start here

Where Is James Blatch’s Book?

by James Blatch

Conference season is upon us. This year we’ll be at NINC in Florida and then 20BooksVegas in… er, Vegas.

I love meeting SPF-ers everywhere we go. I love the community I’m a part of and I usually get my podcast microphone or video camera out and create lots of valuable content to boot.

One aspect of being out and about that I have to brace myself for, is the question everybody (without exception) asks me.

“Where’s your book, dude?”

At the London Book Fair this year, it wasn’t an easy question to answer. I had stalled. I have a legitimate excuse in that I am colossally busy, but in all honesty, it was more than that. I was occasionally writing, but each session I did manage to fit in ended flatly. The book wasn’t working and I didn’t know how to fix it.

LBF was a kick though, and in one admittedly drunken moment I shook on a deal with Sacha Black that the book would be completed within 12 months. Man, I must have been drunk.

Knowing I was stuck, I had abandoned scene writing and gone back to plotting. I used the software Novel Factory to go back to basics and build the story, and hopefully sort out some of the weaknesses that I perceived.

The book has a long-ish history. Written from 0 to 60k words in November 2010 as part of NaNoWriMo. Completed to about 105k words later that year. Abandoned for years because I’d written it so fast and it needed a major re-write. Then in 2016 Mark suggested I pick it up again. I became the guinea pig author for the Self Publishing 101 course and of course the author who is ‘just starting out’ in the SPF podcast intro.

I got some valuable editorial feedback from Jennie Parrott on the redraft. She gave me good suggestions about the story and I resubmitted a new sketch of the plot which was definitely moving in the right direction. However, I needed something more and I talked to Jenny about submitting chapters as I went along. This was not something she had experience of and she raised the issue that she really needed to consider the book as a whole to make effective notes.

I worked on and off until the ‘stuck’ feeling became a block to me even opening Novel Factory.

Then, on July 4th this year, I recorded a podcast interview with another Jennie, and everything started to change.

Jennie Nash is a book coach and editor. She’s in demand and has a long list of bestselling authors to her name. She’s an advocate of coaching authors as they write and I was an author who was a big advocate of being coached…

In the podcast interview, you can hear the wonderment and rising level of enthusiasm in my voice.

But Jennie costs $3,000 a month to work with, and Mark only pays me $899 a year.

Happily, Jennie has developed a product called Author Accelerator with people like me in mind, in which she partners writers stuck on their manuscripts, or who simply want to be helped through the birth of their first book, with an editor or book coach to effectively direct their writing process. The programme includes weekly deadlines, notes on each stage and monthly calls to chat it all through.

It’s cheaper than working with Jennie, but still not cheap at $450 a month.

The idea is that after six months the author will have a manuscript that has been developmentally edited by an expert editor with a strong eye for what will make the book ‘work’.

I bit Jennie’s hand off. (Ok, so I earn a little more than $899 a year).

Like most people, I have second thoughts about larger financial commitments, and sometimes get buyer’s remorse, but I don’t think I have felt more certain that a product was right for me than I did when buying into Author Accelerator.

Was it simply wishful thinking that this would solve all my problems?

It became clear, almost instantly, that I had made a good decision.

The first breakthrough came with my answer to the first question Jennie asked me:

Why do you need to tell this story?

The answer I tapped out, without hesitation, was deep. It was personal and it was unambiguous. Jennie was left in no doubt that there was a reason I needed to tell this story and it went to the heart of who I am. The interesting thing is that Jennie wasn’t the only person who found out why I needed to tell this story. Although the answer came without hesitation, it was a revelation to me also.

Well, sort of.

When I think back to the moment I came up with the story, there was a clue that this came from somewhere buried inside. I recall the moment very clearly. Twitter was the new thing in 2010 and I read a colleague’s husband’s tweet. It said, “To stave off mental torpor, I am going to do this:” and he posted a link to NaNoWriMo. I clicked it, having never heard of the annual writing challenge. A moment later I opened a Word document and wrote the first chapter of a fully formed story. There was no tapping my fingers on the table trying to come up with something; I knew right away that this was the story of a Test Pilot who survives a crash but who is then faced with a conspiracy, and that the pilot would have to either bury his grief, put on a stiff upper lip and comply or stand up to the establishment and risk everything.

But until Jennie asked me the question I hadn’t consciously moved beyond the ‘what’ of the story to the ‘why’.

In her view it is the single most important question you need to answer. So far her view has proved right. In every discussion we’ve had, in every scene I have outlined, the theme identified in that answer is addressed.

It was like a plunger had been used to clear my creative juice pipe in a single moment.

I need to work on my similes.

As a favour, and because she tells me she was genuinely interested in learning more about my book writing having heard me refer to it several times on the podcast, Jennie sat in on the first couple of sessions as I was handed over to my assigned editor Lizette Clark.

The second breakthrough came when they asked me to jot down ‘the secret’. My story opens on the day of the crash. But one of the dead was up to something and the hero becomes obsessed with uncovering it to atone for his role in the accident. Like a rookie I was being very subtle about what the conspiracy was, and the reader had to be patient to find out the clues along with the hero. So I jotted down what the dead man had been through in the weeks leading up to the crash, hoping that would help Lizette and Jennie help me shape the story for the hero.

I genuinely didn’t anticipate the conclusion they both immediately came to.

“This is your story… this is where your book should start.”

I had been ‘clever,’ you see. Another rookie mistake. Don’t be clever. I had plotted the book so that it unfolded over seven days, starting with the crash and ending with the funeral of the dead friend and the eponymous ‘last flight’. So 90% of the conspiracy actions had taken place before the book began and our hero was running around finding clues trying to work it all out.

Lizette told me the adage about creating suspense with the right blend of conceal/ reveal. It’s the one about the stage play with a dinner party scene, where the diners (and the audience) discover a ticking bomb under the table. Now imagine the scene if the audience (but not the diners) are told at the beginning that there is a ticking bomb under the table.

More suspenseful, huh?

I call it a rookie mistake because it is. It’s something Mark has referred to. There comes a time when you need to stop trying to write a ‘clever’ Booker Prize-winning Ian McEwan novel and start telling a straight forward story instead. If you want a big name to emulate, think Dan Brown not Umberto Eco.

So, Deadline One was to create a two-tier outline. This is a scene by scene plot of the story with two levels of description for each scene. The top level is a prosaic description of what happens, the bottom level is the ‘why’ of the scene. What are the characters thinking? Why have they acted in that way?

Using this method it’s much easier to see how one scene leads to another, how an action taken has a repercussion, and in doing this your story starts to feel real. You have much less chance of inserting a scene that has no role in the story, or worse, has your character acting out of character. Anything like that would stand out when you came to describe the motivations in the bottom tier.

After the revelation that my story needed to start many weeks before I intended it to, I re-wrote the two-tier outline; deadline two.

Something equally important to the developmental notes I was getting happened after the re-written outline.

Before I submitted it, I was a bit down in the dumps again. I’d been given a lot to think about and I didn’t get to the end of the story. I’m not really sure why, but I feared I had missed the mark and I would get a polite email from a patient Lizette explaining that I needed to go back and start again.

Instead the email was the verbal equivalent of a fireworks display. The word ‘wow’ was employed many times. Lizette told me I had taken on board the notes and completely nailed the outline so far.

I tried to play it cool in my reply, but I’ve been working on this story for eight years – it’s impossible for me to exaggerate the impact Lizette’s email had on me. I would describe myself as a confident person, probably over-confident and occasionally over-bearing. And yet I was subconsciously under the illusion that everything I wrote or came up with for the book was not working and rubbish. Maybe Lizette’s email was a simple psychological trick to keep me energised (if it was, it’s worked beyond expectation) but it feels like a turning point in the creation of my first novel.

The third deadline was to complete the second half of the two-tier outline and get to the denouement. Writing was a lot more pleasurable following the notes. The outline is now 12,000 words long and with Lizette.

I know I’m good at taking criticism – it came with the territory when I was a TV news reporter – but I had underestimated the impact of praise.

By the time I submitted the completed outline I actually felt like I liked it – that it is very close to ‘working’. I haven’t felt this way about the story for years.

I know the type of service offered by Author Accelerator is not for everyone. Mark is yet to be persuaded, although he’s definitely open-minded. Kevin Partner, who is a valued and experienced member of the SPF community, included a note of cynicism in his YouTube comment on the podcast episode, pointing out that he has taught himself computer programming, to play a musical instrument and to write, but he also accepts that we are all different and I think that is key.

This works for me. It’s so precisely, exactly what I needed, it feels incredibly serendipitous that it fell into my lap.

If this were the plot of a book of course, things would now all fall apart. Some terrible, unforeseen obstacle would land in my way. I would be forced to make a resonating decision that would reveal who I really am.

Oh God, I can’t stop outlining.

Anyway. Hopefully the predicted obstacle will be in abeyance and I can continue to make the progress needed so that I don’t have to run and hide when Sacha Black appears at London Book Fair next April.

I’ll blog more as I progress with Lizette. Wish me luck and some more wows.

James Blatch

James Blatch

James Blatch is co-host of the Self Publishing Formula podcast. He is a former BBC Television News reporter and is currently writing his first novel, a military thriller set in 1960s Britain.