Luke

More complications this week, thanks to buying a new computer which then had the typical new computer teething problems – installing software, making sure everything I needed came across, etc.

This latest computer comes a lot sooner than expected. My previous new computer, a HP, sucked. So did the laptop – also a HP. Both systems had problems from the moment I turned them on. The laptop would freeze spontaneously. The HP helpline suggested the ever-famous ‘factory reset’. If anybody ever advises a factory reset, tell them to get stuffed. It’ll wipe out the problem, until the system just escalates itself back into that situation, which is exactly what happened. The helpline then ran me around, ringing me at times I’d tell them I wouldn’t be available, not ringing me when I told them they should, and (repeatedly) marking the case as resolved when it wasn’t. I tried three times to contact HP to talk about my problems in finding a solution, but they never got back to me.

I’m not a brand snob. I’ll gravitate to whatever does the best job, regardless of the brand. But I very easily get put off by things that don’t work as they should, or which have issues, or whose helplines run you around and waste your time. For that reason, I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever buy another HP product.

As I mentioned last week, the proof for my new book was returned, and I spent the weekend going over the proofreader’s meticulous corrections. The proofreader is often lost in anonymity. If a book’s great, the author gets all the credit. If it’s bad, often the editor is criticised. The proofreader? Most people wouldn’t know they exist, let alone what they do (usually proofread the book after it’s been laid out).

I can now reveal the title of my second book: Valley of the Farters. You’ll probably think this is the terrific lie for the week – as if I would be that blatant. I actually had ongoing arguments with my publisher about retaining this title, which I felt acted as a metaphor for the story.

Grace and Charles Abbott live in the remote Australian town of Isolation. When Charles dies unexpectedly from a heart attack at just 44, everybody is shocked. The townsfolk feel for Grace, but are then bemused when she shows no real signs of mourning, grow suspicious when she moves on with life as if nothing happened, and then paranoid that she might be a murderer when she begins another relationship, albeit with a woman.

The story is about preconceptions and how we, as a collective, can impose our expectations on somebody else. When they don’t behave as we believe they should, we’re quick to judge and condemn. In VotF, innuendo drives the townfolk of Isolation into a frenzy, until they confront Grace – here’s a snippet of that scene:

          Grace scowled as the townsfolk – a block of unnavigable human flesh – crammed into the pub. Their eyes burned with fury – Father Dowell, his face stern; Constable McNulty, her jaw square and hard; the Robinson twins, just thirteen, but seething with murderous anger. Their condemnation buried Grace, until she couldn’t breathe. She yanked at her collar and tore free her top button.
          ‘I’ve had it!’ she said. ‘I can’t keep fighting this. The town has grown rabid with your hate. It’s become poisonous. It doesn’t matter what I say. You just keep farting the same accusations. Isolation reeks. And I can’t do this no more.’

The question becomes is Grace guilty of an actual crime, or just a lack of obvious grieving?

It’s good that VotF is now out of the way, so I can focus entirely on ‘TFSoLY’. I’ve been able to jot down all the characters, although I’m getting the feeling that this book may go places I haven’t anticipated, so there may be other characters to discover yet.

I’m not going to give away too much of the plot, as I don’t want to disclose anything that’ll hurt the germination of the story in my mind, but I will reveal the protagonist is Luke (Handley), who appeared briefly in Just Another Week in Suburbia as Casper’s friend. The story will also centre on the relationship Luke has with the woman he said he was seeing, Chandra.

If you haven’t read JAWiS (you should), here’s part of Luke and Casper’s conversation about Luke’s new partner:

         ‘I’m seeing somebody now,’ Luke says.
         ‘Is it serious?’ Luke never got involved because of the restrictions it put on his lifestyle.
         ‘It might be.’
         ‘How long?’
         ‘A couple of months.’
         I note Jean Jacket and his two friends get up and leave. He doesn’t look at me on the way out. I thought he might throw me a reproachful look, as if to say, I’ll get you. But nothing.
         ‘Who is she? What’s her name? What’s she do?’
         ‘What are you? My mother?’
         ‘I’m …’
         ‘Curious, yeah?’
         ‘Amazed.’
         ‘Her name’s Chandra. She came in with friends at the club. We talked. It went from there.’
         ‘Just like that?’
         ‘That’s the way relationships are born. That’s the way life is. Just. Like. That.

Although JAWiS has Casper’s relationship as its foundation, the story is less about the relationship and more about Casper’s internalisation – an unravelling of everything safe that was once known into all these loose, fraying threads, and his attempts to reconcile who he is, what his life is, and what he wants it to be. That’s a wanky way of saying it’s him learning to deal with shit.

If you’ve ever had a truly traumatic moment disrupt everything you know, resulting in that hyper-awareness (anybody who’s ever suffered anxiety will know about that – it’s not just your standard awareness, but a meticulous and obsessive deconstruction of everything you know) you could empathise with Casper.

‘TFSoLY’ will take that further – or will at least try to. I know what I want to do, I have lots of dot points, but sometimes stories take on a life of their own.

 
Last Week’s Lie: If you thought Ryan O’Neill’s praise of Just Another Week in Suburbia was a lie, shame on you. That was true. Everything to do with Helen Garner was a lie – I’ve never met her, she’s never been a one-time paramour, and she hasn’t been a mentor.

One Terrific Lie

Welcome to my new blog, One Terrific Lie, which will follow my progress on my new novel. Each instalment will also contain one outrageous lie that I’ll (try to) disguise as the truth. Every new week, I’ll reveal the previous week’s lie. Why would you do this? you might be thinking. That’s a good question. One day, I may have a good answer (← this is not the lie).

So, anyway, I’m about to begin a new manuscript.

My first novel, Just Another Week in Suburbia, came out in September 2017 with Pantera Press, and was described by Ryan O’Neill, winner of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction with Their Brilliant Careers (Black Inc. 2017) as ‘a hugely enjoyable novel which illuminates the extraordinary in the everyday, and the quirky in the quotidian.’ My second novel for Pantera, [TITLE TO BE CONFIRMED], has just been returned to me for proofing. [TITLE TO BE CONFIRMED] (← this is not an attempted pun – the title hasn’t been finalised) will come out around September 2018. And the new novel, the one I’m about to begin …?

I originally had the idea about mid-2017, but it struggled to find purchase in my imagination. A good idea grows. As it grows, possibilities develop. New possibilities stimulate further growth. Further growth creates further possibilities. And on it goes, creating this symmetric and beautiful network, like a spider’s web that – at some point – captures me. That’s when I think I know enough about the premise to start the book.

This just wasn’t happening for me, though – well, not meaningfully. There were a few spurts that got me hopeful, but they never sparked other ideas. Then, in desperation, I wondered how the story would work if I swapped the gender of the protagonist. I asked a few writers friends, who all agreed it would be a fresher story if I made the swap. Once that decision was made, things began to fall into place. What (also) helped was that the protagonist is carrying some established history into the story (but I’ll get into that next week – well, hopefully).

Ideas now flowed. I jotted a lot of them down in my phone while on a cruise around New Zealand. I never map out the whole story out before I begin. Much of it reveals itself to me in the writing – although, as I write, I will dot-point things that will or might need to occur. Equally, when I finish writing for the day and I’m doing something else – making dinner, washing up, lying in bed, etc. – ideas for revision occur to me. They’ll be the first thing I attend when I sit down to write the next day, as it helps me get straight back into it. But now I was finding lots of things were falling into place without having written one word.

My usual course – instead of outlining the story – is to map out every character (with a small backstory) and every location I think I might use in the story. This gives me a map of my world, so wherever my characters go, I know what’s there, and who’s there. This way, I don’t have to stop and contemplate these things when they come up. Also, their existence can stimulate the story. E.g. in JAWiS [MINOR SPOILER ALERT], I knew Casper had a troublesome neighbour in Vic Booth, but I didn’t anticipate how influential Vic would become.

Of course, there’s always lots of characters and locations I never use. In my [TITLE TO BE CONFIRMED] (due out around September this year – or did I already mention that?), about three/fifths of the characters I created were never used, but that was okay because they helped make that world real to me. I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. I do think it happens in extreme cases, but also believe that a writer’s lack of preparation can contribute to not knowing where to go next, which writers then mistake for writer’s block. This is my preparation – a technique taught to me by my writing mentor and one-time paramour Helen Garner.

The thing I find time-consuming – and sometimes difficult – is naming everybody. Names can’t just be random. There has to be some purpose to them. A name will immediately evoke a preconception. I say ‘Barney Hooper’, and you’ve already conjured an image of what Barney looks, although I’ve told you nothing about him.

In JAWiS, the protagonist is meant to have a name that symbolises how unobtrusive he is. His surname is ‘Gray’ – not a colour, neither black nor white, but something bland. His first name ‘Casper’ is an allusion to Casper the Friendly Ghost, because Casper is meant to be a ghost in his own existence, just slipping through innocuously. People mightn’t interpret this stuff consciously, but on a subconscious level there’s always some understanding. (You might wonder how I know this – it’s because I’ve sensed it.)

My approach to coming up with names is methodical. I’ll write out two alphabets – a lowercase a – z, and an uppercase A – Z. Then I’ll pore through two books of baby names I own, as well as a folder I’ve compiled which lists first and second names by nationality. For each first name I come up with, I cross out the corresponding letter that name begins with in the lowercase alphabet. Then I do the same for surnames with the uppercase alphabet. This means (that for primary characters) I won’t double- or triple-up on names beginning with the same letter, e.g. Bob, Bill, Burt – this can be confusing for the reader to follow (unless that’s the author’s intention). When I have lists of names, I start matching, feeling which is right for which character. If I’m looking for a specific connection, I might even fall back on what a particular name means. Then I compare the final names for any unwitting clashes, e.g. in the planning for JAWiS, I had a ‘Jane’ (in case you haven’t read JAWiS that’s the protagonist’s wife – quick! Go read JAWiS) and a ‘Dane’. Dane went.

For this new novel, I’ve got my lists, but not the names of my characters, although I do know who they are – how they factor in the story, and how they relate to one another. I had hoped to get started this week, but a severe bout of food poisoning on Saturday wiped out a couple of days. I’m hoping to nut out the characters over the rest of this week, then begin Sunday.

I won’t give away the title at this early stage, but I will give you its acronym – ‘TFSoLY’. And I will say that its protagonist is a supporting character in JAWiS (which, if you haven’t read, you should). But I’ll leave it at that.

Until next Tuesday …