A writer. I’ve always wanted to be one – and I’ve always berated and belittled myself for not being one. Well, enough is enough: I’ve decided to stop punishing myself. Not because I’ve suddenly had some success (I haven’t) but because I’ve had an epiphany: I’ve been doing the being all along.
Three decades have passed since I penned my first stories and poems. In that time I’ve spent countless hours scratching away at paper and screen, chiselling out words, some long, none lasting. Instructions for a long-lost game. A script for a sit-com. Stories and essays, experimental and conventional. Blank verse and worse. More unfinished novels than you can poke a pen at. Truly, my slush pile runneth over…
And what do I have to show for thirty years of scribbling? Not much, it seems. A thousand dollars (spent long ago) and the pleasure of seeing four stories in print. A poem pinned to a tree. A piece highly commended in a competition. A book I published myself. Blogs seen only by other bloggers fishing for followers. Not a lot to boast about, really, and yet part of me is proud – especially as I’ve rarely sought publication.
Success is overvalued anyway. Praise, I’d argue, is a prison in which we are condemned to repeat our performances until we come to despise them. As Malcolm Lowry wrote after his novel, Under the Volcano, was published: ‘Success is like some horrible disaster/Worse than your house burning’.
Failure brings freedom – a consoling thought.
Even so, I’ve given up writing dozens of times without ever kicking the habit. I still scribble almost every day, in my journal, on a blog or this year’s novel. I simply enjoy the act too much, despite (and perhaps because of) its difficulties. To me, writing is like a game of solitaire; I deal out characters and their quandaries from a deck of possibilities and see if I can put them in order. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. The result hardly matters; the play’s the thing, as Hamlet says.
Of course, it’s not all fun of a fleeting variety. Writing leaves me with something more lasting: a body of work that adds shape and substance to my physical self, that fleshes out my store of meagre memories. My writing is a record of my doings and beings; it’s my history. I am truly a man of my words.
‘One does what one is; one becomes what one does.’ So said Robert Musil, a writer remembered for his influential and yet unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities.
Unfinished? That’s good enough for me.
Aussie, Aussie, quite contrary – how does your country grow?
In three ways, according to Bruce Beresford’s latest film, Ladies in Black, a pointed, semi-poignant parody of life in 1950s Australia, a land where men are ‘gormless’, women are entrusted with the sacred task of putting tea on the table, and where a department store – Goode’s, the proud purveyor of robes and respectability – becomes the scene of social change of a far-reaching kind.
Based on a novel by Madeleine St John, the movie dramatises the workings of a trio of transformative forces – immigration, regeneration and education – by tracing three distinct stories: the tales of Fay, Patty and Lisa, the eponymous ‘ladies in black’.
Fay is restless and romantic, a good-looking girl put off by the boorish behaviour of the ‘Australian’ men she usually meets. Enter Magda, the stylish Slovenian mistress of Goode’s high-fashion department. She introduces Fay to an urbane ‘refo’ called Rudi, and the two fall swiftly in love. Vowing to learn the ways of her husband-to-be, Fay sets out on a new path, her life – and the life of the nation – irrevocably altered by immigration.
Her pal behind the counter, Patty, has a different problem: her husband hardly touches her. A shy boy from the bush, Frank is deeply ashamed of his desires. He worships women, and the thought that he might have harmed his wife drives him briefly into exile. By putting Frank’s fears to rest, Patty succeeds in remaking her man, who, in a matching act of regeneration, plants the seed that will see them grow up and out of themselves, out of the old world and into the new.
For sixteen-year-old Lisa (née Leslie), it is learning that promises to free her from the present. A ‘clever girl’ who goes to Goode’s as a temp, Lisa loves literature – she reads Anna Karenina on a park bench before reciting poetry later in bed – and has her heart set on going to university, despite the objections of her philistine father. An actress, a poet, a novelist – there’s no limit to what Lisa thinks she can be. And, thanks to the reformative power of education, her future does indeed look bright.
By movie’s end, the lives of these three ‘ladies in black’ have been altered forever: powerful forces have dispelled the darkness and led them into the light of a remodelled land. Like the film itself, which, it must be said, makes only mildly amusing viewing, this vision of national growth is simplistic and sentimental. Therein, though, lies its charm.
From Goode’s to better, Australia awaits its best.
On Saturday, I pitched my kid’s book to a prospective publisher. The ten-minute session ended with six immortal words, of the kind usually spoken by an Achilles or King Lear.
‘I just don’t like the runway.’
For a book about, say, a seafaring family, this kind of response wouldn’t be such a big deal. I’d have simply offered to replace the runway with something a bit less flat and featureless – a Ferris wheel, perhaps, or a skate park – and the contract would have been signed there and then.
But for a book called Dad’s Runway, it’s a bit of a blow. For me, its aspiring – expiring – author, it felt like a knock-out punch.
It needn’t have. Only an hour earlier, Chopper (not her real name) had stressed the importance of finding the right publisher for your project. One man’s trash being another man’s treasure and all that.
Me being me, though, I took it hard. To heart, no less. Within minutes I was questioning my whole reason for being. I mean, why persist with this book thing?
It’s a fair question. Given my dire lack of time and space, wouldn’t it make more sense for me to write something else – haiku, perhaps, or greeting cards?
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why we write what we write. When I was a teenager I wrote free verse. Like my poems, I lacked form; I was all feeling.
In air too close
our shoots entwine.
roots shallow and starved,
our little hothouse family
and we fall.
In my twenties, I experimented with short stories. Plot had become important to me, as I sought to find a pathway through life.
After he broke his tooth, Wat decided to wrap things up.
1. He called his girlfriend on the telephone.
“I’m going away,” he said.
“But why?” she asked.
Wat said it wasn’t her.
“But why?” she asked.
Wat told her about the breaking of his tooth.
“Oh, Wat,” she said, “your beautiful teeth.”
He hadn’t known they were beautiful.
“Have you put it in milk?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“You have not,” she said. “They can glue it back in, you know.”
“Can I have your coat?” asked Wat.
“Oh, man,” she said.
“You can have my books and my discs.”
“Get your tooth stuck back in.”
Wat didn’t say anything.
“All of them?”
“Yes,” said Wat, “except the bible.”
“Especially except your bible. I didn’t know you had a bible, Wat.”
“I do,” Wat said. “Or else I’ll buy one.”
“Don’t bother,” she said, “I’ll give you mine with the coat, dammit. I’ll put it in the pocket. Should we have a last fuck?”
Wat didn’t say anything.
“I want to feel your broken tooth.”
“A kiss goodbye?” Wat said.
“Nah,” she said, “might as well fuck.”
Then I hit my thirties and non-fiction took over. It was time to get real.
I’d heard about not seeing the forest for the trees but hadn’t expected the world’s tallest hardwood tree to be hidden in the forest – the forest debate, that is. But, as I discovered, it is.
And now, as reality bites, I return to long-form fiction.
It’s the longest, straightest road in outback Australia, and it runs from, well, somewhere, to, er, somewhere else. No-one knows where it starts or where it ends. About halfway along this long straight road there’s a yellow sign that says, ‘Welcome to Nankervis, the little country town with a big heart of gold.’ Underneath, it adds, ‘Population 300’, only some wag has gone and crossed out the zeroes.
That’s where we are now, beside the sign, waiting for a car to come along so that we can get this story moving. And not just any old car, of course, but one that – that looks a lot like the old car approaching us now, in fact. A squeaky, square old Land Cruiser that was once white but is now a sandy shade of cream. It’s chugging along at a steady, sedate pace, which suggests it’s being driven by a local, someone who knows there’s no point in hurrying because for every kilometre you travel out here there’s always another two hundred to come. So what’s the rush?
Yeah, what’s the rush. As a kid, I read novels so that I could escape into another world. Back then, the runway in a Biggles’ book was a starting point, the site from which adventure took flight. These days, though, with my urge to escape more about returning than fleeing, the runway – Dad’s Runway – seems a safe place to land.
Try pitching that to a publisher!
It is the best of things, it is the worst of things – the fact that you can start a novel any which way you like. Ever tried? Then you’ll know already what I’ve only just discovered: that the options are alarmingly endless.
Throw your readers into the thick of the action? Why not! Seduce them with purple prose? Go right ahead. Chat them up with a snatch of dialogue? Now you’re talking! Tempt them with a taste of the story to come? Perfect.
When it comes to pick-up lines, anything goes – or does it?
If you’re one of my two regular readers, you’ll remember that I’m writing a novel for kids. Narrated by Tam, a twelve-year-old girl who dreams of becoming a dancer, Dad’s Runway tells of a wheat farmer’s outlandish attempts to put a tiny country town back on the map.
Until a few months ago, I’d written the first four chapters. They’d come in a rush, drawn out by an approaching deadline: a meeting with a publisher at Penguin. The first chapter began with the following mix of action and explanation.
Everyone knew it was coming – everyone, that is, except Dad.
Mum had been pulling her hair out for months, working away the kitchen table with her accounts and her calculator.
‘It’s no good,’ she said, one night. ‘There just aren’t enough customers. I can’t keep running at a loss.’
Uncle Mick had no hair to pull out, so he just pursed his cracked lips and shook his sunburnt head.
‘No people, no houses to build. Time I started thinking about moving on.’
Even Jimmy and Joey, my twin younger brothers, knew something was up.
‘We heard Mrs Reynolds talking to Mr Collins,’ Jimmy said, excitedly. ‘They reckon there won’t be enough kids next year to keep the school open.’
‘Yeah,’ said Joey. ‘Then we’ll have to catch the bus to the city every day, and that’ll take hours and hours. There won’t be time to learn anything!’
My older sister, Beth, knew all about it, too, but she didn’t care.
‘This town sucks anyway,’ she sneered. ‘I’d rather go and work somewhere else, instead of being stuck out here like a loser.’
As for me, Tam, my dance teacher had just left Nanky – that’s what we call Nankervis, our town – so I knew something was definitely up. I want to be a famous dancer, you see, and always have. Think Ginger without the Fred. That’s Ginger Rogers, of course, just in case you haven’t watched as many old musicals as me.
If you haven’t, you should!
The editor liked my sample, but suggested I make some changes to the plot. In altering it, though, I went and rendered my first beginning pretty much obsolete. Which is a shame, because I like the pacy way it introduces the story, the characters and the narrator.
It was about now that the openness of openings began to get the better of me, and I made a few false moves, starting with this slow-burner:
‘Leave the gate open?’ Dad squawked. ‘Don’t even joke about it, Mrs Mac, or you’ll give me nightmares. I’m a farmer, remember.’
Mum grinned at him. ‘I’m just saying, Nev, that this meeting probably won’t go for long, so we’ll be back before your crops can escape.’ She peered in the side mirror. ‘It’d save the boys getting out again.’
‘They love swinging on the gate,’ Dad said. ‘Anyway, what makes you think the meeting’s going to be so short?’
Mum looked at him again, but this time she wasn’t smiling. ‘Not much,’ she said, ‘except just about everything.’
That stopped Dad in his tracks – that and the racket made by the twins as they tumbled back into the Land Cruiser.
‘I won,’ Joey yelled, scrambling over me to get to his seat.
‘Only ’cause I let you,’ cried Jimmy, close behind.
Col the kelpie greeted them with barks from the back.
‘All strapped in yet?’ Mum asked.
My sister, Beth, looked up from her book. ‘Belt up, you two,’ she told the twins, who were still arguing. They pretended not to hear her, and reached for their belts anyway.
‘All strapped in,’ I called.
‘About time,’ Mum said, letting out the handbrake. ‘Now, let’s make hay.’
‘I think you mean haste,’ Dad said, as we pulled out on to the highway. ‘Hay is what we’re leaving behind on the farm.’
It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon in the bush, and the Mackenzies from ‘Dalgleish’ – that’s us – were heading into town to attend an emergency meeting of the Show Society. Little did we know, though, that we were also setting out on the craziest adventure a farming family has probably ever had. Well, that’s what Gran reckons, and she’s been around since adventures were invented, so she should know.
Then came a turn away from action and explanation to description, albeit of a snappy yet possibly exasperating variety…
Not far from the middle of nowhere there’s a tiny country town called Nankervis. Not far from this town there’s a wheat and sheep farm called Dalgleish. And not far from this farm – just outside its front gate, in fact – there’s a dusty old Land Cruiser called Chelsea.
In the Land Cruiser there’s a family called the Mackenzies. In that family there’s a girl called Tam, and in that girl’s head – well, that’s where we are right now!
Which led me to the following exposition-fest.
It all started, I think, when the twins tumbled out and opened the farm gate for us to drive through. That’s when Mum said what she said and that’s when, a few seconds later, Dad suddenly began to get it – that our town, Nanky, was in trouble.
And when my dad finally gets it, things really start to happen. This time, though, the things that happened were pretty amazing, and they just kept on happening, until – well, until the whole crazy adventure came to an end. Back here at our farm gate again, actually, but with a closing rather than an opening.
Speaking of openings, I really wanted to start this story like this: ‘Once upon a Tam’, but I chickened out. My name’s Tam, you see. This is short for Tammy, which is short for Tamara, which is about the worst name ever. It’s even worse than Neville, my dad’s name.
Pretty awful, huh?
What makes beginnings so hard, I think, is that they ought to do two things at once: they should show and tell at the same time – even more clearly, quickly and compellingly than ‘normal’ text does.
As readers, we want to be lost in the action of a story, and yet we also need to know that the action has a purpose, that it is leading us somewhere special. In a paragraph or two, then, an opening has to both promise and perform, and therein lies the art of pick-up lines, whether they’re delivered on the page or in person.
It’s something I haven’t nailed for my novel just yet. My first attempt comes close, whereas the others don’t. That’s my conclusion, at least – what’s yours?
Don’t get me started on endings…
‘Eighteen is an amazing number.’ That’s how I was going to start this, my eighteenth post. Couldn’t do it, though. For after reading the sentence eighteen times, I realised that, strictly speaking, ‘eighteen’ isn’t a number at all. It’s a word.
And the trickiness soon trebled. Also unacceptable as an opener was ’18 is an amazing number’, my next go-to line, simply because no self-respecting writer (or even me) starts a sentence with a number – it’s just not the done thing. In fact, it’s a dumb thing.
That left me with the following phrase which, you’ll be pleased to know, I’ve deemed good enough to be going on with – even after multiple rereads and a repast. So, now I’ll begin again, properly this time…
It’s an amazing number, 18. It’s the only number, apart from zero, that equals twice the sum of its digits. (And what’s zero? Nothing!) It’s the numerical value, too, of the Hebrew word for ‘life’. (Turns out our days are numbered, after all.) And it’s the number of chapters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Who’d have known?)
More importantly, though, eighteen is the age at which, in many cultures, kids magically morph into adults. Yes, it’s the infamous ‘age of majority’, that time when weedy teens join the rest of us on our sacred mission: the trashing of self and society, all in the glorious pursuit of pleasure.
At a stroke, mere striplings are granted the right to vote for the wrong people; at a stroke, they’re allowed – nay, expected – to start harming themselves, instead of relying on their elders to do it for them. Suddenly, liquor is legal and so are the smokes.
Coming of age. It’s a time, too, for reflection – of reviewing the mistakes you’ve made, and of previewing those you’re about to make. And that, I’ve decided, is what I’m going to do in this, my eighteenth post.
Believe it or not, I’ve got things wrong, bloglistically speaking. My posts have been too hard to get a handle on, for a start – handles on a post? – as has my blog as a whole. At fault, I think, has been my ethos of ‘tough love’; my failure, that is, to kiss up to my readers. Keep it simple, stupid, I do not. For better or worse, I insist on being ‘artful’ in my approach.
Obscurity, here I come!
That said, I’m not going to alter my style much at all, since I think it has some personality and potential. I will, though, do a little window dressing: my titles will become more descriptive and the rest of my blog less distracting. I might even focus on fewer subjects… Small mercies, I know, but better than nowt.
What’s eighteen anyway? Just another number.
It’s something we’ve all heard a hundred times and which we accept without hesitation: readers love lists. From DIY pieces such as ‘Holy trinity: Spiritual perfection in three short steps’ to top-pick posts like ‘Best of the worst: Thirteen unlucky numbers to die for’, lists are hailed universally as the answer to online anonymity.
Simply set out your points on the screen like rungs in a ladder and you’ll soon find yourself climbing the stairway to stardom – so the story goes.
Guess what? It ain’t necessarily so. Lists suck, despite all the hype. Keen on dots and dashes? Don’t be. Morse code went out with the printing press. Hooked on bullets? Their impact can be deadening, so aim a little higher. Headed for headings? Think again: titles are liable to trip readers up.
And that’s just for starters. Here, then, are seven ripping reasons why you should wipe lists from your writing repertoire.
1. Lists are sneaky
Since when is anything in life as simple as one, two, three? Hardly ever, mostly never. And yet lists slyly suggest just this: that every little thing can be reduced to a series of points or pointers. Nobody ever wrote a novel or lost weight simply by following a series of steps, so do yourself a favour and stop treating readers like the idiots they probably are.
2. Lists aren’t sneaky enough
There’s sneaky and then there’s sneaky. Proper dinky-di personal essays, for example, can’t help making life more intelligible, if only because they speak a universal language: the rhetoric of experience rather than mere sensation. Sure, essays reduce reality, too, but they do so in ways that seem to magnify meaning. It’s called art, and it’s artful – unlike most lists.
3. Lists are easy
Do you really want to dash-off a list when you could send yourself half-crazy penning an essay instead? Fact is, no-one ever got writer’s block while writing out a shopping list or scribbling down a list of things to do. Doesn’t that tell you something? Yes, that lists are too damn glib for their own good, otherwise a literary sub-genre would have congealed around them long ago, as it did with the Personal Essay (hallowed be its name).
4. Lists aren’t easy enough
In other ways, though, lists are bloody hard. To number a list you have to be able to count, and writers aren’t renowned for their numerical nous. I mean, some scribblers claim to write 300 words a day, and yet, when the dross is discarded, the total usually amounts to no more than twenty-six. Go figure! To get a list right in Microsoft Word is also a drag, especially if Autocorrect keeps automatically getting things wrong. Grrr.
5. Lists are everywhere
This point is self-evident, surely, given that you’re staring at a list – this list – right now. And even if you’re not, you’re no doubt staring at a list somewhere else online, only you don’t know it. Well, you probably do know it, but what I mean is that you don’t know that I know it. Yikes! What’s Google, anyway, if not one big list.
6. Lists aren’t everywhere enough
So, okay, lists litter the internet. When it comes to the real world, though, they’re nowhere that counts. Ever come across any classic lists? Nope. Ever study lists at school? Nope. Where’s the great tradition of list-writing? Nope – totally missing, I mean. Forget kudos, too, because writing a list ain’t going to win you a literary prize or grant you the grudging respect of any envious authors. All you’ll get from writing a list is, well, a list. Say no more.
7. Six reasons are enough
Studies have shown that six reasons are sufficient. Full stop. Apparently, the human brain is incapable of marshalling more than one or two thoughts at a time – unless they involve food or sex, of course – so why burden and enrage your readers with unnecessary information. Most of them tune out during reason number seven, anyway – hello?
Clearly, lists suck. This one sure does.
If you’re itching to read more about writing and blogging, I suggest you look elsewhere. Too lazy to leave my blog? Why not try these thrilling posts: Novelists Write Novels, On Being a Back-to-Front Writer and Hanging on Every Word. Lots of words, some good enough to read.
Some writers are slow, some are fast. Me, I’m a sluggard. Not at putting words on paper, mind you, but at understanding what it takes to be a writer. On the weekend, though, the pencil dropped, and I finally got it. To be novelist, I realised, one has to at least finish a novel.
Kinda makes sense, doesn’t it?
This brutal truth bit me while I was attending a children’s literature festival on a small southern island adjacent to my own. I’d booked a session with a guest editor – an Associate Publisher at Penguin, no less – who praised the sample of the children’s novel I’d sent her without offering me a contract for it on the spot.
The cheek of the woman!
Then there were the visiting authors, who seemed pretty happy with the whole affair, despite the inclement weather. Writers are renowned for being highly perceptive beasts, and yet not one of those smug scribblers saw me for what I am: a fellow author. And just because I haven’t published a book! Talk about petty. Yes, I felt snubbed, and, yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it.
Ah, the truth hurts.
In some areas of life being a dreamer helps. Clearly, this isn’t one of them. Because, believe it or not, part of me had assumed writing was going to be easy: that someone – this editor, for starters – would one day recognise my Obvious Talent and, with a wave of her magic pen, make me a novelist, just like that. Job done. Forget chapters four to forty – they’d somehow take care of themselves.
Wishful thinking, it’s called.
Okay, okay – I’m an idiot. But at least now I’m an all-shook-up idiot, one who is finally coming to terms with the idea that writing is, as a wise guy once said, one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.
Not that I’m averse to hard work. A year or two ago, I slaved away to finish my Arts degree, sometimes writing close to ten thousand words a week, and pretty good ones at that. As a young tyro, too, I wrote for days on end, churning out long first chapters that never seemed to grow into novels. Bloody things.
To this day, an anthology of these fragments – entitled False Starts – remains unfinished.
No, it wasn’t laziness that misled me. More like distorted self-confidence, I reckon. A superiority complex that convinced me I was entitled to success, interspersed with the opposite – a sense of inferiority – which told me I didn’t deserve it, no matter how hard I worked.
Whatever. I now accept that if I want my Associate Publisher to make me an author, I’m going to have to do what, oddly enough, I really want to do: churn out words until the job is done. Only thus will I win my literary spurs. Novelists write novels, after all.
There are characters and then there are, well, characters. Some are new and unknown to us, like Anthony Burgess’ dyspeptic poet, Enderby, or the merciless Major Woolley of Goshawk Squadron.
Others, though, seem all too familiar. Take that fetishistic fashionista, Goldie de Groot, and model turned marketer, Chad Wilcox. Don’t you just feel like you know them already?
And so you should! These two unforgettable folk star in the erotic humdinger, ‘Feathers and Fur’, the first instalment of which I posted on this very blog only weeks ago. Slipped your memory? Well, here it is again – go back and bone up on it, please.
Thing is, faithful followers, I reckon I’ve kept all seventeen of you in suspense long enough. Clearly you’re dying to know more about Golden Girl and the Chadster. I mean, what is she hiding under that boa? And how is his piece coming along?
Switch off the artificial respirator – relief has arrived. For here, impure and adulterated, is the climax of that ‘twisted tale of doctored strangelove’. First, though, a warning: this excerpt contains cats, so if our feline friends make you itch then you’d better don some protection pronto. Allergies are nothing to sneeze at, you know.
‘Yes,’ Goldie said. ‘I’m into feathers.’
I looked up and saw a coppery feather boa shimmering in the doorway. Behind it was a body, mostly naked. Butt-naked, as far as I could tell.
‘You’re in feathers,’ I pointed out, somewhat pedantically. Then I raised my eyebrows, adding, ‘And now you’re not.’
Goldie had slipped the boa over her head and was holding it before her, somehow still managing to obscure her best bits. As she stroked the plumage, I couldn’t help thinking of her puss. Hot and loose.
I shifted in my seat and peered at the notes I hadn’t made in my notebook.
All the while, Goldie kept stroking, stroking, watching me with a crooked little smile on her lips. And what good lips they were. Not too fat, not too thin. Just right.
‘Trouble is,’ I said, clearing my throat, ‘it’s usually the male birds that have the bright plumage.’
Her smile widened. ‘I like a man who knows his ornithology.’
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ I said. ‘I’m no twitcher.’
‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ Goldie said, before padding across the floor in her bare feet.
And what good feet they were. Not too big, not too small. Just right. And they led to good legs. Legs to live by.
‘Up,’ she said, with a tug at my collar. ‘And around.’
I stood with my back to her, staring unseeingly at the prints on the wall above her desk. My signature look, it seemed, had returned.
For a while I lost track of the boa. Goldie’s hands were busy with my buttons, so I suppose it had found its way back around her neck. Before long, though, the fluffy fiend made its presence felt; slowly, softly, it swept across my various nooks and crannies; then, with a murmur, it surmounted a rise, where it wavered for a while, trembling back and forth. Back and forth.
Back. And forth.
With things coming to a head, I decided to turn the tables.
‘By the way,’ Goldie murmured, as I took the boa from her. ‘I’ve never been to Brazil.’
‘Very wise,’ I replied, pivoting her until I had her back. ‘It’s overrated.’
Threading the brown boa between those taut creamy thighs, I began to run it back and forth.
‘Bingo,’ Goldie whispered. ‘Feathers and fur.’
Back and forth.
‘Surely fake emu feathers should be more moisture-proof,’ I said, after a minute or two.
‘Fake ostrich,’ Goldie replied, a little breathlessly.
Back. And forth.
Then, rounding on me, Goldie tugged the boa from my grasp.
‘Plumage is important,’ she said, ‘up to a point. But a bird has to know when to bury its head. In the sand.’
Balling up the boa, she tossed it across the room, where it fluttered to the floor like a plummeting pigeon.
‘Fake sand?’ I asked.
‘Quick sand,’ she said, and steered me towards the desk.
By the time the interview was over, my coffee was well and truly cold. Which, for some strange reason, made it just right. Best coffee I ever had.
‘What about the article?’ I said, putting away my empty notebook.
Goldie tucked the boa into the pocket of my jeans.
‘Oh, I think you’ve got enough to go on,’ she said, giving it a friendly pat. ‘If you don’t, use your imagination. That shouldn’t be hard, Mr Faraway Man.’
I checked my watch as I crossed the shop floor. Not too long, after all, and not a second too short. Just right. I grinned. With that sort of passion and professionalism, how could either of us fail?
Blowing a last kiss to the mannequins, I stepped out on to the street.
What’s your stance on erotica? Haven’t settled on one yet? Well, don’t panic – as with sex itself, there’s an abundance of attitudes to choose from, so one is sure to take your fancy.
Let’s say you’re the upright type; well, you’re bound to be attracted to the missionary position, which means you’ll demonise any book that even hints at humpty-do. If, however, you’re more of a ‘cowgirl’ at heart, then you’ll happily bend over backwards for any old porn on the page.
My standpoint is different. When it comes to erotica, I prefer to play leapfrog. That’s right: I jump about, taking each text as it comes and trying to judge a work on its merits. Good writing excuses anything, I reckon – even a splash of the sauce.
Trouble is, I’m yet to put my approach to the test, having never really read any raunch. I like sex, so it’s not that I’m averse to its depiction in fiction; it’s just that I get bored by artless stories, of which there seem to be plenty.
What is artful erotica, then? As we writers are always being exhorted to ‘show not tell’, I’ve decided to try a little experiment. Rather than attempt to catalogue the qualities of the ideal erotic tale (as I see it), I’ll present for your delectation a purpose-written story instead.
More ‘doctored strangelove’ than sexual stuntfest, here then is the first stimulating instalment of ‘Feathers and Fur’.
‘I’m very passionate,’ she said, inspecting her nails in the light, ‘about the power of plumage.’
‘You’re into feathers?’
Goldie studied me for a moment. A long, searching moment.
‘Wait here,’ she said, before slipping from the room.
Groaning under my breath, I watched her go. She was swaddled in a sleek orange sari but had the kind of figure that would look good in a cassock. I mused for a minute, picturing her draped in a wet shower curtain. Not quite what I’d meant, but it proved my point – that for a woman she was remarkably well hung. Full and firm where it counted, like my fiancé, Christine.
I sighed and put down my pen. Fantasising about my clients wasn’t going to pay the bills. Maybe Chrissie was right – maybe the time I’d sunk into this ‘business’ of mine was all for nothing. Maybe I just didn’t have what it takes to be a freelance writer. I mean, I’d wasted an hour already this morning thanks to this woman and her cat.
‘Sorry,’ Goldie had called, as she’d come pattering across the street in her neat little sandals. ‘My puss usually wakes me at the crack of dawn, but I think she’s on heat or something. Went out through the bathroom window.’
Digging around in her shoulder bag for keys, she gave me the once-over. Twice.
We’d arranged to meet here fifty minutes ago, a full hour before opening time, so I could get some background for a puff piece I was writing on Goldie’s latest venture, a niche clothing store called ‘Feathers and Fur’.
Finding her keys at last, Goldie let us into the shop, a bright open space set out with racks of lingerie and outré outfits of all kinds.
‘So,’ she said, leading me across the room, ‘you’ve come to do a little digging.’
I dodged around one of the half-naked mannequins that dotted the room.
‘That’s the general idea,’ I said. ‘If you can still spare the time.’
She sniggered. ‘Oh, things don’t hot up here until later on. Actually, I’m kinda hoping you’ll warm these mornings up for me a little. You and your piece.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ I said, following her into a stylish office furnished with black leather couches and a desk. I glanced around. Two windows framed neat hedges and a strip of sky, while a door in the back wall opened on to what was presumably a storeroom.
‘The first thing to know,’ Goldie said, dumping her bag on the table, ‘is that this place runs on coffee. Good hot coffee.’
And she spent the next ten minutes fiddling with the espresso machine that stood on a bar fridge in the corner.
When I tried to shoot her a question, the response was swift.
‘No talking,’ she cried, over the whoosh of the machine. ‘Making coffee is my morning ritual. It grounds me for the rest of the day.’
‘Fair enough,’ I said, grinning at the pun.
Spotting my smile, Goldie decided I wasn’t taking her seriously enough, and launched into a detailed explanation of her ‘coffology’. To my discredit – I suppose I should have been taking notes – I tuned right out, preferring instead to visualise her in various forms of dress. The cassock was a flop, I decided, although the cross on a chain around her neck brought out two of her best features.
I was about to try her in a nuns’ habit when she turned and charged across the room, a cup cocked in each hand.
‘This’ll get you going,’ Goldie said, giving me one before dropping on to the couch opposite me with the other.
She drank with obvious relish.
‘Thanks,’ I said. A second later I was spluttering.
‘Some like it hot,’ Goldie said, with a smile. ‘I did warn you.’
I dabbed at my lips. ‘I’ll listen next time.’
‘Good boy. It’s the first thing a man should do. So,’ she said, settling back on the couch, ‘what’s your piercing first thrust?’
‘Well, I was going to ask about the mannequins.’
‘Wrong,’ she said. ‘People usually want to know about my name.’
‘Goldie. Right. After the actress, I suppose.’
‘Hell no,’ she said. ‘The metal.’
‘Gold. I get it.’
‘I was a weighty newborn, apparently, and soft – super soft.’
I pretended to write that down. ‘And precious too,’ I ventured.
‘Not half as valuable as my sister,’ Goldie said, with a pout. ‘Titty.’
I looked at her blankly.
‘Titanium,’ she added.
‘Of course. Atomic number 22.’
‘I’m impressed. Next question, Chemistry Man.’
‘Hooked on them, aren’t you. Trust me, you’re not their type. Let’s get back to my type. Your piece. Ask me something probing, about Goldie.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘The shop. Why’d you open it?’
And that’s when she said what she said.
‘I’m very passionate. About the power of plumage.’
And that’s when I said what I said.
‘You’re into feathers?’
And that’s when she disappeared, mysteriously, into the back room.
I sat and toyed with the idea of calling Chrissie. I’d promise to chuck this writing thing in and go back to being a photographic model. Doing shoots all the time was a drag, but at least I got paid for daydreaming. And, boy, what material I’d had to work with. Dress ’em up, dress ’em down. Back then, fantasising had actually paid off – it’d given me the hunky faraway look for which I’d become known.
‘Yes,’ Goldie said. ‘I’m into feathers.’
I looked up and saw a coppery feather boa shimmering in the doorway. Behind it was a body, mostly naked. Butt-naked, as far as I could tell.
‘You’re in feathers,’ I pointed out, somewhat pedantically. Then I raised my eyebrows, adding, ‘And now you’re not.’
To be continued, as they say, with apologies for the eroticus interruptus.
[Breaking News: ‘Feathers and Fur’ is now complete, its climax having been posted here.]
What happens when, as a would-be writer, your illusions are shattered? When, say, one of your articles goes viral, only to be followed by – silence. No knocks at the door, no alerts in your inbox, no flutters, no tweets. No nothing.
Before long, those million or more hits you took really start to hurt.
What happens? You blog about your disenchantment, of course, as one Lily Dunn has, er, done. Shocked by the apparent insignificance of her overnight ‘success’ – of an online article making a massive splash – Lily admits to being a little disheartened. ‘I want to give up,’ she writes.
In an eloquent and engaging appraisal of her bruised state of mind, Lily wonders what it takes to kick-start a literary career. If good writing – writing that attracts millions of readers – is not enough to win you your first contract, then what the hell is? The answer she arrives at only adds to her angst: it’s shameless self-promotion, silly.
‘Being a successful writer is no longer about craft or talent or art,’ Lily writes. ‘It’s about who is the most provocative, who is the most visible on social media, who is the most aggressively self-promoting.’
As a fellow aspiring author, I feel Lily’s pain; I, too, harbour the hope that one day, come what may, good will out. Here’s the rub, though: I don’t really believe it. Experience has taught me otherwise. But that’s okay, and I’ll tell you why.
Self-promotion – that bugbear of many an unheralded writer – is not antithetical to story-telling, it is story-telling. And not just any old story-telling either, but the biggest and best kind there is. Why? Because self-promotion is about composing your ‘self’. It’s about creating a real life-story that has the power to validate and enliven not only you as a writer but every thing you’ll ever write.
In short, it’s about being a ‘back-to-front writer’, since it asks you to bring your ‘back-story’ to the fore – to the forefront of your mind. Get your back-story right and the readers of your work will become your readers. You – and not just your writing – will go viral, and ‘success’ is sure to follow. Prepare for knocks at the door and alerts in your inbox; for flutters and tweets. The world will come calling.
How else do we explain the irritating success of ‘celebrity’ writers and the undying appeal of our ‘classic’ authors? Sure, their works are often exceptional, but they always come with rich, ready-made back-stories, self-propagated and otherwise, in which readers revel. I mean, why buy one story when you can hook a whole series?
What we as writers ought to be creating, then, are multi-story constructions. High-rise ‘libraries’, if you like. For each of our works we must lay a foundation floor – the back-story that best supports any impending upper levels: the ‘front-story’ we want to tell, along with the stories others might one day write about us and our edifice. In this way, we end up with a veritable stack of stories, the height and heft of which determines the ‘standing’ of our work in the teeming cityscape that is the marketplace.
Worried about authenticity? Don’t be. As ever, the style of your back-story more than its content will trumpet the ‘true’ you. (Yes, I do believe in such a chimera.) Back-story not selling you well? Then write another, donning a costume your ideal reader will recognise and rate. Write better, work harder and, as always, trust to luck.
Personally, I find the prospect of crafting characters for myself daunting yet exhilarating. We authors are protean beings, so the possibilities seem plentiful. Too plentiful, perhaps. Sometimes the hardest advice to take is your own…
Like it or not, the stories we tell about ourselves are the weightiest we’ll ever have to write. For if self-promotion is, as I suggest, simply the telling of stories about ourselves, then our success rests in the right place: in our ability to write. It’s just a matter of learning to write the wrong way around.
Think about it. Are you a back-to-front writer?