T.J. Keane

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Chapter 1One good thing. (T.J. Keane)      As soon as I lay eyes on him, I know that he is up to no …
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  •  · Hi Rob, thanks for taking the time to reply. Glad that you enjoyed it and thanks for the encourageme…
Reposted Robert Pearce's forum.

Hi all you super critiquers. After my pathetic first effort, rightly hammered by the good folks here, I submit my second attempt for a further bashing. God this is difficult. It seems harder than writing the book. If you think it is okay, I'd like a little more advice. '...he compares with those the gods of old empowered eons ago.' Should I name Achilles, Hector, Heracles? Perhaps this is a suck-up, but it's relevant to the story. I have used italics to indicate a section I'm not sure about. Comments?

Ancient Gods still roam amongst us, they never left...

When visiting Culloden Battlefield archeological site in Scotland, former U.S. Marine Angus MacDonald uncovers more than he bargained for when he finds a mysterious silver box. Instantly, power within the artifact thrusts him into a world for which it has not prepared him; a place where gods themselves walk in shadows and their reach touches every point in humanity’s existence.

Granted increased strength and enhanced senses, he compares with those the gods of old empowered eons ago. Will this be enough to defeat the malevolence of the God of the Underworld? The Marines never taught him to fight deities, but he has no choice because humanity is threatened with slavery. Along the way, he gathers help from his family and friends, forming a team of resistance. But a convert division of the Pentagon interferes, and he must display his unique powers and assume control of the battles.

The team works and fights together while trying to discover the reason behind Angus’s newfound abilities, and what tactics they can use to kill Hades.

This page-turning thriller setting man against gods in a clash older than time; the fate of the world rests on a young hero, and the cost is extreme.

Reposted harrybingham's post.

Hello JW members

As per my email - can I have your elevator pitches please for the webinar next week. Webinar info here:

https://members.jerichowriters.com/content/perfecting-your-elevator-pitch-with-harry-bingham/

(That link does work - I've just checked it - but you do need to be logged in to the JW site to see it.)

Rules for the elevator pitch:

  • One submission per person please
  • JW members only (sorry everyone else - but this is a members only event)
  • Max 50 words per pitch
  • But aim for less. Most pitches can be done in <20 words, and often <10

Hope to see loads of you at the webinar. I'm looking forward to it myself ...

Chapter 1

One good thing.

 (T.J. Keane)

 

     As soon as I lay eyes on him, I know that he is up to no good. Repeatedly looking over his shoulder.  The set of his jaw, clearly bracing himself for something.  He stands out here, like a fox in a hen house or a steam roller weaving among Ferrari's. He is so obvious, well to me anyway.  I’m here to sip delicious, expensive coffee. Coffee that I can’t afford. To people watch, see how the other half live. Escape for a while. Pretend I belong here. He is not. He has a plan.

     I drop my gaze and put my cup back on the table. The spring sunshine has yet to arrive. It’s cold for April. I pull my coat around my neck and make sure the zip is up as far as it can go. Cheap coat so what did I expect? The coffee was actually keeping my hands warm. I pick it back up and my gaze automatically returns to the boy man. I watch as he tries to blend in, in full view. His shoulders are hunched. I know now what he is going to do.  I’m unsure if it will be the brunette, fur coat, talking earnestly, cell phone to her ear. It could also be the blonde. Tall, leggy, tan coat, bright red Gucci tote swinging around her protruding wrist. Clearly oblivious to the world around her. What do I care? It’s none of my business.

            It’s the blonde. My heart starts to beat a little faster. Shit head, go get a job and pay for your own damn stuff. He puts his hood up and begins to pick up his pace. I squeeze my coffee. It oozes up and some escapes the lid. 

‘Shit’. 

It burns my leg through my worn jeans. Dammit. I wipe furiously. It has no effect on the stains. She is about twenty yards from me now. I can see her face. I think about giving her a heads up. I close my mouth. Look at me, scruffy jeans, dirty trainers and hoodie protruding from the top of my fleece.  What if she thinks I’m involved?

 It’s show time. One last glance over his left shoulder. He sprints, grabbing the bag as if in a relay. She doesn’t make a sound, just stops, mouth hanging open in shock. Her hand is outstretched, still holding the other end of the strap. He tugs harder. 

She screams, ‘stop’ and then ‘no’. It’s barely audible from where I’m sitting. A half-hearted attempt on her behalf.

He rams her with his shoulder. She bounces off him like she has been hit by a train, hitting the pavement with a thud. It’s a distinctive sound, a fall. People are standing still around them now. Frozen in their inaction. Afraid for themselves, assessing the situation. Self-preservation I suppose. I know about that. 

He runs across the street. He is going to race right by me. I’m seething, shaking slightly in my anger. Little shit thinks he can just take what he wants. He won’t think about her again.  He will riffle through her life. Take what is valuable. Sell the bag. Destroy the rest of her belongings. I know because I have seen how it works many times.  He has no doubt done it countless times. I am not a person for spontaneous action. I am careful, measured, rational thinking. I have to be. 

My reaction comes out of nowhere. I stick my left foot out, low and purposely. It happens so quickly. I see him stumble and register the shock on his face. It lasts a second before he is pitched forward out of view. You weren’t expecting that boy man. He is lying sprawled in the middle of the crashed tables and chairs. I am shaking again. It’s fear this time. I should run. Staff are coming out to see what happened. 

‘Hey man, what the hell happened’? Coffee guy looks unsure whether he should be angry or concerned. 

The boy man is off again having gotten his wind back. He is clawing and scrambling through the outdoor seating area. He clutches his left shoulder as he tears round the corner. I fill my lungs shakily, shrugging my shoulders at the coffee guy. I see the red bag among the carnage. I can put something right today.

‘This belongs to that lady over there’, realising that she is still sitting on the street.

Coffee guy barely spares me a glance as he tries to right his metal chairs and table. I pick it up and make my way back to her. Suddenly feeling awkward in my role as hero.

            She is sitting there in a heap. I can’t see any blood. Why is she still sitting there?

‘Are you alright’? 

Nothing. She just stares back at me. Tears and mascara raining paths down her cheeks. Her lips are quivering. Sad blue eyes survey me. I try again, more forceful this time.

‘You need to get up’, I grab her elbow and start to haul.

‘I don’t think I can stand’.

 She is nearly up. I secure an arm around her waist. Her legs are shaking like a new born foal. ‘I have your bag here’ I smile, encouraging her.

She is still in shock, I think. She turns her palms up to inspect them. I can see that both are scratched. She looks down to see her legs.  The left knee of her black pants is torn.  A bloody graze can be seen seeping through it. She doesn’t seem to be taking this too well. I feel a little out of my depth.

‘Do you want me to call someone for you’? Why I’m talking slowly, I don’t know.

‘No’, she barks.

 I eyeball her in confusion. Her expression is immediately apologetic. At least she has stopped crying.

‘If my brother finds out about this, she scrunches her eyes and shakes her head. He will have the whole police department down here’. She makes a strangled sound, half sob, half laugh. She wipes her face with her sleeve. 

‘He would’?

‘He can be over protective, he would over react’. She is standing more upright so I hand her the bag.

She takes it tentatively, ‘How did you get it’? 

‘I saw what happened. He ran past me. I sort of tripped him. I mean I did. You should have seen his face’. I giggle now that I can reflect on it safely.

            She is looking at me curiously, studying me, my face, frame, clothes. I can’t keep the smile off my face. She pulls her hair over her shoulder and blows out a breath.

‘Lord you’re a brave one’.

‘No, really, I’m not, at all, it just happened’. If I were fearless things would be different. ‘It was probably a dumb move. I’m lucky he didn’t thump me one’. An involuntary shiver runs through me. She sees it and offers a small smile. 

‘I’m glad you were here’, she offers her hand, ‘June Williams’; which is unnecessary considering we had our arms around each other. It takes me a split second to catch up.

‘I’m Star’, I shake her hand and start to wonder how to extract myself. The conversation is running out. I note for the first time how pale she is. Translucent. Her pale blue eyes have deep, dark circles underneath. She has her own battles, I guess.

            ‘Well, I better get going’. I sound like somebody who has to be somewhere. I don’t. It’s my day off. 

I take a couple of steps putting some distance between us. She has that anxious look again. I falter.

‘Do you think you could walk me home’? 

‘What’?

 I heard her. I am trying to buy some time. My eyebrows are half way to my hairline. I wasn’t expecting this. It’s a strange request. I don’t know what to think or say. I am still facing her but am staring hard at a paving block to her left. Fabulous shoes too. I always notice peoples’ shoes. I glance at her. She looks like she is in some sort of anguished terror again. I look up and down the street for the reason but see nothing. I feel sorry for her. Off course I will. Please god don’t let it be twenty blocks away.

‘Sure, is it far’?

Her smile is pure relief. I step up to her again and we fall into step. She is hobbling. She links her arm through mine. Okay then.

‘Thank you, Star. I’m more grateful than you will ever know. If you ever need anything you have a friend in me. I can start by offering you a cup of coffee and some lunch. You hungry’? I can’t help but smile back. For some reason I know that she genuinely means it. She seems like a good one. Strange but good. 

            Ten blocks, that’s how far her place is. I must admit I was starting to wonder. She takes the three steps up to the door of a large brownstone.  Nice. She opens up and ushers me in. The first thing I notice is the smell. I should say the lack of smell. It makes a pleasant change from urine. The smell in the stairwell and elevator in my apartment block is overpowering. We are in a tiny hall. I wait while she closes the outside door.  She moves us into an open plan living area. Huge T.V., large seating area, white sofas and an actual fireplace. The room is flooded with light from the large front windows. It’s pristine, as in reflective surfaces clean. I decide against commenting on any of it. But, wow. Money and obviously someone here, has a lot of it. I think of Dean briefly and become momentarily uncomfortable. I pull myself together and smile.

            She fills the coffee machine with water as I make my way to the kitchen table. She is opening cupboards. Then the refrigerator.

‘Does a toasted bagel with cheese sound appealing’? she is smiling hopefully.

‘Sounds perfect, thank you, but honestly just a coffee will be good’. I realise she is still hobbling. 

‘Here, I can make those, sit down and take care of your knee’. She does as I ask, rolling up the leg of her trouser. She dabs at it with some wet kitchen paper. She gives up when I put her bagel on the table.

            The silence is deafening as we begin to eat. She seems unperturbed, preoccupied. She is hunched over her bagel. She looks up and blows a lock of hair that is falling over the right side of her face. 

‘That was actually the first and probably the last time that I have taken that sucker out of the house’. I am momentarily lost. She flicks her head to indicate the red Gucci bag on the floor. I try to contain a giggle. 

She has one leg of her trousers rolled up to her thigh. There is a large white square of kitchen paper swinging from her knee where it is partially stuck, bloody and wet. The rest of it is gently rising and falling. There is a Mr. Grumpy sock visible. It stops mid-calf. I could not cope with socks that long. They would drive me insane. It’s the look of pure loathing she is directing at the bag as she chews that sets me off. My shoulders start to shake. The giggling erupts. I am relieved when I look up to see that she is laughing too. That starts me off again. She is slapping the table top. I feel weak afterwards. My jaws are sore. I needed that. It felt good.

I clean my hands and finish my lunch. I pick up my cup and look around.

‘This place is nice. Do you live here with your brother?’ 

I’m nosy, I know, but I can’t help my curiosity. I’d say she is at least a couple of years younger than me. Twenty-five if I had to be specific. She has no wedding ring and this house is way too clean for children to live here. She looks around too.

‘No just me. I used to teach. But that was a few years ago now. How about you, what do you do’? 

‘Waitress, I live out in Brooklyn’? I don’t elaborate any more. She is nodding and staring at me intently. She leans towards me.

‘Do you want to rent a room here’? 

I snort out a laugh. She looks offended and I feel bad. 

‘Look, Jane if I worked twenty-four hours a day it wouldn’t be enough to meet the rent on a place like this’. I offer a smile and bring my dishes to the sink to rinse. It’s time to go.

‘Twenty dollars’.

I turn my head to look at her. ‘Excuse me’?

‘Twenty dollars a month for as long as you want.  I don’t need the money. You would have your own room. It’s a big room, I can show you if you like. You would have to use the main bathroom but I have my own ensuite, so technically it would be yours. Obviously, you would feed yourself but that would be it. No further expectations or expenses. I could do with a new face around here’.

            I slip my arms through my coat, avoiding eye contact. Maybe she hit her head after all.  I haven’t replied because I honestly don’t know what to say. This conversation is Mad Hatter stuff. Maybe she has concussion or is having some sort of delayed reaction to the mugging.

‘Jane thank you for lunch and for the offer but it seems a little too good to be true from where I’m standing. I hope your leg heals up for you. Take care of yourself’.

 I move towards the door. She grabs a note pad and starts writing before following me. 

‘Here take this in case you change your mind. Go home, think about it, please’. She trusts it into my hands. I look down at the paper. It’s a telephone number. I look her in the eye. 

‘Why on earth would you do this? You don’t even know me’.

‘Because today was the first day I have left this house on my own in over a year’, she whispers. 

Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.

___

So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon

Harry

PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

Usually, on Thursday afternoon or so, I start pondering what I’m going to write about on Friday.

This week: no pondering. There’s only one thing I could possibly write about.

The biggest book-related newsflash this week – or this year – is that Barnes and Noble is changing ownership. The ins and outs are a little complex (and everything is not quite settled), but if all goes according to plan:

  • An investment firm, Elliott Advisers, is to buy Barnes and Noble, in a deal which values that business (including its debts) at about $700 million.
  • That sounds like a lot of money, but given that B&N’s sales are $3.6 billion, the pricing actually feels pretty cheap – reflecting the dismal state of B&N.
  • Elliott is also the 100% owner of Waterstones, the British equivalent of B&N. Both those chains are proper bookshops, appealing to proper book lovers. In that sense, the chains are distinct from the supermarkets, who just sell a lot of books but don’t care about them, or the British High Street & travel operator, WH Smith, which is as much a stationer and a newsagent as an actual book store.
  • Waterstones was rescued from impending financial disaster by CEO James Daunt. It was Daunt who negotiated the sale of the firm to Elliott.
  • Daunt will now act as CEO to both firms – B&N and Waterstones – and will divide his time between London and New York.

As it happens, Daunt also owns and runs his own mini-chain of high-end London bookstores. It was his experience at those stores which won him the position at Waterstones.

So, assuming that all goes according to plan, James Daunt will be the book world’s second most powerful human, after Jeff Bezos.

So what does that mean – for readers? For writers? For publishers? For anyone?

Well.

It’s a big and important move. James Daunt has a huge reputation in the UK and it’s probably deserved. His secret sauce for success? Quite simply this:

There is no secret sauce.

In the UK, Daunt simply took everything back to basics.

He turned bookselling into a proper career. (Albeit, inevitably, a badly paid one.) He retained staff who cared passionately about books and waved good-bye to the rest, perhaps a third of them. He cut costs. He made his stores prettier.

And, in a move so radical that it shook British publishing to its core, he let each store manager select their own inventory. So, yes of course, every store was expected to stock major bestsellers of the moment. But beyond that, what stores sold was guided by local passion and local knowledge. From a reader’s point of view, stores got better. There was more energy, more passion, more commitment.

But publishers, for a while, didn’t know what to do. In the past, publishing worked like this:

  1. Publishers paid Waterstones a big chunk of cash to get into a 3-for-2 front-of-store promotion. So Waterstones was actually retailing its shelf-space. It wasn’t really curating its own retail offering.
  2. Some of those 3-for-2s did really well, and became huge bestsellers.
  3. Others didn’t, and the volume of returns was enormous (often 20% of total stock.)
  4. Publishers pulped those returns, ditched those authors and just made money from their mega-successes

That was check-book publishing and check-book retail.

Daunt killed that, and terrified publishers. How could they market books if the key step wasn’t just throwing bundles of money at retailers? [and if you want a reminder of the different publishing options, you can get that here.]

Well, they solved that problem … kinda. But all they really did was turn their attentions (even more than before) to the supermarkets and other mass retailers. Waterstones’ local stores are great and feel like real bookshops … but they can’t build a bestseller as they did in the old days, because each store chooses its stock according to its own tastes.

Daunt’s path in the US is likely to follow the exact same route.

He’s commented that one of the issues he feels on entering a typical B&N store is quite simply “too many books.” Too much stock. Too little curation and guidance. Not enough knowledge from the booksellers. An atmosphere so flat, you could swap it for cigarette paper.

He’ll cut stock. Reduce staff, but retain the best and most passionate members. Eliminate central promotions. Get better terms from publishers. Sharply reduce stock returns.

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

Elliott’s cash plus Daunt’s knowhow should save specialist physical book retail in the US. That’s massive. It’s the difference between a US publishing industry that operates much as it does now and one that would be almost wholly slave to Amazon. That also means that trad publishing is likely to survive in roughly its current shape and size, rather than being sidelined by the growth of digital-first publishers (notably self-pubbers and Amazon itself.)

The negative:

US publishers will have to learn the lessons already absorbed by the Brits. If B&N no longer operates national promotion systems as in the past, publishers can’t make a bestseller just by buying space. Yes, they’ll go on seeing what they can do on social media and all that stuff. But, as in the UK, they’ll be even more dependent on supermarkets. The make-or-break of a book will be not “Is this wonderful writing?” but “did we get enough retail space in enough supermarkets at a sufficiently attractive price?”

I know any number of authors where Book A did incredibly well, Book B did poorly … and Book B was better than Book A. The difference, in every case, was that the supermarkets backed A and not B, and there’s damn all a trad publisher can do once the supermarkets have said no.

Oh yes, and supermarkets don’t really give a damn about the quality of writing. They don’t know about the quality of the writing. They just buy on the basis of past sales (if you’re John Grisham) or a pretty cover (if you’re a debut.)

Of course, they’d say their selection is a damn sight more careful than that, and it probably is. But that’s still “careful by the standards of people who mostly sell tinned beans and dog food for a living.” That’s not the same thing as actually being careful.

That sounds like a fairly downbeat conclusion, but the Elliott-saves-B&N news is still a real big plus for anyone who loves traditional stores, print books and traditional publishing. It’s the single biggest win I can remember over the past few years.

What that win won’t do, however, is weaken the hold of supermarkets and Amazon over book retail. Those two forces are still huge. They’re still central.

And of course, talking about print books has its slightly quaint side. Me, I prefer print. I hardly ever read ebooks. I just spend enough time on screens as it is.

But print books constitute less than 30% of all adult fiction sales, and online print sales accounts for a big chunk of that 30%.

In other words, all those B&N stores up and down the US are still only attacking 23% or so of the total adult fiction market. However well Daunt does, that 23% figure isn’t about to change radically. (Or not in the direction he wants, anyway.)

But, just for now, to hell with realism. Let’s remember the magic of a beautiful bookstore.

Daunt does. Here are some comments of his from 2017:

“[there is a sense that] a book bought from a bookshop is a better book.... When a book comes through a letter box or when a book is bought in a supermarket, it's not vested with the authority and the excitement that comes from buying it in a bookshop. …Price is irrelevant if the customer likes the shop. The book is never an expensive item, [particularly for the many customers who] we know are quite happy to go into a café and spend dramatically more on a cup of coffee."

Quite right, buddy. Now go sell some books. The readers need you.

Till soon

Harry

I’ve been reading a terrific guest post on our blog by our Craig Taylor. (And actually, “guest post” doesn’t feel like quite the right term, if I’m honest. Craig’s a buddy, not a guest.)

The post is on how to write a scene and, in it, Craig asks:

If the theme of your work, say, is unrequited love, does your scene angle in to that theme? Does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling which is associated with unrequited love? Or does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling about requited love, so as to throw into relief the experience that one of your characters will have about unrequited love?”

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

I, for one, don’t write a book thinking that every scene I write has to “angle in” to my major theme. But what if that’s wrong? What if, in a well-constructed book, pretty much everything angles in to the one same issue? (Or, rather, cluster of issues, because a book that is rich thematically can never be too neatly categorised.)

And here’s another thought:

What if you don’t especially think about these things as you build your story? What if you do concentrate on good writing (nice prose, strong characters, a well-knitted plot), but don’t overthink the thematic stuff?

What happens then? Is the result strong? Or will it never reach the kind of thematic depth and congruence that Craig is hinting at?

Hey, ho. Interesting questions. So I thought I’d take a look at my own work and see what’s actually happened there.

So my last book, The Deepest Grave, has a cluster of themes that include:

  • Ancient history, specifically post-Roman Britain and the shade of Arthur
  • Treasure and fakery
  • Death (because this is a murder mystery, but it is also a book about Fiona Griffiths, whose attitudes to life and death are deep and complicated.)

But then, I only have to write those themes down on the page here – something I’ve never done before; I don’t plan my thematic stuff – and I realise this: that those themes absolutely and necessarily contain their opposites. So a book that is about fakery and death is also, essentially, a book about:

  • Authenticity
  • Life – or, more specifically in Fiona’s case, the whole knotty business of how to be a human; how to establish and maintain an identity in the face of her overawareness of death.

OK. So those, broadly, are my themes. Let’s now look at whether my various scenes tend to hammer away at those things, or not. Are themes something that appear via a few strong, bold story strokes? Or are they there, fractal-like, in every detail too?

And, just to repeat, those aren’t questions I consciously think about much as I write. Yes, a bit, sometimes, but I certainly don’t go through the disciplined thought process that Craig mentions in his post.

And blow me down, but what I find is that, yes, those themes infest the book. The book never long pulls away from them at all.

So, aside from a place and date stamp at the top of chapter 1, the first words in the book are these:

“Jon Breakell has just completed his chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece. The Mona Lisa of office art. The masterpiece in question is a dinosaur made of bulldog clips, twisted biro innards and a line of erasers that Jon has carved into spikes.”

That’s a nod towards ancient history. It’s a nod towards authenticity (the Mona Lisa) and fakery (a dinosaur that is definitely not a real dinosaur.) It’s also, perhaps, a little nod towards death, because in a way the most famous thing about dinosaurs is that they’re extinct.

It goes on. The mini-scene that opens the book concludes with Fiona demolishing her friend’s dinosaur and the two of them bending down to clear up the mess. Fiona says, “that’s how we are—me, Jon, the bones of the fallen—when Dennis Jackson comes in.”

That phrase, the bones of the fallen, puts death explicitly on the page and in a way which alludes forward to the whole Arthurian battle theme that will emerge later.

That’s one example and – I swear, vow & promise – I didn’t plan those links out in my head prior to writing. I just wrote what felt natural for the book that was to come.

But the themes keep on coming. To use Craig’s word, all of the most glittering scenes and moments and images in the book keep on angling in to my little collection of themes.

There’s a big mid-book art heist and hostage drama. Is there a whiff of something ancient there? Something faked and something real? Of course. The heist is fake and real, both at the same time.

The crime that sits at the heart of the book has fakery at its core. But then Fiona start doubling up on the fakery – she’s faking a fake, in effect – but in the process, it turns out, she has created something authentic. And the authenticity of that thing plays a key role in the book’s final denouement.

Another example. Fiona’s father plays an important role in this book. He’s not a complicated or introspective man. He doesn’t battle, the way his daughter does, for a sense of identity.

But what happens in the book? This big, modern, uncomplicated man morphs, somehow, into something like a modern Arthur. That identity shift again plays a critical role in the final, decisive dramas. But it echoes around the book too. Here’s one example:

“Dad drives a silver Range Rover, the car Arthur would have chosen.

It hums as it drives, transfiguring the tarmac beneath its wheels into something finer, silvered, noble.

A wash of rain. Sunlight on a hill. Our slow paced Welsh roads.”

That’s playful, of course, and I had originally intended just to quote that first line, about the Range Rover. But when I opened up the text, I found the sentences that followed. That one about “transfiguring the tarmac” is about that process of transformation from something ordinary to something more like treasure, something noble.

And then even the bits that follow that – the wash of rain, the sunlight on the hill – don’t those things somehow attach to the “finer, silvered, noble” phrase we’ve just left? It’s as though the authenticity of the man driving the Range Rover transforms these ordinary things into something treasured. Something with the whisper of anciency and value.

I could go on, obviously, but this email would turn into a very, very long one if I did.

And look:

Yet again, I’ve got to the end of a long piece on writing without a real “how to” lesson to close it off.

Craig’s blog post says, among many other good things, that you should ask whether or not your scene angles in to your themes. But I don’t do that. Not consciously, not consistently. And – damn my eyes and boil my boots – I discover that the themes get in there anyway. Yoo-hoo, here we are.

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

Well, I don’t know. I think that, yes, if you’re stuck with a scene, or if it’s just feeling a little awkward or wrong, then working through Craig’s list of scene-checks will sort you out 99% of the time. A conscious, almost mechanical, attention to those things will eliminate problems.

But if you’re not the conscious mechanic sort, then having a floaty awareness of the issues touched on in this email will probably work as well. If you maintain that rather unfocused awareness of your themes, you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating towards phrases and scenes and metaphors and moments that reliably support the structure you’re building.

And that works, I think. The final construction will have both coherence and a kind of unforced naturalness.

And for me, it’s one of the biggest pleasures of being an author. That looking back at a text and finding stuff in it that you never consciously put there.

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon

Harry

I had plans for today, plans that involved some interesting and actually useful work.

But –

Our boiler sprang a leak. Even with the mains water turned off, it went on leaking through the night. Finding an engineer who could come out today (for a non-insane price) took the first half hour this morning. The engineer is coming at 3.30, and that’ll eat the last part of the day.

And –

I have a vast number of kids: four, in theory, but most days it seems like a lot more than that. And one of them, Lulu, spent most of the last couple of nights with, uh, a stomach upset. Of the intermittent but highly projectile variety.

So –

Not masses of sleep. And today’s interesting work plans have been kicked into next week.

Which bring us to –

You. Life. Books. Writing.

The fact is that even if you’re a pro author, life gets in the way of writing all the time. Because writing isn’t an office-based job, almost no writer I know keeps completely clean boundaries between work stuff and life stuff. Life intrudes all the time. Indeed, I know one author – a multiple Sunday Times top ten bestseller – whose somewhat less successful but office-based partner always just assumes that she’ll be the one to fix boilers, attend to puking children, etc, etc, just because she’s at home and not under any immediate (today, next day) deadline pressure.

And that’s a top ten bestseller we’re talking about. Most of you aren’t in that position. You’re still looking for that first book deal. The first cheque that says, “Hey, this is a job, not just a hobby.”

So Life vs Work?

Life is going to win, most of the time. And it’ll win hands down.

The broken boiler / puking kid version of life intrusion is only one form of the syndrome though. There’s one more specific to writers.

Here’s the not-yet-pro-author version of the syndrome, in one of its many variants: You have one book out on submission with agents. You keep picking at it editorially and checking your emails 100 times a day. But you also have 20,000 words of book #2 on your computer and though, in theory, you have time to write, you’re accomplishing nothing. You’re just stuck.

That feels like only aspiring authors should suffer that kind of thing, right? But noooooooo! Pro authors get the same thing in a million different flavours, courtesy of their publishers. Your editor quits. Your new editor, “really wants to take a fresh look at your work, so as soon as she’s back from holiday and got a couple of big projects off her desk …”. Or your agent is just starting new contract negotiations with your editor, and you are hearing alarmingly little for some reason. Or you know that your rom-com career is on its last legs, so you’re looking to migrate to domestic noir, but you don’t know if your agent / editor / anyone is that keen on the stuff you now write. Or …

Well, there are a million ors, and it feels like in my career I’ve experienced most of them. The simple fact is that creative work is done best with a lack of significant distractions and no emotional angst embedded in the work itself. Yet the publishing merry-go-round seems intent on jamming as much angst in there as it can manage, compounded, very often, by sloppy, slow or just plain untruthful communications.

So the solution is …?

Um.

Uh.

I don’t know. Sorry.

The fact is, these things are just hard and unavoidable. Priorities do get shifted. You can’t avoid it. The emotional strains of being-a-writer – that is, having a competitive and insecure job in an industry which, weirdly, doesn’t value you very highly – are going to be present whether you like them or not.

There have been entire months, sometimes, when I should have been writing, but accomplished nothing useful because of some publishing drama, which just needed resolution. No one else cared much about that drama, or at least nothing close to the amount I did, with the result that those things often don’t resolve fast.

Your comfort and shelter against those storms? Well, like I say, I don’t have any magical answers but, here, for what it’s worth, are some things which may help:

  1. Gin. Or cheap wine. Or whatever works. I favour beers from this fine brewery or really cheap Australian plonk. The kind you can thin paints with.
  2. Changing your priorities for a bit. So if you really needed to clear out the garage or redecorate the nursery, then do those things in the time you had thought you’d be writing. You’re not losing time; you’re just switching things around.
  3. Addressing any emotional/practical issues as fast and practically as you can. So let’s say you have book #1 out on submission, you can help yourself by getting the best version of that book out (getting our excellent editorial advice upfront if you need to.) You can make sure you go to a minimum of 10 agents, and probably more like 12-15. You can make sure those agents are intelligently chosen, and that your query letter / synopsis are all in great shape. (see the PSes for a bit more on this.) You can write yourself a day planner, that gives some structure to the waiting process: “X agents queried on 1 May. Eight weeks later is 26 June. At that point, I (a) have an agent, (b) send more queries, (c) get an editor to look at my text, or (d) switch full-steam to the new manuscript.” If you plan things like that upfront, you don’t have to waste a bazillion hours crawling over the same questions in your head.
  4. Accepting the reality. It’s just nicer accepting when things are blocked or too busy or too fraught. The reality is the same, but the lived experience is nicer. So be kind to yourself.
  5. Find community. Yes, your partner is beautiful and adorable and the joy of your life. But he/she isn’t a writer. So he/she doesn’t understand you. Join a community (like ours). Make friends. Share a moan with people who know exactly what you mean. That matters. It makes a difference.
  6. Enjoy writing. This is the big one, in fact. The writers who most struggle with their vocation are the ones who like having written something, but don’t actually enjoy writing it. And I have to say, I’ve never understood that. My happiest work times have nearly always been when I’m throwing words down on a page, or editing words I’ve already put there. And that pleasure means you keep on coming back to your manuscript whenever you can. And that means it gets written. And edited. And out to agents or uploaded to KDP and sold.

Of those six, then cultivating that happiness is the single biggest gift you can give yourselves.

And the gin, obviously.

Harry

Here's the place to talk about today's email - "The days that say no" - in which I talk about that feeling of reluctance to grapple with your current draft. We've all been there. What's your solution? What's worked, what hasn't, what's your advice?

And here's a picture of apple blossom to make us feel happy.

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

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

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