• 1889

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


Well, yes, life hasn't been very helpful to Fiona G #7, I'm afraid. But it is more or less finished and now just wants a bloody hard edit.

And ambiguity in a kids' book? Yes, definitely. But the whole thing needs to be a bit more primary-coloured than it would be for an adult. So: "Is the X a ghost or a lost dog?" - that works for my 5/7 year olds. As you get a bit older, it might be: "Is Esmee lying or was she telling the truth?" And in YA, it might be: "Is Esmee lying or is there an underlying pschological reason making her believe that untruth?"

It's something you'll need to judge for yourself from the book how much you think your reader will be ready for. Yes, ages on books are helpful, but they're not that helpful ...

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As youse know, I’m reading Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle at the moment. (I’m three-quarters of the way through and still enjoying it.)

And there’s a critical scene in it. The seventeen-year-old narrator, Cassandra, has an elder sister, Rose, who has an inner anger or ruthlessness together with a detestation of her family’s poverty. She is also, true to the book’s Jane Austenian roots, very beautiful and of marriageable age.

The Man With Money – the Mr Darcy role – is played by Simon, a charming American with pots of cash and an unfortunate beard.  Rose has been – crudely at first, then more cleverly – seeking to win Simon’s heart. And eventually she succeeds. In the scene I want to talk about, Rose persuades Simon to shave. He asks her to marry him. She doesn’t say yes, but asks him to kiss her. He does so. She then says, yes, she’ll marry him.

OK, so the facts are clear. But the interpretation of those facts is anything but.

Simon’s brother, Neil, thinks he knows. He yells at Cassandra, ‘She’s a gold-digger. And you know it.’

Cassandra hotly denies this – then reddens, because perhaps she thinks it too. Then, after things have calmed down a bit, Neil accepts that maybe Rose has fallen for Simon. In due course, the always-truthful Rose tells Cassandra that she really does love him. Phew!

Except –

Those conflicting initial responses to the news never really leave us. What are Roses’s real motives? How authentic is her passion? It’s those questions (and Cassandra’s own emotional rollercoaster) that dominate the next chunk of the book.

And the book works because it leaves these questions open.

Pretty much any book of quality will hang on scenes where some story situation just isn’t wholly resolved. The reader is presented with all the available evidence, but that evidence can still be argued both ways.

And ideally, the picture is ambiguous not simply because the data is fragmentary, but because the actual truth is shaded and complex.

So, yes, Rose is a gold-digger. She wants money. She’s perfectly capable of acting manipulatively to achieve her ends.

But also – she’s a young woman encountering her first real love and with enough self-awareness to doubt herself. (Hence getting Simon to kiss her before she answered his “Marry me” question.)

She’s both things at once: gold-digger and young woman in love.

Interestingly, the reason why ambiguity works so well – and why it’s so important for your fiction – is that it forces readers to work.

Now that sounds like it might be a bad thing to do. Books are meant to be entertaining, right? So why make readers work? We should be helping them to sit back and relax, no?

But making readers work is the whole deal. It’s everything.

Readers are gripped by a book when they are intensely engaged by it. That’s your purpose in writing it: intense engagement.

Since readers – most of them – are human, they are hugely engaged by the act of trying to interpret ambiguous but consequential human behaviour. The more you can sustain the ambiguity and deepen the consequences, the more you force that intense engagement.

I can’t think of a really good book that doesn’t, somewhere, make use of that basic tool. I think, in fact, it’s central to good writing.

Macbeth? He murdered a king, but his moral awareness is still what illuminates the centre of that play.

Hannibal Lecter? He’s a multiple murderer and a cannibal, and is anyone’s definition of an awful human being. But he was also, once, a terrific psychiatrist and he is the only one who can find a way through to the dark heart of what troubles Clarice Starling, the novel’s FBI protagonist.

And, strangely, ambiguity is the gift that keeps on giving. I write series fiction, which puts one character on the page for a series that has now passed the 750,000 word mark. Yet I still play the same games. On one page, Fiona is infuriating. On the next, she’s funny. Then brilliant. Then hopeless. Then heroic. Then back to infuriating.

How do you read her? How does your understanding encompass her?

It’s not easy and it’s meant to be. The result (I hope) has a kind of coherence – because chaos isn’t ambiguous or rich; it’s just chaotic – but I keep making the reader work.

A hard-working reader is a reader who’s gripped.

So ambiguity and rich contradictions are your friends. Keep those things alive through the book. Rock your reader to and fro over that hump of uncertainty.

Rose is a gold-digger? Rose is not a gold-digger?

She loves him? She loves him not?

Whatever your story-question is, you want to keep both answers alive and – often – find a way to say “yes” to both opposing readings.

It’s a fun way to read, but it’s also a hell of a fun way to write.

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My wife doesn’t often recommend books to me, but she did recently. The book is I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith, written in America during the war, but not published until 1949, after some years of anxious revisions.

I’ve only read about a dozen pages of the book and already know I’m going to love it. That sense is, admittedly, helped along a bit by knowing that the book was an instant hit on publication and has remained a word-of-mouth treasure ever since. But it’s more than that.

Here’s the opening sentence:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

The narrator continues:

That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left.

Since we’re in the quotation mood, here are a couple more bits from those first few pages:

[My sister Rose] is a pinkish gold, very light and feathery. Although I am rather used to her, I know she is a beauty … I am no beauty, but have a neatish face.

[My stepmother Topaz] paused on the top step and said: ‘Ah, girls …’ with three velvety inflections on each word.

Now she [the stepmother] is in bed and is playing her lute. I like the idea of a lute, but not the noise it makes.

Now, quoting snippets isn’t really the best way to present a novel. A novel is the best way to present a novel. But I hope you feel that, even chopped up into morsels, there is something instantly seductive here. Instantly moreish.

And the question I want to ask is: how come? What’s the secret? What do you have to do on the first few pages to write a novel that will still be read with warmth and affection, seventy-five years after its creation?

Simple good writing is a part of it, of course. I talked a month or two back about Elizabeth Gilbert’s use of an ordinary-but-wide vocabulary in her book, The Signature of All Things. Dodie Smith does the same here.

So anyone might talk of someone’s complexion being pink and gold, but it takes a little flash of genius to add the word feathery. That suggests downy and soft and touchable, but also perhaps the hint of a caress or an artist’s brush. And at the same time the word works because it’s odd enough – controversial enough – to spark consideration of why it deserves its place.

Those velvety inflections work in roughly the same way. Can you yourself find a way to say ‘Ah, girls’ with three velvety inflections on each word? I doubt it – and yet the slight provocation somehow deepens the effectiveness of the phrase.

As for the idea of the lute versus the noise it makes – that’s just plain funny.

So, OK, we have on our check-list so far:

  1. Write well
  2. Be funny

In Dodie Smith’s case, we might add also:

3. Be warm

Clearly, that advice won’t work for every book, but it’s notable that there is a kindness to these opening pages, which is simply pleasant to be around. So the sister is pinkish gold and feathery. The stepmother is very kind and the narrator is very fond of her. Even the dog ‘gazes at me with love, reproach, confidence and humour.’

Yes, we go to fiction for things other than kindness and warmth, but if we happen to pick up a book and find ourselves in a warm bath of laughter and affection and gentle teasing, it’s not all that likely we’ll want to put it down.

But I think we get nearer to the mark if we throw in this:

4. Get personal

I Capture The Castle is narrated by seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain. Her personality is alive in every sentence. You already have a sense of that personality from the bits I’ve quoted. If you’re writing third person, then you won’t be able to deploy your protagonist’s own voice in quite the same way, but you can still snuggle up as close as you can to that protagonist and get his or her personality blooming as soon and as vividly as you can.

There are, however, several further ingredients of the Smithian stew, I think.

One is certainly:

5. Be quotable

That first sentence about sitting in a sink is often seized on as a Famous First Sentence. And the thing about lutes & music is deliciously perfect too.

At the same time, and though quotability is a factor here, it’s not one I’d want to get too hung up on. A lot of newbie authors like to adorn their first pages with flashily quotable lines. Things like – oh, I don’t know – “Killing a man is easy. Keeping his blood off your shirt is hard.”

That has a strut, a look-at-me quality, that probably does do something to attract the reader’s interest. But if it doesn’t derive from real personality – if it’s written for that movie poster, and nothing else – it won’t have staying power. So, for me, the “get personal” message is always more powerful and more enduring than the “be quotable” one. It sticks longer in the memory.

One more of Smith’s ingredients is something like this:

6. Be curious

Cassandra Mortmain is live-writing a diary, reporting life very much as it happens. And she’s sweetly, naively excited to be writing at all. She looks forward to being able to talk about everything. She doesn’t attempt a full description of their crumbling castle home on page two, because ‘I won’t attempt to describe out peculiar home fully until I can see more time ahead of me than I do now.’

She writes her book in a kitchen sink, then on the stairs, then in her bed (the remains of her only dressing gown wrapped around a hot brick.)

Because Cassandra is zestful about the act of writing and reporting, we become zestful about the act of reading. It’s as with my murder stories: my detective loves murder. All corpses please her, but good corpses delight her.

Delight is contagious. Infect your main character and you will infect your reader too.

So far, we seem to have collated a reasonably doable list of action points. That doesn’t make it simple, mind you. ‘Write well, be funny’: it’s not like those things are easily done. But still. They are, in principle, things you can work at.

But, being truthful, I think we have to throw one extra ingredient into the mix:

7. Be magical

Dodie Smith wrote other books, other plays. Apart from I Capture The Castle, only one of those works had enduring success … and you’re much less likely to have read Dodie Smith’s book than to have seen Walt Disney’s adaptation of it: One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Presumably, Smith didn’t suddenly get extra helpings of genius for her Capture The Castle book and lose them all for everything else. Equally, John Le Carre became a better novelist in the years after he wrote The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but if you could only save one JLC novel from the inferno, then that would probably be the one.

The fact is that, as authors, we arrange our ideas on a table as we are deciding what to write next. When we find a configuration that feels right, we let rip. We spend a year or however long writing that damn novel. Then we edit it hard. Then we have what we have.

Sometimes that novel is a perfectly workmanlike, entertaining, decent read. And good. We’ve done our job; we’ve earned our crust. And other times, the same set of skills applied to other ingredients just product something of magic. A matter of chemistry, really.

And quite why does I Capture The Castle have that chemistry so abundantly when Smith’s other adult novels didn’t? Well, we don’t know. You can’t know until you’ve written the thing.

So write your book. See if it’s magical. If it’s not, write another.

That’s all from me. We have a skip in the garden and the children are currently inside it, having a picnic.

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Plenty of writers stress over genres:

What genre is my book? Yes, there’s a death, but it’s not really a crime story. And there’s a romance, but it’s not really a love story. And it’s set in the 1980s, which makes it historical, but nobody wears a corset or says methinks, so it’s not really hist fic either. Help!

The answer, really, is simple. Genres don’t matter, but readers do.

To understand what I mean, just walk into any large bookstore. The nearest big store to me – Waterstones in Oxford – has fiction dominating the ground floor. There’s a niche set aside for crime fiction and one or two other specific genres.

Mostly, though, the label above the shelves is simply “Fiction”. You’ll see Jane Austen snuggling up with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Delia Owens making nice with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jojo Moyes deep in conversation with Saul Bellow.

Most novels just aren't sold under a particular category label. Readers are smart enough to know that Saul Bellow will offer a very different sort of read to the one provided by Jojo Moyes.

That seems clear enough and yet agents – curse them – always want to know how to bracket your book. The result is that we quite often see query letters say things like, “my novel is a Coming of Age Novel / Romance with a fashion industry setting”, with capital letters strewn around as though trying to manufacture a genre where no genre actually exists.

And no: there isn’t a genre like that. There isn’t a category on Amazon which matches that. There most certainly isn’t a set of shelves in any physical bookshop with that as its sign.

And yet – there are books like that, The Devil Wears Prada for one.

And look, agents want to know something about your book before they start to read it, in much the same way as you want to know something about a film on Netflix before you start watching. Is it a thriller? Or a rom-com? You might be happy with either, but you just want to set your expectations before you start.

It’s the same with agents. If you tell them that a book is a thriller, they will read with their thriller head on. They’ll be thinking, Does this feel like the start of a thriller that publishers could sell successfully to a large audience? If you tell them your book is a rom-com, they’ll think about that market instead.

And if your book has a nice clean genre, then tell them. My books (now) do. They are in increasing order of specificity: crime fiction, detective fiction and police procedurals.

But most books don’t have those nice clear categories. So just describe the book in a sentence or two, much as you would if you were describing it to any reader.

“The novel tells the story of Andrea Sachs, who becomes junior assistant to Miranda Priestly, the fashion world’s most powerful – and feared – editor. Andrea struggles to accommodate the demands of her boss, the fashion world, her love life and her own desire for a meaningful purpose.”

Bingo. That’s the book. You haven’t described a genre, exactly, but you have successfully described what kind of read you are offering.

That’s all agents need. They’ll adjust their expectations accordingly and read with interest.

Same with editors. When they read a manuscript, they’ll be thinking, “How can I package this book to achieve a strong level of sales?” They’ll be thinking about covers and comparable authors and recent hits and possible marketing approaches.

In order to get a good set of answers to those questions, editors do need a good two-line summary of the book – the sort that we’ve just given – but they don’t especially need any genre categorisation at all.

As a matter of fact, I’d go further than that. Genre descriptions can be so restricting that I’d want to throw them off, at least partly. So yes, my novels are contemporary police procedurals with murder stories at their heart.

But they’re also not some of the things you might expect them to be. So although my novels are technically procedural, they show an almost total disregard for actual police procedure. There’s not a lot of shooty-bang-bang stuff. The action is slow, not fast. And the crimes being investigated are, in many cases, so extravagantly unlikely that nothing like them has ever actually happened.

So if I were writing a query letter – or an Amazon book blurb – I’d want to hint at the ways in which my books run contrary to genre, not with it.

Because, in the end, it’s not genres that matter. It’s readers. You do, I think, need to have a really clear idea of what kind of book yours is. What’s the heart of its appeal? What’s that appeal expressed in a sentence? What kind of cover sings about that appeal? Where on Amazon will your very best readers most likely gather? What other authors do those readers love?

These questions matter. Genres don’t. You will, I hope, find liberation in that thought. I know I do.

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Today’s email landed in two quite distinct set of inboxes.

One group of inboxes belongs to a group of (friendly, relaxed, good-spirited) people who thought, “Oh, look, here’s another email from Harry.”

The second group of inboxes belongs to a ferocious tribe who noticed, and were instantly enraged by, the grammatical mistake contained in the phrase Between you and I.

What is the mistake? Ah well, though English doesn’t have a host of grammatical cases – unlike German with 4, Russian with 6, and a surely unnecessary 7 in Polish – there is still a difference between the nominative case (“he” or “I”) and the accusative case (“him” or “me”.) And prepositions like their complement to be in the accusative. So I shouldn’t have written between you and I. I should have written between you and me.

Although plenty of English-speakers don’t bristle at errors like that, you lot are different. You’re a bunch of writers. You’re attuned to these issues and mostly don’t make them in your own writing. I’m not sure I get enraged by such errors any more, but I do certainly notice them. Every time.

And, look, I think it’s still safe to say that using a nominative pronoun after a preposition is an error. But let’s just remember what that means. All we’re really saying is that most language users still use the preposition + accusative structure. Not to do so, places us – somewhat – as a non-standard user.

But for how much longer? The who / whom distinction (another nominative / accusative issue) has largely vanished from our language. Or, to be more accurate, it’s just started to get awkward. Take a look at these examples:

               The agent, to whom the manuscript was sent …

               The agent, to who the manuscript was sent …

               The agent who the manuscript was sent to

Do you like any of them? The first is technically correct, if we’re being old-school about it, but it does have a somewhat fussy flavour today. The second option just sounds wrong. The third just sounds clumsy. So mostly, today, we’d rewrite any of those options as The agent who received the manuscript. By making the agent the subject again, we can get rid of that correct-but-fusty to whom construction.

Another example of a grammar which still exists, but patchily, is the which / that distinction. Technically, the word that introduces a clause which defines the noun being described. Like this:

Manuscripts which contain murders are always excellent.

That sentence wouldn’t be right if you took out the “which contain murders” bit. Clearly, that sentence is saying that the presence of murders in a manuscript is what guarantees their excellence. In these, definitional-type clauses, you always need a which.

Other times, it’s clear that a clause is just adding information which could, in principle, be dropped entirely:

Manuscripts, which authors have slaved over, are wasted on agents.

That sentence is essentially saying “manuscripts are wasted on agents”. You could drop the clause about authors’ hard work and the essential meaning remains unchanged.

So OK, we know the difference between which and that. Whether or not you knew the rule, you probably don’t mess up in a really obvious way.

But, but, but …

A lot of rules look clear on the pages of a grammar book but dissolve on contact with reality. Take a look at these actual examples from my current work in progress:

Peter looks at me with that soft-eyed affection which is the special preserve of older uniformed officers contemplating their younger, bossier detective colleagues.

I spark up. Inhale. Open the window enough that I can blow smoke through the dark slot which leads outside.

I park down by the beach which, out of season, has an abandoned quality. Windswept and forlorn. 

The first of those examples is clearly correct in terms of the grammar. The police sergeant’s affectionate look is defined by the (sarcastic) clause that follows, so I got that right.

The next one? Well, I don’t really know. You could argue that the “which leads outside” is definitional, but you could argue it the other way too. And I know for a fact I wasn’t guided by grammar in making the choice there, but sound. The sentence had just had a double th-sound (“through the“) and it probably didn’t need another. So I went with which.

And the last example – the beach one – is just wrong. There’s only one beach, so the clause which talks about its abandoned quality can’t be defining it.

I’d be very surprised indeed if a British copy-editor were to correct that mistake, however. We Brits are just more relaxed issues like that. A good American copy-editor probably would correct it, however. US copy-editing standards are more demanding and more precise. (Another example? Brits will often use a plural pronoun, they, to refer to a singular noun, like the government. It's not that Americans never do that, but they do it so little, it still strikes plenty of American ears as simply wrong.)

But you know what? I still like the way I wrote that sentence about the beach, even with that “erroneous” which. It just sounds better to me.

The fact is, I trash conventional grammar all the time:

I use a lot of sentence fragments.

I start sentences with conjunctions.

I drop the subject from verbs.

I use words that don’t exist.

I often do all that, back to back, in one sweet jam of Offences Against Grammar. Here’s one twenty-four-word excerpt that merrily commits enough crimes to send the Grammar Police into a spin:

Clean shirt. Early start.

I make tea. Fire up my computer. Kick my shoes off, because my feet aren’t in a shoey mood.

And in the end? Well, I suppose I still adhere to the kind of grammar rules which remain largely unbroken, by most people, even in informal contexts. So I wouldn’t say “between you and I” because that strikes my ear as wrong. But I’m more than happy to shatter other rules (the sentence fragment one, say) and bend others (the which/that distinction, for example.)

You, of course, don’t have to do as I do. Your job is to find your own writing voice and tune that in a way that suits you best. If that involves technically excellent grammar, then great. If it doesn't, that's really fine too.

About once a month I get an email from someone who frets that they don’t know enough formal grammar to be a writer. And to hell with that. If it sounds right, it is right. That’s all you really need to know.

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Last week, oh ye hungry seekers of knowledge, we talked about publishing contracts and the snares that lie therein. If you missed that email, you can catch up with it here. But I left the biggest problem aside so we could get properly stuck into it this week.

The issue is simple: rights reversion.

Let’s say you sign up with Megacorp Publishing Inc. All parties sign in good faith. Megacorp believes in your book. It has every intention of marketing it hard. All good.

But – life happens. Maybe the book cover was poor, or your timing unfortunate, or supermarkets just weren’t buying your book for some other reason. Any case, the book didn’t sell. Megacorp lost money. Your contract isn’t renewed.

And just to be clear: that’s not a one in a hundred outcome. That’s what happens in maybe 6 or 7 cases out of 10. Most works of fiction lose money. Two or three breakeven (but those contracts will be negotiated down or not renewed.) One or two successful books make enough money that the whole merry-go-round continues to spin.

So, OK, your work is one of the unfortunate ones. You spun the wheel and lost. What now?

Well, in the olden, olden days, when books were made out of paper, reversion was standard and easy. A publisher had to keep the book in print. If they didn’t, the author could say, “republish the book or give me the rights.” Publishers generally just reverted the rights, and life went on.

But of course, these days, e-books never die. And print-on-demand means that even paper books never have to die. So the old reversion clauses dropped away and were replaced by ---- nothing. Or if they were replaced, their replacements were so weak as to be meaningless. I’ve seen contracts where publishers insisted on retaining rights to a book so long as annual sales were in excess of 20 units. A book can be essentially dead and still beyond reach of that author.

Why does that matter? Well, you might not care about reversion now, but that doesn’t mean you won’t at some point in the future.

You might want to self-publish commercially. (I reverted some rights from Penguin Random House and was making $100K from the series within a couple of years.) Or you might just care about the book and want to rejacket and relaunch it, without any great expectation of profit. Or you might just want to own the book, because it is yours, and you gave it birth, and you still love it.

For any of these reasons, only some of them commercial, you might want to revert the rights.

Well, lots of you will no doubt be thinking that there’s a fairly obvious and uncontentious solution:

Megacorp now has no meaningful financial interest in your book: if it didn’t sell during the launch window, it’ll never really sell, ever. (Not in the hands of Megacorp, that is: they’re not in the business of trying to revive failed books.) So in a rational world, you’d wait two or three years, then say, “Hey, Megacorp, things didn’t work out. No worries, but can I have the book back? I’m happy to pay something for the small amount of ongoing revenue you’re likely to lose.”

Megacorp would charge you something like 4-5x the income the book had brought in over the last 12 months. (That’s what units of the big publishers charge each other when books move around internally.) You get your book back. Megacorp gets some cash. Everyone’s happy.

But, oh ye hungry seekers of knowledge, we do not live in a rational world.

Actually getting your book back from Megacorp can be insanely hard. Or impossible. Or so expensive as to make no sense at all.

I once tried to revert some rights from HarperCollins. My editors had long since left the firm, so my only point of contact was a nice bloke in Contracts. But he had no authority to make a deal, so he had to talk to his colleagues in the two imprints that held my various books.

But the people in those imprints didn’t know anything about me or the books and they had no incentive to make a deal. If they earned a few grand from selling the rights, no one was going to congratulate them. If it turned out they sold the rights for a few grand, when I had some massive film deal about to be announced, they might even be yelled at.

So even to have the negotiation took months. And the proposed outcome was ludicrous: so expensive and hedged around with qualifications, that I simply gave up. They own some books that earn them no money. I don’t have books that I would love to have. A dumb outcome.

You need to sort these issues out upfront – in the contract ideally.

That’s harder than it sounds. Your agent won’t care, because they have no interest in self-pubbed or non-commercial books. Rights reversion is one of the few areas where your interests diverge sharply from those of your agent.

Megacorp will have some strategy decided at corporate level, that is desperately difficult for you to sway.

And, worst of all, YOU may not care – not in this first flush of excitement, with a publisher offering you actual real money to publish your work.

All I can say, my friends, is that you need to care. You need to surface the issue. You need to push for whatever you can get.

The ideal would be a clause that gave you a defined right to revert the rights after a specified period (probably 5 years) at a specified price (most likely a low multiple of recent sales.)

But publishers are brutal. They won’t give you that. So talk to your editor and your agent and raise the issue. Ask for a good-faith understanding of how reversion will be handled when and if the time comes. You’ll be fobbed off. People will try not to answer. But push. Do your best and get something. When you get that something, pop it into a simple email to your editor. “Hi Aquilegia, thanks for that chat about reversion this morning. As I understand it, we agreed …”

That email will give you a point of leverage if push comes to shove at some point in the future. If you can get something sensible in the contract itself, all the better.

And don’t be embarrassed. The Megacorps of this world have absolutely no rational commercial interest in depriving you of your work. You have every legitimate interest in recovering access to your book if and when Megacorp has no further use for it.

So fight for that access. You’re right, they’re wrong, and everyone knows it.

Oh yeah, and if you want to know what the Very Most Annoying Thing is in my Little Box of Annoyances, then it’s this:

It’s when publishers tell you, “Oh, we can’t negotiate this, because our policy is to have a completely standardised contract.”

They only ever say that when the contract is grossly biased in their favour. Publishers are, as humans, the friendliest, loveliest bunch you can imagine, but don’t be fooled. The contracts are put together by multibillion corporations, whose only interest is their own profit and glory. The resultant contracts stink. They’re not fair. They’re not meant to be fair.

Far too often, and with bigger authors as well as smaller ones, publishers take actions that – to my author-centric mind – represent abuse of power and nothing else. We can’t stop that abuse. We’re just little old us; they’re multibillion dollar corporations. But we can know what we want and what’s fair. Push hard to get it. 

Here endeth the lesson.

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Every now and then, it so happens that I get to see the contracts offered by publishers to (mostly) debut authors. And, for the most part, they look much the same. Long. Written in Legalish. Needlessly complicated.

And one-sided.

For obvious reasons, I most commonly see contracts when the writer concerned doesn’t have an agent. And, again for obvious reasons, publishers don’t feel obliged to play nice if they don’t have someone scary and experienced negotiating opposite them.

And, look. If I were an unagented author keen to get into print, I’d be willing to sign pretty much anything. Publishers know this, so they don’t exactly try to play nice.

But you don’t have to sign the contract that is put in front of you. You really don’t. It’s not poor etiquette to negotiate. Doing so marks you out as a smart author, not a difficult one. You just have to know where and how to direct your fire.

This email will start to give you a map. It’s not a complete map and I don’t know your specific circumstances. So caveat the first is simply that you should get your contract checked out by the Authors Guild (US) or the Society of Authors (UK).

The second caveat isn’t really one of those modest legalistic qualifications. Think of it more like someone shouting at you, using a bright red bullhorn, from a distance of about eight inches. It’s simply this:



But let’s say you get an offer from a totally legitimate publisher. Maybe a big 5 firm, maybe a reputable independent, or maybe a digital-first imprint of some sort.

Now, OK, you are probably nice and somewhat uncomfortable with confrontation. Which is fine, but you’re not going to be confrontational. You’re going to be professional. And remember: editors are perfectly well used to literary agents hammering away at every detail of a contract. So negotiate. 

With that said, let’s take a look at my little box of annoyances. First up, we have:

The Right of First Refusal (RFR)

This is one of those clauses that has a perfectly innocent and acceptable idea at its heart, but can quickly morph into a beast.

The innocent idea is simply this. You and Megacorp Publishing Inc work happily together on your book. It’s published. It sells reasonably well. You write another book. What then?

Well, it would probably make sense for Megacorp to take first look at your new book and, potentially, make you an offer. If that offer is acceptable, you take it. If not, you politely refuse and take the book elsewhere.

That arrangement recognises that Megacorp are in the front of the queue, thanks to your prior relationship with them, but doesn‘t bind you into a longer term relationship that you may not want.

That innocent RFR clause, however, turns into a fang-toothed beast as soon as it starts to take on more layers.

So for example, you’ll sometimes see clauses which say that you may not accept any offer which is of a lower value than that first Megacorp one. Well, why shouldn’t you? Suppose your experience with Megacorp has been universally bad. And suppose that a brilliant and passionate indie publisher is desperate to publish your book. Why wouldn’t you take a lower offer from the latter if you want to? It’s your book, your life.

Or take another (very common) example. An RFR clause might say that Megacorp has the right to match the top-bid in any auction and walk away with the book.

Now that might sound almost fair, except that the existence of the clause will kill any auction. If other big publishers know that Megacorp can just swoop in and take your book, their incentive to make a play for it collapses.

Think of this from the editor’s point of view. To get a firm on board with an aggressive bid for a book, your putative editor is going to have to do a lot of internal marketing, potentially soliciting support as far up as the CEO. It’s one thing to do that if you stand an equal chance of success. It’s quite another if you know you are handicapped from the very start.

So: the naked RFR is fine. Anything else is a big no-no. 

The Non-Compete Clause

Let’s say you are an expert in family law. You have just written The Big Book of Family Law and sold it to Megacorp. Megacorp don’t want you selling The Jumbo Compendium of Family Law to a second publisher and Divorce for Dummies to a third.

So they put in a clause saying that you can’t sell competing titles to third parties. Then some corporate lawyers look at that clause and point out that it’s a bit ambiguous as to what is and isn’t a competing title, so they add a rider like “which, in the judgement of the Publisher, may compete with the Author’s Work …”

And boof: at a stroke, they give themselves an ironclad protection against you selling work to others.

The corporate lawyer goes home thinking, “What a very clever lawyer I am and how well I have protected our well-stuffed corporate coffers.”

But you hope to make your living (at least partly) by selling books about family law.

So don’t bind yourself. If other rival publishers want to publish books on family law, they will find people to write them. So Megacorp has not, in fact, done anything at all to protect itself from competition. They have just severely curtailed your chance to earn a living.

Don’t be bound.

If you are writing fiction, then there just shouldn’t be a non-compete clause in your contract at all, ever. I can’t think of an exception to that rule.

If you are writing non-fiction, then any non-compete clause needs to be very narrowly drawn – for example, it might expire after three years, or once book sales have dwindled beyond a certain point.

Again: a non-compete clause offers almost no benefit to the publisher and it does, potentially, do a lot of harm to you. So just say no.

The next thing to fly out of my Little Box of Annoyances is …

Movie rights & other land grabs

A publishing contract is there so that someone with a clear intention to exploit a particular right (namely: publishing your book in all the normal formats) has the ability to do so.

But Megacorp didn’t get to be the giant corporation is it by being timid. So let’s say your digital-first publisher plans to:

  • Publish your manuscript in e-book form in the English language, worldwide
  • Do the same in a print-on-demand edition
  • Consider the possibility of issuing a hardback or trade paperback
  • Maybe consider an audio version, if sales seem promising

That’s quite likely it. In effect, they’re saying “We need to be able to publish your book across all normal book formats and we’re the right people to do it.” That’s probably true, and that’s why you’re in the happy position of having a contract offer in the first place.

But Megacorp may also seek:

  • The right to sell your book worldwide in any language
  • Movie / TV and other dramatization rights

But why should they get these? They’re yours. If they have a specific, defined plan to exploit these rights – and they can share it with you and give you a named person to talk to on the subject – then fine. You may well wish to sell these rights under those circumstances.

Nearly always though, the company has no plan for these rights. Yes, Megacorp will go to the Frankfurt Book Fair with a list of books available for translation in its suitcase. But you won’t have any direct contact with the person selling. You’ll get no regular updates. You’ll have absolutely no way of knowing if any serious selling activity has ever been undertaken.

So simply reserve those rights. Say – politely, professionally – that if Megacorp presents you with a plausible plan for the exploitation of those rights, you’ll be very happy to consider selling them. But – no plan, no rights.

You wouldn’t normally hand something over for free just because someone asks for it, so don’t do it here.

Oh yes, and a literary agent selling those rights on your behalf would earn a 20% commission, so that’s the right amount to offer a publisher. Quite often publishers will demand the rights and ask for a 30% commission on sales. Which is greedy. And greed is bad, right?


This email is already ridiculously long, which means – alas – that I haven’t yet told you about the thing you most need to know about.

Ah well. I will come back to this subject next week. Until then, I shall just sit on my Little Box of Annoyances and try to stop it flying open.

Added a post 

I got an email recently which asked a perfectly sensible question: Does Jericho Writers keep a list of affordable but effective PR and marketing companies for books?

That question is one that gets asked by plenty of self-publishing authors who find – bizarrely – that just uploading a book to Amazon does not cause it to sell by the truckload.

It’s also asked by anyone with a micro-publisher that just doesn’t have the wellie to get the book at volume into bookstores.

It’s also asked, often enough, by authors whose traditional publishers don’t actually seem to do very much marketing at all. (A cover reveal? On Twitter? That’s your marketing?)

The answer, I’m afraid, is very simple:

There are no affordable yet effective PR & marketing companies for your books. Such companies don’t exist. And can’t.

Here’s why.

Let’s start with the way that traditional big publishers hope to market books. The effort starts, not in fact with marketing, but sales. The sales team will try and place your book with as many big, physical retailers as possible.

In the old days, you could come to Barnes & Noble or Waterstones in the UK waving a big chequebook. You’d buy space on the front tables, and you knew that your product would be highly visible to its core audience. These days, both firms (sisters now, with the same boss and the same owner) have done away with such practices. Local store managers choose what to display, which is great for readers, is better ethically – but was a real blow for publishers.

Instead, publishers today will focus heavily on the supermarkets (and, in the UK, WH Smith). Those retailers don’t stock a vast number of titles, but they love to sell at a discount and their footfall is huge. You could write a deeply mediocre book but, if it was selling at a good discount across all the supermarkets, it will sell well, for sure.

So let’s assume that your book has reasonable physical distribution nationwide. That’s the point at which publishers’ marketing and publicity teams will really get going. There’ll be campaigns on social media. Lots of work with bloggers. Lots of work with newspapers and magazines. Perhaps a bit of TV and radio if you’re lucky.

And what’s the point of all that press? You might think it’s this: ‘Inspire people to go out and buy that book.’ But it’s not. People aren’t inspired in that way, or not in anything like the volumes that matter. In fact, the purpose of that marketing is much more: ‘Plant a seed in someone’s mind so that, when they are in a bookshop or supermarket and happen to see your book, they think, Oh yes, I’ve heard about that …’

In other words, trad publishers’ marketing only works if the book already has decent distribution. That’s why you hear so many trad authors complaining that their publishers are doing no marketing at all. Those complaints are (mostly) perfectly justified. Publishers know that only a certain proportion of the books they buy will end up getting good physical distribution. Those lucky books will get all the marketing love. The others will be – politely, evasively – sidelined, because even the world’s biggest publishers can’t successfully promote a book which isn’t widely available for sale.

(And, by the way, self-publishers have a further disadvantage, namely that a lot of self-published books are crap. Newspapers and the like don’t want to promote a book that might be crap and they can’t be bothered to read your book to find out if it is or isn’t. So the easy call for them is to show interest in publicity calls from the big publishers but to ignore calls about anything self-published. That’s not really fair – you want a book to be judged on its merits – but that’s how it is.)

And, for a very long time, that was the only way that books could be marketed successfully. The rise of Amazon and the e-book has created two more:

1. You are signed up with a really good digital-first publisher

In that case, the publisher will have curated relationships with bloggers in your niche. They’ll have carefully tended mailing lists of readers in your niche. They’ll have extensive engagement with your target readers on social media. They’ll also have deep knowledge of such things as metadata, cover design, blurb writing, pricing strategies, and so on.

Those things will successfully win readers on Amazon, but the publisher isn’t going to start offering its resources to third-party books, because why would it? Those resources are needed for the publishers’ own authors. No marketing company can pay to create those resources, because they’d never generate enough income to repay the cost.

2. You are an effective self-publisher

Self-publishing is much the same as having a really good digital-first publisher – except you’re the publisher. And what you lose in scale (number of bloggers emailed, number of followers on Twitter), you can easily win back in laser-targeting and readers thrilled at direct connection to the author.


So those are the only three ways that books sell:

  1. Traditional PR and marketing running hand-in-hand with extensive physical distribution
  2. Digital marketing by firms with deep audiences in your niche
  3. Digital marketing by you (probably centred on your mailing list and topped up with nimble advertising on at least one ad platform.)

Third party marketing firms do exist. Many of them are ethical. I’m sure a lot of them try hard and do good things. But they can’t succeed. Not really. They may boost sales, for sure, but they are highly unlikely to boost them by enough to repay you for the cost of doing so.

My advice to authors remains the same, always.

Whether you work traditionally or self-pub or as a hybrid, work to build your own mailing list. Make sure the people are on it for the right reasons. (They love your books, not because you give away biscuits.) Stay in touch. Write more books. Rinse and repeat.

If you do that, you won’t need third-party marketing. It won’t matter Whether or not LoPrice Supermarkets Inc stocks your book or not. You’ll have your own reliable marketing tool that will grow stronger the more you use it.

That’s it from me.

The news is full of some weird story from America. Old guy in Washington moves house. Jeepers. You’d think they’d find something bigger to focus on.

Added a post  to  , harrybingham

Wonderful reading 

Added a post 

I’ve just finished reading a book. I’m not going to name the book, because we don’t need to get into all of that. But it’s a traditionally published book by a very well known author. Probably one you’ve read yourself.

In my opinion, the book offers an excellent reconstruction of a historical period. The characters are vivid. The book is a thoroughly decent read to anyone who wants their tale of domestic bliss to have a bit of Soviet-era menace.

And the plot? Well.

There is a plot, but it’s thin. Because I’m not naming the book, I won’t tell you the story – but suffice to say, I tried summarising the plot just now and found I could do so, comfortably, in 20 words. That twenty-word summary really left nothing of substance out. Sure, there are further details you could add. (“Jude goes to Gretta’s house, seeking help, but Gretta warns Jude that …”) But honestly? You can summarise the entire plot in twenty words.

By contrast, I don’t think you could summarise one of my plots at the same bare level of detail in fewer than a hundred words. Realistically, you’d need a whole lot more.

What’s more, even if you summarised one of my plots as tautly as you could, you still wouldn’t have everything. My readers want complex mysteries which operate like brain teasers. Ideally, my plot logic should be too large to be seen in one view. If you could comprehend my story in a single glance, I haven’t done my job right.

Now I write the way I do for many reasons, but one of them is a near-panic about the possibility of being boring. I don’t want to bore my readers, ever. The simplest, surest safeguard against being boring is writing characters that people care about in a story that keeps changing.

I don’t know how the author of this book thinks about things, but their priorities are surely different. They’ll happily spend fifteen hundred words having their character travel to a nearby place to bury something. On their way, they’ll think of their family, their life during the war, their times with past partners, and so on. And whereas in one of my books, burying something would unquestionably feature subsequently in the plot, (would they be found, or escape capture, or what?) in this book, the buried item never features again. The whole episode could drop out of the book and the story would be perfectly intact.

Now, this author is commercially and critically successful. They don’t sell in huge volumes, but they sell plenty and critics love what they do. So my strategy works. And so does theirs. And yet in some ways, they’re each other’s opposites.

Their core strategy is “go deep”. Mine is “keep moving”. 

Their readers don’t get bored, because the ‘being there’ experience is rich enough to sustain interest in its own right. My readers don’t get bored because I have characters that readers care about in a story that always moves.

So when I worry about being dull, my thoughts will turn first – usually – to plot. If they have the same worry, I would guess that their thoughts turn first to texture.

Which brings me to the big thought that propelled this email:

I think this book would have been better if the story had contained more bite, more snap. At its heart, there’s a sweet story about a happily married couple being happily married and everything being just fine and no real emotional challenge to their integrity as a couple.

And with my books:

I work tremendously hard to put as much texture in them as I can. Sense of place. Of changing season. Of minor characters. Of office and family dynamics. And I know for a fact that enriching my books in these ways makes them better. (And not just better, as in “more likely to elicit praise from critics.” But also, better as in “more likely to sell.”)

So I want to suggest this:

If you are naturally a plot-led writer, you should put a lot of conscious effort into enriching the texture of your books – anything to deepen that sense of “really being there”.

Equally, if you are naturally a texture-led writer, you should work hard to enrich the plot structure of your books – anything to enhance that sense of “what’s going to happen next?”

By working against your natural grain, you will most likely get the easiest wins, make the biggest difference, and do most for the all-round excellence of your manuscript.

I know for a fact that’s true of my own work. I’m pretty darn sure this other author would have written an even better book if they’d done the same. I’m pretty damn sure the same thing will be true for you too. Do you need to choose between the two? That’s a dumb question. You want both.

Oh yes, and if one piece of presidential-grade, impeachment-proof writing advice isn’t enough for you, here’s one more to complement it:

Keep your processes separate.

If you’re a plot-led writer, you’ll probably finish your first draft with a whole bunch of plot-tangles you need to sort out and a whole load of texture-enrichments you want to work on.

Good. Bravo. I applaud you. But do those two things in separate edits. Do the plot stuff first (because it’s structural.) Focus on the structure. Get that tidy. Then take a second run through the MS and tackle the textural things. That way, you’re looking at one thing, not two (or six). You can also get your head in the right place to tackle the task at hand.

All this, for me, is not very theoretical at the moment. I’ve 105,000 words into my first draft of Fiona #7, perhaps just five thousand words from the finish line. I know that there are several quite significant plot strands I need to sort out and I also know that my textural stuff isn’t yet quite solid.

Sense of place is going to be really important to this book and I’ve a feeling I haven’t quite got it nailed down. But my first edit will be for plot alone. The next will be all for texture.

That’s it from me. Go well, sweet people.

Til soon. 

Added a post 

As you know, I have about a million kids and they spend half their lives treating me as a climbing frame. My eldest daughter likes to climb on my head. I’ll quite often have one child on my lap, one on my head and one sliding down my shoulder.

Inevitably, in the course of this, parts of me get squashed, stepped on, or generally bashed about. When the kids ask if any of this hurts, I tell them, no, of course, not, I’m a man of steel. My younger girl takes that seriously enough that when I went swimming in the sea once, she was alarmed. Steel and seawater: even five-year-olds can see that’s bad.

Anyway. A month or two back, my missus decides – sensible woman – that we should both get broad spectrum blood tests. The sort of thing you do to check your general health, rather than to investigate a specific condition.

My tests were basically OK. Heart, fine. Vitamins, fine. And so on.

Except – ferritin.

My iron levels are through the roof. My transferrin saturation level (an indication of my remaining iron-absorption capacity is) stands at 91%. It ought to be somewhere between 25-30%.

Or, to put it another way, MEDICAL SCIENCE HAS PROVED I AM INDEED A MAN OF STEEL. At the very least, I am exceptionally – nay, dangerously - ferrous. Since learning the news, I have stayed well clear of industrial magnets and, during thunderstorms, I hunker down indoors beneath a rubber blanket.

There’s more investigation to follow, but it looks probable that I have haemochromatosis, a genetic condition, common in those with Celtic ancestry.

The bad news is that the condition is incurable. I’m just going to continue collecting iron forever, like a Soviet era tractor plant that never gets decommissioned.

The good news is that the solution is simplicity itself. Eighteenth century, in fact. I just need to bleed lots. If I lose my iron-excessive blood, the body makes fresh blood that has no iron in it. Easy.

Now you can lose blood in any number of ways. You can do it eighteenth-century style with cupping and leeches. Or any competent nurse can draw blood and discard it. Or I can just donate blood to any blood bank. It’s win-win. My blood will strengthen anyone who doesn’t have my specific iron problem. And I get stronger from giving it. 

And that, my friends, is your metaphor for today.

Almost every kind of writer-to-writer exchange is enriching for both parties. It makes you both stronger. Here are some examples:

  • I act as a beta reader for you. You act as a beta reader for me. We become better writers and (just as important) better readers too. (Townhouse is a good place for these kind of exchanges. It was built to do that.)
  • I mention your (genre-suitable) books in my newsletter. You mention mine in yours. We get more readers.
  • I buy you a drink at a literary festival. You buy me one. We talk. We bond.
  • I’m unsure about whether a particular agent (or publisher, or publishing model, or whatever) makes sense for me. You share your experience. I share mine. We both grow wiser.
  • Some bit of lit-tech is doing your head in. I share my knowledge. You share your knowledge of whatever-the-heck. We both become more capable authors.
  • Some particular bit of agent ****wittery (or any other sort of wittery) annoys you. Your author-buddies don’t just listen politely. They really understand your issue and why it bothers you. They might even have some suggestions about what to do. They know you’ll be there for them, if and when positions are reversed.

All that – and friendship.

Yes, you lot probably each have a million friends. I bet you go to all the best parties. I bet you call Harry and Meghan ‘Hazza and Megs’, as you lounge in their Californian infinity pool swilling their own house champagne. You and your beloved probably roll your eyes when Barack Obama texts you to invite himself round. Again.

But author-friends are special friends. They are impassioned by the same things that impassion you. They care about the same things. Their stock of knowledge will be the same-but-different. Giving knowledge, giving time, giving thought, giving an ear – all those things will build friendships, and fast. Take it from me that author friendships start easier and last better than any other sort.

And how do you get started? Well, as with most things, it gets easier after publication. You just hang out at festivals – ones specific to your genre, for preference – and drink yourselves silly with your fellow-authors. (Or at least, this is the technique employed by crime authors. I expect sweet romance authors just get together for cucumber fingers and a fresh mint tea. The hist-ficcers either slash at each other with broadswords or dance elegantly while talking in polysyllables.)

And if you’re not published yet – well, hooting heck, don’t moan at me. We built Townhouse for you, didn’t we? There’s room there for hist-ficcers, and sweet romancers, and space opera impressarios, and everyone else in the writing world too.

And honestly, my hope would be that, as well as connecting with one and all on Townhouse, you find your own writing buddy there. Someone who you work with privately, offline. Supporting each other. Believing in each other. Critiquing each other. Helping.

Giving blood will make me stronger. It’ll also strengthen those receiving it.

Writing-love works just the same way. Please give generously.

Added a post  to  , harrybingham

Good evening Harry,

I have stood on my work and completed my editing. Well nothing much is happening. Yes another lockdown. Used my time wisely now going to get some sleep.

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