SPS-170: BookLab #5 – with Michael Parker
Thriller author Michael Parker submits his title The Boy From Berlin to the BookLab experts for input on his writing, cover design and book description.
This week’s highlights include:
- Tips from Bryan Cohen about a book blurb’s POV
- And building to a crescendo in your book blurb
- The importance of conveying genre with the blurb and the book’s cover
- On the merit of having a cliffhanger in a book description
- The difference between amateur and professional use of typeface on a book cover
- Reminders about symbols Amazon does not allow on book covers
- The importance of logic in a storyline
- Why point of view matters so much in story
- Avoiding filler words that weaken a narrative
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
BOOKLAB NOTES: Click here to see the before and after on Michael’s book and also the handout from Jennie
Transcript of Interviews
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self Publishing Show.
Speaker 2: One of your comments was, “Michael has gone cheap.” And I thought, “Yeah, you’ve nailed it James. You nailed it. Yeah. That cover cost me 50 quid”.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie best seller, Mark Dawson and first time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self publishing success. This is The Self Publishing Show. There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome. Yes, it’s The Self Publishing Show with me James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson. Hello.
James Blatch: Very welcome back. The keen-eyed among you will notice we’re all wearing the same clothes as last week. So, within these two on Good Friday here in the UK, and that’s because this episode is one of the more complicated episodes that we do.
It’s the Book Lab, which is a fantastic idea I had some time ago to take a book from an author and give it to a panel of experts for them to feedback on basically the presentation side of it. So, what you see on Amazon, but that includes the look inside. So, it does include some critique on the way it’s written.
We do the cover, the way it’s written from an editor, and the blurb. All very important to get it right, and that is fed back to the author.
The last part of today’s episode is the reaction of the author. Now in this case, his name is Michael Parker. He is here in the UK. I think he is in Kent from that of my Southeast England and he has written a book called, The Boy from Berlin. You can find it on Amazon, ‘The Boy from Berlin’ by Michael Parker. You’ll read the blurb there.
If you’re contemporaneous i.e., this is sort of, where are we, April, May, 2019, you will see hopefully the old blurb. But it’s important for you if you want to understand how people write, and where the critique came from, to see the before and after which case you need to go to this URL, selfpublishingshow.com/booklab5, and you can then download the before and after of everything. So, you’ll see the blurb as it was before, the blurb afterwards.
And, included in that, is a really brilliant handout from Jennie Nash, the editorial side of it, who’s picked up a fundamental problem with the writing that Michael Parker had in the first scene that appears and looked inside, and she has identified that, and produce the pdf.
It’s something that a lot of us may get wrong. So, very useful.
Now Mark, I’ve recorded all these interviews. You haven’t had a chance to see them yet so far. So, it’s a bit of a journey of discovery for you at the moment.
Tell me first of all why you chose Michael’s book.
Mark Dawson: I’ve been aware of Michael’s for a little while in the community, and I know he’s got some good experience as a writer, and writes books that aren’t a million miles away from what I do. So, I thought rather selfishly perhaps it will be interesting to look at someone in my kind of wheelhouse just to see what our panel of esteemed experts came back with, just in case in the very unlikely event I’m making any mistakes, I could because of the tips as well.
James Blatch: We’re going to crack straight on with is.
First of all, we’re going to start with the blurb. As I said, you can see the before and after if you go to that URL I gave out a few moments ago. And, Bryan Cohen is our blurb expert who has picked this one up, rewritten it, and frankly done in this case, and amazing job. Here’s Bryan.
James Blatch: Okay Bryan, welcome back to the Self Publishing Show and welcome back to the book laboratory.
Bryan Cohen: I love being in this laboratory. I appreciate that you keep inviting me, and thank you for having me.
James Blatch: I would like to get to a stage where we scrub up properly, and we put on our scrubs, go into the laboratory. It’s a sanitized area … you look ready for it.
Bryan Cohen: All I know about sanitization I learned from Grey’s Anatomy.
James Blatch: I think that’s what you do now as a junior doctor. You watch a couple of seasons and they let you go. Okay, good. Now, we’ve got a really good interesting book we want to talk about today. The Boy from Berlin by Michael Parker.
I’m going to go straight into this. I’m going to read out the before, and then we going to start to go through the after with you, if that’s okay. So, here is the before, this is the blurb that Michael had up on his Amazon page.
What secret, spawned in Hitler’s bunker, can stop Gus Mason’s bid for US presidency? Secrets lurk around every corner as Gus Mason strides towards the US presidency. And, from the Nazi death camps to the steps of the White House, Gunther Harmon and Jacob Demsky, heir to the Jewish mafia empire, unravel a mystery that threatens the very fabric of the American way of life. However, as Newark police officer, Lieutenant Amos investigates the supposed suicide of a local senator, his investigations lead him deep into the corrupt world that inhabits the underbelly of American politics and closer to the truth.
Okay, so that’s what Michael had there. And, I think we can all agree there’s some intriguing plot and story and conceits there. Who wouldn’t want to know more?
But at a glance, I would say there are a few technical problems with the way that blurb is put together. A bit of repetition of words, probably doesn’t make the most of the suspense. And, I thought you would have fun with this one.
I’ve got to tell you right away, let me read out the first line of the Bryan Cohen treated blurb. Here it is.
He’s a black cop with a big problem. His racist murder suspect is the front runner for president.
Holy cow, Bryan. I know this is not my special area, although I’m learning from you. But I knew in that blurb from Michael, was a gripping, compelling story ready to be precied.
That top line is the best top line you’ve produced in the Book Lab so far. It’s a killer top line. Fantastic sir.
Bryan Cohen: And, I have to give credit where credit is due, ’cause as you know, I work as part of the team, and we kept tweaking this one. We had the idea for it to really interplay it, and it’s tough. You don’t know always how much to call attention to a character’s race, but in this case, because you have the interplay of a black cop, and a white supremacist, it’s too juicy not to tackle.
We were a couple words away and then I believe it was my head writer Abigail Dennard, who really found the exact key to turn on this one, just to end with the strongest word. And it is, I’m very happy with it. I’m happy we’re able to share it here on the show.
James Blatch: Yeah. Honestly, I think ‘he’s a black cop with a big problem’. Could by itself be a tagline at the bottom of our film poster and people would be, people would be slapping each other on the back for coming up with that. It’s, great.
And, you’re right, it’s a sensitive area, but in American politics, this stuff’s never very far away from the surface, is it? And, we won’t go into sort of contemporaneous politics, but it’s living, breathing, real stuff, which people like to read about, and like the page turn about.
There’s lots of stuff about why we like to read about that, helps us deal with stuff. Anyway. Great. Great top line. So brilliant. And, well done Abigail and team Cohen.
So, the next sentence then, the next paragraph following that up, is:
Fighting for the truth is a way of life for Lieutenant Amos. When a senator dies under suspicious circumstances, he refuses to ignore a single lead. But the experienced black detective gets pushed back from his captain when he aims to question a powerful political candidate, who just so happens to be a white supremacist.
You go into the sort of more detail phase straight away there.
Bryan Cohen: This was an interesting author submission from Michael. Michael gave us a lot of great, interesting details and there were multiple even just from his original description, you can see.
We’ve got Gus Mason, this presidential candidate, we’ve got Gunter, and Jacob or Yacob do … we’ve got these Jewish mafia members and we have Lieutenant Amos, the cop.
And, what I find is helpful – this is certainly not the only multi character, multi point of view book out there. There are lots of examples of this. But it’s nice sometimes to start more with the every man, to start more with who was a character outside of this.
We have a racist presidential candidate. We have a Jewish mafia, but when we enter this from more of a character who knows maybe what the reader knows from the beginning, and then we enter this, this world where, Oh wow, a senator died.
He’s getting pushback from his captain because there’s a political candidate, and he’s a white supremacist. So, it’s like we’re heightening little by little as opposed to starting with, and Michael has a good instinct here starting with Hitler’s bunker. There’s not much further we can go from there, but if we start, especially in kind of the synopsis part, we start from the beginning, and work our way up, then those details can have more impact.
James Blatch: Kind of layering it on, letting it unfold.
So, a couple of things to pick up on that. One is that I guess it makes sense that’s Amos, Lieutenant Amos the cop here, is the everyman. Your readers are much more likely, hopefully, to identify with him than the white supremacist racist presidential candidate, of which there aren’t that many. There are, I’m sure a few.
But there are more people going to work doing, who would identify more easily with a cop doing his job.
Is that important the reader has someone they kind of can identify with?
Bryan Cohen: In certain stories, especially like this one, it’s really helpful. I have seen and we get submissions from genres all over the board, but particularly in these thrillers, political thrillers, serial killer thrillers. We see a lot of authors with the instinct of leading with the villain, as opposed to leading with the policemen, leading with the cop, leading with the detective.
There can be a description that works with following the journey of the villain because a lot of the time, and I’m sure you’ll go into this more on the craft portion of things, but having a really meaty villain is a great thing.
But sometimes if you go from that villain’s perspective, you do lead with your strongest thing and then kind of peter off, peter out as, as you go along.
We want to avoid that because we want that crescendo, we want that build as you mentioned, the layering on. And, it’s a little easier to do that, when you’re starting with a more relatable character.
James Blatch: Okay. And, I always like to reference Star Wars if I can, but it’s a bit like a Star Wars. They’ve obviously got one of the great villains of all time in Star Wars but the story is always described as Luke’s story and told from his perspective. So, that’s a good example of how that works. Okay, let’s move on. So, the next paragraph.
As the main suspect’s star rises on the national stage, Amos continues digging and discovers a dark conspiracy.
I liked that first sentence because already I’m invested in Amos, and I want him to win. You don’t want him to give up. You love his tenacity. So, you getting into a little bit of the details of the story here.
Unearthing shocking connections between the death and the Nazi cover-up, the detective treads carefully to avoid becoming a target, but the closer he gets to the twisted truth, the more key witnesses turn up dead.
I’m going to mention something that we mention every time we talk about this, it’s really important. It’s critical. You always say this Bryan, that people understand the genre from reading the blurb. You used language here to punk to punch people in the face saying, “This is the book you’re getting.”
People are going to turn up dead. It’s going to be a race against time. This guy’s putting himself in danger. It’s a thriller. And, that’s what we get from that.
Bryan Cohen: Yeah, and that’s key from if this were a young adult romance, it would have very different pacing, different words, different pacing and we try to really keep that momentum going.
In really every sentence in this paragraph we have that introductory clause as the main suspect unearthing shocking connections. But the closer he gets, keeping that pace going almost as the story is ramping up you’re almost a paralleling the … what you assume is the increased pace of the story as Amos gets closer to discovering what happens.
James Blatch: The reason I mentioned this, because I think it is the number one fault of blurbs is that they don’t accurately portray genre of the book. And the same thing with covers.
We talk about the same thing with Stewart every time. If your book’s not selling as well they want, or even if they are, look at your blurb and almost read it with your eyes closed or make any sense. But try to imagine you know nothing about the book. You read the blurb.
Does it convey to you very clearly what genre, what you’re going to get with this book? Does it do what it says on the tin as we are the advertising slogan in the UK?
Okay, let’s carry on.
Can Amos prove the country’s most powerful man is capable of murder Without dooming the lives of everyone he loves? The Boy from Berlin is a gripping political crime thriller if you like styling twists and turns, steadfast heroes and earning quests for redemption, then you’ll love Michael Parker’s page-turning novel by The Boy from Berlin, to see a heinous conspiracy exposed today.
I for one want to know what happens.
Bryan Cohen: Me too. I’m glad that you like it James. It’s really about you more than anybody listening.
James Blatch: We do things to please ourselves. I love this blurb. I think it’s excellent and some really great top line. And, what I want to do now, is to go back to Michael’s ’cause we’ll unpick that a little bit now that we’ve gone through the we that you’ve done it, and then we’ll come back to the end of yours and just do the technical analysis of that.
Michael’s, it didn’t read particularly well. There’s a kind of repetition of Gus Masons straight away, as a repetition of the words secrets. What secrets on in Hitler’s bunker can stop Gus Mason’s bid for US presidency secrets look around every quarter as Gus Mason strides towards the US presidency.
That’s a lot of repetition in two, the first two sentences I think.
Bryan Cohen: It seems like maybe with what Michael was doing was, kind of one is the hook and then usually you’d maybe have a paragraph break and then the next line is kind of the first line of a synopsis. I actually have to remind my team of this from time to time just because there’s even a line break. You have to look for those echos.
We have Gus Mason is an echo from the first sentence to the second, US presidency as an echo from the first sentence to the second, American echoes in the third to last sentence, and the last sentence, let’s see, there was another one I saw.
I believe the plugin Pro Writing Aid, which you can get it for free, you can buy a paid version, but you can use a free as an extension, it will show you repetitions. And when you’re doing a blurb like this, you almost want to avoid using the same word.
You can wiggle a little bit depending on long your blurb is, but in a blurb that’s this short. You probably don’t want to use the same word twice at all. And that, because like you said, you catch it pretty quickly and it feels too repetitive.
James Blatch: We should underline that rising globe is really difficult and people can be very, very skillful novel writers and they trip up a bit in condensing it into this advertising type language. So, credit some Michael.
The other thing is if you get through this blurb, you come away with an intriguing hook for the story. So, I think it does fundamentally get there, and you don’t want to see all the hard work and goodness knows, I know as well as anyone else, how much hard work goes into a novel. You don’t want to see it let down by this key few sentences.
How many words this is 300 words, something like that?
Bryan Cohen: Yeah, it’s 300 or less. I want to just piggyback on what you said, James. I would never say that someone who writes a blurb that doesn’t quite hit the mark is a bad writer. They could have the best novel in the world. It is a different kind of writing different, different areas in the brain being used.
It’s very editing focused. It’s very focused on words, sound, and word impact, and rhythm in a way that a 70,000 word novel wouldn’t necessarily be focused.
James Blatch: Yeah, and there’s even an argument, I think, that the better you are at writing the long form novel, the worse you’re probably going to be at writing the short form blurb. There are at different, very different disciplines.
I won’t go through the rest of Michael’s blurb there, but as always with a book lab, you can download the before and after and see exactly what Bryan and his team have done.
Now I just want to finish off Bryan by going back to these last couple of sentences.
You had that third paragraph, which is the kind of jeopardy, the task can Amos prove the country’s most powerful man is capable of murder without dooming the lives of everyone he loves. And, then very important bit, which again people feel … and then so many of our SPF community say they struggle to ask people to buy their books. They struggle to say, please buy my book and they feel embarrassed about that.
But this is time to just park that embarrassment and do it in a very clear and open way and sell your book in the last couple of paragraphs. You said here, ‘The Boy from Berlin is a gripping political crime thriller. If you like sudden twists and turns that a blah, blah, blah, and the bottom line, just in case they missed the point says ‘buy, The Boy from Berlin to see a heinous conspiracy exposed today.’
Bryan Cohen: Some do miss the point. I mean really those three lines are about leaving the reader wanting more. Like you said, I did that jeopardy that can he pull this off and you want that. I know there’s debate about whether to have a cliffhanger in a book or not and, and there’s, we could debate on that a seven ways till Sunday, but in a blurb, I recommend having a cliffhanger because you want to leave the reader wanting more.
Those two sentences that restate the title, state, the author’s name, state the adjectives. Those are reminding the reader what they could get. Leave the reader wanting more. Leave the reader wanting more. Remind the reader what they’re getting and then tell the reader what to do.
You don’t have to word that you use the word buy. We’ve used explore. We’ve used discover, but what I like about buy and what I like about the form of it being of it’s a command.
If you were going to want to go with the sentence type, it would be showing you in the form of a command, go buy this book because we’re not beating around the bush here. We’re saying go do this thing. It’s not a word. If they missed the point because of whatever else they have going on, whatever other books they’re considering, at least you’re being clear and direct and I think that can make a difference.
James Blatch: Brilliant. Just to underline what you get with the Best Page Forward service, if you download the pdf again you’ll see not just that Amazon ad copy. I think there are 10 lines you can use and optimizing the Amazon sales page as a link on the pdf to go and into that to a free class, isn’t it?
Bryan Cohen: Yeah. I actually downloaded the PDF to book lab and saw that everyone else was making them a nice and pretty and I was just sending you some text documents so we prettied it up.
We gave you a link if you, if you want to find out more about making sure that you are, it’s almost like a your own little book lab class, making sure you’re as optimized as possible because I know just how important it is to have, if you’re going to be doing all sorts of great stuff that James, you and Mark and the crew teach of using paid advertising and sending a whole bunch of traffic over to these pages, you want them to be in the best shape possible.
So that’s what the little classes about. And James, I love y’alls book labs. You are doing such a great service to the community to share these and I am absolutely honored for me and best page follower to be a part of them.
James Blatch: We’re thrilled to have you on Bryan. It’s a key pass of it. I love the book lab episodes. I learned more doing this. I mean we get pressed and great interviews, but he’s fantastic. Just standalone deep dives into the nuts and bolts of what it takes to sell a book and the Amazon ad copy.
I’m just looking down then you, this is also a great job. I mean obviously the top one you’ve given a Michael is, he’s a black cop with a big problem is racist murder suspect as a front runner for president. That’s it. That’s the line at the bottom of the Amazon and that’s a really strong line.
I’m excited to see how Michael gets on with our book club victims have all kept in touch with us and I’ll speak to Nikki Danforth just the other day about it.
Thank you so much indeed Bryan. Excellent episode from you.
Bryan Cohen: Well thank you for having me. I am. It would never be as excellent without you giving me the guidance and giving the guidance to all of the guests that you provide.
Bryan, thank you. We’ll see you next time.
I was gushing with that because I think this is the best one. I think he’s turned this into a really exciting blurb and he’s made some fundamental differences and I think there’s a case probably of Michael being so close to his book, and this is very common, so close to his book, not necessarily being able to see what was the main attractive part of the story.
He had this presidential candidate who had a docs in the past and there was a cop stopped to work things out and he really focused on the presidential candidate because that’s the big thing. But the top line that Bryan found was a black cop with a big problem.
Suddenly it’s a much more relatable thing. And it’s also quite an interesting political thing or a racial thing because this is a white guy with some stuff going back to the Nazi era, running for president in America. And you’ve got this working-class cop on the streets of Chicago, and that is intriguing.
It’s all summed up in a beautiful top line by Bryan Cohen.
I think we can be too close to origin stories to write a good blurb quite a lot at the time. I think that’s why writers have problems doing it, isn’t it?
Mark Dawson: Right, on good word, paragraphs, introduction, paragraphs. It isn’t because we don’t have that skill is because sometimes we, as you say, we lose track of the important elements that make the book interesting and distinct or you just don’t see those because we’ve been so in matched in the plot for such a long time, so sometimes it does pay to have someone completely divorced from that to look at it afresh and to pick out the interesting elements that we might otherwise have overlooked.
James Blatch: We’re going to crack straight on. Next is the cover and Stuart Bache is our cover expert, so he cast his critical eyes over Michael’s cover up the Boy from Berlin.
Stuart Bache, welcome back to the self-publishing formula. You and I’ve actually met in the flesh since we last spoke.
We had a beer together at London Book Fair. Did you enjoy your time at LBF?
Stuart Bache: Yes, I had a great time. It was extreme. It’s just nonstop and I don’t think I looked up from the table. I was having meetings up for eight hours.
In fact, someone had to go and get lunch for me and everything. I didn’t have a pee break or anything like that for hours. It was really fun and it was great to meet loads of SPF students and you guys obviously and had a couple of drinks as well, which was fun.
James Blatch: What did you do with students? Did they bring their covers to you?
Stuart Bache: It was a mixture of things for the most part it was, it was some people who are clients who wanted to talk through their briefs and things like that. But for the most part it was people who wanted to know what we do, what we do here, give a bit of feedback on what they’ve produced or their designers have produced. So, that was fun.
I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to help, but actually, it was really good. I felt like I was helping people and giving really constructive feedback rather than just saying that’s rubbish. Start again. So, that was good.
It was just quite intense and I was wide awake all night cause it was just going through my head because it’s so busy there isn’t it?
James Blatch: Great. And the crucial question, did you get work out of it?
Stuart Bache: I don’t know. I wasn’t actually there to promote myself as well. Actually. No, I did. I did get a couple of projects through people I spoke to in the evening so which was nice.
James Blatch: Paid your trip for at least. Good.
Stuart Bache: Yeah, exactly.
James Blatch: Okay. Well, let’s move on to Michael Parker’s covers part of the BookLab today. So, people will know the story, hopefully is a US politician with a sinister past.
If you’re looking at the cover which of course is available, not the pdf download, and should still go on Amazon at the time this is released at least, probably that’d be there for a while.
The roots of that sinister past are spread out on the south lawn, are they not?
Why don’t you start by describing the cover.
Michael Parker: The cover as it stands is, has the White House, has a swastika on the lawn in front of it and there’s a young ghostly boy staring up at the White House. The title is in the sky and the author’s name is at the bottom.
It definitely feels like a thriller, but it does need work.
James Blatch: Yeah. Okay. So, right at the beginning, your first view is it says what it does, which we talk about.
I’m going to suggest you wouldn’t be very happy to produce this cover. You wouldn’t have shipped that to our client.
Stuart Bache: No. There are aspects, I always say this. You have to give positives and you have to give credit where it’s due, and there are aspects of it that work. For me, my initial thought is it’s always the tell, for me anyway is the typography.
I can tell when someone has put it together themselves, or has had a friend who hasn’t got a lot of experience. It’s usually the type, because it’s the hardest thing to play with, and to work with. Most people would misunderstand it or don’t know how to use it.
For a start, they’ve put an outline on the type, which a lot of people do, cause they think it gives it emphasis, it doesn’t. And it just makes it look a little bit amateur.
It’s also stretched in places. So they’ve used the same typeface but it looks like they’ve pulled it here and there to kind of fill up the space.
And there’s little things like that that are just a little bit, as I say, to me, it just instantly screams I’m not sure what I’m doing, but I’ve put some type on it and it’s big and bold and that’ll do you. So it screams amateur to me. I’m trying to be positive.
The swastika I’ll get to in a bit, but basically, they are far too many layers. It’s once again someone trying to do narrative, like they’re trying to tell you everything that you could possibly have in the book on the cover. So it’s to do with the White House, it’s to do with America, but there’s something about Germany or Nazis and there’s a ghost-like boy on there as well.
I’m guessing from what I’ve read of the blurb and everything that that’s the past. That’s the boy. The ghost is the boy, if he is a ghost or it’s a younger person or something like that, but it’s just a little bit peculiar.
James Blatch: It does look a bit like a statue to me as well.
Stuart Bache: Could be a statue, yeah.
James Blatch: It looks like gray slate, but I think it is supposed to be the boy. I don’t think there’s a statue of a young German soldier on the south lawn, but I haven’t been there.
I hear the criticism from your expert eye of the way it’s been executed. I would say also, I think the concept is a really good one. Down to the detail, I really like the moody sky. I like the portentous threat that is there, that reaches up from the dark past of this person and it’s the darkest possible past that he had some sort of involvement with the Nazis and the Holocaust, getting into the White House.
I like all of that. And I do like the shadow, the idea of there being some sort of shadow, but the execution, you’re the expert, but I would say as well, this looks like something I could do and I’m rubbish. Oh, that sounds very harsh, doesn’t it? But it does look like something that anyone could do in Photoshop and Michael has done what thousands of authors do, I suspect, which is he’s got himself to market as cheaply as possible because people don’t have money at that stage. With their first book.
Stuart Bache: That’s why I always say be as simple as possible. Actually, what he has there already, as you say, in terms of image, like I said, straight away I knew it was a thriller because there are aspects to it that work from a thriller perspective. So the White House and the sky.
The moody sky, the White House, the way it’s lit up, it’s nighttime. That already tells a huge amount. There’s a Bill Clinton, James Patterson book, I think, that did really well, obviously, that has just the White House and a huge amount of text, but just the White House on it. It gives you a lot of information there and then.
I don’t think the boy’s necessary at all and the type needs work, but that’s something that, once again, if you just removed the boy and you played with some clean Sans Serif type, you would be pretty much there. He could get away with that himself.
James Blatch: Let’s talk about the swastika. So I understand obviously why Michael has chosen to have that there.
Is there an issue with a swastika in some countries?
Stuart Bache: Yes. Germany, it’s illegal. If you start to show swastikas and things you can be up to three years, I think, that you can be put away for in Germany, for obvious reasons. But there are issues.
Most countries are fine with it. Amazon, I’m quite surprised that they allowed it to slip through. When I’ve worked with Amazon the publishing side, it is on their strict rules list not to have swastikas on anything. It’s on the rules with things like too much skin and all that kind of stuff, guns pointing towards you. So I’m quite surprised that it hasn’t been picked up already.
I’ve designed covers that have had swastikas on for traditional publishing, but I think it’s that it’s the context and I know that they would never be able to use it in advertising. So he might struggle if he wants to do AMS for example or something like that. He might struggle there.
Or Facebook advertising, if you wanted to use the cover, he might struggle there as well. But it’s hard because there are American covers, US covers, that use the swastika when they’re trying to say that it’s something to do with the Nazis. But it is something that I just don’t even do anymore. I don’t even try.
If it’s anything to do with the Nazis, I tend to go for the Eagle or something of the very sort of hard-edged eagle. It’s just something to think about.
James Blatch: Well, the other workaround that people use, depending on what sort of reference it is, how historically accurate it is, and there’s things like Handmaid’s Tale and some other dystopian, they used the red flag with the white circle and a black symbol that isn’t a swastika but at a glance gives you the sense of the German flag. So that’s another way around it I think people use.
So swastikas, one, and the other one, just while we’re talking about this, so people don’t know about it, I know about it from my days as a film examiner, occasionally having to cut things out of films, is the Red Cross. And the Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols have very special protection.
You’re not allowed to use them and there are very good reasons for that is that when they’re flown in very difficult parts, challenging environments around the world, they stand for something very important. Bullets and bombs should not be thrown that way. These people are neutral and they’re going to potentially save lives and overuse of them in fiction could damage that and could cost lives, which is, it sounds like an exaggeration, but there’s very strict rules about red flags.
Stuart Bache: Oh yeah.
James Blatch: The Red Cross, we would take those out in the old BBFC days if people had inadvertently putting them in. I think all TV companies do that as well. People don’t necessarily know that, and as you say, you can get away with it on your cover in America and in the UK, but when you come to start advertising, you might run into trouble.
Stuart Bache: I’m pretty sure that you would come a cropper with that.
James Blatch: I just want to go through, when we talk about the execution of this, we say the concept is good but the execution is nothing like what you would deliver. And one of those things, and I don’t really know quite how to explain it, but you do do something.
You say there were too many layers, but you do something with textures that create a slightly artistic feel to it. Whereas this looks a bit like a brochure about the White House. There’s no atmosphere to it. But you create those atmospheres with layered textures, I think, and that’s very clever.
You do a bit of teaching about that in your webinar, don’t you?
Stuart Bache: I do and in the course as well, I did look at that. It is actually quite simple. When I talk about layers, I mean layers of narrative. There are just too many things happening and trying to put one thing on top of the other.
But in terms of Photoshop layers and things like that, yeah, there are things that you can do that can emphasize, for this cover for example, emphasize the darkness and the lights so that the contrast has a lot of impact.
But actually, this image works on its own. The image of the White House in the sky is pretty good. You could have some dude on the lawn, a shadowy figure, I mean it is a thriller after all, you could do a sort of Mark Dawson with it and have a character walking up to it.
I just think that if you got rid of the swastika, the ghost boy and tried some new type, I think a person that comes to mind that would work really well in terms of type, if he wanted to use something to emulate, would be someone like Robert Harris. Things like Conclave.
It’s super simple. It is literally, St. Peter’s silhouetted with a red sky, and actually you could play with things like that, like having a red sky or a red overlay over the whole thing and that might give a little bit of the Nazi color and all that kind of stuff. There’s all sorts of things that he could do.
But as I always say, if you haven’t got the skills to do it, but you have to do it yourself, try to be simple, because that’s the most effective way you can do it. Don’t try to be clever, don’t try to add loads of narrative, just try to be simple and that is the most effective way.
Like simple type, don’t try to play about with drop shadows or, it’s called a key line or a stroke, which is what he’s done on the cover. Don’t try to play about with stuff like that. Just a nice simple typeface. Helvetica, something on your own computer, even Ariel if you have to use it, something nice and clean.
And then one thing I would do then if you do something like that is to remember in terms of typography that it’s about hierarchy. So if everything’s the same color then everything shouts out on the same layer, so you don’t know what you’re looking at first.
I would either make the title recede back if he wants his name to go forward. So keep it Michael Parker in white. Or if because he’s a new author, if he wants the title to shout out first and give that kind of nice thrillery … cause it is a good title. He could make that stand back.
You change the Michael Parker to a different color, something that reflects the color of the cover and that just pushes it back a little bit. Just having little things like that really help the eyes, cause as we always say, literally you spend seconds on it so you want to get all the salient information.
James Blatch: You mentioned Robert Harris. It’s always a good thing when you’re designing your cover, rather than start from a point of view of how much of my narrative can I cram onto this front cover is, have a look at the successful books in that genre, as we often say.
I’m just looking at Robert Harris’s. Interesting Fatherland, it’s on the Penguin page for Robert Harris, there’s the JCB, the penguin page, there’s a couple of options for Fatherland, his famous alternative history about Hitler having won the war. A brilliant book by the way.
One of them has the eagle, and a small swastika at the bottom of it and then a couple of the other options, it’s obviously been distributed around the world, don’t have any Nazi insignia at all on them so it’s quite interesting looking at that.
But all of his covers have that simplicity that you talked about. Even Conclave, you mentioned for font ideas. It’s got a building and a helicopter and then that’s it. Then moody sky. Very stark drawn lines. Nice colors.
Stuart Bache: It’s super commercial. That’s what we would do in houses is to think of, I don’t know if his hardback is any different, but the paperback for certain, this is definitely a very commercial paperback cause it’s literally information.
You’ve got place, there’s something to do with some sort of army or war or something like that potentially because of the helicopter, the type of helicopter it is, but it’s religion, it’s location.
It’s scary and moody because of the sky, but you have the title and the author name instantly and that’s exactly what you need to do, especially in this genre because, as Mark knows and as anyone who works in the thriller and action genre, there’s so many of them. You need to give that information straight away.
Someone actually said recently about author names and asked me, I think it was on one of the indie communities asked … oh no, it was on Twitter actually. Someone said about having big author names, like surely isn’t that about how well known you are? And that isn’t the case at all.
We’ve spoken about it before, but, okay, Robert Harris, everyone knows him. Mark Dawson, everyone knows. But it’s about the type of book it is. So a lot of psychological thrillers, it’s all about the title, massive titles. You see them everywhere, psychological thrillers or suspense, massive titles, lots of typography.
And then the author name just at the bottom, even if they’re massive, it’s just about the genre and what looks good and what works well. So if in your genre the author name is massive, then make it big and then it’ll fit in better.
James Blatch: Great. Okay. For somebody who’s looking at their cover and thinking I recognize some of these observations about the cover, I think maybe mine needs brushing up, I suppose we’d say there are two options. One is to go to someone like you at the cheaper end. You can get premades from several organizations. You get designers off 99 designs and fiverr.com
Stuart Bache: I’m not a big fan of 99 designs.
James Blatch: You’re not?
Stuart Bache: I just have to say, just because, Fiverr’s different, but 99 designs is a bit like a gladiatorial pit. You throw a load of designers in and only one person comes out. All the work and all the hard work that goes into it and only one person wins and might only get like 50 quid for it.
James Blatch: I think that’s a fair point to make and I think maybe if you’re right at the beginning of your career for the experience of building a design that might work but, yeah, when we were in video production we stopped bidding on local government contracts for that reason. Cause they would insist on a 12 page treatment from me every time. You’d never win them.
They’d always be given to some local crew somewhere and we’d put so much time and effort in and they’d have all our ideas. So we gave up on that. But that’s an interesting point. fiverr.com is a bit different where you basically contract somebody.
Stuart Bache: It’s different.
James Blatch: I think your price is probably $500, something like that, for a cover? Is that right?
Stuart Bache: It’s 540 for ebook and 580 for paperback.
James Blatch: Okay. And the other option is to do it yourself, but follow some instruction and we do have some instruction available for people. So if they go to selfpublishingformula.com/coverdesign, there was a webinar there from Stuart, which gives you some detailed look at how a cover is put together.
Stuart Bache: It’s a really good webinar.
James Blatch: And he puts them together so you can go off and do that yourself. It’s a great webinar and there’s some PDF designs that go along with that, which you get to see your genre and how it works broken down. And then there’s a course on top of that, should you want to take it more seriously and do it yourself.
So they’re the options. Thank you very much indeed, Stuart. Thank you, Michael, for going into the lab. We’re going to hear Michael’s reaction to this in a moment or two and then he will go off hopefully and make some positive changes, which should reflect in book sales, which is what this is all about.
Stuard Bache: I wish him luck and even if he does decide to carry on and do it himself, there’s a lot of stuff there that he can do and just to be a bit simpler. He’s got a great image already so he doesn’t really need to worry too much. But yeah.
James Blatch: Stuart’s main criticism there, Mark, was it looked a bit amateurish, which is the concept was fair, they had a swastika on the south lawn of the White House, which has its own problems, of course, it’s an illegal symbol in some countries, Germany most notably.
But it just looked at a glance like he’d done it himself or it wasn’t as professional as it could have been. And I do put that to Michael in the interview at the end, so no spoilers as to where that cover came from, but he does explain where it came from in the end.
But you can’t really underinvest in your cover, can you?
Mark Dawson: If money is tight and you need to economize then there’s probably other ways, better ways that you can economize, rather than scrimp on the cover because, we’ve said it before, that is the first thing that readers see.
It’s more important than the title. It’s more important than the blurb and unfortunately, it’s more important than your writing as well, so if you don’t get that right, none of the other things will even come into play. Certainly the writing. So it is definitely worth making sure that your cover looks professional, it stands up to your competition and it punches its weight, otherwise you aren’t going to sell any books, so the economy would be a false economy if you cut costs there.
James Blatch: Talking about being professional, my camera’s just decided it’s too hot again, but people can still see me in a slightly different picture. I need to get an ice pack or an air conditioning unit. We’ll work that out.
Okay. Now we come to the meaty critique that Michael received for this particular visit to the book laboratory and that is from Jennie Nash, who editorially has looked after numerous bestsellers in her career, is a much sought after editor. She read the look inside portion of this book and identified something that was fundamentally not working for her and has fed back on that. So let’s hear from Jenny.
Jennie Nash, welcome back into the laboratory.
Jennie Nash: Thank you.
James Blatch: We really should get white coats if we’re going to do this properly and safety glasses.
Jennie Nash: Safety glasses for sure. Yeah.
James Blatch: Things could get hairy.
Jennie Nash: They could fly at us.
James Blatch: They could. Mark selects the books and they are a wide variety. So this time we have Michael Parker’s The Boy From Berlin and your job was to read the look inside with your expert editorial hat and talk about the writing, whether it’s going to be the right sell for people.
This is so important. These few seconds people get. And if they’ve clicked on the look inside, you’re doing well at this point, for them to get to that point.
Jennie Nash: Absolutely.
James Blatch: Then you’ve got a few minutes, haven’t you? A few seconds maybe to capture them.
What were your initial feelings about the writing on the look inside bit?
Jennie Nash: Well, it’s interesting, the look inside option, as you say, because it’s such a modern readers tool to be able to just click on there and get a quick glimpse and do I like this or not like this? And so I did that, just as I would if I were a reader and I read through the prologue, there’s just the prologue and a little of the first chapter on there.
At first blush, I have a sense that this guy is doing really well. He’s got a really interesting setup. It’s a really interesting scenario that he presents to us. He’s got that sort of thriller vibe really down.
In this prologue, we come to see that we’re talking to a woman who’s in prison and at the end of the prologue, we learn she’s the wife of the president of the United States. So that’s a pretty great setup. It’s like the curiosity is raised. What’s going on here? Why is she in prison?
And there’s a line at the end of the prologue that says, “In there would be the names of the strangers, of the loved ones, of the deceit, the cunning and the violence of the life and death of Babs Mason”. Babs is the women in jail.
So we understand that she’s probably set to die, that she’s going to get the death sentence. So it’s a pretty intense setup and really great for a thriller. So you read that through and you think, okay, yeah, that’s good.
My job, though, is to think, okay, why does this guy, because if you look at his reviews, this book has been out about a year, he’s got 23 I think it is, 23 reviews, and I looked up another thriller that was published almost at the identical time that is called He Said, She Said by Aaron Kelly that has 1,684 reviews and is a bestseller, is a proper bestseller out in the thriller world.
So there’s two thrillers that came out at the same time. And The Boy From Berlin has 23 reader reviews and not a lot of traction that I can tell out in the marketplace. Amazon reviews are only one metric to measure. That’s something for sure that must be said. But a pretty good metric in a lot of cases.
I also went out and looked, is this guy a cult favorite? Does he have a big following? And the answer is, no, he’s a guy who’s selling some books, which is great. But wouldn’t it be better to be selling 1,684 raving fans instead?
So what you do then is you think, okay, well why? What is here that is missing if he’s got this great premise and this great set up. And really to be honest, there’s a line in that prologue that I flagged that was beautifully written, which I will read to you. This is a woman speaking and it’s Babs.
She says, “Babs thought of her youth, her beauty now faded, the silky blonde hair had become dry and gray like thin cords. It was no wonder. She was over 60 and her years in prison hadn’t helped. She studied the backs of her hands, where the truth always rested. Whatever face a woman tried to present to the world, whatever falsehood about her age, the truth was in the hands”. I mean, that’s lovely, right?
James Blatch: The man can write.
Jennie Nash: It’s beautiful. It’s lyrical. It’s got meaning. So yeah, he’s got this great idea. He can write. So why is he not selling more books? Why is this not getting more attention?
The answer to me is quite obvious. And that’s an interesting thing to note because many writers probably think, well, I could write like James Patterson or mine’s just as good, why is that guy …? But the difference between good and great is in the subtleties and there’s two things that our author Michael has done here that are automatically confusing the reader and putting the reader in a position of frustration and a disconnect.
And that’s, you can’t really see it necessarily if you’re just going in and reading through this, but the reader feels it. They feel it. And that’s the thing that we’ve really got to think about is what is your reader’s experience of any story.
The reader comes to story, there’s a tacit agreement between the writer and the reader and there’s a promise that the writer makes. And that promise is, I’m going to present to you a consistent narrative. It’s going to be told with authority, it’s going to feel like real life. And depending on the genre, there’s other implicit things that the writer promises.
For instance, in a memoir, the writer is promising that this happened to the best of the writer’s memory to remember. In a mystery, there’s a promise that there’s a dead body and that somebody killed the person. There might be different things.
In a thriller, there’s this implicit promise that you’re going to be taken on a ride and it’s going to be exciting and dramatic and thrilling. And in this case, it’s going to involve the president’s wife. And those are the things we come to.
So you come in and you’ve got these expectations and there’s some subtle things that this writer is doing that is breaking some of those promises. And they’re subtle, but the reader’s going to really feel it.
I want to walk you through what those are, so that our listeners can hear it. And this is the next level kind of editing, right? And it’s how a guy like this with a great premise who can write gets to the next level.
Unfortunately, my feeling, my very strong feeling is it’s almost impossible to find these things in your own work. And it’s just you’ve got, well, what’s called neurologically the burden of knowledge that you know what these things are so you don’t see them.
James Blatch: You know too much.
Jennie Nash: Exactly. So you really need an outside perspective or outside eyes, which is the danger of self-publishing. So this book was self-published and there’s not one solitary thing wrong with that. Self-publishing is awesome. It gives us amazing power and access and opportunity.
But in order to do it really well, you need to bring on board people who can help you go from good to great. Otherwise, you’re going to just put a book out that’s okay and nobody wants a book that’s okay, the reader doesn’t, the writer doesn’t, it doesn’t do the world any good, right?
James Blatch: I think it’s Hugh Howey said on our program, every book you write must be the very best you could possibly get it. And nothing less.
Jennie Nash: Exactly. And so the idea that just because you could publish it, you should. If this writer had taken a little more time, perhaps brought in an editor or a coach or even a proofreading friend, somebody who could just see it in a different way, it would have improved.
I’m going to talk about the things that I saw because there’s two and they’re related. So the one is something we call head hopping. Have you heard this term on this show before, head hopping?
James Blatch: No. But can I guess, it’s where the point of view changes during a scene, isn’t it?
Jennie Nash: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So there are some extremely egregious head hopping in these opening prologue pages and I’m going to show you how that puts the reader back on their heels. It confuses them. It’s actually sort of upsetting if you can track your own response to it.
You get angry because the writer is not taking care of you, they’re breaking that promise and it is, in fact, a violation of point of view conventions. That’s exactly what it is. And so there’s the readers are really smart and they’re going to feel it. They’re going to see it. They’re going to know it. They will not be able to name it in a million years.
They probably would not be able to say what it is or why it’s happening and why it bothers them. But they will feel it. So I’m going to talk about that head hopping and then there’s really twisted in with it is another thing going on, which is some internal logic problems.
And by logic, I mean, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because writing is not usually thought of as logical. That’s not a thing that a novel, that people will often, a term you would often use to talk about it.
But there is an internal logic to a story and there is cause and effect and there is these relationships that you’re building a world for your reader and you want them to believe in that world.
And the thing about our world, our real world, is that physically, it makes sense. Like the rules of gravity hold, the rules of human nature tend to hold, we’re constantly surprised by events in our world or disturbed by them or what have you, but they’re just people being people, right? People are going to be greedy and jealous and all the things people are going to be. Mentally ill. There’s randomness in the system
But the rules of how we behave with each other and how we are, they hold. And when you’re building a world in fiction, you’re presenting to your reader, that’s part of the promise, right? I will build you a world that makes sense. It might not be the real world, and this is not fantasy or SciFi, this is happening in present life. But there’s this illogicness in it that feels … what actually happens is you begin to distrust the writer.
So this is really what we’re talking about is building trust, and building authority and being the authority of your story, being the God of your story, and really thinking in terms of, I’m going to take my reader by the hand and I’m going to, I often use this metaphor, I’m going to lead them through the path in the woods. I’m going to take them by the hand and lead them, and I’m going to show them what they need to see and I’m going to make meaning as we go and we’re going to arrive somewhere at the end that’s going to, whatever the thing is, delight them, educate them, entertain them, make them forget the world for a minute. The real one for a minute. Whatever your goal is. But you have to be in charge. And that, the writers that we love, that get a lot of books sales, that’s what they’re doing and-
James Blatch: And they do it simply, I think.
Jennie Nash: Yeah.
James Blatch: Without over-complicating it.
Jennie Nash: Yeah.
James Blatch: James Patterson does it simply so you don’t have to fret, and Dan Brown’s another one. And I love that analogy, just for a moment, because I just imagined when you said, “Take the reader through the hand.” That the reader’s blind and only knows what you describe to them.
Jennie Nash: Yeah. Yeah.
James Blatch: So if you start mis-describing things or you leave things out, they’re in the wilderness. They’re lost. They’re going to trip, fall over, not know where they are, and that’s not going to be a fun experience for them.
Jennie Nash: Or if you assume that they can make their own way or that they’ll figure it out. And you mentioned Dan Brown. He’s a great example because when his books come out, there’s always this flurry of criticism, of people who’ll say, “Well, but he can’t really write. He’s not a good writer and his stories are so obvious and they’re so …” There’s this flurry of criticism.
But if you look at what he’s doing from a story perspective, it’s brilliant and, for your point, it’s seamless, and you get to fall into his world and I’m thinking of Da Vinci Code, where he’s going to pretend that, now I’m going to … I’m going to betray my reading brain, I read it so long ago, but he’s going to pretend that it’s that Jesus had a child who’s alive, right? Isn’t that what it is?
James Blatch: Yes. There’s descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but you can’t tell anyone otherwise the cars will appear outside and cart you off because it’s all a conspiracy.
Jennie Nash: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Sorry.
James Blatch: It’s a gripping story.
Jennie Nash: Whatever you believe, it’s a radical proposition and he makes a world where you believe that that could be true, and that’s why people got so upset, actual real people in religious institutions got so upset because it felt so real and when you were in it, it seemed real and people believed it. What a genius thing for a work of fiction to do, to get real people in the real world upset about a fictional construct.
That’s the genius that … So his gazillions of dollars that he’s earned, more power to him, so you’re never going to turn down a page in a Dan Brown book and read a beautiful sentence. That’s not what he’s doing. It’s not what it’s about, but the fundamentals of story are so sound, and I would urge, after our discussion, I would urge your listeners to go and read … I mean, I pulled out this he said, she said, just because I thought it was interesting, it was the exact same period of time as our writer, Michael, that the book had been out, and I read the prologue of that and I tried to find something wrong with it. For the benefit of the doubt here, right? It’s the first couple of pages, and could I find anything wrong with it? And, I mean, not one thing.
I don’t think your listeners are going to be able to see but I marked up Michael’s, you can see it’s all marked up and I literally could not find one thing on that so that’s the difference between good and great, and, look, read Dan Brown and try to find head hopping. I dare you. You will not be able to do it.
So, let’s talk then about what head hopping is and in this piece how we see it. So, as you correctly guessed, congratulations, that was good.
James Blatch: Thank you. Lisette, who you happen to be working with, does occasionally say, “How would she know that in a scene?” And I haven’t head hopped, but I’ve just described something that, unless I’ve made it clear that she’s looking, or she’s on the other side of the room that doesn’t … And, of course, she’s right, it doesn’t make any sense. So I get told off every week if I err towards the point of view being slightly confused.
Jennie Nash: Well, this is the genius of having a coach while you write, is you catch yourself and you build your muscle and you learn, and you told me this earlier, you hear that coach’s voice in your head, like, “They’re going to call me out on that. That’s a problem, I’ve got to fix that.”
And then that becomes your own wisdom and the thing that you’re describing is also a POV violation, which is how would a character know that? How would you know what somebody else was thinking? How would you know what, if you’re not looking, how would you know if you’re not there? And that’s why they also connect to that idea of logic I was talking about. They’re illogical. It doesn’t make sense that that person would know that thing.
So it’s kind of two problems tied up in one. It’s very easy to do because, my goodness, you’re trying to create consciousness.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Jennie Nash: That’s what a novelist is doing, right?
James Blatch: We’re a god.
Jennie Nash: Yeah, you are. It’s awesome. That’s why it’s so fun. Okay, so head hopping is when you’re in third person, the third person point of view, which is … There’s two different forms of it. There’s what’s called third person limited, and then there’s third person omniscient.
So we all know what first person is because that’s what we talk about in every day, “I went to the store, I bought milk, I came home.” It’s the I.
Third person limited, sometimes also known as third person close, is when the writer is very closely following one character, so they’ve limited their point of view to the one character, but they’re still following that character like god, so they’re looking down upon them.
They can see into their head, they can see into their heart, they can see into their mind, they can see into their motivations, they’re talking us through, describing about that character as they go about their story and that does not mean, by the way, that the third person close narrator gets a pass on letting us into that characters actual feeling and heart.
We still really need to be inside, even though the narrator is technically outside, so it’s kind of a confusing thing but I just want to say that while I’m describing it because people sometimes think, “Oh, I’m writing third person, that means I don’t have to talk about their emotions or their feelings or why they’re doing things.” Nobody gets a pass on that.
The third person close is just a way of telling a story, so this, we are also very familiar with this because it would be James, “My friend James went to the store and bought milk and brought it home.” I’m talking about you. Now, I don’t know what’s in your head or your heart, but the narrator of the book does.
So the other form of the third person is third person omniscient and this is where it’s just like it sounds, that this outside narrator can see into everybody’s head and heart, all the people, all the people at the grocery store. We can know what they’re all thinking and feeling and wanting and doing.
So this is very powerful and it’s very fun to write. It’s very fun to write in all these forms. One of the things that is a truth about writing and all creativity is that creativity thrives with boundaries. And when we’re recording this, it’s March, and in America there’s this March Madness, which is all the basketball, and everyone’s caught up in the basketball, and the reason basketball is fun to play and to watch is because there are rules and everyone agrees to follow them, right?
That’s the way sport works and the same is actually true of creativity, that everybody agrees what a novel is and how it works and what these conventions are, these points of view conventions are, and the limitation on the writer is part of what makes it fun to create and also fun to read is that promise to the reader, these boundaries, and so you want to follow the rules and follow the conventions, and if you’re not going to do that, just make sure you tell yourself, “I am writing experimental fiction.”
There’s nothing wrong with doing that. A lot of beautiful writing has come out of people saying, “I’m going to write some very experimental thing and I’m going to play with this convention or I’m going to turn it upside down or I’m going to blatantly … You know, what’s the word? You know, not do it.” But that’s an intentional and conscious decision.
If you’re going to write a straightforward narrative, you need to agree to follow the rules, so the rule with an omniscient narrator who can see in everybody’s head is that they can’t do it all at one time. It would be very confusing to do it all at one time, and that, in fact, is what head hopping is.
So head hopping is going from person to person to person, being in their head all at the same time, and dumping that on a page and it’s up to the reader to sort it out, to untie it, to unknot it, and it’s so hard to do and people will complain and they’ll say, “Well, Jenny, that’s ridiculous. You know, I read …” and they’ll come up with some book, whatever, where we’re in this person’s head, then we’re in this other.
Dan Brown does it. We’re in this person’s head and then the next chapter, we’re in this other person’s head, and the next person, we’re in that person’s head, you know, the bad guy, the good guy, the thing, and it’s like, “Yes, that’s correct, but it’s chapter by chapter.”
James Blatch: Yes. Different times. Different scenes.
Jennie Nash: Right? Or different scenes.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Jennie Nash: The violation, that point of view violation of head hopping, people tend to do it actually sentence by sentence by sentence, and that’s what our writer, Michael, does and I want to show, I want to show in the opening couple of paragraphs how that looks and how confusing it is for the reader and, again, the reader probably has no idea that they’re on unstable ground here, but they really are.
So the book opens with this line about Babs Mason. She’s, we find out, the president’s wife and Babs Mason kept picking at the loose thread in her prison skirt, and so we’re in her head. We think it’s her story, we’re following along, you know, she’s in jail, we get that, and then the sentence that begins, “When the young writer sitting opposite got no response to her question, she put it to Babs again.”
Well, my goodness. Now are we in the young writer’s head? I don’t know. Is it her story? Is it the writer’s story? What happened to Babs? Is Babs the object of the young writer’s attention her and it’s the young writer’s story or … We don’t know what’s going on at all and there’s the line, “She put it to Babs again.” This is the young writer. “When the young writer sitting opposite got no response to her question, she put it to Babs again.”
So now we’re actually back in Babs court, right? It’s like tennis. So now we’re in Babs court because it literally says, “She put it to Babs again.” But then the next sentence, “She had a small voice recorder beside her and a notepad resting on her lap.” I said to myself, “Wait, Babs does? Babs has the recorder?”
James Blatch: Yeah, we don’t know who that is.
Jennie Nash: Right? And so I’m not even a paragraph in and I’m like, “Wait a minute. Okay. Babs is in prison, there’s a writer there, I get that, the writer’s asking her questions, but whose story is it? And, okay, yeah, obviously it must be the writer who’s got the voice recorder, so that’s me trying to put logic on it, right?
Of course it’s not Babs, it’s got to be the writer, but then why was I made to have to figure that out? Why was I made to even have a moment of wondering? I already have a mistrust of this writer and a distance. It actually feels antagonistic. I’m like, “Why are you making me work that hard?”
So the next paragraph, “‘What year was it?’ Babs repeated the question finally, turning to look at the young woman.” Well, now I’m just completely lost. The writer was going to put a question to Babs again, and we have Babs repeating the question, so in fact that’s the logic problem.
In fact, the young writer does not put a question to Babs again. Babs puts a question to herself, so two … That’s why I said there’s two things happening here. That’s not logical.
James Blatch: When the young writer sitting opposite got no response to her question, she put it to Babs again, and then a moment later, Babs repeated the question finally, turning to look at the young woman.
Jennie Nash: Yeah.
James Blatch: Who’s asking the question?
Jennie Nash: Right? So we’re in all these people’s heads, we don’t know whose story it is, we don’t know what we’re tracking. We’re mad because it’s not logical. We’re having to make up the logic ourselves and, look, we can do that. I can figure this out, right?
There’s a woman in prison somebody has come to interview. I can figure it out but why are you making me work so hard? If you read he said/she said, you do not have to do any of that work as a reader.
People get confused about this because one of the pleasures of reading is, in fact, doing work, right? When you’re reading, you’re trying to figure it out, you’re trying to put the puzzle together, you’re trying to sort it out, you’re trying to keep ahead of the reader. That’s part of the fun of it.
It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. You put your wits in there with the writer and that’s fun, and we want that. We absolutely want that. But we don’t want it about the logic of the story. It’s like spending your capital and you’re spending your capital on silly things and so instead of my asking, “What did Babs do? Why is she in prison? Why has somebody come to speak to her about that?” You know, those kinds of questions to get into the story, instead I’m asking, “Wait, who’s talking?”
“Wait, who’s got the recorder? I thought she was putting the question to Babs again? Who’s that? Wait, I don’t get it.” And this goes on through this whole prologue in sort of excruciating detail, where we never really know whose story it is and at the bottom of page four, it’s the second page, but it’s numbered page four, the young writer says, “Would you say that was when it all began?”
And Babs smiled. “The truth is that it all began a long time before that but none of us were to know, not then, anyway.” The writer says, “Could you elaborate on that?” So at the end, they begin to talk about the thing that they refer to as, “It” and we don’t know, as the reader, what it is, so it is obviously something big.
There was some big conspiracy, some big thing went down, some big reason why this woman is in jail and then we’re going to find out that, in fact, she’s the president’s wife.
So the it is sort of one of those … Not conventions, one of those things that the writer has done to make us guess and make us turn the page.
And, in fact, it would, it would if these other things weren’t there. But when I got down to those ifs, I was like, “I give up. That’s not fair. Now you’re asking me to hold in my head …” Right?
James Blatch: So had that been the only thing you were asked to think about, the correct thing you should be asked to be intrigued about, rather than who’s talking, and that doesn’t make any sense. And I had to read that three or four times to try and work out. I see what you’re saying.
And the great shame of this is that the writing’s great.
Jennie Nash: It is great.
James Blatch: As you pointed out in the beginning, the actual description, the language, the vocabulary, it’s a very nicely written thing.
Jennie Nash: It is.
James Blatch: Any sense when you start to try and follow it from a story point of view, if you’re trying to work out who’s right. So there’s an urgency for Michael to fix this, because he’s a great writer.
Jennie Nash: I haven’t read the whole story, so I don’t know where it goes from here, but let’s just assume that the whole thing is, in fact, this good from a story perspective, it’s this interesting, it’s this … Or this curious, these characters, something happened that’s intriguing, let’s pretend that’s true, all he would need to do to get this to the next level is to go through this very carefully, line by line, probably with an editor or coach and just fix these moments of illogic and confusion and making the reader work so hard, and he would be at a whole different level.
It is a shame because the reader will … The reader will let you … What’s the word? I keep using all these metaphors.
It’s like we’re playing cards, and the reader has this hand of cards that they’re holding close to their chest. It’s okay to hold one back, like it’s okay, we just say, “That was when it all began.” And the reader’s going, “What’s it?” That’s okay, but not when you’re making them guess about all these other things, now I’m just mad, and I’m not going to buy that book.
After two pages, I’m not going to buy that book because, again, I don’t know if I could articulate it if I’m a reader or say what it is or why it is or why it’s different from he said/she said or James Patterson but I would feel it. I would feel that, like I said at the beginning, it’s a kind of an anger, it’s a kind of like, “Why are you doing that to me?”
James Blatch: This is a simple fix, really. If you just write the scene imagining you are one person and you can’t put yourself in the other … You can describe how they look and notice that they look a bit annoyed and they ask the …
I have to ask the question again, that can all come from the perspective of one person.
Jennie Nash: Absolutely. That is the really sophisticated skill, is how do you stay in one person’s point of view and convey what everybody else is thinking and feeling and doing and wanting and what their agendas are and all of those things, and there’s so many tools for doing that, from … Well, it’s what we do in our real life as human beings, right?
James Blatch: We see that expression, we read the body language. We change our mood because they’re starting to get aggressive. You can paint the picture of how people are behaving around you and guessing how they’re thinking. And it’s more interesting.
Jenny Nash: Absolutely.
James Blatch: How we think someone else is thinking is not necessarily how they are thinking. The reader, that’s what Dan Brown, I think, does well, is the reader can be one step ahead and work out, “No, you’re misreading that because they know something you don’t or …”
Jennie Nash: Well, James, you’ve just described the incredible power of a novel and the incredible appeal of it and also why it’s so hard to write, because that’s actually what we’re trying to do, is to capture the experience of what it’s like to be a human being going through the world, trying to make sense of it.
I said before that there’s rules that hold, but within those rules there’s all kinds of crazy behaviors and we’re just constantly trying to figure out, “Are you my friend or my foe? Can I trust you or not? Do you have my back or not? Are you going to stab me in the back or not?”
Socially we’re trying to figure that out, emotionally we’re trying to figure that out, physically, I think, well, some people in some places in the world, absolutely trying to figure that out.
That’s the game of being human, that’s what we’re all trying to do every day and that’s what a novel, why it’s such a powerful art form is because it mimics that and it lets us experience that from the comfort of our own home. We don’t have to be in prison or in danger or the president’s wife or what have you to feel what that might feel like and experience what that might feel like and be in it.
We want to be in it and we want to be in it, it’s Lisa Cron, author of Story Genius and Wired for Story, she calls it the world’s first virtual reality, a novel, a narrative, that we really want to be in it, be immersed in it, and so, yeah, this would be an easy fix if Michael had somebody just going through and picking out, and showing him where he’s doing this. I think he could do it and people who are, themselves, looking at their own work and trying to understand how not to make this mistake.
I think the two keys are just really be clear on your point of view. Really understand what point of view you’re holding and telling your story from and then always focus on one person at a time. That’s the key, and one head at a time, no hopping from head-to-head.
If you think about that again from that logic point of view, the trick is just be intentional about your point of view and focus on one person at a time and focus on letting us inside, and then I would also say always be sure to look at your work for logic holes.
People tend to only want to look at the beautiful sentences or the lyrical thing or the way it flows, but these logic problems are more likely to dissuade a reader than language that’s not beautiful. That’s the Dan Brown lesson.
James Blatch: And the logic problems, I think, can be big, big plot things that people notice. They can also be small things. I was talking to a writer friend the other day who said, “You know, your hero can’t leave home with its trousers on.” Is an old adage, isn’t it, for writers?
You can’t have them starting to dress and then forget to finish that bit and they walk out again, so logic can be small bits of the scene-
Jennie Nash: Absolutely.
James Blatch: That would just take the reader out of it and jar.
Jennie Nash: You want your reader to trust you and they’re going to trust you when you take care of them.
James Blatch: This contract, I like this contract you have. You basically sell a contract at the beginning with the reader that I’m going to work within this framework and it makes perfect sense.
So that’s the point of view, the head hopping, and there was another aspect you wanted to talk about.
Jennie Nash: It was the logic. It was the logic.
James Blatch: Oh, the logic. Okay, they’re the two things.
Jennie Nash: Yeah.
James Blatch: Okay. Great. And they’re brilliant. I’ve got a couple of things I noticed I just wanted to pick up with you.
Just reading this. Two things.
What did you think of starting the prologue and the book itself, the first chapter, with the same words, Babs Mason is waiting for … Is it deliberate or is it something you’d avoid?
Jennie Nash: Let me just grab my pages here, because I did have some quibbles with the way this writer moved from the prologue to chapter one and I, myself, I was studying it, obviously, but I must have gone back and forth three different times because the prologue was all about what year it was.
If you look at page one of the prologue, the question that you and I were talking about, that is repeated, is what year was it and then the writer says, “Yes, the year you met your husband.” And then further down she says, Babs says again, “The year I met my husband.” So there’s three stated questions about the year, that this is clearly important, the year I met my husband, and it’s actually the fourth time the question has been asked.
The first mention, it’s being repeated, so this idea, “What year was it?” Is super important and then we get to chapter one, so this is that idea of promise, right? They’re talking about the year and this is what we’re worried about, and then we get to chapter one and I don’t think that it’s about the year she met her husband. It’s about the year that … Well, the moment I think that she believed her husband was going to be president, so at the end of the prologue she actually switches and she says, Babs, she says, “Perhaps I should start at the moment I knew my husband was going to be president of the United States.”
James Blatch: So there’s all this teeing off to the year, this year. And it goes to a year but it turns out not to be the year.
Jennie Nash: It’s not the year, yeah.
James Blatch: No. It’s another year.
Jennie Nash: And I don’t know if … I mean, that last line of the program is a fabulous line because that’s the moment we realize she’s the wife of the president, but I don’t know if she switched it on purpose and if the character switched it on purpose, in other words, but if she did, that’s the place like being inside her head where I would want to hear her say she didn’t want to answer the question about the year, or she didn’t want to go there, or she knew that if she went there X would happen, so instead she said, “Well, perhaps …”
That should be on the page, if she’s actually making a conscious decision to switch on the reporter, but I don’t know if that’s the writer or the character, in other words, a lapse of the writer or the character but, as a reader, I, again, felt cheated and gypped, I was like, “Wait, I thought we were all about the year that they met and now the reason that I was confused is that that first line of chapter one is, ‘Babs Mason was waiting for her husband.'”
So this is what I did. I was like, “Wait. I thought we were talking about the year she met her husband. She’s already married? Is this a different guy?” And then I went back to the prologue to double check, did I read that wrong?
So you’ve totally lost the reader and they’re so confused, actually, and they’re so off guard. It’s actually sort of an antagonistic relationship, like you’re making me work too hard and I’m angry at you.
So I was not, in answer to your question, I was not so concerned about the repetition of the name, of the word, as I was that logic thing, because I couldn’t figure it out.
James Blatch: Yeah. Much more serious. And I’ve got one other small thing, because I’m learning how to write, as you know, Jenny, and I find myself … I think I do this, what Michael has done here, which is he says, it’s a nice line, that description at the beginning that, “Babs Mason kept picking at the loose thread in her prison skirt.” Next line is, “It was almost like an unconscious gesture, twisting it in her fingers as she looked around her cell and up at the bulkhead light recessed into the ceiling.”
Nice prose. The word almost there, I do that and I’ve stopped myself doing it, I don’t know why, I just introduce this vagueness to something and I reckon that sentence, and I’m taking them out now, works better if she says, “It was an unconscious gesture, twisting it in her fingers, she looked around her cell.”
But it’s funny, I do exactly that, and I think it makes it a stronger sentence. If you’re saying, “He was slightly this or almost that.” Try to, I think, try taking that out. It just makes it a better sentence.
Jennie Nash: I’m just beaming from ear to ear because I’m so proud of you. I, on my little thing that I marked up, I don’t know if you can see, I circled all the almosts.
James Blatch: Oh. There you go.
Jenny Nash: There’s almosts all over the place and that’s that same thing, actually. It’s I’m here to trust you, I’m here that you’re taking me on this journey, and you’re taking me down this path and I’m giving you that authority and I’m trusting that you have it. Why are you equivocating like that? Was it almost or was it not almost?
James Blatch: It weakens it, doesn’t it?
Jennie Nash: Absolutely.
James Blatch: But I do that as well, Michael.
Jennie Nash: Yeah. Absolutely.
James Blatch: But I’m picking it up now.
Jennie Nash: And you can see that all these things add up. I mean, can you hear me? I’m getting so angry.
James Blatch: Poor Michael.
Jennie Nash: Don’t do it, Michael. Come on, you’ve got such a good story.
I would refer your listeners to a new book that I have not read but I have read an excerpt of. It’s called Dryer’s English and it’s by the copy chief of … I hope I’m going to get this right. Is it Penguin Random House? I think he’s the copy chief of Penguin Random House and this book, Dryer’s English, is about grammar.
It’s a grammar book, but he starts, the excerpt that I read, he starts with a list of I think it’s 12 words that you should banish yourself from using and to practice not using them in order to see how many times you do use them, and I’m almost certain that almost is one of them. But it’s words like perhaps, and it’s all those kinds of filler words that again, weaken, you’re right, it totally weakens it, and it all adds up to, you know, now I’m just mad.
James Blatch: Yeah. And I do that. It’s as if he felt like this, well, he felt like that or he didn’t.
Jennie Nash: Right.
James Blatch: And I’m starting to spot it now. Okay. Great. Like a good wrap when you give somebody negative feedback, you need to wrap it, and you said at the beginning it was good writing and I’m going to remind the reader that it’s a great story and Bryan’s blurb, Bryan Cohen has done a spectacular job on the blurb on this book and the blurb itself really brings out what a strong story it is. It’s a great story but it needs some work in the writing.
Jennie Nash: If you want to try and get to the next level, yeah, it absolutely does and I’m going to have, for your readers, a little cheat sheet on head hopping that they can download and it touches a little bit on some pov things. You can spend your whole life studying this stuff and trying to understand it, and I don’t know that I even do. At this point, my own self, it’s quite complicated, but I do have some guidance to help people look for this in their own work, that we can share.
James Blatch: Super. Jennie, as always, it’s an absolute pleasure and hugely illuminating talking to you.
I want to thank you for joining us. We’ll put all that together, people will know, and I’ll say it in the presentation with Mark, in a moment, no doubt. But just to remind people, you can go to Selfpublishingshow.com/BookLab6. Is this six? I can’t remember.
Five or six? Oh goodness, I’ve started the year and I don’t know the end of it. Another thing to avoid doing. Anyway, the real me, when we do the presentation with Mike, if we were to get it, and I’ll dig out those books, we’ll put those links.
You mentioned Lisa Cohen and you mentioned… is it Dwyer’s English or Dreyer’s English?
Jennie Nash: Dreyer, I think.
James Blatch: Dreyer. We’ll look it up. We’ll look it up, we’ll find that off air and make sure that’s in the show next for people, so they can find it.
Jennie Nash: It’s also hilarious. It’s Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer.
James Blatch: There you go. Okay, we’ll make sure we got a link to the books in the show notes. Thank you so much indeed, Jennie, and we’ll sign off. In fact, we are hatching a plan to do a special deep dive into revision, which may or may not coincide with an author not a long way away, who’s just finished their first draft.
Jennie Nash: I love that phrase, “We’re hatching a plan.”
James Blatch: We are hatching the plan, desperately. We’re almost hatching a… No, we are, we’re definitely hatching a plan.
Jennie Nash: We’re hatching a plan. So, that’s going to spur you to finish, because if we hatch a plan, that means you’ve got to finish.
James Blatch: I’m definitely spurred to finish. I’ve got my spurs on.
Jennie Nash: Do it, okay.
James Blatch: So, Jennie called it head-hopping, which is when you describe a theme with multiple points of view, but you don’t make it clear, and it really was head-scratching, trying to work out who was seeing who and who was even talking at one point.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, you can’t do it. I’m reading … was it a Jason Matthews, I think he wrote The Kremlin’s Candidate, which is Domenica Egorova, is the lead character who was in Red Sparrow, the film with Jennifer Lawrence. And so, he’s a really good writer, but he does have a habit of, within scenes, jumping from one perspective to the other, and he just about pulls it off, but it does annoy me, and this is just a personal preference as a reader, it annoys me because it just doesn’t feel… The author is being much too… what’s the word… omniscient, really.
In real life, I don’t know what you’re thinking. You’re probably thinking, “What the hell is Mark talking about, now?” But in real life, I can’t know what you know, and it just feels, for me, when I’m reading something, I like to have my point of view restricted to the character, one character at a time.
And that’s not to say… and I do this all the time, I jump around from character to character, from chapter to chapter, and sometimes from scene to scene within chapters. But what I won’t do, is have character X says, “Well, I think he’s… this means this,” and the character Y will say, “Well, I think that actually means this,” because that is head-hopping and it can be very confusing for a reader. And so, I try to avoid that.
James Blatch: Yeah indeed, and I think separate scenes, and I certainly do that, but I’ve been under Jennie’s tutorship, so this was pointed out to me early on. But it is something to avoid and there are ways around it.
Mark Dawson: Not to avoid. I think you can do it. There’s nothing wrong with doing it, but it’s very difficult to do it properly, and I think there are no rules. If there were rules, then we could never do things like that, then you’d never get clever things like Bright Lights, Big City, kind of clever, intelligent genre-pushing books that go in second person present tense, for example. You wouldn’t get people doing funky experiments like that.
But, I think for writers in the kind of genre that Michael and I write in, and also that you write in, I think there isn’t necessarily a place for all those kinds of literary experiments.
What you’re trying to do is deliver something that is clear, it’s propulsive, and there’s nothing that’s going to confuse the readers, which character’s perspective am I seeing this from.
And so, I wouldn’t be prescriptive about it, but I would say, in almost every case, for me certainly, I would avoid that, but your mileage may vary.
James Blatch: I’m just having a quick look at what Jennie’s provided for us for this. So, if you go to Selfpublishingshow.com/BookLab5, you’ll get from Jennie, an annotated example of head-hopping, of when it doesn’t work.
And then, you’ll see also, she’s given us her own edits on the look inside portion of Michael’s book. So, there’s some scribbling all over that in green ink, which is great. And then a really good single-page description of how to avoid head-hopping. So, really worth having. Thank you very much indeed, Jennie, for that being brilliant.
It has been good. Now, we’ve got to hear from one more person, which is Michael himself. So, did he cry into his tea, or did he take it like a man? This is how Michael reacted to that criticism.
We’re running now, Michael. So, you’ve had a look at the other feedback, we’ll deal with it one at a time. First of all, the cover. What did you think about Stuart’s and my comments? Did you think that was fair?
Michael Parker: Yes. It’s like I said to Stuart… I’ve been in touch with Stuart, and he said, “I hope I haven’t offended you,” and I said, “Listen, my wife said to me, if you don’t like what’s happened, you shouldn’t have joined,” basically, or “You shouldn’t have volunteered.”
I’ve watched each video three times, because I wanted to make sure that I got a grip of everything. As I just told you, I’ve been in touch with Stuart we’re putting something together in July.
James Blatch: Oh, brilliant, okay. I guess the main thing Stuart thought is that… you’ve done it yourself I assume?
Michael Parker: What, my cover?
James Blatch: Yeah.
Michael Parker: No. I did have a book jacket that I designed myself on Photoshop and I wasn’t really happy with it. And eventually, I got in touch with a guy, well he got in touch with me about something, it had nothing to do with book jackets, but he’s a writer, Paul Casell, who does book jackets. And as a result of something I did for him, he gave me a treat.
One of your comments was, “Michael has gone cheap.” And I thought, I’ve got down here JB, right? Michael’s gone cheap. And I thought, “Yeah, you’ve nailed it, James. You’ve spotted it.” That cover cost me 50 quid.
James Blatch: So, there’s an old adage about you getting what you pay for in life. And it is so important, isn’t it, the cover, the work we put into books? The cover is the quick glance. Either they stay and lurk a bit longer, and possibly buy, or they move on, summing up those few seconds.
Are you going to invest in a cover with Stuart?
Michael Parker: Yeah. For somebody like me, coming to the end, if you like, of my writing career, to think of investing that kind of money, when, if I was 20 years younger, I would be quite happy to do it.
I did have a book jacket designed by a professional at one of my other titles, and that cost me about 280 pounds. And think that probably encouraged me once I got into this book lab, seeing what Stuart said and having this chat with him, so I think the SPF bonus helps as well, James.
James Blatch: Yes, of course you’re a course member and you have the VIP bonus there to help with that. Okay, good. Right, that’s the cover.
Out of interest, have you spoken concepts with Stuart? Have you got that far yet? Has he produced any ideas for you at this stage?
Michael Parker: I believe so. I asked him if he would take me on, and he’s yes, he’ll take me on in July, if I’m happy with that. So, he’s penciled me in for July, and he’s asked me for a blurb. He said a synopsis, but a blurb would do, and I’ve got an actual blurb here, haven’t I?
James Blatch: We’re going to move on to the blurb in a moment. So, basically you’re waiting for the concepts from Stuart.
Michael Parker: He’s also asked me for what he calls… I think he’s asked me for sort of comparison covers.
James Blatch: Yes, that’s what he did with me. He asked me the books I looked at for, this is the genre I’m writing in, so I gave him a couple of names.
Michael Parker: I think I would probably have to look at Robert Harris, that’s the only thing I can think of, because you and Jennie mentioned Robert Harris a lot, didn’t you?
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, he mentioned Robert Harris as well, didn’t he?
Michael Parker: Yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah, good. Okay, look past the cover.
You just alluded to the blurb. You heard what I thought of the blurb, I thought it was a superb job. It’s a good story, Michael. It’s a really gripping concept there, and that came out in the way that Bryan worked on the blurb. You must’ve been pleased with that.
Michael Parker: Well, when I looked at a blurb, which goes around here… I’ve heard of Bryan Cohen a long time ago, I think most of us have in SPF. Believe it or not, some of your comments actually hit the nail on the head as well, James. What I liked about the way Bryan explained the blurb, in one line he said, “This blurb is keeping up the pace.”
If I look at that top line, “Black cop, he’s a black cop with a big problem. His racist murder suspect is the front-runner for President.” And it’s like you said, that basically grabs the reader’s attention. I probably would’ve been reluctant to use the term black. You made a comment about that kind of thing, sort of as being contemporaneous, if you like. And so, I probably would not have used that.
But, the one with Bryan explains it, and the fact that you mentioned that it’s probably not a problem in America, because we see so many black cops, don’t we, on TV these days, and in films and that. I don’t think people of our age really do have a problem with that.
And so, yes, there’s something he mentioned, which I thought… Oh, and he said the black cop watch your premises was too juicy not to tackle. It sort of leaps out of the pages at you. Black cop watch your premises. And he talks about the everyman character, on the outside as it were, and he says some authors tend to lead with the villain. But Lieutenant Amos, who is the black cop, he’s the everyman character, and he’s the more relatable character.
James Blatch: Definitely. I think it’s much more intriguing to think of him, and much more inviting to read the story from his perspective. The presidential candidate with the sinister past is great, but, it’s not you or me likely to be, but we do know people who go out on the beat as cops.
Michael Parker: I think you mentioned it, we’ve all mentioned it, and a lot of people mentioned it, we can write novels but we can’t write blurbs, mostly. All the time, as most of my books were traditionally published, I never needed to worry about a blurb. Occasionally, I would be asked if I could submit one. It is very, very difficult.
I’m actually looking at my blurb, on my other computer, which is behind this laptop. And I must say that, when I wrote that blurb, I thought it was fine, I really did. But you talked about repetition words, James, that’s what you said, there was too much repetition, and Bryan agreed with that. And he said, “Avoid the echoes.” I like that phrase, avoid the echoes.
“You mentioned Gus Mason, you’ve mentioned him again, you mentioned him again, or you mentioned the president, or the wife…” He said, “Avoid these echoes from sentence to sentence. Don’t use the same word or phrase twice.” And that was something you picked up as well. When it’s been explained to you, this is where you’re going wrong, it’s like, “Well, now I can see,” everything has been revealed to me.
James Blatch: Do you think, partly, this is a product of the way that we work in isolations? If you worked with a couple of other people, and you read each other’s blurbs each time, you’d immediately have a layer of critique, where the blurb wouldn’t get through those early stages. But we work by ourselves. We write it, we read it, looks good, you upload it.
Everything needs a second look, really, doesn’t it?
Michael Parker: Yeah. What I was saying was, the only person I can share the blurb with is my wife, Pat. But then, bless her, she probably wouldn’t have a clue anyway. She would read it and say, “Yeah, that’s fine Mick.”
James Blatch: Yeah, it’s got to be someone else who reads and writes in the genre.
Michael Parker: It’s not really that we’re struggling and we’re living in a garret, where we’re trying to write our books. It is an isolated profession, unless you’re using an editorial coach or something like that, which I’m not.
James Blatch: Yeah. Okay, well let’s move on to Jennie, because this really was the big one for you, I think, in terms of work that you might want to do, in terms of taking on board the critique.
Jennie pointed out a point of view issue. Is that something you recognized, did it resonate?
Michael Parker: It was almost though, Jennie started off very gently, and then, she began to tear me apart, you see. She said it looked good and there was an interesting scenario for a thriller. And then she picked up on this, the number of reviewers. I’ve got 23 and Erin Kelly has 1,600. And the question is, how come?
And she said, “Michael has no following, so he has no traction.” And she said, “Michael can write, but why isn’t he selling books?” The question about selling books is something that’s always a question mark over your head. Why aren’t I selling books?
We’re going to head-hopping in a minute. I must say this, first of all, every time I’ve written a book for a publisher, and which I’ve done for several years, never, ever occurred to me about pov, point of view, or you’re using too many adverbs. I just wrote the book, right?
When it comes to this kind of clinical assessment of the way in which write a prologue or write a book, it’s like, is this really what I’m missing? Is it? Because I can’t attract the reader’s attention, because of the way I write. But, we’re looking at… what’s basic is just the look inside feature here, aren’t we?
James Blatch: Sure.
Michael Parker: And this prison scene… I went through the book, I’ve got 10 prison scenes in this book. One of your comments, James, was “I think Michael will have to do…” I think you used the expression, “extensive rewrite.” And I thought, well I can’t rewrite the book, but you were referring to the prologue. So, when I went through the book, there’s 10 scenes in there, fortunately, they are not all shaped exactly the same.
This prologue is really like I’m watching a television scene or a film scene, and I can see the two characters, and I happen to know what’s going on inside their heads, if you like, which Jennie referred to later on.
She says, “Michael’s putting the reader in the position of frustration and disconnect.” And this is where Mark was sitting, listening to Jennie Nash going, “There should be a passive agreement between the writer and the reader.”
When she said that, I thought back to some of the stories, some of the books I’ve read over the years, where I picked up a book and I’ve been instantly drawn into the writer.
One of my favorite authors was Hammond Innes. He could take me could me around and put me into another country, another environment, anything, and I was drawn in straight away. Some other writers I’ve struggled a bit, et cetera, et cetera. I’m not drawing my reader in straight away, because my prologue lets me down, let’s me down.
And Jennie says that I’m breaking this promise. I’m breaking this promise of, the agreement between the writer and the reader. You know when you’re getting down now, really, to the nub of the problem, and this is the head-hopping. As Jennie opened up on this and began to explain it to me, I could see exactly where she was coming from.
When Babs Mason is sitting in that prison cell, and she’s looking at the young writer, what the reader doesn’t know is I know the identity of the writer, and I know how that would develop in the book, because I’ve forgotten. I’ve ignored the fact that the reader’s not going to know that.
Also, I know how Babs is feeling, but I’m not telling the reader that. When it said Babs hadn’t listened to the question, and all of a sudden she says, “Oh the question, I’m bad with basic question,” and this is where Jennie Nash said, “Who’s asking the question here?” And I thought, that’s fair enough, that’s true. Because Babs has actually repeated the question and it can look to the reader as though she has actually asked the question.
James Blatch: Yes, that was a bit confusing.
So, what do you think you’re going to do, Michael?
Michael Parker: No, I won’t rewrite the whole book, because, well I won’t. The prison scenes, I went through them, and fortunately, none of those prison scenes were written in the way the prologue is written.
James Blatch: Okay, so the point of view, the head-hopping that was identified by Jennie, doesn’t permeate the whole book.
Michael Parker: No. I’ve actually rewritten the prologue twice. I know she’ll probably have another look at it, because there’s certain elements of this head-hopping that Jennie’s explained, which actually would be a great help to anybody who’s watching this. Any writer that’s watching this, what she says about… She’s talking about head-hopping in the third person, that must be limited to one character’s point of view. That’s fine.
And then, she talks about third-person omniscient, where the writer knows what’s going on in everybody’s heads. And she says, “In this prologue, Mike was switching from one character to another, all the time.” I can see that now. I couldn’t see that.
James Blatch: She’s done a handout to go with the episode, which I mentioned in her interview. People can get that at Selfpublishingshow.com/BookLab5. That’s the whole point of this, Mike, is that people learn.
I’ve been working with Jennie and her team, so I’ve had a lot of this kind of rammed down my throat over the last few weeks and months of writing. I go into every scene now knowing.
Because even third-person omniscient, where the third person knows everything, still has to be described from one person’s point of view. Because if you drop between them, and I think we gave an example of someone buying a newspaper in a shop, if you jump between them, it just becomes really complicated to follow for the reader.
I’m relieved to hear that it was kind of a prologue issue, and maybe one or two others, but not a whole rewrite of the book, because I was slightly anxious for you, that there was a head-in-hands moment for you, that you’d have to rewrite the whole book, and no one wants to hear that, as an author.
Do you think, as an experience of being in the lab, being the lab rat, as you described it before we started recording, that you’ve been experimented on and come out better informed?
Michael Parker: I’m going to try and make good use of what I’ve been told. I’m obviously going to use Bryan Cohen’s blurb. I’m going to take Stuart Bache on, to design my new book jacket, and I will rewrite the prologue. These things are fixable. I can do the blurb and I can do the prologue. I can do that tomorrow, really, and I can republish. I can do that.
But, I’ve got to wait now until July, before I get the new cover. That could be the beginning of July, could be the end of July. I did send it up to Stuart, “If you get an early slot, then let me know.” So, the important thing is this, although these things are fixable, the next step is how am I going to promote and market this book?
I’ve got to invest some money in promoting and marketing this book, with the new blurb, the rewritten prologue, and I should also make sure the other prison scenes are okay, and the new book jacket. This would be towards the end of July, probably August, before I can start advertising it. And it might be another month, maybe September, before I can actually see if there’s any effect.
James Blatch: It’ll be July before you know it. And with the blurb, you’ve got a set of pithy little sentences that Bryan’s done for you, that you can use as taglines and Facebook ads and AMS ads and so on.
Michael Parker: Yeah, I should use them. You can’t knock it, can you? That is it. He’s nailed it, he’s nailed it all the way through. This is what I like, when we have Bryan says… The last three lines of a blurb, he says, “The reader must want more.” He’s saying you’ve got to leave them wanting more, you’ve got to let them know what they’re getting, and you’ve got to tell them what to do.
Well, he’s done it for me anyway. But, these kind of comments, and no doubt, these kind of comments will be in his book, which I’ve also got. I’ve got his book.
In fact, I should probably go back to Bryan’s book now, start reading through it again, because there’s so much in there that helps people like me. All this was just something I’d never had to bother with. It was just writing the story, that’s what matters to me, was the story.
James Blatch: Because when you were traditionally published, there was an office in London full of people doing it for you, but now it’s you and me and an army of authors by ourselves.
Michael, thank you so much indeed, for coming into the book lab. Thank you for talking to us tonight. It’s not easy to hear your baby, your love, torn apart sometimes, by people, and forcing to put it back together again, but it’s a very businesslike approach to selling it as a product. You almost move yourself away from it.
Listen to what third parties say, put it back together again and make it a shinier, better product, and hopefully it’ll move off the shelf. So, you have to let us know in the autumn, whether you’ve seen an improvement in sales. That’s what we want to hear.
Michael Parker: I’m going to try and keep a record of what I do.
James Blatch: So, I thought Michael took it in a very logical way. There was no emotional response from him, it was, “They’ve identified this, you’ve identified this, and these other steps, I need to make.”
And the good news, by the sounds of it, is that the head-hopping was something he was playing with in that particular scene and look inside, it was slightly different from the rest of the book.
I think he agreed, in essence, that it needed revising. I think he’s already doing that, but didn’t sound like he had to rewrite the whole book, which I was slightly worried about when Jennie first said there’s a problem here.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, and if the problem’s identified at the start of the book, then that’s not the place to have the problem. You want to be hooking your readers at that point, not just from the perspective of will they buy after they’ve looked at the look inside? Once they’ve bought it, are they going to finish it, or are they going to put it down, because they’ve found it isn’t working for them?
It’s definitely something that you need to make sure that the front end of your first few chapters… that’s why we focus on those… that they are as polished and effective as you can make them.
James Blatch: Yeah, okay. Selfpublishingshow.com/BookLab5 to get all the goodies for this episode. And if you would like to go into the book laboratory, you simply have to be a Patreon subscriber, a gold Patreon subscriber. So, if you go to Patreon.com/Selfpublishingshow and support us at $3 an episode, you will be in the hat for the next round.
Now we do have a winner of the charity auction for Tommy Donbavand, who is going to go into the lab, but he has asked us to park that for a while, while he finishes his book, sounds familiar. So, probably not until next year, I think, for him. So, there was spaces for the rest of this year, we’ll probably get a couple more in, in 2019.
So yes, that’s the way to do that. Good, another visit to the lab. Mark, you can take your rubber gloves off.
Mark Dawson: What are you talking about?
James Blatch: Well, that’s what Michael said. Because I always joke about putting the white coat on, he said, “For my one, you needed to put the old gloves on. I have a tub of Vaseline.” But yes, we can go and scrub down or whatever you do after.
Mark Dawson: I think the audiences has just gotten a rather unpleasant insight into what goes on in the laboratory.
James Blatch: A low look inside.
Mark Dawson: Oh, dear.
James Blatch: My head-hopping.
Mark Dawson: That’s terrible.
James Blatch: Good. Okay look, that’s it for this week. It’s been a long episode, but definitely worth it. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Thank you very much indeed, for being here this week. Hope you have a great week writing and selling your books. And I’m going to say that’s it’s goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: I’m going to the shower. It’s goodbye from me.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
Speaker 5: Get show notes, the podcast archive, and free resources to boost your writing career at Selfpublishingshow.com. Join our thriving Facebook group at Selfpublishingshow.com/Facebook. Support the show at Patreon.com/Selfpublishingshow. And join us next week for more help and inspiration, so that you can make your mark as a successful indie author. Publishing is changing. Get your words into the world and join the revolution with the Self-publishing Show.
Grab Your SPF Freebies!
Sign up to receive your SPF starter package, which includes a free 3 part video series on getting started with FB ads, and inspirational and educational weekly emails.