Trial of the Romance Novelist
'Thank Christ there wasn't more of it' ~ Frank Moorhouse
'We'll give you money to leave us alone – cash, and lots of it' ~ Southerly
'Awful, just awful' ~ Heat
'Not only roman a clef but also roman a these, all the more remarkably bizarre for being told from the vibrator's point of view' ~ Jane Gleeson-White
'Jean D'Arque is not to be missed. If you see her, shoot her ~
'Memorable for many reasons – none of them good' ~ Island
'Funny and original. Now put down the gun' ~ Julia Beaven,
'I just wanted it to end' ~ Jennifer Byrne, First Tuesday Book Club
'A literary enema' ~ Stephen Fry
'What's an adjective?' ~ Dan Brown
'A complete woofer' ~ Salman Rushdie
'@#!!*!#?' ~ Osama Bin Laden
'You should have been drowned at birth. It's not too late. I urge you – do it now ~ Gore Vidal
'Made me want to rip my eyes out. I still might ~ Jason Steger, The Age
'Please please don't send us any more of your work' ~ The
'We've already moved address once to get away from you, and we're prepared to do it again' ~ McSweeney's
'Please don't procreate' ~ The Harvard Review
'No amount of alcohol could make this look good' ~ Kirkus Reviews
'Stunning – I've never seen anything this bad. Just appalling' ~ Peter Craven
Yeah, well, Peter Craven doesn't fart frankincense – which is a damned shame, `cause if he doubled as an oil burner then at least he'd have one useful purpose in this life. (Full marks to Meanjin though, for managing to use the words please and fuck off in a single sentence. Guess that's what makes `em literary.)
Don't get me started – just don't get me started – on the agent slash publisher, that single beast with two heads and one heart, or at least, a place where the heart should be. How the hell is it that editors and literary agents claim to discover writers anyway? I mean, I've never had Molly Friedrich knock on my door, say, Jean, mate, I'm here to discover you, mate. Just go sit down and have a cup of tea – no, on second thoughts, let me make it for you, maaaate, or maybe you'd like a beer, mate? – then you go have it in front of a bit of telly – no, no, I insist – just go and relax while I pop off to your study and discover you, right before she zips back to New York with my manuscript on her flaming flying pig.
I mean, swivelling your chair in the general direction of the slush pile – or more to the point, booting your teenaged intern in its direction – is hardly the stuff of Burke and Wills, is it? The slush pile may well give the agent slash publisher the shits but it's hardly the same as a lethal dose of dysentery, now is it?
Yeah, maybe those are the bitter rantings of the failed writer. And yeah, maybe, I am a prima donna. But I didn’t start out that way. Let me tell you how prima donnas are made. Let me tell you how I became the bloody Madonna of the publishing world – and if that evokes images of me typing away with the tips of my pointy bras to save my nails, well, that’s probably not too far from the truth. But it wasn’t to begin with.
If I'm bitter, it's with good cause. Just maybe, if not for the gatekeepers – the editors and the agents – the whole sorry incident with Salman Rushdie, Herpes, Jesus and Oprah never would have happened. Maybe I never would have had cause to write:
Seven days ago, I killed a person. Now, nobody will talk to me.
To be honest, that isn't quite accurate. Although, neither is it strictly untrue. It’s more the case that some of it is arguable, or as they like to say on rejection slips, subjective.
You see the individual I killed was a literary agent, not a person. And the thing about nobody wanting to talk to me isn’t quite true either. In fact, everybody wants to talk to me, from Salman Rushdie to Oprah Winfrey to DaviDDDDDD Lettaaaaahman. It’s just that they want to talk to me in Braille, if you know what I mean – i.e., with baseball bats, or other blunt instruments of their choice.
But if, as The Pocket Baird says, juxtaposition is the mark of a great story, then maybe I should let you in on the action that caused the reaction (as in How To Write A Synopsis.) Now that I think about it, if I had followed the advice of the The Pocket Baird (subtitle: how to write a bestseller) more often, then what came to pass on that day, the last day of winter, may never have happened.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
I was taught in primary school that all stories must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Best start with the beginning then.
Then again, if I'm not mistaken, you'd probably prefer to know about all about my history as a failed pornographer first.
Technically, I wrote erotica, not porn. The difference is pretty simple: erotica is porn trying to pretend it's not porn. Erotica is porn with pretensions. Porn in denial. Happily-ever-after in a hand job, erotica would have you believe that cunnilingus is Latin for the meaning of life.
At least porn is honest; it doesn't pretend to have a plot, which is more than can be said about erotica.
A story, not just scene upon scene of meaningless sex. The writer’s salute to this dictate of erotica guidelines is spurious and hilarious: during a ménage a trois of two cowpokes (literally) and a woman rancher, briefly unoccupied mouths discuss saving the farm; a woman in some sort of group sex club has her eye on two blokes she’d like to gang bang but … will her plus size put her off…?
Maybe that I wrote half of the U.S. Navy into an orgy during the time of Osama-Bin-Whack-Job and the rest of the merry crew from Cut Snakes 'R Us then submitted it to an American publisher is ultimately what doomed my porn career to failure. Or maybe that was one factor among many. Maybe there was just too much I didn't know or didn't get. For a start, I didn't get the whole thing about anal sex, which to my mind would likely feel like a homesick constipation was trying to elbow its way back in. And when I first encountered GLBT, my mouth watered, anticipating some sort of bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich with a new, exotic ingredient (maybe gherkin) thrown in. In a way, that wasn't too far from the truth.
Vanilla sex, when I first heard of it, had me terribly excited, thinking as I did it must be sex not only involving lovemaking, but perhaps a milkshake as well – or even some properly made custard! Maybe you got to make love and have a cake at the same time! Oh how good would that be? Or maybe a cake and properly made custard – a yummy beignet filled with vanilla custard! And… and… if there was such a thing as vanilla sex, maybe it came in other flavours too, like raspberry, ‘cause raspberry’s my favourite! Oh how eagerly I looked it up.
What a blow. Vanilla sex didn't live up to its promise at all. It is in fact a term used to describe plain sex. I could forget my high hopes for chocolate sex, not to mention chocolate covered raspberry liquorice sex. Now, that one really had me drooling.
Then I think: hang on a minute. Anyone who says that about vanilla doesn’t know very much about vanilla in my opinion. I mean, there’s vanilla and there’s vanilla. Are we talking about a gorgeous vanilla pod here, some beautifully aromatic extract, or just some piss poor imitation vanilla? `Cause if you’re using imitation vanilla, well you’ve only got yourself to blame. There’s nothing wrong with real vanilla, treated properly, nothing at all. I’m not kidding – do right by vanilla and you’ll never complain about it again.
Maybe someone who didn't know what vanilla sex means really wasn't best qualified to be writing erotica.
I hadn’t known that there was such a thing as paranormal romance either, much less paranormal erotica, but there is. This amounts to lots of group sex with werewolves, vampires, shape shifters, big cats and other ectoplasmic thingies of the night. Perusing the genres, book lengths and reader advisories on publisher Ellora’s Cave website was nothing short of hilarious:
Vampire / quickie / ménage a trois or more
Even better when a holiday theme was introduced:
Werewolves / full length / anal sex / ménage a trois / Christmas
Sort of adds new meaning to the old saying, I thought all my Christmases had come at once;
Vampires / four or more / oral sex / Thanksgiving
Yes, well, I suppose I’d be giving thanks too.
They must be far, far better writers than I, because for the life of me, I couldn't work out how I’d fit all that in.
There were other things I didn't understand. MMFM sex I took literally to mean not just three men and one woman taking turns but simultaneous male to male to female to male sex, and I just didn't see how that would be possible, unless they’re playing Twister. I mean, if a guy’s on top of another guy, and that guy’s on top of her, they’re going to be far too heavy for her.
(Fast forward twenty-four hours.)
Ahhhh. If I flip her over, put her on her hands and knees… now I’ve got it… guy on guy on girl kneeling before another guy. Right. I’m glad I worked that out.
It seemed to me that would require extraordinarily rhythmic co-ordination, otherwise someone’s going to choke or end up bent So how would it work? Someone says, Right! One two three (presumably not her, unless she’s a ventriloquist). And even then it’s risky – what if one of them starts at the end of one two three but someone else is waiting for GO?
Frank and graphic language! demanded the publisher's guidelines. No purple prose or euphemism! Yet coyly, they handled the hero's wang with kid gloves. The hero must be well-endowed, they said delicately.
Best write him as a shape shifting horse, then.
Hi, ho, silver!
I'm sorry, your honour. Yes I did digress.
Maybe the jury will think I'm too hard-bitten. Maybe my career as a pornographer wasn't the best place to start. According to A Baird In Your Pocket: An Emerging Writer's Bible, for readers to empathise with your characters, they have to be likeable. So maybe you need to know that before I was a failed pornographer, I was an aspiring romance novelist.
Yeah, me. Hard to believe isn't it?
A Prologue In The
Once upon a time, in another life, I might have started this with some sucky little line to demonstrate my longing like, For the longest time, I have wanted to write. Not now though, I'm not that person any more. That would have been long before I thought that publishing will be the death of writing, when it was still unthinkable I would stand before you on trial; long before it was conceivable I would kill a person.
Looking back, if there is one piece of advice I’d give to literary agents, one way this whole sorry mess could have been avoided, it would be this: well it may be an agent’s golden rule for writers to know their genre, but it is a writer’s golden rule to know your subject.
Agent A----- P------ of N-- E------ Publishing Agency asserts that: Editors seem as gods to mere authors… higher beings (who) decree which authorlings shall be raised from obscurity and which consigned to the hell of the unpublished.
A belly laugh hit me like a sucker punch. Any agent who doesn’t know that your average writer will, in all likelihood, besmirch the parentage of a rejecting editor, is living in la la land. In fact, your average writer, half-insane through rejection, and half-insane by proclivity, is highly likely to draw a family tree of said rejecting editor charting a long lineage of dilettante on one side and Philistine on the other (and nary a marriage between them) and while it’s uncertain whether your average writer will do this vehemently or dispassionately, one thing you can be sure of is that, baby, your average writer is not going to deify a rejecting editor (unless it can be argued that son-of-a bitch, if capitalised, may be considered beatification) and any agent who reckons otherwise does not know writers at all.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Any how-to-write book will tell you to introduce your main characters as close to page one as possible.
The Beginning Proper
For the longest time, I have wanted to write.
Life’s demands, vicissitudes, the crises and needs aroused in all people who love and who are loved, kept my dream earth bound. There was always something, someone that had to come first. For the most part I remained sanguine, if achingly so. In my heart, I knew the day would come when my hope would take flight.
Then, at the age of thirty-eight, I had a health scare. (More accurately, a death scare.) Sanguine I may be, quixotic I am not. Telling all whom I held most dear to go fuck themselves I took myself to a hotel, where at last, and maybe too late, I began to write.
Literary writers say their work is informed by life. My literary dream was informed first and foremost by poverty. Literature is a great lover, but a lazy bastard around the house – however thoughtful he might be. If you want to hold on to him – which of course you do – you’re going to have to find a way to support that fair-haired boy and yourself financially, because there’s no way he’s going to get his hands dirty for you.
I chose, as my potboiling poison, romance (a.k.a. God's reason for inventing pen names.)
If I was going to do it, then I would do it well.
It’s terrifying, gut-wrenching, to glide your aching, long-held picture-perfect dream across the precipice into burgeoning reality. It's like an angel who by becoming mortal risks disease and disfigurement. It's like being at Heaven's Airport and wondering if there's a place for you on a flight. See, the thing about dreams is that they never have to use Liquid Paper. But when they're about to materialise from the ether into real life, out of the lollipop sunshine of your pure and righteous vision comes a bitey querulous little bastard called fear tenacious as a dog humping a leg.
What if I had been wrong? What if I couldn’t write, after all? What would I dream about then? After twenty-four years of dreaming of the day I would write, when finally it came, I could barely type for shaking.
But type I did.
It seemed I could do what I always felt I could, after all. After a time of sub-standard cooking, little communication and even less relationship, after several tremulous, teary little months, (during which I refused to return to the doctor to get my test results ie find out whether I would live) my book was finished. A mere potboiler it may have been, but a well-written potboiler it certainly was, and I was to-the-boots-proud of my little novel.
Now, to send it to the lucky publisher. I contemplated the publisher’s guidelines – tell us what is special about your book – in ill-humour.
I tried to adopt a confident tone – confidence – that thing that other people have. I thought of the gift I was making this publisher: a well-written romance novel. No crap on my watch. So, what was special about my book? I concluded, and wrote, that I have strenuously avoided the cliché of the plundering hero and submissive heroine, in favour of more subtle and sophisticated aspirations. Yes, I’m laughing too. Looking back, I can scarcely believe my writer’s heart was ever so innocent.
Three chapters and a synopsis duly despatched, the letter box vigil began.
One rainy day, I discovered the wooden door to the letter box had swollen shut. It became necessary to remove it. I know this evokes images of a calm, surgical removal employing a screwdriver, but the reality was, when the letter box refused to give up its booty, I took to it with a hammer.
After an hour’s battering, I held in my hands a letter from The Salvation Army, asking for money.
(My neighbours, who it would seem witnessed this operation, were extremely polite to me and very considerate ever after. There would never be another episode of Billy Joel at volume again)
My letter box was now without a door. This had advantages: I could see from the upstairs bedroom window whether I had mail, and could therefore decide whether it was worth my while to get out of bed. On the down side, the mail slipped out the backless letter box onto the ground to be exposed to the weather. Not that it was ever lying there for very long.
Five months later a letter arrived from the romance publisher to whom I had submitted my partial manuscript. Opened is way too polite a word to describe the evisceration that killed that envelope.
I had been invited to send the full manuscript.
I called the other half in tears that just wouldn’t stop. At last, at last! The way to my brilliant career was being paved. And I had done it my way. I had written a quality romance novel.
The letter warned me that this was not an offer of publication. I wasn’t worried. There wasn’t a chance that my lovely, original novel would be rejected.
Just when it was most needed, my printer gave up the ghost. I ordered a new one. By the end of the week when it still hadn’t arrived, the other half called the supplier and calmly but persuasively arranged its liberation from whatever disgruntled faction it is that takes printers captive.
Four weeks after I had been invited to send the full manuscript, I finally got it into the post. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then I held my breath. Again.
The big day arrived at last. At last! Nine long months of mail-box-vigil later, the other half raced up the stairs to proclaim, The Letter You Have Been Waiting For Has Arrived. We tore down the stairs together. He was so very happy for me, God love him.
I look at the envelope.
Um, love, I say, I think there’s something wrong. That envelope isn’t big enough to hold a contract.
Confidently, he says, That’s just the letter to tell you that your book has been accepted and the contract will be coming separately.
With a bad, bad feeling, I open the envelope.
The unthinkable has happened. My quality romance novel has been rejected.
Worse, the rejection letter is scathing: Too intense and overwritten, it says.
No! No! I am wounded!
No, no, NO, this is all wrong!
The other half gives me a leg up to the horse that has thrown me, slaps it on the rump and sends me to a bookshop to research alternative publishers. Right now. Today.
A few hours later I am in a bookshop, in a state of dazed determination; a state soon to give way to queasy and stunned.
The alternative publishers are protected by a talisman designed to keep writers like me at bay: No unsolicited manuscripts.
My little, honest work, with its hopeful beating heart, appears to be dead in the water.
A week later, I'm still in bed.
As an older ‘new’ writer, I thought I was better prepared for rejection. I was wrong.
The other half sends me flowers with the message: If it was easy, then it wouldn’t be fun.
It’s a miracle he’s still breathing.
The Plot Dump
What's that Skip? Dad and Ken drove off a cliff into Rasmussen's Ravine, Dad bumped his head and passed out, the ute's leaking diesel, we're having steak for dinner, it's snowing in Switzerland, Mrs. James just fell pregnant, there's a lizard in the bathtub, Ken's wearing a red shirt and Kevin Rudd's about to challenge Julia Gillard for the leadership of the ALP, a party first founded in… click kerBOOM!
Shut the fuck up, Skip. Nobody likes a garrulous fucking kangaroo, mate.
Maybe I should have flogged every literary agent trying to flog me their book on how to get a literary agent my book on how to write a professional rejection letter – one that wouldn’t result in a writer with a fashion sense leaning toward balaclavas and Smith & Wesson accessories quietly letting themselves into your house in the wee small hours.
(The pen may well be mightier than the sword but I’ll take a thirty-gauge
any day of the week, quoth she.) Winchester
I was going to need a literary agent. I found this embarrassing and pretentious in equal parts. My publishing history amounts to two short stories. Why did someone like me possibly need a literary agent? I mean, what for, exactly?
Blushing, I tried submitting to Australian literary agents first. One of them replied. I'll remember the names of the other two – don't you worry about that.
So not only would I need a literary agent, I would have to find one overseas.
The hunt for an American literary agent – a creature so faint-hearted it defines bravery as having an office outside of New York – was about to cast me forth across a landscape so shallow that any movie with a death in it automatically gets an Academy Award.
Oh yes, death – it's profound all right.
 It may be worth mentioning at this juncture that Word accused me of verb confusion in using the term 'fart frankincense.' It had me at hand job, though, which really should have been two words, not one.
 An illustration of why emerging writers should avoid similes.
 Another illustration as to why emerging writers should avoid similes. Only emerging writers think their similies are 'great'. In truth, they're pretentious; they really fucking suck, and not like a blow job either. More like repatriated diahorrea. Shit. Does anyone know how to spell that? Fucking MS Word.