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Hi all, I'm struggling with the editing process for my dark comedy. Please help? Sorry if that sound…
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  •  · Hi Amy, I've taken a look at the introductory chapters you posted and I made some notes as I went al…
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Hi all, I'm looking for some fellow writers with finished novels to swap for reading and critiquing …
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  •  · Hi Iren that would be amazing thank you. Sounds great
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Hi all, I'm struggling with the editing process for my dark comedy. Please help? Sorry if that sounds a bit hopeless but I guess I don't really know the best place to start. I've self edited it twice but hit a brick wall. Here is the prologue and first chapter......


1

She drank Old Fashioneds and smoked Djarum Blacks.

She was everything she decided to be.

Was it artificial? It was reality.

What’s done is done whether through determination or nature.

Her eyes blazed in every emotion, black-rimmed. Her smile was easy but full of sharp teeth.

 

Chapter One: Mungo


Today, she was on the terrace of The Original Bean, playing scratchy patty-cake with a stray cat. It was dusk, and sweetness was seeping from the sand up into the leaves of the palms, rising like the robust vibrations of the cat’s purrs.

“Madaam?”

The waiter was a short, slim Keralan, with a wide, handsome, smooth-shaven face.  Mungo, watching from the other side of the path, noticed the man relaxing as he approached the woman; there was an ease between them that seemed unusual in these lands of strict hierarchy.

“Madaam?”

She glanced up and smiled.  He received her smile with ease in his eyes, though his body displayed some urgency.

Mungo dashed some words in the crossword grid he was pretending to solve: ‘waiter – involved?’

He took a long sip of his lemon tea and squinted across the darkening square, listening to the microphone planted under Madaam’s table through his earpiece, which was carefully concealed by his hair.

“Madaam, the, uh, gentleman is here.”

“Would you mind showing him over here, please, if it’s not too much bother?”

The waiter paused.

“He said he wants to sit inside, Madaam.”

She laughed huskily in the back of her throat, scratched the top of the cat’s head and stood up.

“Oh, no, he’s mistaken. Don’t worry about it. I will come and get him.”

The waiter’s body showed relief.  Mungo wrote: ‘VIP contact’.

Madaam stood up.  Her red silk kimono billowed behind her as she spiralled fluidly from her seat, seeming to swing upright more than simply stand.  Suddenly clipping the motion, she stuck her hands in her jeans pockets and tilted her cheek at the cat.

“I’m sorry to ask, Janu, but do you think you could please find a spare splash of milk for Ballsy?”

Janu looked down at the cat with light distaste as Ballsy twitched an ear and writhed on its back, displaying its namesakes with splayed skinny legs.

A light breeze flew in from the desert scrubland, churning up a wake of sand and filling the air with the smell of hot rock. The clear sound from the bug was muffled by a soft hissing.  Mungo strained to hear through the dust that was dulling and clogging his equipment with tiny yet sharp particles.  

He thought suddenly of his father’s swiss watch, guaranteed for a lifetime, that had given up during his assault of Sakaka.  When the horologist had opened it, his workshop had been dusted by Saudi ground, creeping into crevices and emerging months later, like glitter in a kindergarten. His father had asked the watch to be re-sealed “still stopped by the resistance of the earth we took”.  

Mungo felt an ancient bitterness creep into the back of his throat like phlegm; that pompous ass had always loved mementoes.

Mungo peered at Madaam and Janu but could only see a slide show of brief faces.   The roast pepper light of the setting sun split the grit in the air into a flickering screen of fool’s gold.

The waiter laughed and said something. Madaam shrugged and her face softened for a second. Ballsy rolled to its feet in a feline figure of eight and rubbed against the man’s legs, then just as quickly swiped at his hand with claws out. Madaam melted indulgently at the cat, then touched Janu’s arm; a swift squeeze.  The waiter shifted his body, leaning his weight on one hip, and turned towards her.   They smiled at each other, but there was no creeping closer; no lusty lean-in. The man said something earnest.   Madaam laughed loudly, which Mungo heard as if from a deep well.  She patted the waiter’s shoulder and spoke as she turned, then strode into the café.

Mungo switched to the other feed.  It had taken only moments to bug the place, but modern technology could not make up for the months of human stalking it had taken to choose which rooms to watch. That was his role and he took great pride in knowing he was one of the best in the world.

On the slim screen of his laptop, Madaam walked confidently through the café, past her usual seat, and into the kitchens.  Mungo spat dust from his tongue and swore.

 

Hamed

In the clouds of steam Mohammed Jaffer Hussein had shrunk back against the cold, sharp pantry shelves.  The Filipinos were laughing as they fried, hot fat spitting.  The sound set Mohammed’s teeth on edge.  He did not want to be here, but he had discovered from the reactions of his friends that one did not refuse an invitation from Madaam.

Invitation. That was a joke. He cleared his throat, tasting bitter oil. He could feel his body tensing with indignation. To be given orders by a woman – it was not merely wrong; it was against God himself.  Mohammed clenched his fists and stood up straight, trying to appear calm. God was on his side; he would regain order. Soon, she would answer to him, and all his friends would hail him a hero.

His moustache was starting to smell of second-hand food.  He could feel the sweat dribbling down the looser parts of his trousers, thick and cooling like runny yolk. It was only a matter of time before something unctuous splattered his pristine white thobe like a used tablecloth and then he would be angry.

Any other Thursday afternoon he would be relaxing in a waterside lounge, with pretty waitresses running around him with shisha and delicacies, accompanied by the song of his friends’ laughter. What was he doing here? His scalp felt prickly. He felt himself clenching his teeth.

The far door swung open with a steely smack against the countertop.  Mo stood to attention. A young Thai waitress came in, wiping her hands on her black apron.  Mo could smell the freshly ground bean dust on her. To his surprise, he felt a small attraction rise; he had never liked Eastern women, but this one...

“Mister angry wants three eggs, runny, on waffles with potato side and syrup.”

The larger chef laughed loudly.  Despite his short, skinny frame, he had dimples when he smiled.  Mohammed resented noticing that. These were not Arabs; they were background servers; café furniture that incidentally happened to talk, walk, eat, shit.

“Oh my god, he came back! After all that complaining!”

There was a sudden soft breath on Mohammed’s neck. It was not a human breath; it was a breeze so slight and soft there was no other word for it; a movement of air so subtle only the finest hairs and most sensitive skin registered it.

“Nice people, aren’t they?”

He swung round, startled in a way he had not been since his early youth. He was not a tall man, and so his face was level with hers; surprised eye to composed eye; gape to smile.

She was not at all what he had expected. Suddenly he realised that, for all the whispers and reputation, nobody had ever mentioned what she looked like. Usually that was the first comment on a woman, swiftly followed by a qualification; hot or not.

She was not beautiful, but not ugly either. Her eyes were powerful – there was no other word – twin bubbling cauldrons of intelligence, amusement, and something else he could not quite place. They bore an intensity not so much fiery as solar; stellar; bursting infinite supernovas. He imagined the passion with which she must fuck.

He pursed his lips and endeavoured to look stern and professional. He nodded stiffly, eyes rolling up and down her body.  She chuckled. He swallowed hard shame; he had not realised his habit was obvious.

He had not expected jeans, nor the tattered band t-shirt.  In his world, powerful women dripped off their lover’s arms in the highest heels, endless gold, diamonds. They were crafted, carefully painted make up matching their carefully sculpted bodies, equally carefully swathed in glittering, diaphanous cloths. This woman, more powerful than the richest citizen, was in grey converse and simple black hoop earrings, nearly barefaced, with a smudge of pink balm and some kohl. She was chubby, and the skin of her wrist was very, very pale.

He flinched as she shook his hand. He should touch her if and when he wished, not have his space invaded.

“Wonderful to meet you at last, Mohammed. Will you come and sit outside? The night is cooling and it’s really very pleasant.”

Her tone was warm but left no room for dissent.  He nodded politely.

“Certainly. How should I call you?”

He inwardly kicked himself for the mild grammatical error. To his relief she smiled and seemed not to have noticed. There was something almost relaxing about her presence.

“Just call me Madaam – everyone does – what would you prefer?”

To his own amazement he found himself allowing familiarity.

“My friends call me Hamed.”

“Ok, Hamed. It’s really a pleasure. I’m sure this meeting will be fruitful and enjoyable for both of us.”

For a second, he wondered if she was trying to seduce him. She led the way and, as her robe billowed, he caught brief glimpses of the soft shapes of her body. He would not mind at all…

A glance at her expression clarified that was not the case.

As they walked through the café, he saw several wealthy men glance towards him. Nerves started to creep into his temples and love-handles like miniscule ants. He didn’t know any of these people directly, but it was a small world.

On the other hand, most people thought Madaam was an urban legend. People would probably just assume he was with another new girlfriend, and nobody cared about that, especially his wives.

Madaam caught the eye of an Indian.

“Janu, could you bring the refreshments, please.”

Hamed was shocked by the way she spoke to the man. She used his name, said please, almost as one would speak to an equal. Did she have no sense of the propriety of hierarchy?

The set-up in his country was a sliding scale based on obvious distinctions, top to bottom of the pile: Pure Arabs; White British; White European; White American; Mixed Race Arabs; Black Americans; Pakistanis; Indians; East Asians; Bangladeshis; Africans. Hamed believed in this sensible, simple system that was aeons old. It was, therefore, only right that the wages were set accordingly, and respect given relatively.

Her smile cut into his indignation.

“Don’t worry, you’ll like it.”

She led him to a table in the square, set slightly back from the path, under a palm tree. Hamed wrinkled his nose at the rangy, balding, elderly stray cat sitting nearby. Cats were disgusting and this one particularly so; it was skinny and mottled, with the tip of one ear missing and a tail stiffened by past injuries. It stared at him pugnaciously.

“Please, sit.”

Hamed sat and crossed his legs, feeling public eyes upon him. He should try to appear relaxed, then the strolling groups ambling around the square in the cool of dusk would read this as a flirtation and move on. He thought, far too late, that he should have insisted they met in one of the poorer neighbourhoods where nobody he knew would ever go. Mind you, the Pakistanis gossiped, and all of them were in, or related to, the police. He wasn’t sure why he was here, but it seemed likely it wasn’t entirely legal.

“Madaam, I’m not quite sure…”

“You’re here because Nadia and Sara are my friends.”

She cut into his sentence and, for a second, he could not understand what she had said; it seemed so ridiculous.

“My second wife?”

“And your brother’s wife, yes.”

“But… how…”

She wafted her hand, showing irrelevance. As though to emphasise her gesture, the string lights in the square turned on at exactly the same moment; a coincidence that illuminated Madaam in a halo of twinkling stars, festooned over the nearby tree. The cynic in him wondered if she had somehow orchestrated it, but that would surely be too much.

The Indian arrived with a tray of drinks and small dishes. He leaned too close and Hamed shrank away, not wanting to touch. The waiter placed a short coffee in front of Madaam.

“Yirgacheffe espresso.”

She smiled and looked the waiter in the eyes.

“Thank you; you know me well.”

Hamed could not stop himself from sucking the tip his tongue against the back of his top front teeth and tutting, once. The Indian smiled down at him, but his eyes were defiant.

“And for you, Sir.”

He placed three small bowls in front of Hamed. In them were three different desserts: miniature, perfectly golden waffles served with a deep pink cream; three scoops of ice cream in gentle pastel colours; and a chocolate brownie so dark it was almost black, dripping with hot Lotus biscuit sauce. Next to that, a pot-for-one of milky ginger tea, sweetened with honey, on a raised tray with tealights to keep it warm.  Hamed could smell the spice rising from the glass as the waiter poured some.

Hamed’s face filled with moisture; he was salivating and on the verge of tears at the same time. Nostalgia ached in his heart and, for an instant, the world was transported into fragments of the past. Madaam was his father, smiling kindly and indulgently; the lights were candle lanterns in the restaurant near their home; it was his birthday; the tea was his grandmother’s recipe. The images did not match reality; the memories from different years overlapped like gentle waves eating the sand with an incoming tide.

He turned his face away from Madaam into the dark, sticky night. He did not want her to witness his emotion.

One could hardly see the buildings on the other side of the fountains now that the stone sun had dropped behind the earth and the thick humidity of the blackness had risen to full effect.  Such was the world here: dry days and wet nights.

“Where I’m from, the light lingers for hours.”

Madaam’s voice pulled him back to the present.

Hamed took a sip of the tea and the heat spread through his throat into his soul.

Madaam was looking up at the emergent stars. Behind her shoulder, the tip of a crescent moon started to rise.

She suddenly flipped her face back down and looked deeply into his eyes, unbalancing his regained calm.

“But I love the sunsets here; they may be short, but they pour the same amount of glory into a fast blaze. They are… Passionate. Definite. Fierce. Longevity is not the only qualifier of value.”

Hamed stared at her, trying to understand her point.

“Please, eat.”

He took a tentative spoonful of sand-coloured ice-cream. Honey and cardamom. His inner cheeks ached with pleasure.

“I can offer you one night of the thing you have fantasised about most for the past ten years.”

He tried the pale purple blob melting and mingling with the honey ice; roasted ripe fig. He smiled and tasted the third: fresh pistachio, not dried. It was the taste of boyhood tree-climbs. He gestured at the spread and laughed.

“Are you a witch? It’s perfect.”

His face grew serious.

“I don’t trust perfect, and I don’t believe offers that promise too much.”

“It’s not magic or false promise, Mohammed. I just know you very, very well.”

Her tone was serious, but Hamed could not look at her. He threw his spoon down into the bowl and he felt himself force his words, fast, throwing them like knives.

“What do you know? What can you do? You are not from here. You are just a woman with too much pride. I will show you how to be humble…”

The threat hung in the air as he realised with a cold drench down his shoulders that he had gone too far. He threw up his hands, somehow unable to stop his tantrum now he had begun. He heard his tone becoming whiny and fractious.

“Why are we even out here? What kind of a way is this to do serious business, which I assume we are? Anyone could see us!”

“You’re right.”

Her clear calm and smile stopped him dead. He stared at her as she spoke; watching an exotic predator.

“In fact, I can tell you that we are being watched and listened to right now by at least four people, including members of official agencies.”

 

Mungo

At his table, Mungo kept carefully still, feeling raw and exposed. His mind raced; who else was out there? Had they seen him? Did she know he was here, or was she guessing? He slipped a sugar cube under his tongue to stay calm.

 

Hamed

Hamed glared at her. The moon was gliding swiftly into the sky now. Above the rooftops, more real than the electric lights, it grinned with a grill of gold teeth.

“Then why the fuck are we out here? Are you an idiot? Do you know who I am? What I could lose?”

“Hamed, Hamed, if I didn’t know who you are, you wouldn’t be here. And you will not lose anything. You need to trust in Madaam. Anyway, you have little choice now; you have been seen with me by several government men who know very well who I am.”

“Who? Where?”

“I arranged for a little dinner on the balcony of the next-door restaurant. Don’t worry, I think you’ll find it to your advantage in the long run; people who help me tend to help each other too. Please, try the waffle before it’s cold.”

Despite himself and his frustration, his arm seemed to operate without him. Hamed took a large spoonful: crispy golden batter and black cherry cream. As he chewed it, he thought suddenly of his brother’s wedding; the cherry patisseries flown in from Paris that he had been unable to enjoy because he was masking his tears.

“Although, of course, my friends also dislike those who make themselves my enemies.”

She shrugged briefly with barely any movement; somehow it was more serious than if it had been broad.

“It’s your choice, Hamed. Do you want to be rewarded with a beautiful time you once dreamed of but have since given up as impossible?”

She caught his eye and despite her vagueness, he understood.

“Do you want to enjoy countless business benefits that will add a figure to your wealth, or do you wish to slide into the obscurity of banishment from any important table?”

It was obviously practiced, if not rehearsed; a choice she had given others; a sentence she found fruitful, substituting names and offers as she needed. It was pompous and irritating but under her arrogant style was a real bribe and a real threat.

Hamed calculated the possibilities. His stubbornness battled with his wisdom. He spread his hands and smiled, though his back teeth were clenched, and his eyes bunched.

“Make your offer.”

“I can give you a long weekend with Sara. Next Thursday. Mahmood will be called away for an urgent matter. His third wife Zainab will insist upon travelling with him. She will carry out her own instructions from there, so you don’t need to worry about him returning unexpectedly or calling to check up on Sara’s whereabouts. You will meet Sara at the airport. Her driver is a dear friend of mine and will ensure discretion. You will fly out to a hotel I often work with, returning on Saturday a few hours before Mahmood.”

She paused and her organisational tone softened.

“Sara is excited, so I hope you will not disappoint her.”

“Am I to seriously understand that you are manipulating multiple women in my family… and our employee? Come on, it’s too much!”

He snorted, but the derision was mirthless and unconvincing.  Madaam smiled serenely; he felt absolute hatred.

“No, Hamed. I am not connected to some women and an employee. I am close to ALL of the women in your family, and ALL of your employees.”

She sipped her espresso and released an exasperated breath.

“And manipulation is an ugly word, made ridiculous when used by a man used to power and control, who lacks empathy or a concept of reciprocity. I never manipulate. I look at my equals and ensure both our needs are met.”

“You threatened my business…”

She laughed at his protest; a genuine giggle of surprise that carried through the steamy air and seemed to echo around the square. He felt her mask lift and with it the cloud of irritation and frustration that filled his mind. He took a bite of the brownie and chewed thoughtfully.

“Hamed, you are not my equal.”

Hamed pressed his tongue hard against the back of his front teeth.

“You are a cruel, selfish man, raised by other cruel, selfish men with medieval thinking. But, since none of that is your fault, I’m giving you a chance to redeem yourself.”

Hamed found the chip on the side of his back tooth and ran his tongue across the sharp edge.

“You have two options: joy or punishment. I enjoy being generous so I would prefer that you choose the candy instead of the gun but, honestly, my friend, I will get my way whichever way you decide.”

Hamed glanced down at the desserts involuntarily and felt his mouth water. Madaam sighed deeply; Hamed thought it sounded full of sadness.

“What you don’t understand is that I am not only offering you passing bliss with a woman you have long desired; I am offering you salvation. That is a strange idea to you now, as you squat in your toad’s hole, but you will thank me one day. I promise you, you will.”

Her words stung more than they should, but her final sentence suddenly lifted the weight on his chest. Her tone was soft and light, an invitation. Suddenly he could breathe freely and, though he could not understand why, he felt a gentle warmth towards her. He felt the truth of what she said in his bones, despite her pomposity and ego.

He wanted Sara, oh fuck yes more than anything, but he also did not want to disappoint Madaam.

Madaam stood suddenly and a breeze rose from nowhere, rattling the dried palm leaves and lifting her hair and robe so they ballooned and billowed. She was a flag, Hamed thought; he wondered what she flew for.

“Please, enjoy your food. Sit, think, relax. You don’t need to give me an answer now. Consider. If you are at the airport at 2pm on Thursday, I will have your answer. If not…”

She shrugged and laughed, looking up again at the stars.  Above them, the moon cackled like the Cheshire cat.

Hamed suddenly wanted her to stay.  He spluttered.

“Surely I need to know what you want in return… I need… uh…”

“It will not be too much. If you agree, then Sara will tell you. As a poker player I’m sure you understand I don’t want to reveal my hand to someone uncommitted to my side. If not you, then someone else will do it.”

She held his gaze in hers.

“And they will enjoy your reward whilst you suffer.”

Hamed realised that he was no longer upset by her threats. How had this happened? How had she twisted him on her hook? He felt in his belly he wanted to please her, but she was leaving with a sigh that fell somewhere between satisfaction and ennui.

“Now, Hamed, please excuse me, I must say goodbye. I’m late for dinner with your mother.”

She caught the Indian’s eye and waved. Hamed winced at their friendship.

Suddenly, she bent down and kissed Hamed’s forehead.

It seemed an unfathomable gesture, but her slow lips stole his mind, focusing a second of peace between his brows. She smelled of jasmine tea, cloves, and sweet, drinkable musk. The silk of her hem slipped coolly against the hairy back of his hand.

And then she was gone, striding into the dark pools between the lamps.

Hamed drank his hot tea and muttered a prayer for clarity.

 

Mungo

 

As she passed his table, Mungo glanced up at Madaam; it would have been unusual not to. She was walking purposefully but at an easy pace, face relaxed into a slight smile.  

He looked back down at his paper and cursed her under his breath.

What could he really report back? She makes a lot of friends easily? Excellent taste in dessert? Might be lovers with a waiter? Wants M.J.H to do…something? And his brother to do…something, possibly, but possibly not? Some government people work with her sometimes?

He put his head in his hands. Months of work and he still did not know her real name. He had found seven passports during various secret sojourns into her rooms, all genuine, all different. All of them backed up by national data. None of them real.

At least he could find out which officials were on her side. Though, of course, they would be untouchable royal cousins. How had she created this web? There were even whispers that the Sheikh was with her.

Where had she come from? Nobody could answer that. She was British, but nobody could say how long she had operated in this region, or even if this was where she primarily worked.

Mungo rubbed his temples and pinched the bridge of his nose. He took a small sip of the fresh mint tea, so full of brown sugar it was a heavy, warm syrup. It was not as good without the contrast of the acrid hookah pipe. When one was smoking, the tea soothed the throat and evened the bitterness. Right now it clogged his tongue.

Madaam seemed to have popped into existence two years ago, fully formed, and already connected. Miraculously anonymous, and able to outwit any attempt to curtail her. Where had she come from? She was obviously not a Gulf native, even from an ex-pat British family. Why would they all kowtow to a foreigner… to a woman?

He realised these were not questions he could answer now, nor did he need to. The pertinent riddle of the moment was: Where was she going to, right now? And in general, obviously, but her whereabouts for this evening seemed a more manageable thing to answer than her lifetime goals.

Added a forum 

Hi all, I'm looking for some fellow writers with finished novels to swap for reading and critiquing for further editing.

I'm open to all genres. My novel is dark comedy with feminist themes. However, I read really widely from literary fiction to science fiction and fantasy so open to anyone who needs or wants to swap, read, and feedback.

Hopeful anticipation and preemptive thanks!

Added a post 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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

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

The Da Vinci Code

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

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

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all from me.

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

Till soon

Harry

PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

Added a post 

Usually, on Thursday afternoon or so, I start pondering what I’m going to write about on Friday.

This week: no pondering. There’s only one thing I could possibly write about.

The biggest book-related newsflash this week – or this year – is that Barnes and Noble is changing ownership. The ins and outs are a little complex (and everything is not quite settled), but if all goes according to plan:

  • An investment firm, Elliott Advisers, is to buy Barnes and Noble, in a deal which values that business (including its debts) at about $700 million.
  • That sounds like a lot of money, but given that B&N’s sales are $3.6 billion, the pricing actually feels pretty cheap – reflecting the dismal state of B&N.
  • Elliott is also the 100% owner of Waterstones, the British equivalent of B&N. Both those chains are proper bookshops, appealing to proper book lovers. In that sense, the chains are distinct from the supermarkets, who just sell a lot of books but don’t care about them, or the British High Street & travel operator, WH Smith, which is as much a stationer and a newsagent as an actual book store.
  • Waterstones was rescued from impending financial disaster by CEO James Daunt. It was Daunt who negotiated the sale of the firm to Elliott.
  • Daunt will now act as CEO to both firms – B&N and Waterstones – and will divide his time between London and New York.

As it happens, Daunt also owns and runs his own mini-chain of high-end London bookstores. It was his experience at those stores which won him the position at Waterstones.

So, assuming that all goes according to plan, James Daunt will be the book world’s second most powerful human, after Jeff Bezos.

So what does that mean – for readers? For writers? For publishers? For anyone?

Well.

It’s a big and important move. James Daunt has a huge reputation in the UK and it’s probably deserved. His secret sauce for success? Quite simply this:

There is no secret sauce.

In the UK, Daunt simply took everything back to basics.

He turned bookselling into a proper career. (Albeit, inevitably, a badly paid one.) He retained staff who cared passionately about books and waved good-bye to the rest, perhaps a third of them. He cut costs. He made his stores prettier.

And, in a move so radical that it shook British publishing to its core, he let each store manager select their own inventory. So, yes of course, every store was expected to stock major bestsellers of the moment. But beyond that, what stores sold was guided by local passion and local knowledge. From a reader’s point of view, stores got better. There was more energy, more passion, more commitment.

But publishers, for a while, didn’t know what to do. In the past, publishing worked like this:

  1. Publishers paid Waterstones a big chunk of cash to get into a 3-for-2 front-of-store promotion. So Waterstones was actually retailing its shelf-space. It wasn’t really curating its own retail offering.
  2. Some of those 3-for-2s did really well, and became huge bestsellers.
  3. Others didn’t, and the volume of returns was enormous (often 20% of total stock.)
  4. Publishers pulped those returns, ditched those authors and just made money from their mega-successes

That was check-book publishing and check-book retail.

Daunt killed that, and terrified publishers. How could they market books if the key step wasn’t just throwing bundles of money at retailers? [and if you want a reminder of the different publishing options, you can get that here.]

Well, they solved that problem … kinda. But all they really did was turn their attentions (even more than before) to the supermarkets and other mass retailers. Waterstones’ local stores are great and feel like real bookshops … but they can’t build a bestseller as they did in the old days, because each store chooses its stock according to its own tastes.

Daunt’s path in the US is likely to follow the exact same route.

He’s commented that one of the issues he feels on entering a typical B&N store is quite simply “too many books.” Too much stock. Too little curation and guidance. Not enough knowledge from the booksellers. An atmosphere so flat, you could swap it for cigarette paper.

He’ll cut stock. Reduce staff, but retain the best and most passionate members. Eliminate central promotions. Get better terms from publishers. Sharply reduce stock returns.

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

Elliott’s cash plus Daunt’s knowhow should save specialist physical book retail in the US. That’s massive. It’s the difference between a US publishing industry that operates much as it does now and one that would be almost wholly slave to Amazon. That also means that trad publishing is likely to survive in roughly its current shape and size, rather than being sidelined by the growth of digital-first publishers (notably self-pubbers and Amazon itself.)

The negative:

US publishers will have to learn the lessons already absorbed by the Brits. If B&N no longer operates national promotion systems as in the past, publishers can’t make a bestseller just by buying space. Yes, they’ll go on seeing what they can do on social media and all that stuff. But, as in the UK, they’ll be even more dependent on supermarkets. The make-or-break of a book will be not “Is this wonderful writing?” but “did we get enough retail space in enough supermarkets at a sufficiently attractive price?”

I know any number of authors where Book A did incredibly well, Book B did poorly … and Book B was better than Book A. The difference, in every case, was that the supermarkets backed A and not B, and there’s damn all a trad publisher can do once the supermarkets have said no.

Oh yes, and supermarkets don’t really give a damn about the quality of writing. They don’t know about the quality of the writing. They just buy on the basis of past sales (if you’re John Grisham) or a pretty cover (if you’re a debut.)

Of course, they’d say their selection is a damn sight more careful than that, and it probably is. But that’s still “careful by the standards of people who mostly sell tinned beans and dog food for a living.” That’s not the same thing as actually being careful.

That sounds like a fairly downbeat conclusion, but the Elliott-saves-B&N news is still a real big plus for anyone who loves traditional stores, print books and traditional publishing. It’s the single biggest win I can remember over the past few years.

What that win won’t do, however, is weaken the hold of supermarkets and Amazon over book retail. Those two forces are still huge. They’re still central.

And of course, talking about print books has its slightly quaint side. Me, I prefer print. I hardly ever read ebooks. I just spend enough time on screens as it is.

But print books constitute less than 30% of all adult fiction sales, and online print sales accounts for a big chunk of that 30%.

In other words, all those B&N stores up and down the US are still only attacking 23% or so of the total adult fiction market. However well Daunt does, that 23% figure isn’t about to change radically. (Or not in the direction he wants, anyway.)

But, just for now, to hell with realism. Let’s remember the magic of a beautiful bookstore.

Daunt does. Here are some comments of his from 2017:

“[there is a sense that] a book bought from a bookshop is a better book.... When a book comes through a letter box or when a book is bought in a supermarket, it's not vested with the authority and the excitement that comes from buying it in a bookshop. …Price is irrelevant if the customer likes the shop. The book is never an expensive item, [particularly for the many customers who] we know are quite happy to go into a café and spend dramatically more on a cup of coffee."

Quite right, buddy. Now go sell some books. The readers need you.

Till soon

Harry

Added a post 

I’ve been reading a terrific guest post on our blog by our Craig Taylor. (And actually, “guest post” doesn’t feel like quite the right term, if I’m honest. Craig’s a buddy, not a guest.)

The post is on how to write a scene and, in it, Craig asks:

If the theme of your work, say, is unrequited love, does your scene angle in to that theme? Does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling which is associated with unrequited love? Or does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling about requited love, so as to throw into relief the experience that one of your characters will have about unrequited love?”

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

I, for one, don’t write a book thinking that every scene I write has to “angle in” to my major theme. But what if that’s wrong? What if, in a well-constructed book, pretty much everything angles in to the one same issue? (Or, rather, cluster of issues, because a book that is rich thematically can never be too neatly categorised.)

And here’s another thought:

What if you don’t especially think about these things as you build your story? What if you do concentrate on good writing (nice prose, strong characters, a well-knitted plot), but don’t overthink the thematic stuff?

What happens then? Is the result strong? Or will it never reach the kind of thematic depth and congruence that Craig is hinting at?

Hey, ho. Interesting questions. So I thought I’d take a look at my own work and see what’s actually happened there.

So my last book, The Deepest Grave, has a cluster of themes that include:

  • Ancient history, specifically post-Roman Britain and the shade of Arthur
  • Treasure and fakery
  • Death (because this is a murder mystery, but it is also a book about Fiona Griffiths, whose attitudes to life and death are deep and complicated.)

But then, I only have to write those themes down on the page here – something I’ve never done before; I don’t plan my thematic stuff – and I realise this: that those themes absolutely and necessarily contain their opposites. So a book that is about fakery and death is also, essentially, a book about:

  • Authenticity
  • Life – or, more specifically in Fiona’s case, the whole knotty business of how to be a human; how to establish and maintain an identity in the face of her overawareness of death.

OK. So those, broadly, are my themes. Let’s now look at whether my various scenes tend to hammer away at those things, or not. Are themes something that appear via a few strong, bold story strokes? Or are they there, fractal-like, in every detail too?

And, just to repeat, those aren’t questions I consciously think about much as I write. Yes, a bit, sometimes, but I certainly don’t go through the disciplined thought process that Craig mentions in his post.

And blow me down, but what I find is that, yes, those themes infest the book. The book never long pulls away from them at all.

So, aside from a place and date stamp at the top of chapter 1, the first words in the book are these:

“Jon Breakell has just completed his chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece. The Mona Lisa of office art. The masterpiece in question is a dinosaur made of bulldog clips, twisted biro innards and a line of erasers that Jon has carved into spikes.”

That’s a nod towards ancient history. It’s a nod towards authenticity (the Mona Lisa) and fakery (a dinosaur that is definitely not a real dinosaur.) It’s also, perhaps, a little nod towards death, because in a way the most famous thing about dinosaurs is that they’re extinct.

It goes on. The mini-scene that opens the book concludes with Fiona demolishing her friend’s dinosaur and the two of them bending down to clear up the mess. Fiona says, “that’s how we are—me, Jon, the bones of the fallen—when Dennis Jackson comes in.”

That phrase, the bones of the fallen, puts death explicitly on the page and in a way which alludes forward to the whole Arthurian battle theme that will emerge later.

That’s one example and – I swear, vow & promise – I didn’t plan those links out in my head prior to writing. I just wrote what felt natural for the book that was to come.

But the themes keep on coming. To use Craig’s word, all of the most glittering scenes and moments and images in the book keep on angling in to my little collection of themes.

There’s a big mid-book art heist and hostage drama. Is there a whiff of something ancient there? Something faked and something real? Of course. The heist is fake and real, both at the same time.

The crime that sits at the heart of the book has fakery at its core. But then Fiona start doubling up on the fakery – she’s faking a fake, in effect – but in the process, it turns out, she has created something authentic. And the authenticity of that thing plays a key role in the book’s final denouement.

Another example. Fiona’s father plays an important role in this book. He’s not a complicated or introspective man. He doesn’t battle, the way his daughter does, for a sense of identity.

But what happens in the book? This big, modern, uncomplicated man morphs, somehow, into something like a modern Arthur. That identity shift again plays a critical role in the final, decisive dramas. But it echoes around the book too. Here’s one example:

“Dad drives a silver Range Rover, the car Arthur would have chosen.

It hums as it drives, transfiguring the tarmac beneath its wheels into something finer, silvered, noble.

A wash of rain. Sunlight on a hill. Our slow paced Welsh roads.”

That’s playful, of course, and I had originally intended just to quote that first line, about the Range Rover. But when I opened up the text, I found the sentences that followed. That one about “transfiguring the tarmac” is about that process of transformation from something ordinary to something more like treasure, something noble.

And then even the bits that follow that – the wash of rain, the sunlight on the hill – don’t those things somehow attach to the “finer, silvered, noble” phrase we’ve just left? It’s as though the authenticity of the man driving the Range Rover transforms these ordinary things into something treasured. Something with the whisper of anciency and value.

I could go on, obviously, but this email would turn into a very, very long one if I did.

And look:

Yet again, I’ve got to the end of a long piece on writing without a real “how to” lesson to close it off.

Craig’s blog post says, among many other good things, that you should ask whether or not your scene angles in to your themes. But I don’t do that. Not consciously, not consistently. And – damn my eyes and boil my boots – I discover that the themes get in there anyway. Yoo-hoo, here we are.

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

Well, I don’t know. I think that, yes, if you’re stuck with a scene, or if it’s just feeling a little awkward or wrong, then working through Craig’s list of scene-checks will sort you out 99% of the time. A conscious, almost mechanical, attention to those things will eliminate problems.

But if you’re not the conscious mechanic sort, then having a floaty awareness of the issues touched on in this email will probably work as well. If you maintain that rather unfocused awareness of your themes, you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating towards phrases and scenes and metaphors and moments that reliably support the structure you’re building.

And that works, I think. The final construction will have both coherence and a kind of unforced naturalness.

And for me, it’s one of the biggest pleasures of being an author. That looking back at a text and finding stuff in it that you never consciously put there.

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon

Harry

Added a post 

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

But –

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

And –

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

So –

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

Which bring us to –

You. Life. Books. Writing.

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

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

So Life vs Work?

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

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

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

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

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

So the solution is …?

Um.

Uh.

I don’t know. Sorry.

The fact is, these things are just hard and unavoidable. Priorities do get shifted. You can’t avoid it. The emotional strains of being-a-writer – that is, having a competitive and insecure job in an industry which, weirdly, doesn’t value you very highly – are going to be present whether you like them or not.

There have been entire months, sometimes, when I should have been writing, but accomplished nothing useful because of some publishing drama, which just needed resolution. No one else cared much about that drama, or at least nothing close to the amount I did, with the result that those things often don’t resolve fast.

Your comfort and shelter against those storms? Well, like I say, I don’t have any magical answers but, here, for what it’s worth, are some things which may help:

  1. Gin. Or cheap wine. Or whatever works. I favour beers from this fine brewery or really cheap Australian plonk. The kind you can thin paints with.
  2. Changing your priorities for a bit. So if you really needed to clear out the garage or redecorate the nursery, then do those things in the time you had thought you’d be writing. You’re not losing time; you’re just switching things around.
  3. Addressing any emotional/practical issues as fast and practically as you can. So let’s say you have book #1 out on submission, you can help yourself by getting the best version of that book out (getting our excellent editorial advice upfront if you need to.) You can make sure you go to a minimum of 10 agents, and probably more like 12-15. You can make sure those agents are intelligently chosen, and that your query letter / synopsis are all in great shape. (see the PSes for a bit more on this.) You can write yourself a day planner, that gives some structure to the waiting process: “X agents queried on 1 May. Eight weeks later is 26 June. At that point, I (a) have an agent, (b) send more queries, (c) get an editor to look at my text, or (d) switch full-steam to the new manuscript.” If you plan things like that upfront, you don’t have to waste a bazillion hours crawling over the same questions in your head.
  4. Accepting the reality. It’s just nicer accepting when things are blocked or too busy or too fraught. The reality is the same, but the lived experience is nicer. So be kind to yourself.
  5. Find community. Yes, your partner is beautiful and adorable and the joy of your life. But he/she isn’t a writer. So he/she doesn’t understand you. Join a community (like ours). Make friends. Share a moan with people who know exactly what you mean. That matters. It makes a difference.
  6. Enjoy writing. This is the big one, in fact. The writers who most struggle with their vocation are the ones who like having written something, but don’t actually enjoy writing it. And I have to say, I’ve never understood that. My happiest work times have nearly always been when I’m throwing words down on a page, or editing words I’ve already put there. And that pleasure means you keep on coming back to your manuscript whenever you can. And that means it gets written. And edited. And out to agents or uploaded to KDP and sold.

Of those six, then cultivating that happiness is the single biggest gift you can give yourselves.

And the gin, obviously.

Harry

Added a post 

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

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

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.

kewavxkrnxf23zs9cpapkq4ru5qpjgw2.jpg

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