Cathy Taibbi

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“It might be a microbe,a strand of lost nucleic acid,a molecule of enzyme,or a nameless hairless lit…
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  •  · Ah, thank you, Bob, for catching that dropped word for me!  And the spelling error (sometimes we can…
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“It might be a microbe,

a strand of lost nucleic acid,

a molecule of enzyme,

or a nameless hairless little being

with sharp gray eyes.

Whatever, once we have imagined it,

foreign and therefor hostile,

It is not to be petted.

It must be locked up.

I imagine the debate would turn on

how best to kill it.”

 

Excerpt from Lewis Thomas’

“The Lives of a Cell.”

 

 


Dutchess County, New York

1976

 

 


 1

CONALL

Storms {landfall}

 

 

         CONALL FROWNS while depressing the clutch. That star’s too bright against the gloaming. It’s also moving. Not like an airplane or helicopter, or meteor, but as if it’s alive, arcing down through dark layers of storm clouds like a spark moving underwater, leaving an inverse, rippling trail behind.  

         Old, like his truck, and just as tired, he chugs to the shoulder in first gear, mesmerized like a deer by headlights, trying to figure out what on Earth this can be, but before he can draw another breath, he realizes it’s careening, wild, and out of control, straight to where he sits in his idling pickup. The next instant, he’s rocked by the shock of impact a couple hundred yards away. Waterlogged pasture slows the object’s trajectory, grass, soil and water rising like a curtain, yet momentum keeps it tumbling forth for long moments before lodging, upended, in the muddy field, spewing smoke, char and hissing flame.  

        At the roar of twin jets overhead he cranes his neck and shields his eyes from the rain. Those are military jets, from the sound of them, hidden by heavy clouds, followed by three streaming, bright-headed worms of light; flares, falling to mark the location of the crash. 

         This is something big, isn’t it?

         Strangely calm, Conall coughs against that worrisome rattle in his chest. As the deluge thunders down around him he turns up the cranky heater, squinting between smudgy wiper passes for movement from the wreckage. Why he’s staying, he’s not sure. 

         So much for getting groceries tonight.

         Then he sees it. He’s surprised, to be honest, that anything could have survived such an impact. The fragile-looking figure which emerges looks like a hippie, with conspicuous long white hair. No military pilot, that’s for sure. After letting something down onto the ground, it gazes around, then looks up into the rain, obviously disoriented. A few, unsteady paces later it abruptly collapses. There’s no more motion, except for that nervous little animal which had been set down earlier. A dog, Conall supposes, or maybe a cat. Some sort of pet, worried for its master.

         He frowns again, bewildered by his lack of fear, not sure if he should offer assistance. It’s the cold war, after all; he should find a telephone somewhere, call the police, not get more involved than that. He tells this to himself as he eases the Chevy off the pavement and carefully drives across the field, as close to the wreck as he can safely get, and again as he slogs, sodden and cold, through the downpour. The distressing sight before him, laying prone, fragile and alarmingly inert under the pelting rain, somehow slips right through his defenses, piercing his heart. Blinking rain from his eyes, squatting beside the stranger, yards from the queer, fawn-colored little craft, out there alone in the wet hay-field, he carefully turns the frail body over. His vision blurs, but not from the rain. Memories of his lost son roughen his voice as a tidal-wave of unhealed grief closes his throat.

          “My stars, my stars, what’s this, now? You’re just a lad…” Conall looks discretely around to be sure they’re unobserved. Thankfully, few souls were as foolhardy as he’d been, venturing out in this storm. Satisfied no one’s watching, he opens the passenger-side door and returns to the foundling, lifting him gingerly and carrying him carefully back across treacherous, uneven ground as that bedraggled little creature (a fox, perhaps,) struggles in alarm to keep up. 

        Cranking the heat as high as it will go, he belts the odd boy safely into place, dark pools from the lad’s clothes seeping into the worn bench seat plaid. Surprisingly, that little creature manages to climb aboard without assistance and slips under the seat at the boy’s feet, like a ferret into a burrow. 

       Well, his granddaughter should take to the animal, anyway, whatever it is. Her reaction to the lad, though, and this disruption of her already insular and sullen life, is anybody’s guess. Conall knows he should pull those clinging wet clothes off the boy the minute they get home, to dry and warm him faster, but she’s never seen any boy naked, as far as he knows. Lord knows what they’ll find if they undress this one. She doesn’t need more trauma in her life.  Best to not scare her. 

       But regardless of Caroline’s sensitivities, he can’t very well just leave this boy, injured and unconscious, out here in the driving rain, can he? Or, that wee beastie, either. And he feels compelled to protect this boy, even if he doesn’t know why. 

       Starting the cranky old truck, Conall drives miles farther along the slick road until he finds a place where he can pull over and think. As the chop of helicopters fades in the distance, he looks in the rear-view mirror at the road behind them, satisfied his tires have washed themselves clean against the glistening pavement and he won’t be traced back by muddy tracks. 

          There is no one following.

          Heart thudding, he stares for a long time at this pale, long-haired waif, trying to use his head rather than his heart. But everything is already changed. “Oh, well. In for a penny, in for a pound, aye?” he says to himself. “C’mon, then.” 

          Rain’s coming down hard again, weak sun setting low. Conall makes a careful U-turn and heads back to the farm.

 

 

 

 

 

if strangers meet 

                                                                          life begins…

                          e.e. cummings

 

 

 

 


2

 

CAROLINE

Triage {disruption}

 

 

           Merciless and bitter, the rain crashes down, hard, drilling the little house with frigid needles, torrentially. And also, vengefully. Yes, thinks Caroline O’Conner, staring through her much-hated, sixteen-year-old reflection; with a vengeance.

           She doesn’t sigh, but she scowls. Dramatically. Which is her usual expression most days. She’s feeling sorry for herself again, although she doesn’t think of it that way. She’s a monster who caused her parents’ deaths. No forgiveness. She should be dead.

            As guilt threatens to consume her, she segues into her other favorite lament; why can’t she be a pretty girl? No wonder she never goes anywhere, won’t even leave the house. What boy could actually love this slouchy, plain-Jane misfit? She forces herself to straighten up for a second, but why bother?

           Maybe she should just go ahead and die.

           Standing by the drafty living room window, watching the narrow drive wind away and fade, darkly, into a muddy river, is making her all the grumpier. There, that’s a good word, says her inner editor. Darkly. Here’s an even better one; darklier, the muddy river winds away into the ominous, vengeful night.

           Too bad Caroline isn’t as amused by her wordplay as she could be. 

           With a shiver she sits by the low fire, gets back up and wanders nervously back and forth, blocking the corner lamp’s glare against the glass each time to see out again through that grim-faced girl staring back. As the growing roar fills her ears, she clutches herself against the cold, worrying now over the roof, and the very few dry logs left beside the hearth. 

           She frowns, searching the dark for headlights. Nothing, yet. Which is, paradoxically, a relief.

           Since she's still alone, with no prying grandfather eyes to worry about, she pushes her knitted sleeve up her arm to examine the ache beneath; the broken red line she’d scratched there, hard, with a sharp-ended broken stick. The rage inside her sometimes has to claw its way out, and the only place to turn with it is herself. Somehow, her fury and grief are assuaged by the pain of self-punishment. If she manages to draw blood, so much the better, but usually the result is nothing more than swollen draw lines. So far.

           Next time, maybe she’ll do it for real. But knives and razor edges scare her. Sharp, organic sticks, somehow, do not.

           She’d thrown the stick into the fire.

           There it is - a gray dribble bursts from the ceiling and begins nudging between the floorboards. Of course; another broken thing that won’t get fixed. What else can go wrong? She watches the leak helplessly, crinkling her nose. The little house smells of damp, of neglect.            

           Where is he?

           Finally, she heaves a sigh of relief; her grandfather’s old pickup is laboring up the weather-pitted driveway, spraying wet arcs from beneath its tires, ten-thousand raindrops touched with light from his high-beams. Quickly smoothing her sleeve back down (there’s the guilt, again,) she strains to see through the dark as he parks. 

          Why he isn’t rushing in with his armful of groceries? 

          When the driver’s-side door swings open, he calls to her over a great, wet gust and her scowl returns. Really? Go outside, into that? Why should they both get wet?

          But she pulls her cardigan snug anyway (if with a martyred sigh) and reluctantly swings the living room door open, gasping in icy shock under the stinging-sharp deluge. Deep tremors shake her as she leans in to see.

         Fiddling with something in the passenger seat, Grandpa barks, “Go ‘round, help me get ‘im out.”  

What? Ugh, what did he do, pick up a hitchhiker? Can’t the guy let himself out? But when she sloshes around and hauls open the heavy door she freezes, disoriented by the unsettling figure slumped there. Under the faint overhead light, it's obvious how frail and exotic-looking the passenger is, awkward, skinny, his long, pale hair dark with wet. 

           He also looks about to die. 

           She pulls back warily.

           “Come on, Lass, get moving.” Grandpa’s hurrying around to help. 

           The passenger’s skin and clothes are clammy under her fingers. She wants to run away, but it’s too late to back out. He’s somehow familiar, now that she’s touched him. Her world has changed because of it. She isn’t used to this, having anyone’s body this close as she tries, weak with adrenaline, to lift him. It makes her uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as she’d expected. Maybe it’s just the urgency of it all. An eerie spasm of lightening etches it into her sight; dark blood caked in his hair; tawny clothing singed all along his left side. She jumps as the Earth shakes in reply, but can’t wrest her eyes from him. 

           How strange he is!

           Grandpa's making impatient motions in her peripheral vision. Letting go her embrace, Caroline grasps at the boy’s arms, thinking to pull him, but the loose fabric is slippery, so she repositions her hands, cold and wet, skin on skin. Seeing her fumble, Conall wearily takes her place while, instead, she hoists up the boy’s legs. Together they wrestle the frail body into the rain, under the strobing sky.

A small golden creature appears on the step bar of the truck, drops to the ground and begins darting about in concern. Stumbling in surprise, Caroline struggles to regain her balance, mumbling to the stranger, “Sorry, I’m sorry…”

           Grandpa leads the way through the storm.

           With a screech the flimsy screen door swings shut behind them. As they lay the boy, carefully, onto the well-worn couch before the fireplace, she’s told, “Get some warm blankets for him.”  Grandpa’s winded, she can tell. She knows she needs to get the towels, but she’s just standing there, transfixed, quaking with cold, staring at this odd, unconscious person stretched out on their furniture. 

           A look from her grandfather sends her scurrying obediently for the hall closet. 

           Now, frantic pawing and scraping erupts in a growing ruckus outside the door. Heavily, Conall gets back up to let in that nervous and flighty, wet little golden wisp. After wobbling for a moment in indecision, the bedraggled animal flits past him, looking urgently about with alert, dark eyes. Finding its owner, it leaps onto the couch to curl defensively on the stranger’s chest, shivering, watching them suspiciously while pinning its large, fringed ears. A tiny, whimpering growl, a mewling, arises from its furry throat.

           “Warm up some broth for the lad.” Conall firmly shuts the door and reaches for the blankets.

            However, Caroline is wavering, hugging the blankets childishly as another rumble rattles the house. The little beast is glaring at her steadfastly in warning, although the fervent threat seems, frankly, rather empty. Still, Caroline can’t help but stare in confusion at the pair of short, slender black horns on its head. “What is that?”

           “Go on.” 

           “But what is that? I’ve never --?”

           “I said, go on, now.” Gazing somberly at their guest, he slips the blankets from her grasp, draping them gently over both boy and beast. The wee animal’s timid protests are muffled, its glinting eyes hidden. The little lump quivers in silent defeat. “Now, Lass. He’ll need it when he comes around.” 

           In the kitchen, the bulky gas stove lets forth a tiny burst of heat. Caroline heightens the blue flame, takes out some frozen chicken broth and lumps it into the pan, watching it melt. There’s ominous quiet as shifting winds blow the rain away from the kitchen wall. In this lull, she can think, listening to the quiet gurgle of soup on the stove. What’s just happened to her carefully insular life? As much as she doesn’t want to go back in there, she wants the soup to be just right for the stranger.

            The torrent comes rattling furiously back against the windows.

            The broth’s starting to smell good. 

When she returns, carefully holding the steaming soup level, Grandpa’s breathing wetly, muttering, “There, there,” and dabbing at the ugly wound on the boy’s temple with a damp washcloth. She has to get uncomfortably close to it all so he can take the steaming bowl unsteadily from her hands. 

 “Grandpa, you’ll catch a cold, like that.” Her own hair, heavy with rainwater, is dripping icily down the side of her face. “I’ll watch him for you, okay? Go change those wet clothes before you get sick. Please.” 

Conall’s sparse hair guides a single droplet down its ashy length to touch his flushed skin. There was a time when his hair was thick, and full, and dark reddish-blond. He still sees himself that way, in his mind’s eye. Running a hand around the back of his neck, “I can take care of myself you know.” His grumble is unconvincing, and he relents under her imploring gaze. “Well, keep an eye on him, will you? And make sure he stays warm. Soon as he wakes up, force some of that broth into him. Make sure it’s hot, though. Will you do that?”

“Promise.”

Dropping the blood-darkened cloth into a sudsy pail, he leans on her shoulder as he rises, coughing as he heads back to his room. 

Her own blood is one thing, but the sight of someone else’s is making her a woozy.  Even so, she takes Grandpa’s place warily beside the young man, who’s beginning to stir with little ripples of cold. Shivering as a bitter wind bats at the windows, she finds herself tugging the quilt higher over his trembling shoulders. What’s she thinking? She just doesn’t touch people. She doesn’t even know this boy, and, anyway, it’s dangerous to get too close to anyone, because if you do, you only lose them, anyway. 

Never again.

Still, she watches him in fascination -- until the little corner lamp flickers and blinks out. With a cuss under her breath, she gets up and shoves another of the precious logs into the fire. 

Ugh! How she hates the stinging, musty scent of anything burning!

Even as bright flames throw healing radiance against him, glancing and skittering unpredictably in a draft, the boy is wracked by cruel spasms. “Grandpa –” Hearing the panic in her own voice just makes her weaker. She listens hard for Grandpa’s reply, only to hear him snoring soundly, and she frowns again; he seems to be sleeping so much lately. At the drop of a hat, she recites to herself for the umpteenth time. Guess it’s up to me. 

Feeling very alone, and ill-equipped, she takes a shaky breath and kneels beside the boy, bravely steadying his knobby shoulders. It doesn’t feel so strange now, not so intimidating, since she’s touched him before. But she’s bothered by the sooty film his garment transfers to her hands, and she tries to wipe it off onto her jeans. He’s dressed so strangely, as if he’d been caught out in the storm in soft pajamas now wringing wet with dark smoke. What’d happened to him?

That’s when the storm surges, wickedly, and she yelps, shrinking closer to the boy at the sharp splintering crack at the front door, and the ruckus of branches slamming the roof as thunder shakes the floor. The lights, the heat, the hum from the ‘fridge, all go dark, and silent; someone’s flipped a switch to stop the world. Now the soundtrack of the storm rages without competition, the assault glorious in detail, with no inside noises to muffle it. 

Gradually, though, everything relaxes, the clutter of noise and pressure in the air thinning, as if the world is exhaling a great breath. The storm’s winding down, it almost isn’t a storm, anymore. Now she can stop worrying.

Exhausted, she pulls a chair beside the couch, still feeling the sting of her scabbing inner arm, but also aware of reassuring breathing noises, the comfortable crackle of flames, dim shapes and shadows and amber light spreading across the walls. Fresh, earthy smells of wet soil and vegetation wind through the musty odors of old wallpaper and furniture. 

When’s the last time she noticed them, these sharp/deep/bright scents, the taste of the air, the depth of the darkness – the dimensionality of everything? It’s as if the world’s grown richer – or, she suddenly has sharper senses. Like a wolf, or a deer. Everything around her is more complex, and, somehow, new to her, as if she’s suddenly seeing her familiar surroundings through someone else’s eyes.

The stranger’s stilled from his torment; his face is now free of pain.

How odd he is; small and slim, probably not much older than she – but she really can’t tell. In some ways he seems much older now that she’s looking at him up-close.  His gypsum skin, high cheekbones, slightly convex nose, the chiseled sweep of his jaw, defined and boyishly masculine, make him look foreign. Smooth hair falls in feathery white bangs across his forehead, but she knows from seeing him in the truck it’s long in back. He also smells pleasantly of something light and complex – sandalwood? Yet, lingering traces of smoke about his body -- not wood smoke, but something darker, more bitter -- cause her to pull back, from him, and from the writhing memories awakening in Technicolor, and visceral; the calamity she’d been unable to contain, which she’s tried so hard to forget – 

Tears smear the firelight. Grabbing the bowl of cooling broth, she flees to the kitchen.

***

Rousing from his uncomfortable nap, Conall listens through the sounds of the storm as the emphatic crescendos give way, gradually, to simpler, more precise rhythms. As he wakes, he rubs the ache in his neck and shoulder from where he’d sagged back, supported just enough by the uprights of the chair to fall asleep. He’d managed dream a little to the chorus of ghostly voices ringing from the downspout outside his window, but he’ll be paying for those few minutes of sleep with a crick in his neck for days now, maybe a week.

It was the light string of footsteps in the hall that woke him, and he follows their sounds until she’s brushed her teeth and clicks her door shut. That’s when he rises, checking the clock, raising his brows before wrestling off his shoes and sinking gratefully onto the mattress. With relief he stretches flat out on his bed. 

He never would have expected it. Had Caroline really been sitting with that lad the entire time?

Through the delicate sonic-screen of drizzle, he listens for any other movement in the house; but all’s quiet. The unusual lad certainly needs sleep if he’s going to recover. In the morning he might have to rethink this impulsive decision – well, that’s a certainty, isn’t it?  But now there’s something more to figure into the equation.

So, she’d naturally gravitated to that boy, willingly stayed to watch over him, for hours? No arguments, no questions?  No fear? It would’ve been remarkable enough under normal circumstances.

Maybe he should go check on the lad, but his exhaustion’s too deep. Pulling the blanket higher, rolling onto his side with a great exhale, Conall closes his eyes again, willing his mind to stop swirling. He needs to be well-rested before watching the morning news.

 

 -------- End of Sample ---------





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Added a post  to  , Cathy Taibbi

Hi Cathy,

I’d love a Beta Reader. Are you interested in Crime with a slightly humorous edge? 

Thanks Georgina 

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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

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.

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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