benaduca

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Hello again! As promised, here is the first chapter of my adventure novel. What is the title? Who kn…
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  •  · Hiya,A good setting and a good start. 80,000 words is very impressive. I hate commenting on other pe…
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Hello! So I'm on draft three of a novel and it's with readers right now. I'm going to post the first…
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  •  · Hmm... interesting. I do like those! 
benaduca
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Hello again! As promised, here is the first chapter of my adventure novel. What is the title? Who knows! (It's currently Kidnapped at Koh Ker, but used to be The God Who Would Be King). In my first and second drafts the first chapter was a flashback (I know, I know) but this is now a flash-forward. After this chapter, the book rewinds two weeks and traces how they got to this place, arriving here about 1/4 of the way into the book. Any critiques/comments/thoughts are super welcome. I've struggled a lot with where to begin and making sure I have an interesting enough first chapter.

TEXT:

In the damp heat of the jungle air, a bead of sweat trickled down Dylan’s cheek. He kept himself pressed low to the stairs of the pyramid, moving straight up the face of the temple, not glancing back at the small plain dotted with sugar-palms that led to the stone wall encircling the complex, where a worn dirt path traced its way through an otherwise green landscape from the gate to the steps. 

Dylan placed his feet with care. The stairs were narrow and steep, typical for the Khmer empire, and short stone bannisters lined the walkway. The steps had cracked with age and a few sloped downwards, shaped by the wind and the rain. The stairway led up the side of the pyramid’s seven stone levels, overgrown with jungle plants intruding upon the steps. The lush green grass and brush contrasted against the laterite brick and sandstone of the temple. 

A stone slipped from the stair by his foot and clattered as it fell down the steps. 

Dylan froze. If they heard him, Thomas was a dead man. 

Pausing for a few moments, he listened. 

Nothing. 

He resumed his climb, taking one step at a time. He pressed his body flat to the surface and crawled on his hands and feet. Dylan moved around a piece of stone lying next to an overgrown bush. The stone held an inscription and a faded carving of Apsara dancers which displayed incredible detail—to the headdresses that each dancer wore, their arms outstretched, one arm pointing upwards and the other angled towards the ground.

He glanced back at the jungle. 

From his viewpoint, twenty-five meters above the small plain, he saw the dense foliage continue past the temple in an endless verdant sea. Just ten meters to the top; he had made it this far. He shook his head, clenching his fist. 

He didn’t know they were here. 

But he had followed them. There was nowhere else they could be. Which meant Thomas was here. 

He fingered the key he kept around his neck on a small silver chain. It had slipped out of his shirt and hung just over the stone of the step in front of his face. He gazed at it with a strange expression. 

For a moment, he forgot where he was and what he was doing. He shook his head and put it back into his t-shirt, feeling the key trapped between the cloth and his chest. The metal stuck to his skin. A drop of sweat rolled down his breastbone. 

Looking back up, he scaled the last couple of stairs. 

He remained low as he pulled himself over and onto the top of the pyramid, a twenty-square-yard sandstone platform. A short stone railing encircled this last level. He crouched low and hoped that no one could see him from the ground and scanned the surrounding area.

There was a large opening in the middle. The opening appeared to lead straight into the heart of the pyramid, but it was hard to tell because thick undergrowth obscured his view. Digging and scaffolding materials lay scattered around it, and clumps of fresh dirt lay piled on one side of the crevasse. 

They dug there for a reason. The question was: what were they looking for?

Despite being shielded by the stone ridges, Dylan felt exposed. Someone was watching him. He was sure of it. The feeling was unnerving. He surveyed around him and glanced back to the front of the temple pyramid, juxtaposed against the Cambodian jungle. 

He had to be sure. He hadn’t missed anything. 

Or anyone. 

Next to a pile of shovels, someone had propped up an old Kalashnikov-style AK-47. A journal lay on the ground beside it, along with a half-full leather satchel. 

He sucked in his breath and hurried to the gun. His adrenaline spiked as his fingers brushed the cold metal and he swallowed hard. There was a day you could buy one of these for twenty-five American dollars in the market off of Pochentong Road that now sold army surplus. He remembered that in the 90s. His father had shown him the aisles of weapons and explained what they were.

The Khmer Rouge had favored the gun for its low cost—most of the gun was wood, which made it cheap to manufacture. After its invention in the 1950s, the gun became a symbol of guerrilla warfare. It was not an accurate weapon, but it clocked in at less than 10 pounds and held 30 rounds of ammunition, dispensable in a matter of seconds.  

The wood of the gun appeared worn, and the color had faded. The buttstock was discolored where the gun met the shoulder. He pressed the release for the magazine between the trigger and the clip. The magazine was heavy, the bullets spring-loaded. 

Full magazine. Shit. 

He started to push the clip into to the rifle. Before it clicked into place, he stopped. He removed it a second time and threw it into the opening. He heard a dull thump as the clip collided with soft dirt. He reached for the satchel and threw back the flap. It held several books and a collection of tools. He grabbed a book and opened it. There were drawings of this temple complex, and, at the bottom, a scribbled list of names. The writing wasn’t in English. He recognized it as Afrikaans, a language he spoke poorly. The writing was legible but slanted hard to the right. The book’s owner had circled several names in black pen. 

He picked up the journal next to the bag. Then he heard people. 

Dylan dropped to the ground. 

They were chatting and laughing. From the direction of the sound, the group came towards the pyramid’s back. If they circled the base, they would block his way out and to his dirt-bike. 

He would be trapped. That couldn’t happen. If they captured him they’d kill them both. These were dangerous men. 

He sprang to his feet and turned to run, but his foot caught on the rifle. Leaned as it was against two stones, it slid into the crevice between them. His momentum twisted the barrel as his foot pulled at the bottom of the stock. 

The gun discharged, firing the round in the chamber.  The top of the rifle shredded as the bullet tore through the twisted metal. He lost his footing and fell on his stomach. The air whooshed out of his lungs, and he grimaced in pain. 

And now, worst of all, they knew he was here. 

People shouted in several languages. 

“O fok!”

“Chjoey Mai!”

He scrambled up and leapt to the side of the pyramid, vaulting over the stone ridge and leaping to the sixth tier. Skirting to the side and avoiding the broken stairs, he jumped to the next level. His ankle twisted as he landed in the unkempt garden that grew on the top. He kept moving, using his momentum to propel himself forward. He was halfway to the bottom of the pyramid before he heard their voices again, this time closer. 

That was when they started shooting at him. 

He heard muted thumps as bullets hit the dirt around him and the crunch of splitting rock as they pinged off of the sandstone. Fear galvanized him, pushing him to run faster. He leaped the last two tiers in two quick jumps, falling several meters to the ground and hitting it hard. Ignoring the pain, he pulled himself to his feet, dug in his right foot, and broke into a sprint, leaning far forward and running as fast as possible. His rapid steps became long strides as he reached his top speed. 

The characteristic rat-tat-tat of an AK-47 added to the sporadic pistol fire coming from the side of the pyramid to his rear. He’d still be in range until he reached the gate where he could run hugging the outside of the sandstone wall, cut across the moat, and get back to his dirt-bike. 

They must have realized this too because the shooting stopped. He risked a look back. Ten people ran towards him. Three men led the pack. 

One enormous man sprinted in front of the others, hurtling around the side of the pyramid with reckless abandon. He wore faded army fatigues with a strange pattern of brownish-red and tan brush strokes.  He moved fast, belying his bulk. The man looked over six feet and at least two hundred pounds of muscle. 

Jan. 

As Dylan made eye contact with him, Jan raised his pistol mid-stride. 

Dylan whipped his head forward. The gate was a step away. He heard a shot, a whistling sound, and the bullet hit the stone gate as he flew past it, showering him with a puff of rock dust and stone chips. He threw his right foot out and dug in with his heel, turning as he skidded in the dirt. A moment later he was running along the outer wall, protected from his pursuers. 

He jumped into the moat and waded through the muck. He couldn’t risk the land bridge, giving his pursuers a clear shot. He had to get to his dirt bike, a CRM-250 two-stroke, parked on the other side of Prasat Thom. He had walked it up after cutting the engine a kilometer away. 

Leaping over various pieces of stone rubble that littered the ground, he bounded from rock to rock and vaulted over the other side of the fortifications of the outer temple, half-buried in the jungle soil. Risking revealing his position, he cut through Prasat Krahom. A series of renewed shouts and curses followed. He reached the outskirts of the temple complex as he pushed himself harder. The dirt road, pockmarked with potholes, cut its way back towards the highway. 

He vaulted onto the bike and pulled back the kickstand. They would round the gate any second now. He half-stood, his foot perched on the small metal piece. He clamped with his left hand and kicked with his right foot. The engine sputtered. He kicked again, and it sputtered a second time. He kicked a third time, gunning the throttle by twisting the right handle. The engine flared to life with its characteristic high-pitched whine. 

Putting the bike in first gear, and letting out the clutch with his left hand, he twisted the throttle with his right. The bike’s back tire spun as the engine squealed. His tire caught, and the bike jerked forward, Dylan shifting gears as the bike picked up speed. 

The dirt roads were wild and messy. The monsoon season was just beginning, and the roads flooded often. Large puddles hid enormous potholes that could trap a car or throw a rider from a bike. Out of necessity, he followed brief bursts of speed with slow circumventions of the dents and dings in the road—a proverbial minefield. 

But still a better alternative to driving in the jungle. There were paths through the dense overgrowth, ones that a dirt bike could follow. He could have turned on an ox-cart path and cut through the wilderness. But one ran a distinct danger by veering off the beaten path—a literal minefield. Several decades of unrest left the countryside of Cambodia littered with landmines. 

Despite de-mining efforts since the 1980s, landmines were still a genuine threat. The Khmer Rouge planted them mid-retreat or surrounding now long-unused hideouts, so they remained scattered throughout the countryside. Dylan remembered seeing vacant village plots of land full of red CMAC mine signs, warning the local children playing nearby. A frequent sight in Phnom Penh was a beggar missing a limb, a victim of a mine incident. The beggars wore kramas on their heads and held out their hands for money or food. 

Dylan kept to the roads, running the motor ragged with quick bursts of acceleration. His speed edged past what he knew to be safe. He continued to hear shots, and what he thought was the sound of another motorcycle chasing him. He pushed himself harder, bending over the bike and tensing every muscle. The bike shuddered as it bounced over the potholes and uneven dirt. 

Once he was sure that he had escaped, the only sound his own motor as he flew through the jungle, he pulled onto a small ox-cart trail. The bike coasted on the well-worn ruts of the path. He coasted up to a banana tree and put his hand out to steady himself. 

He was shaking. The adrenaline was wearing off; exhaustion took hold. He felt pain in his ankle, his knees, his chest, and his biceps. As the adrenaline wore off, the aches would come. 

He was sitting on something. Reaching back, he realized he must have stuck the journal in his back pocket. He pulled it out and looked at it. It was a nondescript thing—a black leather journal, six inches by four inches with a leather tie around it. Paper shops in Phnom Penh sold these for a few dollars.

He rolled his head back and relaxed his neck, taking long breaths with his eyes closed. “Shit,” he said to himself. The sun peeked through the leaves of the banana tree and warmed his face. He was sweating, and the bottom half of his pants were still wet from the moat. The muggy heat of the jungle was overwhelming. Even when driving on the bike the air was so hot it was like he was sitting in front of a furnace. 

He had escaped. But they still had Thomas. He didn’t understand why they needed Thomas, an archaeologist and a professor. 

But he knew one thing: he couldn’t leave his best friend to die.

benaduca
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Hello! So I'm on draft three of a novel and it's with readers right now. I'm going to post the first chapter in here as well for comments/critiques, but I also have another issue I would LOVE help with. Two, actually. Well, a lot, if you count personal problems, but let's start with my writing issues :)

The novel is an adventure novel set in Cambodia (where I lived for five years), about a trio of childhood friends who get caught up in a plot to smuggle a priceless artifact from Koh Ker (a pyramid in the jungle). One of the trio is kidnapped and the other two have to try and rescue him. Once they do, they decide to try and stop the sale of the artifact. So:

1) I have cycled through agent page after agent page and it usually goes like this "I represent genre fiction, like thrillers, suspense, mystery, crime and then also women's fiction..." When I look up what a thriller is, what a suspense novel is, etc., I don't find books similar to my own. Just reading the above description, do you think there's a more appropriate genre classification than "adventure novel"? Because no agent I've seen says they represent "adventure novels" and it makes it hard then to pick an agent for submission.

2) I originally titled it "The God Who Would Be King". Admittedly long, it's a reference to Kipling and also to the artifact, as the artifact was built by a sort-of renegade Khmer king (Jayavaraman IV) who believed, as was common, that he was a deity. But none of my friends/readers liked the title. So I re-titled it the ever-bland-but-descriptive "Kidnapped at Koh Ker." Literally any advice is welcome. Do you like one better than the other? Hate one? Prefer something different? I've also gone through "The Koh Ker Conspiracy", "Koh Ker", "Stealing History", "Thieves of Koh Ker", etc. 

2b) (I tricked you there, huh? Thought it was only two? Well, I have a sub-part which is appropriate since it is a Q about sub-titles) What do you think of subtitles? I originally wanted "The God Who Would Be King: A Dylan Tompkins Adventure", since it is set up to be the first in a series. 

I bow at the feet of any who bring me answers and opinions. Thank you!

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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