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That's a little Portal humor. Aperture Science: We do what we must because we can.
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Sweetums, Sorry for the late response. Having health issues at this moment. Thanks for the invite to the new club. But I think in the near future, I will be keeping my writing a little tamer. All the best. I shall probably be off the grid soon due to surgery.

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We now have a group for erotic literature writers! It's called "Erotic Literature Writers." Shocker there. The intention is to have a place we can peer review pieces containing sexual or erotic content and have discussions around and about such content. Join us!

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Warning: This chapter is mildly erotic, adhering to the PG-13 standard. If you would be offended by kissing, the suggestion that sex may have occurred offstage, or a few swear words, please read no further.

The story premise: A NASA doctor is chosen for the first colony mission to Mars along with eleven extraordinary women.

-----

01: Monday, July 6, 2043, 1400 hours CST: Colleen

“I knew you’d show up soon,” Colonel Colleen Bruno said, and smiled. She ushered her subordinate Doctor Zachary Carson into her office and shut her door, for this was definitely a private conversation. They took seats, hers behind her desk, his in front of it. Her head with its cute blonde bob tilted slightly down at him today. She had a mischievous look in her deep blue eyes, as if she were seeing him in a whole new light.

“Congratulations, Zach!” Colleen cheered. Even though she, at 23, was a decade younger and eight inches shorter at 5’5”, she had a compelling, decisive presence that brooked no defiance. She had been a prodigy who graduated university at the age of 14 and was flying fighter jets by the time she was 18 years old. She had become a major at age 20, and now, she was an Air Force Colonel that had been chosen to command Mars Colony Mission One with everyone’s utter confidence. That was how good she was.

“Likewise, congratulations,” said Zach, “Though we knew it would be you leading the first mission.” Tall, angular, he crossed his legs, cocked his head with a bemused smile and looked back at her with his grayish blue eyes, running a hand nervously through his blond crew cut. He was dressed rather casually in a shirt and slacks compared to the colonel’s uniform.

“As you can imagine, three of our newly selected crewmates have already been to see me this morning,” Colleen said brightly. “I expect to see the last crewmate who’s on base, Ayana, before the end of the day, though I haven’t heard from her yet.”

“If you don’t, you should seek her out,” Zach said with some concern, folding his hands. “She may be especially uncomfortable since we’re such close colleagues. I know I am. I don’t want my friendships disrupted by this unprecedented situation.” Then he got to the point. “How did this happen?”

“What do you mean?” Colleen replied with a smirk. “Your clinical expertise will be critical if some disease crops up that nobody has ever seen once we land on Mars.” Zach was the world’s foremost expert in subtle forms of radiation poisoning, the leading danger faced by humans in their bid to settle the red planet. Mars had no magnetic field, so it was far more subject to cosmic rays at its surface than Earth was.

“You know what I mean,” Zach rejoined. “The final cut was 24 men and 18 women. How did we end up with eleven women in a crew of twelve?”

Colleen explained, “The selection factors were all equal until the process got down the list of desirable attributes to the interesting minor factor of faster population growth. All other more relevant factors being equally handled, the ability to personally pop out a baby rose in importance. I’m aware you lack that qualification, Zach, but I, for one, want to take you along anyway.” Again, there was that smile from her.

Colleen rose, walked around her desk, and stood over him, maybe a head taller than the much taller doctor, seated as he was. Unbidden, he noticed that the Colonel’s very scrumptious breasts he had professionally ignored since he had known her were at eye level. He quickly looked up into her face. She was giving him that mischievous look. It was disconcerting. She had gone from friendly and understanding but businesslike in every encounter he'd ever had with her to this look now. There was nothing inappropriate about just a look. He was going crazy. That must be it.

The young, radiant Colonel leaned over and put her hand on Zach’s shoulder. “You are a kind man, a caring man. Those are a few of the qualities that make you such a great doctor. If you don’t mind me saying, you’re one of the few men I’ve met where I’ve remarked to myself, ‘That man should be a father.’ I’m happy with our crew selection, including you.”

Colleen was leaning over him, leaning on his arm, and blushing. The verbal part was a fairly standard pep talk from his commanding officer other then the unusual subject, but that look of hers, jeez, and her looming proximity, not that he minded it, quite the opposite. “I’ve discussed you one-on-one with three of our crewmates, and it’s a universal sentiment so far, and I expect it to continue to be.”

“That’s flattering, of course,” Zach said. “I’m still concerned about our entire crew with potentially so many unhappy circumstances. The situation is far from ideal.”

Colleen put both of her hands on both of Zach’s shoulders, leaning closer. “All you need be concerned with, aside from your medical duties, is this: our crew and our new community will be happy and satisfied if you do everything in your power to assist our crewmates in fulfilling their intentions to create and nurture mentally and physically healthy families on our new home planet. Our crew, including you, is smart, capable, ambitious, and professional. Let me manage any jealousy or unhappiness that might arise among us.”

Zach thought a moment. What was Colleen, pardon, Colonel Bruno, trying to suggest? “Of course. That’s my job.”

“Don’t worry,” Colleen chuckled, eyes flashing, “I'm confident of both your and Ayana's medical skills. But may I be candid?”

“Certainly,” Zach allowed. Colleen leaned even closer, her hands sliding down to his forearms, a cat lining up on a mouse. He broke their close eye contact. Was he imagining this? She smelled wonderful. Even with the uniform, which he noticed was very well tailored. He looked back up into her eyes quickly.

Colleen lowered her voice. “For the four of us who have discussed it so far, and I expect for a balance of our crewmates, we'd rather have your babies, Zach, if it’s possible. We want our children to have a father, a real biological father, on their home planet. That has to be you. Believe me, most of us feel just as shy about that conclusion as you probably are." Colleen didn't look shy. "We're shy, and happy it's you, and happy that we can make plans for the future in earnest. At least I hope we can.”

Zach was a bit taken aback, but he was absolutely not going to read one iota more than was absolutely necessary into this. Wow, she smelled good. Maintaining her intense eye contact and quiet tone, he replied, "I'd be happy to raise children with any of you, with all of you, of course. It takes a village, as they say, and I've always wanted to be a father, biological or otherwise. I'm probably misunderstanding you, forgive me, did you have something more in mind than the obvious co-parenting? You said you four want them to be biologically mine? Well, I suppose I could donate-"

“No, Zach,” Colleen interrupted, “yours, naturally yours, yours in the old-fashioned way. Yours.”

"You mean be a natural surrogate,” clarified Zach.

“It's the relationship that matters in parenting, not the DNA,” said Colleen.

“You mean have a relationship,” Zach clarified.

“Yes,” said Colleen.

“With you?” asked Zach.

“With us,” said Colleen.

“With more than you?” Zach gulped.

“Look,” the stunning colonel sighed, straightening up and suddenly looking her usual determined self at him. “Are you really up for this? I have to have every confidence that our mission has the very highest chance of success, I'm sure you understand.”

“I assure you, colonel, I can get used to the idea of a relationship with some of you. No wait, I mean with as many of you that I suppose would prefer to do something like that. The old-fashioned way, you say? I assure you. I'm a man after all, hah! It shouldn't be hard work. I just need to get my head around it, get it real for myself, meet everyone, I guess.”

Colleen stepped around him and locked her office door. “That’s not good enough.”

Zach’s eyes widened a little. “All right… What assurances did you have in mind?”

The scrumptious young woman then sat on the front of her desk right in front of him, her deep blue eyes burning into him with that steamy look for a moment, her feet dangling, and then she looked down and started removing her flats and socks. “Make love to me, if you don’t mind," she said casually, not looking up. "Based on what I can see of your personal history, I'm satisfied that you're sexually attracted to a fairly wide variety of women. I trust there's nothing about me personally you find distasteful?”

"No, absolutely nothing ma'am,” Zach squeaked, and cleared his throat. Colleen was a lovely woman who was also his commanding officer. All he'd wanted up to this meeting was for her to be his commanding officer, because a man shouldn't wish for what he couldn't and shouldn't have. Of course he’d fantasized about her, but it had always been a complete fantasy up until this very moment.

She was of course professionally off limits due to her being his superior officer, but beyond that, she was a decade younger, among the smartest people in the world, quite a stunner, and had never shown the least glimmer of romantic or sexual interest in him. Of course she hadn't, though. She was an Air Force Colonel with immense self-discipline, and he was her subordinate. Even if she had been infatuated with him this whole time, he knew he would have never suspected.

Plus, he was not the best person in the world at picking up on subtle romantic or sexual cues, especially if they were coming from unlikely people. Women who wanted him generally had to metaphorically club him over the head and drag him away to their lairs. Luckily for Zach, there had always been a surplus of those. Saying "no" to a woman who wanted him was a big problem for the incurably romantic doctor.

“Isn’t there a regulation against this?” he managed to utter. What was he thinking? Was he trying to stop her?

“There is,” Colleen admitted, “until we leave Earth, at least, and then I’m solely in charge of the mission, and I will waive the regulation. Will you keep a secret until then? If you won’t, I don’t want to command this mission.”

Zach quietly and adamantly nodded yes. He might sometimes be clueless, but he was not a complete moron.

Colleen continued, “My problem is, I want a baby in my uterus for at least 18 weeks before launch. I have about a month remaining to accomplish that.” What his brilliant senior officer was referring to was the fact that the most radiation-soaked portion of their mission would be the voyage to Mars itself, and the most radiation danger to fetuses was in the first 18 weeks of gestation. Once they were on the planet’s surface, sufficient radiation shielding was not too heavy anymore, and fetuses were out of danger. That's why the mission plan called for them all to wait until then. And God forbid there was a solar flare during their six-month trip to Mars. If there was, there were “safe rooms” in their interplanetary vehicle that would shield them somewhat from the radiation burst, but not really.

When Zach's mind returned from considering the radiation danger the voyage posed to fetuses, he noticed that Colleen was sitting on her desk in front of him, dangling her bare feet, with an amused look on her face. She knew he was flustered. He imagined the look was intended to calm him. With that grin, she looked like a young hellion. She pressed her intercom and said, “Marion, hold my calls.” She continued to explain, “I suppose I could get a regulation-approved man to knock me up, but then my poor little guy or gal would grow up with only one parent, you understand.”

“I understand and sympathize with your predicament,” Zach offered shakily, still feeling awkward and embarrassed. His mind raced. Was there a downside to this, one worse than the upside, which was having this stunning young woman accept him as a what? Lover? Inseminator? Father of her child? Did he really seriously care which as long as he got a chance to be closer to her, even for a short while?

“Well?” Colleen pressed.

In response, Zach stood up. “Yes, wow, yes, I get your logic. I meant yes, absolutely I'm very attracted to you. Is this really what you want?” The incurable romantic in him was flustered, bypassed, to say the least.

“This is a real commitment on my part, Zach. This is not make believe,” she emphasized.

“Well okay, message received. Do you mind if I…?” he asked.

“Certainly not, go ahead,” Colleen quietly allowed in such a formal yet informal way. Her kisses were warm. This was all playing with Zach’s mind. The pragmatic physician knew that his determined commander was not above taking one for the team, and it would have been hard for him to make love to her, even at her specific request, had he felt as if she wasn’t that interested. But clearly by the passion of her kisses, she was switched on by this exchange so far, perhaps as much as he himself was. He hoped her interest was more than the thrill of doing something illicit with a subordinate in her office. Whatever it was, he was going for it. Oh brave new world, that held such pleasure in it.

Half an hour later, Zach buttoned his shirt the rest of the way and looked up to see Colleen straightening her uniform with a broad grin on her face. “I am so fucking reassured,” she gushed, looking up at him with an even more intimate look than before, a ravaged, infatuated look. Then she giggled like a high school girl, totally unlike her public persona, and added, “This is going to be great.” He'd never seen her so relaxed and happy.

“I’ve never been on a casting couch before,” ventured Zach.

“Well, get used to firsts," Colleen chortled, “and this will certainly be that. I just hope, doctor, that you won't soon tire of me given the cornucopia likely to soon be spread before you.”

Zach got serious. “I can't imagine I'd ever forget about you, ever forget this moment,” he breathed reverently, and then added a moment later, with a bit more levity, “colonel, ma’am.”

“What do you think will be hardest for you?” Colleen asked. “We should discuss it.”

“Nothing, really, probably. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy on me. I might feel guilty," Zach ventured. Like he did right now, having just broken a dozen Air Force regulations by making love to his commanding officer. He was transfixed by that look of hers, that smile of hers, all of her. He blurted, "I want to stay like this forever, right here with you. That might be a problem.” He wanted to keep her this close.

Colleen smiled a little gleefully at his answer. “I’ll have your back always, even if I know I’ll probably have to share your other attributes,” she chuckled. “We’ll make it work for everybody, okay?”

“Okay.” Whatever Colleen's intention, he would be hers to command for the chance of being with her, of feeling this more.

Colleen asserted a bit of her command presence and declared, “Next time, I want you to take me in a real bed, for fuck's sake, and I want us to keep each other up all night. I want you to make me forget I’m in charge of all this. I want you to make me your slave for an evening. I want you to kill me with your lovemaking. I think you might be able to.”

“It’s a date,” answered Zach, inspired. “Let’s not stop. I don't want to let you go. Let's start right now.”

“Unfortunately," Colleen sighed, "we both have business to attend to.” She sat back down at her desk. They both smiled at each other, the colonel’s deep blue eyes flashing mischievously. She hid his soiled t-shirt away in her attaché case, clicked it shut, and spun the combinations.

Zach backed towards the door and then stopped. “Can I kiss you before I go?” he asked.

Colleen answered without hesitation, “Lieutenant, please do, in private. This is a new closeness, a real closeness, in our relationship. You must keep an open heart, though, clear?”

“Yes, of course,” Zach promised, because it was what Colleen wanted, and he swept towards her, held her gently, and then with increasing passion and tongue, he kissed her. She was responsive, and he dared dream she was interested in more from him than getting a baby and their other crewmates getting theirs. He broke the kiss and looked at her closely and enjoyed the look of relaxation and satisfaction in her deep blue eyes as she gazed back at him, another new look for her. He already wanted to re-enact this meeting from the top. But he was out of t-shirts. And he shouldn't press his luck. “Of course,” he repeated, then reluctantly turned from her and left her office.

(To be continued)

This is the rough draft of Ch. 20 (last chapter) of:

Mary Jones and the Forbidden Staircase: 98 pages, 38,552 words
Book Two of the Mary Jones Girl Detective Series.
Mary Jones, girl detective, chases ghosts but keeps finding men instead. And women. And arcane instruments of pleasure designed by Michelangelo.

-----


Chapter Twenty: Mary’s Absolution


Mary Jones sat in a confessional booth. Her hair was cropped even shorter than usual due to the torments of the Forbidden Staircase, but otherwise she was unscathed by her recent adventure, except perhaps morally. Confession was one of three reasons for this church visit. She said, “Bless me father, for I have sinned.”

Father McDonald, their local priest, sat in the other side of the booth. “Tell me about your sins, child,” he asked with interest. “But before that, I want to thank you for coming to address our young men’s meeting and enrolling them all in visiting and helping to take care of your friend Grandma Petra. It’s a great work of charity that I’m sure will be helpful to Grandma Petra and will educate and open the hearts of our young men as well.” This had been the second reason for Mary’s visit.

“Knowing Grandma Petra, I’m quite certain you’re right about this, father.” Mary agreed, then began her story. “Well, father, it all started when a man came to our door a while back to threaten my father. He began to rape our housekeeper, Margaret. I intervened and had him rape me instead. He didn’t finish in me, though. I kicked him out first.”

“Child, what a horrific experience for you to bear on your young body, and for your housekeeper as well. I would say you did the work of God in protecting your servant from this scourge of a man. Surely, this is not a sin, but a blessing. You’re absolved. I hope this terrible man will receive just punishment.”

“Oh he is, father,” said Mary, “twenty to life. But that’s not the sin I’m talking about. Then, my friend Imogene and her Aunt Selene came over with a new mystery for me to solve. They were desperate, father, and fearing they were being tormented by ghosts. To solve the mystery, I had to hypnotize them, with their consent, of course, and have them take off all their clothing. I could see from the condition of their privates that they were being tormented by real live men.”

“I admit your method was unorthodox, but effective,” Father McDonald judged. “Doctors examine victims of sexual abuse all the time, why not detectives? God can forgive this.”

“That’s not the sin. Then my father arrived home and saw the naked bodies of these women in our parlor. Then, to prove to myself that my friend Immy was actually experienced and not a virgin as she asserted, I had her perform oral sex, while still under hypnosis mind you, on my father.”

“That’s questionable,” remarked Father McDonald. “Ten hail Marys.”

“Gladly, but that’s not the sin, father. After that, I met with Sheriff Barton again and sucked him off under the table of a booth in the back of Wilson’s Diner.”

“Now Mary, we’ve talked about your dalliances with Sheriff Barton before,” scolded Father McDonald. “You must resist the sins of the flesh even though you never intend to marry because of your career. Given your choice to remain single, you must abstain from sex to be virtuous.”

“But I’ve been thinking about this, father,” said Mary. “It seems to me that denying one’s sexual urges, given you’re being helpful and not hurtful in your sexual acts, is denying your God-given humanity, denying the organs of pleasure God has clearly given every one of us. Sex literally gives us all life, both from the joy it gives us and the babies it gives us time to time. A rational and educated man like you can’t deny that this incontrovertible fact is written by God in the very structure of each of our bodies, the pleasure our bodies give us, and the critical role sex is designed to play in our very existence.”

Father McDonald stammered, “Well, Mary, I’m sure there is some merit in your argument, but-“

Mary continued, “Also, it seems to me that the church’s motives regarding sex are highly questionable. If sex and therefore pleasure is key, then women are also key, since we are by design the crux of pleasure and life as we bear the children that create us all. This directly contradicts the patriarchal teachings of the church. No wonder the church wants us to deny pleasure, and indeed by doing so, life itself. Facts, if they are available, must hold over conjecture, however traditional, and especially self-serving conjecture, don’t you agree father?”

”I can’t fault your reasoning at first glance, Mary,” said the thoughtful cleric. “Let me think on this. Clearly nobody is being hurt by your interactions with Sheriff Barton for the time being, so why don’t we revisit this subject once I’ve had a chance to think more about your argument.”

“Thank you, father. But I do want to correct you there. After both Edna and myself performed oral sex on the sheriff and on each other and both fucked the sheriff, we all met up later, and the sheriff handcuffed Edna and me to tables and whipped us and teased us to countless orgasms. It hurt so good, but we were definitely hurt, though not permanently.”

“Since it was part of a pleasurable experience,” reasoned Father McDowell, “I suppose we can set it aside along with the whole thing about you and Sheriff Barton.”

“Fair enough, but that wasn’t the sin I was talking about anyway.  To further investigate the case, I performed oral sex on both my friend Imogene and her Aunt Selene.”

“Well as long as they are single women and it was all consensual, we can put it in the Barton column for now,” reasoned the priest.

“Well, Selene was reluctant, but in the end, she asked me to pleasure her the rest of the way to orgasm, so that counts for something.”

“Okay,” said Father McDowell, “One hail Mary for now, Just for the reluctance part.”

“Gladly accepted, father,” said Mary, “but that’s still not the sin I’m talking about. From there I took Imogene to a hallway with holes into a gentlemen’s restroom in a pub in Xylophone. There the two of us took on countless men through the aforementioned holes with our mouths, my cunt, and Imogene’s asshole. Some of the men, I’m sure, were married. Some of the men were undoubtedly Protestants or even Jewish.”

“Since under the circumstances you could clearly not discriminate between married and unmarried men, one hail Mary. As for the religious affiliations of the men, our country is founded on freedom of religion, and no loyal citizen of our great nation should ever discriminate on that basis, no matter what the Pope says,” reasoned the priest.

“That’s still not the sin I am getting to,” said Mary. “Then we met a very nice deaf and dumb boy from the circus and used my knowledge of sign language to communicate with him and lend him aid.”

“I don’t understand, Mary,” said Father McDonald. “That’s a kind and generous act.”

“Then we all fucked him.”

“Oh Mary,” said the priest, doing a face palm. “Barton column.”

“But that’s not the sin!” said Mary immediately.

“Why am I not surprised?” grimaced the clergyman.

“Then I met a nice sheriff’s deputy Barton sent to guard the place,” said Mary.

“And had sex with him,” filled in the priest.

“Only a blowjob, father,” Mary corrected.

“Well, that’s something.”

“Until later, that is,” said Mary.

Father McDonald sighed. “Barton column. But that’s not the sin, I bet. Well, get to it,” the father said impatiently.

“And then we threw a giant party that turned into an all-night orgy, and I fucked over a dozen men, some of whom I knew to be married,” Mary recounted.

“One hail Mary for each married man,” said the father. “Although the sin is mostly theirs, you bear some responsibility to respect the sanctity of marriage.”

“One of the unmarried men was my father,” Mary confessed.

‘Whoa,” said Father McDonald.

“Exactly. And THAT’S the sin,” said Mary. “Except I didn’t know at first because he entered me from behind. I only found out when I turned around.”

“Well, then, it was merely accidental child,” the father sighed in relief. “One hail Mary for offering yourself to unknown men, though. That can’t be right. The rest is Barton column.”

“But then I let him continue after I knew, because all the most powerful men in the state were watching us and openly masturbating, and I feared for his career if we were exposed,” admitted Mary.

“That’s more serious, child,” the priest insisted.

“And I want to do it again,” said Mary.

“Child, this simply can’t be moral in any world view,” Father McDonald argued.

“What would it take to convince you otherwise?” asked Mary.

An hour later, in Father McDonald’s private quarters, Mary rose from his bed, leaving a gently snoring and very sexually satisfied Father McDowell to rest. He had done okay for not having had sex since he became a priest twenty years ago, the poor man. He had been very enthusiastic, which Mary liked better than anything. She had made him go twice since he didn’t last very long the first time. This initially mystified him, but he quickly rallied when she demonstrated her oral skills. Hopefully, Mary could arrange to work off her penance under him frequently.

Now for her third reason for visiting church. She sat down at Father McDowell's desk, pulled out a sheet of church letterhead, and began writing.

“Dear James and Margaret,”

“Since that evening, I have thought and dreamed constantly of our time together. I dreamed of you, James, instinctively knowing how to bring me to the heights of pleasure over and over, and how you, Margaret, brought me to even higher heights in ways I had never for a moment considered and which still, at this writing, make me blush.”

“Please understand my need to protect my identity so that I can continue my good works for the sake of the community we all love. As you asked me to arrange, I will arrive at your doorstep in disguise at exactly eight o’clock on this coming Tuesday evening. I’m hoping we will be able to spend an enjoyable evening together.”

“Much Love,”


“ ‘Mary’ (not my real name)”


(The end)

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That's a little Portal humor. Aperture Science: We do what we must because we can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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

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

The Da Vinci Code

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

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

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all from me.

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

Till soon

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.

Added a post 

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

Added a post 

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

Added a post 

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

But –

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

And –

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

So –

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

Which bring us to –

You. Life. Books. Writing.

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

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

So Life vs Work?

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

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

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

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

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

So the solution is …?

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

Added a post 

Here's the place to talk about today's email - "The days that say no" - in which I talk about that feeling of reluctance to grapple with your current draft. We've all been there. What's your solution? What's worked, what hasn't, what's your advice?

And here's a picture of apple blossom to make us feel happy.

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