Welcome to the second edition of Simon Says, my monthly readers’ group communiqué.
Since the last edition many people have joined the readers’ group: Welcome to you all. There are also many people who have been in the group for a while: It’s great to have you all around too. After the last edition I received many kind words and comments. Thank you everyone for your thoughts; they are very much appreciated.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere the winter draws in. In London, it’s not so much the cold that makes the difference—although it is chilly—but more the lack of light (both the amount of light and the quality of light). In other words, it really is the season to stay inside with a good book, and as luck would have it, I have another free book for you.
I am pleased to announce the publication of my newest book, Bag Man, a Leathan Wilkey novella.
Bag Man is available as a free electronic download. Follow this link and get reading today.
I use a service called BookFunnel to deliver my free books. If you have trouble getting this book, just tap the Help Me link at the top of the download page and the BookFunnel support team will be pleased to help.
Bag Man is the third book in my introductory library.
If you haven’t had the chance to download the two earlier books in the library—High Five and Long Lunch—or you’ve just misplaced your download links, you can grab the two books here:
Sharing the Introductory Library
My introductory library is intended to do exactly what its name suggests: to introduce my books to new readers.
The three books in the library are made available for free and they’re also slightly shorter than usual so that new readers need invest less time to see whether the books are right for them. In other words, what I’ve tried to do is to make it as easy as possible for people to try out my work.
If you have any family or friends who you think may enjoy these books (or any of my other books), then please forward this email to them so they can download the books.
And if you’re a family member or a friend who has received this email, I hope you enjoy your reading! Please also join my readers’ group. When you join, I’ll send you this monthly communiqué, Simon Says, which will tell you about my books and any special offers, as well as giving you extracts and a few other pieces I think you may find interesting.
Clementina has now been out for a few months. Have you read it yet? They say good things about it :–) Here are a few comments:
Absolutely loved this book. The plot was intriguing and the writing was witty and intense.
I was hooked from the beginning. I couldn’t wait to finish reading Clementina!
Excellent book. Fascinating plot with great characters.
When Clementina was first published, it was only available on Amazon (and if you’re wondering why, it’s because if a book is exclusive with Amazon, they can add a bit more marketing heft). The period of exclusivity has come to an end and the book is now widely available, so you can find Clementina here:
The Kernel of an Idea
I got asked a question the other day: How do you go about writing a book? Is it just a case of sitting down and typing?
For me, it isn’t. At least, not in the early stages.
I don’t just sit down and type. First, I outline the entire story and only once I’ve got an outline in place do I start writing. But before I can really get to the outline, I need an idea. Or rather, not so much an idea, but a kernel for the story—a solid foundation. I’m not looking for a vague notion that the book is about something or other—I need a starting point to drag me into the story.
Perhaps I can best illustrate the kind of kernel I need by talking about a notion that I’m kicking around at the moment. This may become a book, but equally, I may just drop the whole thing if it doesn’t keep my attention.
Element One: A Situation
The notion that came to me started with a thought about the outrage of newspapers. Outrage sells. But outrage also leads to pressure for change. “Something must be done!” shout the headlines, and politicians are put under pressure to change the law or to account for failures. And in this mess and confusion, somehow the perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions. We look to address the symptoms, not to cure the causes.
This led to the idea of a government—a politically weak government that was scared of voters—deciding to act, but acting illegally. Instead of changing the law or providing better funding/training for the law enforcement agencies, what would happen if instead, the government assassinated people that were becoming politically embarrassing? Here I wasn’t thinking about mass killing, simply one or two people—a hate preacher, a child abuser whose crimes couldn’t be proved because of the trauma suffered by his victim—being assassinated, and the assassinations dressed up as accidents.
This was where the idea started, but this is not the usual place a story starts for me, and something is missing. It was the starting point from which I found my way into a story, but it was definitely a second, or maybe even a third, issue.
Element Two: Humanity
For me, the primary aspect of any story is the human side. And to describe it as a human side or a human aspect is wrong—for me, the human side is the story. I can tell a story without a situation; I can’t tell a story without humanity. No humanity equates to no interest on my part.
To be interesting, a story needs more than human beings turning up and waving. Those humans need to be at a crossroads—at a decision point in their life—and that decision needs to matter to them in a significant way.
When I looked at the situation of a government-sanctioned program to rid the country of undesirables, there were several obvious places I could work from when looking for the humanity in the story. For instance, I could look at the families of the assassinated individuals. Alternatively, I could look at the people responsible for the assassinations—those making the decisions or those carrying out the orders.
But neither of those ideas interested me and I couldn’t see much of an engaging story flowing from those perspectives.
However, what did pique my interest was the thought about a journalist being given a tip about this program. And when I thought about this journalist, I formed the picture of a thirty-something woman, unmarried—her relationship having ended about a year ago—but with a child.
When I hit upon the mother/child relationship, things started to get interesting for me. Several aspects immediately came to mind:
- The mother wants to support child—she must therefore earn money. The need to earn money requires that she works.
- But this mother wants to do more than simply work—she wants her work to be significant. In part, this significance is for herself—so much of our identity is tied up in the work we do. But in part she wants her work to matter so that she can teach her child by example.
These two aspects are enough for me to throw the character into the mix and see how she handles the information about a government-sponsored assassination program. Her motivations are simple: She wants money and she wants a story that—if it is true—should be exposed, and bringing the story to light would be something she could (in later years) talk with her child about and have pride about what she did.
But there’s another aspect here in that a mother has to look to her personal safety. If she puts her safety in jeopardy, then a consequence may be that she is unable to protect her child, and as a result, she might (reasonably) choose not to pursue the investigation. This is something of a dilemma…and may sink the book; however, it was the idea that came to me.
Will This Be My Next Book?
A novel about a clandestine government program to remove undesirables is not something that compels me. It’s a conspiracy theory and not much more. Sure, it interests, but it doesn’t compel me. And as a story, there are only so many ways the plot can play out, and I’m sure the reader would get to the conclusion a long time before I did.
However, having a character trying to uncover whether there is such a program—or find an alternative explanation for the deaths—interests me more. Take that further, and the notion of a mother feeling compelled to investigate people who may be committing murder gives me something that could be an interesting story, but as I mentioned, I’m not sure whether that aspect would be plausible.
While I found my way to the humanity from the situation, the situation will likely be far less significant—indeed, the situation could get dropped altogether—if the book does get written. Maybe that’s how I get past the plausibility issue…
And as you will have figured by now, there isn’t a simple answer—I really don’t know whether this idea will become a book.
Back to the Original Question
So back to the original question: How do you go about writing a book? In summary—I start with a setup that has the kernel of a human story that grips me. After that, I outline the entire story…but that’s an explanation for another month.
So have you watched Goliath?
No? Well, you should think about it, but not too hard.
It’s an Amazon Original (so at the moment you can only see it by streaming it from Amazon) that stars Billy Bob Thornton as Billy McBride, a lawyer. The show was created is David E. Kelley, who also created The Practice, Boston Legal and Ally McBeal among (lots of) others.
The setup has pretty much every cliché there could be: Billy McBride was a hotshot lawyer, but he drank—and still drinks—and now is down on his luck, having lost his employment and his wife…but he’s still close to his daughter. He lives (and has his office) in a motel, although he seems to do a lot of work in the bar next door. His best friend is a stray dog and his assistant is also a call girl.
And now he is involved in a wrongful death suit fighting against the firm he cofounded, which is also where his former wife still works. Yeah, it’s too neat, but the neatness creates a closed community where the drama can take place.
The main villain of the piece is played by William Hurt, who takes the role of Donald Cooperman, McBride’s former partner and now his nemesis. And this is where I started to lose interest…
Hurt’s performance is good, but the character is too much of a villain. He lives in the penthouse above the law firm’s offices, which is kept in near constant darkness and decorated like something from a 1930s noir movie. And that’s before we talk about his burned face and the CCTV cameras he has everywhere.
The law firm where Cooperman is the managing partner and the firm’s client—an arms manufacturer—are fairly standard cardboard cutout firms emblematic of the “evil” corporation. And the case, involving a new weapon, is somewhat implausible and a bit too extreme.
While the story is linear and pedestrian, the performances are all good. Indeed, there are no bad performances. That said, every character (apart from the ex-wife and the daughter) is a broken down, damaged oddball, which does get a bit wearing.
But, for me, there are two standout performances:
Billy Bob Thornton plays McBride in a quiet, understated way. His version of angry is being quiet…he acts angry and brooding, rather than going for the showy shouting thing. While the character is far from angry all the time, there’s something brooding and simmering under McBride’s seemingly calm exterior.
The second standout performance comes from Nina Arianda, who plays Patty Solis-Papagian, the lawyer who brings McBride the case. She is annoying and chatty (both understatements) and always wants to take the fast buck, but somehow Arianda brings warmth and bombast to the case.
Should You Watch It?
In a word, yes. Watch it for Thornton. Watch it for Arianda. And watch it because it’s entertaining enough. It’s not the best you’ll see, but it’s worth it for the performances.
The next edition of Simon Says will be out in January. With Bag Man you’ve got some reading to keep you occupied until then, and of course, if you finish that there are plenty of other books you can check out. Just head over to my website and have a look.
Let me know what you think about Bag Man—you can tell me directly or post on my Facebook page. And if you’d like to write a short review, they always help other readers understand whether a book is right for them. You can post your reviews on Amazon (or wherever you buy books), Goodreads, Facebook, or any place where you talk about books.
In closing, I wish you and yours the compliments of the season, whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, the shortest day/longest night, New Year (if you work off the Gregorian calendar), any other festival, or none. Keep safe and I’ll see you in 2017.
All the best