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 …

Publication and Criticism

shockWhen you’re a writer trying to get published, you’ll take any submission opportunity possible, irrespective of how tenuously your story might fit that target. That’s the nature of writing and submission – to paraphrase a cliché, leave no stone (nor pebble) unturned.

When I saw a submission call several years ago for an anthology that would be called Mythic Resonance (asking for stories to do with contemporary mythologies) I decided to fire off a story, A Tale of Publication: A Contemporary Fairytale, which loosely fit the theme. (Remember, no pebble unturned.)

A Tale of Publication began life as a school project for a publishing class a couple of years prior to that submission call. It was originally a flow chart for how a book goes from manuscript to publication, but instead of being straightforward, I satirized it (or at least tried), coloured by my own experiences. The teacher who ran the class, (formerly long-term with Penguin), loved it, so I thought I must’ve done something right.

As I do with all my writing, I obsessively reworked it, evolving it from a flow chart (where it was told in a series of episodic panels) into a fully-fledged story. It was never meant to be an exhaustive examination of publishing, or a genuine parable (to be taken seriously), but a farce – a self-deprecating but inside look at aspects of writing, submitting, and publishing that lots of writers face.

To my surprise, Mythic Resonance accepted it (although I’m surprised whenever anything of mine is accepted), we went through several rounds of revisions, and then I didn’t really think much of it because my leg was broken and I spent the next several months in a lot of pain, and the next two years in physio. Therefore, when the book arrived, it sat on my bookshelf, where I have rows and overflowing rows of books I’m meaning to read.

Recently, I accidentally (truly) found a review for Mythic Resonance, which I won’t repost (but it’s easy enough to Google), where the reviewer lamented my story didn’t truly fit the anthology’s theme (well, that’s not my fault – I can’t control them accepting it) and called my story the ‘low point’ of the anthology and ‘amateurish’ (which can be considered my fault, if you believe the reviewer’s words), and didn’t see the point of it.

If I had seen this review a couple of years ago, it might’ve shaken me. I may have, in fact, threatened to quit writing, or jump off a bridge, (or to jump off a bridge, which would’ve led to quitting writing). Negative reviews hurt, especially when directed at something as personal as creativity. Usually, you question whether the reviewer gets it, whether they got it and you misfired, or whether reality exists somewhere between the two extremes.

Surprisingly, now I didn’t think much of it, so I’ve either matured (unlikely), or become calloused (likelier), which is something that happens as you deal with rejection over the years, (and I’ve dealt with lots of it: shameless link to a piece I just had go up on the website Literary Rejections about rejections, entitled ‘The Purge’).

Admittedly, it did make me question putting this story up at all, but all art (not that this is art, but I’ll use that loose classification to fit this little story) is subjectively interpreted, so I’m sure other stuff I’ve put up, or had published, has met with different reactions, (and some not so good for me). It’s probably a lesson to anybody in an artistic field: don’t take anything to heart, because there’ll always be somebody out there who doesn’t like something you’ve done.

Here’s mine (well, the one that I know of), that met with a strong negative reaction …

A Tale of Publication:
A Contemporary Fairytale

printerOnce upon a time, a writer was showering when the idea for a book struck him as if God Himself had thundered inspiration into his brain.  The Writer was breathless, excited, awed.  He’d already written a couple of books — one about a blind, idiot savant serial killer who worked in a prison as a janitor, killing the prisoners one by one; the other about feral bunnies who rebelled against being hunted, got organised and enslaved the human populace.  Shockingly, neither book sold.  Each did the rounds of the slush piles, visiting almost every publisher in the country, but they elicited only rejection after rejection.  Now, the books lay forgotten in the bottom drawer of The Writer’s filing cabinet.
     This new idea, though, was The One.
     The Writer was sure of it.
     He began writing obsessively, and to the detriment of everything else in his life.  He neglected his wife, barely seeing or speaking to her at all.  The Wife was not surprised, as she was used to her husband’s idiosyncrasies — although by no means did she approve of them.  She regarded her husband’s writing as superfluous, and not only considered his aspirations foolish, but thought similarly of him, too.  The Writer also became unreliable in his job as produce manager at the local Safeway.  His boss was particularly displeased with him as The Writer would often show up late to work, and sometimes not at all.  But The Writer fawned and thanked his boss so obsequiously for his continued support that The Boss didn’t have the heart to take disciplinary action.  The Writer’s social life, which was anorexic anyway, deteriorated, and his physical and mental wellbeing declined.  His few friends hardly saw him at all during this period, but they were well familiar with his eccentricities, and he scarcely ate or washed or slept.
     How could he?  There was something much more important to be done.  He had to write! Nothing else mattered.  He needed to finish his book.  Needed to! Everybody and everything else could be damned.  The people in his life would understand once his book became a bestseller (and put him on the road to superstardom).  Maybe he’d even buy each of them a nice present.
     When The Writer finished his book — a manuscript, he was certain, of awesome scope, stunning complexity and masterful storytelling — he grimaced at the thought of all the paper and ink he would have to waste in printing out a rough draft.  The reams of paper were cheap enough at about six bucks a ream, but ink…?  Toners for printers weren’t cheap.  Like a salesman once told him, manufacturers didn’t make their money on the printers themselves.
     Gritting his teeth, and bracing himself like a mother giving birth, The Writer eked out one hardcopy, and gave it to his wife to read.  Actually, The Wife had to be pushed to read it and get through it as quickly as possible.  Her ongoing comments were neither helpful nor encouraging.  Moreover, her noncommittal grunts, mordant half-smirks, and occasional rolling of the eyes, as she read the book in bed, offended The Writer.
     It was worse than having sex with her.
     It took a week for The Wife to read the book, and at the end of it all she was remarkably indifferent, conceding (with the grace of somebody passing a kidney stone), ‘Yeah, it’s good.’ This prompted The Writer to consider taking his old Olivetti clunker out of the attic and merrily burying it in the back of his wife’s head.  It’d be the best work it had ever done.
     Never mind, he told himself.  His friends would offer better insights, and he passed it around to them to read.  They were used to looking at his work and had tried to be encouraging over the years.  On this occasion, they decided to take The Writer out for a meal and make a night of it.
     They had pizzas and beers and talked about the stress of their relationships and the tedium of their jobs and how the coming Christmas was bankrupting them.  Throughout, the anticipation built for The Writer.  What would his friends say?  Come their sixth round of beers, they finally hit The Writer with the wisdom of their collective feedback.
     ’Yeah, it’s good,’ they told him.
     Annoyed, The Writer decided that a book as good as the one he’d written needed a lover, not a series of prostitutes.  The Writer reflected that should’ve been his course of action from the beginning.  Why the hell was he relying on his wife (who had the intellect and usefulness of an empty spare-tyre compartment) or his friends (whose idea of reading was looking at porn on the Net)?  He needed professional help, and sought it from a manuscript assessment service.
     Unfortunately, this path never eventuated, as The Wife, ever the practical wench, told The Writer in no uncertain terms that they didn’t have the money to spend on getting his book professionally assessed.  The Writer was resentful, and The Wife’s rejoinder that this wouldn’t have happened if he had a more practical job — like lawyer, doctor, garbage man, crash test dummy, medical cadaver — was no help at all.
     The Writer, ever the paragon of self-reliance, recomposed himself and devotedly spent the next two months proofing, revising and editing his own book.  Again, he went into obsession overdrive; again, his marital and social relationships, his job, and his physical and mental health suffered.  Christmas went by unnoticed and New Year uncelebrated.  This didn’t bother The Writer.  He told himself it’d all be worth it in the end.
     The greater the suffering, the greater the rewards.
     Becoming progressively sicklier and more financially impoverished with each passing day, The Writer put the finishing touches to his book.  He realised, with microscopic humility, that his previous works were acquired tastes.  Obviously, that had contributed to their failure in the world of publishing, but, no doubt, they’d be published retrospectively on the back of his fame after this book became, as they say, ONE BIG FUCKING HIT.
     The Writer began printing a final draft of his book.  Midway through the job, there was a paper-jam which cost seventeen pages of paper and halted printing in general.  Usually, such an incident would have enraged The Writer, but not this time.  This time he was dealing with a work of brilliance, and his tolerance and good manner were commensurate.
     These things happen, he told himself.
     Dutifully, The Writer cleared the paper-jam and resumed printing.  Unfortunately, with just sixteen pages of printing remaining, the toner ran out of ink.  The Writer stared at the printer in disbelief.  The printer stoically looked back at The Writer (if it could be said that printers had expressions).  The Writer’s anger rose.
     If not for that damn paper jam …!
     Frustrated, The Writer pleaded with God, demanding to know why these things always happened to him.  God chose not to answer.  This could’ve been for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps there was no God who could answer.  Perhaps there was a God but He was busy.  Perhaps God found The Writer’s request trivial.  Or perhaps, just perhaps, God had run out of toner Himself.
     Consequently, The Writer begged his wife for the $106.00 required to buy some new toner.  This did not go over well because The Wife had just bought a new pair of shoes.  She told The Writer there was no money in the monthly budget for a toner cartridge.  Maybe next month.  Or the one after.  And if not then, definitely the one after that.  If they saved.  Well, probably, but he shouldn’t bank on it, because she had her eye on a dress.
     Exasperation skyrocketing, The Writer considered his options.  How could he make quick money?  He could sell blood, or semen, or maybe even strangle his wife, gut her with a dull butter-knife and sell one of her kidneys on the black-market.  These all seemed perfectly good and logical options, and only one of them did not appeal — giving blood always left him feeling dizzy.
     Instead, The Writer pulled the toner cartridge out of the printer, shook it vigorously, threatened it and then reinserted it.  It printed a couple of pages, but he had to repeat the process a few times before the printing of his book was completed.
     The Writer then took his newly-printed book — his masterpiece — to the post office and mailed it to a publisher, being careful to enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope so they could mail it back to him (if required).  He did this simply to observe etiquette.  He was certain there’d be no need for it, as the publisher was going to love his book and get on the phone to him the moment they’d read it.
     When, five-and-a-half months later, the publisher responded, using The Writer’s stamped self-addressed envelope, dread heaved in the pit of his stomach.  With trembling hands he tore open the envelope and pulled out the publisher’s letter, which thanked him for his submission but lamented that it was not quite right for them.  Happily, though, they wished him all the best in the future.  The Writer was dejected but not defeated.  He scrounged the money together to submit the book to another publisher.
     Three months later, he received a rejection from them, also.  The Writer’s frustration blew into infuriation.  He forced himself to look at the bright side: at least this rejection had been quick – well, relatively quick, anyway, compared to the time it took to receive the first rejection.  Still, The Writer would not be bowed.  Again, he scraped together the money to submit his book to another publisher.  And another after that.  And another.  In the space of eighteen months he went through five publishers.
     Or perhaps it can be said that five publishers went through him.
     The sixth publisher, however, thought they saw something in the manuscript and held a production meeting in regard to The Writer’s book.  The Editors loved it.  They thought it could be THE NEXT BIG THING.  The Finance Department asserted that the book was doable in terms of expense, but they were concerned about whether it’d make a profit.  The Marketing Department suggested that the book might have limited appeal.  What if it came down to selling The Writer to sell the book?  How would he hold up in appearances, at readings, in interviews?  Would people buy the book on the basis of being charmed by the author?  At the end of much discussion and debate, the meeting yielded the result that The Noble Publisher would go ahead with The Writer’s book.
     When they contacted The Writer to tell him the good news, The Writer was understandably ecstatic, and his wife thought that maybe her husband wasn’t such a screw-up after all.  This was a notion The Wife entertained briefly then dismissed on the basis that it had no right to exist in a marriage.
     The Writer did not care.  He signed a contract with The Noble Publisher, receiving a pittance up-front and a percentage in royalties with which he would be lucky to buy a new toner cartridge.  The Wife was particularly irate, asking The Writer if this was what all his work and time had amounted to — essentially nothing.  The Writer wasn’t bothered; his book would sell so plentifully that he’d soon be rich.  Then, maybe, he’d take a contract out on his wife.
     Of course, he was being facetious.  Why let somebody else have all the fun?
     The Noble Publisher was aware of none of The Writer’s domestic issues, as they concentrated on making the book a reality.  They retained a designer, and had the manuscript edited and their style applied, oblivious to what The Writer — or, inconsequential minion, as they called him — was going through.
     The Writer recoiled in shock at the amount of edits required.  Surely The Noble Publisher hadn’t recognised the work of genius they had in their hands; how could they tamper with such a masterpiece?  Were they insane?  The Wife told The Writer not to be such an idiot (she already thought he was an idiot, so he was really just being more of an idiot).  He should be happy they’d taken his book at all.  Begrudgingly, The Writer obliged, knowing that when the money started pouring in, The Wife would have to be more gracious, and The Noble Publisher would have to give him more leeway on his next work.
     While the designer chose the style, size and leading of the text and the headings, breathing life into the words on the page, The Writer got extensions on his credit card.  The Wife bought up big on shoes.  She wasn’t convinced that the book would make a fortune, and she didn’t particularly need all those shoes, she just knew that, whatever happened, her husband would be paying.
     Just as he’d done their entire married life.
     The Noble Publisher continued industriously.  The first page proofs for the manuscript were corrected and the artwork scanned.  The Writer, indifferent to the technicalities of his book’s production, thought his life was finally gaining momentum — positive momentum — and his books would fuel a long and prosperous career.  As a reward to himself, he put a deposit on a new car — a sporty red Mazda he’d had his eye on for several years.
     The second page proofs of the book went to The Writer and The Editor.  The Writer grinned amiably and accommodated The Noble Publisher.  Things would be different for his second book!  He’d have the power then, and these insignificant assclowns (and assclowns they were, for The Writer felt no other profanity existed which truly encapsulated them) would be falling over themselves to accommodate him.
     The artwork was prepared.  The Writer disagreed entirely with The Noble Publisher’s selections.  The Noble Publisher tried to appease him by telling him they knew the market.  The Writer baulked, saying he knew his book.  The Noble Publisher told The Writer that he had signed a contract and this was their choice.  The Writer said they didn’t understand his work.  The Wife interceded at that point and told The Writer to shut up and stop rocking the boat.  The Noble Publisher sent The Wife a bouquet of flowers.  The Wife had a fling with The Noble Publisher’s designer.
     The revised page proofs were checked and finalised, the plates were set, and The Writer’s book was printed and bound.  Convinced he was going to be a huge success, The Writer waltzed into work at Safeway, got onto the intercom and quit his job, telling his boss, ‘Stick it!’
     Then The Writer celebrated — truly celebrated — his first Christmas in three years.  He lavished gifts on his wife (who was touched by the gesture and mellowed, then decided that mellowing had no place in their marriage), and his friends, much to the chagrin of his credit card, which grimaced (if it could be said that credit cards could do such a thing).
     New Year brought not resolutions from The Writer, but plans.  He mapped out his entire life: which novels he’d write and in what order; what he’d say in interviews on the talk show circuit with Ellen and Oprah; how exactly he’d use his freakishly towering success to tame, break and reinvent his wife.
     Oh, yes, things were going to be different.
     Advance copies of The Writer’s book were handed out.  The Writer took his share, showering them on his wife’s family (who had always thought he was no good), his friends (who thought he was good, but would never amount to anything) and his ex-workmates (who were largely indifferent to whether he was good or not).  The bulk stock of The Writer’s book hit the warehouse, and then filled the shelves of retailers’ stores.
     Sadly, though, very few copies of The Writer’s book sold.
     The Wife, disgusted by The Writer’s continuing failure, not to mention his accumulating debts and rapidly increasing poverty, left him for the Noble Publisher’s designer.  The Writer returned to Safeway and begged his boss to take him back.
     His boss said, ‘Stick it!!’
     So, tragically, alone and destitute, health failing, debts too much to bear, The Writer succumbed to the hopelessness of his life and threw himself from a bridge.  While this was a horrible life-choice, it was actually the best career move The Writer had ever made.
     Popularised by his death (and the glorious calamity of his life story as it emerged in the newspapers and, even more spectacularly, in the glossy magazines), The Writer’s book became a bestseller.  The Noble Publisher went into second, third and fourth print runs.
     The Wife — now The Merry Widow — told the media that she had always thought her husband would make it, and that she had always believed in him and thought his book was good, regardless of what everybody else had said.  She became unimaginably rich on the success of her dead husband’s novel.  His previous two manuscripts were published, and they also become bestsellers, and his short stories were released in anthologies.
     And they all, mostly, lived happily ever after.

This story appeared in Mythic Resonance (2011).