SPS-219: BookLab 7 – with Barbara Gaskell Denvil
Once more James, book coach Jennie Nash, blurb savant Bryan Cohen, and cover design guru Stuart Bache don their white coats and offer assistance to an author. In this edition, nonagenarian Barbara Gaskell Denvil puts her book, Between, under the microscope.
- Remembering to think about the reader’s experience when you’re writing
- The balance of revealing and concealing
- The pitfalls of trying to be ‘clever’ when writing
- The importance of asking, “What do I want the reader to be thinking about?”
- The validity of using second person POV in a blurb
- The importance of including character stakes in a blurb
- Why a character’s internal conflict might be more important than exciting plot points
- Why the cover of the book doesn’t tell the story
- What to do if your book straddles a couple of genres
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
SPFU: For a limited time, while the world is #socialdistancing, we are offering FREE access to SPF University* (*not a university). Click here for lifetime access.
DIGITAL EVENT: Were you not able to attend SPS Live? Get your digital ticket here.
SPF 101 COURSE: For a limited time SPF 101 is open for enrolment.
SURVEY: What would you like SPF to offer classes about? Take the survey and let us know.
HANDOUT: Download Jenny’s handout about the classic writing rule ‘Show, Don’t Tell’.
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show…
Barbara Gaskell: People criticize me for writing in different genres, but it’s such fun. I love doing it and I probably lose readers and lose money by doing that, but I certainly gain a lot of satisfaction.
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 bestseller, 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 to the Self-Publishing Show and not just that, but a special Book Lab edition of the Self-Publishing Show to raise your spirits and focus your minds in these testing times. My name is James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: My name is Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Hello Mark. Here we are. We’re recording this we should say, because I think every day is like a chapter in a dystopian novel at the moment. So let’s just say when we’re recording, this is Thursday, the 19th of March.
This is going out in a week and one day from now, which is a lifetime in current circumstances as this extraordinary event unfolds across the world.
Now, there’s going to be quite a few links for us to give out. We are doing several things like lots of companies are to try and adapt to circumstances, so I’m going to give out a few links in a moment and we’ll get some feedback from you as well to help us do that.
So we’ll go through that. We will talk a bit about this as well in every episode, I think at the moment, try and be as reassuring as possible.
I think it’s important that we do abide by the business as usual as much as possible because we all require everything to still be there at the end of this. So, we all need to do our bit on that front. That’s not withstanding, priorities will change rapidly and on a personal level will shift rapidly for people.
We’re going to try and be as consistent and steady as possible during this period. Are we not Mark?
Mark Dawson: We are. Yes, that’s the plan. So we’ve got a few things. We’ve got a few plans. We’ll mention a few things in this episode and then perhaps the next one as well.
But the general point of all this is that as far as we’re concerned, it’s business as usual and we’re actually going to try and provide slightly more content than we have done in the past just because people have got more time on their hands. I think being busy sometimes is the best way to distract yourself from what can otherwise be quite frightening times. So we’re looking at a few little initiatives that we can reveal in this very episode of the podcast.
James Blatch: Yes, indeed. Well the very first thing I want to do is to welcome two new supporters of ours for our Patreon page. If you go to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow, I want to say a very warm welcome to Sharmyn McGraw, which is frankly a very good name. Sharmyn McGraw from California USA and Ed Kaufman.
Thank you very much indeed Sharmyn and Ed for joining us this week from patreon.com.
Now we’ve announced a few things so we put our heads together, as the situation started changing, people started being restricted from home and in our minds as well, we know that lots of you will work in nine to five jobs that are now being disrupted potentially with your incomes disrupted.
If you’re in the United States and you become poorly, we know that has a financial impact, perhaps more severe than it does in other countries and for all of those reasons we’re going to do what we can to allow you to, well first of all, use the time as Mark said, that you might have at home to double down a bit on your author career, which could be important for you in the future. And also try and do things as low cost as possible for you as well, whilst maintaining our company, which we hope obviously is a priority for us to survive this as well.
So the first thing to say is we have the SPF University, and as a Patreon supporters, you get automatic enrollment to that, so that costs you a little bit every episode as support for the podcast. Otherwise you get it as a benefit for buying one of our courses, obviously costs you that way as well.
And what you get with the SPFU is regular live training. So we do these webinars with people, I’ve got Dave Chesson coming up and would have gone, I think by the time this goes out. We’ve had Mal Cooper on read through and so on.
There’s quite an archive now. We’re going to open that up free of charge to everybody for this COVID-19 period and once you’re enrolled, you’re enrolled for life. So if you get on board now, you’ll have that for life.
So get in there, use some hours you’ve got to soak up some of that good and valuable information. And to enroll, if you simply go to selfpublishingformula.com/SPFUfree, all one word, SPFUfree, you can enroll in that university and immediately get access to all the previous training and you’ll be invited to the next live event.
Which brings me on to our next URL to give out, our next point, Mark, and this is about what sort of subjects we cover.
Mark Dawson: I’ve got plenty of ideas about things we could do for SPFU, but usually it’s once a month, but we might like to increase that a little bit maybe to once every couple of weeks over the next few months.
Dave Chesson has been on now as this goes out, he would’ve been on to talk about metadata and that will be one that I would recommend watching. But I’d be interested to know what other things that they would like to have covered. So who they would like to hear speaking and what they would like those people to talk about.
If you have ideas on that, some of the things could be me. If you have something that you think I might be able to talk about, beard care for example would be an excellent one.
James Blatch: Trimming.
Mark Dawson: Trimming, yeah, that kind of stuff would be, anything that you think would be interesting in terms of marketing or writing? I could even do craft, I wouldn’t normally, but if someone wants me to talk about craft I could do that and we’ll see what we can do.
One of the benefits of having done this for a while and having been around a bit is that I know probably most people and I think I’m quite confident that I would be able to get most people to come on and spend a bit of time with us.
So if you have a speaker that you’d like to hear from, Joanna Penn, for example, Nick Stevenson who are, there’s this really anyone, I will do my best to get them.
James Blatch: There’s a world out there of experts we can draw on, and they all answer Mark’s phone calls is what he’s basically saying, which is true. So we have a link for you, which I am going to say is selfpublishingformula.com/SPF2020. Again, all word SPF2020. So if you go there, there’s a little survey monkey for you to fill in.
Mark Dawson: There’s two questions.
James Blatch: Yeah, there’s two questions, which I am going to come onto in a neat segue.
Mark Dawson: Go for it.
James Blatch: Here’s my neat segue. So the next thing is, how can we make some of the premium stuff that we do, like the big courses affordable during a time of dipping incomes where people don’t want to lose their skin in the game?
They don’t want to come out of the game completely, but it’s going to be perhaps a bit more difficult, a bit more of a stretch for you to do that. So what we’ve decided to do is, first of all, we’ve announced a new price payment plan for the 101 course, which is currently open, we extended it to be open a little bit longer.
That’s a payment plan that is going to allow you to spread the cost over two years, over 24 months. So that works out at about $29 and that’s as affordable as we can make it covering all the costs, which is last time I looked approaching half a million pounds a year, we now spend, in fact more than that with the affiliate payments. So we have to balance this of course.
And we’ve also, for the first time ever we always say this, I mean someone said to me, “You give so much business information”, but we are a very transparent company. But I will say for the first time ever, we’ve actually borrowed a little bit of money as well, which we’re doing with very clear focus on our business plan for the future.
But we want to be able to survive this and we want you to be able to keep your dream alive during this period. So, if you go to selfpublishingformula.com/101, you will see there is an additional payment plan option available for you, which is to spread the cost of entry into the 101 course over two years.
With the first payment, of course you get full access to the entire course and as long as you’re on the payment plan, as long as you complete the payment plan, it’s yours for life all updates that will come.
And on that same note, we thought it would be useful if we want to put some time and effort, maybe commission some to create courses pretty much at cost. We’ll pay obviously them and then put the course out at a very low point, or as low as we can. Something like $29, might even be $29 for the whole course.
So short courses, maybe up to 49 we’ll say. Obviously, I’m just riffing here as we come up with this, but Mark’s put that extra question in that survey link that I just gave out to find out what sort of course would appeal to you, what you’d be interested in learning from the world’s experts.
We do have access to everyone. This week, yesterday I interviewed Chris Banks who is the founder of ProWritingAid. He created ProWritingAid. Now I haven’t had this conversation with Chris, but he’s the sort of person we could go to and Chris could do a really detailed premium course we pay him to do on how to use ProWritingAid to make your books better.
That’s top of my head sort of thing, idea we’re looking for. And then we’d put that out, we’d publish it, we would get it professionally edited. And you’d be able to buy that as a single lifetime fee for a low fee. So we’re looking for ideas, what you want to learn on that front.
Mark Dawson: We are. So just anything at all really, just pop over to the survey, fill those two questions out and let us know what you’d like and then we’ll see if we can detect any patterns and if we can, we’ll look to produce something.
And it will be with the same, one of the things we’re keen on is that everything we do is top quality. So James won’t be anywhere near it, we’ll get someone professional to do it and there we go.
James Blatch: Talking of getting professionals to do it, I’m really pleased we did invest in this. We have the sessions back from our professional video production company that we brought in for the live conference in London called Dead Ready, actually the company, very, very good to work with. They were excellent.
They were with us all day. Proper cameras obviously in the venue itself. And then they came along in the evening for the drinks reception and you saw some of their work in last week’s podcast, but they have now completed all the sessions. We’ve published them and you can get your digital ticket to the conference if you go to selfpublishingformula.com/digital. And they look great.
Mark Dawson: I’ve seen those, they look really good. If you were at the conference, you’ll enjoy reminding yourself of how much fun we had and if you weren’t at the conference, it would be a really good way to catch up on what the speakers had to say.
They’re all in HD, you could put them on your big screen if you want to watch them on your laptop, on your phone, whatever it is. Wherever you’re currently hunkering down, it would be a pretty good way to distract yourself. There’s about a day’s worth of content there, so you could have plenty of fun with that over the next few weeks.
James Blatch: Now we have a Book Lab episode today, which we’re going to come onto in a moment, but I will say during these changing times, we are going to obviously keep a very close eye on the market.
Lots of questions popping up into our group saying, “How were your figures yesterday and the day before? Have you noticed any changes?” I think it’s gone very rapidly, I would say. We all went to London and had a conference a week ago last… Eight days ago.
Mark Dawson: Eight days ago.
James Blatch: That is unthinkable today that we would do that, unthinkable. That’s how quickly things have changed and they will change again in the next few weeks. I think we’re probably in a bit of a shock period.
I’m in isolation with my family as I’m recording this because one of our children showed some symptoms and we’re following the government’s guidelines and getting used to this. My daughter had her big exams canceled for this year, which is a bit of a shock for her. I would have been delighted, but she was a little bit tearful about it, but there you go.
It’s going to settle down a little bit as the situation unfolds. We will perhaps hold off having that sort of discussion about strategies for a week, but maybe next week is a time for you and me, Mark, to have a look at what we’re hearing in the groups, what changes people are making, the very early indications, and we’ll keep this discussion short. We’ll save it for next week.
The very early indications are that online is a good space to be in, which you would perhaps logically think. We had a note from Teachable, the ones who host our courses, not only by the way have they been sold for a lot of money, which is congratulations to them, a great platform, we’re very happy to have been a part of that. But they said they’ve seen a surge of incoming traffic, so they’ve had to up their server capacity.
Now that’s an indication and I think Amazon’s probably had a surge as well. I think all the online sites in the UK that deliver any kind of product or food in particular are almost broken at the moment with that.
So, the early indications are that your ebook side of business and even your print on demand side of the business are good places to be.
Mark Dawson: Yep, absolutely. It’s definitely something that we’re seeing. Lucy was trying to place a groceries order last night and the Ocado app, Ocado is the company that we use, basically they took their app down and then their website, they weren’t taking any more orders in.
And then we went to Waitrose, which is a very middle class grocer in the UK and you had to queue for an hour to get onto the website. It was absolutely unprecedented.
I’m speaking with people at Amazon about this and Amazon have stopped stocking third party products, most third party products in their warehouse so they can concentrate on the five categories that are particularly important right now. So, food, whole foods, sanitary products, that kind of stuff. So they’re really concentrating on that.
And in the States, they’re hiring 100,000 people to work in the warehouses so that they can meet orders, Amazon is obviously… I don’t know how many cents in every dollar or pence in every pound Amazon is responsible for, but I reckon it’s doubled over the course of the last couple of weeks and will probably go up again.
So, you just have hope that the tech companies are resilient and ready to adapt because we are going to be relying on them. This is a pretty good test of how ready they are for something as unprecedented as this.
Anyway, we will talk about this next week. There are a few things we can talk about with regards to things like VAT, so some good news, VAT being taken off ebooks and we can talk about-
James Blatch: In the UK.
Mark Dawson: In the UK, yeah. And we can talk about demand for books and how sales are looking. I don’t mind talking about my sales and where we think that might go as we as into the year.
James Blatch: Yeah. Let’s talk about all of that next week. We’ll bundle it all together.
I suppose the general point to link into Book Lab is that we have limited control over lots of things, particularly if you work for an organization and you’ve been sent home and maybe you’re not even doing any work for them day to day at the moment, you can’t massively influence how that organization is run, managed, and what its survival strategy is, but you can manage your author career.
That’s entirely yours and I think focusing on that, it’s very distracting at the moment, I’m really struggling to do some of the routine stuff. I think you’ve said you’ve struggled to get your writing done a lot. We’re hearing that from lots of people. That will settle down.
This is a good time to be calm, to plan, to strategize your author career and try and do it if necessary, as cheaply as possible, learn some new trades during this period.
Mark Dawson: There will be some authors now listening to this, this will be the start of their careers. Right? I reckon in a year’s time there’ll be people thinking like, “Oh my God, you remember the virus? Wasn’t that the most remarkable thing ever?”
And some people will say, “That was when I finished my first book. I completed my trilogy and I started to make serious money and I’ve never gone back to work again.” There’ll be lots of people who are at home now because they’re not allowed to work in the office or in the warehouse or whatever it is they go to and they will never go back.
And those are the kinds of people that once the airline industry has risen from the ashes, that you and John can go and visit and we can get some feel good stories that we can look forward to next year.
James Blatch: Yeah. Now in terms of doubling down and focusing on the detail that’s going to turn you from okay to good, from good to great and going up that reverse triage system, we have a Book Lab today.
If you’ve not heard a Book Lab episode before, they’re my favorite episodes. This is where we take a book, now on an Amazon book page, you get a lot of information, you get the book cover, key, you get the blurb, key and you can even do the ‘look inside’, which is the first 20 pages or so of a novel.
So what we do is we take a volunteer, usually one of our Patreon supporters. We take a volunteer, we take one of their books, and we send the blurb off to a blurb expert. We send the cover off to a cover experts. And we send the writing, the first 20 pages off to an editor, developmental editor, and then we get critical feedback on those three things, which we feed back to the author and we hear from them in the episode as well.
So we’ve got all of those interviews to come and we have a really good one today. I can tell you the author selected is Barbara Gaskell Denvil and the book is called Between. We tend to ask people not to make too many changes to the Amazon page at the point where this episode’s going out so you can see the before and after, but we will also put together the before and after in case any changes have gone on.
You can get the before and after in our pack that goes with this episode, either go to the show notes or go to selfpublishingformula.com/booklab7, book lab and the number seven, all one word.
I should tell you right at the beginning, so I was under the impression all the way through this that Gill Trewick is the real person who writes these books and Barbara Gaskell Denvil is her pen name and that’s how it went all the way through our conversations with Bryan and Stuart about the cover and Jenny about the blurb.
We interviewed Gill in person because obviously we show them all the feedback and then we interview them at the end, but we did it in person in London just after the conference, and she came to the hotel we had booked as it happened for the canceled London Book Fair. And in walked two women, in walked Gill Trewick and a woman, Barbara Gaskell Denvil who is her mum and it was a bit of a surprise to me. And I think probably I was told somewhere in an email but ignored it, that was the case.
Barbara was absolutely wonderful to talk to. Really, really wonderful woman, you’re going to really enjoy hearing her feedback at the end.
But it’s time for us to press on and start hearing some of the experts’ opinions. We’re going to start I think with the writing, which is a good place for writers to start, isn’t it? So we showed the ‘look inside’ of Between by Barbara Gaskell Denvil to our resident editor, Jenny Nash.
Jenny Nash. It’s been too long since we’ve had our natters, I love our natters, I learn so much from you. I can’t tell you and honestly, it’s one of my favorite parts of this whole podcasting thing we do is when we deep dive into the technicalities of getting it right in writing with you.
Jenny Nash: Oh, thank you. I love it too, although I don’t know what the term natter means.
James Blatch: It’s not rude. When you natter in the UK, you have a little chit chat. Do you have chit chats? Do you know what you say in America, this is a real American thing that doesn’t really translate into UK, is you visit with someone.
Jenny Nash: Oh, you have a visit.
James Blatch: He’s visiting with her in the kitchen is the weirdest thing in English because when you visit someone, you get in your car and you drive to Cornwall and you visit your friends. You don’t go to the kitchen and visit with somebody, you chat to them.
Jenny Nash: Really, they’re nattering in the kitchen.
James Blatch: You have a natter, that’s what you do.
Jenny Nash: Got it, we’re nattering.
James Blatch: We’re nattering.
Jenny Nash: I love it.
James Blatch: At the time of recording this, your lovely daughter is coming across to the UK on behalf of BookBub, I felt a bit #MeToo saying lovely, I should say your professional, brilliant daughter, why don’t I that so I don’t get arrested? Your brilliant daughter is coming to the UK in a couple of weeks so I can teach her some proper English in London and she can go back and educate you.
Jenny Nash: She’s coming to your big live conference on behalf of BookBub and I know she is so thrilled. She loves you guys. She loves your audience and she goes out there to talk about BookBub things. She won’t tell me the BookBub secrets but I’m just her mom. But she’ll tell your audience attendees.
James Blatch: We’ve got them all set up. I say as we sit here as well, the other thing that’s happening in the background is this whole COVID-19 coronavirus. So at the moment we are hoping the conference is going to take place. I’m sure it is, but just in case, by the time this goes out, everyone knows it didn’t.
Okay, look, let’s move on from Anglo-American relations and let’s talk about our subject in hand, which is Barbara Gaskell Denvil’s book, which is called Between. We’ve chosen it for the Book Lab.
Your job, Jen, is to look at the writing and the writing we focus on is the writing that a speculative punter will see. Do you use the word punter? Somebody who might buy the book?
Jenny Nash: No, but I like it. I get it.
James Blatch: Yeah. So the punter, maybe he’s going to take a punt on this book, is going to read the ‘look inside’. So that’s what you’ve looked at, that’s what you’ve got to go. And of course you’ve also seen the cover and the blurb, so you can put a bit of that into it.
Give us the lowdown on what the writing says to you in this book.
Jenny Nash: When you click into Amazon, you’re in the mystery thriller suspense genre and I know your cover expert’s going to be talking a bit about what the cover and the copy tells us. But as a reader, you’re thinking, “Okay, that’s where I am.”
And you click into the opening pages of this book and there were a couple things that struck me right away. First of all, there’s beautiful description and Barbara is a great writer. We’ve got a sentence like this. She writes, “Here Nothing weighed, nothing automatically heavy since gravity was an expectation and a habit rather than an unavoidable force.”
James Blatch: Yeah, her writing is lovely.
Jenny Nash: It’s a beautiful thought. It’s beautiful, beautiful words, really nice way of putting it together. But-
James Blatch: There’s always a but.
Jenny Nash: There’s a big but. Right away we don’t know where we are in time or space with this novel, we are on very shaky ground. And even just the first couple pages, we get, okay, we’re with a guy, we know that. And he’s in a landscape, it’s a somewhat harsh landscape, beautifully described, but we don’t know who he is or where he is or what’s happening.
And then in the next paragraph we shift and we’re with a woman, she’s dying. We don’t know what her connection is to the guy. And these paragraphs go back and forth like this in the first few pages with this guy and this woman who’s dying.
We spend so much time as a reader in these opening pages just trying to get the lay of the land. Where are we? What’s happening? Who are these people? What is the relation to them? And when a reader’s asking those kind of questions, they’re not the right kind of questions you want your reader to have.
What we’ve got here is a situation where the writer is not thinking about the reader’s experience. And so I’m going to break this down a little bit.
What we come to find out with this book is that it’s a murder mystery that goes on in heaven. So that’s a really interesting premise, right? I mean there’s so many things to think about there and it’s a really great idea.
But I immediately, once I figured that out I went back and I kept reading these opening paragraphs again and again and again to see how long it took me, where it was that I finally figured that out. And it takes too long. And some people may push back and say, “Well you figure it out on the second page, how bad is that?”
But your punter, see I’ve got my new lingo, your punter, they’re not going to give you that much time. And one thing that I did was I went and I looked at some similar books that just came to my mind that have the same premise, the same sort of concept, if you will.
One that came to my mind, it’s not a book I’ve actually read, but I’ve just heard endless things about which is Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s right now massively big seller. And interestingly enough, Barbara’s book has four ratings on Amazon. Guess how many Delia Owens has for Where The Crawdads Sing?
James Blatch: I imagine quite a lot. 500 plus?
Jenny Nash: 40,000.
James Blatch: Okay. 500 was a bit of an underestimate.
Jenny Nash: 40,000.
James Blatch: 40,000 people have bothered to review it? That’s incredible.
Jenny Nash: Yes. Okay, so we’re talking about, what is the difference between a book that gets four ratings and a book that gets 40,000 ratings because this book is also a murder mystery, Where The Crawdads Sing.
If you open that within the first paragraph, you also have a beautiful description. In this case it’s of a swamp. This book is set in the South, but you immediately know that somebody has died and there they are dead in the swamp.
So, this idea of level setting the reader’s expectations and pulling them through your story, the way I like to describe it is, the writer is leaving breadcrumbs for the reader and you want to move them through the forest or the swamp. You want to take them by the hand and show them the way.
I’m a book coach, I work with writers all the time and I see people balking at this all the time because they think that it’s too simplistic to literally say, “The next day”, or, “His wife”, or those kind of markers that will root us in time and space and relationship. They think that it’s talking down to the reader to give them that information.
So, what we’re talking about here is really a version of, “Show don’t tell.” And what I see Barbara doing is resisting telling the reader any key information that they would need to know and forcing the reader to scramble to figure it out on their own. And they’re just not going to do it. It’s too hard.
James Blatch: Okay. Let me explore this a little bit with you because I think this does go to the heart of something that particularly new authors and I count myself there, struggle with, which is how much to conceal and reveal? And I think certainly when I started, I thought that the great thing to do would be very mysterious about this, is just to be very mysterious and it will all be revealed a bit like a film that opens very slowly and takes you a while to work out what’s actually going on.
But the more I’ve written, the more I’ve worked with you, and the more I’ve noticed when I’m reading other people’s books, that actually you’re right. You want the reader to be guessing some things, but things you’re in control of them guessing. You’ve deliberately set for them a mystery and you’ve signposted it. What you don’t want them doing is scratching their head wondering, “Who’s talking, where are we, these people, do they know each other for too much?”
A little bit of mystery’s okay, at the beginning? It is beautifully written, to go back to the prose, I loved the couple of opening lines.
“Georgia opened her eyes and knew she was dying.” That is a great opening line. I love the writing of it.
I also do like that mystery, because you want to read the next sentence.
Jenny Nash: It’s true. It’s a very sophisticated skill, the knowing how much to reveal, and how much not to reveal. Particularly in genres such as mystery, or thriller, or suspense, where the entire point of reading is to figure out what happens.
But, the way you said that was very spot on, that it’s which questions do you want to raise in your reader’s mind? You don’t want to raise the questions that you could answer with very simple markers or sign posts, as you said.
The other thing that I went and looked at was the very well known and beloved book by Alice Sebold called The Lovely Bones.
James Blatch: That’s the book that came to my mind when I started to realize the theme of this book.
Jenny Nash: Right, because this book is set in heaven. It’s a murder mystery in heaven. Also, the designation that Barbara has chosen after the thriller suspense is she’s got literary fiction.
The book The Lovely Bones is a book that straddles those lines, as well. It’s a murder, it’s a mystery, it’s set in heaven, but it’s also seen as literary.
Your readers, our audience here, can go and look, pull up Where the Crawdads Sing, and just read the opening paragraph and see how that author combines the moodiness, and the mystery, and the sense of what’s going on here, with the clear indication that somebody’s dead.
Then, in The Lovely Bones, you read just the opening four paragraphs, which I’ve printed out here. We know the date, we know the age of the character, we know who murdered her. We know that she was murdered, we know that she’s in heaven, in the first five paragraphs. All of that information is given away.
The key thing to realize here is readers want to know why something happens. So, if we know who died, when they died, who killed them, how old they were, that they’re talking to us from heaven, the questions that are raised in our mind, as we talked about before, are questions such as, why is she able to speak to us from heaven? Who is she speaking to? Can she speak to her family? Is she trying to orchestrate the discovery of the killer to the people on earth?
Those are the kind of questions you want to raise in your reader’s head. Not wait a second, where is she? Who is she? How old was she?
By giving things away, you allow your reader to have that imaginative space in the ways you want them to.
James Blatch: I do see where you’re getting at. I’m having a quick glance at Alice Sebold’s prose. I have read The Lovely Bones, a few years ago though. I can see, right away … In fact, she makes a real thing about being very factual about the situation in the opening paragraph.
Jenny Nash: Yeah. This is the thing, this is why it goes to show, don’t tell. It’s a subset of show, don’t tell because, as you said, it’s about what do you reveal, and it’s also about facts, that kind of thing. You’ve got to let your reader know where they are, in time and space, all the time.
One of the handouts that I’m going to provide for our listeners today is I took the opening pages of a Harlan Coben novel. I chose that one because sometimes the objections are strongest in the mystery or thriller, the really pure mystery or thriller genres because people say, “Well, you’ve got to move fast, it’s all about the action, it’s all about the discovery of the who done it, or the tension of what’s happening there. You don’t want to stop and tell your reader stuff.”
What I did was I highlighted everywhere that Harlan Coben uses actual … I don’t know what word you’d use, but these grounding words of time and space, and they’re all over the place. He’s telling you, all over the place. Again, things about time, things about space. When I mean space, I mean literally where are we, in historical time. Literally, where are we in space.
In Barbara’s book, which we’re sitting now, we’re in heaven. It’s cool to let the reader come to that a little bit, but the longer you let them wonder or sit with that, here’s what happens. You’re losing your reader’s trust, and a book is a contract between the writer and the reader.
The writer is saying, “Come with me, I know what I’m talking about, I know this story inside out. I’m going to tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it, to make it interesting and fun for you.” The reader is putting yourself in their hands and saying, “Okay.”
If you’re not leading the reader with these time markers, and space markers, the trust is broken and it’s a subtle, unconscious sort of thing. But, I’m sure it’s happened to you, probably recently, where you’re reading a book … often times, it’s a book everybody is raving about, and loving. You’re in it, and you’re just thinking, I can’t get my feet on the ground in this book, it just is not speaking to me, it’s not there for me. The reason why is there’s that broken trust.
James Blatch: That contract?
Jenny Nash: Yeah, they’ve broken the contract, that’s exactly right.
With Barbara, if you study here opening pages, and you lay them against these books we’ve discussed you can very clearly see that these bestselling authors are telling you phrases like, “three days ago.” Or, even the physical space, the way it’s handled by these bestselling authors.
In the Harlan Coben opening, you’re in a cemetery at the opening, and then suddenly the character, the widow of the guy who’s murdered looks next door, and there’s a school next to the cemetery. So, you know where you are in the neighborhood, actually. You’re in a cemetery, you’re next to an elementary school, and the character is actually using that school to trigger some thoughts in her, so the where we are in space is really important to the story.
Even just words like widow, naming who the characters are in relation to each other. All the good writers are doing this. An author like Barbara, what I suspect is she’s trying to be clever, she’s trying to be a clever writer.
That thinking can get in a way of just give the reader what they need, give us the markers we need. Let us feel safe, and on solid ground, and we’ll go anywhere with you. We’ll go all the weird places.
Yeah, let’s be in heaven, that’s great. Like with The Lovely Bones, let’s be in heaven with a 14 year old narrator who knows what happened to her when she was murdered, and is watching people on earth not get it, we’ll go there. It’s a weird place to go, when you think about it.
James Blatch: Yeah, it’s quite disturbing. Okay, I so sympathize with Barbara. Jill, in fact, I think is her real name, because there, but for the grace of God go I.
Certainly, when I was in my early drafts, doing exactly that. It wasn’t really … you said being clever, which sounds … I think clever, sometimes, is used as a bit of an insult to people. “You’re being clever,” or, “so clever,” more than it is … I think, I know what you mean.
When you’re doing it, you feel that you need to elevate, that some concept of writing that’s above your normal description, for it to be a novel. That’s probably not right, actually. I think the point you’re making is actually a novel is just telling the story, and not letting that stuff get in the way of it.
Her writing’s great, it is beautiful, and I really enjoy it. I find it very engaging. The sentence structure is superb.
What you’re saying is that extra bit of mystery, of learning things, or not being literal about it, is getting in the way of us enjoying the story, and getting to know the characters?
Jenny Nash: Right. So, the thing to think about is what do I want my reader to be thinking about?
What do I want them to be engaged with, or guessing, or wondering? The answer is not I want them to be wondering who this guy is, what’s going on here, who’s this other woman, how are they related?
Here’s a perfect example, and I hate to throw my husband under the bus, but I think I will to make a point.
Sometimes, your spouse comes home from work, you’re talking about the day, and you’re talking about all the things. We’re talking, you and I, right now, and coming up on tax seasons. Maybe they’re talking about they talked to the tax guy, and there’s all these threads of things that they’re throwing out at you.
Sometimes, my husband will start talking about something, and he’ll say something like, “Oh, so I talked to Jim, and on Thursday we’re going to have a meeting.” I’m like, “Wait. Who’s Jim?”
James Blatch: Yeah.
Jenny Nash: “Is this Jim the tax guy, or is this Jim, the guy you were talking about from your work? Or, is this Jim, our friend?” If you’re suddenly thinking that, and my poor spouse has to live with me, the book coach.
James Blatch: Yeah, picking apart his conversation.
Jenny Nash: I’ll stop and I’ll say, “What’s the context here? What context are you talking about? You’ve got to give me something, here.” Then, the simplest thing, he’ll say, “Oh, Jim the tax guy.” Then, I’m fine.
But, if I am having to think, who is he talking about, and why is he telling me this, he’s lost me. In fact, at the end of the day if he does that to me, I’m now mad at him. You’re making me work too hard to follow what you’re saying.
James Blatch: Okay. I’ll tell you one thing, just looking at The Look Inside, and aside from that, is how well Jill has done putting together this book. There’s basically, you have to have the contents automatically generated and put in there. There’s one tiny little bit of copyright, and then you’re into the book.
Contrast that with Alice Sebold’s, admittedly, superb novel, The Lovely Bones. The guff traditional publishing put in front of the book, you have to wade through it to get to the beginning of the writing. I don’t understand why they do that. There’s quotes from people who’ve read the book, and what they think of it and you think, well you’ve got the book at this stage, you’ve read the blurb.
Anyway, that’s just a small thing about when you do your formatting, and get your book up there, I think Indies lead the way in this sense, of getting to the stuff people are buying it for.
You’ve put together a handout on this very subject. Jenny, what’s the handout? How will people follow that?
Jenny Nash: Yes. This is a handout on show, don’t tell. We talked about this, probably on this podcast before, if anybody has ever listened to any editor, or publishing professional, you’ve heard people talk about this a million times. I think show, don’t tell is the most common writing advice, but I find people really get it wrong.
The handout that I’m showing is helping you understand what it means. The way people get it wrong is they think it’s literal, so literally show, don’t tell. That is what Barbara or Jill has done, is she’s shown us. Here’s a guy in heaven, here’s a guy, and death is happening, death is coming up with this other woman, and there’s birds. She’s shown us, she’s literally shown us.
But, what it really means … if you look, there’s a famous Chekov quote that people often go back to, with this show, don’t tell which is, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
I sometimes wonder if this isn’t where the whole show, don’t tell thing comes from, because people think, okay, I’ve got to describe the moonlight, I’ve got to describe the glass, I’ve got to describe these objects in the room. But, that’s not what he means, that literal interpretation.
What he’s really saying is this quote, “the glint of light on broken glass.” So, what you and I were talking about, is what questions does that raise in your mind? To me, it’s like broken glass, wait a second. Is there blood here, did something bad happen? Who’d it happen to, why’d it happen? Those are the questions that raises in our mind, that we would then want answers to, we would want to be told the answers to.
What people sometimes forget is there’s another part of that quote, after the “glint of light on broken glass,” Chekov says, “if in the first act you’ve hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired, otherwise don’t put it there.”
So, what he’s really saying is let us into the world, let us into what’s actually happening, and tell us. We want to see it unfold, we want to see what happened here, and what went on here, and who these people are, that’s the stuff we want to be wondering about.
The handout that I have is about getting at this idea that you actually do have to tell, that’s my whole point. I think that, if you read the Chekov quote, it’s much better if you actually see it rather than me speak it, and I’ve got that in this handout.
We want to be told, we actually want to be told. Tell us what is happening, tell us what this character is feeling, tell us why it matters to this character, tell us what they’re not saying, tell us where they are in time in space, tell us all those things.
People are so afraid of show, don’t tell that they default to … This is what Barbara has done, just all the beautiful language, and all the beautiful description. They’re not telling us anything, so then we’re just lost in the beautiful language.
That can sustain us for a little while, but I worry that in this very fast moving world we live in, readers are not going to give you more than a couple pages. If they’re that lost in the first couple pages, they’re done. They went somewhere else.
As you said, the opening of The Lovely Bones, or Where the Crawdads Sing, you read those opening pages, the same number of paragraphs, and you would be all in.
James Blatch: You know lots, yeah.
Jenny Nash: I think the difference is really this telling, you have to tell. You have to tell us.
James Blatch: I will say again, though, I do like the opening paragraphs, I do find them drawing me in. But, I know exactly what you’re saying in terms of there’s not that engagement at this stage.
There’s an enjoyment of the prose, but that will only last so long.
Jenny Nash: That’s really well put. That pretty prose, and she has a really cool idea. This idea, that’s what I want to be engaged with. Whoa, crime can happen in heaven? That’s a whole world view, there’s a lot that can be built on top of that. I don’t know yet what that is, or how it unfolds in this book, and it might, in fact, get really good and interesting.
What I often find, when I’m talking to writers about opening pages, and I’m talking about these things, they’ll say something like, “But, all that’s in chapter two,” or, “All that’s in chapter three.” Or, “That’s all on page 17. Just wait until you get there, and it gets really good.” You don’t have that time, you just don’t. You’ll lose your reader.
James Blatch: Great. Wow, we’ve had a great natter.
Jenny Nash: We have. The thing I would leave the listeners with is this.
Once you’ve got your book done, and you’ve got your plot together, and you’ve got a solid draft that’s holding together, the thing you really want to do is put yourself in the reader’s boots, or shoes, or skin, or whatever you want to call it.
Get in your reader’s head, and try to think what their experience of this story is going to be like, when they don’t know anything. Think about your own self when you’re in those situations, like I was describing with my husband, when you don’t know where you are in a story, it’s very upsetting. You feel very unstable.
Go through your work thinking about somebody who doesn’t know anything, and of course, that’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s a really good stage to bring in beta readers, or critique partners.
Or, if it’s your inclination, a professional book coach or editor, to help you see that stuff, because it’s a very small thing that needs to be added, but it makes a really big difference.
James Blatch: Superb. Jenny, thank you so much, indeed, for your time today, early in the morning on the West coast. Thank you so much, indeed, we’ll give out the URL in a moment, when I’m back with Mark, and we’re going to talk covers and blurb as well, and put this all together.
Jenny, thank you so much for your time.
Jenny Nash: Thank you.
James Blatch: Okay, there’s Jenny Nash. Remember, you can get that PDF that she talked about, about the explanation side of things, you can get that if you go to SelfPublishingForum.com/BookLab7. A really worthwhile PDF to read, believe me. Jenny, great value, as always.
Let’s move onto the blurb. You can read the blurb on the Amazon page, you can get it in that pack that we send out from that web address I just gave you. The new blurb has come from our resident blurb expert, Bryan Cohen.
BC, from Chicago, Illinois.
How are things on that side of the virus-ridden world?
Bryan Cohen: On our side of the pandemic apocalypse, things are pretty good as of this moment. I think there’s four cases in Illinois. A long time ago, I used to write for a virus and infectious diseases’ blog.
James Blatch: Oh, did you? That was your day job, was it?
Bryan Cohen: It was one of my freelance gigs. I actually have a little bit of knowledge, but I’m not going to share that knowledge today. I just want to share knowledge about blurbs.
James Blatch: We’re just talking about blurbs, today. No one can talk to anyone, at the moment, without mentioning the Coronapocalypse, but there you go. Hopefully, it will move on.
We have a book, called Between. As it stands, in the recording process, I’ve spoken to Jenny Nash whose given us feedback on the writing. I spoke to Stuart Bache, who gave us feedback on the cover. It’s time to talk about the blurb.
A very, very important part of your marketing is the blurb that describes your book. We’ve talked about this before, but people scan a page for a second or so. The cover’s got to work to draw them in, the title’s got to work.
The next thing they read, after that, is the first line of your blurb. Then, that’s got to get them to the second sentence, and the third sentence, and so on. You are the master in this field, Bryan.
We started off with the before, this is what Jill herself wrote, which is, “You’re dead, and not liking it. To move to a higher plane, you have to face your life again, but everything is warning you not to go there. What’s your memory hiding? Primo is dead. At least, he’s pretty sure he is, but the afterlife is not all clouds, harps, and angel’s wings, nor is it hellfire and brimstone. There are rules here. Where the deed’s of one’s life must be answered, and the terrible crimes unsolved must be faced. Left to wander among the uncertain landscape, and it’s many odd inhabitants, Primo steps into his eternity on shaky feet.”
There’s actually two more paragraphs. We’ll come onto them, I think, in time. But, let’s start with that first paragraph.
I’ll say, straight away, I really liked Jill’s writing, actually. I have to say, I really liked her writing. Jenny’s picked up a show and tell lesson, as a result of that, which is good. I do not like her cover, and Stuart wasn’t a big fan of it either. But, I quite liked that only paragraph, I’m going to say that. I mean, I liked the opening line, I quite liked the intrigue of it all.
I know you’re going to improve it, but it wasn’t bad, no?
Bryan Cohen: I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. I think it’s a matter of what is the reader expecting. I know we’ve had some successful second person hooks, Adam Croft being one of the famous ones.
Second person is a little bit of an odd duck in the description world, you don’t hear a lot of you. We don’t hear a lot of choose your own adventure type second person, here.
“You’re dead, and not liking it. To move to a higher plane,” which, correct if I’m wrong, I believe that is a misspelling there. For higher plane, it should be P-L-A-N-E, versus higher plain, like Sarah, Plain and Tall. I could be wrong, there.
James Blatch: Well, what’s the plain where Marlboro Man smokes his cigarettes? That plain. That’s P-L-A-I-N, isn’t it?
Bryan Cohen: Yes.
James Blatch: I think higher plane is a more spiritual, transcendental thing.
Bryan Cohen: Exactly.
James Blatch: Someone would be looking that up, but I’ll take your word for that.
Bryan Cohen: I looked it up a little bit, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, here.
James Blatch: That’s not great, then.
Bryan Cohen: If there’s any chance of there being a misspelling in the hook of your description,-
James Blatch: That’s not good.
Bryan Cohen: That’s got to be taken care of, right away.
James Blatch: I must say, just to be clear, I don’t read these before I do the interview, so I try to make sure the interviews are journey discovery, where you’re talking to me.
Bryan Cohen: Absolutely.
James Blatch: You’ve pointed out, straight away, something that glossed over me a little bit when I first read it, which is it goes from … Actually, after two lines, it goes from second person to third person, doesn’t it?
Bryan Cohen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Blatch: “Primo is dead. At least, he’s pretty sure he is.”
Suddenly it’s descriptive, and that’s something you’ve picked up on.
Bryan Cohen: Yeah. You don’t want to jar anybody. I know that there are popular first-person blurbs out there, first person genres, like the Academy books, which are very big. Paranormal Academy books, a lot of those are written in first person. A lot of really sexy, active romance books, written with blurbs in first person.
But, very few descriptions end up using the second person. I think part of the reason that I’m not a fan of it is because you don’t want a person necessarily picturing themselves in the scenario, especially if it is this spiritual scenario, of you being dead, and you having a memory that isn’t quite working well.
Even if your book, like Jill’s here, is very unique, you don’t necessarily want to leave a reader saying, “Huh?” You want them to have a basic understanding.
I think that when you have a book that’s this unique, and its metaphysical mystery. Let’s call it that, as the genre. A metaphysical mystery book. You might want to play things a little more to type with the marketing, so as to ease people into what is a unique genre.
James Blatch: Yeah. We’ve talked about the genre in our previous interview, and it is a slightly more challenging one to nail, the genre.
We’ve talked about this a lot before, Bryan, is that identity of what the book is has to come through loud, clear, and unambiguously in the blurb, otherwise you just get a mix of confounded expectations when people buy the book, and it’s not what they thought it was, or worse than that, more often than that, just a confliction of what the cover looks like, and what the blurb says. It’s not right, so people have been drawn into drawing something that they’re, ultimately, not going to read.
Just to clarify this, about the tenses here. Second person, as in talking to you, “You’re dead, and not liking it.” Third person is descriptive, so aloof descriptive, “Primo is dead.” Well, I suppose it could be the same person saying that, or it’s a slightly jarring switch.
Bryan Cohen: Sure.
James Blatch: Actually, it reminds me a little bit of my old BBC News days, when the producer used to shout at the TV. If anyone wrote their cues for the news readers with questions in them like, “How would you feel if you ended up in Argyle instead of Huntington on the train?” He used to shout at the tube, “Stop asking me questions! I just want to watch the news.”
He used to hate it when we put questions in there, because he imagined people sitting there thinking, do I have to think about this now? Can’t I just watch this program and you tell me something?
It’s a little bit like this. Suddenly, you’re being challenged to think about this from your own point of view. I supposed, your point is good for fantasy books, is that whole point of reading that is it’s not you. This is a whole other life, this is not a reality thing.
Bryan Cohen: I see a lot of people replicating the Adam Croft, “Would you murder your wife to save your daughter?” Which is more hypothetical than this construction. But the reason that worked so well is it’s dealing with universal things; being married to someone, having a child.
And a lot of these readers of this genre are in that situation. Whereas as you point out, most of the people reading this description are not dead.
James Blatch: No. Although we are all going to be dead.
Bryan Cohen: We are.
James Blatch: Without going back to the virus. I mean, even without the virus.
Okay. Right, so let’s go down, if I scroll down now to see what you’ve done with the first after life section, if you like.
So you now have a shorter opening paragraph, which is this in bold, “He died and went to heaven. Or so he thinks. Can a forgetful soul decipher a vicious mystery to escape an eternity of torment?”
Now, first of all, what I do like about that straight away is you’ve set out the tension, the question. What’s this book doing? What’s this book saying? As you’ve done it really succinctly. I think Barbara, dear old Barbara does get there in her blurb.
Bryan Cohen: Yeah.
James Blatch: But it does take a little while to work out what this guy’s mission is.
It’s very descriptive what the mission is, but here’s right there, first paragraph, “Can he decipher a vicious mystery to escape an eternity of torment?”
Bryan Cohen: I usually just go straight to the podcast with these, but my team and I accidentally miscommunicated sent it to Jill, and she had a few suggestions. So we did kind of go back and forth on this.
But with this one it made sense to set out these stakes of, Hey, he might be tormented forever. But at the same time mentioning that it is a mystery. That’s what this is. It is, as I coined it, metaphysical mystery.
And if we don’t make it clear at the beginning what book this is, what genre this is, and set out these conditions: he thinks he’s in heaven, but he might not be. So we don’t really know. Then we don’t really connect with the character as much, with the character’s journey as much.
And so setting out the the stakes, but also saying, “Hey, do you …” It’s almost like asking a second person question subtly, “Do you like mysteries?”
James Blatch: Yeah.
Bryan Cohen: And if they say, “Yes,” then they’ll keep reading, and maybe buy it.
James Blatch: I’m going to read your next paragraph. This is the after. Again, this is Bryan’s paragraph, because it also covers the first bigger paragraph from Jill.
“Primo thought death would be a little more final. Unsure how he died or whether he’s arrived in the Good Place, he wanders aimlessly through the odd afterlife. A sneaking suspicion haunts his every step. His only chance for infinite happiness requires atoning for the crimes of the past.”
So you double down on the whole reason behind the book. You bring a clarity to blurbs. Which I think authors, and I include myself here, because I’ve written blurbs, tried to write blurbs for my book. I find it difficult. It’s very difficult to be succinct, clear and have that, as I say, that clarity about your own hundred thousand-plus word book.
Which you are so close to. What’s one of the benefits of using a service like yourselves, there’s also a trick to it to mentally step back. I think Mark Dawson probably does that a bit when he writes stuff about his books. He does have the ability to say, “Right, now I’m marketing it. Don’t care about the guy who wrote it. I don’t care about hurting his feelings.”
Bryan Cohen: Yeah.
James Blatch: And you do bring that.
Bryan Cohen: It really is a skill to be able to step back from your own description. And I do think that some people have that.
An interesting note here. So Jill took a bit of an issue with mentioning the Good Place. But I had to put my foot down on this. And the reason I did is because a recently completed television show called The Good Place, which dealt with a similar situation to this book, it has had millions and millions of viewers. This has the opportunity to tap into that, without being cheesy. Like if you liked The Good Place.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Bryan Cohen: This has a way to do that. Because when you have something that is very unique like this, but there is something in popular culture that plays on the same themes, you must latch onto that.
Because people who have watched the show, The Good Place, very good, cried in the finale. I don’t know if I actually cried, but I felt like crying. This kind of thing, this kind of book needs to try to tap into that a bit.
You want those millions of people who just, if they happen to stumble on your book, you want them to think, “Oh, I liked that show.”
James Blatch: It’s a no brainer. And you can bet your bottom dollar if my book ever comes out, and it comes out this summer, there’s going to be lots of subtle references to Top Gun.
Bryan Cohen: Yep.
James Blatch: And not so subtle references in there. Of course, of course there is. Because you know, why the hell would you not want to cash in on that.
Bryan Cohen: You don’t have the need for speed in there.
James Blatch: Yeah. We’ve failed. I do notice you’ve got the word, “Maverick,” in your next paragraph actually.
Bryan Cohen: I was thinking of you.
James Blatch: There you go. Yes. Good. Well I’m on Episode Four of The Good Place. I can’t imagine crying at it, I have to say, so far. I’m loving it. It’s great. Ted Danson’s-
Bryan Cohen: It’s so good.
James Blatch: … always brilliant.
Bryan Cohen: I mean it’s four seasons. There’s a lot of buildup.
James Blatch: It’s finished now, it’s done is it? Four seasons was it?
Bryan Cohen: Yeah. The fourth season recently ended.
James Blatch: No spoilers.
Bryan Cohen: I promise I wouldn’t.
James Blatch: She’s great character. Okay. Right. Let’s go back to the before, and we’ll get the rest of this rewritten blurb done and talk a bit about it.
So second paragraph from Jill. “Not all those he meets can be trusted. Not all who wander among them are lost. There are those who have resigned to their afterlife and joined the ranks of the roaming gangs who make their lower levels a dangerous unhappy place. There are those searching for solace, and also those like Primo who need answers.”
The final paragraph, “Embark on a journey with one foot in the past and the other in the eternal future. Experience the wonder of joy, fear and hilarity of discovering one’s life in rewind. For Primo is still a dead man with no closure. And what he believes may not be what it seems. And what he seeks may not be so easily found.”
She does have a nice turn of phrase, Jill. There’s no question about that. I do like her writing.
Bryan Cohen: It’s so well written. If her original had had the stakes.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Bryan Cohen: There’s just no stakes. Both of the paragraphs end with, “Like Primo, who needs answers.” And then the next one, “And what he seeks may not be so easily found.” Well-written, but if a person is going through 10 books on Amazon trying to decide which one to buy, they want to go with the one that has the biggest stakes for the character. What will happen to the character if they don’t pull this off?
James Blatch: Yeah.
Bryan Cohen: And all we know right now is that he is looking for answers.
James Blatch: He’s curious to know what happened, rather than he’s going to end up in hell for eternity if he doesn’t solve this ticking clock problem.
Bryan Cohen: Yeah.
James Blatch: Okay, yeah. So that’s obviously what you’ve gone into, that hook. I would also say again, although I really like Jill’s writing, and this is exactly the problem I think I have, lots of other people have.
Again, the simplicity that you’ve brought to this makes it a little bit clearer and a little bit easier to read as a blurb. But that’s not to denigrate Jill’s lovely turn of phrase, she’s a good writer.
So let’s carry on with you then. This is a third of your paragraph I want to read through to the end now. “Accompanied by an eccentric harpy eagle and a maverick angel, Primo struggles to decode his obscured memories. But the wanderer fears that tapping into a sinister saga on earth could be worse than damnation itself.”
I like that because that’s a conflict of him trying to have … He’s got to do one thing, solve it. On the other hand, you’ve already put that thing that editors always tell you to do, that story coaches tell you to do, is to put that obstacle in the way. There it is.
Bryan Cohen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Blatch: “Will uncovering the mortal truth turn Primo’s post-death into paradise or purgatory? Between is a thought provoking mystery with an utopian twist. If you like flawed characters, occasionally strong language and hilarious attempts at redemption, then you’ll love
Barbara Gaskell Denvil’s heavenly whodunit. Buy Between to see if one struggling soul can rest in peace today.”
There you go, “Heavenly whodunit,” that’s another … What was the first?
Bryan Cohen: I know there’s another what the genre should be called.
James Blatch: You should start copyrighting these genres.
Bryan Cohen: I know.
James Blatch: These categories by Amazon. Sell them to Dave Jesson.
And then of course, what you always get with a package from BC is Amazon headlines and interesting learning more. Oh no, that’s something else. Yeah, we’ll put that into the PDF that people get down. There’s a great link there to learn a bit more.
“He’s dead, but his mystery is just beginning,” is one of the headlines. “The afterlife is anything but pain-free, and escaping his past may take an eternity.” That’s a good one. “No choirs of angels, no hellfire and brimstone, but his after world adventure may just destroy him.” I like that. “The pearly gates beckon. If only he can remember what he did on earth.”
And finally, “He died. He ascended. But if he can’t recall the truth, he’ll be stuck in a dusty void forever.” There’s a biblical hint there.
Bryan Cohen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Blatch: Which of course will upset some people, and not bother other people. There you go.
Now, just to pick up on a couple of things then, so there was actually a turn of phrase in Jill’s that I didn’t quite understand. Oh yeah, “Join the ranks of the roaming gangs who make the lower levels a dangerous and unhappy place.” I’m not sure what that means. What does, “The lower levels,” mean? Is that again a reference to the plains?
Bryan Cohen: So this is kind of almost like a purgatory-esque void in between heaven and hell.
James Blatch: Okay.
Bryan Cohen: And there are bad operators there who aren’t like Primo looking for answers.
James Blatch: Okay. So it’s the lower levels, as in heaven up there, hell down there, and you’re down the lower levels.
Bryan Cohen: Yeah, we actually originally had, and we go through multiple drafts at Best Page Forward; multiple pairs of eyes. We actually did have something about these gangs. But here’s the interesting thing, I think.
This is just so key on blurbs. You can have all of these outside forces, and you can have all of these plot points that are interesting, and will be so rewarding for the reader when they go through your book.
But in a lot of ways the internal conflict that the character goes through can be more potent. It can be something that is going to connect with a prospective book buyer, more than Oh, but there’s these roving gangs walking around. And you stumbled on that line. I think others would stumble on that line, and once again we have an instance in which a potential reader would say, “Huh?”
James Blatch: Yeah.
Bryan Cohen: Not buy the book as a result.
James Blatch: And that again is that pressure. Because you know the stories intimately. And those gangs might play a really important part in the story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they go into the blurb. The blurb is doing a different job. It’s not telling people the story, it’s getting people to buy the book.
Bryan Cohen: Yes.
James Blatch: By giving a sense of what the book’s about, not the literal. Which is the same philosophy about the cover as well, you know? Tell the story on the cover.
Bryan Cohen: Yeah.
James Blatch: Sell the book. Good.
Well look, we’ve been through, we’ve been through both. You got anything you want to add about the way this worked out?
Bryan Cohen: I may have said this in a previous BookLab. By the way, I think it’s been almost a year, so I’m glad we’re back.
James Blatch: Is it a year?
Bryan Cohen: Well I looked at my document date for the last one. I think it was March 20th, 2019.
James Blatch: Wow.
Bryan Cohen: I could be wrong.
James Blatch: That’s just crazy.
Bryan Cohen: But I am happy to be back. This is actually my seventh time on the show, so I am.
James Blatch: Wow. Happy seventh.
Bryan Cohen: I am happy. I’m ready for my mug. I’ve actually never gotten one.
James Blatch: Ooh, there’s a hint.
Bryan Cohen: I know. Well, I’ve got this Parks and Recreation mug, “Treat Yo’ Self”-
James Blatch: Cool.
Bryan Cohen: … that is by the same creators as The Good Place.
Anyway, when you have a genre mashup you aren’t necessarily going to get the visionary fiction readers and the mystery readers all in the same. And so it’s really important to try to really tap into the weirder of the two genres.
One of the reasons several of the pieces of copy at the end that you read James are tapping into that metaphysical, that religious undertone, is because a traditional mystery reader is not likely to read this book. Or at least not likely to find it their usual cup of tea.
But a visionary fiction reader, a metaphysical fiction reader is willing to read a story that they like, with a mystery undertone to it. Because heck, there just isn’t a lot of visionary fiction out there.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Bryan Cohen: So when you market that book through your copy, you want to try to tap into the weird part of the genre mashup, in order to get those readers excited. Because if you just try to market it like a straight mystery, you’re probably going to get a lot of one star reviews. “What was this whole thing with him being in heaven? Was really confusing.”
James Blatch: That’s a really good tip. I think that is probably counter intuitive to people who look at a massive genre like mystery, and a smaller genre, and think, “Well, I’m going to try and skew my advertising to the big pool of people.”
But you’re saying uh-uh (negative), because you’re just going to be lost in that noise. Or worse, confound expectations as we say. Whereas the smaller pool is the one that you’re going to have a much higher hit rate.
Bryan Cohen: Percentage-wise, that’s the direction we want to go.
James Blatch: Yeah, “Show me the niches, I’ll show you the riches.”
Bryan Cohen: Ah.
James Blatch: I believe they say. Okay.
Bryan Cohen: No, I think they say it exactly that way.
James Blatch: I think they do. In a Chicago mobster drawl. Okay. Brilliant.
BC thank you so much indeed. It’s been a really, as always, rewarding experience talking to you. We learn loads. I’m about to go and find the mug factory.
Bryan Cohen: Ooh, I can’t wait.
James Blatch: I’m going to speak to the supervisor and ask him to double production, so we’ll produce another mug for this year. And-
Bryan Cohen: Production was really low before me.
James Blatch: By the way, you can buy these. They are available online on Amazon now.
Bryan Cohen: Ooh, and you were gesturing to your shirt for everyone listening.
James Blatch: Yes. You caught me out like Mark always does when I refer to the visuals. Good. Okay, look, all right thank you so much indeed. We will see you hopefully sooner than a year’s time. It will definitely be that.
We’ll go for our next BookLab, BookLab number eight will be in the search for people right away, and we’ll get that sorted out.
Bryan Cohen: Thank you for having me on James.
James Blatch: And finally we are going to look at the cover for Between by Barbara Gaskell Denvil. And the cover expert of course is our resident genius on that front Stuart Bache.
Stuart Bache, how lovely to have you back on the podcast the BookLab. It’s been too long. It’s been a long time. We’ve been preoccupied with organizing conferences and fighting off viruses and stuff.
Stuart Bache: Yeah.
James Blatch: And all the superhero stuff we do. But this is such a great thing that we do on the podcast. I really love it. We had a good interview with Jenny and I know we’re going to hear some important words of wisdom from you.
Stuart Bache: Hopefully.
James Blatch: I’m sure we will, about our book, it’s called Between, “It can be murder in heaven,” is the tagline sort of subtitle there. Barbara Gaskell Denvil.
If you want to follow this along you’ll be looking at the cover either on Amazon. Should be the same at the time we release this. We asked them not to make changes too quickly. Or you can download it if you go to the URL we’ll give.
So cover design expert. I’ll tell you what, before you give me your feedback, one thing I’m interested in that I’ve learned from you is how much you need to know about the book to do the cover. Because I do know it’s a bit of a author mistake in the early days to become very literal. “Well your cover’s got to show A, B and C because that’s what this book is. And they’ve got to have this length sleeves on their arms because that’s how I’ve described it.”
But actually, the cover doesn’t tell a literal story, it sells the book.
From the beginning you’re probably less interested in the detail of the book, as what are the key things you need to know?
Stuart Bache: It is really simple. I always say with my clients when they’re briefing, all I need to know are some basic information of who your characters are, locations, that kind of thing. The most detail I’d ask for is maybe a scene, and definitely a short synopsis of the whole book. But I don’t really need more than that.
The way I always think about it is that as a designer, I can’t think about it from an author’s perspective; I’ve got to think from a buyer’s perspective. And they don’t know anything about the book. And you can’t assume that they’re going to know anything about the book either.
So you need to show what the genre is. And you have to grab their attention somehow. Narrative, a bit of narrative is fine. As long as the character’s similar, it doesn’t have to be 100% the same.
This cover for example has a car on it. Probably should be the right car, but it’s not necessarily has to be. But it probably should, because it’s reflected in the book.
For the most part I get asked all the time, “Do you want my manuscript?” I don’t have time to read books I want to read. Not to say that I would want to read your book, but I just don’t have the time. And most designers won’t.
I do hear a lot of my peers say, “Oh no, I have to read the book before I decide.” And I think, “Well you’re either lying, because you just can’t. Or you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.” Because it’s just not easy.
To make those sorts of in-depth notes about something that you’re going to design isn’t necessary. And because as I say, you’ve got to think of it from the perspective of your potential buyer. And that’s the important aspect.
James Blatch: So the cover is not for somebody who’s already read the book, it’s for somebody who hasn’t read the book.
Stuart Bache: Yeah.
James Blatch: And even the car make and model, in this modern age, you look at the cover literally for whatever those few seconds are to make a purchase. Sometimes you don’t even see it in black and white if you buy directly from your Kindle. And then you may never see the cover again.
Stuart Bache: Yeah.
James Blatch: I read books on my Kindle all the time and I probably never see the cover once I’ve made the decision to buy it off Amazon. So if you’ve got the car model wrong, it’s meaningless in that workflow.
Stuart Bache: Absolutely. If you’ve got some sort of old banger on the cover and actually it’s quite a high end Mercedes or something, then that’s laziness.
But if you’ve got a figure on your cover, like often walking away, just because of the information that a face can give, that they often have the character walking away. If they’re not wearing the right coat, or if their hair is sort of sweeping in the wrong way, that doesn’t matter. No one cares. No one’s going to notice it either.
James Blatch: What do you think about this cover?
Stuart Bache: It reminded me of a ’90s album cover. Indie rock, maybe. I was confused. I did my best not to know anything about the book at all. I didn’t read the blurb. I wanted to take it based on what it was before I read the blurb. And couldn’t a hundred percent tell you what the genre was, or what was happening in the book at all.
Like I say, you do need some narrative to tell you what the genre is. And there are some really nice elements to it. But from the get-go I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what I was looking at. I would guess by the typography that it was maybe a crime thriller.
But then by the imagery it reminded me a little bit more of a action thriller. So a bit more kind of maybe Lee Child-y, you know? Like a sort of the road going off into the … He’s never been called, “Lee Child-y,” in his life, has he? No, Lee Child.
James Blatch: I think it’s time to make it an adjective.
Stuart Bache: Yeah. It is. The road going off with the car and then you notice it, like after a few looks, you notice there’s a shadow at the bottom.
James Blatch: Oh, do you know?
Stuart Bache: You never noticed it.
James Blatch: Did not notice it till you literally just said it then.
Stuart Bache: I saw a bit of a confused cover, in terms of I didn’t know what genre it was. Was it kind of crime or action? Which are all around the same sort of area. But it didn’t really tell me a lot about the book. That could be anywhere. I’m guessing it’s America.
But then when I read the blurb, I think the most interesting aspect of the cover is that shadow that you don’t really see unless you really look at it. And that’s because it gives you something. It’s the only bit of narrative other than the car on the whole thing.
I don’t know who’s in the car. I don’t know anything like that. I don’t need to know. But I don’t know anything about the genre. And when you read the blurb, which I’m sure people who are watching or listening will know a bit more about the book by now, it doesn’t really kind of relate, I don’t think. I don’t think if you picked that book up you’d have an idea if that’s the thing that you’d be reading.
James Blatch: I agree. I don’t think the cover works for me. I think the design elements of the cover, of what they’ve chosen to … like the landscape’s the best thing in terms of it works nicely with perspective and stuff. But it doesn’t tell you anything.
I also think, I have to say, I think it looks a little bit amateur. It looks a little bit like it’s been a cover done not by someone like you, but been done at home. The typeface, the font at the bottom, “It can be murder in heaven,” that all looks a bit like not far off something I could do.
Stuart Bache: Well talking about layout, it feels like two people have designed it. So I think what’s happened is there’s … Because it looks quite illustrated rather than photographic. Or at least a filter has been added to it to kind of give it the sort of almost like a soft pencil look, like it’s been drawn. The car especially.
Someone has thought about shadows and how the shadows are working across the street and they all move in the same direction. So a designer has looked at it; someone with an eye has looked at it.
And then the type I think is separate. I think someone else has added the type. Potentially the author has added the type, because that hasn’t really been thought through. I might be wrong there, but that’s how it feels to me.
Or potentially, “It can be murder in heaven,” so maybe the subtitle has been added by someone else. Because it’s just sort of drifting off down at the bottom, falling off the page next to the shadow. Maybe it’s next to the shadow so you notice the shadow. Don’t know. These are the sort of thing that people kind of-
James Blatch: Yeah.
Stuart Bache: They think that that’s what’s in terms of design and layout, it’s quite simple. And I always say to go for simple. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s best to just to go for simple.
But there’s an effect on the title. They’ve chosen a good color that is the opposite of the browny orange in the background. So that will help to stand out.
But overall it doesn’t really tell you anything. And that’s the most important thing. You have to search for stuff, and you’re just not going to do that. And as you say, there’s an amateur feel to it.
So you might scroll past it, or well, it’s more likely it’s an ebook, it’s on Kindle, isn’t it? So you’re not going to find it in a store. I think on Amazon you’d just scroll past it I think. Because you won’t know anything about it, and it feels a bit amateur.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Stuart Bache: Bit harsh.
James Blatch: Well, do you know what? If the book was rubbish, I’d be very circumspect about laying into the cover. Partly because it doesn’t matter.
This book is really good, and I think from what I can see, the bits I’ve read of it, I like the blurb, there’s lots of this I think are super. Really, really nice writing. And so it needs a good cover. That’s why I feel that, you know, we should happily say … Well, you’re the expert, but I agree.
Stuart Bache: I think from what I’ve heard, it kind of fits more into the crime/commercial fiction.
James Blatch: Yeah, it’s more literary fiction than straight mystery thriller, I’d say.
Stuart Bache: Literary fiction, okay. So you can do a huge amount. There aren’t so many rules with that kind of thing, but there are plenty of great looking covers that are out there at the moment.
And usually what they do is they center either on an object that’s, I’ve noticed anyway, something that’s lost. Or the person, a very kind of extreme closeup of the person. Or that kind of thing seems to work quite well at the moment. Illustrations are working really well as well. Really super clean illustrations.
The Hunting Party, for example, is really good example of something that’s working really well at the moment in this sort of area, this sort commercial/literary/crime. It doesn’t give too much away but it sort of has an emblem of something that reflects the story.
I think the original cover of Lovely Bones, for example, which I know this book has some similarities to in terms of content. I seem to remember that sort of focused in on an object. I think it was a necklace or something? I can’t remember.
James Blatch: Yeah, it was the necklace that was the clue.
Funny enough, if you click on Amazon and click on her author name and look at her other covers, there’s some really good covers there. And very different. She’s obviously writes in slightly different genres and some of them are very almost Gothic and a couple of murder mysteries that I think look much better for covers.
Ashes from Ashes, Daisy Chains and If When, all decent covers that look professional and they pull off some of those things you were just talking about, sort of stark simplicity to them.
This cover looks completely different from all her others. It might be the why she’s offered it up to BookLab to get some feedback on it.
What would you do if you handed this brief?
Stuart Bache: I’d need to know a bit more. I’d need to know a little bit more about the book, just in terms of at least just the blurb or an updated blurb. And I would need to really look at what’s working in the genre.
But I noticed that there wasn’t a genre associated with this book when I was researching it. So it was quite difficult to see what the comparatives were. But the first thing I would do is start completely fresh and I would look at what was working in the market at the moment, which as I say, there’s a huge amount of close up images. There’s a huge amount of people, abstract and there’s a huge amount of very clean, bright covers with a simple illustration or a singular object.
But then it does depend on where she wants to add this in because literary can be almost anything. Literary books are a difficult sell and they’re difficult to design because they can be almost anything. They tend to be more of like a metaphor for the book or something very, very literal.
I’m trying to think of some of the ones that I’ve designed in past or at least worked on. Lionel Shriver for example. The covers for her stuff that we did were based on objects that were metaphors for the book and illustrated and that kind of thing.
You can do almost anything, but literary novels are very difficult to sell. So I would go more towards the crime element or the commercial fiction element, which is obviously, in terms of it, of what it’s called, commercial fiction. Those covers are made to sell. So I would always aim to go towards that way. If she can find something that is working really well within that genre, then that’s why I would emulate completely.
James Blatch: It’s definitely worth doing. I mean it should go without saying that if your book is in the style of something like The Lovely Bones or those psychological stories, just have a look at the covers and with those very, very big books, they often get recovered several times and the recovers can be different. They can do a different job because the book’s quite famous at that point, so they’re doing a slightly different job.
Stuart Bache: If it’s something like The Lovely Bones as well, which was a movie-
James Blatch: Maybe tie in covers-
Stuart Bache: It will have a tie in so that it’s difficult to kind of know what to look out for.
James Blatch: But if you go to Google, don’t look on Amazon because that would be the latest cover. If you Google Lovely Bones book, you do get the original cover with that floating bracelet, which said a lot about this missing girl, and worked in very, very simple, worked well.
So yeah, a bit of a bit of negative feedback to give about the cover, but I reinforce that again by saying book’s really good. Obviously she’s a great writer, I’ve read a lot of her reviews so that’s a fix.
That’s an exciting fix to be made, if she wants to do it to realize the potential of that writing.
Stuart Bache: It’s a shame if the book’s so good to pass it on because you would unfortunately, but I think there’s lots of potential. You could do all sorts of things for this cover.
Quick bit of advice. If you are kind of going over several genres with your book, if you’re hitting a few different notes, then choose the one that you think is the most prominent and if that means it’s commercial fiction or women’s fiction or something like that, then that’s what you should look at.
Even if you’ve got a lot of crime in it, but it’s actually kind of subtly, there’s a crime, but it’s actually the writing style is a bit more literary or it’s a bit more commercial, then you should just aim for that and that’s where you should do your research, rather than trying to hit all the notes because what you end up doing is not really hitting any of them and, and it just looks a bit of a mess.
I think if she can find something that’s working really well within that genre then and emulate it, not copy it, but emulate it, then I think she’ll do really well and I think it will that serve the book better.
James Blatch: Yeah, definitely. Great. As always a real pleasure to talk to you, Stuart.
Stuart Bache: No problem.
James Blatch: And we will try and make it a bit more regular now that I’ve got the conference out of the way in terms of organizing and get some time back in our lives and make sure we get regular BookLab interviews.
Stuart Bache: Yeah, definitely. And especially as my a six-month-old son is getting a little bit older and sleeping a bit more.
James Blatch: Yeah. Good luck with that. We didn’t hear from him during the interview. We were chatting just before the interview and was that him?
James Blatch: Yeah. That was him. And my daughter, who’s bedroom’s just upstairs, who’s just got her big girl bed and actually prefers not to be in it. So, that’s fun.
James Blatch: I remember once our daughter just got her big girl bed and normally we heard duh-doo, that she’d fallen out and we’d go upstairs and she’d either be crying or so sleepy, she’s on the floor. But one night we didn’t hear the duh-doo but I went up in the morning and she was asleep in a sort of prayer position and had just spent the night asleep folded up like this and we felt like we were the worst parents in the world. But she looked very sweet. I remember it all.
I’m just startling to think about driving lessons for my daughter, so that went like that.
Stuart Bache: Yeah. Wow. Gosh.
James Blatch: So worry for everybody, particularly other drivers.
Stuart Bache: I’ve only just passed my test,
James Blatch: Oh, there you go. You can inspire her. Or she can leave until she’s in her 30s.
Stuart, thank you so much.
Stuart Bache: Thank, see you.
James Blatch: We’ll catch up again. Bye.
Stuart Bache: See you soon.
James Blatch: Okay. So there we go. There is the feedback from our three experts. What did Gill/Barbara, Gill and Barbara, what did they make of that feedback? Did it terrify them or did they embrace it? Let’s hear from Barbara.
Barbara. Well, the most exciting thing that happened about five minutes ago is that two people walked into the room, not one, and that’s because I don’t read my emails properly. And I’ve spent this entire BookLab process thinking that Gill Trewick is the real name of the pen name author Barbara Gaskell Denvil.
Turns out, Gill, who’s sitting behind me off camera, walks in with mum and says, “I did tell you James.” Gill is the daughter, Barbara is the mother. You’re the writer and Gill does the marketing.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: That’s right. Yes. I’ve been writing for a couple of hundred years now, which is about how old I am and it’s Gill who has enabled me to self publish, to really get on, understand a bit of marketing, but most of it she just does herself. And I do all the writing.
James Blatch: Well, well done for the two of you for putting yourselves in BookLab because nobody goes into the BookLab without coming out with some feedback, should we call it politely. Everyone’s going to get it.
And I was just saying to Gill off camera that you could put a Stephen King cover blurb, a novel in, and they’ll find some areas that could be better.
And so there’s some feedback and the cover, Stuart and I both felt didn’t do the book justice from the reading, which is quite harsh feedback, but I think Gill’s taken that on the chin and so is probably going to look into that.
The interesting feedback I thought was on the writing, which was Jenny’s. Now I have to say right from the beginning, I loved your writing, Barbara.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: Thank you.
James Blatch: Really loved it and I found it very engaging. I quite liked the mystery at the beginning of not knowing what was going on.
Jenny took that to give us an exercise on how the very best way of writing those opening pages is, and her feedback was giving a little bit more clarity to the reader of exactly what’s going on so that the reader is asking the big questions about, why is this person in heaven, what they’re doing, rather than the small questions about are they the same person as that person and what’s happening?
Did any of that resonate with you?
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: Yes, it did, very much so. I think my book beginnings of my idea about the initial punch and also my idea about mystery grabbing and so on, is a bit old fashioned. If you go back to the really old stuff before Lord of the Rings and so on, the initial mystery really caught people’s imagination, because an awful lot of books were just almost once upon a time.
And therefore to start with a bit of mystery was actually an attractive thing. And therefore I wrote the book I wanted to read, which is just a bit old fashioned and I think Jenny made brilliant points.
James Blatch: It was always a good instruction from Jenny. That’s interesting. And I think there is clearly a balance there. I’m reminded to think of, I think American Beauty was a stage play rather than the book first. But the opening line, “My name’s Lester Burbank, I’m 42 years old. In one year from now I’ll be dead.” Which is a great opening hook.
But then the rest of it, as Jenny points out, is immediately understandable. He’s in the shower going to work and stuff. So you’re asking the big question, why are you going to be dead in a year, rather than being confused about who’s what.
But that’s not to say that both of us didn’t love the writings. So I’ll say that again.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: Awfully sweet.
James Blatch: Actually, we’ll mention the blurb as well. I thought the blurb was well written, but of course Bryan always finds a way of, I think he brings a real clarity to the blurb that might be difficult for people who are like us, as authors, so close to our writing.
I think that’s very difficult to take that step back and distill your beautiful baby that’s 100,000 words long into 4 paragraphs, but Bryan can do because it’s not his book.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: I was actually terribly impressed by Bryan’s blurb. I slightly wrote the blurb but with Gill and she used my words and added her own and I was pleased with it.
But I am not a blurb writer. I cannot do that real punch in the face grab of an attractive blurb. And what he was actually saying out loud on the thing was beautiful. I thought his was really, really good.
James Blatch: I think a lot of people say what you’ve said, they’re not blurb writers. It’s very difficult to do that transition.
I want to talk a bit about you Barbara, because I mean I was looking at the books. There are quite a few different genres that you write in. You’re obviously a passionate writer and have been doing it for as you say, 200 years, which is impressive.
And you’ve got plans to really double down on this. You’ve just said to me that you’re going to find somewhere fairly remote in Europe, Spain, spend a year and really writing. So this is not the end of your career. You’re midpoint in this.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: Well, I know exactly when I’m going to die, like that-
James Blatch: Lester Burbank.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: I’m going to be 92, so I’ve got a few years left and I really want to achieve quite a lot. People criticize me for writing in different genres, but it’s such fun. I love doing it and I probably lose readers and lose money by doing that. But I certainly gain a lot of satisfaction.
James Blatch: Jo Penn told our conference yesterday, you’ve got to do what you love. You’ve got to write what you love. That’s the starting point.
You’ve had quite a life, I think. 20 odd years in Australia. Traveled quite a lot. You popped up at Vegas in November. Quite an inspiration I think to a lot of people.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: I’ve really been a few different people and three marriages and lots of travel and done different things. I would have been bored otherwise.
James Blatch: And lots of stories grow from those experiences.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: They do.
James Blatch: Is that where you get your ideas from, the people you’ve met?
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: I suppose so. A lot of my ideas come from odd places. I watched, by the way, Matthew Bourne’s production of Swan Lake, which was more or less purely men and it was beautiful, stunningly, stunningly beautiful. I can’t say I’m a great ballet lover, but that one was amazing and it had a great deal to do with whether somebody was human or a swan.
And that gave me an enormous idea for a fantasy, which I wrote and which has been a trilogy. It’s been quite successful. And that just came out of something completely different. So I don’t know that much of myself is in my books, but certainly the ideas come from all over.
James Blatch: How does the partnership work with your daughter? Bearing in mind she’s listening.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: Yes. She’s wonderful. We get on very well and we do argue, but on the whole we see things very, very well
James Blatch: And it works in sort of business ways. A nice synergy. Obviously your focus is mainly the writing.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: And hers. She knows about technology and marketing, which I really don’t. My computer freezes on me the whole time and I have to call for her and then she comes and just goes click and it’s all perfectly all right again.
James Blatch: Are you pleased you went into the BookLab?
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: Yes. Very, very pleased indeed.
James Blatch: And you’ll look forward to perhaps having some modification including the writing. It’s interesting that you’re thinking about the writing and how to modernize it a bit.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: It’s inspiration. I’m going to use the first chapter, but alter it, bring bits together and certainly put in more explanatory half sentences here and there.
James Blatch: Fantastic. Well Barbara, it’s actually a real pleasure meeting you and talking to you and Gill today and I’m still getting over the surprise, the reality of Gill and Barbara, who I thought until one moment were one person. This is like a film, isn’t it? It’s like the end of a film. You were two people all along? There you go, fantastic.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: You’ll never forget it.
James Blatch: No, I’ll never forget you.
Really good luck over the next year or so as you get into your writing in isolation in Spain and we cannot wait to catch up in a couple of year’s time and see where you are.
Barbara Gaskell Denvil: That would be brilliant. Thank you very much indeed.
James Blatch: I loved talking to Barbara in London last week and great that they took on board all of this. They were excited about it and it’s an interesting book for them.
If you look at Barbara’s other books, she’s got quite a few in what will look like quite different genres but series and quite established good reviews, decent sales. I mean they live off their earnings, and then this is a bit of a standalone book, bit of a literary fiction book.
It sort of evokes the idea of The Lovely Bones, that type of thing but it’s slightly different, and I think because of that, they struggled to place it, they struggled to market it. That’s why they wanted it to go into the BookLab. So they struggled with the blurb, they struggled with the cover and they wanted some help and we were able to give them.
I didn’t like the cover. I was honest with them about that. Stuart didn’t particularly like it either. I thought it looked a bit amateurish. It didn’t really tell me what the book was about.
I showed it to my wife this morning. She said she quite liked it, but it looked like a bloke’s book and she wouldn’t probably read it on that basis.
Mark Dawson: Well, let’s be fair, she’s probably on morphine at the moment because she broke her ankle.
James Blatch: She is. She is basically high.
Mark Dawson: Let’s disregard what Gill says.
James Blatch: But I’ll tell you what happened that’s quite exciting this morning is that I’ve actually helped Gill a little bit with the new cover idea. She did a concept for it and asked me what I thought of it and I obviously quite rightly said, what you really want is lots of opinions on our Facebook group. So I sent her there. But I did say I think you need a figure on there.
I went into Photoshop and did a very rough ready version of a figure with a shadow standing on the concept that she’d done that. She turned that into a much better version. I’ll send them to you afterwards, Mark.
Mark Dawson: I’ve seen it.
James Blatch: Have you seen the new one?
Mark Dawson: If it was in the Facebook group today, I did.
James Blatch: Oh yeah.
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: I think it looks superb. I’m not just saying that because I contributed but it was a great new tagline that does a lot better job than ‘It can be murder in Heaven’, which is not too bad. It’s sort of intriguing, but it doesn’t really spell it out.
Whereas the new one, ‘He thinks he’s dead’. That’s just where the mystery starts, type thing. That’s a really good tagline, I think. I’m really excited about the new cover. I think it’s done a good job and I think they are as well. So we’ll see how that goes.
I will also want to talk about Jenny’s feedback. So I thought that was a very interesting session. You haven’t heard this yet, Mark, so I’ll have to summarize it for, you so you can give your opinion.
Jenny made really interesting points. I did really like Barbara’s writing. I loved her writing. She’s a beautiful writer, and I quite like the kind of mystery and intrigue at the beginning. You’ve got this man, he’s not sure if he’s dead, and then it cuts to a woman, it cuts back to the man and you’re not really sure how they’re related or what the timescale is and so on. And I think people do do that.
Now Jenny’s point about this was, and she used The Lovely Bones as examples. If you read the first paragraph of The Lovely Bones, literally the first paragraph, it tells you everything. In three or four sentences, it tells you what’s happened, where this girl is.
Jenny’s point is, leave your readers wondering about the big things, the things you want them to wonder about and be confused about. Don’t confuse them over small things about where they are, who knows who. Get all of that out of the way.
So that requires a shift in writing at set at the beginning of the book. Barbara immediately took that onboard a immediately thought that made sense because she does want them wondering about this task this guy’s got and how he’s going to get through it, not is he really dead? Where is he? Does he know this woman? So get all that stuff out the way. I thought that was really interesting feedback.
Mark Dawson: I loved The Lovely Bones, it’s a great book. It does set the table quite early on. So I’ll have to check it out and I’ll see what Barbara has done and how she’s changed it.
James Blatch: It is a kind of version of Show, Don’t Tell, but understanding what that really means and people do misunderstand it a little bit.
Jenny’s PDF on that is really worth having, so I’ll give the URL again, which is selfpublishingformula.com/booklab7, all one word and seven as a digit, to get all that stuff down.
That’s the BookLab. We must do another one again soon. We’ll get straight onto it actually. So if you’re a Patreon supporter, there’s still a reason to be a Patreon supporter, you can have your book in the hats for that. Mark will have a look.
We do mix up the genres a little bit, so it’s not quite drawn randomly out of the hat. But Mark will have a look through those authors. We’ll put them together for you and get the next ones on their way.
Mark Dawson: There is another reason to be a Patreon supporter, isn’t there, James?
James Blatch: Yes. You get your name right out?
Mark Dawson: And we are extremely grateful and it helps us make the podcast so-
James Blatch: Yes, it does.
Mark Dawson: We are grateful for every single one of you. So, thank you.
James Blatch: We are, absolutely. And we also understand that times are tough at the moment for everybody but we all do our bit.
You took the mickey out of me last night because I posted about a referral link for home delivery food service on my Facebook page. And you thought here’s Blatch cashing in on the exploiting the disaster.
Mark Dawson: If this was 80 years where you’d now be a spiv. I may call you a spiv from now on. You’re profiteering.
James Blatch: But I genuinely did it because for us it takes the edge off worrying about supermarket stuff that we’re going to get food, we’re going to get meals delivered next week. And I’ve made, I can tell you, £40 so far, which is like $60 so far and I’m going to donate that to the food bank appeal.
Mark Dawson: I’ll be checking.
James Blatch: You guilt-tripped me into it. Yeah, I’m going to.
Okay, good. So that’s it. Look, stay safe this week. The one thing I can say, and I’m struggling a little bit with my father who’s 89 and it’s taken a lot persuasion to take this seriously. And I know that it’s an issue for all of us.
So the one thing I’m saying to my sister and my father and anyone else who says, “Should I be doing this?” is follow the guidelines. If we all just follow the guidelines at the moment, the strategies that our governments are putting into place to try and reduce this and control it, can work.
If we don’t follow the guidelines, we undermine that. And that’s not fair on anyone else. That’s the only thing. That’s my parting thought on that matter.
Mark Dawson: I agree. Absolutely. Don’t listen to Russell Blake. I wouldn’t recommend reading him because you’ll get very depressed. But yes, I agree.
So everyone, try and turn it into a positive. Things are difficult. We’ve got our kids are off now from tomorrow, so next week’s going to be, I have no idea what that will look like. Hence, we’re going to do another one of these podcasts in a minute, so we’ve got one in the bag.
But you could also look at it as an opportunity. If you have been wondering about when you’ll be able to write that novel you’ve been sitting on for a decade, there won’t be a better opportunity than this.
You are effectively being told by the government not to leave your house. So what are you going to do? You can rewatch Breaking Bad, which I would recommend, but on the other hand, maybe this is the opportunity you’ve been looking for to write something that you’ve always wanted to write.
So get into that and we’ll be here to help with. There’s lots of writers in the same boat as you. Come and join us in the Facebook group and if you’ve got things that you’d like us to cover, even podcastings, you can email us about if you want podcast guests. We’re open to everything within reason. So lots of ways to get in touch with us, but stay safe everyone. Wash your hands and we’ll see you next week.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, we have to say, don’t we. It’s a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a very clean-handed goodbye from me.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
Mark Dawson: Goodbye.
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