Jon Dixon

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Coming back to writing after a long sabbatical. Back when dinosaurs and disco ruled the world I had several short stories published. I'm currently working on th4e first draft of a fantasy novel influenced by the connected Japanese philosophies of wabi-sabi and kintsugi - the embracing of the flawed or imperfect and the incorporation of visible breakages as an integral part of something of great value. The novel's theme and characters have been lurking in my head for decades and now seem to want to emerge into the light of day. I'm finding the process both exhilarating and terrifying.

I earned my living with an earring and a sword mostly as a professional actor for the first 20 years of my career, and then worked in the far less swashbuckling field of user experience design for the following two decades (no swordplay required). While acting I also worked as a freelance illustrator for paperbacks, role playing games and magazines, and I still keep my hand in with canvas and brushes (or more often now tablet and screen) though nowadays just for my own pleasure. So at least I have accurate reference for my characters' physical appearance!

I live in Derby (UK) with an elderly Bengal cat and three young(ish) chickens.

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There's a really interesting piece in the Guardian today from Philip Pullman. Lots of thought-provok…
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  •  · By the way, I've just got Pullman's 'Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling'. Have any of you re…
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Hi all, I wonder if I can ask for honest feedback on the attached short extract from my fantasy nove…
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  •  · Glad it was helpful Jon. From what you've said above, the 'thing' wasn't an issue for me. I understo…
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As I was writing yesterday, I was struck by the fact that my primary antagonist doesn't actually arr…
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  •  · My teacher was very much present I'll have you know.
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One of my favourite movies from last year was the James Cameron produced, Robert Rodriguez directed …
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  •  · An interesting little film/analysis. I will keep it in the back of my mind.It does appear that Holly…
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I wonder if I could call upon the kindness and wisdom of the Townhouse again, and ask for some feedb…
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  •  · Hi again, Sulya, and thank you for more insightful thoughts. You're right that there is a challenge …
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I noticed this article in the Guardian today.Flipping hell: book designers lament Waterstones' back-…
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  •  · Watching the broadcast tonight I have become more aware of how important the digital world is to rea…
Jon Dixon
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There's a really interesting piece in the Guardian today from Philip Pullman. Lots of thought-provoking wisdom and insight, as you might expect. The last few paragraphs struck me as being a really sensible view of the 'genre' debate that often crops up on here, much discussed and rarely if ever solved! What's particularly good is that, of course, Pullman approaches it from the writer's perspective.

I also very much approved of his choice for the 'most popular shelf in the library'! It was always mine too. 😁 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/oct/10/25-years-of-his-dark-materials-philip-pullman-on-the-journey-of-a-lifetime

Jon Dixon
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Hi all, I wonder if I can ask for honest feedback on the attached short extract from my fantasy novel - The Perfection Engine. Some of you have k already been kind enough to comment on the first chapter as well as a scene from later in the book. 

This chapter (partial chapter?) is a bit of a first draft work in progress. So as well as any comments on really egregious over-writing, showing not telling,  issues of psychic distance, repetitions and grammatical horrors, I'm really interested to see if the events portrayed make sense and are understandable. I'm actually trying to convey a very specific 'thing' that happens in the chapter which is quite difficult to describe. I think I've found a way to convey this 'thing' while keeping close to the main charcater's point of view... but I'm not sure if it works. Any thoughts as to whether the 'thing' that happens is clear (or not) would be most welcome.

Because this chapter is some way into the book, it references events that have already happened. So to hopefully help make sense of some of this and to give some of the context that readers of the book will have been given at this point, by now it will have been established that:

- Membra (the book's protagonist) is limbless, and has been for the last twelve years, as the result of injuries suffered in an unexplained attack on her home, the College of Thieves, and its subsequent destruction. 

- Steeltooth, the old librarian of the College, the man who raised her and she loved as a father, was violently killed in the same attack that injured her.

- In the following dozen years, following her recovery from the amputations that saved her life, Membra has adjusted to her new life as best she can. She is living as independently as possible, earning her living as an information miner and researcher, as well as (against all odds) operating as a thief when she can, years of training, dedication, acquired skills and ingenuity somewhat compensating for her disability. Outwardly, she has rebuilt her life. But inwardly,  haunted by regret and guilt, she is incomplete and broken, searching for a wholeness that can never be hers again. 

- A few weeks ago, during an unexpected and strangely well-paid thieving commission to purloin items from a well-guarded Remembrancer's Tower, Membra found a strange device, an ornate metal orb. To her astonishment, she remembers seeing it once in Steeltooth's quarters as a child, but when she had asked him what it was he only remarked cryptically that she would one day understand its promise and its danger. She never saw it again... until her semming chance discovery... or was it chance?

- In her research so far, she has found ancient historical and mythological sources that have given it a name - the Noumenon - and mention it as an object of great power and peril. But there is nothing, so far, that gives any indication of what it actually is... or what it does ... other than tantalising hints at it as the 'harbinger of perfection'. This strikes a chord  with Membra, who believes herself to be imperfect, and makes it all the more important that she finds out the Noumenon's secrets.

- On the night of the break-in when she discovered the Noumenon, she was surprised by a stranger who also seemed to be searching the Tower. He has since tracked her down and identified himself as Custos. An ex-mercenary haunted by his own violent past, Custos has been following his own cryptic trail to an artefact he has been told can grant forgetfulness and redemption to those racked with guilt... and it would seem that journey has brought him to the Noumeno as well.

- There are signs that other malevolent forces are also stirring as the result of Membra's find; indeed, Membra and Custos were attacked the night they first met, escaping only by the sking of their teeth. Bonding as the result of the shared danger, they have become at first reluctant allies, each suspicious of the other, and then - increasingly - partners and comrades. The trust has grown strong enough between them that Custos has recently moved into Membra's lodgings so he is on hand as her research continues...

Now read on! 😀  The doc should hopefully be attached.

Oh, and in the spirit of the recent posts about pictorial representations of our creations... here's an illustration to maybe whet the appetite! 😄 

image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=259&dpx=1&t=1601673643

Jon Dixon
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As I was writing yesterday, I was struck by the fact that my primary antagonist doesn't actually arrive 'onstage' until very late in the book. They are 'present' throughout (in flashbacks, through their influence on events, or through proxies acting on their behalf) but we don't actually meet them in the flesh until almost the climax of the book.

I idly wondered if there was a case to be made for completing this 'separation' by experimenting with changing the end of the book to remove their physical presence completely, and whether this would weaken or strengthen their role. In the end, I decided it wouldn't work - both the protagonist and the reader (I think) need that face-to-face confrontation for cathartic purposes - but it made me think about other fiction (book, movie, play, whatever) where a major character simply isn't there. Not where they physically arrive late in the story (like Boo Radley in 'To Kill A Mockingbird' for example) but where they are literally never actually present.

Two that I can think of off the top of my head are Sauron, the primary antagonist in 'The Lord Of The Rings', and Ellie, the protagonist's adored wife in Pixar's 'Up', who we see in the opening 'lifetime' montage but who dies before the story proper begins. In both these cases, although never actually present at any time, these are still crucial, primary characters who deeply affect the plot and the actions of the other characters throughout the story.

As a fun exercise, can anyone think of any others? 😀  Remember the rules:

1) Must be a major character who has a direct influence on the main plot

2) Must never actually be physically present in any way at any time during the entire course of the plot

(Can be any role - doesn't have to be an antagonist. In fact... extra brownie points if you can come up with a situation where it's the protagonist! Flashbacks, dreams, reportage etc. allowed, as are proxies)


Jon Dixon
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One of my favourite movies from last year was the James Cameron produced, Robert Rodriguez directed cyber-punk story 'Alita:Battle Angel'. I've been a fan of 'Gunnm', the original Japanese manga that it was based on, since its first issues hit the West in the early 1990s, and both Cameron's original treatment and Rodriquez's re-write do a very good job of compressing and re-working the sometimes sprawling storylines from the first four volumes of the manga into a coherent 2 hour plot that both respects the original source material and expands and refines it into something more suitable for the big screen. 

The story, while being a high-octane thrill-ride of sometimes violent action, also has a surprisingly emotional and tender core. It's essentially a coming of age story as we follow the eponymous cyborg heroine on her journey from broken, amnesiac 'insignificant girl' to the discovery that she's actually someone 'very special'. Along the way there's a developing father / daughter relationship, star-crossed teenage lovers, betrayal, bravery, revenge and redemption. It's got a great cast that includes Christophe Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali, and Rosa Salazar as Alita (in performance capture) gives the film its poignant and emotive heart.

OK. What's all that got to do with writing? Well, yesterday, a YouTube video about the film popped up in my suggestions, and I found it really interesting from a writing perspective. I don't agree with the video's creator's less than complimentary take on the plot (or lack of it) but his central thesis is interesting and insightful I think.

Essentially, he steps us through the film examining various ways that the film, and its writers, cleverly and deliberately manipulates the audience into first liking and then loving, the central protagonist - identifying with her, sharing her passions, her pains and her joys, and in the end being helplessly caught up in her story... despite (in his view) the actual plot not being all that good.

It gave me lots to think about, and I think he identifies many lessons for all of us as writers, either new or perhaps as reminders of the tools we have at our disposal to manipulate our own readers into identifying with our characters.

It's only 15 minutes or so long, and well worth a watch. 

********

WARNING: the video is FULL of spoilers. It practically reveals the entire plot. So if you think you might want to see the film (which I heartily recommend) and want to avoid having key themes and events of the plot spoiled for you... watch the film BEFORE you watch the video linked below! 😁 

*********

That said... enjoy! I'll be interested to see what other people think!


Alita Battle Angel — How to Manipulate the Audience | Film Perfection


Jon Dixon
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I wonder if I could call upon the kindness and wisdom of the Townhouse again, and ask for some feedback on the attached extract from a scene I'm currently working on?

It's around 2000 words long and taken from the latter half of a later chapter of 'The Perfection Engine', a work-in-progress fantasy novel (I posted a first draft of the first chapter for critique a while ago and got lots of hugely valuable feedback - thank you!).

For information, it is a sex scene. Though hopefully a little more than just a sex scene.

The scene serves at least three purposes in the book.

First, it's a hopefully tender, loving and revealing stage in the developing relationship between my two main characters (who start as wary strangers and have become friends, comrades in arms and finally lovers).

Secondly, it shows a rare 'dark night of the soul' moment for Membra, my main protagonist, where we see her reveal her usually hidden self-doubting side rather than the over-achieving, capable and resolute survivor that she usually shows to the outside world.

Thirdly, and most importantly perhaps, it's the moment when the overall theme and context of the book is stated most openly; Custos's story is directly taken from the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi and the art of kintsugi (I hope I'm not guilty of cultural appropriation in using these so directly) and the whole book, really, is an exploration into the wider application of these concepts. 

I'd really value peoples' thoughts on the scene in general, of course. As well as any 'technical' issues with the writing... does it work? Does it seem truthful? Does it reveal something about the characters and their relationship? Is it too much? Too little?

Additionally, given that Membra is my viewpoint character throughout the book and I want to avoid any unconscious lapse into the 'male gaze' trope, I'd also really value any insight from a female perspective. Does it feel as if it's experienced by Membra rather than 'told' from the writer's own (male) perspective? Does Membra have enough agency? Does it ring true?

I'd really like to avoid being a contender for the unofficial 'Bad Sex Awards' of 2020 (since, looking at the list of past winners of the real awards, I don't think I'm a good enough writer to be in with a chance of being entered into those!). 😂 

Be honest. Brutal if you need to be. Thanks so much for any thoughts or advice!

Jon Dixon
 added a forum 

I noticed this article in the Guardian today.

Flipping hell: book designers lament Waterstones' back-to-front displays

Apparently, due to the Covid situation, some reopening branches of Waterstones are displaying the books with the back cover outwards/upwards so that customers can read the book's description without needing to pick it up. If a customer touches a book but doesn't then follow up with a purchase it has to go into quarantine for 72 hours (the book, not the customer!).

As someone who used to contribute to book covers myself, I feel the pain of the cover artists and designers whose hard work will now be hidden away and unappreciated. But I found myself wondering what changes might be made in the long term if this practice becomes widespread and continues.

What will that mean for writers? Will the blurb move to the front cover eventually, perhaps reduced in length and incorporated into the book's cover design? Will the focus of the jacket design change over time to the back cover rather than the front? 

Either way, if the back cover is going to be the potential customer's first experience of the book, it makes it all the more vital to get the blurb just right. Something I personally find one of the hardest things. And I know from others' posts on the topic that I'm not alone in this. 

Jon Dixon
 added a forum 

Hi everyone. I've finally got a first draft I'm sort of OK with for the first few chapters of 'The Perfection Engine', my adult fantasy novel. No-one's seen this until now, other than the very first page (which Harry very kindly gave me some excellent feedback on which I've incorporated) and a short passage from about halfway through which was uploaded some time ago as part of another Harry-inspired critiquing offer! 

There's lots still to be done with it, I know, on the macro and micro level, and I have reams of notes for the eventual second draft, but I don't want to pre-empt any possible responses from the assembled expertise here by listing them! 😀 It'll be interesting to get confirmation of those faults as well as ones that I'm sure to have missed! For the same reason, I won't give a 'blurb' or a synopsis, so that it stands by itself as an introduction to the book... although some of you may have seen the elevator pitch or hook on others threads.

The big question, of course, as with any first chapter, is whether you're interested and intrigued enough to want to read more! Particularly as this one tends to introduce and hint at future characters and narrative threads rather than hurling the reader straight into action. I'd also like to know if the protagonist is someone you'd want to spend a novel's worth of time with.

I know it's fractionally longer than generally expected at around 3,300 words. Sorry about that. I'd love to know what people think - good, bad or even - worst of all - indifferent. Thanks in advance!


Jon Dixon
 added a forum 

Well, why not. What the hell...

In a response to Holly's beautifully heartfelt post about finding it hard to write this week, I shared an experience I had yesterday when I hit a wall in my own writing. I gave up trying to wrangle words that just weren't having any of it and starting sorting out some old box files in the office. One of them contained probably twenty years-worth of random, unsorted photos. And some of them were pictures of a holiday I went on fifteen or so years ago with my best friends to Corfu (in the ancient days when such a thing was possible). 

As I thought back to those two weeks of long, lazy cicada-serenaded days and nights I remembered the genius locii of the place , and I remembered a fancy that I had, all those years ago, when we were exploring in the hills above the villa where we stayed. And suddenly I had a ... thing... 'Story' is probably giving it too much credit ... a vignette. Based on that fifteen year old fancy, I wrote it down. And here it is, barely edited. I write fantasy, mostly, and I guess that's what this is.

It'll probably never be published. It'll probably never even be seen by more than a few people. Most of them on here I suspect!

Feel free to critique or hurl tomatoes or brickbats. Or maybe even olive branches or laurel wreaths if you're feeling particularly kind. 😀 


*************

Last Days

In the last days of the gods, and the second month of their affair, Panope took Antisthenes far up into the olive groves that shade the rolling hills above Corcyra. There, on a wooded slope that looked across the city to the sea, quite hidden, was an old shrine to the goddess Tyche, roofless and walled with ancient stone.

Panope pushed the door ajar and nodded, seeming satisfied with what she saw.

‘Come in,’ she said, and beckoned to him from a patch of dappled sunlight. ‘Come.’

Once within the walls, they sat on marble benches and ate their lunch of bread and cheese and fruit, and drank sweet wine. The sun was warm as oil against their skin.

‘I used to come here all the time,’ Panope said. ‘To write my songs and poems, play my pipes, and be alone but for my thoughts. Always alone.’ She looked around as if it was a place that she had never seen before. ‘I've never been here with another.’

Her eyes were sad again, her presence fugitive and insubstantial, Antisthenes thought, as if the sunlight gave her being and without it she would fade. His heart ached at the prospect.

‘Until now,’ she said, and lifted up the leather satchel that she'd carried with her, offering it to him.

‘Open it,’ she said.

Antisthenes undid the straps. Inside he found a set of reed pipes, very old and dark and worn with playing, some sweetmeats, perfumed oils and a long-toothed wooden comb. And nestled next to them were sealed ink pots, reed pens and rolls of vellum. On some such rolls the ink was old and faded. On a few the ink was fresh and dark.

‘What are these?’ Antisthenes asked softly, as he carefully laid them out along the bench next to Panope.

‘My poems. And my songs,’ Panope said. ‘Fragments of my heart.’

She lifted up one of the vellum rolls, the writing on it black and new, and offered it.

Antisthenes unrolled it, read it carefully, curiosity transforming into wonder then a strange amalgamation of heartbreak and joy. At the end his eyes were wet enough to blur the words until he blinked them sharp again.

‘You wrote this?’ he murmured.

‘Yes,’ Panope said, and offered up another.

Antisthenes read the second sheet. A tear welled at the corner of his eye. He shook his head.

‘You bring to me a gift,’ he said finally. ‘A thing of precious beauty. Your soul in ink.’

Panope’s eyes glowed bronze and amber, flecked with golden iridescence, pupils wide and dark despite the sunlight.

‘My soul?’ she said, almost a question. Then, like an epiphany, ‘My soul.’

Antisthenes read the sheets again, more slowly, as if each word were a revelation.

‘These are written recently,' he said. 'The ink is fresh. You wrote these since our meeting?’

‘I had not written for a year or longer. I'd stopped coming to this place. I had no reason to, until that day two months ago you met me in the woods. I was alone, the others faded all and gone. Until you came to me... and out of nowhere, in these final days, all my love songs are of you.’

Sunlight touched the spiral ridges of her horns with gold and chased away the sadness in her eyes. She seemed less insubstantial now. She smiled and stepped to him on delicate cloven hooves, her every move a dance, her arms outstretched. Their fingers met and gently intertwined.

Antisthenes drew Panope into a close embrace and gently brushed her lips with his. Her mouth still had the aftertaste of wine and peach-flesh. Her ears flicked with delight as she returned his kiss. She pressed herself against him, solid, real, as tenderness became an urgent need.

‘I will never let you go,’ he whispered as they lowered themselves down into the scented grass, arms wrapped around each other, skin to skin, the fur of her flanks soft against his thighs. ‘You are my treasure and my goddess. You have bound me to your beauty and your grace until whatever end may come. And even then, I will be with you, yours for all eternity.’

‘And I am yours until my fading,’ Panope breathed softly. ‘And beyond if possible. The ocean to your shore. Fuel to your flame. The blood within your heart. I love you, human man.’

That evening in the olive groves above Corcyra, pan-pipes softly played. All else was silence, sunlight, and enchantment, in the last days of the gods.

Jon Dixon
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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.

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

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

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