Rick Yagodich

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Author of, predominantly, literary epic fantasy. But presentational genre is only a wrapper, and some stories demand other packaging. Custodian of an unhealthily long list of story ideas in need of writing.

Currently reworking An Empty Throne, book 1 of The Gods'Bridge Arc, which is "a coming-of-age/political-intrigue series that looks at how someone can become as evil and universally reviled as Sauron."

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Just because I used an edit of it to get my mind working again, after a couple of weeks of bogging d…
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  •  · I wrote something like this when I was in my punk days and my father was basically in my friend grou…
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One for the plotters… pantsers might find this interesting, but it won't be meaningful to you…I'm in…
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  •  · It might be worth approaching it sequentially, too, rather than looking at act structures - just as …
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Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a famously deep and backstoried tale. The material created to sup…
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  •  · Great thread! Having started writing as a 'pantser' (3 novels ago) I am now beginning to appreciate …
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Alpha-reading… wait a moment. Alpha? How's that different from beta-reading?For those not familiar w…
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  •  · Thank you for this clear explanation. Very helpful. 
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A multi-part feature request, for uploaded files:When uploading a file, only two fields are presente…

Hello, Rick. I am presently plotting a book exploring the roots of evil, a little like your Empty Throne thumbnail. My theory is that it arises first out of trusting and being betrayed. I suppose there are other possibilities but that's the one my book will explore. I was wondering if you'd care to tell me about your theodicy?

Rick Yagodich
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This piece came about as a result of reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods, as part of the Community book club. Therein, Yorke opens with the conceit that he is the first to ever address the question of why we write story; he then pointedly fails to answer the question, except to claim that his model of archetypal story structure intrinsically explains its own existence.

So… to fill this gap, I posit a response of my own.

Why do we story? The answer is not a simple one; the question itself is ambiguous. There are three elements – three sub-questions – that derive from this overarching query:

  • What are we – the storytellers – trying to achieve with our stories?
  • Why do we choose story as our tool to accomplish our goals?
  • What makes story – and story structure – effective?

What are we – the storytellers – trying to achieve with our stories?

There are many answers to the question of what we storytellers wish to achieve. Maybe we want to impart an idea. Or we want to encourage our audience to think critically, to question their assumptions. Maybe we want to impart knowledge. Or beliefs. In many cases, we simply wish to entertain. These are all valid reasons, and there are certainly more. However, the details do not particularly matter.

We want to pass an idea or thought process from our own mind into others’. It’s as simple as that.

Why do we choose story as our tool to accomplish our goals? —part 1

The answer to this secondary question is somewhat self-referential. We use story as our tool because it works, we use it because it is effective at getting into the audience’s minds, and it has a structure that will keep it there.

We use story because our audience wants story. Indeed, the audience demands story.

But that’s not very helpful. I will come back to this question once I’ve addressed why it is so effective, once I’ve covered what the audience wants – needs – from story.

What makes story – and story structure – effective?

To answer this question, we need to step beyond story into the realm of neurophysiology. Without descending into the weeds, we need to consider how the brain copes with the world we inhabit. Every second, it is assaulted by thousands of elements of information: sights and sounds, tastes and smells, several different axes of touch-based perception, and thoughts.

Yet we blithely ignore most of that. We pay attention only to the things that matter. How?

The brain is an amazingly complex filtering system. It weighs each element of information it receives on a scale of disruption: is this different? Is it, in effect, an edge?

The brain then marks these edges with stress. It says: pay attention, deal with this.

The toolkit used for this is a limited array of neurochemical agents. The same ones that play into emotions. That marking of perceived edges with stress is – creates / uses – emotion.

We perceive, and thus feel, edges in our surroundings. That is how we know we are alive.

How does this relate to story?

To tell the story of your day, you wouldn’t recount every detail of all 86,400 seconds. That would be boring. Instead, you would skip over the background static, calling out only those elements that are different. You would speak of the edges.

As many who have written about story agree, the fundamental, atomic element of story is conflict. (Robert McKee said it best: “Conflict is to story as sound is to music.”) Conflict comes in many forms, the most basic of which is divergence, whether from expectation or from the norm. Our inciting incident is jsut that, a divergence to kick things into action, an edge worth noting. This aspect of story aligns perfectly with how our brain works.

Then, there is the second aspect to this stress-marking of perceived edges: deal with it.

In everyday life, that can take many forms, from frantic action to deciding it’s not relevant. But they all work towards the same: resolution. While the brain uses stress chemicals to alert us to that which we need to pay attention to, we do not cope well with their persistence. As we need the hit to feel alive, we also need the anticipation and the reward of resolution to avoid the negative consequences of our brain’s highlighting mechanism.

Story provides this, too. A good bit of story provides the stress-inducing edge (cortisone and epinephrine), the anticipation that comes from moving forward through the challenges (dopamine), and the pleasure – or pain suppression – of resolution (serotonin and endorphins).

Stories work, quite simply, because they stimulate the same elements of the brain as do perception and the handling thereof. Because they cause the successive release of stress, challenge, and success neurochemicals. And, in doing so, they trigger emotion, which makes us feel alive.

You could say – to paraphrase Descartes – I story, therefore I feel, therefore I know I am alive.

Which brings us back to…

Why do we choose story as our tool to accomplish our goals? —part 2

I said that we use story because our audience demands it of us.

They demand it because it enables them to feel, to know they are alive.

Thus, we use story because its structure aligns with the way our audience’s brains work: doping with, then releasing from, stress.

We, the storytellers… we are, in effect, drug dealers.

That is why we tell story.

Just because I used an edit of it to get my mind working again, after a couple of weeks of bogging down and not being at all productive.

Honestly, I don't even know how to describe the genre for this one, except that it really is a mortography. And I can only hope a true one.

Enjoy. Critique. Whatever…

The one possible question: would this work as the prologue to a memoir entitled "40 Year Holiday - Lessong from a life / in which nothing and nowhere / ever felt like home"?

One for the plotters… pantsers might find this interesting, but it won't be meaningful to you…

I'm in the process of trying to standardise what I include in my story outlines. In a structured way. Not just a summary of each chapter/scene, but details about characters first introduced, worldbuilding elements covered, the purpose of the scene, etc.

What do you include in your outlining? Are there elements that must be included, without which the outline is incomplete? And what granularity do you go to?

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a famously deep and backstoried tale. The material created to support it was posthumously published in six volumes; likely, there was more. So, more metadata than final story.

My question: how much metadata do you create for your works? What form does it take? Backstory? Plot maps? Theme maps? Something else?

Do you create a story wiki? What tools do you use? Do the answers differ between a short story, a stand-alone book, and a series?

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.

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

Alpha-reading… wait a moment. Alpha? How's that different from beta-reading?

For those not familiar with the difference, alpha-reading is that first small group of readers you give your work to who understand that it's not polished. You may have passages that say [insert jargon here]. You may have other bits you've intentionally skipped, or even sections you intend to remove. With beta-readers, you're providing a first draft of a finished-ish product. (Which doesn't mean it won't get rehashed beyond all recognition, but that's what the alpha-readers are supposed to help with.)

So…

First, credit where credit's due. What follows is a modified version of Mary Robinette Kowal's approach to obtaining meaningful feedback.

One important point of alpha-reader feedback is that you are looking for symptoms, not diagnoses or prescriptions. The logic here is simple. You are writing your story. You understand it on a level no one else ever will. If something isn't working, the alpha-reader's job is to tell you that it isn't working. Not to tell you how to do it right. If they tell you how to change it (the prescription), it becomes their work, not yours.

So, to be clear about what you're asking your alpha-readers for:

Sympton

Symptoms are the details the alpha review is intended to identify. What the reader feels, whether positive or negative. It is based on grading the material using the matrix below. Some symptoms will require an explanation of the reader's response – a clarification of the marking.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis is the why behind the symptom. For the most part, the reader won’t need to supply this information, but you may ask for it subsequently. A diagnosis from someone who understands writing and story structure should carry far more weight than a diagnosis from someone who doesn't.

Prescription

The prescription is the solution, how to fix the problem. It’s the author’s job, not the alpha-reader’s. Except in the rarest of cases, and then from professionals, alpha-reader prescriptions should be ignored.

And now, the matrix.


Writing
Story
+ve
A – Awesome
An A is for anything that is just perfect prose.
Beautiful wording that needs to be kept, whatever happens to the story around it.
C – Curious
A C is for anything that pulls the reader into the story.
Events or descriptions that make them wonder what happened, or why it happened. It includes anything the reader feels includes a promise of a resolution.
-ve
B – Boring
A B is for anything that feels dull and uninspired.
Wording that drags on for no apparent reason, convoluted or unnecessary descriptions, etc.
D – Don’t Care/Believe
A D is for anything that relaxes the story’s grip on the reader.
Events or descriptions that distance them from the characters, that they don’t care about or don’t believe.
Ds will often benefit from an explenation, or at least a subcategorisation.


E – Continuity Error
An E is for a continuity error.
These errors add confusion to the story, uncertainty over details you believed has been defined.
E’s should include a brief explanation of the discrepancy.

This markup can be applied at any scale. Sometimes, it will apply to a few words. Other times, to a scene or more.

Obviously, Bs and Ds are the "bad" ones here, but they're also the ones you really want to have pointed out to you as early as possible. So you can understand them and fix them.

So, with that all said… Helpful? Useful? Let me know if it works for you, or you think the model could be enhanced.

A multi-part feature request, for uploaded files:

  1. When uploading a file, only two fields are presented: File and Visibility. When subsequently editing it, there are two additional fields: Title and Descriptions. Please can those additional fields be available on initial upload.
  2. Posts can be cross-posted to multiple groups/furums… Can we please have similar flexibility with files, in the form of multi-selection within visibility (e.g. friends + group A + group B)

I'm looking for alpha readers…

The book - An Empty Throne (volume 1 of the Gods'Bridge Chronicles) - is a character-centric, epic fantasy tale. It runs to a little over 150k words.

The premise of the full series is: what would it take for a fairly normal person to become as evil and universally reviled as Sauron?

The sample chapters here are to allow members to determine whether the style is what they would be interested in reading; it wouldn't do to have alpha readers who don't habitually read in this genre/style.

There is a specific format of alpha reading annotation I will be looking for, which I will include in what I send to those who are interested.

Reciprocation is, obviously, on the table.

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