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Editing my first Novel. Halfway through the sequel.

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Hello all,Here is the first chapter of my espionage thriller set in 1953. Any feedback or comments w…
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Hello all,

Here is the first chapter of my espionage thriller set in 1953. Any feedback or comments would be very much appreciated. 

I have finished the novel and am at line edit stage. 

Thanks in advance.

Chapter One: The Trail Goes Cold


London, 1953

REVENGE. Not even love could stir the same craving in a man’s soul as revenge, and if left unfulfilled, only madness would follow.

It was that descent from sanity that Tom Laing feared was now upon him as he glared out of the hotel window at the Strand below. What made it harder was not being able to visualise the person on whom one wished to carry out the act of retribution. Faceless revenge felt diluted somehow.

Laing’s nostrils twitched at the familiar smell of stale whisky and cigar smoke that clung to every fibre of the room. He took one more swig of the bottle and let it drop to the stained shag carpet. There it settled among the peppering of ash burns.

The day was here again. The 7th of April, the day he dreaded every year. He felt foolish, it was just a date. What was it with the human condition that made us put such prominence on anniversaries? 

The Cole Porter record that was her favourite was flipped over for the fifth time. Was it time to go to work? After knocking over an empty Macallan bottle, he picked up a watch that lay on the bedside table, it came back to him that it had stopped working weeks before. He stepped on something. A medal, this one was a tarnished Military Cross. For acts of exemplary gallantry ran through Laing’s head - he didn’t pick it up. On the adjacent bedside table was another watch, this one had been placed back into its box with care and the lid closed. It was a gift from her for leaving the service. The Jaeger Lecoultre displayed that it was 8:31 am. 

Laing’s head throbbed, and his mouth was dry. He stared at the chandelier and began to feel regret. Regret and shame at drinking so much and the behaviour that inevitably followed it. “Never again” he lied to himself. 

Laing’s room at the Savoy Hotel was relatively modest compared to the more luxurious suites available elsewhere in the historical building. He had successfully solved a simple case for the Savoy Hotel Group, and as part of his compensation, he was able to negotiate a heavily discounted rate with the Chairman, Hugh Wontner. Laing had initially intended to use the hotel as a stopgap after leaving the flat in Knightsbridge that they had shared. But, three years on, he was still there, and their things were still gathering dust in the garage at the Laing family home. The only personal touches were the near-empty whisky bottles and cigar butt-filled ashtrays that adorned the room. It was likely to be the most shambolic hotel room in any five-star hotel in London. 

After Laing had showered, he shaved with all the accuracy of a blind man mowing a lawn. He had started using a safety razor recently for fear the cut-throat would become self-fulfilling.

Laing dressed in a grey flannel suit that was cut keenly to his trim frame. He wore it with a crisp white shirt and a thin dark green knitted tie. His shoes had been freshly delivered by room service and the black polished Derby shoes now proudly displayed a deep shine. The shoes reminded him of his inspections during his army days. He ran the sole of each one, over the other until he was content with the scuffing.

Laing opened the window and took in a lungful of polluted London air. It was a grey, overcast morning. His trench coat would be required if the dark clouds carried out on their threat. Finally, he put on his navy Fedora, then adjusted his tie one last time. As he looked in the full-length mirror, the room service-pressed shirt and Saville Row suit could not hide the broken man looking back at him.

As Laing hurried through the hotel, he didn’t want to chance conversation and only risked eye contact with a host of inanimate objects.

His car was a Jaguar XK120 Roadster. He had acquired it from the spoilt son of a wealthy client who had bought it as a plaything and had quickly become bored. They had moved on to yachts or planes or something else equally frivolous. Given the excellent job Laing had done in retrieving some compromising photos of the man and his mistress, he was able to negotiate an attractive price. The car served to remind him of his more fruitful days as a Private Detective.

After turning the key, she fired up. Laing gave the accelerator pedal two big prods. He felt the growl of the exhaust in his frontal lobe. Laing thought about turning off the engine and heading back to bed with a bottle and a box of old photographs. But, he had promised Callahan he wouldn’t. 

Laing set off down the Strand and watched two drivers screaming obscenities at each other. He turned into Pall Mall, it was blocked with emergency works. There had been a gas leak, and he had to turn around and take a different route.

This wasn’t the London featured on the tourist postcards, no, this was the real London. The one that looked great after six doubles and a bottle of overpriced claret but when you woke up next to her, her hair looked like ten-thousand volts had passed through it, and her makeup like it had been applied by a six-year-old after too much sugar - real ugly.

A homeless man who smelt of cheap rum asked Laing for a cigarette at the lights on St James Street. He said his name was Bob and that he was a war veteran. Bob’s luck was in, Laing gave him two packs of Player’s that had been left in the glove box by the car’s previous owner. With the bounty in hand and judging by the bottle jutting out of Bob’s coat pocket, he was all set for a great day. 

Laing eventually got to Berkeley Square. Business was slow, stationary in fact. It had been over five months since his last case, that had hardly been a taxing affair. A coddled daddy’s girl had run away from home and taken up with some bohemians. A few bribes to loose lips and he found out she was living in a squat in Peckham with some communists. The trouble with downtime was that the boredom led to Laing heavily partaking in his vices of drinking and self-pity. Laing didn’t expect the next job to come from Hammond.

Major Ray Hammond was Laing’s old commanding officer in the SAS. After the war, he had worked his way up the British Secret Service and was now one of the most powerful Spymasters in the Western Hemisphere. It had been over a month since the incident in Tel-Aviv that had led to Laing being struck off the list of Freelancers that MI6 used. Not that they had given him anything of substance for eighteen months prior to that. Hammond would have known the significance of the date, maybe he thought he was doing Laing a favour by arranging a meeting with a prospective client today. He wasn’t.    

After parking the Jaguar, Laing walked up the stairs. At the top was a shabby wooden door with a cracked frosted glass window adorned with the words “Nob e Fin ncial Adv sors” in faded gold lettering. An older woman greeted him from behind a dark oak desk, she disguised her pity with admirable skill. 

‘Good morning, Mr Laing,’ she said in a soft Welsh accent. 

‘Good morning, Mrs Williams. I have told you a hundred times, Tom is fine,’ Laing replied. Her face had a certain feline quality to it.

‘It just wouldn’t be proper. Late night was it?’ she asked, taking his coat and hat as she always did. There was ash on Laing’s hat, she flicked it off indifferently. She had become accustomed to seeing him in this sorry state.

Mrs Meredith Williams had been working as Laing’s secretary for six months after the last one failed to turn up one day without explanation and was never heard from again. Mrs Williams was in her sixties and a religious type, which Laing didn’t mind. But A - she was cheap, as she hadn’t worked for some years and B - she was not too inquisitive. She lived with her cousin, or was it her sister? Laing could never remember.

‘Any messages for me?’ Laing enquired.

‘Yes, your Uncle Arthur called to remind you of your meeting with Mr Kessler at the East India Club today. He asked me to remind you that you are meeting him afterwards at the Ivy.’ Laing didn’t have any living uncles that he knew of, Uncle Arthur was a pseudonym that Hammond used when he wanted to contact Laing. But, as far as Mrs Williams was concerned, he was Laing's favourite and most agreeable uncle.

‘Anything else?’ Laing asked.

‘Yes, Mr Callahan called and requested that you drop in and see him today if convenient. He said you are long overdue a visit.’ She had a point. It had been too long.

‘Thank you, Mrs Williams. Could I have some Irish coffee please?’

‘I will bring in some black coffee,’ she replied.  

Laing walked through to his office. It was a simple layout with a threadbare carpet that had small fleur-de-lis stitched into it. He turned on the stereo, his shaking hand aimed the needle with all the precision of a junkie on day two of cold turkey. The sound of Miles Davis' Young Man With a Horn filled the room.  Laing sat on his worn green Winchester. There was a knock on the door.

‘Come in, Mrs Williams,’ Laing said quietly while rubbing his temples. Mrs Williams walked in with a hot coffee in one hand and some paperwork in the other. Tucked under her arm were a collection of newspapers. 

‘There are some cheques to sign,’ she said as she carefully laid out the newspapers.  

‘Thank you,’ Laing said. She turned to leave before stopping at the door

‘Mr Laing, please forgive me for speaking out of turn,’ nothing good ever started with those words, she continued, ‘my Len, he drank too much. But you, you are a young man. Maybe you should cut down a little bit.’ Laing could tell she meant well. Or maybe she was just worried she would be out of a job if he croaked it. Either way, he was not interested in her opinion on such matters, especially today.

‘Thank you, Mrs Williams. That will be all,’ Laing said. Mrs Williams knew by the tone of his voice that there would be no further discussion on the subject. She left the room, gently closing the door behind her. Laing noted the patronising gesture. 

Laing opened his humidor and selected a cigar. He cut the end off with a gold-plated Dunhill cutter. He began toasting the foot with his butane lighter while gently rotating the cigar. Satisfied with the ritual, he placed it in his mouth, kicked off his shoes and manoeuvred his long legs onto the desk. He closed his eyes and took a long pull of the cigar. The feeling and flavour of the smoke filling his mouth were like an old friend. Kip Callahan had sent him the same cigars during the war, but today they lacked their usual comfort. 

All he needed now was a drink. He reached into the drawer and pulled out a half-empty bottle of Macallan 15-year Fine Oak. Laing went to pour it into the coffee, the smell of which was now wrestling for supremacy with the cigar smoke. He hesitated, he baulked at the thought of wasting it with coffee. With that, Laing took two large gulps from the bottle, the taste made him retch. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a photograph. As he looked at it, a dark thought entered his mind, the same feeling that had haunted him for years felt amplified today. Was the fate of his family in some way his fault? Was there some all-powerful force that was punishing him for all the reprehensible deeds he had done? 

He gathered himself and went about signing the cheques. He couldn’t remember spending that much at the East India.   After two aborted attempts at landing the nib of the fountain pen on the signature strip, he aborted and placed the cheques in the draw. A job for another day. Laing thumbed through the newspapers. Communists, nuclear weapons, the death of Stalin, communists, the Royal Yacht Britannia, climbing Everest, the Queen’s Coronation, communists. His eyes followed the words, but he absorbed nothing. None of this mattered. Laing’s non-reading was interrupted by the shrill sound of the telephone ringing. 


‘Mr Laing, I have a call from a Mr Uri Landau.’ A lump formed in Laing’s throat. It had been over a month since he had any contact with Landau. Maybe, he had uncovered something new.

‘Put him through please.’ Laing gathered himself. ‘Hello.’

‘Hello Tom,’ the voice at the other end of the line said, ‘it’s Uri.’

‘Good to hear from you.’ Laing could tell the feeling wasn’t mutual.

‘Ovitz is dead. Cancer. He died in the early hours of the morning.’ Laing struggled to swallow the whisky he’d just put in his mouth. 

‘Good,’ Laing said.

‘He asked me to visit him, he wanted something on the record. He talked me through the all of the shootings, bombings, torturings and killings, in detail. I questioned him again on the Bremont Hotel Bombing. He remains adamant that Irgun had no involvement. He claims some anti-Semite organisation framed them.’

‘Then he’s a lying bastard.’

‘Tom, I believe him. He was an old, sick man and admitted to plenty of other atrocities. All of the evidence we uncovered suggests the same thing. I am convinced that it wasn’t Irgun that bombed the Bremont. I thought you should know.’ After a brief silence, Laing found some words.

‘There must be something we missed,’Laing said with little conviction.

‘There isn’t. I’m sorry.’ Laing felt numb.

‘Thank you for telling me,’ he said.

‘I’ll look you up when I am next in London. And Tom, stay out of Israel. There is a warrant out for your arrest, and I have even heard the word “extradition” being banded around. Not even your powerful friends at MI6 will be able to help you if you step foot here again.’

Laing hung up. He launched the porcelain coffee cup at the wall, it smashed and left a brown coffee bloodstain. His next victim was the telephone. It didn’t yield quite as easily and needed the help of Laing’s foot before spilling its electrical guts.

Uri was just telling him what he already knew. He had been over the facts a thousand times, and he had nothing. No names, no leads, no face to pin on the killer.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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

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

The Da Vinci Code

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

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

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all from me.

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

Till soon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

There is no secret sauce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

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

The negative:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till soon


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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


Added a post 

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

But –

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

And –

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

So –

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

Which bring us to –

You. Life. Books. Writing.

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

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

So Life vs Work?

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

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

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

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

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

So the solution is …?



I don’t know. Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

And the gin, obviously.


Added a post 

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.

Added a post 

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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