Gerry Fenge

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Word Cloud veteran - from back in 2009 (I think). Hey, well done Jericho for resurrecting this sort of thing.

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Hi Jerry - I finished Angels in my Hair. Thanks for the recommendation. It was an interesting read. I did find it slightly unsettling that the author seemed to suggest that certain events in are life are fixed, the angels knew they were coming, and there wasn't anything we could do about it. But it is a lovely idea that we've all got a guardian angel and others available to act as our teachers. I did have a moment a few years ago that made me wonder if someone was looking out for me. I paused on the doorstep before leaving work, something I wouldn't usually do but something made me stop, and in that second the covering from a street lamp smashed to the ground at my feet. If I'd stepped forward I'd be dead. Always gives me a shiver when I think about that.

Have to admit that my sceptical hat has trouble believing the idea, but I will be occasionally glancing over my shoulder in case an angel is hovering there. :)


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

I’m sitting upstairs in Waterstones café and trying to switch myself on – slot into gear, slide into alignment – but the dear old brain is too full of mush.


I’ve already chatted with the cheery folk behind the counter, bantered about their tattoos, bought an overly virtuous falafel-and-hummus wrap, swept crumbs from a table, sat down with my tray, stared with brain-clenching determination at the cappuccino. 


But no gear has yet been slotted into, no alignment arrived at.


I could try checking my phone for sports news, always good for a semi-irritated time-waste. But that would take me away from – what? – the big slow Okay; the great All-is-Well; the Nugget at the Centre; in a word, Oomph.


So what else can I try? Well, some Books Of The Month seem to be nodding and winking in their box-shelf displays. There’s an idea. If you want to wake up, a bookshop ought to be prime territory. Lots of switched-on minds captured between covers of books – lasso, swoop, splat – and stretched out on the pages.


All those novels haunted-by-death, haunted-by-life; all those non-fictions rippling with questions, bulging with info. Sipping my drink, I envisage the hordes of them, ranged on their shelves, spread on their display racks, basking on buy-one-get-one-half-price tables.


But I can’t read yet. Too much sludge on the brain. 


Focus on the café, then. Seventeen tables and – mm, let’s count the punters – dun-dun-dun – fifteen. Let’s see: a young mum has got her baby in a front sling while she chats with a pal across the table – head tilts to baby, head tilts to pal. Further along there’s a laptop caresser, with side-shaved head and multicolour bob on top – is she a dissertation drafter, I wonder, or masterpiece wannabee? – well, good luck either way. Over there, a lean-forward talker (check shirt, elbows on table) discourses at a pair of lean-back receivers (grey tops, elbows to the sides). Who else? An older bloke, suit-and-tie, sharp of face, is sitting like a resentful wedding guest as he peers through half-moon specs at – what? – ah, The Daily Telegraph. And, look, an older couple chuckling at each other – both with elbows on the table – in grey-haired, jacket’n’jeans bonhomie.


Sigh, what next? I could try scribbling this piece (interesting time-travel dilemma: have I already started, and, if not, how come I’ve got this far?)


But does it matter if I switch on or not? Fair question, which gets an even better answer, because – here’s the point – the world changes if witnessed through back-lit eyes. Beam your light out and everything becomes suddenly brighter. No need to get worked up any more (bye-bye Brexit); no need to get appalled (hey Trump, you’re a waft of passing wind).


But more than that, it’s an ethical force. When you see the world as beautiful, you treat it as beautiful – the great aesthetic switch from matter to morality – and that which is beautiful is loved. And that which is loved is served. People, creatures, the whole planet: beautiful, loved, served.


All of which brings us to the major problem of do I order another drink. (Can’t rush all this. Got to let it mellow.) Mm, let’s look around, check the décor. Pale lemon walls, wood-slat features – tell you what, try filling in the rest yourself. Call it a choose-your-own-décor café. Y’see, I’ve got to focus on this bigger problem of ordering another drink. (Cappuccino? – done that.) (Water? – done that too.) (Falafel and hummus wrap? – undergone that.) (How about tea? – possibly.)


There again – consider the alternative – I could skip the tea and head straight out, stride the streets, see if any Oomph is willing to stride along with me. See, there’s two ways of going with Mr Oomph. Sit still and be full.


Or stride out and be full.


We’ll try the stride in a mo, but let’s sit a while longer (with duly acquired pot of tea). You see, the more I contemplate the room – that is, the more attention I pump into it/out to it – the more it begins to buzz with fullness. Not a literal buzz, of course – not the chat of fifteen or so customers – no, not that. It’s like there’s so much energy in the air you can almost feel it – that sort of buzz – like it’s humming around your eyes, tingling around your ears.


Where does it come from, though?


Ah, here we enter the great mystery of Inner and Outer.


It’s like this: if I finally get to the Big Slow Okay, the great All is Well, the Nugget at the Centre, gather some Oomph – the effect can be truly metaphysical.


Did I ever tell you about the time Beethoven’s Fifth set a whole field on fire? On fire, I say. I’d stayed back at Uni one evening, listening through headphones to his Fifth Symphony (you know the one: bah-bah-bah boom!) and simultaneously I followed the whole thing in the score. Not missing a note. Not missing a cymbal tink. Hence – natural conclusion – the world became entirely Fifth Symphony, no room for anything other. Which was strange, cos I took a bus (a bus? what’s that?) to the Halls of Residence (Halls? Halls?), and the stop was by some fields (what’re they?)


Well, I can answer the last query. They were great green acres of fire, that’s what they were. Except not green at all. They were flame orange. Or green, overlaid with flame. Or green in this world, and flame in another. But – here’s the point – the other world was winning. Those fields were thoroughly on fire. Resonating with Mr Beethoven’s ferocity.


And that, my friends, is how you have visions. Fill up the Inner World, and the Outer World gets overlaid.


There’s more, there’s lots more to say. I haven’t even started on Wordsworth. Haven’t even started on Quality (and its fragmented accomplice, Quantity). Haven’t even started on the two basic premises (Is mind an emergent property of matter? Or matter an emergent property of mind?)


But that’s enough for now. It’s time for the walk. Finish the tea (got three and a half cups out of that pot!). Cheerio caff staff (oh, it’s last day for one of them – “Happy Lastday to you…”). Manoeuvre past the seventeen or so tables with the fifteen or so punters. Get out. Say hello to Mr Oomph. Or ask the blighter where he’s got to.


And I’m walking up Stonegate – with its gem-shops and clothes-shops and pie-shops and antique-shops – and, hey, the ground is bouncing up at me, people swerving before me, half-timbered frontages jumping at the sides, and the air, ah the air – it says a soft hello, breeze stroking my cheeks, gusts murmuring my ears. And way way above, the sunlight comes swarming down, rebounds off pavements, splatters my eyes.


And it’s like I’m swimming through liquid air – soft and surrounding. It holds me, holds all of us, parts before us, merges behind, makes all the people – Italian, Korean, whatever – sway and waver so my every straight-line motion is curved by their grace, their gravity.


And my shoulders relax till I feel the precise spot in the upper spine – that central point where angel wings would take root (if I should just happen to develop any). And the whole head-held-higher thing gets going. And I’m up, I’m flying. Feet on the ground, I’m flying.


Where to? Ah yes, the Minster.


Ah, the great long slow-down.


Ah, the entry desk and shuffle through.


Ah, the eventual, awesome stride through the Nave.


I choose a place to sit, somewhat as I might at Waterstones (though only somewhat) and it all comes teeming about me – the collected mentality of centuries. Here, if anywhere, is the fusion of inner and outer. Those soaring limestone pillars, that cream-white ceiling, those surging arches and golden bosses – together they form a massive casket of thought, a great containing cranium, a silo of mind, filled firstly by medieval intensity and recharged over succeeding centuries. You can feel it, tingling in the side-aisles, burnishing in the stain glass, shimmering from the altar cloth and the stone-flower capitols and the candle niches and eagle-wing lectern.


And it isn’t so much the space above that overwhelms, but the concept of that space – a space gazed at by so many packages of consciousness that it starts to make our sight melt. And the more we melt, the more that ceiling – so cream-white and golden – begins to melt too, till the empyrean is almost there.


Breath stalls, ears ring, flesh goes into alternative mode – forgets itself, becomes something temporarily Other.


Blank.


And I re-emerge on a city slowed down. Parliament Street, with its wide-spaced stores and tight-coppiced trees, becomes the setting for everyday miracle, the simple discovery that our ordinary world is far more than it habitually pretends. Click. The alias of grey mundanity fades and it expands to become the vastness and wonder it always was.


Every step is now a pulse on the Earth’s surface – my fingers shuffling as if to thicken the atmosphere, mouth muttering unheard syllables, eyes gazing thirty degrees above horizon level – to where the air swells and hypothetical other worlds hover in potential. And – maybe it’s the head-tilt, the neck pushed back on itself – but clouds at the end of the street pass like empires – pass, pass, and go – while behind them the eye-spangling blue transmutes to the wave-front of approaching revelation.


And the big questions dwindle away, the queries about Quality (and its fragmented accomplice, Quantity); the disputes over basic premises (Matter an emergent property of mind? Or mind an emergent property of matter?); even that vital final issue, Discarnate Survival – they answer themselves with a simple easy ‘Of course!’


Sorted.


And that, my friends, explains the transcendent merit of stopping for a cuppa at Waterstones. That, mes amis, tells you the prodigious benefits of a nice long chomp’n’ponder chillax. (Cappuccino? – tick.) (Water? – tick.) (Overly virtuous falafel and hummus wrap? – tick.) (Refillable pot of tea? – indeed.) And don’t forget to say cheers to the caff staff.

The way I see it, blogs are for having a good, general chat. Raise a topic, kick it around, let it take its own momentum. That’s how it used to work on the late lamented Word Cloud, though I don’t know if it’ll work that way on Jericho Townhouse. If it does, though, Coffee and Cake might be a suitable location. Let’s see. Here’s something I wrote about ten years ago, very much in silly mode, but based around a worthwhile topic. Let’s start by repeating the title:


*****


Do You Keep A Notebook?


Thing is, I don’t like t-shirts because they lack a pocket for notebook and pen. Is this a bad thing? Of course: an idea might come at any time.


You’re on the loo – what’ll you do?

You’re in your bed – what’s in your head?

You’re on the train – what’s that again?

You walk in town – write things down!


Notebook, notebook, how I love thee

Without you near, where would I be?

Without your help what would I do?

Notebook, notebook, I love you.

            (Tennyson, I think)


So:- do you have a notebook? Big one, little one? Carried everywhere, locked in a drawer? Plumber’s phone number in the back? Fragments of conversation at the front? Shopping lists in the back? Chapter ideas at the front? Thirty old ones chucked in a cupboard? Burn them to get rid of embarrassing bits? Index them for University of Texas?


Do you write blogs in them (like this)? Have you just been cooking vegetable curry when you broke off to write an idea in it? (Thought so.)


Notebook, notebook, always there

You and me, we make a pair.

Notebook, notebook, soft yet tough

Shuttup Gerry, that’s enough.

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.

Dunno if this'll work, but I'm interested that my gender option is no longer 'male' but 'man'. Brings to mind this classic from 1969. Wow, how evil that fuzz guitar sounded (evilgood, course) - opened the floor to all sorts of subterranean strobes and flickering dancers, half human/ half elemental (including me...)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvmeEyVd5w8 

Dunno if this'll work, but I'm interested that my gender option is no longer 'male' but 'man'. Brings to mind this classic from 1969. Wow, how evil that fuzz guitar sounded (evilgood, course) - opened the floor to all sorts of subterranean strobes and flickering dancers, half human/ half elemental (including me...)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvmeEyVd5w8 

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.

kewavxkrnxf23zs9cpapkq4ru5qpjgw2.jpg

Earlier today I posted a silly comment about tilted heads, having just uploaded a profile pic incorporating just such a cranial tilt of my own. But here’s the question: why did I select that picture? Why not go for an image more sternly vertical? Did I imagine it denoted, perhaps, a more considerate stance – more listening, more querying, more flexible, even – narrow the eyes – more wise?


To help find an answer I enlisted someone I could reasonably expect to maintain an upright head: The Incredible Hulk. What would it convey if he broke off from his green and rampaging endeavours to suddenly tilt his head sideways? Sarcasm, I’d expect – a bogus willingness to consider the other person’s point of view.


For instance:

Hulk (head at 10image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=1&dpx=2&t=1556811170 angle): Would woo like-ums Hulk be more friendly now?

Snivelling Wrongdoer: Uh, yes please, ah, Mr Hulk.

Hulk  (head at 15image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=2&dpx=2&t=1556811170angle): Hulk thinking... 

            (head at 20image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=3&dpx=2&t=1556811170angle): Hulk consider… 

            (head snaps upright): Hulk decide.

Fist descends. Wrongdoer no longer capable of snivelling.


So there we are, Hulky says a tilted head equals thoughtfulness and consideration, no matter how temporary or unreliable.


And that’s very handy when we remember how useful body language can be to a writer. The gurus of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ recommend ‘showing’ emotions via bodily gestures (ironically known as ‘tells’). Thus ‘Hulk was angry’ is less effective than ‘Hulk drummed his fingers’ (on the table edge, reducing it to splinters).


Fair enough, but here comes a question: which way should we tilt a character’s head? I used to know a bit about eloquent eye-directions. For instance, if we swivel the eyes leftwards it means ‘looking back, the past’ (I think) whereas swivelling the eyes rightwards means ‘looking forward, the future’. But might I be misremembering (my eyes failing to swivel sufficiently leftwards)?


There again, I have an even dimmer impression that one of these eye-directions means ‘dishonest answer’. I’ve forgotten which one (crap writer, me). Perhaps it’s looking down? Or up?


Anyway, let’s extrapolate to head tilts. Might a leftward tilt mean ‘looking back on a dishonest past’? Or should we bear in mind the observer effect – i.e. my right direction is the observer’s left, and thus our many leftward tilts on profile pics are actually rightward tilts and, hence, future orientated, honest and – well – downright admirable.


To clarify all this, I tried experimenting with different tilts in the mirror, and – quelle surprise! – the neck muscles said No. Only one direction allowed. Pourquoi, I wondered. Why can I only tilt to the right (observer’s left) with any ease? Have the muscles got fixed in position by my habitual sleep position? Incroyable, I’d have thought, cos that would mean many Townhouse newbies must be sleeping on the same side of the bed (are you?) and curled at the same angle (are you?) – so far as cramps, acid reflux, etc allow.


Let’s try another theory, then. How about compooter positioning? If we’re all right handed (are we?) then we’re likely to be stressing the same neck and shoulder muscles (and yes, folks, those muscles really can grumble, can’t they?) (and no, left handed mousing is never so convincing) (it’s that middle finger – can’t waggle the double-click fast enough). But here’s the question: have we forced a specific head-tilt directional bias on ourselves because of how we sit at our pooters whilst pooting?


Obviously we require a control-group of left-handed poot-people to upload their own head-tilt photos so we can – scientifically – decide if writing selectively withers neck muscles on the mouse-guiding side. Or not.


It’s a noble endeavour, seeking scientific truths, and we should not hesitate to follow the scope of our enquiries, to gaze nobly into the future (whichever side it may reside), to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield (I nicked that last bit from Tennyson). (Ulysses.)


*****


And thus concludes my inaugural Townhouse blog. It is to be hoped I come out with something more sober and grown-up next time…

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Gerry Fenge
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