Connie Beale

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Hi all...I've enjoyed the Summer Festival and learned so much from the webinars. I am rewriting every day! I have two manuscripts that I am looking to publish but would love some feedback. The most polished one is 100,000 words set in the late 1970's, early 1980's. Setting is Texas, California, and New York. It's a soap opera with a variety of characters, think Terms of Endearment nonsense and poignancy. Its first draft won first place in the 2019 Writers League of Texas Manuscript Contest/romance division. An agent there requested the full manuscript but to my knowledge, never read it. At least that's what she said when I contacted her 4 months later. I believe in the story but want to be sure I don't query before it's ready.


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REQUEST FOR FEEDBACKHi there,Attached is the beginning of a novel, a bit of a farce I play with from…
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  •  · No problem! Am happy to read more when it's ready

Feedback Request.....Hi all, Pasted below are the first 3 plus pages of my most polished novel. This is a rewrite of a post from a month or so ago. I want to begin querying it again but thought I'd put it up for critique before sending it off. Thanks for reading!

Two Stepping (working title)

Late September, 1977

    Empty Coors beer cans, tossed by someone who clearly didn’t give a damn, litter the tall grass either side of the west gate to Rusty Burnett’s ranch. Crushed, battered, and tossed aside, the cans look like he’s about to feel; the kick in the gut he’s tried to avoid is waiting for him. He plucks the cans from the brush, tosses them in the bed of his bug splattered Silverado where they land with a dull clunk.

    He could, probably should, head home but instead he unlocks the gate from the chain that anchors it to the post and swings it open. Like so many things on the ranch, the gate needs repair, or at least repainting, but that is not on his mind as he hops back in his cab, steps on the clutch, and shifts into gear. He follows the rutted lane, mounded with clumps of grass and an occasional stumpy cactus, to its secluded end, a spot where the mesquite is meager enough to provide a wide view of the Brazos River. He parks above the lazy green ribbon, rift in the red earth of cradling farmland, and gets out.

    Lacey stands on the bank, holding Whiskey’s reins in one hand, the other raised as if to say ‘don’t come any closer’. The gesture is a dagger to Rusty’s heart.

    “Lace, don’t do this,” he says, knowing her words before she speaks them, unable to say the ones she wants to hear.

    “I can’t go on,” she says, tears running down her cheeks. He knows they are from hurt, frustration, exasperation; all the trials he’s put her through. 

    The encounter in town the day before has led to this day of reckoning. When he called this morning, there was a resigned tone in her voice. His intuition told him then what she is saying now.

    “Lace, you know how much I love you.”    

    She smiles, a bitter resigned tightening of her lips, not the wide playful grin he is used to. “I know. That’s why this is so hard.”

    “I’m sorry,” he says, the words inadequate in his ears. Quitting is not Lacey’s nature, nor his, but he’s sat on the fence too long, unable to commit to the woman who crashed a Mack truck into his heart.

    “Be happy,” she says, with a wry twist of her lips, then climbs into the saddle and pulls on Whiskey’s reins to turn towards the adjoining ranch. Her chestnut hair bounces like a scorched tumbleweed above her shoulders as she knees the horse to a gallop through the browning grass. The big Palomino swishes his long white tail as they ride away, a contemptuous brush-off that mirrors his rider’s rejection.

    Rusty removes his cowboy hat, one fist curled around the sweat stained brim, and slaps it against his thigh. From habit, the other hand rakes his flattened auburn curls into less submissive posture. Regret hangs heavy on his lean silhouette as he turns and stares across the Brazos at Texas for as far as he can see. The irony of being at the loneliest spot on his ranch is not lost on him.

    He toes the dirt above the river with one of his scuffed boots. A clump of red clay comes loose, chatters down the bank like a ground squirrel after a grasshopper. Dark clouds on the horizon are moving towards him; the storm is coming, and from where he stands, appears mountainous. Perhaps he is being melodramatic, metaphorical, but something besides the sky looms sinister. Happiness galloped away with Whiskey’s hooves.    

    He rubs his hand across the stubble on his chin, remembering the feel of Lacey’s lips on his. A part of him insists he go after her, tell her again how much he loves her, how much he wishes to be with her. But what would be the point? She no longer believes his fantasy. Nor does he. That was shattered when they ran into each other at Walgreen’s. With bitter acknowledgment of his loss, he slams his fist against the willow under which he stands, wipes his bloodied knuckles against his shirt.

    Cobwebs of lightning spider dance across the fields as a booming clap of thunder explodes above his head, makes him jump. He hurries to the truck as the September air blows chill against his tanned skin, and the wide Texas sky opens up. As if to prove that this favorite spot is determined to spite him, the harsh rain slaps down, soaks his work worn shirt and jeans.

    Sitting inside his truck, he crosses his calloused hands on the steering wheel, lays his weary head against them. Best friend, lover, confidante gone, amputated like a festering limb. Tears prick, then erupt as his eyes swell, and his nose runs like the river. His gut can’t handle it. He retches, opens the door and throws up, right there in the pouring rain; watches the vomit dissolve in the red mud. Taking a swig of cold coffee from his thermos, he rinses his mouth, spits it out. Man up, quick crying like a baby. He exhales in a slow shudder, pulls out a bandana, wipes the snot from his mustache with a shaking hand. Rinsed of emotion, he sits there until the raindrops stop, remind him that clouds move on, and he should as well.

    Between his thumb and forefinger, he strokes a short brass key on his chain, a nondescript keepsake that Lacey said was the key to her heart. He has tried to be worthy of that gift, to respect the trust she placed in him. But the decisive words she wants to hear, he cannot voice.

    He blows his nose into his bandana, tries to focus on the countless chores waiting for him. He has to let her go; it is why she ended things. She always knew his mind without asking, knows how he tries to do the right thing. She knows, in spite of the imperfect commitment he’s made, he feels obliged to honor it. That comes first, ahead of his own wants. The responsibilities he has taken on have priority. Anguished but resigned to his fate, he keys the ignition, puts the Silverado in gear, and drives home to his wife and kids.

*****

    

Writer beware? Question for those submitting queries.....

I was interested in querying this agency but didn't when asked to agree to their 'terms' beforehand. This is the first situation I have come across with this caveat. Number iii especially is worrisome. Has anyone else run into this type of thing when querying?

'I further agree that (i) no confidential or fiduciary relationship exists between XXXXX and me; (ii) neither this release nor the fact of my submission of the Material to XXXXX places XXXXX and/or any of its clients in any different position from any member of the general public with respect to any element or portion of the material; (iii)XXXXX and/or any of its clients may use without obligation to me any material which is not legally protected; (iv) XXXXX and/or any of its clients may have created, may create, or may otherwise have access to materials, ideas, and creative works which may be similar or identical to the Material with regard to theme, motif, plots, characters, formats, or other attributes; and (v) I shall not be entitled to any compensation because of the proposed use or use of any such similar or identical material that may be or may have been created by XXXXX and/or any of its clients or that may have been created by XXXXX and/or any of its clients that may have come to XXXXX and/or any of its clients from any other independent source.'

A new low......I sent a query this morning and just received this very prompt reply. Do they even look at them or simply delete because of volume? I was expecting at least six weeks before they said no!

Thank you for considering XXXXXXXX as a potential agency to represent your work. We have reviewed the material you sent and we regret that we will not be offering to review your work further at this time. Please know that we are very selective with the materials that we request. We encourage you to keep writing and we wish you every success. Please forgive this impersonal note. We receive a tremendous number of queries and are forced to focus our attention on a limited number of projects. 

Kind regards, 

XXXXXX

Here's the query......they asked for the 1st three chapters. The book club reference was one of the agent's books. Love to hear thoughts.

Dear XXXXX,

My father, a photographer and weekend road tripper, once stopped to take a photo of an abandoned plantation home along the Mississippi River. He set up his camera when a ghostly hand, from a window inside, waved him away That image is the inspiration for A STUMBLE ON POYDRAS STREET, my manuscript of 70,000 words.

The grief of one can trigger the regret of another.

Some families, especially prominent ones in small Louisiana towns, attract curiosity. Celia Dillingham knows this to be true as she hides away with her memories in her ancestral home. A teenage trespasser, sneaking into the abandoned gardens that surround the antebellum mansion, disrupts her privacy and her loneliness.

The trespasser, sixteen year old Lennie Dawson, is curious about the rumored skeletons in Celia’s family closet. By accident, she discovers her own family has one as well. What she does not know is that the skeletons are linked, that her grandfather’s and Miss Celia’s actions a half century before altered both families’ lives.  

Set in the imaginary delta town of St. Mary, Louisiana, A STUMBLE ON POYDRAS STREET is set in 1968 with flashbacks to 1918 and the early 1920’s. Our current pandemic has offered new understanding of this early time and has provided, for me, the impetus to finish this story I started many years ago.

I am a debut author. My only claim to any writing achievement (for another manuscript) is winning first place in the 2019 Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest/Romance Division. I found your name when the library book club selected XXXXXXXXXX for their September read.

Attached are the first twenty-seven pages of A STUMBLE ON POYDRAS STREET. 

Thank you for your consideration, 


Yesterday was 9/11.....my remembrance of it....

A Remembrance

    The day began clear and crisp.  Fall was at hand but it was one of those late summer, low humidity, perfect days.  The memory stands out.  I can recall the warmth of the sun coming through my windshield as I drove to work.  

    My offices were in a Victorian style building on the western side of Greenwich, near the New York border.  I was looking forward to finalizing decisions on a house we were decorating for one of our Wall Street clients.  I was thinking about it as I drove through town, the leaves beginning to show color along Valley Road.  A few early droppers floated in the pond that sat off to the left in front of a farmhouse.  It was a pleasant building, more approachable than the limestone mansions that had appeared over the last decade along the major thoroughfares between downtown and back country.  My firm was working on a newly built house on North Street.

    I parked and walked onto the porch outside my studio before stepping through the oversized front door.  The first person I saw as I entered was Tibi, short for Tibor, my driver and general guy Friday.  He was Hungarian and looked like Mr. Clean.  Balding in his thirties, he shaved his head, was tall and muscular, and loved good cars.  Macho, and always smiling.  He saw me and burst into tears.

    “It’s so horrible,” he cried in his accented English.

    “What has happened?” I asked.

    The other staffers were gathered around Grace’s desk, glued to her computer screen looking at Tower One.

    “Oh my God.” I wondered who I knew that was in that building.  We had been to meetings there.

    We stood and watched.  Roslyn had a close friend who worked there.  Peter’s biggest client, the head of Cantor Fitzgerald, occupied two upper floors in Building Two.  We assumed he was safe.  So many from Fairfield County worked in that area.  One of my biggest clients was head of Lehman Brothers who had offices close by.  My ex-husband worked for Chase, headquartered two blocks away.  

    And then, like so many others across the country, we saw Building Two get hit.  It was very quiet as we watched and watched, glued to the computer screen, unable to truly fathom what was happening.  How many was the question.  Ten thousand? Twenty thousand?

    My son called to say he had left Greenwich High with a couple of friends and gone down to Steamboat Road where on a clear day one could easily see the New York skyline.  He was there when the first tower went down.  I wish he had not witnessed that.

    Roslyn left to be with friends and family.  I went down to the beach with a couple of friends and watched the buildings burn from the shore.  The smoke drifted across the entire Manhattan skyline.

    We heard later that Roslyn’s friend was one of the thirty or so Greenwich residents who lost their lives.  The firm of Cantor Fitzgerald was practically annihilated.  My ex-husband spent hours in the darkened Chase Bank building before finally walking out into the chaos around.  Lehman Brothers miraculously lost only 1 of the 600 employees who were headquartered in Building One.  But perhaps their downfall began that day.

    I did not personally know any of the victims.  But I knew many who did.  And on a clear, bright September day when the humidity is low, I am reminded of those events.  

    








Connie Beale
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Connie Beale
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Hi all,

I think I am finally figuring out this Townhouse thing. I've had trouble logging in a couple times but persisted today, and here I am; traffic lights and pedestrians pointed out to prove I am not a robot!

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.

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