michael.smorenburg

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A serial entrepreneur across a swathe of sectors—from e-commerce to home security, from consulting to hospitality.

I weave topics that stimulate strong passions into my stories— history’s impact on our modern world and particularly slavery, religion and it’s friction with science, anthropology and its trigger-points for bigotry, artificial intelligence and the daunting (and exciting) future ahead. I try to remain neutral in what I say in social media and rely on asking questions of naysayers to stimulate them to consider new viewpoints. 

In the mid-90s Keller Literary of Malibu sold 3 of my non-fiction “how-to" titles to Career Press and Adams Media. Now a novelist, my expertise is dressing facts up as fiction. I have five completed titles, two new titles nearing completion and sequels on the planning board. My American odyssey has left me confused about how to spell anything! I have been lucky enough to sell movie rights (and unlucky enough to never see them get funding) and thousands of copies of one title (A Trojan Affair) to the $2.4-Billion Square Kilometer Array organization (who use my novel about this massive science infrastructure to promote itself). 

I couldn't resist my cover pic of my home view--could a writer ask for more?!! It's a sneaky inducement for you to ask me, "where is that" and get you to visit someday.

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I’m seeking your general ‘reaction’:Whether it grabs you - whether you’d want to read on - whether i…
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  •  · Solid burn, Branch. All I’m saying, is advertising is a wide genre, besides a select cut or two. All…

Just watched "Arrival" https://nites.tv/movies/arrival/, a movie based on "The Story of Your Life". Really good.

Halfway through, it struck me as tangentially similar to my novel, "The People Who Echoed" (I released it as "Ragnarok" some years ago, but it needed a total revamp, which I'm doing). Now I'm spurred to really give it a big push.

For the hell of it, here's the opening.

Any thoughts/reactions are greatly appreciated.

___

CHAPTER 1

Westbound Jet, Paris to LA, North Atlantic
Tuesday, 17 August (Present day)
Latitude: 57°01'09"N
Longitude: 15°56'00"W


In thirty years of mouthing her 'keep us safe' boarding-prayer, Tegan Mulholland had never got feedback.

So, quite what that sneaky orgasmic buzz was all about, had her puzzled as she shuffled down the aisle toward her seat.

“5B”, she read on the overhead luggage bin.

Her seat at 2B was three ahead. She could see a blond head already seated in 2A at the window.

Probably static electricity when she touched the skin of the plane, she thought, and then immediately second-guessed herself. A jab from static wouldn’t raise gooseflesh on her arms and send a shudder up her spine.

Premonitions aren’t really a thing, she laughed inwardly at the ridiculous thought of it.

Besides, if it was a premonition, what was she going to do? Head back to the terminal?

The guy in 2A looked up and beamed a smile at her. He had twinkling eyes and attractive crow-feet wrinkles that said he laughed a lot.

“Pete,” he extended his hand in greeting.

His voice had a twang. Foreign or Deep South? There were twelve hours in this tin can to find out if she cared to

Orgasm, she mused, stowing her luggage. It was almost laughable how distant and overdue that memory was.

“Looks like a nice empty kite,” Pete remarked as she settled into her seat.

He was a well bronzed Ozzie, maybe forty and in good nick.

As orgasmic premonitions went, perhaps this one wasn’t all bad, she amused herself.

Trouble was, Tegan wasn’t the superstitious type. The prayer ritual was a family tradition from dad. Aged six and in his arms, “Keep us safe,” he’d whispered in her ear, patting the aluminum flask of the Boeing as he ducked out of the sunshine into the fuselage three decades ago.

She’d never omitted to mumble that prayer and caressing the plane’s skin in hopeful gratitude as she stepped aboard countless jets.


Into a clear morning Parisian sky, they streaked.

For three hours, the beverage cart dispensed an endless feast of treats, helping to nibble away at the hours. The flight display said they were better than halfway across the Atlantic with nine more hours to reach Los Angeles when the seatbelt warning light pinged to life.

A moment later, the Captain crackled overhead, advising passengers to return to their seats.

“Darn it!” Tegan grumbled.

Engrossed in her spreadsheet, she’d delayed nature’s call for the past half hour.

She snapped her MacBook lid closed and slid it into the seat pocket in front of her, unclipped her seatbelt, and moved to stand.

The pinched-faced flight attendant patrolling business class came in like a missile.

“There’s a safety warning in place,” she loomed over Tegan, blocking her half stoop into the isle, the veneer of a false smile stretched over a bitter personality looked close to ripping.

Tegan had seen this flight attendant’s hackles rise the moment their eyes and met back at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

“I’ll be just a moment,” Tegan assured sweetly.

“Sorry, ma’am,” she placed a restraining hand on Tegan’s shoulder and had a spiteful edge to her voice.

“Well then…” Tegan inclined her head, “could you bring me a blanket and potty? I really don’t mind going here. It really is that urgent.”

She turned to Pete. 

“You don’t mind, if…” Tegan peered to read the attendant’s name badge, “Bertha here lets me go under a blanket? I’m bursting.”

“Awww… naagh wurries,” Pete patted her empty seat enthusiastically and beamed a suntanned smile as broad as his feral Australian accent. “Blanket’s as good as a bush.”

Bertha made herself scarce.

Tegan was back and buckled up before the plane made its first giddy swoop.

“Whoa! That’s a big one!”

“That’s what all the Sheilas say.”

“Yeah, yeah… Thanks for the help with Adolf.”

“Bluddy buncha dickheads on this flight. No sense-a humor, either.”

“Yeah,” she cleated her seatbelt back in place.

The door to get to know her now open, Pete was studying her openly.

Were Cleopatra ever to be recreated, Tegan would be the mold they’d use. Jet black hair to her shoulders, a subtle slant to eyes set atop high cheekbones, and perhaps a hint of Japanese genes in there somewhere made her exotic. Smokey blue eyes betrayed her strong Nordic roots.

She smiled at him, studying her, and returned the compliment.

He’d certainly seen his share of sun. Those mirth-filled eyes were complemented by dimples that pinned creased brackets either side of his widely smiling mouth. 

The only downer was the over-developed masseter chew-muscles of his jaw. They hinted at gritted teeth, and gritted teeth were the mark of every steroid gym-jock posing on Muscle Beach at Venice, just down the drag from her Malibu home.

The body beautiful clearly lurking under his linen shirt, completed the picture.

Gotta be a narcissist.

There wasn’t a place for two in a narcissist’s life. She’d found that out more than once.

She smiled genially and opened her laptop. The screen was a forest of numbers in a spreadsheet, and graphs sketching the results.

She’d spied him watching her work for the past hour, sneaking peeks past the book he was reading.

He started watching more openly now, so she decided to give him a show.

Her fingers were nimble and practiced as she tickled the rows of numbers in the spreadsheet. The graph danced a synchronized duet. She paused, nodded to herself, liking what she saw.

Then she spotted an opportunity, and her fingers executed another blur of activity, the graph obeyed. The result looked even better.

“You not still gonna bugger more with those, are y’a? I mean, how long can you torture the poor bluddy things.”

“Until they talk to me,” she smiled.

“What you hoping they’ll say?”

“That I get a Christmas bonus.”

He laughed.

“You all right for a yank. I mean, you a looker… that much is obvious. But you got balls too. I reckoned from the moment I saw you that you must be from the coast. New York or LA—being human-shaped an’ all that.”

“You sure do know how to chat up a girl, Mr. Outback.”

“Aww… you too kind.”

“Originally Maine; L.A. now.”

She went back to her work, and he carried on scoping her.

“You were really gonna take a whizz out here? Under a blanket?”

She laughed, “What do you think?” She looked up from the screen a moment.

He interrogated her eyes for his answer.

“Yep… you’d ‘ve done it,” he concluded. “I like that. Tough lady.”

She smiled at him and returned to the figures.

“Seriously? You not gonna talk to me?”

“I’m talking, aren’t I?”

She looped that persistent stray hair back behind her ear, secretly beginning to enjoy the distraction and his loose, comfortable chatter.

“Yeah… but I kinda like the eye contact. Eyes your color…” he whistled quietly in appreciation, “only ever seen that sorta depth in the Aegean off Greece.”

She nodded and kept pecking at the keys.

“What’s that screen got that I don’t have?”

“A hundred bar.”

She turned her torso to face him chest on, and he matched her pose, a wicked twinkle alive in his eyes.

Perhaps she’d misjudged his physique, she decided. It looked more honestly earned than a weights room. His nose meandered in a way that suggested he was no choirboy. Her dad had been a boxer in his day, and he wore the same badge of honor. 

The sun-drenched tan on his hands and forearms protecting from turned back cuffs harked to lots of outdoor expeditions.

He was so unlike the men in her world.

You have no idea how seducing you are, she thought as she gently tipped the screen on her MacBook closed.

His Clive Christian No.1 aftershave hadn’t helped her to resist the heady mood. It had been a good part of the killer aphrodisiac spinning its web from the moment she’d taken her seat hours ago. 

Pete smiled, clearly enjoying her appraisal.

A moment later, as if their entangling souls had clicked like magnets, something dropped within her chest. She saw the shock in his eyes too.

He responded in a most quirky manner, almost like a pubescent boy caught peeking through a keyhole. He bulged his eyes and rocked his head in the manner of a Bollywood actress.

“Oh, very attractive, Pete,” she smiled, not knowing how else to cover her mild surprise.

Hmmm… afraid of intimacy, “…and a little worrying.”

His face cracked into an engaging smile that set her heart aflutter.

It wasn’t worrying, it was charming, she decided.

“So, you’ve got a name?” she posed.

“Pete,” he extended his hand again for a shake.

“As if I didn’t just call you that…. A last name.”

“Ahhh, yeah. Crawford.”

“Pete Crawford… Okay. I’m pleased to meet you, Pete Crawford.”

“And you are?”

“Tegan, of course… Mulholland.”

“A pleasure, Ms. Mulholland.” He emphasized the ‘Ms.’ as a question.

“Missss,” Tegan corrected, hissing the clue.

“Miss…” he repeated with a wry smile. “And we’ve got, what…?”

He shrugged his watch unnecessarily from under the turned-back cuff, a comic glint in his eye.

Her eyes fell on the chunky timepiece on his wrist.

“…Only eight more hours to get to know one another.” He saw her notice and presented the watch as if it was a trophy. “Ahhh, this old thing,” he grinned, pantomiming as if she’d asked him about the watch.

“Breitling? Is that what you want me to ask?”

“Awww jeez, no. Breitling? That’s for bluddy poofters. Naagh.”

She took his wrist and examined the hardware.

“Now, that feels good,” he grinned.

“Richard Mill…” she read the maker’s name aloud. “…Automatic Chronograph Diver… are you one? A diver? Should I be impressed?”

“With me, my diving, or the watch?”

“You’re a pain in the ass, you know that, Pete?”

He nodded cryptically and winked with a twinkle in his eye.


They chattered on for an hour and more, Pete successfully diverting Tegan from work every time she retreated to it.

The fasten-your-seatbelt sign had long since extinguished, and passengers were sporadically moving about the plane.

“Honestly, honey. I love you dearly already. But you’re a real distraction, and I have more than a few pennies riding on this pitch.”

She laid her elegant hand with gentle poise on his forearm as she said it and electricity sparked between them.

Yikes! She thought. What was that?!

Below the linen and his skin was real strength. Uncanny strength. Unyielding strength. This was no gym boy.

“A hundred, you say?” Pete had clearly felt it too and was redirecting them both back to the superficial, to her earlier mention of the figures on her screen.

She nodded.

“Bar…? Hundred bar, as in million.”

She nodded again, smiling, pleased that she’d impressed him.

“Dollars? US Dollars?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, if you’d told me it was a cheap flick, I could have made a call and fixed you up already. We’d already be on our third glass of celebratory Moët by now.”

“You’d have to go to First Class to get Moët,” she retorted, a sting of irony folded into her tone.

But again, she turned in her seat. There was something in his voice that told her he really meant it about the finance.

He’s either nuts or more intriguing than I thought.

“So, you’re sitting here in Business Class telling me you’d pull a hundred bar with one phone call? You don’t honestly think I’ll take you seriously?”

“And are you in First Class doing your hundred-bar sums?” he counter-challenged with an impish smirk. “I don’t think so. So, if I’m a bullshitter because I’m in Business, where does that leave you?”

“Hmmm… but I have a studio paying for my ticket in Business, what’s your excuse?”

“And they don’t reckon you’re worth that hundred-bar to sit upstairs?”

“Well, who’s paying your ticket?”

“Me. That’s why I’m flying cheap. I need to be in California. Business and First Class arrive simultaneously.” 

“A practical man…Well, we’ve got a stalemate,” she smiled engagingly, steadily drawn to the man. “Both got big claims and good justifications.”

“I don’t care if you don’t believe me, Sheila. It is what it is.”

If it wasn’t for the accent, it would have sounded rude, but somehow he made it a challenge.

“What’s scary is that I do believe you.”

“Don’t. I’m thoroughly untrustworthy.”

“But, you’re honest.”

“Well…” he paused, pondering that. “When I burn money, I do it properly and not on a few hours of posing.”

His smile made something within her femininity contract.

“So… What do you do? Professionally, I mean.”

“Tell you over dinner.”

“We’re flying with the sun, we’ll only get lunch up here.”

“Yeah… like I said, I’ll tell you over dinner.”

She looped the stray hair behind her ear again, “I don’t think so.”

“I’m a betting ma—”

The plane slammed with a teeth-clashing impact. The fuselage responded with that wrenching crunch along its length that a chiropractor torques out of a spine.

 “OOOOOFFF…!” The air got driven out of Tegan. Her knees dodged a slop of Perrier that leaped from the glass on its way to her lips. Just a fraction of it hit the hem of her canary-yellow pencil skirt near her left knee as it went by.

“I hate it when these goddamned planes do that.”

“Nothing t’ worry about, except that thing.” He pointed accusingly at the closed laptop with some of the spilled water on its lid.

Tegan quickly brushed the drops away but left the computer on the open tray table.

PING—the fasten-your-seatbelt sign illuminated again, and a garbled apology about “clear-air turbulence” competed with passengers’ conversations.

 “I’m a fatalist,” Tegan shrugged. “The plane breaking up doesn’t worry me. Airsickness does.”

“Jeeezus, you not gonna chunder, are you?” Pete looked genuinely worried and ducked his knee to sidesaddle, away from it, touching hers as it had snuck its way to doing over the last few minutes of conversation.

She pointed to an anti-motion-sickness plaster behind her ear.

“Nope…. I use protection.”

“Awww, God… great. Would’a spoiled this whole date,” his craggy face breaking into a smile, those nested brackets either side of his mouth and the crow’s creases feet framing ice-blue eyes. “You’re a really solid Sheila.”

They were silent a moment, and a strange thought flitted through her head that made her frown slightly; she contemplated what he might look like with a beard. It would be a pity to cover over that much character, she decided. That moment a cold shudder went through her that made her mind leap to the old cliché of someone walking on her grave.

She looked out of the window, down onto the plane of clouds thousands of feet below. It was a downy blanket from horizon to horizon. Only an occasional ball of cotton wool piled out above the planed surface. The tiny shadow of their jet ran over its surface.

“Look at that.”

Pete pointed to the monitor, at the progress of their little plane icon was making across the map on display. Europe was well behind them now, just a sliver to the right of the frame. The American continent was steadily creeping in from the left margin, already occupying one-third of the screen.

“Crossing the coast soon. That’ll be halfway.”

“Delightful,” she agreed. “Since you won’t let me work, any chance you’ll let me catch a few winks?”

She pulled the battleship-grey fleece blanket up to her chin.

“Forget it,” he smiled.

“At least you’re honest.”




CHAPTER 2

Operations H.Q., DARPA (State Dept.),
Arlington, Virginia
Tuesday, 17 August
Latitude: 38°52'43"N
Longitude: 77°6'31"W


“Confirmation in from Admiral Pinnock, Chief of Joint Operations. Geoscience Australia reporting a seismic event eight minutes ago at five-five…four-nine…zero-three South and One-five-nine…two-six…zero West. They’ve triangulated to our rig.”

The frown that furrowed Daxton Cronner’s forehead creased even deeper, giving his face the appearance of a stratified cliff. The creases of his career and stresses of this project were now permanently etched into his expression. Grey dominated what was left of his hair.

This mission ranked off the charts for confidentiality. Labeled TS/SCI—above Top Secret—it also carried the Sensitive Compartmented Information designation.

Daxton was one of fleetingly few individuals with oversight into all compartments of information as a whole, to know what every department of engineering was doing and how they’d fit together. That oversight knowledge had come to lie far beyond his comfort zone.

TS/SCI meant that, similar to the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear bomb, only a handful of scientists and brass knew all of the details and objectives. Those down in the pit, working on the project’s implementation, only knew the part that engaged them. They had no knowledge of the details specifying how it was going to achieve the intended feat that they were monitoring.

As Daxton watched, the feedback was pouring in from the clutch of key individuals in friendly governments who were not on the inside of the TS/SCI confidentiality barrier but had been apprised of possible climatic or tectonic anomalies that might flow from the test.

All they had been told was that the two tests underway in the ocean between Antarctica and Australia might produce limited atmospheric phenomena.

“The white-coats say it’s a-go. All telemetry was on the money,” Lincoln O’Dowd, Project Director assured, sweeping his hand to include all mission control operators hunched at their monitors.

“Seismic anomalies within a five hundred nautical mile radius were expected, sure,” Daxton rebutted. “Just about nobody lives within that zone, and yet big questions are being asked at the diplomatic level.”

“From precisely where?”

“Hobart, obviously. Perth and Sydney…”

“Fifteen hundred nautical miles?” O’Dowd’s hand came up to his face and massaged sudden tension from his jaw. “Okay… That’s a little over spec.”

“A little… Try two thousand miles… Darwin, in the northern territories, took a jolt. Grumbles from Auckland... They’ve all triangulated it and zeroed in on our rig in the Southern Ocean….”

“Fine… but the rest of the telemetry is spot on?”

“That may be but then why th—”

“T-minus sixty seconds,” the audio-prompt piped in from the operations room.

The tension in the air grew palpable. 

“I wouldn’t…” Daxton’s voice was an octave high with fear. “I’m strongly advising to abort.”

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is a U.S. Department of Defense agency responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military.

NASA was underwriting these experiments.

The results from this phase of tests would have implications for humanity’s future.

Codenamed ‘Time Bandit,’ the test firings were, due to technical imperatives, scheduled just ten minutes apart.

‘Time’ had just done its stuff, ‘Bandit’ was now mere moments away from popping.

Together, project Time Bandit would set a new course in interstellar travel. It was the first step to developing an experimental warp-drive engine planned to be NASA’s great leap forward.

The technology would warp the very fabric of spacetime, allowing a craft to cover the imploded distance between two points instantly—exceeding even light speed.

The experiment had two identical phases, different only in magnitude.

The first detonation was a test, a test that had yielded side effects outside of the anticipated envelope.

The second phase was about to trigger. It would be orders of magnitude more violent.



I’m seeking your general ‘reaction’:

Whether it grabs you - whether you’d want to read on - whether it's confusing or should start at a different place.

Basically - whether I should keep the day job :-)

It’s a re-write of a 117 000 word novel I wrote on a beach in Spain in 1995. Spelling set for Americanese

(hope you’re all safe in these crazy-virus-ridden times)


___

A dab at the ‘play’ button and the Boardroom lights dimmed, hauling attention back to the 100-inch wall monitor where the digital leader counted off the seconds to video start—9-blip… 8-blip… 7-blip…

“Mark’s team did something exceptional with your brief…” Kathleen Shaw, the founder of Dreamscape Ad & PR, began introducing the second campaign of her agency’s pitch. “I’m very prou…”

“The cripple?” Tom spoke over her. “Mark the cripple?”

She tapped the pause button.

…blip-1… was frozen on the screen, half pixilated away to the start of the action.

“Yes, Tom. Mark Riggs,” she kept the anger from his insult out of her tone.

“Amazing.” Sarcasm was thick in his voice. “He put in a day of work? Whadaya know. I’m breathless with anticipation. Carry on then.”

Mark headed up the computer graphics creative team. This was his final assignment before the inevitable. That Tom somehow knew he’d worked remotely as best he could, was both infuriating and daunting. 

“You do understand its motor neuron disease?” It was all the rebuke she dared to venture. 

“Yeah, yeah… every bum has a sob story.”

“Come on,” her open palm gestured exasperation. “It’s genetic bad luck.”

“And the tattoos?” he snorted his doubt.

“They’re irrelevant to his health and work.”

“He’s sure got you duped.”

“I’d appreciate keeping with the review,” she urged, her voice now clipped.

Getting under her skin brought a hint of a smirk to Tom’s expression.

“I’m not saying your lot are bad, Kath,” his voice was suddenly engaging and warm. “So far, not bad. You’ve done reasonable work. But admit it… Faggots and creeps you’ve got over there. It’s a freak show. If I ever let them in here, we’d have to fumigate .”

It was supposed to be funny, but she couldn’t bring herself to smile.

He paused, openly appraising her.

Auburn hair to her shoulders, she wore a canary yellow Versace pencil skirt to the knee, just the way she knew this key client liked it. She was a rare specimen who needed little more than shampoo and hairdryer to show up looking fabulous. The blush of makeup she’d applied for the occasion, had even drawn a compliment from the man. Perhaps the makeup was a bad idea. He couldn’t stop looking at her, his eyes a little too hungry.

“You’re alright, though,” he gave his verdict.

She drew her breath and pressed her hands to the mahogany tabletop till the color drained from their margins, her anger daring her quick tongue to say what he deserved.

It would probably kill the deal—or maim it at the very least.

Of course, killing the deal would kill her company, would kill her employees, would destroy everything she’d worked a decade to build before this big-break came along. The Executive-Limits contract had come with a ‘jealous God’ exclusivity clause and a fat retainer for the trouble. The beast that Executive-Limits was, it would tolerate no other account handled under the same roof. Accepting those terms meant Executive-Limits and Executive-Limits only.

On paper, she was still single, still an independent company, still her own boss. In truth, though, she found herself steadily being reeled into a hostile marriage. It was more than her junior company manacled to the megalith.

For the thousandth time, she thought back to that moment six months ago when, with a trembling hand, she’d inked contract, then turned around and burned her bridges behind her.

She’d had no option though—the retainer and bonuses were off the charts.

The terror of the drastic decision to sign had melted when the first retainer hit her bank. It weighed in at more than her previous eight months of gross revenues combined. The second retainer a month later was twice that again—and the obscene revenues had doubled yet again when she outstripped her performance marks.

She was drinking from the fire-hose of success, adding staff as fast as she could find them globally, leasing new equipment, and expanding offices in other territories. She was galloping bareback on a steed with pepper under its tail, clinging to the thing’s mane with grim determination.


“Just glad you approve of the work,” she said, keeping her voice as steady as she could manage, and hating herself for it. “Can we move on?”

As Tom examined her, that hint of a triumphant smirk crept up the corners of his mouth. It was all gameplay, a ploy to unsettle.

And it happened again. His eyes slid for an instant to her lips, caressing them.

It was so fleeting, so masterfully done, that she second-guessed whether she’d seen it at all.

It should be creepy, she knew that. But the guy could pull it off. Perhaps it was his money and confidence, but somehow he made it strangely exhilarating, like juggling blindfolded with hand grenades.

Charisma. That was the problem. The Devil had doused the bastard with a bucket full of it.

Everyone knew that when Tom Ferris turned the charm on, he could get away with anything.

He knew it too.

Angry as she still was, that something stirred again, all the way to her loins. The animal thing that had been there from their first handshake, the courting danger that she hated herself for so readily succumbing to.

He’d hooked her again. She caught herself rising to his challenge, locked in a stare-down, his smirk morphing into an engaging smile, wheels turning behind those fathomless eyes.

Without breaking eye contact, he reached out and dabbed the intercom button on the conference table. “Nance, before you leave, another latte for me and a double one for Kathleen; she’s got a long night ahead.”

He cut the connection halfway through his PA’s confirmation.

Kathleen broke off the stare. “Thanks,” she offered and dropped her eyes into her lap. When she looked back, he was poking away at the iPad as if she and the review screen on pause didn’t exist.

She waited patiently, the uncomfortable crackling silence stretching time.

Her finger itching to hit the ‘play’ button again, the half-pixilated “1” of the countdown was still frozen on the wall monitor, the first frame begging to burst into action hiding in the background.

They’d gone all-out to showcase the diversity of Executive-Limits’ capability in simulation training. They’d plucked scenes from every conceivable facet of human endeavor.

The first session behind them had featured a heart surgeon and an astronaut, each coping with crises. Next up, it was time to cater to Tom’s whim, a military theme.

The narrative that he’d demanded would never have been on her choice list; it was a fatal Public Relations nightmare in the making. But he was the boss, and he’d insisted on shock and gore, on skirting the precipice of a woke world—a world Tom predictably scoffed at.

Hers was not to judge, only deliver. And, boy, have the team delivered.

They’d been at this review for nearly an hour already, and they’d barely scratched the surface of what she’d come to show. It was time to move the meeting along. 

“Ready?” she ventured, her finger hovering over the play button.

Tom nodded his permission but kept at the iPad.

 Click... blip.

##

“I’m God...”

A man’s voice, soulless, and matter of fact, cut the silence. A green murk of night vision materialized onto the screen, the view moving beyond the crosshairs, following a meandering network of tracks winding through scrubland far below.

This ad was the drone footage concept that Tom had prompted at the last briefing.

Telemetry data and compass orientation scrolled with leisurely precision in a ticker-tape below the action, relaying the airframe’s drifting orientation to the horizon.

“...all-seeing, I’m Jehovah hovering above, with lightning bolts to touch the wicked.”

The camera tracking the night below drifted onto a deserted rural village and zoomed in on half a dozen phantoms busying themselves around a pickup. The crosshairs came to rest on the group. The scurrying figures were ethereal, pale-green spooks on a hurried mission, hefting loads into the vehicle.

“Their bad choices make my choices easier.” This Almighty sounded somewhat Southern. “Being God,” he paused unhurriedly, just a hint of Tom’s accent to win his approval, “has consequences. First rule: stay calm. Don’t overthink. Let them make the decisions. Let them be responsible for my actions,” and the frame cut for a moment to his trigger finger, squeezing the joystick.

Threads of lightning streaked away, fairy lights of death diving toward the green unfortunates. The vehicle swallowed four of them; six become two, and then the two evaporated into the pickup as the tracers stitched the ground toward it.

BOOOOM!

For a silent instant, the green night vision of the monitor was blown-out to white light.

“Go with God,” the narrator’s intonation sounded indifferent, “Allahu Akbar... straight to hell.”

The line was so corny, so dangerously edgy and provocative, that Kathleen sneaked another peek at Tom. Thankfully, he was nodding approval at the creative execution of his brainchild, or perhaps the sneaky insertion of his own voice.

It was eerily silent in the on-screen chamber of death.

“A peculiar kind of Top Gun… dispensing my justice from half a world away.” There was an indifferent dullness to the narrator’s voice now, as the burning debris from the explosion continued raining to stillness at the attack site. “When my shift’s done, I hang up these headphones and grab takeaways and milk on my way home to the family and suburbia.”

Startled greens come pouring out of the houses, scattering to the wilderness or running toward their dead.

Tom’s nodded approval was gaining enthusiasm.

The view on-screen began to widen, retracting, pulling back from the action. It became evident that the on-screen view was a monitor within a flight simulator, filmed over the shoulder of an operator seemingly wearing headphones.

Beyond his silhouette, on that monitor, the green dead and living ghosts of the night vision were attending to the private drama of their destroyed world.

“The right choices take training,” the operator casually rambled.

The camera’s point of view began to rotate laterally until what seemed like headphones turned out to be a virtual-reality helmet, revealing the advert as a deception built within an illusion.

 “You can relax now,” a new and hypnotic android-sounding female’s voice instructed. “SLEEP!”

The man obeyed, his head slumping forward into unconsciousness.

##

The advert pixelated to blackness and white writing faded in. The tinny voice of the android female read the words written there, “The Raw Power of Executive-Limits Corporation.” Her tone was hollow and timeless. “Your Future... Safe in our hands,” the company slogan and logo bled onto the screen.

Kathleen hit the pause button, and the lights in the boardroom warmed to full brightness, the android’s words frozen on the screen.

Just then, a knock and the door opened before Tom could grant permission. He glared a lightning bolt at Nancy, his Assistant standing at the threshold.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she fawned and groveled suitably. “It’s an emergency on hold.”

She mimed a phone held to her ear and retreated, slinking backward out of Tom’s line of view. Still in Kathleen’s line of sight, she exaggerated round eyes and straining neck tendons, the universal ‘big-trouble-brewing’ face dragging the corners of her mouth down.

Tom snatched up the receiver. “What?!” he bit into the mouthpiece.

A high-pitched treble of explanation came pouring out of the earpiece, audible but incomprehensible from where Kathleen sat.

“Oh, FUCK’S-SAKE!” Tom stood, his Herman Miller office chair shot away from behind him on its castor wheels and collided with the wall. “Where’s Leon in all this?”

Kathleen had met Leon on several occasions. A wizened little man with a string of internationally-acclaimed books on psychology and regressive hypnosis to his name, Leon occupied a key seat on the Board of Directors at Executive-Limits Corporation.

His office took charge of the critical hypnosis sequence that Kathleen knew was a cornerstone of the company’s operation, Leon had been essential in the company’s innovation and meteoric rise.

The phone’s earpiece prickled with a response, “…paramedics…” Kathleen heard, then “…security detail…”

“What have you fucking clowns done!” He punched the handset back onto its cradle. “Wait here,” he ordered Kathleen and stormed out the door, leaving it open.

A few minutes later, Nancy’s head appeared nervously around the door.

“Big shit,” she said.

“No, kidding. What’s up?”

“Heck, you saw the reaction. Not sure if I can say too much. One of our subjects, you know.”

“I figured as much.”

“Heads gonna roll.”

“I’m keeping mine very low.”

“Yeah,” Nancy looked ashen. She hadn’t advanced into the room and hung onto the door with both hands, her stance suggesting she’d beat a retreat at the smallest sound from down the corridor. 

“Going on here at HQ? In this facility?” Kathleen asked.

“Yep. Special Forces General, Pentagon boy on a simulation. Gone nuts. Poop’s hitting the fan BIG time, breaking the place apart down there.”

“Wow!” Kathleen gulped, estimating whether it was going to make a public mess she’d have to clean up. “He mad at someone?”

“Worse. Much worse.” Nancy looked behind her in a conspiratorial manner, dropping her voice and leaning in with apparent concern for being overheard. “Sounds like something wrong in our systems, Kath. He’s having a reaction to the virtual reality or hypnosis sequence. I didn’t want to cut in on your meeting, it’s been going off, out of control for an hour. Guy’s a loon, like… ranting about the Spanish Inquisition or something. Bipolar, Leon said. Had a total personality collapse. Thinks it’s the fifteen-hundreds and on abo… shit.”

She straightened as Tom came striding silently through the door past her, his eyes fixed ahead.

Without any greeting to the women, he went directly into his private restroom, and the door slammed behind him. Nancy pulled the round-eyed facial expression again and evaporated without another word, closing the boardroom door with a click.

Kathleen sat in the daunting silence, wondering what new hell she’d inherit from all this drama. Without any sound to announce that the toilet had been flushed or faucets used, Tom appeared through the restroom doorway.

“Idiots.”

It was all he said.

He slumped into his seat and began to poke again at the iPad. Only the occasional sniff and dab at his nose hinted at why he seemed so suddenly calm. 

Kathleen twisted within. The uncomfortable, unmentioned elephant of his recent explosive reaction to the phone call was still looming like a living thing in the room. Tom seemed genuinely oblivious to it.

Talk about bipolar! She thought.

After long minutes, Tom placed the iPad aside then slowly reclined his chair, making a show of touching thumbs and fingers together in front of his face. Head tilted slightly and jaw jutting, his index fingertips began to tap out the rhythm of a cat’s tail before it pounces. It was his standard pose that always preceded a monologue.

Was this the moment he’d tell her about the crisis? She was unsure if she wanted to know or be part of it.

“From what we’ve covered, I give you points for effort. It’s reasonable stuff...”

Clearly, he was going nowhere near the crisis. It was business as usual, back to the matter of review. He paused and nodded—evidently agreeing with a thought in his own head—and then smiled in a most unsettling way.

“…You see, I’m always right in the long run. Always... But I grant you a little credit,” he huffed the concession, “you take criticism well. It spurs you. You need that.” He paused. “...Kids always do.” His palms came together before his face, fingers laced in the style of prayer, index fingers pressed together, pointing to the ceiling. With them, he tapped against pouted lips, contemplating some wisdom. “Good thing I didn’t drop you last quarter.”

“I was on the chopping block last quarter?” Kathleen attempted a polite smile.

Tom didn’t acknowledge, rendering the question rhetorical. He just sat, comfortable and untouchable, in the charged silence.

“Rerun it or move on?” Kathleen offered, hoping to propel the conversation out of the quicksand of Tom’s mind-games.

Ignoring the question, Tom carried on studying her. His hands dropping to chest level, now cradling an imaginary ball, perhaps the whole world between kissing fingertips

“I know exactly what you’re thinking, honey.” His forefinger and thumb began to smooth a non-existent mustache. “I’m a difficult son-of-a-bitch. But put yourself in my shoes.” Posturing. A moment of dramatic pause. “I’m only interested in dealing with adults, you see, with...” he seemed to search for the word, “...professionals. But here,” he indicated the screen, frozen in place, “we can see the results. I take charge, and I eventually get acceptable work.”

Kathleen held her silence, waiting for him to finish.

Tom remained silent, too, allowing her time for the thought to resonate. “People don’t understand me, Kath,” he suggested in contemplation, suddenly bipolar in his warmth. “I don’t intend to be a tyrant, I’m pushed to it.” He huffed the effort of suffering fools, shook his head in agreement with himself, and went back to poking at the iPad as he concluded. “You stick with me, young Kathleen... Stick with me, and I’ll make something of you and your little company.”

“Just glad you approve, Tom.” Kathleen gagged on the involuntary response that spilled from her mouth.

He said the same thing during the last three reviews she silently consoled herself, as the lava of the “little company” insult boiled within.

When enough of her precious time had been volunteered to passive silence, she collected her composure like tattered rags, “Rerun it, or move on?”

Tom declined to acknowledge, preferring the distraction in his hands.

She returned to silent waiting.

While she waited, Kathleen’s thoughts detached, and a frigid trickle of memories seeped within, Tom’s snide abuses triggering emotions that cartwheeled her back through time.

Her mind slid deep into the swamp of nearly forgotten territory—an archive of pain suffered at the hands of an estranged father, a charmer who’d so closely resembled this arrogant man.

Tom flicked leisurely back and forth across his screen, occasionally poking at it while conducting two brief monosyllabic personal calls when his mobile buzzed.

As the moments labored by, an agonizing procession of submission to his whim, Kathleen reeled her thoughts back, closer to the present. She began to contemplate the months of grind that had transported her to this moment. Bruised by Tom’s affront, she took refuge in assessing how professionally she’d overridden so many urges to turn the contract down time and again. But this was undoubtedly her desperately needed break into the industry’s big-time.

Despite her instincts, she’d stuck it out and miraculously held her ground against the most prominent competitors around the globe. It had been a coup that bore testimony to work that was fast becoming legendary for its creativity and attention to detail. Half-a-year of groveling had brought her, from that day of signing the contract, to this—a review of the finished product. Twenty-three weeks of endless re-edits behind them. But worth it? She mulled for the umpteenth time. No question! Contracts like this seed empires.

“Rerun it,” Tom ordered in answer to Kathleen’s question asked many minutes before. It tugged her from the daydream.

The monitor responded to the click of Kathleen’s finger, and the sequence replayed and ended.

“Again?” Kathleen queried.

“Again,” Tom insisted.

For forty minutes, Tom demanded that the same thirty-second slot be relentlessly repeated, occasionally querying something, taking a note or making a call. Kathleen knew all too well that Tom Ferris was a stickler for perfection, the obsession driving the man on his maniacal quest to find fault with everything and everyone. But, try as he might, for the rest of the session, he could find little room to gripe at any of Kathleen’s several commercial masterpieces.

They all screamed the same core message: “Benefits to humankind through the best simulation training can offer.”

The review was endless, but the view from the boardroom window during interludes was magnificent. Having parried Tom’s initial thrusts and having shown him her firm but accommodating stance, Tom had moderated his attitude. He dropped the sparring and was now focusing entirely on results and outcomes. Kathleen was having an easier time of it.

Toward the end of the workday, he broke from review to take more calls, one or two of them clearly about the earlier incident, raising his hackles.

She entertained herself, soaking in the vista of meadows draped around the private lake on the outskirts of the city where Tom had erected the headquarter of his empire.

Though the meeting had kicked off at midday, she’d canceled all appointments into the evening, fully anticipating that the constant interruptions that always swarmed around the man, would stretch the review till the black of night. This was proving to be the case.

Kathleen maintained a docile temperament until the sun pulled its final rays over the lip of the horizon and twilight set in. At this point, even her Job-like patience could endure no more. “Satisfied?” she ventured after another run-through of the last video-slot. Even after so many hours of grind, she maintained a flat tone that divulged no hint of the irritation seething within.

“A few more runs before we call it a day.” Predictably, Tom found it necessary to entrench his authority, prolonging the moment.

Ten minutes later, Tom's appetite for petty power satiated, he closed proceedings. “Not bad, Kath. Overall, a pretty good effort.”

Kathleen was astonished. For Tom Ferris, “pretty good effort” meant tearing out a chunk of his living self. Compliments from this man just didn’t happen. She reckoned he must have heard his own voice speak the words before he could bite them back.

Her eyes glinted with triumph, and she cocked a brow.

“High praise indeed,” she crooned, revealing only a hint of the sarcasm she felt.

In less than a decade, Tom Ferris had grown Executive-Limits Corporation from concept to a top-ten global company—a trillion-dollar gargantuan.

Even surrounded by a team of executives with the keenest minds, Tom remained distrustful of delegation. He stubbornly clung to his autocratic style, micromanaging and dominating every facet of operations.

Psychopath...? Kathleen asked herself for the umpteenth time.

No. Possessed seemed more accurate.

While she pondered this and shuffled her laptop into her bag, Tom launched into another round of ferocious phone discussions with someone evidently buried somewhere in the depths of the monolithic building. She waited patiently for him to finish before making overt gestures to leave.

His questions answered by the voice on the other end of the line, Tom truncated the conversation with a grunt as he turned his attention back to Kathleen.

“Let’s call it a day,” he instructed, then offered consolation to a tedious afternoon. “Stick around, and I’ll buy you dinner?” He was suddenly charm and roses.

“Thanks... I’ve got plans.”

“They just changed…” he assured her.

She checked her watch.

“I’ve made the booking already,” he disclosed, inclining his head, leaving her no doubt that they’d be dining together.

There was no real way to refuse the man.

She did the best she could to make a show of resisting, “Hmmm... not sure. I’d make a call, but my battery’s dead,” she held up her mobile.

Tom held the door open, “Use Nancy’s line.”

As they moved out of the boardroom, Kathleen wrestled with the prospect of spending more time in Tom’s company than duty required. Better instincts screamed urgently to refuse the offer. But, the devil within; the adrenaline junkie, the tomboy daredevil; wanted answers to many questions that nobody but a privileged few had answers to, and dinner seemed an ideal forum for excavating for truth.

Hello folks -- agent pitch review

The typical agent pitch calls for an intro, tight synopsis and a few pages. I'm posting these below. Please crit on what you have inclination to read (ignore the rest).

My hope is to get 'general' feedback - does it grab you, how can it improve. I have an "A" and "B" intro letter and wondering which to go with.

___

ELEVATOR PITCH

It’s 1795 and Chikunda is a slave owned by a madman hellbent on making him murder a government official. He’ll never see his pregnant wife again if he doesn’t do it. Then the madman tells him she’s sold to someone far away, and he has nothing left to lose.

___

INTRO LETTER

A)

WHEN WE CRY TO THEE is a 77,300 word historical adventure in the tradition of Clive Cussler/Wilbur Smith.

In 1795, the Portuguese slave ship São José de Afrika wrecked near the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutch slave colony at the tip of Africa recently seized by Britain. The following day, two hundred survivors were marched into town, and re-sold.

By the time CHIKUNDA and pregnant wife, Mkiwa/FAITH, are re-captured, following a brief spell as fugitives in hiding, the BOSUN of the slaver has retired and become assistant to the town’s executioner. He lays claim to Faith as his concubine, while Chikunda, he locks in his basement by night and presses by day into his gristly profession.  But the Bosun is a man tumbling into syphilis-induced madness that manifests in self aggrandisement: His ambition is to become chief executioner. He sets Chikunda a daunting task—kill the man in that position, or never see Faith and unborn child again. Chikunda cannot bring himself to murder, but, when the drunken Bosun glibly mentions that Faith is sold to a distant farmer, Chikunda has nothing left to lose.

When We Cry To Thee, is a tale of devotion, tribulation, and the indomitable spirit humans possess in their urge to be free and retain dignity, soul, and protect their soul mate.

I’m a serial entrepreneur across a swathe of sectors. In the 1990s, Keller Literary sold 3 of my “how to” titles to Career Press and Adams Media.  

Semi-retired, I sharpened my fiction writing craft on five self-published novels—one sold over a thousand copies to the Department of Science alone and movie rights. Another has twice been #1 category Best Seller on Amazon and placed third out of 6,000 entries in competition.

*My interest in the São José de Afrika derives from my SCUBA discovery of the wreck (which lies not 100 yards from where I sit writing this). I will gladly provide details.

___

B)

> I've chopped off the opening and closing lines.... this is the alternative body

In 1795, the Portuguese slave ship São José de Afrika wrecked near the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutch colony at the tip of Africa recently seized by Britain. The following day, two hundred survivors were marched into town, and re-sold.

Only two slaves evaded recapture: CHIKUNDA and his pregnant wife, Mkiwa/FAITH, made it to land and absconded to a hidden cove. Though free, prisoners they remain, two thousand miles of hostile wilderness from home. With the frigid South Atlantic at their backs, impenetrable mountain cliffs blocking the hinterland ahead, a redcoat garrison guarding their southern flank, and the town’s gallows to their north, their prospects are dismal. Yet, with all these perils, their greatest threat is a villain of terrifying proportions.

The BOSUN of the slaver—a man tumbling into madness from syphilis—has retired from sea and stayed on in the town, finding employment as assistant to the town’s executioner. While Chikunda is scouting a path for escape, Faith is seized from their hiding place, and the Bosun now has her as his plaything

____

1 PARAGRAPH SYNOPSIS

Drifting into madness from syphilis, the slave ship’s BOSUN, now assistant to the executioner of a slave colony, ends up owning both CHIKUNDA and pregnant wife, FAITH. He pressures Chikunda to murder the executioner, to inherit the man’s position, threatening to never let Chikunda see Faith again if he doesn’t comply. On their way to fetch a rowing boat down the coast, the Bosun discloses to Chikunda that he’s sold Faith, Chikunda murders him in a rage. A pious man, Chikunda’s faith says he must turn himself in for murder. He rows the cadaver back to the colony. But fate intervenes, the boat gets rolled in waves, and Bosun is presumed drowned. Delirious from the near drowning, Chikunda sees between the crowded legs of his rescuers… his pregnant wife is approaching. The Bosun had bluffed, Faith was not sold.

___

OPENING PAGES.... *italics*

     Chapter One

*Pemba, Portuguese Mozambique, Africa.
Autumn, 1795*

Clamped in leg irons, just two shuffled steps on African soil remained for Chikunda.
With its stern touching the beach and awaiting the last of its human cargo, he could see his open seat on the bench of the ship’s cutter, already crammed with a dozen frightened slaves.
Two pairs of oarsmen sat amid the press of bodies, ready to row the boat.
A quarter-mile out across the gin-clear tropical lagoon waited the cutter’s destination—a slave ship—a dark and brooding hulk, her anchor six fathoms down on pristine coral reef.
Chikunda was a man of rangy proportions. Stark naked, as were all the captives, he stood tall and regal with a breadth and squareness to his shoulders that loaned him the likeness of a polished teak door.
Aboard that ship in the distance lay his last flicker of reason to stay alive. Mkiwa, his wife, would be there, somewhere in her holds.
She *would* be there… She *had* to be there. He forced all doubt about it out of his mind. It was the only hope he could cling to in this darkest hour.

#

Just five days, and already it felt like a lifetime since he’d seen her angelic face.
Kidnapped together, they’d spent countless days in chaffing neck-yokes on the long march, then sold to an enemy tribe’s stockade up the river. They’d fretted together for three days, praying for salvation.
Then, catastrophe.
An Arab trader plonked down a bolt of cloth, five flintlocks, and an ingot of lead, pointed at Chikunda, and they’d led him away at the point of a sword… onward, alone.
A premium price, the man had assured, even for a prime piece of flesh, “that can so fluently speak the language of the buyers.”
Seven more miles to the river’s mouth in a riveted neck collar, he’d trudged.
For five days, he’d suffered crippling loneliness penned in amid a stinking multitude of brethren. Mute with anguish, he’d waited for the next buyer, hoping it would be the same one who’d buy Faith.
*Faith*, the Christian name Mkiwa preferred, baptized to her as a child at the Mission orphanage.
Faith kept coming to him in fitful dreams. Waking was his nightmare, ripping her away.

#

*“Mova isso!*” the man ahead of Chikunda rode an open-handed clout to the back of his head, a burly Portuguese sailor with a cocked pistol slapping him aboard.
Chikunda was next.
*This was the first slave ship of the season*, that was the whisper going about as he took his seated place aboard.
“They’ve already traded higher up the river’s course. We’re the last to be bought,” was the rumor.
*Up the river!!*
Up the river was where Faith was imprisoned. Hope soared within him,
Faith was the most beautiful woman Chikunda had ever seen—any buyer would pick her first. She, too, was fluent in Portuguese, the tongue of these strange people who owned people.
She was definitely aboard. He was sure he could feel her presence reaching out to him across the gulf.
Their keel sighed from the beach, and the surge from the oars began. Each dip and pull consigning Africa another boat length into his past.
With an iron will, he drove all dread and doubt out of his mind.
Chikunda—*The Chatterbox*, as his parents had named him in their Swahili tongue—was hatching a plan.
He always had a plan.
*This is the critical moment of a lifetime*, instinct whispered in his ear on this day.
The *bwana*—the headman—of that wooden vessel up ahead was the one man who could save him.
He looked at his fellow captives—all about him was defeat—despair—rounded shoulders, terrified eyes, heads hanging.
Salvation lay in standing out, and Chikunda realised that he had begun to wither from fear and tragedy.
In that instant, he commanded his attitude to change. He forced his shoulders back, his chest out, chin up. A calm serenity materialized in his eyes.
“What are you looking at, boy?” one of the oarsmen facing the stern saw the change.
He turned his gaze back toward the ship, pretending he didn’t understand.
“Shut your gob Rafael, and pull!” Growled the man with the cocked pistol lying across his lap.
A fisherman familiar with canoes and dhows, Chikunda had never seen a vessel so vast and sinister.
The closer they drew, the more daunting she became… a dhow on a scale and with proportions he could scarcely credit.
Twenty or more feet of hull planking rose sheer and vertical above the waterline. A towering bow with a bowsprit carrying addition canvas bragged of its capacity to face mighty ocean swells, and a low rail amidships strung with a netting ladder would provide access aboard. At her stern stood a castle for accommodation, portholes looking out.
Two masts jutted skyward, crawling with sailors preparing sails for departure.
The forward mast soared a hundred and more feet into the sky. It was dressed with cross-stays and strung with a web of taut ropes and stanchions to support it.
The ship’s hull was sooty black and yellow-brown stained from countless years of muck-buckets poured over her side.
Like tentacles of stench from an open latrine, the nightmare of that ship found them halfway out from the beach. The invisible fog of putrid corruption ahead grew more choking with each surge towards it.
There were two men at the rail. One short, bald, and meaty, the other taller, bearded and regal. Chikunda locked his eyes on the tall man—he was dressed like a king. Their eyes met, and something passed between them.
The meaty man saw the interaction and said something that the king seemed to ignore.
This was the headman for sure.
Manuel Joao Perreira was his name. The captain of his brother’s vessel, the *São José de Afrika* on a buying trip, bound for the slave markets of Brazil
She was a schooner with a broad-deck and a mainmast so thick two men could not touch fingers hugging around it.
The picture of ugliness by Perreira’s side, was Alfonso Oliveira, the boatswain—the ‘Bosun.’
The Bosun was charged with managing cargo and maintaining discipline aboard. Eyes bloodshot from a lifetime of grog and mean-thoughts, he was an ghastly toad of a man. Built like a fortress with a bald and scabby scalp, the mess that had once been his nose was swollen to a bulb at its vein-infested, yellow-pocked end. In those infected pits and broken veins was inscribed the story of near-death hangovers and whore-borne diseases gathered along the world’s sea lanes.
Amid a disheveled rabble of crew, all hung in rags that passed as clothing, Perreira certainly seemed a king. He was dressed like royalty; woolen black breaches, crisply starched silver buttoned up cotton shirt, achingly white under the tropical sun. Over it he wore a flamboyant brocade waistcoat richly woven with gold filigree threads, and each shoes glinted with a solid gold buckle. His features seemed chiseled, his body taught, his hair swept back and fashioned as a topknot in the samurai style, coal-black and glistening with fragrant oils. His close-cropped beard was teased to a sharp point jutting forward of his chin.
BUMP!
They were alongside.
Chikunda looked down. Below the waterline, the ship wore a skirt, a plume of grey effluent dumped and leaked from the holds.
“UP!” bellowed the order from the man with the pistol. A rope net was their ladder, a knotted rope cudgel their inducement to climb.
Into a line on the plank deck, they were clubbed.
“Next!” The smell of cooked meat infused through the stench.
“Next!” A puff of smoke and sounds… terrible sounds, animal growls of pain.
The bellows sighed and hissed into the brazier, blasting the coals within to a crackling red. The brand came out, glowing incandescent.
Chidunda’s heart was thundering—less for what he saw than for what he could not confirm.
Faith was not in sight. No slaves were.
She just *had* to be below. He convinced himself he could feel her presence below.
With that thought, his heart sank, knowing she must have been through this branding and would, even at this instant, be nursing the wicked blisters.
The yawning muzzle of a gun mounted on a swivel covering the deck spoke of no mercy given to insurrection.
This was no time for sentiment or fear. He kept his eyes on the headman. Seemingly, in reaction, the bald square block of inhumanity came over to the branding station. He shoved the sailor aside and began to work the bellows himself—*two, three, four* vicious blasts. The brand within went almost white with heat.
“Next!”
It was Chikunda’s call. He was prodded forward, a blade tip pricking his spine, allowing no retreat.
The Bosun stood ready, his right hand on the handle of the glowing brand still in the coals, a knotted leather scourge hanging limply in his left paw.
In the Bosun’s pitiless reptilian eyes, Chikunda saw a man suddenly warmed within to have found an interesting candidate for the long voyage ahead, on whom he could vent the demons that moved behind his expression.
The ship’s doctor gave Chikunda another cursory inspection—less thorough than at his purchase in the stockade. “Open,” he pointed to Chikunda’s mouth and looked inside, poking with a stick. He stepped back and appraised Chikunda’s form—the breadth of those shoulders, nodding with appreciation at the luster of good health on his skin. He peered and prodded at Chikunda’s genitals with the stick, evidently seeking a blemish. He tapped Chikunda’s foot to look under it as a farrier inspects a horse.
Satisfied, he lifted his quill and marked the details into the ledger.
The Bosun’s eyes smiled for the first time as he withdrew the brand from the coals and brought it toward Chikunda’s naked chest, stopping short of making contact. He peered into Chikunda’s eyes for a reaction.
The searing heat scorch for a moment across the small distance to the skin. Chikunda remained unflinching, his mind gone, thoughts locked only on Faith, seeing her smiling face behind his blank eyes. The Bosun gave a small grunt of disappointment before driving the glowing iron onto Chikunda, aiming to overlap the darkened areola of his nipple.
Chikunda winced from the assault, his knees buckled, and the Bosun smiled once more, pressing the brand harder to follow Chikunda’s fainting collapse.
“ENOUGH!” The Captain had been watching the exchange. He struck the brand away from Chikunda’s chest with the club that every crew member carried for self-defense.
“You have sympathy for a *kafir*?” The Bosun squinted confrontationally, opting for the label Moslem slave traders used to identify ‘the unbelievers.’
Chikunda’s legs gave way and he sank to the deck as if in prayer, the sweat-oiled muscles of his back palpitating and shuddering from the agony within.
“You and I are kafirs too, Bosun,” the Captain reminded him, “nonbelievers of Allah. Douse this man with seawater,” he instructed a nearby sailor.
The man turned and went to the rail to collect the bucket on a rope.
“It is your job, Bosun, to deliver my brother’s cargo unmolested and in a saleable condition. Until they are sold, they are the property of this ship and its owner, my family. Am I clear?”
Francisco Perreira, brother of the Captain back in Lisbon, owned the ship and all cargo upon her. Proud of their family merchandise, the brand insignia was a flourished “FP” signature. It was mark of quality indelibly sealed onto every slave they sold.
“To quench your precious cargo’s discomfort more thoroughly,” the Bosun suggested, wearing a smirk, “allow me to heave him overboard?”
“If anyone is thrown overboard on this voyage…” The Captain left the threat unfinished, and the Bosun looked to his shipmates, studying them carefully for their appetite for mutiny if it came to that. Only blank stares returned.
To break the deadlock, he looked down the ladder into the holds and some small commotion there.
“We have three more loads to cram, and these filthy kafirs are bunching at the companionway, pretending there’s no more space within. Get the hound.” The Bosun directed the instruction to the sailor he’d nominated as its handler.
The man disappeared toward the stern where the animal cowered in its cage.
Chikunda slowly raised his forehead off the deck. He was kneeling now, his chest heaving, and his eyelids fluttering with the effort of regaining a dignified pose.
“We won’t fill the holds more than half on this stop,” Perreira challenged his officer. “Let the wretches stretch out on the decks above. There is room enough without overcrowding the lowest decks at this stage. At the *Ilha de Moçambique* market you cram them.”
“The upper decks need swabbing first. Leave my job to me and look to your own obligations first,” The Bosun skirted the precipice of insurrection.
“My obligations are to see healthy and strong merchandise fit for market. Your obligations were to swab *all* decks before this loading began. Too drunk to care when it was an easy task, now it must be done above the heads of cargo already beginning to weaken in this sweltering heat.”
“Heat means nothing to them. They’re born to it.”
The sailor appeared with the bucket slopping water, and the Captain stood aside.
“On my deck?” the Bosun challenged. “You would foul my deck for this… *thing*?”
“May I go overboard, senhor…” Chikunda asked in perfect Portuguese.
Captain whirled with a start. The Bosun and crew looked as if they’d seen a ghost.
“…to reduce any further distress?”
“Where did you learn to speak?” the captain asked of Chikunda.
“At the Mission, senhor.” Chikunda’s face was a mask of pain, his words slurred, but his diction impeccable.
“Mission? What were you doing at a Mission?”
“Studying, senhor.”
“Studying what?”
“Of our Lord, senhor. To become a priest, senhor.”
“Hmmm… Writing too? You can use a quill?”
“Senhor, yes.”
“Interesting… You are already baptized?”
“Senhor,” he nodded affirmation.


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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

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

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.

Want to ask questions? Got any follow-up? Don't agree with something I said? Then here's the place to do it. I'll follow the chat thread on this post for a few days following my email, and I'm happy to talk about anything at all.

Meantime, here's a picture of a scary-but-pretty bug.

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