Pat Easton

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I am currently retired after a career as a biochemist. And although I managed to write spasmodically during that time, it’s only once I retired that I was finally able to get down to writing down the stories that had been bubbling away for years in my head.
And most of them were terrible.

It was only after taking part in some creative writing courses including the Curtis Brown Creative 3 month course & the excellent Jericho Writers Self-Edit Your Novel course that I realised where I was going wrong. Recently I have just finished a murder mystery novel and trying to decide what to write next.

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Hi, I've written a crime novel called The Confession I'd be really grateful to get some feedback on …
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Hi everyone. I finally got around to joining the Townhouse today and now I'm trying to work my way a…
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  •  · I  hope that you weren't too shocked by the violence but the mutilation is based on an actual murder…
Pat Easton
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Hi, I've written a crime novel called The Confession I'd be really grateful to get some feedback on how accurate this interview scene is. I'm a bit worried that my police sergeant is a bit too sweary, and would a police interview really play out in this way? In this scene, the protagonist Father Bernard has found a witness that casts doubt on the conviction of Matthew Taylor for the murder of Lucas O'Sullivan.


CHAPTER 20. Monday 11th November 

Sergeant King rang the following week. ‘I hear you’ve been busy,’ she said. Bernard’s heart sank. He’d meant to call her, he really had, but somehow, other things had got in the way. 

‘How did you hear?’ he asked.

‘Matthew Taylor’s solicitor was on the phone this morning. They’re going to appeal the murder conviction, throwing in a complaint of police corruption for good measure. To be honest, it wasn’t the easiest conversation I’ve ever had, not least because I hadn’t a fucking clue what she was on about.’

‘Ah,’ he said. Taylor’s solicitor, a pleasant young woman, had rung him last week, asking for details about Andrzej. He should have realised she’d go straight to the police.

‘Yes, ah. So, if it’s not too much trouble, I’d be very grateful if you could spare us some time out of your busy schedule, and enlighten us about this new witness of yours.’

‘Of course. When-?’

‘And while you’re here, I’d also like a friendly chat about an allegation of theft from your church.’

Bernard groaned. He’d completely forgotten about the juvenile accountant. The lad must’ve given up on him and contacted the police. 

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Anything to help.’

‘Good. I’ll expect you in an hour’s time.’

‘But that means I’ll have to leave straight away.’

‘Precisely,’ she said, ringing off.

The police station was busy. A young, black woman approached him wearing jeans, a scruffy leather jacket and heavy, workmanlike boots. He shrank back in his chair and glanced around in case he needed to call for help. Drug addicts often targeted priests for money, seeing them as easy targets.

‘Father Whelan?’

How did she know his name? Had she followed him here?

‘Yes, that’s right.’

She offered her hand. ‘Detective Constable Tinubu. Come this way please.’ She waved a card over the door that led to the interior of the building and Bernard sheepishly followed her along a corridor. She stopped beside an anonymous office door and waved him inside.

‘If you could just wait here, DS King will be along in a moment. Can I get you a tea or coffee?’

‘Oh, er, tea please.’

It was a small room, decorated in the same institutional beige as the one in the prison. A large mirror on the far side reflected his quick, nervous survey as if expecting an ambush. Then, because he had no choice, he sat down at the interview table, bare apart from a recording device. Tinubu returned with a steaming disposable cup a few minutes later. 

‘Here,’ she said. ‘Sergeant King’s been held up. She said she won’t be long.’

The tea was as bad as he expected but he drank it anyway, his eyes glancing towards the mirror, before sliding away again. Was King’s excuse a lie? Was she sitting on the other side of the glass, watching him right now? It was an uncomfortable thought and he held his cup stiffly, self-conscious as though he were an exhibit at a zoo.

King made him wait for a further ten minutes before she appeared, and listened, unsmiling, as he gave his statement. Afterwards, he expected to be dismissed, but instead she sat for a while, flicking through the papers in her folder.

‘Why didn’t you come to me straight away?’ she said.

‘I thought it was important to let Taylor know as soon as possible.’

‘You mean you wanted to get back in his good books again.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

She shook her head. ‘You never did attend the trial, did you? Apart from the day you gave your witness statement, I mean.’

‘No?’

‘So you never heard the full evidence against him.’

‘I read it in the newspapers.’

‘Did you? Or did your eyes glide over the details, not wanting to hear the worst about Matthew Taylor, your beloved Matt?’

‘Now look-’ 

‘No, Father, you look,’ she said, cutting across him. ‘Matthew Taylor was, no, still is, a dangerous paedophile. If he was innocent of the boy’s murder, then why did he offer the boy a lift? Why was O’Sullivan’s blood on his watchstrap? Taylor lied when he said he drove straight home. If he was innocent why did we find his tyre tracks in the car park at the top of Piggot’s Hill? Why would anyone go there when it was getting dark? And why was O’Sullivan’s bag lying at the bottom of the hill? Taylor clearly threw it away, trying to dispose of the evidence.’

‘I don’t-’ he began.

‘No, you don’t,’ she said. ‘If you’d had any idea you would have come straight to me and we could have looked into this quietly; now it’ll be a formal investigation.’

‘But what’s wrong with that?’ he said. ‘If Matthew Taylor is innocent of murder, then someone else is, someone who’s still out there, someone who could tell you where they’ve buried Lucas O’Sullivan’s body.’

‘If Matthew Taylor is innocent of murder,’ she said. ‘There’s no guarantee that your witness saw O’Sullivan. It might have been someone else entirely.’ She glanced down at his statement. ‘I remember Nowak. I thought he was a shifty bastard then.’

‘You interviewed him?’

‘Of course. You think we’re amateurs?’

‘No, absolutely not.’

‘Why didn’t Mr Nowak come forward earlier?’ said King.

‘He was frightened in case you thought he’d done it,’ said Bernard reluctantly. He had tried to keep this detail out of his statement, but now realised that it was hopeless, the truth was bound to come out.

‘Why would he think that?’

‘Because he was investigated in Poland for child abuse, but says the charge was dropped.’

King’s nostrils flared as her hand clutched the paperwork. 

You missed that didn’t you? Bernard began to feel sorry for her, until he remembered his ordeal with Stephen, and his expression hardened again.

She slowly raised her head to glare at him. ‘And do you have an address for Mr Nowak?’

‘I’m afraid not; I believe he’s homeless, sleeping around friends’ houses.’

‘So how did you find him?’

‘He attends… he used to attend the monthly Polish Mass at St Anne’s.’

‘Used to?’

Bernard dropped his gaze. ‘I urged him to go to the police, but he refused. I said that this left me no choice but to go to you myself. That’s when he told me that you’d have to find him first. So I doubt if he’ll attend that church again.’

King looked at him in exasperation. ‘Why did you tell him you were going to us?’

‘I had to,’ he said. ‘It would have been dishonest of me not to.’

‘So now we have to waste our time searching for every acquaintance of your elusive witness. Well, you can help us, Father. Before you leave the station, I would like a list from you giving me the name and address of every person you think who might know Mr Nowak.’

‘Of course, although it won’t be very long.’

‘And since we’re reopening the investigation, we will need to re-interview you at some point to discuss your original statement.’

‘If you wish, although I’m not sure what I can add. The road was empty that day; I saw no one until I reached Newbridge.’

‘Is that so?’ she said, rearranging her face into a smile that had no congruence at any point with humour. ‘Perhaps you’d care to explain why Mr Taylor is now claiming that Lucas O’Sullivan left your room at Holy Trinity House while everyone was packing up to leave. I’ve read your statement again but can’t find anything there about this.’

Bernard swallowed. 

 

‘How can I help you?’ he said, throwing his bag to the floor. Lucas slumped down on the edge of the bed while Bernard carefully seated himself on the chair opposite, waiting for him to speak. And waited. But, now that he was here, Lucas seemed in no hurry to say anything. Bernard casually tugged his sleeve away from his wrist, eyes darting between his watch and the door. Lucas really shouldn’t be here, alone, with him, and he felt twitchy, torn between his anxiety over Lucas- for he had never seen him look so miserable before- and wishing him to have his say and go. 

‘Is there anything-?’

‘I’m gay,’ he blurted out.

 ‘Ah,’ said Bernard, thinking I know where this is going. He wasn’t the first boy, confused and worried by his sexuality, to ask for help. Bernard had always tried to be kind. No, of course God still loves you, you’re not a sinner. Sin is a verb, not a noun, it’s not who you are but what you do. Don’t do anything and you’ll be fine. 

Thin gruel. 

Sometimes they listened, sometimes they argued. The worst were the ones who nodded in agreement, hollow-eyed, quietly despairing. He tried to be kind, but he had let them down, every single one of them.

He stared at Lucas; it was like staring into the mirror of his fifteen-year old self, and his heart juddered with sorrow.

‘Are you sure?’

Lucas tried to laugh. ‘I’ve been sure since I was ten.’

Of course.

‘Have you told your parents?’

‘My Mum. She told Dad. I couldn’t.’

Bernard nodded sadly. He’d never managed to tell his parents; instead, they’d heard elsewhere.

‘How can I help you, Lucas?’

 

‘Taylor’s lying,’ said Bernard, regretting his words as soon as they spilled from his mouth. 

‘Is he?’ said King. ‘You stood up in court and swore on the Bible that the evidence you gave was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You do understand the penalties for perjury don’t you?’

‘I never lied on oath,’ he whispered. But what about lies of omission?

King stared at him. When he remained silent, she said, ‘If your witness really did see Lucas O’Sullivan that evening, then we will have to reopen the whole case, and that means going back over every witness statement we took at the time. If it turns out that you were lying to us, then rest assured, I will throw the book at you for at the very least, wasting police time. Now, would you like to reconsider what you just told me?’ She waved to the recording device. ‘It’s not on. And I know how people can panic and say the wrong thing by accident. Did you see Lucas O’Sullivan alone that afternoon? Did you stop and pick him up after he walked back from Taylor’s car?’

Bernard’s hands twisted together in his lap. ‘No.’

King sighed. ‘So be it.’

‘Is that all?’ he said, starting to rise.

‘Not quite. Please sit down, Father.’ The door opened and Tinubu entered. ‘DC Tinubu will be assisting me in this interview.’

‘What interview? Haven’t we finished?’

King didn’t reply, instead she leaned towards the recording device by the wall and clicked it on, giving their names, date and time before attending to him once more.

‘You do not have to say anything. But, it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence. 

‘This is a voluntary interview. We would like to question you regarding your suspected involvement in the theft of money from St.Anthony’s church in Newbridge. You are not under arrest and are not obliged to remain here. If you do consent to this interview, you are free to leave at any time unless, during the course of this interview, new information comes to light and it is deemed necessary to arrest you.’

His jaw dropped, and a cold snake began to uncurl somewhere deep within. What was going on?

‘You are entitled to legal representation. Do you wish to call a solicitor?’

‘Do I need one?’ he said, coughing because his voice had come out in a squeak.

‘That’s entirely up to you. If you do say yes then I’m afraid you’re likely to be here all day since it’ll take a little while to arrange. Look, Father, this is just a quick interview to hear your side of the story. I’m sure you want to clear your name as quickly as possible.’

‘Clear my name?’

His eyes flicked from side to side as he tried to stifle an urge to run. It had been forty two years since he’d last been in a police cell. 

‘Father Bernard?’

He blinked and saw King and Tinubu exchange a glance. 

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘can you repeat the question?’

‘Do you consent to taking part in this interview and would you like a solicitor?’

He shrank from their stony faces and tugged his collar. It felt strangely tight. 

‘Yes. Yes, I consent to being interviewed.’

‘And a lawyer?’

I can’t ask for a lawyer it’ll make me look guilty. What if word of this gets out? Anyway, it’s too late, the interview’s already started now. Oh, let’s just get it over and done with.

‘No, it’s all right.’

‘Would you like to give a reason why, for the record?’

‘Because I’m innocent.’ 

King’s answering smile was a predatory thing, the smile of a wolf upon spotting its prey.

‘Have you ever taken money from the collection plate?’ said Tinubu.

‘No, of course not. The very idea is absurd.’

‘If I were to tell you that we a witness who claims to have seen you remove money from the collection plate on at least three separate occasions, on…’ King looked down at her notes and rattled of a series of dates. ‘Would you care to reconsider your answer?’

‘No. They didn’t. They can’t have, because it’s not true. What witness?’

‘I’m afraid I can’t reveal that.’

Bernard groaned as it all became clear. ‘It’s Owen Davies isn’t it?’ he said.

‘What makes you say that?’ asked King.

‘Because I confronted him about all of this.’ And he proceeded to explain about his meeting with the diocesan accountant and his trawl through the parish finances. 

‘Have a look at the spreadsheet then you’ll see what I mean.’

Tinubu cleared her throat. ‘Where can we find it?’

He looked at her in surprise. ‘On the computer in the parish office, of course.’

‘Unfortunately, when our team attempted to look for this computer an hour ago, they found that it had disappeared.’

‘What?’ A host of questions erupted in his mind. ‘Don’t you need a warrant?’ He asked, eventually.

‘We have a one,’ said King. ‘We sent it to the bishop’s office this morning.’

Bernard removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. He’d been wondering how to tell Bishop Stephen about the theft. It looked as though the decision had been taken out of his hands.

‘Can you tell us where the computer is?’ asked King.

He shook his head.

‘Aloud, for the recording, please.’

‘No, I don’t know where it is,’ he said. ‘The last time I saw it was a couple of days ago.’

‘Who has keys to the parish office?’

He started to reel off a list of names. ‘And Owen Davies,’ he said finally, capping the list.

King raised an eyebrow but made no comment.

Bernard, who had been slumped in his chair, sat up straight as he remembered something else. ‘What about the parish ledger?’ he said.

‘The what?’

‘The parish ledger. It’s where we used to record the collections by hand.’

‘Used to?’

‘We finally stopped using it a couple of years ago. But you should still be able to track the start of it all.’

‘And where will we find this ledger?’

‘It’s in my desk, in the presbytery. My house.’

King glanced at Tinubu who shook her head.

Bernard’s eyes widened in a slow blossoming horror. ‘You searched the presbytery too? My home?’ he whispered. He felt violated.

King cleared her throat. ‘Constable Tinubu will give you a list of all the items we’ve removed.’

‘Mostly bank statements,’ said Tinubu. ‘Nothing that resembled a bank ledger.’

‘So does anyone else have keys to the presbytery?’ asked King.

Bernard shook his head in confusion. ‘No, I don’t think so.’

‘So how do you explain the disappearance of the ledger?’ said King.

‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘Someone must’ve taken it, but I don’t know how.’ An image flashed before him of the drawer in his desk containing a jumble of miscellaneous keys that he never got around to sorting. Mostly keys to the surprisingly large number of rooms and cupboards in the church. Were there any spares to the presbytery too? He’d never noticed.

An hour later, he was finally free to go.

‘Thank you for your cooperation, Father,’ said King. ‘You are being released under investigation. Please don’t travel anywhere; you may be called back to give further evidence at any time.’ 

Bernard nodded and hurried away. There was only one place he wanted to go, and it wasn’t very far.

Pat Easton
 added a forum 

Hi everyone. I finally got around to joining the Townhouse today and now I'm trying to work my way around it. I am currently retired after a career as a biochemist.Although I managed to write spasmodically during that time, it’s only once I retired that I was finally able to get down to writing down the stories that had been bubbling away for years in my head.
And most of them were terrible.

It was only after taking part in some creative writing courses including the excellent Jericho Writers Self-Edit Your Novel course that I realised where I was going wrong. Recently I have just finished a murder mystery novel and I'm waiting to get some feedback on it before another round of editing and, hopefully, fingers crossed, submission.


Pat Easton
 changed a profile picture 

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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