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*Mild suggestive suicide theme at the end. Read at your own risk.*

"That was a short quest," Riddle spoke to himself. "And rather harmless. I should be in more danger and excitement than the possibility of being trampled for half an hour." He giggled. "Should I go back into town and find another quest?"

Riddle stopped at the sudden echo of shouts far away. A murder of crows had cried out in the far distance, flocking away from the trees of the forest nearby. Even more hushed, the swaying of trees in no wind. The young boy blinked. Whispers flowed toward him, beckoning.

The puffy-haired boy pondered at the commotion and changed his direction, strutting across the field and toward the trees. Away from Kettle Town, and away from home. He marched through the silence of the field for near twenty minutes until he reached the very edge of Kettle Town - as well as the very edge of the forest. Its border was marked with a simple fence of twisted wire and wooden posts. Sun gleamed through the leaves with an orange afternoon glint, which warmly illuminated the forest bottom and the flecks of dust and tiny bugs in the air. It appeared welcoming and silent. Ahead, however, Riddle heard the very faint clank of metal and creaking somewhere in the woods. Another whisper even, but no wind.

Riddle pondered, one hand clutching a fence post, the other wrapped around his treat. "Something's in these woods," he sneered. "It could be a giant gastol, or a monstrous snake, or even some vengeful seeker lurking about in a hidden lair!" Riddle reached for his bag and pulled out a thick pocket book; Secret and Not-so-Secret Creatures of the Luether World. He ducked and strode underneath the wire border, crossing into the unclaimed territory that separated two towns by hundreds of miles.

One page after another, Riddle flipped through his book and plodded through the woods. Each page held information of all sorts of creatures. Many of them were animals Riddle had seen, or knew to exist, but others were labeled as mystical or magical. Only "real adventurers" who have traveled to treacherous places could say for certain whether they actually existed.

"If I could find a real life legend, the town would see me as one of the greatest adventurers of Leuther!" Riddle slapped the book closed and peered at the ground. No footprints or trails to be seen. He walked and walked, roaming deeper into the woods.

He looked back once, at the disappearing openness of the field a good distance behind him. The woods weren't thick, but the trees were large and looked the same. A tiny voice in Riddle's mind told him he shouldn't get turned around in them. His thoughts, however, were interrupted by a sudden voice that stiffened Riddle. It started out as a whisper, pulsating in the empty woods, but soon grew stable and loud.

"Leave... without a trail of crumbs...?" 

Just as it had come, the voice died out in a breath of air. Riddle pursed his lips, glancing wide-eyed at the motionless space around him. It was a rough, provocative whisper. He couldn't tell if it was far away or right there next to him-- it seemed to be everywhere at once. He glanced down at his loaf cake. Was someone watching him?

Riddle shrugged off whatever tension he felt and continued through the woods. He heard no spooky words whispered at him, but he did hear the creaking and clanking metal grow closer. In fact, it seemed much sharper and faster than before. More deliberate. He followed it deeper into the woods.

"Oh!" Riddle looked down. He had stumbled upon a trail of several footprints, quite possibly recent. They led into a small clearing ahead of him. His curious nature stepped in and examined the area. Whoever was camping there had a harsh encounter... Dirt had been kicked up and slashed through by blades. Hot coals from a fire had been scattered across the clearing, and belongings were ripped into the brush. Thick marks in the dirt and sand appeared as if several people had been dragged away while they were still struggling. 

"Oh."

The young boy rubbed an arm and bit the bottom of his lip. He thought, perhaps, wandering into the woods wasn't the best idea, after all. "Something seems awful wrong..." Riddle thought. "I could fight a dragon, but not some creepy killer in the woods."

He turned around, ready to head out of the woods and back home. Yet the whispering came back. It didn't sound like words, that time. Through it, another voice nuzzled through.

"Hey, k- H-Hey ki- kid," a dry voice uttered. Riddle gulped and peered behind him. It was a person, and they sounded like a broken record. It mumbled in a lower voice, to which Riddle could only make out the words cute and hurt. Riddle whirled around.

"Y-You need some help?" The person groaned. Riddle clenched a fist. "Saving someone from injury is just as courageous as defeating a dragon," he gave an abrupt nod. "I'll help you! Just gimme a second and I'll find you."

Riddle pranced into the opening and listened for the voice, which seemed to have come from ahead; The scrape marks in the dirt pointed the way. Riddle huffed, then charged forward to follow the voice. Whoever it was, they seemed very happy he was on his way. Given the strange, whispery, shriek-like chuckles, Riddle felt proud he was doing something to help a person in need.

He ran closer, and closer, and closer, until he was suddenly thrust into something he had never seen before. There he was, face to face with six familiar adventurers, dangling from their necks in the light of the afternoon.

The voices dropped and left Riddle to silence.


*End of chapter 4*
*Illustrations may be added*

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The old man sat at his porch and watched the fields. He hummed a simple tune and slowly rocked on his chair. All was calm. All was silent.

"Hmm," the old man furrowed his eyebrows. In the distance, a tiny, childish scream. "That be an annoying mosquito." The noise got louder. Soft thumping erupted in the distance as well. 

"Mister look ooouuuuuuuttttt," screamed the mosquito.

The old man sniffed and rubbed a small cloth on his thick spectacles, still humming and rocking on his chair. Not a moment later, a dozen blurry shapes whooshed by in a frenzy of hooves and moos, kicking up a storm of dirt and grass and sweeping away old leaves. Just as fast as they had arrived, they were gone. Another blur runs by.

"I got it!"

The old man watches this blur hop out of vision much slower than the others. Then all is silent once again.

"... ... Whaz that?"

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Riddle flopped down onto a stack of hay, his breaths hard and sweat dripping from his face. Pipper wagged his tail and hopped onto Riddle's stomach, much to the boy's agony. The sommel peered around the filled stalls with much pride.

"I hate--" Riddle wheezed, "how you--" another wheeze, "made me run that whole way back--" one more time, "you Egg-Butt--"

"Ahh, look at all my feemocks all tucked in them stalls!" The old man cooed at the closest feemock, rubbing its forehead. "What a good boy, Pipper, git'em good!"

Riddle huffed and patted Pipper's feathery head. Who knew that feemocks would be just as freaked out by sommels as people? "Pipper can herd real well, sir."

"Of course he can, stupid boy," the old man grinned. "Sommels are one of the best herdin' animals out there!" Riddle chuckled and looked back at Pipper.

"Oh, yeh," the old man hobbled over to Riddle, who was still leaning against the hay. He handed the young boy a gift wrapped in a handkerchief. Riddle took it, curiously.

"What's this?" Riddle peeked inside. It looked edible. It smelled even more so.

"It's yer reward for helping me herd my naughty feemocks! I think my shepherd boy called it a loaf cake. N-Now, it might be a little tough, but I promise it ain't more than a few days old."

Riddle beamed, smiling wide at the man. It wasn't a reward he would expect, such as jewels or gold, but he was grateful nonetheless. "Thank you very much, sir!"

"Yeh yeh yeh..." The old man turned, waving a hand. "Now git off my land, if ya don't mind, boy." He turned the corner and left Riddle's sight, mumbling through the steps of kicked-up dirt.

Riddle gently pushed Pipper off his lap. "Well, Pipper, it was a mild pleasure to kind of work with you." He tousled Pipper's head feathers. A long purple tongue flicked at his face in return. With a laugh and an "Eww," Riddle left the stable, closing the door behind him. His triumphant quest was over.


* End of Ch 3 *
* Illustrations will be added in the future. *

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Riddle spent far too much time simply trying to get Pipper out to the fields with him. The egg-butt creature wobbled relentlessly and found every moving thing to be a distraction. Pipper stopped to wreak havoc on every single ant pile by sticking his entire face inside. 

"No-- Pipper--" Riddle tried to lift the sommel up and away from his snack. He was hardly taller than Riddle's knees, yet seemed to have eaten rocks more than anything else in his lifetime. 

"I-- Need-- You-- To-- Help!" With all of the strength his little preteen muscles could muster, Riddle heaved the sommel up and carried him through the pasture. The fat creature blocked much of the view at his feet, not surprisingly, and Riddle spent an equal amount of time carefully stepping around holes, over roots, and into feemock poop piles. And just as soon as Riddle started to regret taking the stupid quest, he heard a faint moo in the distance. Riddle paused and peered around in the sunny pasture. "Bells?"

"Is that them," Riddle beamed. He lowered Pipper to the ground, who flopped down into a roll and popped back up. Pipper seemed to change his behavior quite suddenly. He paused to sniff the breeze, chose a direction and trotted forward, his brown fox-like tail stout against the pulling grass. Riddle followed.

He brought a smile to his lips when he saw the grazing herd of feemocks dead ahead of him. Pipper gave a snort and puffed out the feathers on his head, clearly ready to be useful, finally. But a question came to Riddle's mind: How the heck does one herd? 

"Do we just..." Riddle jumped up from his place in the grass and jogged toward the herd. He got about four feet away from them and they didn't react. He poked one's nose as it walked by. "They don't even care, though."

Riddle cringed. "'Hush-heck.' Stupid directions." He turned around at Pipper, who was watching Riddle from a safe distance. He was supposed to use Egg-Butt to herd, somehow. He pointed to the herd. He waved to the herd. He tried to pull Pipper to the herd with an imaginary force of wind. 

"Come on, Pipper, help me!" Riddle tried pushing a feemock toward the barn. It looked at him and walked off, leaving Riddle to do the Regain Balance Dance.

Pipper fluffed out its tail and took a step forward. 

Right into the vision of a single feemock...


* End of Ch 2 *

* Illustrations will be added in future updates*

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"Here ya go, kid!" The elderly man had thrust the door to his old barn wide open. Dust flew into their noses for a moment or two, and Riddle was left with an unexpectedly long stretch of silence. He looked at the old man, who stood there with a grin smacked under his bushy mustache and his arms proudly stamped at his sides. 

"What am I looking at," Riddle questioned.

The old man cackled. "Why you stupid kid!" He raised a shaky hand and pointed forward. Then left, then right, then pretty much everywhere else. "You need a sommel to herd the dang feemocks, little fella! They aren't gonna give a hush-heck if you leap at 'em, otherwise!"

Riddle examined the barn. There was a very tremendously noticeably large amount of lack of feemocks. "It's an empty barn, sir," Riddle said. 

"Naaaahhahaha," the old man laughed and scooted away from the barn. "Go on, Pipper, show the nice boy the ropes." He left Riddle at the entrance.

"But wait, I-- AAGH--"

Riddle screamed and waved his arms frantically in front of his face. He huffed, staring at a very confusing animal. It was a common furry brown animal with four legs, a bushy fox-like tail, and a decently long neck. The only really odd part about the apparent sommel was that its ass was shaped like an egg and its head puffed out with large, oval feathers. The sommel, in general, had the appearance of a very short camel with the head of an anteater and the torso of a slinky.

Riddle stared at the sommel. Pipper stared at Riddle.

"W--WW-W-W-W--"

"Get to work, slacker!" The old man yelled from his porch.

Pipper blinked his bulging eyes at Riddle and flicked out a slimy, purple tongue.



*End of Chapter One*

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When little Riddle opened his first book, he was greeted with the giant grins of mighty men and women draped with ragged clothes and bent armor. He saw sacks of gold and jewels, frightening monsters beheaded or caged. Weapons and maps, triumph and reward.

"I want to be like that," he thought. "I want to be an adventurer!" Riddle hopped up from a cozy little nook in his room to gaze at himself in the mirror. He imagined himself with a shortsword and dagger. He imagined sparkling armor encrusted with rubies. "How hard can it be?" 

Slinging around a leather bag onto his back, Riddle stormed out of his little hut determined to be an adventurer. He packed his books for guidance, a leather water pouch, and several snacks from the kitchen. That was all he needed, he thought.

"I'll go to town," Riddle huffed, "Surely there is some exciting quest for me to read about." 

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-

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--- Kettle Town ---

Riddle's town was very humble -- dirt roads, busy marketplaces, crop-filled carriages pulled by feemocks. Most buildings were little huts made out of rock, brick, or clay. There were one or two bars in the town, and one decent religious tower, but Riddle knew he had to go to the town's center - the market - to accept a quest. He had seen many rough townsfolk gather near the center where the "HELP WANTED" flyers were pinned. Sure enough, the bustling crowd parted just right for Riddle to see the board in its paper-filled glory.

He shifted the weight of his bag around on his shoulders and walked up to the board. There were a few rough-looking men and women ripping off and reading one of the posters, no doubt on their way to a brand new quest. They glanced over at Riddle, puffy white hair all a-mess and pale lips curled with determination as he stepped up to the board. He squinted to read some of the posters - they were a little too high up for his eyes. The explorers with their scars and scrutiny paused and stared in confusion.

"Hey, pup, what do you think you're doing?" The woman with her ashy red hair tousled in a year-old ponytail reached out a hand to tap on Riddle's shoulder. The young adventurer looked at her.

"I'm gonna go on a quest!" The woman's campaign chuckled slightly.

"Aren't you a little young for that?"

Riddle shrugged. "I think I'll be fine." A tiny hand reached up, pointing at one of the posters. "Hey, can you read one of those for me? I can pronounce some stuff, but I don't understand what it says."

The woman rolled her eyes. She glanced at a few of the posters, skimming over them until she found something that was more "suitable" for someone his age. She tore it off and said, "Here, this one says that there's a herd of feemocks roamin' around without a shepherd. Somewhere in the east pastures of Kettle Town."

Riddle took the paper and smiled ear to ear. "Thank you," he said, just as the woman and the rest of the adventurers left the board. They laughed a few seconds later. Surely not at Riddle.

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--- East Kettle Pastures ---

"Hello, sir," Riddle said, greeting an elderly man on his porch who held a hand on his arching back. He leaned much of his weight on a sturdy wooden cane and had thick spectacles peeking out from his scraggly gray hair.

"Hmm? What's that? Who are you?"

"My nam-"

"Git off my land, trespasser-- Y-y-you little ol' hootnginny--"

"But I thought you had a loose herd of feemocks." Riddle swayed to the left to avoid a wrinkly hand that stretched out to grab his face. The old man's thick glasses didn't help much with his vision, it seemed. 

"Eh? Loose? Oh, darn, that's right! The shepherd! Where's that skinny little ba-"

"Um, sir-"

"-ker. Skinny little baker, that feller is, I tell you what. I hire him to herd my feemock fellas for no darn good reason. He should stick to making stupid cakes!"

"You asked for help from the town, see?" Riddle held up the poster with the scrawled letters "HE   L P P  WA  N TT ED" in shaky letters. The man raised a skinny hand to his face and wiggled his glasses to read. 

"... Hmm..." The old man stared at the sheet. And stared. Riddle pursed his lips and pushed the sheet slowly forward until it nearly touched the old man's nose.

"Ah, yes," the man exclaimed. "Come with me, boy. Gosh, where were you a few darn good days ago? My herd about eaten my entire yard!"


** End of Ch1 Pt1 **

This is X-Factor speaking. I've been hunting for a good website to act as a place to write freely and receive critique; I'm looking forward to what Jericho Townhouse has to offer! As a little introduction about me, I am a young adult attending college and working part time to relieve tuition. I've always been somewhat of a hobbyist in writing itself, but I was always in love with the idea of storytelling, be it through illustrations or animation. That being said, I'd like to practice my skills and see where my passions will take me~ I'd deeply appreciate the help! 

-- X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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

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

The Da Vinci Code

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

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

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all from me.

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

Till soon

Harry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well.

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

There is no secret sauce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

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

The negative:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till soon

Harry

Added a post 

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

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

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

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

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

And here’s another thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And look:

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

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

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

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

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

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

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

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon

Harry

Added a post 

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

But –

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

And –

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

So –

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

Which bring us to –

You. Life. Books. Writing.

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

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

So Life vs Work?

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

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

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

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

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

So the solution is …?

Um.

Uh.

I don’t know. Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

And the gin, obviously.

Harry

Added a post 

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

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

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