Mary Hollendoner

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I'm from London, but just spent the last 3 years driving from the US to Argentina in a camper van with my husband and daughter! Now in a little town in the mountains of Argentina attempting to write a book about the experience. Also working on a children's fantasy story. Look forward to e-meeting you all!

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I've written most of a travel memoir about the camper van road trip I just finished from California …
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  •  · Hi Mary, you've answered the question about the theme - a collection of good and bad adventures. Tha…

I've written most of a travel memoir about the camper van road trip I just finished from California to Argentina over the past 3 years. (Yup, we're now quarantined in Argentina!) I don't really like the idea of starting the book with one of those sneak-peek-ahead introductions with an exciting moment, and then going to the chronological story, but also I don't want the beginning to be too slow and lack excitement. I think chapter 1 is good, but then chapter 2 feels slow because I'm explaining the back story (why we decided to do the trip) - let me know what you think! Thank you!

The Beginning

We did it. 

We drove away from our home, our friends, our jobs - everything that we knew. After months of preparation, we are moving into this camper van as a permanent home. 

I climb up into the passenger seat of the van and click my seat belt. I take a deep breath and look at my husband, John. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think I did both. 

It is exciting, emotional, and frankly, terrifying. Are we really going to drive 25K miles across 18 countries? Will we make it? What will happen to us along the way? What will we do once we get there? We already know we don’t want to return to this life. What is next?

We bump down our driveway away from our home, memories flooding past my window, as the neighbors wave and cheer us on. Our 6-year-old daughter, Lilly, simply looks out the window and says, 

“Let’s drive to Argentina”, like it’s just another day. 

On top of the excitement, I also feel relief. Relief to finally be on our way, after years of intense planning and preparation. It’s like I’ve been standing at the top of a cliff, anxiously waiting to jump into a beautiful swimming hole below me, and finally am free to just do it and stop worrying about it. But, it still terrifies me.

At this point, it no longer matters what we forgot to do or pack or research. We are leaving. DRIVING TO SOUTH AMERICA! No turning back!

One mile down the road, I sheepishly turn to John, “I left all our food in the fridge back at the house.” 

And thus began our journey of 25,000 miles. With a U-turn.

The real beginning / Why?

It seemed like I had it all. A loving husband and healthy, happy daughter. A nice house and fancy job in a community of great friends. How could I possibly complain?

But there was a nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me this was not how I wanted to spend another decade of my life. Impressive jobs come with a lot of stress, and mine was no exception. My day was spent running from problem to problem, barely finding the time to eat, and frequently ending the day with a headache. In the evenings, I’d try to focus on my daughter, but my brain would still be processing the day’s unresolved issues. My husband and I didn’t get enough quality time together, usually discussing childcare logistics or other life admin in the rare moments we had alone.

The weekends were a wonderful refuge of enjoying each other’s company, catching up on sleep, and going into the mountains for some physical adventures. But, they were too short. Sunday evenings I could feel my chest tightening with stress as my brain started churning through the problems I’d need to solve the following day. I desperately craved more time with these 2 people whom I so adored, as well as more adventure and physical challenge in my life.

We spent hours brainstorming how we could make a significant change in our lives, while still providing a happy childhood for our daughter. Change careers, go back to school, move to a small mountain town - none of it felt big enough. We’d been living and working in California for 15 years and I wanted a total reboot! 

I read dozens of books about other people pulling the trigger on a big life change - from the NY exec who quit her job to start an organic farm in Vermont, to the young couple who sailed around the world after one 16-hour sailing class, or the woman who dropped out of grad school to become a teacher in Bhutan - I felt so inspired reading about these real people who’d done such brave & risky things!

Initially we were both drawn to a physical challenge trip. Before our daughter was born, every vacation revolved around rock climbing. Rock climbing was why we lived in the Bay area (proximity to Yosemite) and how we’d met each other (we’d each moved to Yosemite) - it was the most important thing to me after my family. But, at 5 years old, Lilly wasn’t much of a climber yet. Physical challenge idea #2: we’d done some bike touring in the past, and I was really intrigued by the idea of biking to South America. So we did a 2-week test trip, pulling Lilly in a trailer, but decided that she would get too bored sitting for hours a day, plus I didn’t like the idea of her bouncing along behind me on a sketchy one-lane road. 

Ultimately, we were so enamored by the South America trip – traveling right from our front door all the way to the bottom of the world without ever getting on an airplane – that we stuck with the idea, but, by van instead of bike.

I created spreadsheets galore to analyze our likely expenses, our savings, whether we should rent or sell our house; generally figuring out how long we could travel before needing to work. Then I tackled homeschooling legalities and invented a curriculum, researched border crossings, insurance for the van in so many countries, health insurance for us, vaccinations... The to-do list was endless, but exciting! 

Meanwhile, John spent dozens of hours researching what vehicle we should take and how to build it out. He decided on an E350 Ford diesel van, due to its apparently unbreakable engine. Rather than buy an incredibly tall van that he could stand up inside, we chose to get a van with a roof that goes up and down. When we park for the night, we raise the roof up, providing space for us to comfortably stand up, as well as providing space for an “upstairs” sleeping area (really just two shelves big enough for us to lay on!)

It was a gargantuan task to entirely gut the van and build it out. John made us an electrical system with solar panels and batteries, plumbing with tank and filtration, heating and fan, stove, cabinets. Evenings and weekends for most of a year, he toiled away in our driveway, until he had created the perfect little home for three.


Cold Feet:

A couple weeks before we were to drive away – we had both quit our jobs, our house was rented out, and we had missed enrollment for the next year of my daughter’s school – I was obsessively reading the news about Mexico, getting more and more concerned. 

Highest number of homicides in 20 years! Mass graves discovered next to the road, decapitated heads found in a cooler, tourists poisoned at resorts. Are we completely insane to drive into this country? 

So I marked all the dangerous areas on a large map of Mexico and assured myself that we could weave a path around all of them.

But then, along comes an abnormally strong set of hurricanes, hitting Mexico on both sides of the country. I don’t want to imagine hunkering down in our little van by ourselves while a severe hurricane bats us around.

So I convinced myself that hurricanes can be avoided by keeping a close eye on the forecasts. 

And then, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake with epicenter in Mexico! It’s the largest earthquake to hit Mexico in a *century*!

Are we completely irresponsible to drive into this chaos with our little daughter? What if Lilly gets seriously hurt, or kidnapped by Mexican bandits, or we have a serious car crash, or the van is stolen?! Or what if we survive the trip but then we can’t find jobs when we return to the US? Or, one of us gets cancer and we can’t get US health insurance? There were 101 reasons not to do this trip, and I started thinking about all of them.

Ultimately, I turned to logic and probabilities – yes, it is possible that any of those things may happen to us and we’ll greatly regret this trip, but it’s far more likely they won’t… The most likely outcome is that we’ll grow old and hope to have lived the lives we wanted.

So we made the uncomfortably exciting choice to leave our safe and traveled path – the secure jobs, house, neighborhood – and go into the unknown. 


Surviving the first 24 Hours 

If the first night is any indication of the rest of our trip, we should turn around now!

The drive itself is beautiful and nostalgic. Since we left home so late in the day, we end up driving through Yosemite during the magic sunset hour. The alpenglow paints the familiar peaks orange, highlighting every detail on the granite faces in front of me. I savor my memories of standing on top of most of them, typically at this same time of day, rushing to get down before dark. We stop briefly for a photo at the lake where we were married 10 years prior, and I cement my last memories of Yosemite, pushing away the doubts that creep into my mind. Could we ever find a more beautiful place than this?

We camp on the shores of Mono Lake, just outside of Yosemite. We raise up the van roof, set up the camp stove and table outside, and make the beds. It’s a process that soon becomes second nature to us, but at this point is still new and confusing. John & I are exhausted from the intense last few days of packing and preparation, but Lilly is so excited that she keeps leaping back and forth between her bed and our bed. The cold finally draws her into her sleeping bag and we all fall asleep.

It is a freezing night - literally - when I try to drink from my water bottle in the morning I discover it is frozen solid. At some point in the night, Lilly wakes up crying from the cold so we pull her into bed with us. That makes three bodies attempting to sleep in a space only a few inches wider than a single bed. As much as I love being close to my family, I tend to prefer sleeping without a knee denting my spine and my face pressed into a tent window zipper. 

A couple hours of fitful sleep later, we are re-awoken by strange scuttling noises. John shines a light down and we both peer over the edge of our bed. Caught by surprise in the sudden beam of light is a cute little white mouse. For a split second, I see his red eyes looking up at us from the depths of our trash can, and then he vanishes under our bed. We start discussing traps or enticements to get the mouse out, but our half-asleep brains can’t process such a tricky problem, so we just take the trash outside and fall back asleep, promising ourselves we’ll solve it in the morning. 

What feels like only moments after I fell asleep for the third time, I awake with a start at the sound of an engine approaching. Beams of light shine in through our windshield and bounce eerily around the fabric of our tent. I am not at all used to this idea of sleeping in a public place in the middle of the wilderness, so the arrival of a stranger in the night is intimidating. I push aside thoughts of theft or assault, and unzip my window and peer out. A beaten up old car parks nearby. I wonder if I should go find the can of bear spray that is our only weapon, but I don’t want to take my eyes off the vehicle. There is some movement and a headlight flickering around. I watch as long as my weary eyes let me but eventually fell asleep again.

Dawn comes too soon, and I curse the bright sunlight for waking me up so early. I feel the warm rays of the sun heating up our tent and I reluctantly open my bleary eyes. My groggy brain remembers where I am and turns on in a flash.

Did the mouse eat all our food? 

Has the mystery person outside stolen our camp chairs? 

Is Lilly frozen to death in her sleeping bag? 

I turn to face John so I can throw these concerns at him. I see one eye peering out at me from under his sleeping bag. It does not look like a happy, well-rested eye, so I leave it alone and climb out of bed. Lilly is buried so far into her sleeping bag that I can’t see her. In a motion that is to become a regular habit on this trip when we reach colder climates, I poke the pile of fluff to elicit sufficient movement to confirm life. Yes, being a mother makes you weird. 

I open the door to check on our various belongings strewn around outside and see a figure wrapped in a sleeping bag laying in the dirt. He sits up and greets me when he hears my door open, 

“I think I have frostbite, could you take a look at my foot?”

And that was the first of hundreds of chance meetings that form the true backbone of this story. 




71-year-old Joe had been camping up in the mountains by himself. The cold front caught him by surprise, so he’d hiked out in the night to his car, driving only a short way before seeing our van and deciding he was too tired to continue. 

“I haven’t slept under a roof since April,” he assures us. (This was late September). Wow, I think, can I be like Joe when I grow up?

He tells me that he hasn’t been able to feel his toes for almost 24 hours. I gingerly peel back a white, cotton sock from a wrinkled, leathery leg. The foot underneath appears almost white in color, and is swollen hard to the touch. I dig out my wilderness medicine notebook from our first aid kit, (didn’t think I’d be using it less than 24 hours into the trip), and try to compare photos and descriptions. If it’s badly frost bitten then you should leave it frozen and get to a hospital. If not, just let it warm up and it’ll be fine. But how to tell the difference? I’m no expert and there’s no cell reception to do more research. 

We invite Joe to share our breakfast, glad now that we splurged on four plates instead of only three when we packed the van. Yes, those are the kinds of big decisions you make when you have a tiny home! He is grateful for the scrambled eggs and coffee, but he won’t listen to my advice to go to the hospital. It’s the typical US problem - he doesn’t have insurance so can’t risk getting slapped with a crippling bill. He says he’ll risk it and simply puts his shoe on and drives away. (Ironically, after we cross the border, no one we meet worries about health care costs.)

I think about Joe over the next few days, wondering what became of him. He wrote down our blog website but he didn’t even own a cell phone, so I don’t expect to ever hear from him. It was our first experience of having a somewhat close & personal encounter with someone whom we’d likely never see again. 

Welcome to vanlife - this was going to happen to us hundreds more times. 

Postscript: Several weeks later I got a mysterious message via our blog’s Contact Us page. It was from a nurse who was treating a patient who’d asked her to contact us. He wanted to let us know that his toes were damaged but he was going to be ok. She assumed we must be his family since we were the only people he was contacting. At that point we were well into Mexico. I responded asking if we could help in any way, but never heard back again. 

I like to imagine I’ll be as tough and adventurous as Joe when I am in my 70s. 

But I hope not so alone.



We watched Joe drive away down the dirt road back to the highway, then looked around at our new “home” in disbelief. This time yesterday we were normal people in a normal house. Now, just 24 hours later, we are living - sleeping, cooking, doing school - on a wide, sandy beach in front of a glassy still lake, with nobody in sight. It feels surreal. 

I sit at our fold-up table outside, guiding Lilly through her reading lessons, while I watch seagulls cruise over the mirror-like water in front of me. John stands barefoot in the sand at our stove, preparing lunch. We explore the limestone tufa formations, noticing osprey nests balanced on top of the larger ones, for a break between reading and Math classes. I could get used to this. Well, except for the not-sleeping-all-night part.

We’ve been looking at the giant island in the middle of the lake all day while homeschooling, so we decide to try to paddle to it. Out comes our inflatable kayak and we set off at the sensibly early hour of 3pm…hmmm. We have been warned that sudden strong afternoon winds can make returning to shore impossible, but decide to give it a go anyway. Responsible parents prioritizing homeschooling over fun in the morning, but irresponsible parents deciding to still go out when we know it’s far too late in the day!  

At first, the water looks beautifully enticing and I’m ready to jump in for a swim once we get deep enough. Then I notice millions of tiny white bugs swimming around. Yuck! The water is absolutely infested with them. Mono Lake is three times saltier than the ocean and is devoid of any marine life aside from the billions of brine shrimp (aka sea monkeys) that live there. The alkalinity of the water leaves white scales over our arms and legs as the water splashed over us. Not the most inviting place to swim.

We paddle hard for an hour. The clouds get thicker and the sky gets darker, but we both pretend not to notice, even after Lilly’s repeated wails of,

“I want to go back to the van now”. 

We have summit fever, but for the island. Just when we are so close we can see a sandy beach, the wind suddenly picks up, blowing us towards the island at a rapid clip. Getting there would now be easy. Getting back is going to become impossible at some point. A short debate ensues:

“We can still make it! In the worst case, we’ll just get stuck on that island unable to return to the van, but we’d be safe.” - my argument.

“I don’t want to have to drink my own pee.” - John’s retort.

We turn back.

Mary Hollendoner
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Mary Hollendoner
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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


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?


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


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


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 …?



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.


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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Mary Hollendoner
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