We’re halfway through 2018. How’s the year been treating you so far?
I’ve got some behind the scenes perspectives this month, so let’s jump right in.
A Certain Satisfaction
For every book I have written—or to be more specific, for every book that I have written and which has then been published (let’s not talk about those that don’t see the light of day)—there’s always something special for me as the author.
Sometimes I’ve just tried something different and it worked, for instance High Five was my first book written in the first person. At other times it can be a character that I feel was realized especially well such as Clementina, an obstreperous seventeen-year-old who is simultaneously an adult and a child, showing absolute confidence while at the same time being totally vulnerable.
Whatever the book, if it’s been published, you can be sure that in addition to me being happy with the story (and I’ve got to be really happy before any story even goes near the editor…) there are some things in there that I will like that you might not notice.
There’s a lot I like about Bag Man. Leathan Wilkey is in his element—he’s being intuitive and intelligent in his approach; he’s taking risks but he’s still being cautious.
But what I’m really pleased with is the ending.
As I mentioned last year in The Hero Fails, not every reader agrees with me about this ending—some have wondered whether the ending was intended as a set-up for another novel. The response here is simple: nope, Leathan just failed. This was a choice I made and was the story that I was trying to tell.
I like the ending because, ultimately, Leathan is right, but yet he still fails. There is an ambiguity and something of a contradiction. On one hand, Leathan’s intelligence and intuition were absolutely correct. However, the situation in which Leathan found himself led to a failure. That failure stings for Leathan and at the end of the novel we see him aiming to drink himself into oblivion to blot out that sting.
The book is part of my (free) introductory library. If you haven’t read it yet, download Bag Man today.
Bag Man Cover
One other aspect of Bag Man I like is the cover. It has a “vibe” that appeals to me.
“Vibe” is, of course, a way to say that it has a quality that is hard to define, but let me try and get a bit more specific… The photo brings together several elements:
- Light and dark. Street lighting makes the scene brighter, but it brings a contrast that makes the dark appear darker. Only with light are there shadows and the light destroys any night sight making the shadows seem darker.
- Urban. The scene is clearly shot in a city (in this case, Paris).
- Night. This photo is obviously shot at night, and night always has many attendant implications.
- Rain. As well as the wetness, the image also hints toward a certain coldness.
- Comparative emptiness. This is an urban setting, but there a few signs of humans being actively present—there is a person crossing and car tail lights, but beyond that, the city looks empty.
A photo brings together and presents those elements in a way that words alone cannot. It encapsulates several notions and presents them simultaneously. With words, there is an order in which words are placed on the page and therefore one element has to take priority over another. With an image, those elements have equal priority and it is for the viewer to decide where to look and to form their own opinion.
And in combination, those elements give an overall impression which—to me—hints at something bigger.
So… That Traffic Light…
I love the photo that was used for the cover, however, the irony about that picture is that it was an accident.
If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll know I spent some time in Paris researching for the Leathan Wilkey books, and as I researched, I took photos.
On my second evening in Paris, I was out walking—in the rain—when I saw something that struck me as being very typical of Paris: a traffic light placed at the height of the driver’s line of sight.
Now this isn’t a crazy idea… In fact, it’s very sensible. However, it is a definite thing in Paris that isn’t present in London (where my Boniface series is set). In London, the traffic signals are placed on the top of poles—in Paris, this is the case too, but in addition there are these lower (and smaller) sets of lights.
I had noticed these half-height lights and I wanted to remember this feature.
However, it was raining and I was cold, and I didn’t want to take out my phone and tap away with cold wet finger and maybe drop the thing as I made a note. So I took a picture.
I didn’t frame the shot—I simply pointed my camera in the general direction, hoped that the camera had focused, and hit the shutter.
When I got home and looked at the image, I was surprised that I had actually captured something rather moody and quite evocative. You can follow this link to see a higher resolution version of that photo (click on the image to expand it).
Usually when it comes to creating a cover I give the cover artist some ideas. Often I’ll show them some images and then let them come up with some concepts. This photo was one of several I showed to the cover designer when I was trying to demonstrate the vibe I was after for the Paris books.
It soon became clear that this image encapsulated much of what the cover was intended to convey and so rather than keep searching for another image, this photo that I had taken simply to be a reminder became the cover image.
Of course, if I’d known this image was going to be used for the cover, I would have worked harder. For a start, I would have framed the picture better. You’ll notice in the wider image above, and also if you’ve seen the wraparound cover used with the print edition of the book, that the limitations of the original photo have required some action. The image simply isn’t wide enough, so when the original image runs out, a mirror image of the photo has been added on the left-hand side. If you look at the crossing, you’ll notice it has an angle in it that isn’t present if you go to Paris.
The other failure of the photo is that it doesn’t show the aspect I was trying to remember. Unless you knew, you may not realize that this set of lights was at the driver’s eye level—since I didn’t shoot the top light, there’s no perspective here.
Situation vs Story
At various times I’ve undertaken work as a ghostwriter—someone who writes a book but who is then paid but not credited. The named writer then takes the credit with their name on the cover and undertakes the publicity for the book.
I usually wrote non-fiction, but occasionally people would approach me about fiction projects. These approaches always followed the same pattern. My first question with any new project always was (and always is): “What’s the budget?”
This was always a flummoxing question to the person approaching me. It never flummoxed anyone with a non-fiction project, but for fiction approaches, the response was always words to the effect: “But, Simon, you don’t understand…”
There would then be some long explanation that this was such a great idea that we would all be making money—more money than anyone could dream of. I’d mutter about an advance and be told not to worry about tiny amounts…I should look at the big picture. I was being offered a share in something huge and should be grateful for the opportunity.
It was at this point that I would always decline the offer and move on to something that paid.
I declined because, first, ideas are not scarce. Ideas are not unique. Heck, there’s not even any copyright protection for ideas. The key is the realization of any idea.
But more importantly, apart from the fact that I was never going to see any money, I declined because what these people always had was a situation, not a story.
A situation is different from a story.
Every story will have a situation, but not every situation has a story.
So what’s the difference? I’ve already talked about Bag Man, so let’s stay with that book. At the end of the book we have a situation. The situation in this case is that a child has been kidnapped and likely has been taken out of the country.
A situation is a set of facts (to the extent you can have facts in the context of fiction). It is the circumstances at the present time.
Where the situation is a matter of circumstance, story involves characters.
Reducing a story to its most simple level, there will be a protagonist and an antagonist. Simplifying, the protagonist is the lead character and the antagonist is the character stopping the protagonist from achieving their goal.
So if we have a situation where a man has been killed, that is not a story. However, building on that situation, if a woman seeks vengeance against the person who killed her children’s father, then we have the kernel of a story.
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The middle of the story involves the protagonist going up against the antagonist. When the story has reached the end, the protagonist will have achieved their goal or will have failed. In either case, when comparing the protagonist’s situation at the beginning and at the end of the story, their life will have changed, and will have changed irrevocably.
As you can see, a story is very different from a situation. However, there are more factors that come into play to make a compelling story.
Conflict and Stakes
To drive a story, there needs to be conflict and stakes.
For a story to be compelling, the protagonist and the antagonist must each want something. Everybody wants something…even if you just want to live a quiet life and for everything to remain the same.
In fiction, conflict isn’t a matter of the protagonist saying “yes” and the antagonist saying “no”. It’s one person pursuing what they want and that pursuit coming up against what someone else wants. When two people want the same object, or one person’s pursuit stops another person getting what they want, then there is a root for conflict.
More than there simply being a conflict, something needs to be at stake for the protagonist and the antagonist. There must be the potential for a loss.
This loss can take many forms, for instance, it could be a loss of money (maybe through theft), loss of a person (for instance, through murder), or loss of esteem (which can happen when one person publicly disrepects another). To make the story believable, the potential loss must be real to the character. Moreover, that loss must be connected with “failing” in the central conflict in the story.
Leathan and the Kidnapping
In Bag Man, Leathan Wilkey has a simple task—to make a ransom exchange.
When the exchange falls apart, Leathan’s motivation is clear. He senses danger for the child and feels an element of personal responsibility. At the end of the story, he has failed to recover the child.
He is then offered the chance to get involved with the recovery of the child as the action moves from Paris, probably to another country. Leathan refuses and instead chooses to get drunk to blot out the sting of his failure.
I’ve already mentioned the question about whether this ending was a set-up for another book—the story of the recovery—and confirmed that there will be no follow up.
From a storytelling point of view, this story—the story of Leathan being right and yet failing—was the story that I wanted to tell. But there’s a secondary reason why Leathan doesn’t continue to chase the kid—he has no motivation. For Leathan, there’s nothing at stake.
Or at least, there’s not enough at stake.
His only real incentives to continue this pursuit would be cash and some sort of fuzzy feeling about doing the right thing. The cash clearly would have an appeal to Leathan, but it’s a questionable motivator, especially when there’s a bigger issue at stake (the child) and the child is insufficiently motivating for a bigger story since Leathan has no relationship with the kid.
In short, at the end of Bag Man we have another situation, but for me, there is little scope for an interesting Leathan story. Now don’t get me wrong, there are lots of interesting kidnapping stories to be told—it’s just this one doesn’t feel very interesting to me.
Ideas Are Not Stories
As you’ll probably have guessed, story is something I tend to think about, a lot. And I’m sure you can also guess that it’s something I’m likely to talk about again.
And to Close
I’ll be back in July.
Until then, all the best