Pamela Faith Locke

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New writer of novels....semi old writer of poetry. 

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Hi Everyone, I have recently finished my first book (yayyyy!).  It's a YA novel, and this is my firs…
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  •  · Ha! I see why that could be confusing :)  I have never written an "elevator" pitch before, so thank …
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Hi, First time writer here!  I have completed my manuscript and am starting to put together my synop…
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  •  · It's worth getting the query edited. There is definitely a formula for querying, like it or not, and…
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Hi Everyone, 

I have recently finished my first book (yayyyy!).  It's a YA novel, and this is my first foray into peer to peer critiques.  Here is my elevator pitch and first 2400-ish words.  I am looking forward to any feedback you can provide.  Thank you!

Pamela 

Solstice Etain, or Sol, is a teenage girl that has a special connection with nature.  She lives alone with her mother and doesn’t know anything about her father.  One day, Sol finds a rock in her garden with a mysterious symbol carved on it.  Through investigation, alarming realizations and hidden journal entries, Sol discovers that the carved stone is the key to figuring out who her father is and what she really is.    

Sol, is really half Fae.  The carved symbol unlocks the secret to travelling to the land of the Fae, Terra, where Sol embarks on a journey to find her father.  She finds herself embroiled with the Resistance who are working against the Fae King and Queen and their plans to keep Terra shut off the from the human world and magic of the symbols locked up forever.  

 

Sol

Chapter 1

Ever since I was young, strange things have happened.  I have always been good with plants, but sometimes it seems a little...unnatural.  I had a rosebush once that bloomed all winter; we had roses growing out of snowbanks.  Mom was worried what the neighbors thought and battled it all winter long.  However, the more she chopped, the more the roses grew, they were kind of stubborn like myself.  My vegetables almost always win first prize at the local fair, people have become suspicious of them so I don’t enter any more, but that’s ok, it’s no fun winning all the time.  More unsettling though, is how plants will react to my mood. I’ve killed an entire garden once when I was mad – not by ripping up the plants, they just shriveled up and died.  It was like they got poisoned by the anger I was holding inside.  I have tried not to get too mad after that happened, I think I was grounded for a week after that episode, my mom thought I did it on purpose no matter how much I protested.  

On the other hand, when I am happy things flourish.  I think I was in love once. Forget-me-nots sprung up and took over our entire lawn; moonflowers bloomed all night, their soft, lemony scent floating through the windows in the evening.  Mom was not too happy having to reseed the lawn after all the forget-me-nots died the year my 8th grade crush on Tommy Wright was literally crushed after he went out with another girl.  I still think of him whenever I see a forget-me-not.  I have tried not to fall in love since that happened much to the frustration of boys in my classes. My mother has a green thumb, but I have never seen her affect plants the way I do.  She probably knows everything there is to know about plants, when to plant them, when to harvest them, how to make remedies from them, but she cannot make a plant grow that she did not plant and can’t make one die by having a bad thought.    Controlling my emotions has become a big part of my life.  People in town whisper about my mother and me, it’s a small town and the people in it have their oldwives’ tales and superstitions.  I hear them sometimes while waiting in line at the bank, or taking a stroll to the library. I’ve heard rumblings of “hedge witch,” or “unusual,” or “healer;” nothing vicious, but I think people have noticed that we are a little different, and I guess we are.  It doesn’t bother me very much, but I think it bothers my mother.  And, I think there is more she is not telling me.  I often get the feeling she leaves bits and pieces out of stories she tells me from her past.  Occasionally, people, mostly women, from town make the journey up to our house to seek out botanical remedies from my mother.   I help her make them, but my mother usually does all the talking.   It’s nice having visitors, but at the same time, I don’t mind when they leave.  They don’t need to catch me in a mood and see some weird plant sprout up - have more to whisper about when they go home. 

Mom and I have a few animals; chickens so we always have fresh eggs, a cow for milk, and the occasional stray cat.   Those are the animals people know about anyway.  They don’t know about the deer that visit me at the edge of forest, let me pet their fawns in spring in return for apples, or the birds that sing along with me as I work.   When we first moved, there was a coyote that hung around the chicken coop. I met him face to face one evening when shooing the hens back in.  We had a long hard stare at each other and I tried to say with my eyes, “leave my hens alone, they are ours, not yours.”  The coyote and I have an understanding, a trust, and I don’t see him anymore except on rare occasions.  Our hens have all been fine.  It’s not so much that I can talk to animals, because even though I do, they don’t understand me.  Sometimes I think they can read my feelings though.  When I was little and lost a marble I was playing with, I could always count on the mice to help me find it.  Or, when I was a little older and wanted to climb a tree, the chipmunks and squirrels would make sure I never grabbed a broken branch.  So, you see, we have an understanding, almost a friendship, but I cannot talk with animals. 

The most unsettling things that have ever happened to me I’ve learned not to speak of, especially to my mother.  It unnerves her to no end, to the point where she is constantly looking over her shoulder and locking all the doors and windows.   There is no easy way to put it…I see things.   Not ghosts, nothing frightening…to me at least.  When I was a child, maybe four or five, I saw lights in the garden during warm summer nights. Mother told me not to go near them or they would lead me away to a land far away and I would never see her again -old wives’ tales and myths.   I didn’t believe her, how could something so beautiful be so dangerous?  I would sneak out at night and play hide and seek with the lights.  I did get scared once or twice when I realized I was in the middle of the woods after one of these games and not in my garden.  It was never so far that I couldn’t find my way back to the house, but I never remembered how we got there, the lights and I.  I still see them from time to time, after a storm, or when I’m particularly lonely.   Throughout my pre-teen years though, was when I really worried my mother.   I told her I never felt alone when I was in the woods, that there was always someone with me, watching over me.   Part of it was due to the animals that were always nearby, but sometimes, I would catch glimpses of them behind trees, or through the bushes.  Never anything solid, just a shape out of the corner of my eye, a sparkle of light on what looked like flowing hair, soft fabric sliding over the forest floor.  I never got a good look at them, just glimpses from the corner of my eye or the impression of something or someone there.  They never gave me any feeling of ill intent, just an ever-present feeling.   When I told my mother, she went pale; paler than I have ever seen her.   She forbade me to go into the woods alone, forbade me to ever talk to these ‘people of the woods.’ Once again, I thought she was being irrational.  Besides, I had never actually seen one, just thought that I had.  In all likelihood, I had read too many fairy tales and fantasy novels and my mind was just playing tricks on me.  I think they heard her warning though; I rarely see them anymore.  When I think back on these times, I still have the feeling that my mother is keeping something from me, but I still don’t know quite what.    

Chapter 2

All of these memories came flooding back to me, as I stood in our garden, looking at a rock which had a peculiar symbol carved into it.  It delicately swirled in a beautiful, intricate pattern It was very lightly scratched into this stone that edged my garden, but the way the light was hitting it made it stand out against the rest of the stonewall.  I was pretty sure I would have noticed this rock before as I spend a good amount of my time in the garden…but you never know.  It was a very fine carving, perhaps  it had been here for years, and I just happened to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time?  Either way, I was sure that I wasn’t going to tell my mother about it, not yet.  It would probably just worry her.  I would try not to think about it as I had been unsuccessfully trying not to think about all the strange things that I have witnessed since we moved into this house.    We moved here when I was three and I never quite got the full story of why or how from my mother.  At the time, we had been living in a tiny apartment in the city.  I only have hazy memories of it, light filtering through smudged windows, horns honking, and lots of stairs.  According my mother we inherited this house with its forests and gardens from a distant relative and we should just be thankful that we have it instead of being cooped up in that dismal apartment in the city.  She usually drones on like this until I give up and leave it alone.   

The house is wonderful.  It’s large and made from white stone with a gray slate roof.   It has a huge veranda with stone floors that warm in the winter sunlight, and stay cool in the summer heat.   The gardens wrap around the entire house.  The gardens during the golden hour, just before the sun sets are my favorite place to be in the entire world.  Which is where I am standing right now, looking at that rock.  You can feel the plants soaking up the last bits of energy from the sun, the sun warming your skin, and, if you pay attention, you might see the fairy lights start to dance through the woods.  The driveway leads through an expansive lawn in the front of the house down a winding path through the woods, making it feel like it is far away from society, even though town is a 10-minute drive by car.  In front there is also the small barn for our cow and the coop for the chickens.   The woods in the back of the house, behind the gardens, are filled with paths that intertwine and lead you deep in to the forest.    These are the woods where I see the “woodland folk” as my mother calls them.  Of course, I have explored many of the trails, but I’m always slightly nervous I’ll get lost.  Mother gets angry when I wander through them by myself instead of with a friend or herself, but in the summer, the breeze though the pines is so refreshing and tempting. 

The front door of the house leads into the living room, the biggest room in the house.  It has high ceilings with beautiful large windows that let in the morning light.  Opposite the windows is a stone fireplace with two comfortable wingchairs perfect for curling up in with a warm mug of tea on cold winter nights.  To the right of the fireplace there is a staircase with a carved wooden railing leading to the three bedrooms upstairs.  The carvings are of intricate floral designs and must have taken years and a master craftsman to finish.  I wish we could figure out how old the house really is but we haven’t been able to find any information about it – not even the deed.   Under the staircase is an entryway into the dining room and kitchen area.  To the left of the fireplace is a door leading into the library.  The library is a long narrow room lined with dark wood shelving, windows and two built-in desks.  I have always admired the books in this room, some with rich leather bindings, some with fabric covers, but I never really took the time to read most of them.  They seemed old, and while beautiful, might be a little boring.  They definitely were not the fantasy novels about fairies and dragons and knights in shining armor that I enjoyed reading in there.  It must have taken many lifetimes to fill this library with such an impressive collection though.  At the opposite end of the library is another entrance into the kitchen which is warm and welcoming.   We typically have some remedy brewing, or herbs drying, or my mother is baking something that smells wonderful; it is very much a working kitchen.    The kitchen has a door with a leaded glass window that leads out into the back garden which brings me back to where I am now, staring at this strange symbol carved into a rock.  I think, for now, I will treat it as any other odd occurrence that happens around this house - acknowledge its presence, but try to pretend it’s not there.   

Chapter 3

I tried to forget that symbol for as long as I could.  It’s been two weeks, and I think I’ve been out to check to see if the rock is still there every other day.  I had dreams about the symbol, I almost mentioned it to my mother several times.   Some of the plants in that garden plot are beginning to look funny, not wilting, but twirling up in to weird coils, almost as though they can sense my tension and apprehension when I am near.  I have to knock this off.  It’s Saturday morning, nearing the middle of August, the sun hasn’t yet made it past the horizon, over the trees but it is still light out.  I am standing in the garden, staring down at the symbol.  It feels like it’s calling to me, drawing me in.    I vaguely think that it might be some sort of letter in a different language, not a symbol, that would be much more in line with a fantasy novel.  As a first step, logically, I decide to check all the rocks in the garden, no small feat considering the size.  This is how my mother found me when she wandered out into the garden with a steaming cup of coffee in her hand; hunched over the garden edge with a rock in my hands. 

“Solstice, what are you doing my dear?”  She asked.  

I didn’t want to tell her about the symbol, I knew how she would react, treat it as something to be wary of.  “Nothing, just checking out the rocks in the garden,” I replied lamely.  

“It looks like you are searching for something.”

“I’m…I am…I just don’t know what I am searching for yet”

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Hi, 

First time writer here!  I have completed my manuscript and am starting to put together my synopsis and query letters.  Do you think it's worth it to have book/synopsis/query letter professionally edited before sending off to agents?  I'm a bit overwhelmed as it is my first time trying to publish anything and I (of course) want to nail it.  I always appreciate feedback and want to make sure I'm putting my best work forward.

Thanks - and I'm excited to have found this group :)

Pamela 

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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.

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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

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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.

Added a post 

Want to ask questions? Got any follow-up? Don't agree with something I said? Then here's the place to do it. I'll follow the chat thread on this post for a few days following my email, and I'm happy to talk about anything at all.

Meantime, here's a picture of a scary-but-pretty bug.

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