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 …


creedpostersmallerI’ve always loved fight movies, even though the fight genre is usually formulaic and predictable, e.g. an underdog will enter some sort of fight game, come good, and – more often than not – win.

This is where the recent Southpaw (2015) – starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, and Forest Whitaker – didn’t work. Gyllenhaal played Billy Hope, an undefeated champion sitting on a 44–0 record. When a personal tragedy derails his career, he enlists trainer Tick Wills (Whitaker) to help him train, regain his title, and get his life back on track and rescue his daughter from welfare.

This story is the antithesis of the fight movie formula. Hope sits 44–0. He’s not an underdog. He shouldn’t even need to seek out anybody to train him. All he has to do is get back in the ring and apply the skills that got him to 44–0. It’s the other guy – regardless how well-credentialled – who should be the underdog.

This is something Stallone understood through his Rocky series. Through every movie, he cast himself as the underdog. In Rocky he is a bum versus the great Apollo Creed. In Rocky II, Apollo claimed he went easy in the first fight (somewhat validated by his behaviour in Rocky) and is determined to make amends, and Rocky struggles with the vision in his right eye, forcing him to fight right-handed. In Rocky III, Rocky is deemed too old and too domesticated to face the younger, hungrier, and more powerful Clubber Lang. In Rocky IV, we have a freak of genetic engineering in a seven-foot-tall Russian, Ivan Drago. In Rocky Balboa, Rocky is now retired, old, and facing an undefeatable champion. Only in Rocky V is he pitched as the favourite, yet Stallone handicaps Rocky with brain damage, retirement, and sneak attacks (whenever Tommy Gunn gets the advantage, it’s because Rocky’s walking away and Gunn ambushes him).

Something else that’s needed in the fight genre are stakes. Again, Stallone always has stakes on the line – usually self-respect and the pursuit of survival. In The Karate Kid, Daniel fights to earn respect from the crew who bully him. In Warrior, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) fights to provide for his family (mortgage is outstanding, and his daughter needs open heart surgery). Southpaw got this right, with Hope needing to get his life back on track so he can rescue his daughter from welfare.

Stakes are the reason we believe that our hero is taking the action they’re taking, why we root for them to succeed, and why we worry about them failing. In real life, it might be enough that somebody wants to be the best. In a story, we need a more tangible form of motivation.

That’s where Creed fails.

What Works
Stallone. Stallone is brilliant in Creed, trying to carry on now that his wife, Adrian (Talia Shire) and best friend Paulie (Burt Young) are gone. He also has a battle with cancer – an engagement with his own mortality. Probably the best thing about Rocky in this movie is the tactical advice he offers as a trainer to Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) following each round during Adonis’s fights. One of my queries on the Rocky series is Rocky’s sole strategy seems to be to stand there and have his head punched in until his opponent exhausts himself, and then Rocky knocks him out. It’s good to see Rocky strategise.

What Doesn’t Work
Nothing else really works. Some of it (e.g. some of the training sequences) border on laughable.

Adonis is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed and, for reasons never truly explored, wants to become a fighter. Mostly, it’s because it’s what he’s meant to be, I guess. The weight of carrying the Creed name should threaten to asphyxiate Adonis, but it plays no real part other than to be a novelty, and to later get Adonis a title fight. Apollo’s death in the ring should cast a shadow, but only exists as background. So the stuff that could’ve been interesting isn’t.

Living with Apollo’s former wife, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis works in a securities firm, seeming – from all appearances – to have a cushy life. I guess you could make an argument that the story is about finding yourself, about chasing your true calling, but it’s hard to empathise with Adonis, or invest in his dreams, because he has no stakes. The pursuit of his dream is nothing more than an indulgence. If he’s not a rich brat, he’s a well-off brat. If he fails, he has a wealthy guardian to fall back on.

Although he’s embarrassed in an early sparring session, you also never get the feeling that Adonis is troubled in his bouts. He’s brash, cocky, and sure of himself. Compare that to the original Rocky, where Rocky has a heated exchange with Mickey, who tells Rocky he had the talent to become a good fighter and instead he became a leg-breaker. Had. Just in that exchange, we learn so much about Rocky and his relationship with Mickey. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that layered in Creed. From the moment Adonis decides to box professionally, you just know he’ll fight the champ.

How I Would’ve Done It
I would’ve ditched the illegitimate angle. Adonis could’ve been the legitimate son of Apollo, perhaps born six or seven months following Apollo’s death. Adonis pursued a career in boxing, showing a wealth of talent, and climbed as high as tenth or so in the world. But he never fully realised his abilities, and lost a string of important fights. He became a journeyman (as a boxer) and got involved with the wrong crowd, getting arrested several times. Finally, when his friends – headed by a minor gangster, Eight-ball – commit an armed robbery, Adonis is looking at possible hard time. Mary Anne Creed appeals to Rocky to help straighten out Adonis – Rocky owes her, after all, because he didn’t stop the fight in which Apollo was killed.

Rocky and Adonis form a begrudging friendship, where Rocky learns that fear – because of what happened to Apollo – has always undermined Adonis. In big fights, Adonis has been afraid to commit . Rocky trains and nurtures him and Adonis begins a climb up the ranks, until Rocky gets him a shot against the champion. Unfortunately, Adonis’s friends continue to have a hold on him, and try to leech from him, and Eight-ball tries to get Adonis to sign a contract. Feeling that debt to Apollo, Rocky intercedes and, later, is ambushed and beaten. Adonis goes to see Eight-ball. They argue, fight – Adonis runs amok – until Eight-ball draws a gun. Adonis surrenders himself but says he’ll never sign, and he’s done with the crew. Eight-ball realizes he no longer has a hold on Adonis, and lets him go.

Adonis learns that there’s some things worth dying for (family, loved ones, pursuit of dreams) and goes on to fight the champ.