Vin Dova

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Professional Small Boy. Also, a pilot--though these days, I mostly fly a desk in Washington, DC. (Google "world's largest office building")    

Vin Dova Discussions
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A recent post about writing strong female characters got me to thinking. Not wanting to hijack that …
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  •  · When you genuinely like the character (and I'm not sure that I can write about people I don't genuin…
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At the outset, my new WIP presented me with a curious dilemma when it came to representing dialogue.…
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  •  · Italics sound a bit grim, to be honest. I'd be put off by the sight of that, I think. If you're writ…
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This doesn't come up often in my writing (and should probably come up even less than it does) but no…
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  •  · I agree, Libby, when you say 'the signal highlights the mechanics of the narration and the author's …
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Yesterday, I went with my wife to a popular chain bookstore. Since I am pitching my current WIP to a…
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  •  · I really enjoy a good romance, but if the main character isn’t catchy, is it still called a romance?…
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I know its trendy. I know its revolutionizing the business. I know that by refusing to embrace it, I…
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  •  · Blaine,Sure. I do many things but I guess for these purposes you can say I am the author of How to M…
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A recent post about writing strong female characters got me to thinking. Not wanting to hijack that thread for my own tangentially related musings, let me start another.

Much has been said and written (including here) about crafting “strong characters” in fiction. If by “strong,” we mean a character has large reserves of resilience and self-assurance that allow them to absorb whatever misfortunes and challenges life throws their way, then I’d like to turn that thesis on its head.

Strong characters (of this type) make boring protagonists, and you should avoid them.

Let me nerd out on this a little with an extended metaphor first. The type of strength I am referring to in a character can be likened to ductile steel. Spring steel, as its known, can bend over and over, absorb and deform under repeated stress, and snap right back into shape.  This is what the shock absorbers in your car are made out of—and it’s a good thing, because otherwise, rolling over a pothole would be pretty hard on your back—and your car’s chassis.

In metal, that sort of resilience lies about halfway along a spectrum between soft, easily deformed states, and extremely hard and brittle states. With a combination of heating and cooling, pressure and shock loads, one can take soft, raw metal, and make it *either* resilient (ductile) or hard (brittle).  You cannot actually achieve both at the same time, since they are different points along a continuum. As a blacksmith or an engineer, you find the combination that suits your needs, and stop processing at that point.  

Back to creating compelling characters in fiction…

I personally find it much more interesting to see a soft character almost melted, but survive, cool and harden. And then, as challenges mount, the newfound hardness allows them to succeed, but also makes them brittle. Cracks form. Depending on what sort of story you are telling, our hard, brittle (but not strong) character either shatters spectacularly—or is annealed by the heat and pressure of the final plot points, moving backward along the continuum of hardness to finally become resilient and conventionally “strong.”

At this point, their journey is done. Further adventures (if there are any) are like more sessions in a blacksmith’s forge. More melting, more quenching, more pounding, more annealing; and every subsequent story moves them a little right or left along the spectrum, leaving them either more ductile or more brittle, but never both.

At least that’s the way I like to see it. If your character begins with a high level of what most of us consider strength (that is ductility/resilience) and comes out the other side unchanged, than clearly the “forge” wasn’t hot enough. That is, your story did not challenge your character enough to break and reform them. Or, alternately, your character was too strong to begin with, within the context of the given narrative you put them in.  

There is surely a place for the kind of story that doesn't push the protagonist through some kind of life-changing crucible. Cozy mysteries for instance. (I don't read them, but I respect the craft required to a good one) Personally though, I’d rather see my protagonist get pounded and folded and heated and quenched like a samurai sword in the making. Do that, and I will be sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting to see if they break at the final test, or cut true.

I also enjoy watching “hard” characters, who assume they are strong because they have inured themselves to feelings of hurt or loss. These are some of the most fascinating people to me (both in literature and in real life). There is a perverse glee in watching them start to crack, and find out that they aren’t nearly as strong as they thought they were; that indeed, the only way to get stronger is to soften themselves, to feel hurt again and heal and bounce back.

On the other hand, it always bothers me (and maybe it bothers you too) when a protagonist is introduced as a virtual superman or -woman, with incredible strength and resilience from the start . . . and instead of providing that hero with such a profound challenge that even their great strength is inadequate, they "cheat" and weaken their protagonist somewhere around the first main plot point, in order to inject some much-needed doubt into the outcome. They have a secret weakness, you see. It's always that. One that magically disappears again as soon as we get to the third act and the plot requires them to be superhuman again. 

Not that people who seem invulnerable on the outside can't have hidden vulnerabilities and flaws. That's very realistic--and actually quite interesting. But you have to be careful how you pull that off so it doesn't seem artificial and contrived.  

Anyway, those are just my thoughts, and you are perfectly entitled your own. In fact, I’d love to hear them. Good night!

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At the outset, my new WIP presented me with a curious dilemma when it came to representing dialogue. In a nutshell, most of the characters are (don't laugh) domestic cats. Although the book is replete with "dialogue" between said felines, I wanted to make two things clear: 

1.) they are not really speaking in the purely verbal way that we would recognize, so all the words I put in their mouths are translated from a combination of sounds, body-language, and, for lack of a better term "cat-telepathy."  

2.) Their "speech" is distinct and different from the human dialogue that figures in now and then. Although the cats understand only about half of what the people say, I want the reader to be free to know what is actually being said. The people, of course, cannot understand what the cats are saying--or that complex conversations are even taking place between them. 

My idea of how to represent this in print was to put the cat dialogue in italics, and the human dialogue in conventional quotes. My concern is that some people might be put off by the amount of italics that end up on the page (I am a dialogue-driven writer, so my cats are chatterboxes). I have, in the past, been guilty of overusing italics for emphasis and internal thoughts, so I approach this cautiously.

That being said, my 11-year-old blasted through the first 117 pages of the manuscript in one go (staying up past bedtime in the process) with no complaints. He is picky and sophisticated about his fiction, and has never lifted one solitary finger to please and/or gain approval from his parents, (a chip off the Old Block, there!) -- so I find this very encouraging.  However, it is only one data point, and a meager one at that, so . . . what do you think?  

I realize it might be easier if I posted some of the MS, so you could actually try to see what I've done in context, but just theoretically . . . am i treading dangerously here?

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This doesn't come up often in my writing (and should probably come up even less than it does) but no matter what I do, it always looks wrong to me.

Say you have an embedded question in third-person narration that paraphrases a character's interrogative to himself, AND you feel the need, based on sentence rhythm or clarity, to add a post-question attribution clause . . . do you treat it like quoted dialogue in terms of punctuation and capitalization, normal sentence-case, or some odd hybrid of the two?


Was this really the end of the line? wondered Conrad.

Was this really the end of the line, wondered Conrad?

Was this really the end of the line? Wondered Conrad.

NONE of these look right to me. Am I missing something? Opinions please. 


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Yesterday, I went with my wife to a popular chain bookstore. Since I am pitching my current WIP to agents as a historical fiction novel, I went straight to the table near the front signed: "Historic Fiction -- New Releases."  There, I saw the following titles:

Lilac Girls

I was Anastasia                                            

The Lost Vintage                                          

The Other Einstein                                      

The Dutch Wife                                            

The Paris Orphan

The Nightingale

We were the Lucky Ones

The Huntress

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Before We Were Yours

The German Girl

The Girl They Left Behind

The Only Woman in the Room

The Secret Orphan

American Duchess

The Room on Rue Amelie

The Girl from Berlin

The Kommandant’s Girl

The Flight Girls

The Orphan’s Tale

Sold on a Monday

The Paris Architect

The Lost Girls of Paris

Now--does anything strike you about this collection?  Some prevalent trends sure jumped out at me.  To wit:

7 of 24 titles include the word “Girl” or “Girls.” Add in other inherently female terms (IE: wife, daughter) and it becomes 10 of 24.

20 of 24 covers show women or girls (exclusively.) Interesting, almost all are viewed from behind.

21 of 24 are by female authors


Full disclosure: I'm a man. I also enjoy historical fiction, and have read several of the titles listed above (and enjoyed them).  However, as an aspiring novelist in the genre with an outwardly (yet not exclusively) male-flavored WIP, I couldn't help but feeling a bit discouraged.  

Maybe I'm reading too much into this one particular store display, but does the publishing industry really believe that only women read historical fiction, and further, that women will only read novels that are overtly dominated by a female point-of-view?  There's some truth to that, I'm sure; but I also think it might be a self-licking ice cream cone. IE: If you market narrowly, your audience narrows to match what your selling and how you’re selling it. The resulting sales data justifies narrowing your market even further. Before you know it, you are completely ignoring a huge swath of potential customers, because the “hard data” is telling you they don't exist. I see this happen in industries all the time.    

My (highly-paid) Inner Business Consultant has told me to view the current state of affairs as an opportunity, not an obstacle.  After all, my books would have stood out on that table very distinctly. And standing out in the crowd is good. To a point. The hard part is getting past the gate-keepers, who are so often locked into the confirmation bias described previously. I told my Inner Business Consultant to show me how to do that part, or figure out how to make me look good in a dress. He responded that teal is my color, but I disagree. Thoughts? 

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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


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?


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


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

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

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

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

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

And here’s another thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And look:

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

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

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

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

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

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

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

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon


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 …?



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.


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 forum 

I know its trendy. I know its revolutionizing the business. I know that by refusing to embrace it, I am like a dinosaur roaring at a giant meteor about to blast my Cretaceous backside into the paleological record. 

But damn it, I really don't want to self-publish. 

It's not because I don't want to self-promote.  I realize that even in traditional publishing, an author has to shill himself like a street-corner hustler in order to succeed. It isn't because I think I might make more money from a traditional publishing deal.  It's not even entirely because of the extra cache of having one's book placed into the market by a Big Five imprint.  

It's because, frankly, the overwhelming majority of self-published novels on Amazon are still just plain bad.  Go ahead, tell me that's not true. For every brilliant new voice out there self-publishing quality work, there is an author-mill or a book-stuffing E-publisher dumping vast quantities of pure garbage into the literary ecosystem.  The bar is simply so low--non-existent really--that it reinforces the old stigma that self-publishing is only for people who didn't have the talent, patience, or work-ethic to get their book properly published.  

This is probably me being a complete and utter snob, but I feel like I have spent so much time and effort trying to raise my craft to the level compatible with "standards of traditional publication" (whatever those are--tell me if you know) that to just give in and self-publish on Amazon and Kindle seems like a betrayal. I mean, I could have published the first complete draft five years ago, and never looked back if I didn't care how good it was.  

Right now, I am slowly easing into the try-to-get-an-agent phase of the trad-publishing route. I have a decent day-job, so I'm not in a desperate hurry, and in any case, am realistic about my income potential as a writer of historical fiction and adventure yarns. (IE: its not good) but if I find no success at that, I'm not sure I will ever self-publish. At least not in the commercial sense. I think I'll just print-on-demand a few dozen copies and give them away as gifts to friends and family (and maybe sneak one onto the shelves of my local library.) 

So tell me I'm being a complete stick-in-the-mud about this. Or not.  Does anyone else share at least the sentiment, if not the bitterness?  Or should I just get over myself?  


The quick and dirty on me: I’m a Yank, but born in the UK, from a mixed-marriage between a wise-guy comedian from Queens NY and a Euro-mutt circus performer. I tried my hand at Theater, Film, TV and Rock-n’-Roll for a while before cutting my hair and getting a real job. Oddly enough, that turned out to be flying for the US Navy. Currently, I fly a desk in Washington DC—which is not nearly as exciting but has allowed me more time to work on my writing. My current project is a five-part historical epic based on the true story of a German fighter ace in the First World War, and the rather bonkers nurse who tries (and ultimately fails) to save him from himself. Based on the genre/premise alone, I doubt this project will ever see the light of day, no matter how good I make it, but the sooner I get it to a happy place, the sooner I can move on to what I hope might be more “commercial” (read: lighter-weight) projects.  I’m happy to be here, sharing time with fellow-travelers, and I am happy to read, review and comment—if you’ll return the favor.  

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Vin Dova
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