runs west from the windows.

That’s perhaps not quite too much to assemble in general (though I can’t see myself writing the sentence under any circumstances), but this is the opening sentence of a book. The reader therefore comes to the sentence with no knowledge of where they are, or with whom, or under what circumstances. That means there’s no frame of expectations to work with, so writers generally need to feed the reader with nibbles that can build into whole mouthfuls once the reader is better oriented.

The full version of the sentence, however, adds in these additional elements:

  • There are foothills
  • And the Rocky Mountains
  • The Rocky Mountains were born long ago, and in cataclysm
  • These mountains are now looking dark and majestic
  • The sky is sullen

This is quite clearly an awful lot of ingredients, particularly in an opening sentence. Worse still, the sentence shifts focus. The first part of it is clearly talking about windows. The last part is talking about mountains. What are we meant to be focusing on? It’s just not clear. (Or, as it happens, even correct. The Rocky Mountains weren’t born in cataclysm. They formed when two tectonic plates ran gently together, thereby pushing the earth upwards. That process ran for about 30 million years and is extremely slow, not even one millimetre a year. You don’t think of the Himalayas as a zone of cataclysm, but the exact same process is in operation there right now and happening much faster.)

Oh yes, and if we were being mean, I think we’d suggest that the adjectives (dark, majestic, sullen) are all rather shopworn in their obviousness.

OK. So we don’t like the first sentence. The second sentence feels a bit better:

It is a view to match the man who stands at this wall of glass.

I never really like starting a sentence with the empty “It is” or “There is”. It’s better generally to bring a proper subject to the front, so for example:

The view matches the man who stands at this wall of glass.

So, boof, an easy improvement, but not a huge one. Let’s have a think about sentence three:

The word cataclysm is a synonym for disaster or upheaval but also for revolution, and he is the leader of the greatest revolution in history.

This is a remarkable sentence, no? Sentence one dealt with windows and (awkwardly) mountains. Sentence two homed in on the figure of a man, who clearly needs to be the centre of attention here. Then sentence three, weirdly, starts telling us basic (ie: not interesting) dictionary facts about the meaning of the not-very-obscure word cataclysm, then jumps back to the man-at-the-window with a hopelessly contrived segue. (“This mountain range was formed in cataclysm [except it wasn’t]. Cataclysm can mean revolution. And this man is a revolutionary. Neat, huh?”)

The feeling engendered in a competent reader is likely to be one of extreme awkwardness – like you’re talking to a boring man in a pub, and he leans in too close, and his breath smells of beer and bacon-flavour crisps, and he tells you something which you know to be untrue of the mountains outside, and you notice that his toupee has slipped. Yikes. You want to get away, but there’s something desperately adhesive about the whole situation.

Clarity (and an exit from the pub-situation) comes with the remainder of the paragraph. This chap at the window is a revolutionary. He has Dr Evil style plans for the planet. Paragraph two talks about his need to kill someone. Paragraph three discusses his intention to make the kill himself.

Overall? Your impression?

I think you’re going to agree with me that the writing is awkward. Needs improvement before it goes to a literary agent.

The trouble is, we’ve just discussed the opening paragraphs of a Dean Koontz novel, The Night Window, and guy has sold 450 million or more novels worldwide. So he’s doing something right.

And –?

Well, I don’t quite know what to say. I’m certain that I’m correct in picking apart the prose the way I did. And I most certainly know that I could never bring myself to write those sentences. Yet perhaps their badness is part of what attracts Koontz’s readers. Here are some possibilities:

  1. The first sentence is overfilled with information, but perhaps that presents Koontz as a fount of knowledge – establishes him as some kind of authority.
  2. For that reason it doesn’t matter that his geology is dubious or that his vocabulary-facts are roughly ninth grade.
  3. His readers are probably interested more in grand external story (the biggest revolution in history) than in fine interior details. The fact-first presentation style somehow authorises those preferences. The subsequent material about Hollister’s plans to kill people confirm that we’re in graphic novel / James Bond territory, not anything more refined.

One way to summarise this is perhaps to say that there are people who love fancy chocolates (dark, bitter flavours, complex support notes) and people who actively don’t. But plenty of those folk do sill like a really basic chocolate: lots of sugar, plenty of dairy, everything very safe. Dean Koontz’s books are aimed at the latter sort of people. The dodgy prose is there to reassure them: don’t worry, I’m not going to get all literary on you – just look at my prose style

Nor do I have anything against Dean Koontz selling a lot of books. I’m in favour of people reading what they like, and if they like Mr Koontz, then hooray for him.

If you’re writing somewhat similar books for a somewhat similar audience, then I think you can afford to ditch a lot of what people like me tell you about how to write. A somewhat klutzy style is part of the brand, part of the appeal. That doesn’t mean that any kind of bad writing is permitted, though. You need to stay dramatic, present the right kind of facts, keep characters on the edge of comic book, and build a story arc that moves in big, bold strokes with plenty of look-at-me moments.

If that more or less describes you and your audience, then be careful what you take from these emails. If I make a suggestion that feels right, by all means take it. If something sounds wrong for you, go with your judgement, not mine. You know best.

In the end, the biggest bit of editorial advice is To thine own self be true. Dean Koontz has been true to himself and to his half-dozen pseudonyms. If he subscribes to these emails – I doubt it – I bet he only does so, in order to hurl solid gold bars at his computer screen while mouthing insults at me. In which case, he’s right. Authors are their own final courts of arbitration.

Oh yes, and writing this email has given me an idea for the next one. It’s going to be called The Opposite of Dean Koontz. Watch this space.

Added a post  to  , harrybingham

Is your offer of 2019 to comment on a title still available? The title is 'Baby Doc' this is the synopsis:-

Set in post-war Britain of the 1950s, this bildungsroman tells the story of a medical student, Douglas Clegg and his Uncle Alan. Both are profoundly affected by different events of WWII. Douglas witnesses the death of an airman and is inspired to study medicine despite his low social status. Alan is gravely injured and bears outward and psychological scars. He disappears in the war.

While Douglas studies at medical school, Alan strives to overcome his demons and restore himself in society. On the death of Douglas’s mother (Alan’s sister), the two meet again to resolve their problems.

The senior surgeon is driven by a sense of entitlement and breeding. He tells Douglas that he is not a suitable candidate for medicine and bullies him to leave. Douglas discovers that the surgeon is not averse to fraud, deception, and cowardice. There must be a confrontation between the student and the senior surgeon before the final examinations.

Both Douglas and Alan are helped by remarkable women. Douglas by a young courtesan, Polly and Alan by a retired teacher, Elsie.

Will Alan overcome his demons and re-enter society? Will Douglas be allowed to take his final examinations or will the surgeon expel him?

Hi both, yes - niche fiction is definitely a thing, but sorry to say it's an area where self-publishers thrive and bigger publishers often fail. And yes, it's perfectly true that if you want to self-publish, you do need to be able to market your work. You don't need to invent that marketing approach from scratch - there's a well-travelled pathway that our SP courses etc can teach you. But you do need to follow it. Books don't sell themselves.

And on the elevator pitch? Hmm. Most highly successful books - but I agree, not all - will have the germ of SOMETHING that makes them stand out. It doesn't have to be super high concept ("Tudors - in space", "The world's tiniest spy goes to Russia"), but there's usually something. Take Ian McEwan's Atonement - he put a dirty word right at the centre of an otherwise well-mannered period piece. That's a good example of how a single speck can make the rest stand out. And yes, plenty of books are churned out where the elevator pitch is ho, hum. But if you want to maximise your chances (trad, or self-pub) then nail the pitch.

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You know those conman-led heist movies? Ocean’s 11 would be an example, or American Hustle. There’s plenty of mystery as the things are playing out (Why did X do that? What is Y building? Why is Z dressed as a motorbike courier?) but the final reveal explains everything. Once you have the whole story in your hands, it has the feel of a glossy and finely machined puzzle, every part locking smoothly into place.

It’s tempting to think that this is how story works – how it has to work – and of course at a broad level, that’s true. When you finish a whodunit, you want to know whodunit and why and how. Likewise with a romance, you want to know what kept the guy and the girl apart, and how that obstacle can be overcome. And so on – stories are a process of puzzle and explanation, no matter what genre you’re talking about.

But especially at a micro-scale, you can get excellent results by just taking your reader to the edge of the unexplained – then leaving them there. Here’s an example of what I mean. The passage is an excerpt (edited for length) from Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See:

Number 4 rue Vauborel. Still intact…

A single airplane tracks across the deepening blue, incredibly high. Von Rumpel retreats down the long ladder into the tunnels of the fort below. Trying not to limp, not to think of the bulges in his groin. In the underground commissary, men sit against the walls spooning oatmeal from their upturned helmets. The electric lights cash them in alternating pools of glare and shadow.

Von Rumpel sits on an ammunition box and eats cheese from a tube. The colonel in charge of defending Saint-Malo has made speeches to these men, speeches about valor, about how any hour the Hermann Goering Division will break the American line at Avranches … but von Rumpel is thinking now of the black vine inside him. A black vine that has grown branches through his legs and arms … Only a matter of time until the black vine chokes off his heart.

‘What?’ says a soldier beside him.

Von Rumpel sniffs. ‘I do not think I said anything.’

The soldier squints back into the oatmeal in his helmet. Von Rumpel squeezes out the last of the vile, salty cheese and drops the empty tube between his feet. The house is still there. His army still holds the city.

There are two senses in which this passage evades explanation – and will go on doing so, no matter how much more of the book you read.

First, we just don’t know why the soldier thinks Von Rumpel said something. Did Von Rumpel sob? Or make some other noise? Or was the soldier just hearing things? We can’t say. The interchange is never explained, an oddity.

But a deeper part of the passage’s elusiveness comes from the way it combines ingredients:

  • Some data about the world we’re in (Saint Malo, an aeroplane, a fort)
  • Von Rumpel’s cancer
  • Some nonsense about an imminent German victory.  We know, as von Rumpel does, that his side is going to lose.
  • Weird food: cheese from a tube, oatmeal from a helmet
  • Weird lighting: alternate pools of glare and shadow
  • A weird interchange between Von Rumpel and the soldier
  • A weird statis: the German army still holds St Malo, though a massive, and ultimately successful, assault is coming.

How do you put all those together? How are you, the reader, meant to feel as you assemble those things?

With some scenes, it’s really obvious how you meant to feel. Supposing for example, the ingredients were these:

  • A rose-covered cottage
  • A cream tea
  • A grandmother meeting her elderly beau
  • A spaniel snoring on a sofa
  • The chime of church bells
  • A good-natured discussion of the couple’s current story-predicament

If I gave you that lot to assemble, you have the mood instantly. The scene practically assembles itself – and no wonder, since it is taken from the Great Book of Cliché.

The Von Rumpel scene is the opposite of that. Indeed, its defining feature is its oddness: odd food, odd lighting, odd conversation. And you have the disturbing intrusion of cancer, the imminent assault, and so on.

The scene dislocates you. That’s its job. The reader becomes like the characters themselves: static but dislocated, out-of-body.

The purpose of this email is twofold. The first is to say that it’s perfectly OK if now and again things just don’t make sense. If some logical explanation is withheld or just not available. That gives a nice, ragged edge to a scene – a vivid, lifelike quality. Books are better for some roughness. I like quite a lot in mine.

But also there will be times when your character is driven to the edge. How do they feel when they’re there? The chances are that they feel strange, in which case your scene-making needs to reflect that.

That’s not just another thing to add to your very long to do list. It’s a joyous opportunity for fun.

I once placed Fiona Griffiths on a fishing trawler in the teeth of an Atlantic storm with some seriously bad guys coming on board. Fiona was there as a cleaner/cook/skivvy. She’s asked to keep the fish processing room ‘vaguely’ clean, a task that includes disposing of anything unsaleable caught by the ship’s nets. She says:

‘One time, the pile [of discards] includes an eel – or something like that, a sea serpent, I want to say, a python of the deep – and the damn thing evades my shovel every time I try to lift it. Slithering away as if still alive. A six-foot cord of black and glistening muscle, ending in a mouth large enough to swallow itself.’

She tries to shovel the eel into the slops bucket, but fails. She’s been awake twenty-one hours and she’s feeling exhausted and – well, dislocated.

Then the scary ship’s mate, Buys, approaches:

‘Demented as I am, as he is, I think, He’s going to hit me. I can’t get the eel into the bucket and Jonah Buys is going to hit me. I sort of accept it, too. There’s an internal logic in my head which says, That’s only fair. Your job was to get the eel in the bucket and you were given a fair old try at it. You’ve no reason to complain.

But Buys doesn’t hit me. Just takes the shovel from my hand, and with three or four smashing blows splits the eel into rags. Doesn’t divide it cleanly, by any means, but leaves the thing in a series of bloody stumps, connected by tatters of skin and the white threads of exposed nerves.

Buys fixes me with that bloodshot eye, nods, goes back to his knifework. My shovel has no problem now heaving the mass into my bucket. It feels as though the world has become more orderly. Ah yes, that’s how you clean a room. You smash any once-living creature into fist- and foot-sized fragments, then just shovel it away.

The scene is totally irrelevant to the story. As with Doerr’s little conversation, you could cut it out of the book completely, leaving the rest wholly intact. It’s also crazy. It starts with a ‘python of the deep’ with a mouth large enough to swallow itself. It ends with what has to be the world’s worst ever lesson on domestic cleaning.

Yet the strange, mad episode sets the scene for the action climax that is it to follow. A crazed foreshadowing.

I definitely recommend the technique. You probably can’t include too many of such things in a single book, but they’ll be high impact ones when you do.

And that’s not the best part.

The best part is simply that the damn things are crazily good fun to write. I like that eel-smashing scene so much, I want to snip it out and send it to Marie Kondo. Dear Marie, that’s not how you tidy a room. This is how you tidy a room …

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Every now and then I get an email from a reader that needs a public response, not just a private one. And this week I got one from – well, I shan’t tell you who it was from, but we will call her Samantha Santana. (I’m in a mood for As and Ss. Her middle names are Sara Amanda. Her daughter is Sandra Martha.)

Samantha wrote:

A newsletter on beating rejection sadness would be very helpful. Even you may have suffered your share?

It is lovely to indulge oneself in magical dreams of scribbling for a living but what if the dream becomes clotted with misery? How does a quirky scribbler elevate themselves so they too can feast on a drop of sunshine? And how does one stop reading news of celeb book deals for juicy 7 figures and “content providers” who’ve bagged lovely agents without scribbling a word!  And have the strength to deal with REJECTION with panache and dignity.

And how do we little minions of the lit world who don’t have sisters or aunts or cousins called Araminta or Rowena navigate this vast cess pool of pirates and peddlers who want to sell not so much the book but the author are they marketable will they appeal, ra ra ra.

 Where are we on the literary radar and will we ever be more than just jolly hobby enthusiasts?

Well. Where to start?

I haven’t as it happened suffered a huge amount of rejection: my first book sailed through to publication. My adversities came later, when I already had the shelter of an agent and a track record. But Lord knows that rejection is a standard part of the writer’s life. Agents saying no. Magazines saying no. Publishers saying no. Publishers saying yes, then no. Agents saying yes, then being useless, then saying no. It can easily seem that most authorial pathways end with a single short and round-syllabled word.

But defences against the gloom do exist. Here are some:

1. Sisters, aunts and cousins called Araminta

On the one hand it’s true that Planet Agent draws deeply on a narrow section of society – whiter, posher, more liberal-artsy and more female than the world around them. (They aren’t all called Araminta, but my first marketing person was called Venetia, and I do know what you mean.)

But although the demographics of Planet Agent are deeply skewed, the planet is fundamentally meritocratic. It’s not looking for writers-with-contacts. It’s looking for manuscripts to love.

My first agent, it turned out, knew my sister. But I only found out about that relationship later. What secured the deal was that my manuscript – a slushpile submission like everyone else’s – kept her up at night reading it. She made the offer before she knew that I was my sister’s brother. The manuscript was and is the the thing that matters more than anything else.

2. Celeb book deals for juicy 7 figures

Yep. If you’re a celebrity or (yuk) an ‘influencer’, you can get a book deal that will stuff your pocket with a few more dollars, pounds, and rupees. But so what? Those people sell books, yes, but they aren’t of our world, not really. They often don’t have the esteem of the agents or editors who handle them.

When Pippa Middleton, sister to a future queen, writes a book called Celebrate, does anyone in the entire world think she’s been selected for her literary merit? Is it any surprise that if you Google the book, one of the top-ranked search results is a piece from Buzzfeed entitled, Pippa Middleton’s 19 Most Painfully Obvious Pieces of Advice? Sample entry: ‘Star-gazing is best in pitch darkness on a very clear night.’

So who cares about those celeb deals? Who really cares? That’s just celebs living in celeb-land. They have nothing to do with us.

3. Magical dreams of scribbling for a living

To be clear, most authors don’t write for a living or, rather, the writing forms only part of a broader portfolio income.

I’ve been a pretty successful author over the years – multiple six-figure deals, film sales, lots of international sales, and so on – but still. Writing income is lumpy and uncertain. There are bad years and good years. It’s not a coincidence that I built Jericho Writers. It’s not just fun; I’ve needed it. The same thing, roughly, is true of most authors whose books lie face-up on the front tables of bookshops. Most of those writers will have other sources of income. The few who don’t are exceptions, and always blessed by luck, not merely talent.

4. A quirky scribbler of panache and dignity

Most people who start writing books don’t finish them.

Most people who do, don’t do nearly enough to edit them into shape.

And even when writers really do work hard and seriously on their manuscripts, a majority of those won’t sell because they’re not yet ready for the market.

It’s easy to fall into despair at that point, but that’s only because your view is still too narrow. The first manuscript, often the second one as well, is usually a learning project. Not always, but often. It’s where you learn the structures, techniques and disciplines. You can supplement that on-the-job learning with writing courses and manuscript assessments and all that (those things will hugely accelerate your path), but you still have to learn.

Dancers go to dance school. Painters go to art college. You don’t have to do a university-style course, but you do have to put in the hours learning the trade. That’s not failure; that’s diligence.

And if the first project doesn’t fire, then, after a certain point, you just need to ditch it and start something else, full of the learning and insight you’ve accumulated on the way. (My plea before you start that second project? Nail the elevator pitch. Get it right. We have tons of great material on that for JW members. We have some free stuff available as well.)

Your panache and dignity lie in realising that a rejection letter doesn’t mean ‘You’re crap.’ It means, ‘You’re not there yet. Carry on, good luck and God speed.’ Agents and editors generally have real respect for anyone who produces a properly competent, full-length manuscript. That doesn’t mean they’ll make an offer, but respect? Yes, you’ve earned it.

5. Jolly hobby enthusiasts & feasting on sunshine

Look. Being a jolly hobby enthusiast is a deeply honourable status, not something to be ashamed of. Let’s say your weekend hobby were painting watercolours in a city park. It wouldn’t really occur to you that you had to sell those paintings in some swanky gallery in order to justify the way you spend the time. The point is the painting. The point is the writing.

And yes, I’ve earned plenty of cash from writing. But even for me, the purpose is still the writing. I have a ridiculous side-project on the go at the moment, which may or may not be marketable. I didn’t engineer it to be marketable. I don’t ultimately mind too much if it sells or doesn’t. I’ve just enjoyed making it. I’m proud of the thing I’ve made.

And in the end, that’s the thing. That’s the whole thing.

Do you love the hours you spend immersed in your work?

If you do, my friend, you have your own private sun and you may feast on its light whenever you have an hour spare to do so.

I’ll tell you something else as well, which is that even when you have an agent and a publisher and people air-kissing you and telling you how excited they are about your book, the problems don’t go away. The nature of the problems changes, for sure, but the road doesn’t always feel less arduous. Indeed, some of the most difficult times I’ve had as a writer have been when I’m contractually locked into a relationship with a publisher and that publisher has not been performing as I’d want. I’ve had more problems writing under those circumstances than I have when writing something speculative, without contract.

You lot have your own private suns. Soak up those sunbeams. Be happy. And yes, a tip from Pippa Middleton here, don’t try star-gazing in broad daylight. It seldom works.

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In America, Hachette (the world’s #2 consumer publisher) is spending $240 million on a good-sized independent, Workman. In France, the two largest corporate publishers are merging. Globally, Penguin Random House (PRH) is buying Simon & Schuster, its #5 competitor.

A US investment banker, commenting on these changes, said it’s ‘all about market share.’ His implication: that the big will continue to eat the small, and the small – lacking the resources of their bigger brethren – will struggle to maximise the potential of their books and their authors.

Well, that’s one view. Here’s another:

Markus Dohle, CEO of PRH, says: ‘I’m not worried about consolidation. It is the smallness of publishing that matters. It’s one book at a time. There is no scale.’

Now, you’re entitled to be cynical about that. If a giant, whose diet is largely composed of hobbits, gnomes, halflings, and other small fry, tells you that size doesn’t matter, you probably want to nod politely then run as fast as you can into your burrow.

At the same time, you’re not a publisher. You are an emerging author and the thing you really want to know is: What kind of publisher do I personally need?

And look: that’s a good question, and I’ll try to answer it, but I don’t know your exact situation. So whatever I say in the rest of this email needs to be supplemented with your own knowledge, your own wisdom. That said …

When size matters

Let’s say, like me, you write police procedurals. There’s clearly a mass market for that fiction. It’s the sort of thing which can potentially sell a ton on Amazon, but also fill the shelves of supermarkets and specialist bookstores too.

Let’s just assume, for now, that you want to sell a lot of books and you want to be present in print as well as digital (we’ll talk more about the digital-first option in a moment.) In that case, yes, you want a Big 5 firm or any independent that can muster the firepower needed to compete.

To give you an example: when I sold the first of the Fiona Griffiths books, the leading offers I received (in the UK, that is) came from Hachette, a giant, and from Faber, a first-class independent, with global revenues roughly 1% of Hachette’s.

Put like that, Faber doesn’t sound like a real competitor, except that the tiny little company has published no fewer than thirteen Nobel laureates, a fistful of Booker winners, and plenty more besides. It’s an outstanding publisher – just smaller. I was flattered to get an offer from them.

What’s more, the key question for anyone with real ambition in commercial fiction – or any non-fiction with a chance of making mass sales – is simply this: does the putative publisher have the financial resources to compete in the mass market?

So let’s say Faber had persuaded a handful of supermarkets to go big on the book. To make that work, they’d have needed a hardback print run of 30,000 or more books (many more if you’re looking at big sales in North America), plus a ton of promo spend … and the whole deal would be done on a ‘sale or return’ basis. That is, if the books sold worse than expected, Faber would have had to take them all back and pulp them.

Really small publishers just can’t take that financial risk: the cost, if the venture went wrong, could be crippling. So, if you want to play in the mass market – genre fiction, bookclub fiction, any non-fiction with front-of-store sales potential (eg: The Tipping Point or Educated or A Brief History of Time) – you must pick a publisher that has the ambition to gamble big and the resources to do so. Faber (with $30 million in annual revenues) was comfortably big enough to take those risks.

Below the $10-15 million revenue figure, you need to get a lot more cautious. If you pick a micro-publisher, they can still publish in print, but they can’t afford to enter Supermarket World. Media attention tends to chase books that are already selling well, so your total potential sales will be much lower than if you picked a publisher with more heft.

In short, when it comes to any mass market book, there comes a cut off point below which size really does matter. You don’t have to be on the Penguin Random House scale to win big, but you do have to be able to spend properly in support of your book.

When size doesn’t matter: digital

If you don’t care about the whole print market, then digital-first publication is unquestionably an option to take seriously. The current model for such publishing was pioneered (brilliantly) by Bookouture, a UK-based outfit that has since been eaten up – but also left well alone – by Hachette.

That model, now widely copied, is this:

  • Advances are minimal or non-existent.
  • E-book royalties are excellent.
  • The pace of publishing tends to be frenetic.
  • Books are published as e-books, as audiobooks, and as online-print. (So you can get a hard-copy of your book, but not from any bricks-and-mortar street retailer.)
  • Brilliant use of social media, digital ads, mailing lists and the like
  • Cover designs, blurb, subtitles, metadata, and pricing will all be flexible, not fixed. So if a particular cover doesn’t achieve the sales needed, it’ll just be switched out for a different one.
  • If a book sells in huge volumes digitally, there’ll be partnerships available with print-led publishers. For nearly all digital-first authors, however, the vast bulk of sales and readers will be via digital formats.
  • You can be a huge author on digital platforms and still have near-zero name recognition from traditional media outlets, literary festivals, prize awards and the like. That makes no sense at all, but …

Any ambitious genre author should take any digital first publisher seriously. Financial heft really doesn’t matter – digital publishing is cheap. It’s not just cheap, it’s also brilliantly democratic. Bookouture still allocates the exact same marketing budget to all its debut authors. If a book does well, its budget is upped. If a book does badly (and some clever tweaking can’t fix it), then that book will be left without further support.

In the end, it’s readers, mediated by Amazon, who decide what books to support. That’s how it should be. The one thing you do want to check is the company’s sales record. Have they built big authors? Do they have a credible plan for you? If the answer to both questions is yes, you don’t need to worry about scale.

When size doesn’t matter: self-pub

And if size doesn’t matter in terms of digital publishing, it certainly doesn’t matter in terms of self-pub.

Indie authors need to allow proper budget for the book itself (editing and copy editing; those things are no longer optional.) They also need to buy a proper cover (for, say, $300-500.)

Thereafter, a marketing budget of as little as $500 will still do something. If you have a few books already published, and a mailing list established, you might want to throw an ad budget of (say) $1500-5000 at a launch, but those sums are within the reach of many authors, especially if there is real income coming in each month already. (I’d never recommend a $5000 launch budget for a debut novel, though. Start small, build big.)

In short, quite small amounts of money will allow you to build a real platform as a self-pub author. If you write plenty and write well and are professional in the way you publish, there’s nothing to stop you building a six- or seven-figure career. Plenty of indie authors have.

When size doesn’t matter: niche non-fiction

If you’re writing niche non-fiction - The Big Book of Dressage Exercises, The Complete Beginners Guide to Knitting, How to Tame Lions Without Losing a Leg - you aren’t going to appear on supermarket shelves and you’re never going to ride high on Amazon bestseller lists either.

That book on dressage exercises is a real book. When I checked, it was (not surprisingly) #1 for the search “Dressage books” but came a mediocre #83 in “Animal and Equestrian Sports” and only just made the top 50,000 on the overall Amazon bestseller list.

This is where Markus Dohle is right. It’s one book at a time and all publishing is small.

If you’re writing that kind of book, then simply pick the publisher with the most passion for your book. An equestrian publisher will know what to do with a book on dressage.

Niche non-fiction will never sell a lot in any one month, but if you’ve written a book that hovers, more or less permanently, around the 50,000 mark on Amazon, you have a little goose that will go on laying eggs for a long time to come. I’ve written books like that and, over ten years or so, they pay out very nicely.

When size doesn’t matter: literary fiction

Challenging literary fiction will almost never sell a lot, but passionate attention from a team skilled and experienced at selling small, difficult books will do fine. A big corporate publisher has budgets and profit expectations to deal with, so small, hard books are seldom taken on in the first place.

One of the striking ways that the publishing landscape has changed in recent years is the way that micro-publishers have scored huge successes with literary novels: winning prizes and, occasionally, hitting bestseller lists too. At times that success has stretched a company beyond its breaking point, so a book has moved from the original publisher to a larger one. But that’s good. That’s still success.

But have we had any fun?

And in the end, you shouldn’t make a choice only on the basis of probable sales and total advances. 

It’s also about where you feel the passion and the energy and the chemistry. A couple of times in my career, I’ve made a decision based on the chemistry I felt with the people making offers. That matters. You’ll spend the money, but the memories stay with you.

That’s it from me. My children and I have built the biggest squirrel obstacle course in North West Oxfordshire. The squirrels love it.

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Oh, movies, movies. It’s so easy to get seduced by the damn things. There’s the lure of cash for one thing, the sweet unlimited cash of Fount Hollywood. But the seduction I’m thinking of is the way that examples from movies can pull sideways at our writing.

They pull at it when it comes to dialogue.

We imagine Clint Eastwood growling, “You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” We imagine a bloke in a mask breathing, “No, I am your father” to a certain Mr Skywalker. We think of the iconic, “I’ll have what she’s having,” from When Harry Met Sally.

But we feel the pull at other levels too. There’s the level of scene: the climax of some Bond movie, the ‘You had me at hello’ scene in Jerry Maguire, the courtroom drama of Twelve Angry Men.

And the level of story architecture itself.

There’s a whole mini-industry that adapts the logic of the three-act structure of movies to the needs of the novel – and an industry which, by the way, generally argues that it’s teaching Universal Truth, rather than one option amongst many.

And look. I watch movies. I like movies. I enjoy Clint Eastwood waving a .44 Magnum as well as anyone. If Renee Zellwegger goes all wobbly-kneed at a romantic speech from Tom Cruise, well, heck, I’ll go all wobbly-kneed with her (albeit in a manly, restrained British way, of course.)

And of course, learning is learning. If movies inspire something useful, then good. The source doesn’t matter; the learning does.

But I just want to wave a red flag of doubt around any idea that there might be easy, natural or inevitable parallels between books and movies.

I picked the “Do I feel lucky” quote from an American Film Institute list of the most memorable movie quotes of all time. Here are some of the other 100 quotes on their list:

  • La-dee-da, la-dee-da (Annie Hall)
  • What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. (Cool Hand Luke)
  • The stuff that dreams are made of. (The Maltese Falcon)
  • Is it safe? (Marathon Man)
  • There’s no place like home. (Wizard of Oz)
  • After all, tomorrow is another day. (Gone with the Wind)

What’s striking about these examples is how utterly unmemorable when taken out of context. The only one of those quotes with a glimmer of writerliness is the one from The Maltese Falcon, and that is a direct (mis)quote of Shakespeare. The last two quotes on the list above are simply clichés.

The fact is that if you put dialogue on a page and imagine that Tom Cruise or Meryl Streep is speaking it, you are quite likely deceiving yourself that the dialogue is a lot better than it is. The more you imagine the movie, the less you interrogate your actual writing.

What’s more, movie dialogue is fantastically compressed, compared with the stuff you and I put on the page. If you take a scene from one of your books and lay it out using scriptwriting software, you’ll be shocked at how baggy your dialogue suddenly looks.

My books typically run to about 120,000 words. A movie script of the same thing might run to something closer to 12,000 words. It’s not just descriptive prose that’s being thrown overboard, it’s most of the dialogue too. The extreme compression of screen dialogue explains why people walk off abruptly, hang up the phone without saying goodbye, make dinner dates without sorting out places and times. None of that means that movie dialogue is bad – just that movies have their own logic. You need to play by the rules that apply to you. They’re different.

Much the same sort of thinking applies to scene-construction too. Novel scenes and sequences typically run to much greater length than those on screen. What’s more, screen-sequences can be sustained by magnificent panoramas and beautiful humans. Books can’t use special effects in quite the same way and you probably can’t afford Nicole Kidman.

On the other hand, you can do what no movie director can properly do: you can directly access the interior world of the person experiencing the scene. My best ‘action’ scenes involving Fiona Griffiths have all been quite slo-mo affairs: Fiona slowly freezing on a Welsh mountain, Fiona stuck underground, Fiona slowly enjoying an unusual medieval religious practice … None of these things happened fast and that was kind of the point. The slowness of the scene allowed me to spend real time inside Fiona’s brain and it was the interiority of the experience – not its cinematic quality – that gave those scenes their energy. If I’d tried to jazz those scenes up to meet Bond-style action standards, I’d have lost everything that made them special in the first place.

The same kind of warnings apply when it comes to plotting.

And look: you can use three-act plotting structures to help you with your novel. I know pro authors who do that and are helped by it. (If you’re going to copy them, I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder which is the best of those books.)

But when those books claim, as they all do, that the three-act structure is somehow hewn by angels from a tree grown in the Garden of Eden, just remember that they’re talking nonsense.

Yes, it’s true that Hollywood venerates screenplays written in that mould, so they tend to acquire, develop and produce films that broadly follow the formula. But for one thing, a lot of screenplays that supposedly follow the formula don’t look especially formulaic to me. Chinatown is often spoken of as the best screenplay ever – and it’s explained, in detail, how perfectly the script follows the formula. But if you actually read the thing, you notice more or less constant story-pressure, not just the beats you’re told to notice. It’s like eating a steak while being told all the time what a wonderful fish it is.

And novels are simply more flexible than films. Films, even little ones, are huge commercial affairs that have to attract an audience. Novels, with their tiny budgets, can afford to take any risk they want. 

So they can get away with very little story (On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan), with tonnes of story (any big, epic novel), or with is-this-even-a-story? (Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders.) The idea that book plots have to map onto movie plots is just bananas. So much so, in fact, you’d have to assume the idea is generated by someone who’s never actually read very many books.

Indeed, if you do want to map books to screen, then it makes far more sense to look at the small screen not the big one.

The BBC’s iconic (Colin Firth in a wet shirt) production of Pride and Prejudice extended to six hour-long episodes. Their 2016 production of War and Peace ran to eight hours. With that much greater running time – equating to three, four or even five feature films – the novelist’s vision can express itself. Dialogue can play out, wrinkles of character can be explored, the pressure of story can move in a less artificial cycle than the (oftentimes predictable) three act one.

Oh yes, and since we’re in the business of shattering illusions and breaking hearts, I may as well tell you that Fount Hollywood spews much less cash out to writers than you might think. Certainly, if you write a book that is already a big bestseller, then Hollywood will chuck cash at you. But if yours is a relatively unknown work and someone wants to adapt it, then the money in question is more like ‘sensibly priced car’ than ‘Hollywood villa complete with infinity pool’. It’s nice to have, of course, but probably not life-altering.

That’s it from me.

I have an apple in front of me. Do you think I should eat it? I’m thinking yes.

Added a post 

Last week I talked about a scene in which an author (Delia Owens) switched seamlessly, and delightfully, between two different characters. So the scene started with Kya, dipped into Tate’s perspective, moved back to Kya, stayed with her for a while, then moved – decisively and perfectly to Tate – before drifting back to Kya.

OK, that’s clear. But I got a number of responses which asked about the validity of various different point of view (POV) arrangements through the course of a book.

And look: there’s a short answer to that question, a long answer to that question, and a wide answer too.

The short answer is: anything goes. Don’t worry about it.

The long answer is: anything goes.

You can have a first-person, single point-of-view structure that endures, not simply through a single book, but through an entire series. My Fiona Griffiths series doesn’t have one single page – not one single paragraph – that isn’t narrated by her, and strictly from her point of view.

You can also have a third-person, single point-of-view structure. That’s a bit less common (because part of the power of third-person lies in the way it liberates the author to enter multiple heads), but it’s common enough.  It’s certainly absolutely fine as a technique.

Then you can have books that alternate points of view, often between two halves of a couple (The Time Traveler’s Wife, say) or a sort of couple (All The Light We Cannot See).

Or you can have books that play with a limited, but larger, cast of characters. My first novel worked with three brothers (George, Matthew, Zack) and one sister (Josephine) who played a somewhat lesser role in the story. There wasn’t a strict alternation between those three-and-a-half viewpoints, but there was an approximate one. Readers knew that if they had just finished a George chapter, the next one would probably be either Matthew or Zack, except that every now and then Josephine claimed a space.

Or you can have books that play with a really huge cast of characters. There was a fantastic example, a while back, Maynard and Jennica, by Rudolph Delson. Some big geopolitical thrillers work with huge numbers of characters. (Hello, Tom Clancy.) Some highly literary work does the same.

It all works. The only real constraint on the number of characters is that the more characters you play with, the reader inevitably has a weaker bond with them. Authors have, broadly speaking, three options to deal with that problem:

  1. Have the secondary points of view focus relentlessly on the characters you want the reader to care about. So in Maynard and Jennica, the two main characters are the pair in the title. Their points of view claim the greatest page space. The book is clearly about them – and the huge number of secondary characters end up talking almost entirely about those two. In other words, the secondary characters’ role is to keep shining a multiple light on the central pair.
  2. You place the emphasis on grand external events more than any character’s inner journey. That works well for the huge geo-political thriller and perhaps some epic fantasy. It works less well in most other genres.
  3. You’re a highly literary author and you’re too grand to care about whether your readers bond with your characters. You're just there to collect the prize money and the adulation of the little people.

I don’t really recommend the third of those choices. The other two are fine.

And finally, the wide answer is: anything goes.

Whatever the specific issue – points of view, timelines, first / third person, tense or really anything else – the thing that readers need most is clarity. So give them clarity. Once they have that, they’ll be happy to sit with you on whatever journey you care to take them on.

Dual timelines give another good example of this wider answer.

So take Where the Crawdads Sing, again. There are two timelines in the book, which end up meeting and merging. That could feel messy, but it never does, because the rhythm is established early and communicated clearly. The book’s structure is roughly:

  1. 1950 – 1969: Kya’s childhood and coming-of-age. In this part of the book, time flows quite quickly. Chapters can jump whole years at a time.
  2. 1969: a murder investigation into the death of a local man. Here time flows more slowly. Chapters trace the evolving police investigation with, often, mere days between chapters
  3. The timelines come together. We understand why Kya is under investigation and, finally, accused of the crime. We see what happens in the courtroom and what happens thereafter.

In the first three-quarters of the book, the two timelines alternate. Short chapters deal with the 1969 murder investigation. Much longer sequences deal with Kya's childhood and coming-of-age.

Towards the end of the book, the two timelines meet and merge – and the merging is expected by the reader from early on in the book. Because Owens’s plan is clear, the reader accepts it without demur.

In that case, the two timelines merge, but they don’t have to. In AS Byatt’s Possession, a hundred years separates the protagonists, so no merging is possible. But again: so long as the author has a clear structure for the book, and so long as that plan is plain to the reader, there’s no difficulty.

And, to bundle this email up, tie it off, and make it ready for shipping, here’s an answer that is simultaneously short, long and wide:

Make a clear plan. Stick to it. Communicate it to the reader. Do those things with purpose and clarity and – anything goes.

Easy, huh?

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