Ian Walker

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Good morning from sunny Wakefield. And, for those who remember the great musicals of the 1950s perhaps This is our once a year day! (About a strike in a mid-west pyjama factory). I've been writing for my own pleasure for six or so years and eventually joined JW. What I knew about writing a novel could be found on the border of a postage stamp. Still, the 194,000 words I removed created the back story. Nothing ever goes to waste. I have one completed manuscript going out to agents and I have submitted it to three writing competitions: The Daily Mail first novel 2019 - zilch. Now re-written to The Bath Novel Award 2020 and the Goldsmiths First Novel Prize 2020. I've crossed everything I've got two of. They follow the career of Brian Blake, a young police constable whose father, a serving detective sergeant, was murdered whilst on duty. That is dealt with in Other Men's Daughters. I have a couple of sequels in preparation working titles: Slushpile and Machello. Any offers from Beta readers gratefully accepted. Still find writing a synopsis a pain in the arse! 

E-mail: friendlypig@spamarrest.com

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Warning: This is a link to the whole novel. I hope you enjoy it. Be sure to comment!!
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Last time it was just the first chapter, now it's three. I changed the POV in the GREEN chapters to …
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  •  · Just in case you think I'm being sexist or worse in cases of sexual intercourse the words 'NO'  &amp…
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Slushpile Green One  For his sins his name was Lewis Green. For his sins he owned the Lewis Green Li…
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  •  · Thanks Bob, appreciated. Whilst I accept Rick's comments and am trying them to see how they fit they…
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A very happy and Covid-19 free 2021 to everyone.. And, owning to my advancing years, how do I add a forum, please?

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Ian Walker
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Last time it was just the first chapter, now it's three. I changed the POV in the GREEN chapters to first person. I think it reads better. Also incorporated some of the early suggestions. Unfortunately the formatting applied to the letter hasn't followed through into Townhouse so the intervening text I have italicised.  I am descended from dinosaurs and have a thick skin so please feel free to disagree


Slushpile

 

Green

 

One

 

 

I was yanked out of my reverie by that demanding, demonic tool of communication, the telephone. It was answered by Margaret, our resident receptionist, telephonist, filing clerk, mail sorter, diarist, barista and  memory prodder and, without whom the office would disappear beneath a tsunami of paperwork. 

‘Knock, knock.’ Margaret said as she bumped the half-open door with her ample backside, early mail in one hand my coffee in the other. ‘That call was from Joan, Lewis. She’s had a puncture, waiting for the AA. And the answer to your next questions is,’ she said and smiled. ‘How long is a piece of string?’

‘Thanks, Margaret,’ I smiled. Joan Grey, my very part-time secretary, fiancée and none-live-in-lover. She was over the moon when I proposed but now would neither name the day nor move in. And they say that men won’t make a commitment. Since Carol there had been no other woman, except Joan, with whom I had formed a lasting attachment. ‘Anything special?’ I asked and glanced at my Rolex, its’ dedication impressed in my skin. She would never forget me. I could never forget her. 

‘Just the one,’ she said as she dropped the mail in my in-tray. ‘It’s on top.’ 

I put my cup back in its’ saucer. Less chance of accidents. I was going to be busy. There were twelve large envelopes, probably submissions for the Slushpile but they could wait. Slushpile was the generic title bestowed on unsolicited query letters, manuscripts and synopses from both hopeful and deluded would-be-authors by literary agents, of which I was one. 

I’d saved it ‘til last. 

A single tri-fold sheet of cream wove. A single line of italic text across the centre. 

Be sure your sins have found you out!

 

          In most cases it might have been a simple prank. Not in my case. What! I almost recoiled. I felt sick. The same bitter taste that he had felt in the early hours of that fateful day. But my sins were never far below the surface.  

I was the second child of Clive and Patricia Beck, third generation wine importers of Bristol. My given name was Martin. But for my sins I had changed my name to Lewis Green.  I could never forgot why and had kept a wary eye over my shoulder. Was fate playing tricks, snapping at my heels? Although I had been interviewed by the police and eliminated from their list of potential suspects, in fact we all had. Was it just my imagination going into overdrive or something else?

          I checked the envelope. A plain, white, standard business type envelope with no identifier. Frank smudged but I could just make out NW3 and  yesterday’s date. PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL was typed in the top left hand corner and the address:                 

Lewis Green Esq

Lewis Green Literary Agency

47 Marble House

Fellows Drive

London NW3

There were no clues. I could plink on a typewriter the same as anyone else, this was different. This was typed. Which was no help at all.

          I asked Margaret if anything similar had arrived in the past although I was sure to have been told if there had and gave her instructions that if anything similarly addressed arrived in the future, to hand it to me personally. The last thing that I wanted was for Joan to find it and start asking questions. 

I only had seven days to wait. The envelope identical to the last. Posted yesterday in NW3. PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL in the top left hand corner. A single tri-fold sheet of cream wove. A single line of italic text across the centre: 

Two down three to go!    

          Everything came flooding back. Like a full-blooded thump in the guts. A bitter taste. No doubt that was what was intended. Just what could: two down and three to go mean? Traced? Handed to the police? Murdered? But there had been nothing in the press with all that it implied. 

          I settled. Wait a minute. Why are you letting your conscience get the better of you like this. Come on get a grip, it’s probably nothing to do with what happened in Leeds.

          A quiet word with Margaret. Nothing to worry about. Just some sick joker trying to be funny.

All thoughts of the two unwelcome notes were behind me and locked in my bureau drawer. Friday morning I worked from home on the Slushpile. There was a saying that everyone has a book inside them. And, that maybe have been true, although I had my doubts. Many of them should never have seen the light of day and often thought that if I had £5 for every submission that crossed my desk: That was the next million best seller. That would make me rich. Was better science fiction than Wyndham and Heinlein. More competently written than Hemingway or Steinbeck. Made Tolkien look stupid. Wrote better thrillers than Christie or Fleming I would be wealthy indeed. No! No you can’t. You can’t trash internationally acclaimed authors and expect to be taken seriously. That was unfortunately more work for Joan to deal with when she returned from her latest jaunt. She was currently visiting her mother in Huddersfield. Send out our quite apologetic ‘not for us’ letters. But sometimes, just sometimes, there was a glimpse of that bright shining something that made it all worthwhile. And it might just be the next manuscript on the slushpile, although a quick glance at the title in the top covering letter didn’t look too promising: Where My Bones Lie. However, the typed letter did look professional. A welcome change. I settled back in my antique hide upholstered, very comfortable, swivel chair:

17 Seven Oaks Fold

Sharp Lane

Almondbury

Huddersfield

West Riding of Yorkshire

 

Sharp Lane? How far is that from Dark Lane, Joan lives there, it can’t be too far

 

Lewis Green Esq

Lewis Green Literary Agency

47 Marble House

Fellows Drive

London NW3

 

15th March 1967

 

Dear Mr Green            

            Please excuse my unsolicited approach. I am writing seeking representation for my debut novel, Where My Bones Lie. A 120,000 word police procedural. A crime thriller set in the West Riding of Yorkshire. I am writing to you because I have been a fan of Douglas Marchant’s work for several years. Marchant’s writing style in particular has been an inspiration to me. I see my writing in the same vein.

 

Marchant’s good, excellent writing style, doing very well. Where My Bones Lie? A bit odd, I thought, talking about their own body. However. And 120,000 words a bit long for a debut – should be able to trim 20 or 30,000 off that.

 

            The story opens with five noisy, happy and well-heeled rugby-playing undergraduates being refused entry to the Mecca Locarno Ballroom situated in the County Arcade in Leeds City Centre. They collect half a dozen girls and go back to the house they rent, for a party. Eventually, five of the girls leave. The sixth, still naked, passes out on a bed. The boys take their pleasure. The girl comes to and is suffocated when she begins to protest. The body is disposed of and has never been recovered. Police enquiries come to naught.

 

I thought my heart had stopped. Christ! It’s not possible. Another one!  This can’t be chance. I stifled the scream heading rapidly for my vocal chords. No! I should have binned the lot instantly but something compelled me to continue.

 

            However this is not the heart of the story, and, you may think this is too close to home but one of the murderers changes his name by deed poll. On leaving university, with a degree in English Literature, he secures a position with a major publishing house later becoming a literary agent. About the same time the murdered girl’s younger sister unearths some information and begins to track the murderers down and kill them in the most brutal manner.

 

For Christ’s sake I changed my bloody name. I live at the other end of the country. What the Hell is going on? I was sweating and my hands were shaking like Aspen leaves in a gale.

 

            I’m a thirty something investigative journalist who, after many years of promising, has finally put pen to paper and begun to write fiction. When working I do write under a nom de plume. I hope that my material is of interest and I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Your Truly

Granville Rodahl

 

Blake

Two

Handbrake applied I peered out at the rain. Raincoat collar up. Ignition off. It was like sitting inside a kettle-drum with transparent sides. I was going to get wet. ‘Why is it always bloody raining?’ I muttered under my breath as I picked my way carefully through the demolition site. The sooner this eyesore was down the better. But until that happened there was work to be done.

Twenty yards ahead Sergeant Joshua Maston, nearly got his time in: five ten, slightly overweight and world-weary. If this was as bad as I’d been told Maston would be glad to get out of the way. John Carter, the early turn beat man for 6 beat was on the door. ‘Morning Brian,’ he said and grinned. ‘You’re bright and early.’

I wrinkled my nose. ‘Yeah. I should have been on at ten. Just getting ready to take the wife to her mother’s for some shopping.’

‘Sounds like rescuing the perishing, to me,’ quipped Maston.

I laughed. ‘Who found the body, sarge?’

‘Old Joe, Joe Carver. Night-watchman,’ he pointed out the elderly male sprawled in an armchair in the building’s foyer. ‘Says it wasn’t there when he checked earlier. But he’s pissed. Stinks of whisky. He’s a half bottle of the Co-op’s finest in his pocket. Or at least what’s left. I’ll lay odds that he didn’t buy it.’

‘I’ll have a chat when I’ve seen the body.’ I paused. ‘Who’s been in?’

‘Just the three. Me, Carter and Joe.’

I nodded. ‘Fine. As soon as the others start to arrive will you put someone up where my car is, stop any rubberneckers and the Press. We don’t want them tramping all over the shop. And keep a record of who they are and the time. No warrant card, no entry.’

‘Got that, Carter?’

John Carter looked out at the rain, grimaced and nodded. ‘Yes, sarge.’

Satisfied that was under control I asked. ‘Which room?’

‘That one,’ he hung back and pointed at the door directly in front. ‘You don’t mind if …?’

He didn’t want to go in. It was bad. I smiled. ‘No, That’s all right, sarge.’

They referred to it as a room. A void would have been more accurate. Almost a hundred yards long by fifty wide with a fifteen foot ceiling. A dead weaving shed, devoid of all machines, furniture or almost anything else for that matter. Although it was chucking it down outside apart from mine there were no  footprints, muddy or otherwise on the floor anywhere near the body. Thirty yards away the object of my attendance was taped into a chair. It was bad. Very bad.

It was male. A tall powerfully built male. Naked. There was no sign of any shoes or clothing or personal effects. He was sitting upright in a Windsor arm-chair. What looked like duct tape used to pinion the wrists and elbows to the arm rests. The legs lifted over the wrists and taped in position exposing where his genitals should have been. Tape securing the ankles and his torso to the chair. Tape around the head covering the eyes. No head wounds that I could see. There was some reddening and what appeared to be a puncture wound in the right deltoid. Tape dangling from his right cheek. Between his legs was a bloody mess. The blood had overflowed from the seat into a semi-liquid congealing pool between and around the chair legs. Just how long ago had this happened? A series of small cuts in his right forearm. Four had been bleeding. The higher up the forearm the less blood. The fifth no blood, some plasma. A test for heart death? Somewhat excessive. A stab wound between the seventh and eighth rib, close to the victim’s sternum, his left side. A coup de grace? Overkill? This was no hit-and-run. Whoever was responsible had taken their time.  

The door behind me opened. I heard footsteps. If they’d gotten passed Maston I didn’t need to look. ‘Stay where you are, please.’ I called, my voice ringing around the empty space. The footsteps stopped. The pièce de résistance was that the man’s missing penis and testicles were very neatly sown into his mouth and resting across his chin, blood was dripping down his chest. That was a sickener. The question was - prior to hearth death or not? One for the pathologist. To my mind this wasn’t just a murder. It was personal. More to the point it was the second identical killing in the last ten days. I took perhaps a further minute to crouch and scrutinise the floor immediately surrounding the chair and check his feet. They were clean. His hands indicating that he was not a manual worker.

I stood and turned to find Detective Superintendent Creighton, Inspector Nicholson, formerly a sergeant on the Wainwright team and, Detective Inspector Tristram Priestly, my new boss, standing just inside the doorway. Observing. ‘Good morning, sir,’ I said to Mr Creighton. ‘Sorry …’

He looked grim. ‘Don’t apologise, Blake,’ he said. ‘Your observations?’

I nodded. ‘Joe Carver, the night watchman claims that the body wasn’t here when he did his rounds earlier. However he’s drunk. Scotch. He probably couldn’t make an honest guess at when he did check before finding the body just after seven this morning.’

‘I’ve already spoken with him,’ said the detective superintendent. ‘I agree. At the moment he doesn’t know what day it is. An in depth interview will have to wait. Carry on.’

I nodded. ‘Sir. Whoever did this had planned meticulously and taken their time. The victim was obviously alive when he arrived. It was dry. Other than mine there is no trace of any footprints, muddy or otherwise. His feet are clean. He was a big man, over six feet tall and well-muscled. He has what looks like a puncture wound in his right deltoid, could have been injected with something to incapacitate him. Otherwise why not fight back before he was taped in the chair? Did he undress voluntarily? If so, why? Where are his clothes and possessions? It doesn’t appear likely that it was a tryst. And of course the stab wound. Finally, where did the chair and the sack-wheels come from?

 

I waited for a few seconds. There were no comments. ‘I didn’t see the first victim, sir. However, from what I understand this is remarkably similar: Naked. Eyes taped. The manner in which he’s been trussed. The mutilation. The stitching of his genitals is quite neat and even, almost as if they were taking pride in what they were doing. Almost ritualised. Stitching through flesh is quite difficult. But one thing I didn’t notice on the first report, sir, was anything like these,’ I pointed out the cuts on the forearm. They stepped forward to look. ‘There are five. Four showing that they had been bleeding and just one which hadn’t ... And what’s the link between the two victims.’

The ensuing silence was broken by DI Priestly. ‘The link, Blake,’ he said tersely, ‘is that they were murdered by the same person or persons. I’d heard you were big on ideas, Blake. And, I have to say that some of yours are exotic if not quixotic. To be appointed to CID with two and a half years’ service is remarkable, and, your report and exam result from your CID course were impressive. But you will find that the work of the detective is hard work. Nose to the grindstone. Not acting on exotic hunches. You’ve a great deal to learn. So leave the planning and analysis to those with the experience, understood?’

He wasn’t having a go at me per se, just letting me know, in front of the area detective superintendent, that the freedom I had under Mr Valentine’s tutelage was ended. He was in charge. That had never been in question. What could I say? ‘Yes, sir. I understand.’ Inspector Nicholson was gazing round the room and the superintendent holding back a smile.

‘I’m sure DC Blake will have taken your words to heart, Mr Priestly. However, I think some of his observations have merit. We can discuss those along with everything else, later.’ The Superintendent turned to Inspector Nicholson. ‘Will you ensure that we don’t have anyone gathering outside and have a search made for extraneous tyre tracks and footprints always assuming this rain hasn’t washed them out. We’ll have a full search made of the complex shortly. Any contractors that arrive are to be kept out of the way. The only people in this room are the pathologist, forensic and the photographer.’

He acknowledged and left.

‘Blake, you will supervise here. The photographer, and ensure that he doesn’t make excuses and leave early,’ I nodded. I knew what he meant. Some of the photographers were noticeably squeamish. In the circumstances I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that happened. ‘Once the pathologist and forensic have completed you will accompany the body to the mortuary and complete the sudden death report, then liaise with the coroner’s officer. You will attend the post mortem examination.’

I acknowledged and stood back whilst Messrs Creighton and Priestly carried out their own examination.

They hadn’t been gone more than five minutes when the photographer arrived, traipsing mud and dripping water. He took one look at the victim. ‘Bloody hell, I’ll bet that hurt,’ he said and laughed. ‘You’re DC Blake?’

I nodded. There would be no trouble with this one.

‘John Dixon. Right, what do you want?’

I walked him round the scene. Pointed out the salient shots and stood back. It amazed me that with all the improvements in camera technology the police insisted on still using the old cameras complete with plates. So I asked him. Why? ‘Fair question,’ he replied. ‘But no matter what they’ve got on the market at the moment you can’t get the definition when you blow them up. In a case like this you never know what the investigating officer will want enlarging. Or indeed, the Defence. If we produce an image that isn’t pin-sharp it may throw the entire case. An open goal for the defence.’ I couldn’t argue with that.   He was good. Within twenty minutes he was gone.

Eight thirty. DI Priestly returned accompanied by the pathologist, Professor Snodgrass. He stood quietly inside the doorway taking in the scene, including me. ‘We’ve met before,’  he said and then held his hand up as I was about to answer. ‘No, don’t tell me … Blake,’ he said at length. ‘You in the CID now?’ I agreed. ‘Good. It was a young woman, Sally? No don’t tell me … Dunster?’ I agreed again. He nodded and smiled and indicated the victim. ‘Tell me what you see.’

I went through my little presentation again as Professor Snodgrass looked and nodded. He made no comment. ‘How old do you think he is?’ he asked at the end.

‘A bit difficult with his eyes being taped. As a rough guess I would suggest late twenties.’

He didn’t comment. ‘And what do you make of these?’ He indicated the cuts on the victim’s right forearm.

Thanks professor. ‘Not sure.’ 

‘Guess,’ he smiled. ‘Something you can do. But I can’t.’

‘My gut reaction was a cardiac countdown.’

DI Priestly asked. ‘If it stops bleeding he’s dead?’ 

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But professor,’ said the DI. ‘Wouldn’t that be obvious from the chest wound and the blood loss?’

He threw it straight back at me. ‘It’s a novel suggestion. Want to try and answer it?’

I took that as a compliment. Although how the DI would react I don’t know. ‘Sir, you can’t get muscular development like the victim has without a strong heart. So unless something had been administered that affects the heart rate he would have a natural-fear-anger response, which includes a rapid heart rate. The murderer wouldn’t have objected to being seen because the victim would be dead. But taping the eyes and I suggest from that tape adhering to his cheek, the mouth, the victim is in isolation. He can hear but not see and probably can’t speak or shout. We’ll probably never know if anything was said or not but at some point the murderer grabs him by the genitals, pulls, and slices him off, lock, stock and barrel. 

The loss of blood would be exacerbated by an increase in heart rate, the effect of heart rate and gravity wouldn’t help. Gravity would continue to draw down blood but not from anything above the heart. So, by making cuts to the tissues eventually they would stop bleeding when the heart stopped. The chest wound would certainly guarantee death however, it might even have been post mortem.’

‘But that’s …’ We never found out what the DI was about to say. He suddenly went pale. His eyes rolled. He slumped against me. Carefully I lowered him to the floor slackened his tie and undid his top shirt button. There was a carotid pulse, quite rapid.

The professor checked the DI’s pulse against his watch. ‘You can never tell who will be affected. Even experienced detectives .. I think he’s just fainted. Leave him here, he can’t fall any further. Check on him in a minute or so.’

‘Can you give me an idea when death occurred, professor?’

‘Rigor isn’t established yet,’ he said moving the victim’s hands and feet. ‘So, roughly within the last six hours. I’ll try be to be more accurate after I’ve carried out the PM.’ 

I glanced at my watch. A mortified DI came round a few seconds later. ‘You went a little dizzy, sir,’ I said as I helped him to his feet.

‘Anybody come in?’ He looked embarrassed.

‘No, sir. No-one.’ 

He nodded. ‘Thanks.’

‘Has this ever happened before, Mr Priestly?’ the professor sounded concerned.

‘Never.’

‘Well, it’s probably nothing. Just of those things. However, my advice would be to have a quiet word with your GP. Tell him who sent you if you like,’ he added with a touch of black humour. ‘Better safe than sorry.’ The DI nodded. We watched as he fastened his shirt, straightened his tie and went for a walk around the shed.

‘One thing professor. How soon can I remove our victim from his prison?’

Professor Snodgrass bit his lip. ‘Forensic are en route?’

‘Yes, Professor.’

‘Be guided what they say.’ I nodded. ‘As soon as possible, the poor man’s suffered enough. At least we can give him a degree of dignity.’ I nodded again. ‘You’re providing continuity for the body?’

‘I am, professor.’

‘Very well. I will do the PM at ten am tomorrow at LGI.’ He had a quiet word with the DI and they left together. The DI still didn’t look well.

Two minutes later Inspector Nicholson returned with one Dr Jack Hawkins. Forensic biologist. I greeted him ebulliently. ‘Hi Jack, how’s tricks?’

He returned my grin. ‘As I live and breathe, detective constable Blake. I haven’t seen you for what? All of six months. Since the Wainwright trial. People will be starting to talk.’ We shook hands. ‘I heard about your appendix perforating. That was tough luck.’ I had to agree. Since my attachment to the Forensic Science Lab two years ago we had dogged each other’s footsteps albeit in a friendly manner.  He turned to the inspector. ‘Mr Nicholson, Every time Brian and I meet there are multiple bodies. Can’t you do something with him. Like have him transferred?’

‘Sorry Doc,’ he replied with as serious a face as he could manage. ‘He’s much too valuable.’

‘Ah well, it was worth a try,’ he smiled, turning to the victim. ‘Poor bastard,’ I heard him mutter. ‘Whose wife have you been screwing?’ A couple of minutes later he stopped, removed two large sheets of plastic from his kit and opened them side-by-side on the floor behind the victim. He gave us a pair of surgical gloves each and between us, avoiding the blood, we carried the chair and contents placing it on the left-hand sheet. Jack Hawkins severed the tape and we very carefully lifted the occupant from his prison and laid him on the second sheet.

The chair, securely wrapped in plastic, had already left for the Forensic Science Lab at Harrogate. I was to follow the body to the LGI mortuary when Jack stopped me to confirm details of the PM. We would meet again in the morning.

Before leaving I had a quick chat with Inspector Nicholson, principally concerning the DI who wasn’t looking too clever and was overseeing the search of the demolition site.

Safely deposited at LGI I left our victim in the safe hands of the Coroner’s Officer, completed the sudden death report and returned to the office.

 

 

Three

 

Green

 

I poured a generous measure of Glen Morangie. Downed it in one. Settle the nausea. Gritted my teeth and shuddered. I put the letter and manuscript on the desk, picked up the phone and dialled Directory Enquiries. ‘It’s a Huddersfield number,’ I said. ‘The name is Rodahl, Granville Rodahl, R-O-D-A-H-L. Sorry, I don’t know the address.’

It was a long moment. The wall-clock second-hand seemed to have frozen. ‘Sorry, caller. There is no Granville Rodahl listed in the Huddersfield area.’

‘Any Rodahl?’

‘Sorry, no. Would there be anything else?’

I simply replaced the handset. 

I stood for a long time staring out of the window of my flat at the world beneath wondering if it could possibly be a coincidence. The answer was a firm, No. I took my keys from my trouser pocket and unlocked the top left-hand drawer in the bureau. The only drawer to which Joan did not have access. The blue manilla folder was at the bottom. Inside were the two typed notes glider-clipped to their envelopes. Both envelopes bearing London franks addressed to me at the office. Both marked private and confidential. Neither dated. The top one franked ten days ago:

Be sure your sins have found you out

The second, three days ago:

Two down three to go!

 

Now this manuscript. What exactly did it all mean? Don’t be stupid, you know exactly what it means. Someone has talked. I poured a second helping of Glen Morangie and sat. 

Jeremy worked for Reuters and usually had his finger on the national pulse. ‘Jeremy,’ I cried, when he came on the line. ‘What’s happening in this world that you can’t tell me about? Do tell.’

‘Fishing again?’ he laughed. ‘Trying to find plots for your worked-out clients.’

‘Not really,’ I replied trying to keep the tremor out of my voice. ‘Just a trifle bored.’

‘Well, there’s the usual havoc and mayhem in London and the Home Counties. Up in the West Riding the police are in a bit of a sweat over a murder. Very cagey.’

Once again my heart was pounding. Stomach twisting itself into a knot. ‘Really, any details?’

‘They’re very tight lipped. All we know is from the press release. No conference. Which is not like them.’

‘I’m intrigued,’ I said taking a mouthful of scotch.

‘Aren’t we all.’ As Jeremy began to expand the story I broke out in a cold sweat. There were ripples across the surface of the whisky as my hand began to shake ‘Twenty six year old lecturer in modern languages at York. Married with a twelve month old son. Father, professor of history, mother, three sisters – all younger. Played in the pack for the varsity, second row,. Goes by the name of … just a sec.’ Goes by the name of Bill Boxley. We nicknamed him ‘Moliere’ because of his love of French literature. I thought. Christ! ‘Name of William Boxley, aka ‘Bill’.’

It was becoming all too real. ‘Is that all?’

The reply was terse. ‘Don’t sound so bloody disappointed, Lewis,’ he said. ‘The poor sod is dead.’

‘Sorry,’ I replied. I couldn’t quite prevent the stammer. ‘I-I didn’t mean to. But it doesn’t appear to warrant any reason why the police would be silent on the matter.’

‘No, I agree. It doesn’t. There’s a whisper, no more than that, that it was a ritual killing. The body was mutilated. But they won’t release any details.’

‘Christ. That sounds gruesome.’

‘Hmm,’ he mused thoughtfully. His tone probing. ‘He was an alumnus  from Leeds. You went there if I remember correctly.’

‘True,’ I replied. ‘And I played rugger. But the name Boxley doesn’t mean anything, sorry.’ The lie was glib.

‘Pity,’ Jeremy said. ‘Still you can’t have everything. Now, that’s the end of the briefing. I’ve got work to do, Lewis, even if you haven’t. Let’s meet for a drink. Can you manage next Wednesday, usual place, say one o’clock?’

Following placing a regular order with his newsagent for the northern edition of the Yorkshire Post I called Max Crawshaw, my latest client. In his work there was that glimpse of the Gold, and Max Crawshaw was a retired detective from the West Riding. ‘Max? Lewis Green. How goes it?’

A delighted Max Crawshaw beamed at the phone. ‘Very well, thank you, and for the call. It means a lot. I’d had so many refusals before you I was beginning to think I was wasting my time.’

‘Not at all. Refusals are par for  the course. But you already know that. However, there’s always someone who will spot potential. In your case it was me. How long do you think it will be before you’re in a position to re-submit? I’ve written to the commissioning editors in the publishing houses who specialise in crime. My standing in their eyes following the success of Douglas Marchant’s latest is high. No guarantee mind you, but the omens are good.’

‘About another week, Lewis. Your comments hurt a bit. But now that I’ve tried it out it does read better than before. And, it doesn’t change the essentials.’

‘That’s excellent. Oh, before I go you might be able to shed a little light on something that I’ve heard about a murder in Yorkshire.’

‘I’ll try, but remember, Lewis, I’m no longer in the club.’

‘I will. Apparently it was someone who  used to go to Leeds University at the same time as I did. Called him Box, Boxer or something like that. And the police aren’t giving anything away.’

The reply was immediate. ‘It’s Boxley.’

‘That’s the name!’ My throat felt as dry as old sticks. I took a drink. ‘There was a suggestion it might be a ritual killing because the body was mutilated.’

I could hear the laughter all the way from Yorkshire. ‘Whenever the police are tight-lipped, or to use police parlance, as tight as a duck’s arse. Rumours proliferate. Stories get made up simply because people want to believe the worst things that their imagination can produce. To be honest, Lewis, I can’t help because I don’t know and, I don’t believe that guessing does any good.’

‘No, you’re probably right, Max. Thanks,’ he said. ‘I look forward to your re-submission.’ I put the phone down, emptied my glass and put the kettle on. It was too early in the day. I rationalised my thoughts. In the end they were too nebulous to be threaded together to fit the scenario in my mind. There must be, had to be, some sort of rational explanation even if it wasn’t obvious. Annoying and unwelcome it  might be, but not a threat. I put the manuscript, covering letter and synopsis back in the folder and locked the drawer. For now, they could wait. I needed to get to Almondbury. 

Ian Walker
 added a forum 

Slushpile 

Green 

One

 

 

For his sins his name was Lewis Green. For his sins he owned the Lewis Green Literary Agency. Imaginative or not? Well, it worked. People liked a  name. His purview was wide: all adult genres except screenplays, poetry and plays. But murder mysteries and thrillers were his speciality. 

In fact for his sins his name had become Lewis Green. In fact, he was the second child of Clive and Patricia Beck, third generation wine importers of Bristol. His given name was Martin. But for his sins he had changed his name to Lewis Green. He never forgot why and kept a wary eye over his shoulder.

There was a saying that everyone has a book inside them. And, that maybe have been true, although he had his doubts. Many of them should never have seen the light of day. He often thought that if he had had £5 for every submission that crossed his desk: That was the next million best seller. That would make him rich. Better science fiction than Wyndham and Heinlein. More competently written than Hemingway or Steinbeck. Made Tolkien look stupid. Wrote better thrillers than Christie or Fleming he would be wealthy indeed. No! No you can’t. You can’t trash internationally acclaimed authors and expect to be taken seriously. It was unfortunately more work for his fiancée and very part-time secretary, Joan Grey, to deal with when she came home from her latest jaunt. She was currently visiting her mothers’ in Huddersfield. Send out our quite apologetic ‘not for us’ letters. But sometimes, just sometimes, there was a glimpse of that bright shining something that made it all worthwhile. And it might just be the next manuscript on top of his slushpile i.e. unsolicited submissions from would-be authors. Although a quick glance at the title in the top covering letter didn’t look too promising: Where My Bones Lie. However, the typed letter did look professional. A welcome change. He settled back in his battered but comfortable Captain's chair:

17 Seven Oaks Fold

Sharp Lane

Almondbury

Huddersfield

West Riding of Yorkshire

 

Sharp Lane? How far is that from Dark Lane, Joan lives there, it can’t be too far

 

Lewis Green Esq

Lewis Green Literary Agency

47 Marble House

Fellows Drive

London NW3 

15th March 1967

 

Dear Mr Green            

            Please excuse my unsolicited approach. I am writing seeking representation for my debut novel, Where My Bones Lie. A 120,000 word police procedural. A crime thriller set in the West Riding of Yorkshire. I am writing to you because I have been a fan of Douglas Marchant’s work for several years. Marchant’s writing style in particular has been an inspiration to me. I see my writing in the same vein.

 

Marchant’s good, excellent writing style, doing very well. Where My Bones Lie? A bit odd, he thought, talking about their own body. However. And 120,000 words a bit long for a debut – should be able to trim 20 or 30,000 off that.

 

            The story opens with five noisy, happy and well-heeled rugby-playing undergraduates being refused entry to the Mecca Locarno Ballroom situated in the County Arcade in Leeds City Centre. They collect half a dozen girls and go back to the house they rent, for a party. Eventually, five of the girls leave. The sixth, still naked, passes out on a bed. The boys take their pleasure. The girl comes to and is suffocated when she begins to protest. The body is disposed of and has never been recovered. Police enquiries come to naught.

 

WHAT!? He thought his heart had stopped. It wasn’t possible. This couldn’t be chance. Who knew? No! He screamed inwardly. He should have binned the lot instantly but something compelled him to continue.

 

            However this is not the heart of the story, and, you may think this is too close to home but one of the murderers changes his name by deed poll. On leaving university, with a degree in English Literature, he secures a position with a major publishing house later becoming a literary agent. About the same time the murdered girl’s younger sister unearths some information and begins to track the murderers down and kill them in the most brutal manner.

 

For Christ’s sake, he thought, I changed my bloody name. I live at the other end of the county. What the Hell is going on?

 

            I’m a thirty something investigative journalist who, after many years of promising, has finally put pen to paper and begun to write fiction. When working I write under a nom de plume.

 

            I hope that my material is of interest and I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Your Truly 

Granville Rodahl

Ian Walker
 changed a profile picture 
Ian Walker
 added a post 

Hi, I've been a member of JW for a while but only recently joined Townhouse, thanks to a bad memory and an email glitch. Still, I'm here and I think one of the oldest members in JW. At the moment it is 7.10am and I'm looking at the Flowering Cherry outside my office (spare bedroom) window in Wakefield. Just a few weeks ago it was a mass of pink, followed by the pink of the clematis montana that climbs through it Now? It's a mass of green being toyed with by a fresh westerly breeze. I began writing for my own pleasure about six years ago and until I joined JW hadn't a clue. I just put fingers to keyboard. Average unfinished manuscript, of which there were five at the time, 290,000 words! Oh boy!! Quite an education. I've now finished one at 102,000, a crime thriller based in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In a previous incarnation I used to wear a blue serge uniform with silver buttons. No takers from agents as yet but I have entered it in the 2020 Bath Frst Novel Competition and yesterday in the Goldsmith's First Novel Competition. So who knows. My personal philosophy is that every rejection takes you closer to an acceptance. 

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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