Simon Says » communiqué 011/September 2017

Simon Says: communiqué 011/September 2017

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, I’m writing this introduction on back to school day…or parents-finally-get-a-break day. It all depends on your perspective.

It’s easy to think that we’re two-thirds of the way through the year. I prefer to think that we’ve still got four months left. And if we’re going to make use of that time, I’d better get on with it! 

Introducing Me

I hope I need no further introduction—you know who I am, what I do, and why I’m sending you this email.

For many of you, you will have learned something about me and about my books when you joined the readers’ group and received the series of introductory emails. This email sequence also included links to three novellas which form my introductory library (and there’s a reminder about the library below).

I’m looking to make some changes with the introductory library and the email introduction in 2018, but before I go too far with the changes, I’m keen to hear what readers think.

If you’ve got a few moments, I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can let me know what you think over here.

This survey is intended to be quick. It’s mostly yes/no and checkboxes, and there are no compulsory questions (so you can skip ahead at any point). There are also a few opportunities to elaborate, if you want.

Anything you say is completely confidential—I’m not collecting any personal data, so if you want a response, drop me an email.

Thank you in advance to everyone who shares their thoughts.

Introductory Library

Now that I’ve mentioned the introductory library…

If you’re missing any of the books, get them here:

I will be making some changes to the introductory library in 2018. Anything I add will be made immediately available to you (for free), but anything I remove will then only be available through the bookstores and won’t be free, so make sure you load the books onto your reading device of choice if you don’t want to miss out.

Last Month’s Book Extract

In last month’s edition of Simon Says I included a chapter from a possible future book. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, you can find it here.

Thank you to everyone who let me have their thoughts, and double thanks to those who gave me something to really scratch my head over. I had some very interesting conversations with some readers and thought you might be interested to get a flavor of some of those exchanges.

Several times I had the same question asked or same point raised in slightly different ways, so I’ve taken some liberties with the questions/issues and compressed them. I do have a bit more to say, but I’ll cover that next month.

It seems that there’s a lot of history, coming very fast…

From the second paragraph, there is much description of the street, and this description highlights the historical setting. I usually prefer to include more character information at the start, but there are several reasons for providing such a large lump of historical detail so early in the book.

The key fact we, as the reader, learn from this first chapter is that there has been a death, and a death in circumstances that appear to be suspicious. As a reader, hearing about a death, we have certain automatic reactions—call the police, is there any forensic evidence, what did the CCTV show…and so on.

I needed the reader to understand—before they learn of the death—that there are no police and there is no science. There will be no looking through phone GPS logs to see whether anyone was near the location around the time of death. Everything you might expect to happen in the twenty-first century won’t happen here.

Beyond simply letting the reader know that the setting was “different”, my aim was to get the reader into the atmosphere of 1740 London immediately. Some of the details offer interesting color, but could be ambiguous. For instance, the fireplace and the candle could easily both exist in the twenty-first century. Neither is exclusive to the 1700s.

However, the level of decay and filth on the streets, sending a boy, the absence of electricity or motor vehicles, are all indicative (but not proof) of a historical setting. But the urban context also tells us this is probably not medieval. While these two extremes don’t clearly state 1740, it does get the reader much closer to the correct period.

A bit more about 1740 London, and the filth…

The filth has additional purposes. On one hand, I wanted the reader to understand immediately the kind of place we were dealing with—a place of great wealth, but also of great poverty. A city—at the time, the largest city in the world—which was growing at a rapid rate, but which was unable to provide the infrastructure necessary for its residents.

I wanted readers to understand—in the most visceral terms—not only the unpleasantness of the filth, but the risk to health of the London streets. I also wanted to set a theme with the book: decay. And from that second paragraph onward, everywhere we look, there is decay.

I could have pulled back and moderated the description using much easier terms such as “waste” and “scraps” and so on. To me, these kinds of words do not convey the world in which my characters are living. As descriptions, they are far too safe and non-specific—they don’t let the reader see that the simple act of walking out on the street will put a character’s life and health at risk.

Some of the paragraphs are very brief, making it feel as though the text is being stretched to appear that more has been written…

The very short paragraphs are an intended decision.

I really dislike long paragraphs. To my mind, long paragraphs are pretty much the worst writing sin—they make books unreadable. With me, generally, I don’t like to exceed 100 words in a paragraph (although, I will if necessary). After that, I then like to vary the length of paragraphs.

This variation isn’t simply an implementation of randomness. I vary with a purpose. Short paragraphs (sentence-long paragraphs) give a very staccato rhythm. This can be good for speed making the read “feel” fast, and it can be good for drawing a reader’s attention to something that is important—a detail in a single short paragraph is much more likely to be noticed than one hidden in a longer paragraph.

The real irony is that I spent a long time trying to shorten the extract—it was 50% longer when first drafted—so I wasn’t trying to do that schoolboy thing :–)

I felt the writing would be improved if the names of the two men and a few details about the men were given…

I agree that the story would be improved with the names of the two men. The trouble here is that I haven’t made a decision and all of my “placeholder” names felt wrong. I wish I had a better excuse or reasoning here, but unfortunately, I don’t.

As for the details of the two men, there are several aspects at play here.

First off, this is intended to be the second book with these characters. The first book will explain how the employee became an ex-employee. So, for some readers, these details will be known. However, for those readers who do not know, I don’t want to spend the first chapter in effect recounting the story thus far. These details will be filled in during the book, but in chapter one I’d rather pique the reader’s interest so they turn pages and keep reading.

The second aspect is why the Lord calls this man. This is another issue where I am intentionally keeping information from the reader. As before I am keeping those details so that the reader will turn pages and keep reading. The situation here is very different from that of the names—here I know what information I’m keeping back and why I’m keeping it back.

Getting the First Chapter Right

I’ve already talked the first chapter I shared last month, and in the last section I looked at some of the decisions about the content of that extract. But as much as the content, for any first chapter, there’s the thought process and the writing technique.

For me, when I begin a book, the chapter that takes longest to write is the first chapter. Once I’ve got that foundation right, I can build the book from there. But until that bedrock is sound, all I’ve really got is a bunch of ideas that might become a book, might become scenes in any number of books, or more likely, will get thrown away in favor of a better idea.

The Function of the First Chapter

One of the reasons the first chapter takes a while is that I’m trying to balance two contradictory activities:

Let me elaborate…

Drawing In the Reader

Chapter one is the reader’s way into a story. To engage the reader—to draw in the reader—there are several elements that need to be brought into play.

The first element is a character who interests the reader. The character doesn’t necessarily need to be likeable, but they need to offer the reader a reason to spend time with them. Equally, the character doesn’t need to be the main antagonist/protagonist—they simply need to be someone to take the reader by the hand and drag them into the story.

The second element is a situation that intrigues the reader. The reader doesn’t need all of the details of the situation; just enough to arouse their curiosity.

The third element is something at stake. The reader needs to understand at an instinctive level that something in the situation matters to at least one of the characters, even if the reader does not fully understand (yet) the consequences of those stakes. If the reader understands that something matters to a character, and that character interests them, then they will want to know more. In short, they’ll want to know what happens next.

But That’s Not Enough

Simply giving the reader a character or two, a situation, and setting out the stakes isn’t enough. For the reader, chapter one is the frame that sets the expectations for the book, and establishes the deal between reader and writer. For the reader to the author: I’ll give you my time and trust you to take me somewhere. For the author to the reader: I’ll give you an experience that you’ll enjoy.

Chapter one is a negotiation. The author gives a hint of the journey; just enough, but not too much. The reader wants to know that there’s a story, but doesn’t want to be told the ending on page one.

At the end of the first chapter, the deal between reader and writer should be agreed, but it’s always good to give the reader an incentive to turn to chapter two.

Making Decisions

For me, the author, a book (literally) starts from a blank page (…well, a blank screen). My options are limitless. This freedom is good, but a reader doesn’t want to hear everything that is rattling around inside my head: a reader wants to hear a very specific story, and a story told well.

The reader wants to read about a series of events, with that series of events recounted in precisely the right order such that the book literally takes the reader on a journey.

As the author, I have to decide what journey I want to take the reader on. That decision made, I then deal with the consequences. In other words, I need to determine:

The decisions made in the first chapter will impact the rest of the book since each decision often means a cut; something has to be discarded.

Cutting hurts, but cutting is good for a novel. It brings clarity and focus (assuming the right things have been cut) and it gives a chance to make sure the ending isn’t given away in the first few lines.

But cutting also helps drag the reader into the second chapter.

Chapter Two

Once I’ve piqued their interest, I can’t blithely take the reader for granted. I need to create a strong motivation for the reader to move from chapter one to chapter two.

And the simple way to encourage the reader to keep reading is to tell them that there’s something they don’t know while implying the answer is on the next page. So, for instance, if a character says: “I’ll tell you who the murderer is if you meet me on the heath at midnight…” then the reader might turn the page to find who the murderer is (and also to deal with the minor puzzle of why the character couldn’t say now…but that’s another issue).

I don’t like being so crude. I prefer subtlety and for the reader to figure the missing details on their own. My readers are bright—they don’t need signposts telling them what’s missing. However, I do need to make sure I miss details which will result in questions in the reader’s mind, encouraging them to turn the page in order to find out more.

What Was Left Out?

There were many shortcomings with the chapter that I sent out last month, but one thing I was quite pleased with was how much I left out. These intentional omissions left many questions posed, but unanswered.

Here’s a quick list of the obvious issues that the first chapter raises but does not address:

There’s also the question of why the servant left the master’s employ, the servant’s current employment, the status of the master, and the relationship between the two men, but these issues are of less immediate issue for the reader and are less consequential for the story.

You will also see that having so many questions gives me a lot of flexibility. I can take the story in many directions (maybe even several directions).

Finishing Chapter One

The chapter still needs a lot of work, but—for me—it’s a good starting point with the basics in place:

In addition, there are lots of questions that need answering.

Hopefully this will pull people into the story, but unfortunately, you and I are both going to have to wait until the book is written before we can decide whether I’ve succeeded. 

Until October

That’s me for this month. If you haven’t done so already, please head over to the survey and tell me what you think about the welcome emails and introductory library.

I’ll be back in October when I might have a few more questions :–)

Until next month.

All the best

Simon