Les Evans

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In Parabita, Southern Italy

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I am reading a book at the moment without dialoge quotes and I like the smooth low.I am considering …
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  •  · Hi Les, just to add that from everyone's comments it seems like one of those things where it's best …
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 Fingers dug deep into my shoulder as morning crept into the room. The air stank of horse sweat, hay…
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  •  · I think that new ending transforms the chapter, Les. Suddenly there are possibilities and horizons t…
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           Fingers dug deep into my shoulder as morning crept into the room. The air stank of horse …
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  •  · Hi Alejandra thanks for your comments. I Revised my revision and post it . Your comments were noted …
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Dear Harry, Sarah and all Jericho members, I wish to apologise for posting a chapter of my manuscrip…
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  •  · I used to watch SBS a lot in my youth, a lot of foreign content.
Les Evans
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I am reading a book at the moment without dialoge quotes and I like the smooth low.

I am considering using this style for my memoir and would welcome any comments.

         Pigs Pigeons and People

                                                                   

A hand gripped tight into my shoulder and shook me awake on the day of the killing. The room filled with the smell of saddle soap, horse sweat and hate. I turned to the icy wall and squeezed my full bladder tight to avoid the usual battle of wills. Long fingers dug deep into my skin and I gave out an involuntary cry of no.

Get up, Leslie. Now!

My body tensed as the hand gripped tighter and the fingernails bit into my skin as he dragged me out of bed. I hit the floor hard on my hip and slid over the linoleum against the ever-damp outside wall. I rubbed my bruises and clenched my jaw.

 Billy wants you at Thornington farm. Dad’s voice was cold and hard. 

But I’m playing football today. I told you. I rubbed harder at the point of contact. They had picked me for the school team and it made me feel proud and eager to play my first game in the red shirt with number seven on the back.

 I froze, watching him closely for the telltale signs that things would get rougher.

Dad’s eyes tightened and his right fist turned white as he put the knuckle into his mouth and bit down. That was it, the sign I always feared: the point of no return. I scrambled to my feet, ready to dodge the belt he was struggling to unbuckle. My bladder let me down. The hot piss ran inside the front of my pyjamas, down my leg and dribbled over my bare foot onto the floor.

Dad looked at the puddle. You dirty little shit. He slapped me on the side of my head. Billy needs you. Make sure you do as he tells you. He fastened his belt.

But I promised the team I would play.

And I promised Billy you would help him. He thumped me again around my ear and pointed in the door's direction. The whip is waiting.

Hard to ignore a shiny black leather hunting whip hanging from a nail in the front porch. The ever present threat. The only time it was missing, I was happy because Dad would be out of the house and using it at work. My leg muscles trembled as I spat on my fingers and rubbed my sore hip.

My younger brother was fast asleep in the other bed. No sense, no feeling. Father’s pride and joy and a source of sunshine.

I knew where that sun came from and it tempted me to kick it.

 Dad shook his arm and ruffled his spikey hair. Hi, sleepyhead, wake up. His tone soft and warm and a big smile as Eddie opened his eyes. He then turned, scowled at me, strode out and slammed the door. I peeled off my wet pyjamas and smeared more spittle on the red bumps on my bruises.

Les Evans
 added a forum 

 Fingers dug deep into my shoulder as morning crept into the room. The air stank of horse sweat, hay and hate. I tried to turn away from the foul-smelling breath. 

“Get up! Now!”

My bladder was full, but I wanted to hold off the usual battle of wills.

The hand gripped tighter. An involuntary cry as the fingernails bit into my skin. He yanked my arm. I hit the floor hard on my hip and slid over the linoleum against the ever-damp wall. I rubbed my bruises and clenched my jaw. 

 “Billy needs you at Thornington farm. Take Eddie.”

“But I’m playing football today.” I froze, watching for the tell-tale signs that things would get rough.

His eyes narrowed. His fist turned white as he put the knuckle into his mouth and bit down. I scrambled to my feet ready to dodge the belt he was struggling to unbuckle. The hot piss ran inside the front of my pyjamas down my leg and dribbled over my bare foot onto the floor. 

Dad looked at the puddle. “You dirty little shit.” He slapped me on the side of my head. “Billy, needs you. Make sure you do as he tells you.” He fastened his belt.

“They picked me for the school team. I promised I would play.”

“And I promised Billy, you would help him.” He thumped me again around my ear and pointed at the door. “The whip is waiting.” 

The ever present shiny black leather hunting whip hung from a nail in the front porch. My leg muscles trembled as I rubbed my sore hip.

My younger brother was fast asleep in the other bed. No sense, no feeling. Father's pride and joy. 

 Dad shook his arm and gently ruffled his spikey hair. “Hi, sleepyhead, wake up.” He gave a warm smile as Eddie opened his eyes, then turned, scowled at me, strode out and slammed the door. I peeled off my wet pyjamas and smeared spittle on the red bumps on my hip.

 I checked the time on the mantelpiece clock and sprinted outside to the washhouse to check on my bike. The tyres were hard, and the brakes held tight as I rocked it. All was okay, so I took out my hanky, polished the frame, the seat and mudguards and gave a flick at the front and back spokes.

I twisted the handlebars in the manner of controlling a wild horse, eager to be on the move. The action made me think of Black Beauty, one of my recent books, won as a school prize. I balanced on the spot on the road and played on my imaginary horse as I waited for Eddie. He sauntered out eating a piece of toast and tucking in his long-sleeved shirt. Hair uncombed socks and short trousers hanging down. 

“Come on. Get a move on. We can’t be late.”

He picked up his bike and twisted his face as he felt the flat tyre.

 My only concern was being late, so I moved off, but turned back, Eddie would tell his beloved dad and the result would be more pain.

“Come on. Don’t be mean.” He stuffed the toast into his cheeks chewing open mouthed. 

 “Promise to stop telling lies. You keep stealing biscuits and sweeties and blame me.” 

As he bent down and dragged up one of his long socks he mumbled. “Yeah, okay.” 

 His promises were short and would disappear as soon as we turned the corner.

He climbed onto the crossbar and pushed his face close into mine.  “Come on then. Get a move on.” 

 I rose on the pedals and looked over of his messy brown hair.

We set off down the road between the row of granite stone farm cottages, and the closed doors of the blacksmith’s shop. Past the chestnut tree-lined driveway, that led to the Big House, where in the Autumn, I searched among the fallen leaves for conkers. 

The bike wheels rattled over the railway crossing, and as we rode over the bridge, a frightened cock pheasant rose from the hedgerow. Angry wings fluttering, it shrieked its outrage as it flew into the small copse beside the Beaumont River. 

The extra weight of my brother and a head wind, forced me to stand up on the pedals. He peered at me but I avoided his eyes, gritted my teeth, and didn’t let him know how sore my back and legs were. 

“You are weird, Les.” Eddie jumped off the bike. “Weird and skinny.” 

I dropped my bike against the wall, clenched my fists to stop my body from trembling, and ran around to the farm gate hoping I wasn’t too late. 

A fire was blazing under a black iron pot in the field behind the pigsties. Billy, the farmer, his apron stained dark with blood, stood beside a large wooden mallet and his pocket watch in his hand. He tapped the glass with his fingernail waved a finger at me, then slid the time piece into his waistcoat pocket.

Two farmhands brought out a sow, so fat it struggled to walk, it lurched and lumbered towards Billy. 

“Come over here, Les. Next to me.” He was sharpening a knife with a small steel hanging from his belt. “Your dad wants you to see how we turn this beast into the food you eat.” 

Billy put a large stainless-steel bucket into my hand, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and picked up the wooden mallet with his thin brown arms. “You stand there, and mind you catch all the blood.” 

Thump! The dull sound of the mallet crunching on the skull of the animal echoed in my head and made me jump back. The pig’s knees buckled, and it crumpled down onto the turf at my feet. Billy’s eyes narrowed as he pulled the bone-handled knife out of his waistband. His eyes glazed over with a crazy penetrating stare as he stuck the point of the razor-sharp knife into the beast’s neck. A hot stream of blood shot out over my hands and feet.  I froze, too scared to move forward with the bucket to capture the steaming liquid. The pig, only half stunned, came around, rose, shook its head, and gave a high-pitched squeal. I flinched, kicked over the empty bucket and stood shivering. The pig ran squealing across the field with the speed of a racehorse, leaving a wavy red trail of blood on the green grass.

Billy pushed his cap back and scratched his bald head. “That’s never happened before.” 

The farm workers ran after the pig. This was next year’s bacon, roast pork, and potted meat, running away. Eddie took off running after everybody, flapping his arms up and down as though he was trying to fly after the escaping animal. The pig got dizzy, changed direction, ran straight towards Billy, screeched its fury, staggered forward and fell dead at his feet. 

Billy yanked the greasy peak of his cap and stared at the dead pig. “I mustn’t have hit it hard enough.” He rubbed his chin. “And no black puddings this year.” He glared at me because I had failed to catch the precious liquid that Mrs Billy would make into black puddings. 

“Billy, don’t tell my dad I didn’t catch the blood.” I wiped my soiled hands with my handkerchief. Billy gave me a long stare and I could tell he had not forgiven me. He glanced away and shook his head. 

“Let’s have this damn pig skinned. More wood on the fire, Les.” 

My heart was thumping, as I shoved logs into the fire, avoiding his piercing blue eyes. 

We bundled the pig into the pot until the bristles softened. Hauled it from the steaming pot and slapped it onto the wooden bench. 

Billy scraped away the bristles leaving a smooth hot pink, gleaming skin, then strung the pig on the tripod. Billy sharpened his knife. With the skill of a qualified butcher, he slit its stomach open. The innards fell with a watery plop, plopping sound onto the grass. Billy laughed with a high pitch cackle as he took out the bladder and tossed it at my feet. He then wiped his bloody hand across my forehead and cheeks. “Now you can keep your dad happy. You can tell him I bloodied you today.” 

“Yes. He will be pleased.” I put my head down. He knew I hated killing foxes. 

Dad, was whipper-in, and groom, for The College Valley foxhounds. ‘Bloodied’ was an initiation ceremony. They smeared the blood of the dead fox on the face of an adolescent boy or girl witnessing their first fox killing.  

Eddie went for the pump and string as I rinsed the bladder under the tap. Eddie pumped up the bladder with the bike pump. I tied off the neck and left it to dry in the sun. Pig’s bladders made great footballs. I helped to carry the carcass into the kitchen. Mrs Billy would do the curing and hanging over the next few days. 

Billy brought out dark green Pale Ale bottles, Eddie, and I shared a small glass of the bitter tasting beer. Mrs Billy handed out chunky ham sandwiches to the men. They gave us a scone with raspberry jam then we cruised off towards home. 

“Okay, Eddie, I will have a quick smoke, but don’t you dare tell Mam?” 

As I bent down to get my cigarettes from my hiding place, in the dry-stone dyke, I saw Eddie take off like a startled hare. 

“I’m telling Mam.” He yelled out over his shoulder. I ran after him and crash tackled him to the ground and straddled his chest with my knees on each of his arms. 

“Get off me you fucking skinny shite.” 

“Shitty little tattletale.” I punched his arm. 

“Get off me! I fucken hate you, you fucken skinny shit.” 

“What do you mean, you little fat fucker?” 

“I don’t like you. Nobody likes you.” 

I froze, more at the hate in his eyes than the words he was spraying. Eddie freed himself and ran at full speed towards home. I walked back along the road to collect my bike, struggling to make sense of my life.

“Pick your feet up. Elbows off the table. Don’t look at me like that. Go outside.” All punctuated by slaps, thumps, and words so harsh they bit and stung deeper than the blows. Every single day. I developed an instinctive duck and cringed whenever Dad, or Mam raised a hand higher than their waists.

As I rode homeward along the road looking up at the sleepy white clouds floating across the bright blue sky, I wondered if the answer was in my beloved books. Run away to sea and become a cabin boy like Jim in Treasure Island? Maybe a secret benefactor would whip me off to London to become a gentleman like Pip in Great Expectations? Or… I could turn my bike around and keep pedalling as far away from home as my legs would take me.

 

 

 

Les Evans
 added a forum 

           Fingers dug deep into my shoulder as morning crept into the room. The air stank of horse sweat, hay and hate. I tried to turn away from the foul-smelling breath. 

“Get up! Now!”

My bladder was full, but I wanted to hold off the usual battle of wills.

The hand gripped tighter. An involuntary cry as the fingernails bit into my skin.

“No. I’m tired.”

He yanked my arm. I hit the floor hard on my hip and slid over the linoleum against the ever-damp wall. I rubbed my bruises and clenched my jaw. 

 “Billy needs you at Thornington farm. Take Eddie.”

“But I’m playing football today.” I watched him closely, looking for the telltale signs that things would get rough.

His eyes narrowed. His fist turned white as he put the knuckle into his mouth and bit down. I scrambled to my feet ready to dodge the belt he was struggling to unbuckle. The hot piss ran inside the front of my pyjamas down my leg and dribbled over my bare foot onto the floor. 

Dad looked at the puddle. “You dirty little shit.” He slapped me on the side of my head. “Billy, needs you. Make sure you do as he tells you.” He fastened his belt.

“They picked me for the school team. I promised I would play.”

“And I promised Billy, you would help him.” He thumped me again around my ear and pointed at the door. “Leslie! Do you want me to get the whip?” 

The ever present shiny black leather hunting whip hung from a nail in the front porch. My leg muscles trembled as I rubbed my sore hip.

My younger brother was fast asleep in the other bed. No sense, no feeling. Father's pride and joy. 

 Dad shook his arm and gently ruffled his spikey hair. “Hi, sleepyhead, wake up.” He gave a warm smile as Eddie opened his eyes, then turned, glared at me, strode out and slammed the door. I peeled off my wet pyjamas and smeared spittle onto the red bumps on my hip.

 I checked the time on the mantelpiece clock and sprinted outside to the washhouse to check on my bike. The tyres were hard, and the brakes held tight as I rocked the bike. All was okay, so I took out my hanky, polished the frame, the seat and mudguards and gave a flick at the front and back spokes.

I twisted the handlebars in the manner of controlling a wild horse, eager to be on the move. Balancing on the spot on the road, I waited for Eddie. He sauntered out eating a piece of toast and tucking in his long-sleeved shirt. Hair uncombed long socks and short trousers hanging down. 

“Come on. Get a move on. We can’t be late.”

He picked up his bike and twisted his face as he felt the flat tyre.

 My only concern was being late, so I moved off, but turned back, Eddie would tell his beloved dad and the result would be more pain.

“Come on. Don’t be mean.” He stuffed the toast into his mouth chewing open mouthed. 

 “Promise to stop telling lies. You keep stealing biscuits and sweeties and blame me.” 

As he bent down and dragged up one of his long socks he mumbled. “Yeah, okay.” 

 His promises were short and would disappear as soon as we turned the corner.

He climbed onto the crossbar, and I pedalled off. 

Eddie pushed his face close into mine.  “You never want to take me with you.” 

 I rose on the pedals and looked over of his messy brown hair.

We set off down the road between the row of granite stone farm cottages, and the closed doors of the blacksmith’s shop. Past the chestnut tree-lined driveway, that led to the Big House, where in the Autumn, I searched among the fallen leaves for conkers. 

The bike wheels rattled over the railway crossing, and as we went over the bridge, a frightened cock pheasant rose from the hedgerow. Angry wings fluttering, it screeched its outrage as it flew into the small copse beside the Beaumont River. 

The extra weight of my brother and a head wind, forced me to stand up on the pedals. He peered at me but I avoided his eyes, gritted my teeth, and didn’t let him know how sore my back and legs were. 

“You are weird, Les.” Eddie jumped off the bike. “Weird and skinny.” 

I dropped my bike against the wall, clenched my fists to stop my body from trembling, and ran around to the farm gate looking for the farmer. 

A fire was blazing under a black iron pot in the field behind the pigsties. Billy, the farmer, his apron stained dark with blood, stood beside a large wooden mallet and his pocket watch in his hand. He tapped the glass with his fingernail shook his head and slid the time piece into his waistcoat pocket.

Two farmhands brought out a sow, so fat it struggled to walk, it lurched and lumbered towards Billy. 

“Come over here, Les. Next to me.” He was sharpening a knife with a small steel hanging from his belt. “Your dad wants you to see how we turn this animal into the food you eat.” 

Billy put a large stainless-steel bucket into my hand, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and picked up the wooden mallet with his thin brown arms. “You stand there, and mind you catch all the blood.” 

Thump! The dull sound of the wooden mallet crunching on the skull of the animal echoed in my head and made me jump back. The pig’s knees buckled, and it crumpled down onto the turf at my feet. Billy’s eyes narrowed as he pulled the bone-handled knife out of his waistband. His eyes glazed over with a crazy penetrating stare as he stuck the point of the razor-sharp knife into the beast’s neck. A hot stream of blood shot out over my hands and feet.  I froze, too scared to move forward with the bucket to capture the steaming liquid. The pig, only half stunned, came around, rose, shook its head, and gave a high-pitched squeal. I flinched, kicked over the empty bucket and stood shivering. The pig ran squealing across the field with the speed of a racehorse, leaving a wavy red trail of blood on the green grass.

Billy pushed his cap back and scratched his bald head. “That’s never happened before.” 

The farm workers ran after the pig. This was next year’s bacon, roast pork, and potted meat, running away. Eddie took off running after everybody, flapping his arms up and down as though he was trying to fly after the escaping animal. The pig got dizzy, changed direction, ran straight towards Billy, screeched its outrage, staggered forward and fell dead at his feet. 

Billy yanked the greasy peak of his cap and stared at the dead pig. “I mustn’t have hit it hard enough.” He rubbed his chin. “And no black puddings this year.” He glared at me because I had failed to catch the precious liquid that Mrs Billy would make into black puddings. 

“Billy, don’t tell my dad I didn’t catch the blood.” I wiped my soiled hands with my handkerchief. Billy gave me a long stare and I could tell he had not forgiven me. He glanced away and shook his head. 

“Let’s have this damn pig skinned. More wood on the fire, Les.” 

My heart was thumping, as I shoved logs into the fire, avoiding his piercing blue eyes. 

We bundled the pig into the pot until the bristles softened. Hauled it from the steaming pot and slapped it onto the wooden bench. 

Billy scraped away the bristles leaving a smooth hot pink, gleaming skin, then strung the pig on the tripod. Billy sharpened his knife. With the skill of a qualified butcher, he slit its stomach open. The innards fell with a watery plop, plopping sound onto the grass. Billy laughed with a high pitch cackle as he took out the bladder and tossed it at my feet. He then wiped his bloody hand across my forehead and cheeks. “Now you can keep your dad happy. You can tell him I bloodied you today.” 

“Yes. He will be pleased.” I put my head down. He knew I hated killing foxes. 

Dad, was whipper-in, and groom, for The College Valley foxhounds. ‘Bloodied’ was an initiation ceremony. They smeared the blood of the dead fox on the face of an adolescent boy or girl witnessing their first fox killing.  

Eddie went for the pump and string as I rinsed the bladder under the tap. Eddie pumped up the bladder with the bike pump. I tied off the neck and left it to dry in the sun. Pig’s bladders made great footballs. I helped to carry the carcass into the kitchen. Mrs Billy would do the curing and hanging over the next few days. 

Billy brought out dark green Pale Ale bottles, Eddie, and I shared a small glass of the bitter tasting beer. Mrs Billy handed out chunky ham sandwiches to the men. Eddie, and I ate a scone with raspberry jam then we rode off towards home. 

“Okay, Eddie, I will have a quick smoke, but don’t you dare tell Mam?” 

As I bent down to get my cigarettes from my hiding place, in the dry-stone dyke, I saw Eddie take off like a startled hare. 

“I’m telling Mam.” He yelled out over his shoulder. I ran after him and crash tackled him to the ground and straddled his chest with my knees on each of his arms. 

“Get off me you fucking skinny shite.” 

“Shitty little tattletale.” I punched his arm. 

“Get off me! I fucken hate you, you fucken skinny shit.” 

“What do you mean, you little fat fucker?” 

“I don’t like you. Nobody likes you.” 

I froze, more at the hate in his eyes than the words he was spraying out. Eddie freed himself and ran at full speed towards home. I walked back along the road to collect my bike, struggling to make sense of things. Why was there so much hate and pain in my life?

“Pick your feet up. Elbows off the table. Don’t look at me like that. Go outside.” All punctuated by slaps, thumps, and words so harsh they bit and stung deeper than the slaps. Every single day. I developed an instinctive duck and cringed whenever Dad, or Mam raised a hand higher than their waists.

As I rode along the road looking up at the sleepy white clouds floating across the bright blue sky, I felt a cold shiver. The look in Billy’s face when he cut the pig’s throat was the same out-of-control look that showed in Dad’s eyes when he was on the point of hitting me.



Les Evans
 added a forum 

Dear Harry, Sarah and all Jericho members,

 I wish to apologise for posting a chapter of my manuscript yesterday without paying attention to common courtesy. 

I have scrambled my thoughts for a few months, and I was desperate for contact. So, without rhyme or reason I just threw, without thought or consideration, my recent writing to the members of this fine group. No search for a detailed criticism only a selfish need to be in contact with someone. Please forgive me.

My confidence was shaken but not totally disturbed by two recent television programmes deemed to be popular and loved by the masses.

To keep myself up to date with current trends I watched these two shows. The first comedy was a meant to shock the audience, but not me. I found it difficult to find humour in the principal character allowing anal penetration to keep her late night caller happy. When you say Fuck 25 times it doesn’t shock, surely? Maybe I am really out of step. I loved many things about the show but if this is cutting edge writing then let my edges remain blunt.

Pleasing the masses may be a success, whatever that is? This show joins fifty shades of greyer than grey in telling me I am out of step.

The reviews of a novel of teenage love set in Ireland and Trinity intrigued me so I started watching the tv show.

 It threw me into confusion once again as the unbelievable plot unfolded, so I gave up.

It overjoyed me yesterday to read a review in The Guardian that agreed with my thoughts so I felt relief and started writing again. For recreation I watched Anthony Hopkins and a great cast in King Lear. Edmonds speech ends with a description of his status in life. "Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”  I had my title!

The lesson was obvious. Write what you want that makes you happy. There must be an audience for every type of writing.

                                               Best Wishes and good thoughts to all, from Les Evans



 



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.

Les Evans
 added a photo 
Les Evans
 added a photo 

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

Les Evans
 added a post 

I just wanted to say hello. I live in Puglia in Southern Italy. Best wishes to my fellow writers. Have faith and stick to your vision. My vision is a memoir called A soldier from Rome,  Have fun,  Les Evans

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.

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