2. Thou shalt provide thy hero with a helpmate in the form of an attractive and somewhat younger heroine, also intelligent, usually possessed of wisdom in a complimentary field that she may assist thy hero without duplicating his skills.
3. Thou shalt begin thy story with a violent death, usually of a good person, who may be associated with the hero, but dost not have to be.
4. Thou shalt include in thy story a secretive organization, usually one that has been around for donkey’s years and has links to history and may also have had famous people as members.
5. Thy hero shalt progress through a maze of mysteries and puzzles and must solve the immediate step in the puzzle before he be allowed to progress to the next stage in thy story.
6. Thou shalt put obstacles in the path of thy hero in the form of a strong and dastardly villain that art trying to stop thy hero and foil his efforts. Thy dastardly villain shall be willing to resort to committing the most heinous of crimes in pursuit of his nefarious agenda. However, thy dastardly villain shall not act on his own initiative or in his own interests but rather shall he be subservient to shadowy figures in the background of thy story.
7. The masters of thy dastardly villain shall be a powerful organization (see 4th Commandment) that hath a vested interest in foiling the hero because he doth threaten their interests or the established order.
8. Thou shalt set thy story in an exotic location, or series of locations, that playeth a major part in thy story or in the historical background to thy story.
9. Towards the end of thy story, it shall finally dawn upon thy hero (as it surely hath already on most of thy readers) that the hero is being betrayed by one who is close to him (but not the female lead) and that the traitor be associated with the very organization that hath been trying to stop thy hero all along.
10. Notwithstanding thy hero’s sense of righteous indignation at the betrayal, he shall surely solve the final step in the mystery and successfully overcome the obstacles, without the aid of the Almighty, but with some help from the heroine, with whom he shall end up with in a state of transient connubial bliss (albeit outside the bonds of holy matrimony).
The more astute readers of The Moses Legacy may have noticed an error. On page 161 I stated that Daniel Klein got his PhD from Cambridge. But on page 257, I wrote that he got it from SOAS. I don’t know whether to blame the copy editor or the proofreader.
I returned from Israel on the 5th of October, refreshed and with a fair amount of the first draft written. Although it had been principally a holiday, I had taken advantage of the relaxing environment to work. I actually do my best writing on holiday. Upon my return, I updated Kate and Diane on my progress, but Diane was snowed under with work after the London Book Fair and it it took a while for her to get back to me.
Meanwhile I plowed on with the book, in-between making marketing suggestions and sending a couple of examples of the snake motif to help the cover designer. Then I noticed that Amazon had pre-listed the book as The Moses Legacy rather than The Moses Tablet. I wrote to Kate about this and she realized that she had subconsciously briefed the designer with that name too. We all thought about it further and Kate and I agreed that in fact The Moses Legacy was actually better. Diane also agreed and so now the book was back to the original title that I had first thought of when I pitched the idea.
Finally on November the 11th – less than three months after I had started – I submitted the first draft to Kate and Diane. And this was a book that I was still researching while I was writing it! And it was a lot of research! And I had a holiday in between. Kate and Diane were both impressed and now all I had to do was sit tight while they read it and gave me their feedback.
However, like most writers, I kept re-reading it. And the more I reread, the more I thought about how I should have done things differently and how I wanted to change it. But I couldn’t change it now, because Kate was reading it and presumably making editorial notes. So I wrote an eMail with the subject line “Post-Natal depression” explaining in general terms that I had been thinking about changes and had come up with some ideas. We agreed that I would make notes of my ideas but wait for her editorial comments before making any changes or even telling Kate my ideas. That way her editorial notes would be entirely her own and we would be able to see to what extent we agreed about the necessary changes.
On the 29th of November Kate and I talked on the phone. She was very impressed with the story and some of the set pieces but had found some faults that I hadn’t thought about. I for my part wanted to make some even more radical changes that would make the ending more focused and dramatic. Kate agreed that these could work, but they might require other changes earlier in the story and she was concerned that because we were already operating in a tight time-frame that I might be able to make it on time. However, she left it to my judgement and I know that the ball as in my court and it was up to me to deliver.
On the 19th of August 2010, Diane, my agent, wrote back to me that she personally liked my suggested title Shibboleth, but felt that it was difficult to pronounce. She said that the title needed to be catchy and memorable. Although this wasn’t an outright negative, I decided to give it some more thought and not yet put the suggested title to Kate, my editor. In the meantime got on with writing the book. (I had already written two chapters in four days and felt that the going was good.)
On the 27th of August, I wrote to Diane again, proudly boasting that I was ahead of schedule with the writing and suggesting that maybe we could get HarperCollins to bring out the book in April to coincide with the Jewish festival of Passover. I thought that as the book was about a conspiracy concerning Moses and the Biblical Exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt that this would be particularly appropriate. But Diane pointed out that the significance of the suggested date had to be balanced against the fact that Summer was a better slot than Spring, although she agreed to run the idea by Kate for a second opinion.
I continued working on the book and then on the 15th of September I got an eMail from Kate that the Avon team had been having discussions on the title and their favourite was The Sacred Sign. I felt a little put out because it seemed that a decision had been reached before I was given a chance to offer any input. There was nothing essentially wrong with The Sacred Sign (although I suspect it was an attempt to ride on the coat-tails of The Lost Symbol), but I felt that I should have been given a chance to offer a few suggestions before it got to the group discussion stage.
I wrote back explaining my feelings and offering the title Shibboleth, along with my argument about it being unknown but enigmatic, like The Tesseract. I also suggested that my non-de-plume for the new project be Abe Phillips. Kate wrote back promptly that Shibboleth and my other suggestions didn’t really work, but agreed that the nom-de-plume was okay and agreed to put it to the team.
There followed a brief exchange in which I pushed gently for my preference, but Kate held firm. The gist of Kate’s argument – which in retrospect makes perfect sense – is that the title should be clear and straightforward. In particular, she pointed out that The Tesseract, which I had offered as an example, was an exception – a word-of-mouth hit in the era before the supermarkets packed such clout in the book retail market. Furthermore, the Avon list specialized in selling through the supermarkets. Our discussions spilt over into the question of whether we should be so heavily reliant on the supermarkets, especially as they have little patience for slow-burners. But as Kate pointed out, we have to operate within the existing market and the supermarkets do pack the most clout.
The exchange was good-natured, but it was clear to all of us that the differences were far from resolved. Wanting to find some common ground, I suggested a book giveaway on Goodreads before publication, to get some pre-publication reviews and generate some buzz in advance. Two days later I went to Israel for two weeks, for the Jewish festival of Succot and three days into my visit, after clearing my head in the fresh Jerusalem air, I wrote to Kate again explaining that having thought about it, I was warming to the title The Sacred Sign. This was partly because I had been thinking about the cover design and I had come up with the idea of a snake coiled around a pole (called “the Rod of Asclepius” by the ancient Greeks, but also associated with Moses and with the pharmaceutical industry).
Imagine my surprise then, when Kate wrote back to tell me that she had been reconsidering and had now decided that the title The Moses Tablet was fine after all! It seems that we were like ships that pass in the night… never quite meeting.
In paralel with this, the discussions about my pen name were continuing. In addition to Abe Phillips, I was offering various alternatives like Phil Abrams and Maurice Palmer – the latter a pun on Michael Caine’s real name of Maurice Mickelwhite and the character Harry Palmer whom he played in the films of several Len Deighton books. They liked the surname “Palmer” but thought that “Maurice” was a bit weak, suggesting Michael Palmer as an alternative. I liked this, but a quick web check revealed that there already was a Michael Palmer writing thrillers in America and he was still active. But as we all liked the surname, I suggested keeping it and using the first name Adam – the Biblical First Man.
Kate agreed and so now – just a few days before I was due to go to Israel for the Jewish festival of Succot – we had a title (The Moses Tablet) an author’s “name” (Adam Palmer) and a cover designer working on some ideas, one of which I had suggested myself.
What we didn’t know was that there already an Adam Palmer and that he had written a critique of the Da Vinci Code – the prime example of the very genre that I was trying to break into.
On the weekend after my meeting with my editor Kate, I wrote to Diane, my agent, updating her on the discussions:
I had my meeting with Kate on Thursday and I agreed to change and simplify The Moses Tablets...
My only concern is about the possible loss of the Summer release slot. I firmly believe that the summer slot is ideal, followed by the spring slot. On the other hand I obviously need more time (guaranteed in writing), given how late we have come to this decision. Kate was talking about a January 2012 slot, but this is less than ideal. If it was a hardback, I wouldn’t mind a November 2011 slot. But it isn’t and as for January (or even February), I see them as little more than graveyards.
The question is what can I do to make a summer slot attainable? Certainly, I can write a first draft in 6-8 weeks once the plot is finalized and the research done. In fact I am quite far with my research, as much of the old research can still be carried over. But I still have to finalize the plot. I reckon I may be able to do that by the end of the week. and then finish the research by the end of September. This gives me two months to write it by the end of November deadline for a summer release (if I have understood correctly).
I will only know for sure when I have completed a more detailed plot summary. If I manage that by the end of the week, then I can do the rest, including delivering by the end of November.
Kate said that she would send us a summary of our discussions on Monday, so you may be reading that at the same time as this.
Diana agreed with me that a summer publication slot was desirable and wrote to Kate accordingly, while I got on with the task of writing a two page synopsis based on my discussions with Kate. I did not yet send it to Kate, as I wanted Diane’s feedback first. I wanted to be sure that this story really hit the spot. I did however write to Kate, to sound her out on the idea of changing the male Mossad officer into a female. The reason for this was that I wanted to two strong female characters in addition to the male protagonist, in order to heighten the tension.
Kate for her part sent me the summary of our discussions (our messages crossed over) and this helped me a great deal. Not all of the things we discussed made it to the final cut. But certain key elements were there that form the basis of the final story: a female archaeologist make a major find with ancient writing, a young Anglo-Jewish professor Daniel Klein called in to translate, background research into the archives of 19th century explorer William John Bankes, the Mossad, Daniel coming under suspicion of murder, a chase, a ruthless secret society, seeking historical information from the Samaritans.
By mid-day on Tuesday the 10th of August, I had finished my own preliminary draft of the synopsis, incorporating these key elements and sent it to Kate. By the early evening, Diane wrote to me that she had spoken to Kate and they had agreed on a delivery deadline of the 1st of December, aiming for publication sometime in May or June. This was perfect for me and it was clear that Diane and Kate shared the excitement.
The title that I had settled upon – The Moses Tablet(s) was a problem however. Kate felt that it gave away too much too soon. The other issue was my name. The publishers felt that as this was a completely different genre to my other books, it should be published under a different name. This was something I entirely agreed with. But coming up with a new name could wait. I had to crack on with polishing the synopsis. By eight o’clock in the evening on August the 10th, I sent the synopsis to Kate.
Four days later, I wrote to Diane, suggesting that we call the book Shibboleth. Derived from the Hebrew word for an ear of corn, it has been incorporated into the English language as meaning “any distinguishing practice that is indicative of one’s social or regional origin. It usually refers to features of language, and particularly to a word whose pronunciation identifies its speaker as being a member or not a member of a particular group.” The literal origin goes back to a war between different Israelite tribes when the tribe of Ephraim was defeated. When fleeing members of the tribe of Ephraim tried to flee, they were challenged to say the word Shibboleth. If they pronounced it Sibboleth (because of their inability to pronounce the consonant Sh) they were put to death on the spot.
In my story, this conflict did not play a direct part, but the ancestors of the tribe of Israelite tribe of Ephraim and their origins – as well as their inability to pronounce sh – played a major part. But it was also the modern meaning of Shibboleth – a test of membership and faith – that gave it a pleasing double meaning. I pointed out that even if most people didn’t know the meaning, the same could be said of Tesseract – a title of a very successful book by Alex Garland.
One day later – on the 15th of August 2010 – I commenced the actual writing of the book.
After a flurry of communications following the London Book Fair and my belated return from Israel (courtesy of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud), some two months went by, without any indication of what I was supposed to be doing and now with all the proofreading and corrections done for the second Alex Sedaka book, I was in the uncomfortable position of not having anything to do. True, I was supposed to be studying for my physics degree with the Open University. But high blood pressure and dizzy spells – brought about by anxiety – were making that impossible.
No Way Out had gone on sale on the 10th of June and hopes were high because the publishers had got it into Tesco and Asda. However, whilst it was selling better than Mercy, the question was whether it was selling enough to meet the publishers 20,000 copy target within a reasonable time?
In the absence of any word on the subject, I decided to force the issue. So on the 20th of June, I wrote to Diane telling her that in the absence of any indication from the publishers as to what they wanted I was going to continue writing the third Alex Sedaka book. But being too cowardly to present this as an ultimatum, I explained my decision in conciliatory terms (or should that be weasel words) to the effect that “I don’t want to be in a position where they decide they want it and I have to start from near the beginning.”
In retrospect it may have been a mistake to force the issue. Had I not done so, the publishers might have waited longer before deciding. But the upshot of all this was that on the 27th of June Diane told me that the sales – although better than for Mercy – were not quite good enough and that consequently HarperCollins had decided not to go ahead with the third Alex Sedaka book. The good news was that they agreed,in principle, to my suggestion that I should do the Moses book rather than the Doomsday Labyrinth. Of course all this was subject to agreement between me and Kate (my editor) on the plot for the Moses book. And that had yet to be finalized.
There followed an exchange of eMails in which Kate and I struggled to find a suitable date to meet. The problem was that Kate was going on holiday for a fortnight starting on August the 20th. For my part, my sister was coming to visit for a week, taking up a chuck of the time before that. In the event, we met on Thursday the 5th of August and came up with the rudiments of a plot.
The basically requirement was that there had to be an important discovery at the beginning, the hero trying to work out the full implications (which had to be major), people trying to stop the hero, a chase, an albino monk (only joking – but there did have to be some serious threat to the hero) and of course a final resolution of some sorts with a happy end. Also one of the pursuers must be extremely vicious with a propensity not just for murder but for brutality.
This last point was something of a problem for me, because one of the things I had learned from my mother’s cousin Clive Donner (a celebrated film director in the sixties and seventies) was that one should always put a bit of good in ones bad characters and a bit of bad in ones good characters. This Yin and Yang approach had served me in good stead when it came to keeping my characters realistic. But perhaps it was actually holding me back in the commercial stakes. So maybe Kate was right. But it was uncomfortable for me to have to adapt my style to this extent.
However, I rose to the challenge and drew up a synopsis based on our discussions. The one one remaining problem was the deadline. Kate wanted to publish the book in January 2011, somewhat earlier than we had previously been talking about and well before the third Alex Sedaka book was due to have been published. Given that we were already a week into August 2010, this left very little time for the writing of the book – especially as there was still some research to be done. (I had in fact been reading up on ancient Egypt and especially the 18th Dynasty, but my reading was far from complete.)
The one that was not yet decided was the publication date. When the third book in the contract was going to be an Alex Sedaka book, the delivery deadline was the end of August 2010 and publication had been scheduled for August 2011. But now things had changed. Here we were in the first week of August 2010 and I had yet to write a word of the new book, or even to have a full and detailed plot.
After Diane, my agent, dropped the bombshell on me that HarperCollins didn’t want to give me a separate contract for the conspiracy thriller books, I wrote back immediately voicing my concerns. They had not ruled out a third book in the Alex Sedaka series, but whereas before it was a definite, now it was only a maybe – and I had already been working on the book in accordance with the previous understanding.
I pointed out to Diane that the time-frame was tight. The deadline for the third book was August whereas No Way Out was due to be published in June. It was not clear whether the deciding factor for the publisher would be the actual sales figures of the second book or simply whether or not they managed to place it in the supermarkets. This was one of the points that I asked Diane to clarify.
But in any case, they told me last time (regarding Mercy) that the supermarkets only decide in the last few weeks. So regardless of their yardstick for success of No Way Out, I wouldn’t even know which book I was supposed to be writing until June and would then have to deliver it by August. I pointed out to Diane that I could write a first draft in three months – yes, I am that good – but it would be cutting it fine.
I was being a bit mischievous here, as Diane had already implied that the deadline could be extended. But there was a genuine underlying problem. Diane had made it clear that if the publishers decided to go with a conspiracy thriller, they would aim for publication in February or March 2011. Whereas if they wanted a third Alex Sedaka thriller, they would publish it in May 2011.
From my point of view, the other way round would have been better. I had already fully developed the plot of the the third Alex Sedaka book and written some 15,000 words. Also such a book required little or no additional research. In contrast, I had yet to agree on even the plot/synopsis of the conspiracy book, let alone written a word of it. Furthermore, the conspiracy thriller would require a fair amount of research. Indeed, if it was to be the “end of the world” Mayan prophecy book, it would require a lot of research, as I knew virtually nothing about the subject.
This was the other point I wanted to get across to Diane – and to the publishers. If the conspiracy thriller was to be the third book in the existing contract then there was no guarantee that it would go any further. I wanted such a book to succeed. But that meant that it had to be 100% the book I wanted to write – not the book I had agreed to write as a reluctant compromise. And, as I explained to Diane, I was far more enthusiastic about a book centering on the Moses theme than anything about Mayan prophecies. I put this in the most forthright terms:
Of the other two ideas, I infinitely prefer the MOSES TABLET to the DOOMSDAY LABYRINTH. I only reluctantly came up with the Doomsday Labyrinth idea and haven’t even got enough material for it. I would have to do masses of research into Mayan prophecies to flesh it out into a full length book, whereas with MOSES I could hit the ground running. Furthermore, no matter how much research I do, DOOMSDAY LABYRINTH will come over as a rip off of several movies and just one more of an overworked fad, following the flock but totally lacking in originality. It is the sort of project that I would happily write as a visual/action screenplay (it would take me all of two weeks), but it is too “thin” in terms of content to be a book.
All this drama, I should add, was being played out against the backdrop of the volcanic cloud over Europe that was wreaking havoc with the airlines and had caused be to be stuck in Israel – at least for an extra day. In any event, I was back the following day, and two days after that (24/04/2010) I followed up with a request that Diane obtain a formal agreement by the publisher to postpone the deadline. I also took the opportunity to reiterate my firm conviction that if there was to be only one guaranteed conspiracy thriller, then it should be the Moses book.
If they DO want a conspiracy thriller as the third book, it should NOT be the Doomsday Virus. Whilst the storyline has great Hollywood potential, I have – upon reflection – zero confidence in it as a book. It will not sell. I have discussed modifications of MOSES with Kate and incorporated some of her ideas into the story (e.g. finding the original ten commandments). The other possibility is to take the third Alex Sedaka story, reset it entirely in England (except the opening scene) and have the SAS man on the run in the UK. The emphasis would then be on the SAS man and the government trying to track him down. At base it would be a chase-the-widget story, with the widget in question being the undeveloped film that the SAS man took off the photographer.
Whilst I continued working with my editor Kate on the final proofs and cover copy of No Way Out, I was still unsure of what I should be doing in the meantime regarding the third book, and indeed had not been given any formal extension of the deadline. I wrote again to Diane asking if I should be holding off until we got a firm decision from the publisher. She told me that I should wait and that the publishers would decide on a basis of the early sales of No Way Out. Specifically “they would really need to sell in 20,000 copies in order to consider Alex Sedaka worth continuing with.
The figure was clear enough, if not the time-scale. But then again, they could probably tell in the first couple of weeks if it stood a reasonable chance of making that target. Of course, there are such things as slow burners, at least for books sold through Waterstones and independent book shops. But when the books are sold through supermarkets, it is different. Supermarkets simply do not have time for slow burners. If a book does not fly off the supermarket shelves, it will simply be returned very quickly and so any prospect of it becoming a slow-burner are effectively destroyed.
This was not a very comforting thought. But at least it meant I would know my fate very quickly.
As I explained in the last installment of this, part of the drama surrounding the development of the Moses Legacy took place while I was on holiday in Israel in 2010. In parallel with these discussions, the line editing and proof-reading of No Way Out was proceeding smoothly, complete with debates about whether a number between 200 and 300 could be described as ‘hundreds”.
Just to recap, my publishers liked the Doomsday Labyrinth but detected a small problem that it was too “boysy” and needed less physics and more archaeology – as well as a strong female lead. At the same time, Diane (my agent) was still lobbying for the Moses book, pointing out that it already had a strong female lead as well as a generous helping of archaeology – they find the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments for God’s sake!
At the same time, HarperCollins were officially committed to making the third book under the contract another Alex Sedaka book. Indeed they got me to send them the first two chapters so that they could include them as a sneak preview at the end of No Way Out.
I wrote a revised synopsis of Doomsday, fulfilling the “feminization” requirement <Wry Grin> and for her part, Kate (my editor) agreed to reconsider a shortened synopsis for the Moses book. The idea was that if I could reduce it to a one-page synopsis, then it would not be too complicated. (I know that sounds patronizing to the reader, but we live in the real-world – and writing is a business.)
Kate read it again, but was still not convinced. She made it clear that it was not the idea of a story about Moses in principle that she objected to. She just felt that the particular story that I had come up with didn’t work. She suggested a few idea to get the creative juices going such as finding that the Ten Commandments are different to what it says in the Bible or some Big secret surrounding Moses – something more shocking than the theory that he may have been an Egyptian prince. She even suggested an alternative story in which the remnants of Noah’s Ark are discovered. Nevertheless, she agreed to present both the Doomsday Labyrinth and the Moses book, to the editorial committee.
With hindsight, Kate was almost certainly right about the Moses book needing a stronger twist. The theory that Moses really was an Egyptian prince (and not just brought up as one) has been around since the time of Sigmund Freud. Finding his bones and DNA to prove it, might be interesting in a nerdy sort of way, but it wouldn’t exactly be shocking. And it is certainly not the sort of thing that people might kill to suppress. However I wasn’t sure quite sure how to come up with something that was sufficiently surprising and yet at the same time credible. I wrote back a couple of days later with an idea, but it was still undeveloped and not exactly earth-shaking:
I have been thinking of some ideas to make the MOSES TABLET bigger. It STARTS with the discovery of the ten commandments in proto-semitic script. This enables them to translate the script and thus gain access to other documents, leading them on a trail that leads them to the discovery of the BONES of MOSES in Petra, Jordan. Remember that in the Old Testament, Moses wasn’t allowed to cross the River Jordan into Canaan? Finding the bones of Moses (with a provable proto-semitic inscription on the coffin or tomb) would be a HUGE archeological find. But certain interests would be opposed to it.I would also make other changes, such as clandestine digging in Sinai in a military area that could lead to some tense moments in the story.The story would then have:– An exciting BEGINNING (finding the tablets with the ten commandments)– An exciting MIDDLE (chases, clandestine digging, people trying to kill them)… and-An exciting END (finding the tomb of Moses and a final shootout).I am sure that this would work.The good thing about this story is that I could hit the ground running because of my existing knowledge of the Old Testament.
This was the best I could do for the time being. I thought that as I was on holiday in Israel and both my agent and editor were at the London Book Fair, it would be enough at least to keep their minds open to the Moses idea, while I struggled to come up with a story that would be powerful as well as clever. (Clever doesn’t cut it – I should have learned at primary school that no one loves a smart-ass.
However, on the 21st of April, 2010, Diane (my agent) sent me an eMail that sent me reeling. It said:
On another note, we had a frank discussion about the conspiracy thrillers and she is reluctant to enter into a separate contract. This is because she would like to see how NO WAY OUT performs. If they can’t get the supermarkets on board for NO WAY OUT, they would not be interested in commissioning a third Alex Sedaka title, and instead would like to cut losses and have one of the conspiracy thrillers as the third title in our existing contract. I can see the sense in this – if we’ve failed to get the supermarkets on board with Alex Sedaka twice, I can’t see how we are going to get them on board with a third novel and agree that we should cut our losses.
This was very different to their earlier reassurances that they wanted the third Alex Sedaka book. The eMail went on to reassure me that:
If they did a third Alex Sedaka, they would want to do this in May next year. There would be a slot for a conspiracy thriller in February / March. Either gives you plenty of time to deliver so I can see that it is sensible to wait and see how we get on with NO WAY OUT in June before deciding on a way forward.
However there was no getting away from the fact that they were no longer committed to a third Alex Sedaka book, that they might want to make the conspiracy thriller the third book in the contract – depending on how well the second Alex Sedaka book did – and there was still no indication of which conspiracy thriller they wanted me to write. Furthermore I remained less than enthusiastic about the Doomsday Labyrinth as a full-length book – although it would work fine as a screenplay.
Finally there was the small matter of the August deadline for submission of the third manuscript. How was I going to meet it, if I had to wait until the publication of the second Alex Sedaka book in June before I even knew which manuscript I was going to write?