Endings Matter

In Harry Bingham’s latest email, he discusses the importance of the ending of a novel.

“I just realised that I write quite often about beginning a novel, and not all that often about ending it.

And yes: beginnings are important. If you don’t get your reader onto the story-train in that opening chapter, you’ve basically lost the game before it’s really started.

Endings matter at least as much as beginnings and the reason I don’t talk about them much is simply that endings mostly write themselves.

I don’t know about your experience, but my endings generally pass in a rush. It’s as though the entirety of the preceding novel is there to allow me to write the final chunk in a blaze of understanding and joy.

The understanding is: I know my characters. I know how all my little plot intricacies need to play out. I know what the grand finale needs to deliver. The prior 90,000 words involved me figuring those things out. The last 20,000 are my reward.

The joy is partly the ease of writing. But it’s also the joy of completing the arc. It’s like writing one long punchline, where you already know that the joke is going to land. I’ve certainly had some spectacularly happy writing sessions that haven’t involved endings. (Giving Fiona hypothermia in the snows of Love Story, with Murders was joyous. And I did enjoy burying her underground in The Dead House.) But mostly – the writing sessions I remember with most pleasure involve endings. Words flowing and the text satisfying.

So maybe you don’t need help with the endings. I think there’s an argument that if the preceding story has worked properly, the ending should just fall into place. But here, for what it’s worth, is a checklist to keep at hand …

Exterior drama

Have you properly completed your exterior drama? In the kind of books I write, that’ll typically involve some good splash of violence – a sinking boat, a fight, a burning building. But that’s not necessary. In Pride and Prejudice, the exterior ‘drama’ involves a naïve girl eloping with Mr Wrong and the Romantic Hero doing (off-screen) what Romantic Heroes are there to do. The off-screen quality of that drama is probably a little underweight for a modern audience, but so long as you have some dramatic action that’s well suited to your genre and readership, you’re fine.

Interior drama

The flipside of the exterior action needs to be some serious internal pressure. In a standalone novel, that pressure needs to have the sense of being pivotal – life-altering, life-defining. In a series novel, you can’t quite get away with a new life-defining moment with every instalment, but the stakes still need to be high. Series characters take a bit of a battering as a result. (I once did an ‘interview’ with Fiona, in which she grumped at me for giving her a rough time. Reading it back, I have to say that she’s in the right. I’ll never tell her that though.)

Romantic relationship

Most books, not all, will involve a romantic relationship. And – of course – the pressures of your grand finale are also pressures that test and define that relationship. You definitely don’t have to kiss and get married at the end of every book. I’ve ended a book with my protagonist ending what had seemed like a strong and constructive relationship. But when your character enters the furnaces of your ending, everything is tested, everything will either prove itself durable or fallible. The relationship can’t simply be as it was before. (Again, series characters need to play those things differently, but ‘differently’ doesn’t mean you can just ignore the issue.)

Other key friendships / relationships

Of course, there are a ton of other relationships that build up over the course of a book. Those might be best-friend type relationships, or children, or parents. They can (importantly) be office colleagues, which sounds dull but they can matter too. My detective’s relationship with her boss and other colleagues is just quite central to the architecture of her life and the books. These relationships too don’t need profound alteration necessarily, but they need some token of ending. A boss hugging your character (when he/she never normally would), or talking about a promotion, or offering a holiday – those things sound trivial, but they can define something important about everyone’s relationship to what has just happened. You don’t necessarily need much here. Half a page? A page? That might be ample. But if you book misses that page, it’ll never quite satisfy as it ought to.

Mystery resolution

Most books – not just crime novels – will often have some kind of mystery at the heart. That mystery will probably be unfolded in your grand action-climax, but that won’t always be true. Modern fiction has (rightly) moved away from that moustache-twirling final chapter where the Great Detective reveals the mystery to a completely static audience. But it’ll often be the case that little questions and niggles remain. Those things need to be addressed. It’s even OK if they’re addressed by saying, “We’ll never know exactly how / why / who X.” But you need to resolve your mysteries or acknowledge that you haven’t.


And, since we’ve just dissed static and moustache-twirling final chapters, I’d add that maintaining some kind of motion still matters at the end. Just as you’ll want to move settings fairly frequently in your middle chapters, I think you’ll want to do the same at the end. Physical motion is still a good way to convey story motion.

The closing shot

And –

There’s a theory in film-structure that the opening shot should show the ‘Before’ state of a character and the closing shot should show the ‘After’ – where the before/after vignettes somehow encapsulate the alteration brought about by the story. So to take the (vastly excellent) Miss Congeniality movie, the opening shot shows Sandra Bullock as goofy, unkempt, and without close female friends. The closing shot shows her kempt, still her, but now with close female friends. That’s the key transition in the movie.

I don’t quite like the mechanical nature of these movie plotting guides, but I do think it’s worth reflecting on the closing shot. What are you wanting to show? What’s the image of your character that you want to leave with your reader? In one of my books, a girl had been long separated from her father. Fiona’s last act in the book is to rejoin the two. She’s not physically present when the two meet – she’s set up the meeting, but remains in a car outside, watching. And that maybe is just the right tone for the book. Fiona plays this almost Christ-like role – suffering for others, undoing wrongs – but nevertheless remains on the outside of ordinary human society. That point isn’t made in any direct way, but it doesn’t have to be. An indirect point lingers longer than one made more crudely.

Novels Left Unpublished

Bryan VanDyke has an essay on The Millions website with the catchy title “To All the Novels I Never Published”. In my case, I’ve abandoned a novel after writing seventy pages, then come back a year and a half later, rewrote much of what I had written, and finally published it. But I’ve never put a completed manuscript in a drawer and left it there indefinitely. I was interested in what Mr VanDyke had to say.

Bryan VanDyke’s essays and fiction have appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, Carve, and Pacific Standard. He is the author of Only the Trying, a book-length essay on the nature of illness and recovery. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.

“I’ve had a manuscript locked in a drawer for three and a half years now. It’s a coming-of-age novel about a boy who believes a supernatural force has seized the minds of the adults in his life. He and his best friend confront and defeat the supernatural force, but victory comes at the cost of their innocence—the classic trade-off. I don’t know if it’s my best work, but it’s my favorite. Perhaps inevitably, I’m terrified of ever trying to sell it to someone.

I’m not new to this writing jig. A few weeks ago, I went deep into my hard drive archives and tallied the numbers. Here’s what I learned: over the last 25 years, I’ve finished seven novels, three dozen short stories, and 55 essays. The number of published pieces is, well, much smaller. This is all to say that I’m well acquainted with the creative process, its thralls and its jiltings. There is work that I’ve rushed to share with the world and work that I’ve held back. The hard part is getting wise to which is which.

In college, I pursued a double concentration in both poetry and fiction. That’s how much I wanted to be a writer. At the end of senior year, I won an award from the English Department for one of my short stories. A handful of students were honored at a small reception, and we received $300 checks from Alfred Appel, a professor and author of four books on Vladimir Nabokov (my first literary god). This check, Professor Appel told us, might be the most money you ever earn for a single piece of creative work. He grinned like he was joking. He wasn’t joking.

After college I was lucky enough—or damn fool enough, depending on your perspective—to jet straight off to an MFA program. To afford tuition, I juggled four jobs: I spent a part of each week as a web developer, a departmental admin, a researcher for a magazine, an LSAT teacher, and a tutor. I did most of my writing after midnight. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.

At one point for a workshop I was paired with Mary Gordon, a thoughtful teacher and tenacious stylist whom I’d heard great things about. You’ll love her, one of my mentors said. Professor Gordon told me in our first private conference: I’m going to be hard on you because I think you’re a good writer. Oh, wow, I said, flattered. I suspect this was a line she delivered to many if not most students. If it was a ploy, it worked: I never thought she was harsh, even when she derided the archaic diction in my stories.

During class one afternoon Professor Gordon said: After I finish a novel, I always put it in a drawer for a year. All of the apprentices in the room sat up a little at this. A year? The disbelief was perceptible, like a shift in the wind. Yes, she insisted, gathering forcefulness as she repeated herself. You must do this with a book. It’s the only way to really figure out if something’s any good. You need space.

Her advice bothered me because it was both wise and inconvenient. Our entire MFA program was oriented around the idea that your thesis would be either a story collections or a novel—either way, you needed a finished manuscript in order to graduate.  With what I was paying in tuition, my pockets weren’t deep enough to wait a whole year to figure out if what I wrote was any good. I barreled onward, advice be damned, and when I finished my thesis, I turned it in. I had no time for locked drawers. 

I spent five years sharing and revising my first novel. I gathered feedback from agents and editors and friends. I incorporated their suggestions. I signed a contract with an agent. But I never managed to sell the book. The material never quite struck the mark. I only understood why after a critique from my mother, the woman who taught me to read, the relentless reader whose reading habits I first emulated. I had hoped to impress her with what I’d made, the product of all that effort, all that education, all that patience. “I don’t know what I just read,” she wrote on the first page of a print-out of the first chapter. 

She did not mean the words in unkindness; she was honestly confused by the novel’s cold open, a poetic description of a cleaning woman as she watches another woman ride a horse down a street. I had long believed that good writing could—would!—connect with anyone. Suddenly, I saw how the problem with my novel was bigger than my novel. I had to accept one of two unacceptable conclusions: either a) my core belief in the universality of good writing was not true; or, b) what I’d labored over for years wasn’t actually good writing. Now that I have the distance of years, I can reread those pages and see, ah, yes. The problem was a little bit of a), and a whole lot of b).

William Faulkner wrote two failed novels (his words) before he famously gave up writing for other people and began to write just for himself. The books he wrote after that volta are the ones that students still read for classes around the world. “Write for yourself” is easy to say, and even easier to understand, but in practice it’s dangerous. If you’re not careful, it leaves you with a hefty tally of novels, stories, and essays, proof that you’re a writer, but confusion about what being a writer has actually done for you. 

A few years later I wrote another novel, one that my wife told me had “perfect bones.” I posted to Facebook about how good I felt about her feedback. Other friends, some I knew well, some I hadn’t seen in years, asked to read the manuscript. Eager to share, I had copies of the text printed and bound and mailed to everyone who had inquired. Then I leaned back and waited to hear what people thought. I got at least one or two wonderful emails. A few short notes. But from half of the people, well, I’m still waiting for word.

Did they not like it? Did they not have time to read it? Did they shut the pages at some point and say quietly to an empty room, I don’t know what I just read? I don’t know. Perhaps there is only one thing I can be sure of: anything you put into the world is something that you must accept uncertainty about. Is it enjoyable? Was it understood? It’s impossible to know. It can no longer be your perfect idea. It isn’t even fully yours anymore.

All this has led me to conclude that any given piece of writing must be categorized: the ones you keep, and the ones you share. In order to truly finish a piece you must be ready to know what you want from it. Is it a book that you need many people to read? Or is it something you can lock in a drawer and smile after fondly, knowing you have done what you’ve done, even if no one else sees it? Some of the things that I write are for others, essays like this one. Some of them are just for me, like that novel in the drawer that I love. 

I have in truth shared the novel I love with a very select group. My teenage daughter read it in a day and said she wanted more—quite a compliment. My dad said the book’s setting made him think fondly of the town where he (and I) grew up. I sent the novel to a fellow writer, and she said it lifted her heart. I haven’t edited or revised the manuscript in ages but if I close my eyes I can still see the scenes. I feel the words. I don’t have a synopsis and I don’t have a plan and I don’t have an expectation that anyone other than a handful people will ever read it—but what if I told you that this feeling, the feeling of a tale that I felt and then captured in words, is the best feeling I’ve ever had as a writer? The one that I love most? The one that I would never trade, even if it meant somebody paid me a bunch of money for this book in the drawer and all the other ones that I wrote and failed to sell, too? 

Nothing feels as good. Not even when someone tells me they’ve read my book and it was great. Not even when an editor writes back to tell me, yes, they’d like to run my essay. Don’t get me wrong or mark me as ungrateful. Those latter moments are great, even necessary at times. But they’re post facto. They’re director’s notes for a part that I’m no longer performing. Like life, art moves on.”

I don’t quite know what to make of this essay. It’s not clear to me why it didn’t get published. It’s his favourite, so why is he afraid of selling it? It’s not as if he would lose possession of it. If Bryan is reading this, yes, I’d like to read it.

Lost Novel Is A Best Seller 83 Years Later

An article dated 17 May 2021, on the BBC News website caught my eye. It had a picture of the author, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, who died in 1942 at the age of 27. He had written the novel 4 years earlier.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz

“Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger is about a Jewish man who – like the author – attempts to escape the rise of the Nazi regime.

It was rediscovered in 2018 after the author’s niece told an editor about it.

The book has had stellar reviews and has now entered The Sunday Times list of top 10 hardback fiction bestsellers.

The UK edition sold almost 1,800 copies last week to put it at number 10 on the list.

It was written in the weeks after Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass, also known as the November Pogrom), the outbreak of mass violence against Jews in Germany and Austria in November 1938.

It tells the story of a Jewish businessman called Otto van Silbermann, who hears a knock at his door from Nazi Storm Troopers and quickly realises he must flee.

He and his wife stuff all their money into a suitcase and end up boarding train after train across Germany as they try to make their escape.

Boschwitz himself had left Germany three years earlier after anti-Semitic laws were enacted.

His book was published in the US and UK in 1939 and 40 respectively, but made little impact and soon went out of print. The author died in 1942 at the age of 27 when a boat he was travelling on was torpedoed by the Germans.

Boschwitz’s niece contacted German editor Peter Graf after reading an interview with him about another novel he had rediscovered.

She told him about her uncle and the book, the original typescript of which was in the archive of the National Library in Frankfurt.

Graf went there and told the BBC that as soon as he read it, he ‘knew that this was an important novel’.

He decided to edit and revise the book and it was published in Germany. It has now been released in 20 other languages so far this year.

He believes the novel, written more than 80 years ago, has a powerful message for modern society.

Graf added that the novel was essentially about ‘the disenfranchisement of a hitherto respected and well-off citizen’. He added: ‘Anyone who reads the fate of Otto Silbermann will understand a lot about human values and how terrorism and the lack of courage of the masses make terror against individual groups possible.'”

The article says this about the author: “Boschwitz was a young business apprentice who left Germany in 1935 and emigrated to Norway with his mother. Later he lived in France and stayed in Belgium and Luxembourg. Both came to England shortly before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.

They were arrested as enemy aliens and Boschwitz was sent to Australia, where he spent two years in an internment camp.

In 1942, Boschwitz was allowed to leave the camp, but the ship taking him back to England was torpedoed by German U-boats.”

I have been watching the BBC4 documentary The US and the Holocaust, which makes the point that in the late 1930’s the US and much of Europe had very little sympathy for the plight of German Jews. In the US, this was attributable, in part, to the terrible state of the economy and the opposition to immigration as it was feared jobs would be lost to immigrants. There was also a view that confronting Germany about its treatment of Jews would stir up trouble. More recently, with a clearer understanding of the Holocaust, and the publication of books like The Diary of Anne Frank, sentiments have shifted dramatically.

In the Sunday Times, David Mills wrote: “There have been a number of great novels about the Second World War that have come to light again in recent times, most notably Suite Française and Alone in Berlin. I’m not sure that The Passenger might not be the greatest of them.”

Australia’s Struggling Authors

The Guardian has an article today by Rafqa Touma ‘Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: How Australia’s Favourite Authors Are Making Ends Meet’.

Ms Touma writes:”According to new research by Macquarie University, the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency, the average annual income from practising as an author is only $18,200 (Australian = £10,000). This has left two-fifths of authors relying on their partner’s income, and two-fifths relying on a day job unrelated to their writing. We spoke to some of Australia’s most celebrated authors who are supplementing their income with day jobs. Here is what they have to say:

Jennifer Down: the Miles Franklin-winning copywriter

Jennifer Down, author of Bodies of Light

Down won the 2022 Miles Franklin for her novel Bodies of Light, which was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s prize, the Stella prize and the Voss prize. She is also the author of Our Magic Hour and Pulse Points.

At a weekend writers’ festival in October, Jennifer Down had work to finish for her day job: a brand launch campaign was coming up. So she sat down at a pub and pulled out her laptop.

“I thought if I have to work on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll do it with a pint,” she says. She looked so focused that a group at the table across from her made a passing joke: “Have you finished your novel yet?”

Little did they know Down had in fact finished her novel, which had just won the country’s most important literary prize. “The irony is that it is a Sunday afternoon, and I’m doing my money job while at a festival for my non-money job.”

Down was named the Sydney Morning Herald’s young novelist of the year consecutively in 2017 and 2018. At the time, she was working as an in-house copywriter for an Australian skincare company, being paid less than $50,000. “I was living in a five-person share house, and I could barely pay my bills.”

“It is surreal,” she says. “Outside of work, my writing is really respected. I had this modest critical acclaim coming in. Then at work, I’m having social media copy corrected by a person who doesn’t understand what subordinate clauses are and hasn’t read a book in 10 years.”

Down currently works as a copywriter full-time. She sets her alarm for 4am to write for herself; the alternative is foregoing social engagement.

“I don’t know if it has paid off. It is gratifying to have won prizes, but I feel like it can be incredibly isolating at times.”

It also means she’s effectively working seven days a week. “I don’t really remember the last time I have had two consecutive days off,” she says. “It is paid for in the sense I have been able to produce work, but it is not without a cost.”

Holden Sheppard: the manual labourer with a TV deal

Holden Sheppard’s debut novel Invisible Boys won the 2019 WA Premier’s prize for an emerging writer, the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell award, the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford award and the 2017 Ray Koppe residency award. He is also the author of The Brink.

Holden Sheppard is well loved among high school readers, with a TV adaptation of his multi-award-winning novel Invisible Boys currently in production. He is now writing his third book under contract; to fund it, he is working as a manual labourer in a timber yard.

“Authors are sole traders,” he says. “The part that doesn’t get seen is that there is a huge amount of admin.”

The Australia Council report found writers spend only half their writing time actually producing original writing. With invoicing, emailing, social media managing, talks at schools, event appearances and podcasting to fit between his work at the timber yard, Sheppard says he is left to write whenever it fits.

The annual income of children’s book authors sits at $26,800 – higher than the $18,200 average. Sheppard acknowledges his books have sold well, “but as much as it might appear successful, it is still not enough to live off”.

He deliberately looks for casual jobs instead of permanent part-time ones, for the sake of flexibility. “If there is a media interview opportunity, or an event I really want to do on a day of work, it is hard to get it off,” he says. “You jeopardise your day job and your income.” This precarious work he chooses rarely comes with entitlements such as annual leave and sick leave.

In 2015, Sheppard received an Australian Council Art Start grant for $10,000, but the program was scrapped after his round. “I feel that is needed again.” He also advocates for digital lending rights, which don’t exist in Australia.

“Each revenue stream helps us. When people take a book out of an e-library, we don’t see that revenue.”

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: the award-winning novelist who wrote behind the counter

Michael Mohammed Ahmed won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelists award for his debut novel The Tribe. His second novel The Lebs won the 2019 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin. He also founded the Sweatshop literacy movement.

“I am a multi-award winning author, and I have a doctorate in literature. I am about as educated as you can get. I have sold tens of thousands of books. Still, I don’t have the job security of a manager at McDonald’s.”

While writing three acclaimed novels – The Tribe (2014), The Lebs (2018) and The Other Half of You (2021) – and setting up the western Sydney-based literacy agency Sweatshop, Michael Mohammad Ahmad worked at his father’s army disposal shop.

“When customers weren’t there, I’d be writing my novels behind the counter,” he says. “I only stopped working there about two or three years ago.”

He’s proud he was able to support his family this way, he says. “But it is insane that I had to do that. The industry isn’t set up to support people.”

Mohammad Ahmad still works seven days a week, with weekends spent writing. “I feel fortunate that in my case it is a job I am passionate about,” he says. “Writers didn’t enter the industry for money.

“It is an activity we’ve been participating in since humans could begin to think. It is fostering the next generation of thinking. It is something we find valuable outside of the capitalist construct of wealth. Even though writers aren’t making ends meet, they are still going to do it.

Anna Spargo-Ryan: the acclaimed author doing everything all at once

Anna Spargo-Ryan won the inaugural Horne prize in 2016 for her essay The Suicide Gene. She was longlisted for ABIA’s Matt Richell award in 2017 for her novel The Gulf. She is also the author of novel The Paper House and 2022 memoir A Kind of Magic.

According to the research, more than one-fifth of authors have a day job that’s related to being a writer – but that doesn’t make it easier for them to write a book.

Since 2013, Anna Spargo-Ryan has been balancing a full-time freelance mix of jobs, from ghostwriting and advertising copywriting to writing podcasts, websites, brand guidelines and feature articles.

“I do a lot of writing,” she says. “But all of it is for other people. A very small proportion of it is for my own writing work.”

Spargo-Ryan once held a romanticised idea of working as a writer. “But over the past 10 years … I have realised that the only way to get writing done is to fit it in.”

This year she published her first nonfiction book, A Kind of Magic. Although she spent the last three years writing it, she “barely remembers” the process. “I had a deadline, I had a contract, so I had to write it, but I didn’t have the leisure of having lots of time to get that done,” she says.

“So I wrote it in all kinds of small gaps. Waiting for the kids at school, before meetings, during meetings, editing on the treadmill. Whenever I could get bits of time … which I don’t really recommend as a writing process.”

Spargo-Ryan recommends writers learn to diversify their craft. “You might get an advance that is like a tenth of your annual salary, and that would be quite a good advance,” she says. “Then you are going to earn like three cents a word, for 100,000 words. In itself it isn’t sustainable.

“No one has a patron who pays for you to do your creative work. Part of being a writer is the hustle, trying new things, and diversifying the work you are doing.”

Omar Sakr: the PM’s literary award-winner looking for a day job

Omar Sakr won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary award for poetry for his collection The Lost Arabs. It was also shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary award, the John Bray Poetry award, the Judith Wright Calanthe award and the Colin Roderick award. He is also the author of These Wild Houses and Son of Sin.

“[It was] easy enough to do at first because I was couch-surfing and didn’t have much in the way of expenses,” he says. “But it has become increasingly difficult as I settled down and started a family.”

Grants and prizes gave him time to write his debut novel Son of Sin, but publishing involves a “relentless grind” of writing and touring, which has been “impossible” to sustain since his wife gave birth to their son this year.

The report finds more than half of authors find searching for income elsewhere to be a competing demand on their writing time.

“Now I find myself in a very precarious financial position, and actively trying to find a day job,” Sakr says. “Full-time freelancing relies too much on uncertain outcomes and requires too much of me, on top of being a dad. I already knew that our society doesn’t support artists enough, but it’s brutal to realise we also don’t support parents in a meaningful way either.”

Finding a Publisher

In last Friday’s email, Harry Bingham, the founder of Jericho Writers, gives a brief up-and-down personal history of his interactions with agents and publishers. It demonstrates that being a successful writer has a large element of good (and bad) luck.

Harry said,”I sent my first manuscript out to half a dozen agents. They said no or didn’t respond. I sent it out to six more, three of whom said yes. One of the yessers was clearly as barmy as a fruitbat, so I politely declined. (I’m pretty sure he hadn’t actually read my book which, in an agent, you know, is a bit of a fail.). One of the other yessers was the CEO of a really first-class, large and prestigious agency. The other was one half of a two-woman shop, with a good reputation, but nothing like the other for prestige. I chose the latter. I didn’t regret it. I don’t regret it. But was I right? Would my career have had more oomph with the power of ____ behind me? I don’t know. I do sometimes wonder.

First publisher

That book sold easily in a multi-publisher auction and for good money. Two publishers offered the same dosh. But one publisher offered me the money while sitting in a slightly cramped and windowless room. The other pitched to me while sitting in a boardroom and plying me with vast lumps of Stilton, a notably smelly English cheese. I don’t know what sales manual recommended the cheese tactic, but it worked. But the other publisher? I ended up with that editor later in my career and he was a good guy. Did I make the right choice or the wrong choice? I dunno.

Second book

My second book was a stinker. Or at least: the first draft was a stinker. The second draft was adequate. But what if I’d written an actual good book? Or did it not work like that?

Second book cover

That adequate second book went out into the world with a terrible cover. I said to the publisher, “This cover is terrible.” They said, “oh no it’s not,” I said. “Oh yes it is,” – and this game went on until it turned out it was too late to change the cover anyway. We shipped 70,000 copies of that book to bookshops. 35,000 came back again. What if those 70,000 books had gone out nicely dressed instead? Would that book too have been a bestseller? And if so, then what after?

Non-fiction cover

Years later I wrote a history book which I sold for a lot of money. I had a brilliant editor (she’s still editing; still brilliantly) but we never quite nailed the cover. The cover we ended up with was charming but rather polite. And we were selling right into the heart of the Christmas market. A somewhat similar book with a much more shouty cover trounced mine in the sales stakes although (my biased opinion) I think my book had more about it. What if that cover designer had just gone for it. Big, bold, brassy, loud, Christmassy? Dunno.

Crime publisher

Years later again, I had to choose between two major publishers for my crime series. One was arguably the country’s then-premier crime house. The other was (not arguably, just factually) one of the world’s most reputed literary publishers which now and again cares to dabble in upmarket crime. I took the money and the big house. Said no to the reputed literary one. But was that right? For me? It was sort of the opposite of my first decision in relation to agents: then I went to a small outfit, because I thought I’d matter more to it. Here I took the exact reverse course. I’ve often wondered if that was the right decision. I’m thinking maybe no.


But what do we make of these thoughts? At each of those decision points, we might say that somewhere in the multiverse, a different me (or designer or publisher) made different decisions and the world went spinning off in a whole different direction – quite possibly a violently different one. How different? Well, let me give you an example.

My first crime novel, when it was published in the US (by a very very good editor at a very very good crime house) got starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. It was a Book of the Year in a few major US newspapers. Good, right?

But that same book sold a total of 800 copies in paperback. How come? Because the way it was published just somehow managed to miss the market completely. Whoops-a-daisy.

It must be the case that a very well-reviewed book could have sold a ton more copies than that. And, as it happens, I know that there are plenty of American readers who enjoy kooky Welsh crime novels, because loads of those readers were happy enough to buy the book when I self-published it.

So: somewhere in the multiverse, I’m a feted literary-ish crime author with huge American sales and a TV adaptation or two.

In this particular corner of the multiverse, though, I’m definitely not.

And the purpose of all this meandering? Just this:




Things can go wrong for reasons far beyond your control. All you can do is write as well as you can, publish as well as you can, and hope. In the end, the truest sense of whether your book is any good is your own inner truth-teller. Also: the more you can cherish and build that inner instinct, the better you will write and edit your work.”

Outlining a Novel

A question I always wrestle with when I start a new novel is should I do an outline? There is an article on the Novelry website by Tess Gerritson, dated June 19, 2022 which deals with this question.

Before she started writing fiction in 1987, Tess Gerritson graduated from Stanford and headed to medical school at the University of California. In 1987, her first novel was published, Call After Midnight, a romantic thriller, followed by eight more romantic suspense novels before she turned her hand to medical thrillers with Harvest in 1996 marking her debut on the New York Times bestseller list.

Tess Gerritson

Ms Gerritson says, “The idea of outlining a novel is one that may strike dread, panic or even tedium in a writer’s heart. Are we really expected to have our entire novel outlined before we put pen to paper?

Years ago, I learned that a certain Very Successful (and Famous) Author would say so. Seemingly, he doesn’t start writing his novels until he has completed a detailed 50+ page outline. He knows in advance every twist and turn of his plot and every crisis, large and small, that his characters will face.

What a brilliant strategy, I thought. It seemed far better than the disorganized way I was writing my novels, with no clue where my story was going.

You don’t build a house unless you have a blueprint, right? What I clearly needed was a blueprint. Instead, I’d been the crazy builder who shows up with wood and nails and just starts hammering away. I’d build a room, decide I didn’t like the looks of it, and start building another room facing a different direction.

I was going to do it the logical way. I was going to become a Planner. So I set about outlining my novel.

In the end, my version differed from the 50-page highly detailed battle plan that the Very Successful Author writes. I wrote only eleven single-spaced pages with scene-by-scene descriptions of my story.

My outline had a really detailed beginning and middle, and just a semblance of an end; by the time I’d written those eleven pages, I wanted to plunge in and just start writing (which is the curse we plungers must deal with. We’re impatient people and we want to just get on with it).

With the outline of my novel in hand, I was ready to write. This time, I wouldn’t suffer my usual sleepless nights agonizing over the plot and my characters’ motivations. This time, the writing would be a breeze. This time, I knew exactly what was going to happen.

And it worked. For about three chapters.

Then the story took off in a different direction. I don’t remember if I was just bored because I already knew what was going to happen, or if some new plot twist popped up unexpectedly on the page. In any case, suddenly the characters weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. It’s as if they stopped and glared at me and said, ‘You really expect us to follow this stupid outline?’

The more I wrote, the more the story deviated from the plan I’d created while outlining my novel. Once I started down that different highway, my original route fell further and further behind me until it was just a distant puff of dust. I was writing an entirely different book, and I was doing it in my usual disorganised way, with sleepless nights and plot agonies.

I’d reverted to my bad habits. I was a failed planner.

But you know what? That book turned out just fine.

  • I still write my first drafts with pen and paper. The paper must be unlined blank typing paper, because seeing lines on the page inhibits my creativity. I’ve tried typing my first drafts on the computer, but seeing words on the screen turns on the editor in my brain. It makes me stop to edit and re-edit the chapter, and keeps me from getting on with the rest of the story.
  • Only after I’ve handwritten the entire first draft do I type the words into my computer. I have to type it myself, because no one else can read my handwriting.
  • I never stop to re-write when I’m on my first draft because it stops my forward motion in the story. This means my first drafts have lots of mid-plot corrections, as well as characters whose motives, names and even genders may change by the end. When those changes happen on the fly, I just slap a sticky note to the page reminding myself to fix this detail later, and I keep writing.

When I hit a plot wall and don’t know what happens next, I take a break from the book. Because of my chaotic method of plotting – in other words, decidedly not outlining the novel – this invariably happens, so it no longer freaks me out.

In fact, it turned out a lot more exciting than the story I’d originally outlined. It had twists I never expected and character revelations that occurred to me only as I was writing the scene.

Yes, I struggled as usual to make all the moving parts work together. Yes, I had to rewrite that manuscript seven times (as I always do) and I threw out about a hundred pages that didn’t fit into the final plot, but that’s the way I’d always done it. It’s the way I now believe I’m meant to do it.

Every writer has his or her own quirks. Maybe you can’t start your workday without drinking three cups of coffee, or lighting a scented candle, or turning on the theme music to Braveheart. I heard about a writer who would put on a chef’s hat when her children were young, as a signal that they were not to bother Mommy while she was working. Years later, after her kids were grown and out of the house, she still puts on that now-tattered chef’s hat to write because it’s become part of her process, and she can’t write without it.

I too have quirks I can’t shake:

I know that somehow, I’ll be able to figure my way out of the mess. I have a few strategies to deal with it: long walks, staring at the ceiling, maybe a long drive or mindless travel. It may take a few weeks of not writing, but I always manage to figure out what happens next, and why.

Is this an efficient way to write a book? Absolutely not. It’s stressful, it’s unpredictable, and it means I often take longer to finish a manuscript. But it’s the only way I know to do it. After writing thirty books, I’m too entrenched in my process to change it.

That’s the message I hope you’ll all take to heart: There’s no wrong way to write a book. Outlining a novel isn’t the key to its success – or the guarantee of its failure.

If your process works for you, no matter how crazy it may seem, just accept it. Embrace it.

And keep writing.”

I certainly agree with Ms Gerritson. I could never write a fifty page outline. Instead, I’ll write a description of the major characters which is reasonably detailed, and there will be a description of the setting and the initial situation. Then, I, too, will plunge in, letting the characters carry the story forward, adding new characters, and inventing new plot twists. I’ll have a general idea of the theme of the book, but the books never turn out as I might have expected. Once I’ve cleaned up the messy parts, the book is better than I had visualised.

Audio Books : Pro & Con

As a followup on last week’s post about reading, Boris Starling makes the observation, “You may have heard the book, but you haven’t really read it” in the 18 October Daily Telegraph.

Boris Starling

His publisher, Harper Collins, says this about Mr Starling: “Boris Starling has worked as a reporter on the ‘Sun’ and the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and most recently for Control Risk, a company which specialises in kidnap negotiation, confidential investigations and political risk analysis. He was one of the youngest ever contestents on ‘Mastermind’ in 1996 and went on to the semi-finals with his subjects: the novels of Dick Francis and the Tintin books. Boris studied at Cambridge and currently lives in London. ‘Messiah’ was his first novel and this was followed by the publication of ‘Storm’. The ambitious Russian gangster novel ‘Vodka’ followed this and his latest novel ‘Visibility’ is an espionage thriller set amidst the Great Fog of London in 1952. ‘Messiah’ was televised by the BBC starring Ken Stott and has since become a hugely successful detective franchise.”

In the Telegraph article, Boris says (in part), “First it was music: then it was podcasts. Now Spotify, the most popular streaming service in the world, is offering audiobooks. For now they are only available in the United States and their cost is not included in Spotify’s existing membership packages. Given the pace of change in the sector, neither should remain the case for long.

Audiobooks have been a going concern since the mid-1980s, but technological advances in the smartphone era have brought accessibility and convenience. No more lugging around umpteen cassette cases or CD boxes. The global market is estimated to be worth around £3.5 billion and rising fast. Competition is fierce: Google Play, Apple, Audible and Kobo are already players in the market. 

There’s no doubt audiobooks can boast several advantages over traditional books. You can listen to them while doing other activities: driving, gardening, housework, walking the dog or exercising, for example. They can afford a communal experience, with couples or families all able to listen to the same thing at once. And a good narrator –Steven Fry, Michelle Obama, Rosamund Pike, Andrew Scott and Meryl Streep have all turned their hand to audiobooks – can make words and story come alive in ways that a reader alone with their own internal voice may not be able to.

But the big question is, are audiobooks as good for you as traditional reading? Consistent reading improves your vocabulary, grammar, reasoning, concentration, critical thinking and ability to communicate. These in turn will help promote empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. How much of this gets lost in the switch from page to app and in what Deloitte, the global consulting firm, describes as “a war between those who want to use their eyes versus those who prefer their ears”?

Some things certainly do. There are few pleasures – at least those suitable for listing in a family newspaper – to compare with losing oneself in a good book. But it does require concentration and absorption to the exclusion of all else. Reading is active in ways which listening is not: you have to keep reading to progress with a book, whereas an audiobook will keep playing until you stop it. Reading is something you do: listening is something that happens to you.

“As you’re reading a narrative, the sequence of events is important and knowing where you are in a book helps you build that arc of narrative,” says Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. These physical anchors, absent in audiobooks, seem to aid memory and comprehension, as do the physiological aspects of reading.

“About 10 to 15 per cent of eye movements during reading are actually regressive, going back and re-checking,” Willingham adds. “This happens very quickly and it’s sort of seamlessly stitched into the process of reading a sentence.” Rewinding an audio file even a few seconds is more disruptive. In the case of most books this may not be a problem, but complex and/or technical books are almost certainly better read than listened to – you can’t underline or highlight passages and text boxes or bolded words to emphasise importance are much harder to get across in audio.

The majority of people – around 65 per cent – are predominantly visual learners, best absorbing information through reading. Thirty per cent are auditory learners and the remaining five per cent kinaesthetic ones who learn by doing rather than seeing or hearing.

Reading is more time-efficient than listening: the average adult reads around 250 to 300 words per minute, whereas the recommended talking speed for high comprehension is 150 to 160 words per minute.

Dr Matt Davis, programme leader at the University of Cambridge Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, says that “reading and listening involve different senses”. Davis explains that each of these connects to a different part of the brain: things that you see are processed in the visual cortex at the back of the brain, whereas things that you hear are processed by the auditory cortex which sits on the side of the brain, above the ears.

But when it comes to the ways in which the brain processes information, there is much less distinction between reading and listening than many might think. “We see that many of the same parts of the brain are involved, regardless of where the information comes from,” Davis continues. “The same brain systems seem to be involved in accessing the meaning of written and spoken words.” 

And though we rightly value reading as an intellectual skill, stories have of course been aural for longer than they have been visual, both collectively and individually. Before widespread social literacy, storytellers would recount tales to crowds large and small: before we learn to read as children, our parents and carers read us stories. Spoken storytelling has been around for tens of thousands of years: widespread literacy dates back only a few hundred years, to Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press in 1440. 

In some cases, audiobooks can be better than traditional ones, especially for those who suffer from dyslexia or other reading difficulties. “Anyone who finds reading difficult might retain more from listening to an audiobook,” says Davis. “The additional effort involved in reading the words uses mental resources that they would otherwise need for comprehension and memory.”

So audiobooks are here to stay and that is no bad thing. The level of what you’re consuming is more important than the medium through which you consume it. But no matter how useful or prevalent audiobooks become, it should and must never be at the expense of literacy itself. “Learning to read is the single most important thing children do at school,” says Davis. “Too many children never get to fully experience the joy of reading. To be able to be absorbed in a book is a wonderful skill.”

Review: Victory at Sea

When I saw the press release of this book by Yale historian Paul Kennedy, I knew, as an ex-US Navy officer, that I had to get a copy. It makes for fascinating reading, particularly in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Paul Kennedy the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, a New York Times bestseller. He has also written Grand Strategies in War and Peace, and Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. He s J Richardson Dilworth Professor of History and Director of International Security Studies at Yale University.

Bismark under Attack 1941

This history book includes a remarkable series of fifty-five paintings of warships by Ian Marshall who was a fellow and past president of the American Society of Marine Artists. The paintings are a valuable addition, bringing the text alive.

Written in five parts and three appendices, it begins with stage-setting background of the development of the six navies involved in WW II: USA, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. There is also a discussion of sea power in the sweep of history, and an overview of geographic and economic considerations. Kennedy argues, persuasively, that geography and economics favoured the United States, while both factors worked against the Axis alliance.

The next four parts cover the periods 1939-42 (the early years, which favoured the Axis); 1943 (the critical year); 1944-45 (triumph of the Allies); and Aftermath and Reflections. In these sections, Kennedy does not describe the sea battles in detail. Rather, he describes the situation, the strategies, the combatants, and the results materially and psychologically. Even without the real time detail, one has a feeling for what the battle was like.

The principle point which Kennedy is making in this book is that one the US decided to enter the war, the conclusion was inevitable principally because of the economic potential of the country. It had access to all the natural resources it needed; at the end of a major recession, the human resources were available; and the financial resources were made available by wealthy, patriotic individuals. Geography also favoured the US in the sense that none of the conflict came within its borders.

In the appendices, there are examples of American production of weapons. In 1945, the US had a cumulative total of eleven an a a half million tons of warships, and increase of nine million tons since 1941. In 1945, the US had considerably more warships than the rest of the world, combined. Similar gains were achieved in aircraft and tank production. Kennedy argues that this increase in productivity resulted in the US becoming the world leader with about 50% of the world’s GDP.

This book makes clear that, given the right resources and motivation, major changes in the world order are possible in a short time period. And it leaves me with a question: If NATO really wants to defeat Russia in Ukraine, if it gathers the necessary military hardware and if the West keeps its sanctions in place, will Russia become anything other than a weak, failed state?

Opening Paragraphs

Those of us who write have had it explained to us – not to say ‘driven into our heads’, that the first paragraph of our novels must contain a ‘hook’ for the reader, must be concise, interesting and well-written. If that’s the case, what do you think of this opening paragraph:

The triple-pane floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollister’s study frame the rising plain to the west, the foothills and the distant Rocky Mountains that were long ago born from the earth in cataclysm, now dark and majestic against a sullen sky. It is a view to match the man who stands at this wall of glass. The word cataclysm is a synonym for disaster or upheaval but also for revolution, and he is the leader of the greatest revolution in history. The greatest and the last. The end of history is near, after which his vision of a pacified world will endure forever.

The question was posed by Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers in his Friday email a couple of months ago. Before I tell you who is the author of this paragraph, let me give you Harry’s take on the paragraph.

Harry says: “I hope you agree that the sentence is bad. If the sentence just ran like this:

The triple-pane floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollister’s study frame the rising plain to the west.

– you could just about digest it. Even in that much abbreviated form (14 words versus 39) you’re being asked to compose these elements:

The windows are triple-paned

  • They run floor-to ceiling.
  • They are in the study belonging to someone called Hollister.
  • A rising plain is visible through the windows.
  • The plain runs west from the windows.

The full version of the sentence, however, adds in these additional elements:

  • There are foothills.
  • And the Rocky Mountains.
  • The Rocky Mountains were born long ago, and in cataclysm.
  • These mountains are now looking dark and majestic.
  • The sky is sullen.

This is quite clearly an awful lot of ingredients, particularly in an opening sentence. Worse still, the sentence shifts focus. The first part of it is clearly talking about windows. The last part is talking about mountains. What are we meant to be focusing on? It’s just not clear. (Or, as it happens, even correct. The Rocky Mountains weren’t born in cataclysm. They formed when two tectonic plates ran gently together, thereby pushing the earth upwards. That process ran for about 30 million years and is extremely slow, not even one millimetre a year.)

Oh yes, and if we were being mean, I think we’d suggest that the adjectives (dark, majestic, sullen) are all rather shopworn in their obviousness.

OK. So we don’t like the first sentence. The second sentence feels a bit better:

It is a view to match the man who stands at this wall of glass.

The feeling engendered in a competent reader is likely to be one of extreme awkwardness – like you’re talking to a boring man in a pub, and he leans in too close, and his breath smells of beer and bacon-flavour crisps, and he tells you something which you know to be untrue of the mountains outside, and you notice that his toupee has slipped. You want to get away, but there’s something desperately adhesive about the whole situation.

Clarity (and an exit from the pub-situation) comes with the remainder of the paragraph. This chap at the window is a revolutionary. He has Dr Evil style plans for the planet. Paragraph two talks about his need to kill someone. Paragraph three discusses his intention to make the kill himself.

Overall? Your impression?

I think you’re going to agree with me that the writing is awkward. Needs improvement before it goes to a literary agent.

The trouble is, we’ve just discussed the opening paragraphs of a Dean Koontz novel, The Night Window, and guy has sold 450 million or more novels worldwide. So he’s doing something right.”

Dean Koontz

“I most certainly know that I could never bring myself to write those sentences. Yet perhaps their badness is part of what attracts Koontz’s readers. Here are some possibilities:

1. The first sentence is overfilled with information, but perhaps that presents Koontz as a fount of knowledge – establishes him as some kind of authority.

2. For that reason it doesn’t matter that his geology is dubious or that his vocabulary-facts are roughly ninth grade.

3. His readers are probably interested more in grand external story (the biggest revolution in history) than in fine interior details. The fact-first presentation style somehow authorises those preferences. The subsequent material about Hollister’s plans to kill people confirm that we’re in graphic novel/James Bond territory, not anything more refined.”

Finally, Harry makes the point that it’s important, as a writer, to be true to yourself. “Dean Koontz has been true to himself and to his half-dozen pseudonyms.”

Review: Great Circle

I have to admit that sometimes I find that the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize disappointing, But, this time – 2021 – I found one that’s delightful. Great Circle is the third novel from Maggie Shipstead, whose two previous novels were very well received. Ms Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stamford. Judging by her website, she is very well travelled, having completed numerous assignments for Conde Naste Travel. This doubtless came in handy, as the locations in Great Circle include Hollywood, New York, the North Atlantic, Hawaii, Alaska, South Africa, New Zealand, Sweden, Missoula Montana, Seattle, Antarctica, and various locations in England.

Interestingly, the book does not appear to be based on a real-life event. I cannot find any record of ‘the first polar great circle flight – by man or woman. In fact Ms Shipstead says that the original inspiration for the novel was seeing a statue of Jean Batten in Auckland, New Zealand. Batten was the first woman to fly solo from England to New Zealand. Ms Shipstead appears to have selected the DC3 as being the first affordable, non-military aircraft which. with the technology available in 1950, could have been able to make the flight.

Maggie Shipstead

There are two protagonists in this story: Marian Graves, a driven, thrill-seeking woman who is in love with flying, and Hadley Baxter, a successful but selfish and amoral Hollywood star. Marian and her twin brother are rescued from a sinking passenger liner in the North Atlantic by their father, a widower, who is sent to prison for abandoning his ship. The twins are raised in Missoula, Montana by a neglectful, ne’er, do well uncle during the Great Depression. Marian becomes enchanted by barnstorming pilots and at the age of fourteen learns to fly. She becomes a bush pilot, flying alcohol from Canada to the States during Prohibition. Her financial sponsor becomes her domineering husband, but she breaks free, and travels to England where she joins a group of female pilots who ferry war planes from place to place. She then decides to pioneer a polar great circle route in an airplane. The records seemed to indicate that her aircraft, the Peregrine, went down somewhere between Antarctica and New Zealand.

Hadley Baxter, who had had a long run in a popular romantic series, is persuaded to play Marian in a forthcoming film about her life. She becomes fascinated by Marian’s story, and begins to investigate it. This leads to her finding out what actually happened to Marian.

This story is like a jigsaw puzzle whose many colourful pieces finally fit neatly into place. There are numerous supporting characters, all of whom are unique, well drawn and who build our interest in the story and help define the protagonists. Clearly, the author has done her research. The many details of aircraft, flying, film-making, painting, and the numerous out-of-the-way places are clear and credible. Underlying the fabric of the story is the image of a circle – completed or broken – as it can be applied to human life.

The only problem I have with the book is the character of Hadley Baxter, who seems too superficial and self-absorbed to play Marian Graves. In a way, Hadley’s character takes some of the shine off of Marian. Perhaps someone more serious, naive and curious would have been better.

You won’t be able to put it down!