Jane Hasenmueller

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Jane Thompson Hasenmueller, a former English Educator and Education Administrator, as well as a former lobbyist for the New Mexico Fellows of the National Writing Project, published her first book, Choosing Happiness After Divorce, in 2009 after stepping back from her education career. She went on to become a Certified Health and Integrative Nutrition coach, starting Radical Aging, a website about living healthy no matter one’s age.

The Grief of Wisdom is her debut novel. You can find her, when she is not writing, hiking the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Santa Fe, New Mexico, or eating a croissant and drinking wine (not at the same time) in France. 




Heather Bell asked me to post the first chapter of The Grief of Wisdom. Here it is: 

In Memory of 

David Shawn Hunton 


Because in much wisdom there is much grief… -Ecclesiastes 1:18


There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark  of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently  than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers  of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of  unspeakable love. 

-Washington Irving

Chapter 1 

Isobel Allen stood at her living room window looking  

out at the snow capped Jemez mountains, the steam  rising off her morning Americano as she raised her  cup for a drink. Pink and purple hues colored the  blue tinted sky with the promise of a warm April day.  She watched the neighbor’s cat creep along the adobe  wall in her front yard, stalking early morning prey at  the bird feeder. She tapped on the window with her  knuckle, watching the birds take flight and the cat  turn its head in annoyance. Isobel smiled, knowing  the cat couldn’t reach the birds, even if it leaped, but  it never gave up trying. She carried her cup to the  kitchen sink, then gathered her things and left for  work. Friday was her favorite day of the week, just as  it was for all of the faculty and students. As Principal  of Sangre de Cristo High School, a small alternative  school in Santa Fe, her job was rewarding, but often trying. She had a rough school population of kids  who for many different reasons did not succeed in a  regular school setting. Meeting their needs required  a flexible attitude, discipline, and lots of love. 

As Isobel pulled into the parking lot that morning,  she looked forward to the day. She loved her job and  her students. In her fifth year now, she had a cohesive  staff and a strong reputation in the district. Grabbing  her things off the seat next to her, she glanced at the  time, 6:30. As she headed into the building she knew  she had almost an hour to do paperwork before her day  became the usual mix of issues needing to be addressed  or solved. She dug in and didn’t look up until her  secretary arrived and popped her head in the door. 

“Good morning, Isobel,” Anna said, as she held  the door open. 

“Good morning, Anna. 7:45?” Isobel glanced  at her watch as she laid aside her work, picked up  her radio and walked towards the door where her  secretary stood. 

“Yes, and it’s Friday. At least the savages are  happiest on Friday,” said Anna. 

Isobel laughed, as she joined Anna at the door.  “Okay, I’m going out. See you shortly.” Isobel headed  to the front doors, slipping on her sunglasses as she  stepped outside. Greeting students as they entered the  building gave her the chance to talk to any student  who looked like they might be spinning out of control  and hopefully gave them a sense someone cared. She  expected her teachers to greet students as they walked  into their classroom, and she expected nothing less  of herself. When the bell rang, and the stragglers came barreling from the parking lot, she waited a few  minutes and went in behind them. As she stepped  into the office, she said, “Let the wild rumpus begin,”  making Anna laugh, then went to her office to try  and finish a few more items before first period ended. 

The day had flown by, but towards the end of the  last period, she listened with her chin in her hand to  Odette, who had been brought to the office by the  assistant principal for disrupting class. She made time  to talk with students, often finding herself patiently  listening to a student’s troubles wondering how they  survived the lives thrust upon them. Isobel worried  about Odette and checked on her often. Though Isobel  had had her own issues as a teen, she felt her life had  turned out rather ordinary and normal in the long run. 

“Ms. Allen, they were doggin’ me again. I’m gonna  punch that whore, Audrey! She…” 

“Please, watch your language, Odette,” Isobel  said. “Listen, I’m glad Mr. Andrews brought you in  here before you got yourself in trouble again. You  can’t go around punching everyone who stares at you.  Honestly, Odette, you are a striking young lady. People  are going to stare at you, or at least take a second  look, the rest of your life, so take it as a complement  instead of a threat.” 

“Thanks, Ms. A, but they weren’t lookin’ for that  reason.” 

“Maybe not, but are those girls worth being  suspended for? Hmmm?” 

“Suspended? I haven’t been in any fights this year.” “Um, yes, and let’s keep it that way. A fight means  you’re out of here, and it sounds like you were close.”

“Ok, ok. Can I come here if I need to talk? The  counselor’s a bitch and …” 


“I mean, I don’t like talking to her. Ok?” 

“You know you can stop by and if I’m available,  yes, I’ll talk to you. And if you find you can’t control  yourself, just come sit in the office and talk to Ms. Bassett until you cool off. But no ditching class.  Agreed?” 

“Gotcha!” Odette, flashed some kind of sign,  smiled, and flipped her hair over her shoulder. 

“Now, back to class before the bell rings, and  have a safe weekend.” Isobel came round the desk as  Odette stood, giving her a quick shoulder hug and  sent her on her way. 

Isobel laughed to herself as she stacked up the last  of the files on her desk. Isobel couldn’t help but like  Odette, even if always on the edge of a blowup with  someone. As a junior in high school, she seemed to  be at last recognizing the need to control herself to  get on in life. 

Isobel’s assistant principal, Brian Andrews, stuck  his head in her door, already wearing his orange safety  vest. “Where do you want me today?” 

“I’ll take the road, would you cover the bus lane,  please.” 

“Sure thing,” as he gave her the thumbs up signal. Isobel pulled her vest from her bottom drawer  and headed to the main entrance to direct parents  and students as they came and left the parking lot.  Everything became gridlocked otherwise, the last thing she wanted on a Friday when she could actually  go home early. 

When Isobel reentered the building, the halls  echoed with the Friday afternoon silence of students  and staff having deserted as fast as possible. Isobel  planned to leave soon too, but she could see Anna  waving frantically at her to come into the office. 

“Anna, what…?” 

“Come look at this; isn’t this where your son  works?” Anna said as she pointed at the screen. Isobel stared at the computer screen. A breaking  story on an attack at a small television station at the  university in Llano, New Mexico. She felt her knees  begin to buckle and grabbed Anna’s desk to keep from  falling to the ground. “Oh my God.” 

Anna put her arm around Isobel and helped her  to sit down. 

“Where’s your phone, Isobel?” 

“On my desk.” 

Anna ran and got it, putting the phone in Isobel’s  hand. She looked at the screen a message from Alec  appeared, “I love you mom, I love all of you.” Stunned,  Isobel looked to see what time the message had come  through. 2:50, thirty-five minutes ago. 

She tried to call him, but his phone rang and went  to voicemail. She next tried Ian. He picked up. “Have  you talked to your brother?” 

“No. What’s up, Mom?” 

“There’s been an attack on the station.” 

“What? Mom, where are you? What did you hear?” “I’m still at school. Anna saw it on KOB just now.”

Ian flipped on the television in his office, “Oh my  God. It’s on the Lubbock station too.” 

“I tried calling him and it went to voicemail, but  I had a message from him at 2:50,” she choked as she  tried to tell Ian what it said…, “I love you Mom. I  love you all.” 

“Mom, I’m going to head over there.” 

“Okay. I’m going to do the same.” 

“Mom, are you sure? Are you alright to drive?”

“Yes. I’ll text you when I leave. I barely have service  on that road though, so I probably can’t talk to you  till I get there.” 

“Okay. Meet me at Dad’s.” 

“No. I’m going directly to the station,” Isobel said.  “Besides, your Dad will be at the station, won’t he?” 

“He’s at a conference somewhere.” 

“Okay. If you hear anything, call me before I leave.  Otherwise, I’ll meet you in Llano at the station.” 

“I love you Mom. Be careful. I’m worried about  you driving.” 

“I’ll be fine. I love you too.” 

Anna hugged Isobel as she hung up the phone. “Anna, would you call Martinez and tell him what’s  happened? I’ll probably be back on Sunday. I’m sure  Alec’s fine. Right?” Anna nodded in agreement, “but  just in case…,” Isobel swallowed hard to choke back the  panic she felt, “Remind Dr. Martinez, gently, that Mr.  Andrews might need a bit of help if I can’t get back, so  we don’t have a repeat of chaos like the last time I left.” 

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on him and be sure  he doesn’t burn down the school.” She smiled and  Isobel hugged her.

“Thank you. This school wouldn’t run without  you, Anna. I’ll call you when I know something.”  Though Isobel spoke calmly, Anna could hear the  panic in her voice. 

“Thanks. Be careful. I’m praying for you and Alec.” Isobel grabbed her bag and laptop, then ran for  the car. Fear coursed through her body as she drove  to her house. She wondered if she should even go  home or just drive straight to Llano, but she needed  to believe they would all be together tonight and hear  his story. Then she would stay the weekend and drive  home Sunday evening. 

When she ran into her house, she grabbed her  suitcase from the hall closet on her way to the  bedroom. She tossed in her jeans, boots, a few shirts,  and a dress. She swept her makeup into a bag and  threw it in the suitcase, then hurriedly grabbed up  her toiletries, closed the case and ran for her car. Her  adrenaline at full speed, she made herself take a deep  breath before starting the car. 

Her phone rang as she backed out of the drive. “Isobel?” Isobel could hear the panic in Diane’s  voice, her best friend since she’d moved to Santa Fe  ten years ago. 

“I saw the news, Diane. I’m leaving the house now.  Ian is on his way to Llano too. He’ll get there first.” “Do you want me to go with?” 

“No, wait. I’ll call you as soon as I get there.” “I love you, Isobel. Be careful!” 

“I will.” 

Isobel tried again to call Alec, but still no answer.  She left her driveway and headed for Llano. She drove as fast as she could, making an almost four hour drive  in three. Thankful to not be stopped by a state patrol,  she headed straight for campus and the television  station, but a barricade stymied her way. She pulled  to the curb, jumped out, and ran past the barricade,  a policewoman on her heels. 

“Ma’am, ma’am. Stop.” 

Isobel looked over her shoulder and shouted back,  “My son is in there.” She could hear her phone in her  pocket, messages catching up to her as she now had  service. She stopped and pulled it out to see if Ian  had messaged. The policewoman grabbed her arm  and Isobel yanked away. “My son is in there and I’m  looking to see if I have any messages from him or his  brother.” 

“Sorry, but you can’t get any closer.” 

Isobel kept walking and looking at her phone, the  policewoman walking beside her, her hand on Isobel’s  arm, tugging. Isobel’s eyes, full of tears she couldn’t  even see her phone. “I need to find my son, please,”  hysteria mounting in her voice. She managed to find  Ian in her contacts and call. “Where are you? I’m here.” 

“Mom, I’m in the Liberal Arts building. They  won’t let us near the place and they haven’t released  any information. They are making us wait here.” 

“I’ll be right there,” and she shook free from the  policewoman. “I’m going to wait with the others.” “I’ll escort you, ma’am. I am not to let anyone in  this area, and I have to be sure you leave.” Isobel turned and started running, desperate to  see Ian. Isobel knew the campus and headed for the  Liberal Arts building, where she spent most of her time during her undergraduate days. She needed to  see Ian, to wrap her arms around her son and cling  to the hope that Alec was safe. As she entered the  pool of light on the front walkway, there stood Ian,  who, when he spotted her, came running. 

“Mom,  oh Mom,” he nearly shouted, as he threw his arms  around her and clung to her. They held on to each  other, Isobel finally letting the tears come. The drive  had been an exercise in mind diversion and she could  now let it all out. 

When they pulled apart, Isobel still held onto  Ian’s arm. “Where’s Delia and the kids, Ian?” her  voice full of concern for her daughter-in-law and  grandchildren, but before he could respond, Nora,  Ian’s stepmom, joined them. Isobel turned and gave  her a hug. “Thanks for being here, Nora.” 

“Of course,” Nora replied as she handed Isobel  some tissues. Isobel smiled at her in gratitude as she  dried her eyes. 

“Mom, Delia and the kids are waiting for dad’s  flight from Phoenix to get in, and then bringing him  over. They should be here by midnight.” 

“Any word on Alec?” 

“Nothing other than to just wait. We think the  police wanted the FBI to get here before they did or  said anything.” 

Isobel fought back the panic she felt inside of her.  She closed her eyes and blinked back the tears. “He’s  going to be ok,” she said, through shivering teeth. 

“Mom, let’s go inside” Ian put his arm over her  shoulders and guided her into the building. “One of  the officers told me they airlifted someone out right before I got here, but she didn’t know who. Then an  hour ago they sent someone in to say they’ll let us  know soon, and soon hasn’t come yet. I want to punch  something, I’m so frustrated.” 

The three of them entered the building and  huddled together in the hall, avoiding the overly bright  foyer and a few other parents who had been trickling  in because they hadn’t heard from their children. 

“Mom, they said there weren’t many people in  the building when it happened. Dr. Garcia came  through awhile ago and told me most of the staff and  faculty had been at a campus wide meeting. She thinks  the shooter didn’t know or would have attacked the  meeting instead. Alec might have been the only staff  in the building, she said, and the rest would have  been students.” 

Dr. Pilar Garcia had been Isobel’s favorite teacher,  though as dean, and now a vice president, she taught  only one class a semester. Isobel made sure she took  each of her classes. They become friends and stayed  in touch over the years. 

Isobel leaned against the wall, feeling she might  collapse on the floor otherwise. “Are the kids okay?”  she asked Ian. 

“Yeah, they just know they’re coming to see Granny  for a few days, and Papa J and Grammy Nora, so they  are over the moon excited.” 

Isobel smiled and leaned her head on Ian’s shoulder.  Nora disappeared and in a few minutes came back with  coffee for the two of them. “Thank you,” Isobel said,  taking the cup from Nora.

They heard the door to the lobby open, and the  three of them leaned around the corner to see a man in  uniform holding a clipboard coming in the building.  Isobel’s stomach started churning as they waited for  him to speak. Those who had been seated in the foyer  stood up in anticipation and Isobel, Ian and Nora,  crossed the floor to him as well. 

“I know you are all anxious. We’d like to speak to  you individually.” Several other officers entered the  building and flanked the first. “Is the family of Alec  Davis here?” 

“Oh my god, oh my god,” Isobel murmured as she  and Ian clung to each other. She couldn’t catch her  breath for a moment. “Yes,” Isobel was barely able to  say as they stepped forward. She felt nauseous as an  officer walked over and took her elbow, leading all  of them to an open classroom. The officer motioned  for them to sit at a table. He sat across from them,  but avoided their eyes, as he shifted uncomfortably  in his chair. 

“What is your relationship to Mr. Davis?” he  asked. 

“I’m his mother, Isobel Allen. This is his brother  Ian and his stepmom, Nora.” She managed to  choke out. 

“I regret to,” he said, his voice breaking before  he could continue, “I’m so sorry,” he paused, “Mr.  Davis is dead.” 

Isobel screamed, “No, no, no!” before convulsive  sobs began to shake her body, and Ian howled with  the pain as he wrapped his arms around his mother.  Nora stood up as her tears slid down her face, and went behind them, wrapping her arms around them  both. Everything had been normal just hours ago,  and now their whole world had been rocked right  out from under them. Normal didn’t exist anymore.  Isobel had held out hope till the last moment that Alec  was alive. Until the words formed and were spoken  by the officer she believed he had survived, and the  delay in letting her know was because HE was hurt,  and HE had been airlifted to Lubbock, HE was going  to make it, her Alec. 

The officer sat with them while they cried. He took  a pack of tissues from his pocket and slid it across the  table. In a few minutes he left and came back with  bottles of water for each of them. He finally said, “The  perpetrator shot Mr. Davis several times. I think you  might want to know though, Mr. Davis shielded two of  his students. The girl directly behind him is still alive  at this moment, and has been airlifted to Lubbock.”  He then asked if he could do anything else, and Nora  shook her head no. He then left them to their grief.  

Dr. Garcia came in and Isobel stood to allow Pilar to  wrap her arms around her and hug. “Thank you for  being here,” Isobel said between quiet sobs. 

“I’m so sorry, Isobel. So, so sorry.” 

“Thank you,” Isobel whispered. 

“Can I get you anything?” Pilar asked. 

“No. I think I need to go. We will go...” she didn’t  know where, but Nora continued the sentence. “To my house,” and Isobel looked at her gratefully. Pilar walked them out of the building. “I’ll be in  touch. Let me know if there is anything we can do  for you.”

“Thank you, Pilar.” 

The three of them walked into the cool evening  and found their respective vehicles. This had been  the longest day of Isobel’s life and she expected the  longest night was to follow.

My debut novel released on Monday. Reviews are starting to come in and sales are off to a great start. Thanks Jericho Writers. I've learned so much from this forum and website. The Grief of Wisdom is available in the US on all online order platforms and in the UK on Amazon. It's so exciting. 

It is impossible to sign into Jericho Writers website sometimes because of the captcha robot. Ugh. 

Hi to the house! Anyone else writing Women's Contemporary Fiction? 

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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


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


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.

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Jane Hasenmueller
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