Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Parachutist

I work with a woman who looks like a parachutist.

Every morning at eight when I arrive at work, she is already sitting at her desk. That cubicle faces the kitchen door, and I can see her legs beneath the desk. Today she has the purple shoes on. I like those ones the best, but in the way that a child might say they like Brussels sprouts better than Cabbage when they hate all vegetables with a passion.

She waves at me and smiles a greeting, her attention fixed on the caller at the other end of the phone. "Mmm-hmm," she murmurs into the mouthpiece, the quiet reassurance that she hadn't hung up and that the speaker should continue their spiel. The Parachutist's fair short hair is a cloud around her sunny face, her huge round glasses like 1970's windows to the sky.

The Parachutist always says good morning. Or waves it, when a customer interrupts her opportunity. But the Parachutist rarely speaks to us otherwise. If we need help, the Parachutist will know, but she will answer politely in as few words as possible, and will watch our faces carefully to ensure we understand. Once her job is done, she will jump out of the conversation, returning to her base camp to murmur into phone receivers and pore over waiting work.

Under the desk today, and topping her purple shoes, are the pants she always wears. They are jeans, of a fashion, but of a shape I hadn't known jeans were made in. The Parachutist has taught me that these jeans exist. They are high-waisted, and blown up like a balloon from top to bottom. Her ankles look impossibly tiny where they disappear into the purple shoes, the jeans' bottom elastic pulling them tight.

I keep imagining what her hair would look like as she jumped. The jeans, I am sure, would look exactly the same, billowing out and blown up with air as she rustled in the high wind descent. I sometimes wonder how old the Parachutist is. Her face might be 20, but her hair is 50 and her clothes a mix of 12 and 40. She has the efficiency of a secretary who has known a CEO for thirty years. Perhaps she is ageless, kept young by leaping out of planes every weekend.

Or perhaps she never jumps. Maybe she moonlights as that secretary, for a skydiving club, and the nearest she ever gets is greeting customers and handing them the enrolment forms.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Son, I Am Disappoint.

So I'm trying to make myself write again, and as part of my research I'm devouring a bunch of recent books in the same genre, namely, mass-market chick paperback aka mummy porn. And oh dear, what a disappointment.

I intentionally chose to read some by a certain MAJOR publisher. Let's just say if you think "hot romance books in the supermarket" then you have the correct one. They publish a hundred new titles every month, in virtually the same cover, and only the steamy manhunk photo changes.

I'm going to avoid naming authors because quite frankly I don't know how badly these books were mangled by the publisher. I have to assume that they forced enormous changes to the original manuscripts until they no longer resembled what they had been. You'd hope so, considering they take AGES to offer a contract, and then anywhere up to four years to actually publish (!).

Book one was a total wet blanket shemozzle. Plot synopsis: Miss Businesswoman meets Mr Tycoon. They have an argument and immediately hate each other. Even though they somehow can't take their eyes off one another and come really close to doin' the deed (hot and steamy!), they agree to stay apart because, well, they hate each other. Thanks to the death of a mutual friend, the two main characters end up sharing custody of a baby (whoa! a fabulous coincidence and convenient for a love story). They still hate each other. They decide to live together despite all this (wtf), and then get married for forever (wtf) with an agreement of no sex (wtf, who makes a deal like that) all ostensibly for the sake of the kid. Then they have hot and steamy sex, then fall in love. Ah, happily ever after. The book ends with them excitedly discussing getting pregnant. How does anyone find marriage-baby-potential-preggers stories hot and steamy? It might be just me, but I always assumed we mothers reading romantic fiction enjoy the fantasy-escape of not being mothers for a few hours. Is the "let's make another baby!" thing really necessary or does it add to a "hot love story"? Maybe I should be blaming the publisher for this aspect?

The thing is, I could suspend reality and get into the (questionable) plot if the book hadn't been so full of spelling errors, grammatical snafus and split infinitives. And they weren't minor or beginner errors (which this hastily-written blog post probably has in abundance). When you spell the name of the main character wrong you have a problem not to mention how many enormously long sentences there were that while strictly speaking were not wrong made it inherently difficult to read giving the reader a sense of wtf was the beginning of the sentence about again because it was so long ago that I've forgotten. I know for a fact this particular publisher ensures each manuscript gets edited by at least four (four) people before it's sent back to the author for final review. How do such obvious spelling and grammar stuffups slip past supposed-professionals four times? Are they in financial doo-doo and using the fifteen-year-old work-experience kid to edit it for free? Or is the eBook created by feeding physical hand-torn pages of the paperback into a scanner and booting up ancient software with a reading accuracy of 87%?

Also, some of the plot points felt padded and dragged out unnecessarily. It's as if there were an interesting basic premise underneath, and someone had thrown in a wrench and churned it up with saccharine until it fit some kind of magic formula for sale. "Dear author, it's a great story, but it needs a conflict early on. Please make them hate each other, or something. Oh, and we need them to be married in the middle, even though they hate each other. It's so that the sex scenes don't need to discuss condoms. You understand. Just minor changes that you need to make. You know, just the whole book. By Friday. Love, Editor."

Book two, ahhhhh. Relief. I could see from the very beginning that this author knows how to write. Proper grammatical structure right from the beginning. I relaxed and hoped to actually enjoy it. Then, kapow! She foists so many unbelievable plot pieces into one pile that I'm only four chapters in and seriously annoyed. Let's have a checklist for the storyline of "Miss Independent and Mr Wealthy" so far.

✔ believable or plausible
✖ ridiculous or unlikely

steamy weekend fling with complete stranger whose name she doesn't even know ✔
he does something asshole-y ✔
despite using contraception which did not seem to have failed, she falls pregnant ✔
but she decides not to tell him because she hates him for being asshole-y before ✔
hospitalised; doctor will not let her leave without proof of someone to care for her ✖
she has no friends, family, co-workers, facebook buddies, anyone else to ask for help ✖
she hasn't seen him in half a year, but he turns up on the same day that she calls ✖
without even knowing about baby ✖
he doesn't even ask why she's sick, before coming ✖
he somehow trusts it's his kid, despite him knowing he used a condom correctly ✖
he proposes to a complete stranger within minutes of finding out about the kid ✖
he convinces her of why this is a good idea by babbling on about lawyers and prenups ✖
she still hates him and doesn't want to marry him but somehow gives in within minutes ✖
Miss Independent allows him to take over planning her entire life ✖
he discusses her medical care with the doctors, without even asking her ✖
for some reason she moves into his house within two days ✖
they speak very familiarly yet they've never spoken since the week of the fling ✖
this intelligent, independent woman can't see he's a controlling, dangerous, asshole ✖

Score so far: 4 believable elements, 14 stupid ones. I believe the balance is unfortunately tipped way over into the "this is ridiculous" side of things. I can actually understand why the bullying is going on - the author is building character, with the fact that he's very used to getting his own way and taking charge (the hero has to be strong), and my guess is that the lady shall tame him and turn him into an adorable, gentle human-being-daddy. But it's bad enough that you already know this story will end with "and the two of them fell in love and lived together with their baby forever" - having to read Pinocchio's tall tales to get there is going to be painful.

And I know there are mouse-women whose self-esteem has been chipped away for years by controlling and dominating men like the "hero" in this book. But for goodness' sake, it simply doesn't happen via ONE one-night stand plus ONE ten-minute conversation. You'd have to be an idiot not to see that a Romeo who moves you into his house and arranges a marriage with you is a control-freak. And unfortunately the woman has been painted as being intelligent. Lemme guess: It was probably really-well done until the editor started mangling it. "Dear Author, please spend more effort in showing Mr Wealthy as a controlling and dominant character, and please make Miss Independent quite a bit more docile. And please do it in the first five minutes. What the heck, just make her roll over. Love, Editor."

I can almost forgive spelling and grammatical errors more than a book with so many ✖s in the plot. I am torn between thinking that it could be easy for me to write these, and dismay that it's apparently so easy to write these. (Famous last words.)

I weep for humanity.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

WTF is this blog?

This is where I share a little bit of my writing... snippets of the novels, short stories, thangs that I'm working on. I love feedback! There will be spelling and grammar snafus - these are still drafts (please do still point them out) and things might change dramatically as I cull or we-write chunks to suit the later parts of the works.
More polished: The Lifestyle Village, my slightly-altered amusing memoirs of working with aged people in a retirement village.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Works in progress

I'm currently working on one book awaiting final edit, one partly-finished piece, and one that's a mere shell of a novel. I'm not particularly good at finishing things, you see.

Work One is a novella and semi-autobiographical. It's close to my heart, which I think is why I'm having trouble finding the energy to polish it. A publisher offered to take it on but I didn't like the terms. Once it is finished I'm unsure if I will promote it very heavily - I like what it is, but it's not everyone's cup of tea.

Work Two is a bugbear. I've been finding its writing fascinating. The character has kept me awake at night in excitement as I, the author, wonder what will become of her. Unfortunately it is written in first person which is a monumental no-no, particularly so for a novice writer. I did, in fact, originally begin writing it in third person for that very reason, but it just didn't "flow" well. I know it's because I dream of being that character - she's not me, and I wouldn't want her life, but I would love to possess her strength of character. For all her hardships there is a certain allure of the triumph of ultimate success over adversity. The main reason this one has stalled is my indecision in where the book should go next. It's 16000 words in without even a hint of telling me what its climax is going to be! Cardinal rule, don't write a novel without a plan. I broke that one. My daughter read the opening chapters and wanted to read more, but she did comment that it had yet another abused girl as the protagonist. It's somewhat clichĂ©, I suppose, but what point is there to read about a strong girl who grows up to be a strong woman? Hasn't Jackie Collins mastered that genrĂ©? And quite apart from the fact that this girl is emotionally-strong, she's also rather blank. She does X, Y and Z without a whole lot of feeling (again, the fault of first-person, where the chief way to represent feelings involves "and I felt..."). I think it either needs a shelving, another key character, or a re-write back into third person. Once I figure out where it's going, that is.

Work Three is one I began but lost the passion for. It was actually begun before Work Two and is (yes) the story of a downtrodden girl. In what's written so far she is still very young and is growing up neglected in poverty-ridden surroundings. The plan for this book was that she should evolve into an opportunistic, cold-hearted entrepreneur, who takes advantage of those around her to climb above her origins. As it is set in rural Australia, the chief difficulty has been that several aspects of the storyline should (and would) have aroused the attention of authorities, resulting in government intervention which create problems in several of the key plot points. These stumbling blocks led me to create the older, less-wily character in Work Two, where the setting has been moved to an unnamed, foreign country, in order to remove such limitations.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Ana - second draft, two opening parts


ON THAT FIRST CHILLY DAY OF DECEMBER it was fortunate that dinner had been started early.

The slam of the door told me all I needed to know. He would not be in any mood to wait for his food. I hurried into the kitchen and began serving roast beef onto his plate beside steaming green vegetables.

He’s home, I thought. He’s the same. He just needs his space. He’ll tell me when he’s ready. He’ll tell me, won’t he? Oh, Simon, why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?

Carrying the plate in one hand and a small earthenware vase in the other, I set his place, ready for him. I hadn’t dared to ask him for extra money this morning, to buy some flowers for the house. So a clutch of noxious wild daisies was all I could find for the centrepiece, but it didn’t seem to matter, anyway. He wasn’t paying attention to the table and he hadn’t noticed that the hallway vase was empty. He was vacant and unstaring and moving like a robot, his soft grey eyes unseeing, just as things had been for weeks. So I stood quietly as he entered the room, and while I didn’t actually expect much, I had hoped for a glance, or a smile, perhaps a warm greeting.


Why won’t you talk to me? I feel so useless!

For three months we had been married, and yet for weeks, he had ceased speaking to me in more than a grunt. And he was terribly worried. I had heard him pacing the floor, had heard him whispering in late-night phone conversations, heard books fly off the desk, seen the holes punched into the doors. The stench of anxiety sweat swam off him at all times of the day.

He was angry and furious and something was terribly, terribly wrong. But I knew my place. The women did not interfere in the men’s business dealings. They bit their tongue until they tasted metal, and their lips stayed closed until invited to speak.

I, Ana, quietly excused myself from the kitchen and left him to his meal.


I HAD BEEN BORN THE ONLY CHILD of older parents, and I had grown up in a house where my mother wailed for a son.

"A SON," she howled, "would have made my life complete! What good is a daughter? How can a daughter ever provide for me in my old age?" She would scowl at me with obvious contempt, and damn me for daring to be born a useless girl.

My father was as indifferent as my mother was cruel. A girl was no use to him, and nor was the useless wife who never produced another child.

I’m not useful. I’m only a girl.

Our small cottage didn’t offer much in the way of adventure, to a child whose life revolved around serving others. The backyard was tiny and bore nothing but dry, wispy weeds, and beyond the bottom fence was a stinking, festering ditch. We had a rose bush near the front door, and I inhaled its luscious scent any time it dared to force out a lonely bloom. My mother would find out, of course, order me out with the secateurs, and I would feel a moment of sorrow for severing it from its mother plant. Once indoors, the delicate beauty of the apricot flower faded fast, finally ending in a puddle of cast petals on our kitchen table. It was as if even a rose became sad once it was dragged into this pitiful home.

I’m sorry, rose. I’m sorry you had to die. You were lovely. Honestly, you were.

We only had two rooms, really. The smaller one held my parents’ bed and the stale, old smell of long-unwashed bedding. The sitting room had the kitchen along its far wall. I slept in a tiny lean-to containing the laundry area, attached to the house at the side. It gave me some refuge from the tedium of my parents’ living area, and it was everything I needed, anyway. Within that little room I could be anyone. In it I imagined that its walls insulated me from the universe, and its faint soap aroma was a safe harbour from reality.

My father had traded in firewood. When I was little I would watch for him from the front doorstep, hoping against hope for some affection, some refuge from the barked orders of my mother. Her grotesque, oversized form rarely moved from her favourite chair; from the moment I could walk I was handed a broom, or a serving spoon, or a scrubbing brush, while she dozed on and off in a book or a newspaper. We must have had the cleanest front doorstep in the land, with me forever hovering out there and waiting for Father’s return.

As I grew older his return grew less predictable. He would be hours late, or hours early, stumbling and exhaling the putrid fumes of whichever drink he had decided on that day. My mother’s wails fell on deaf ears. He was neither lucid enough to understand nor stupid enough to get within arms’ reach of her massive frame. At his reappearance I had learned to check certain things - particularly, whether he had remembered his cart, his axe, his tool bag. I would ply him with hot coffee at the front step, hoping my mother couldn’t hear him stumbling about, then send him back off to retrieve the forgotten items.

Don’t go in, Father. Just wait here for me, I’ll bring you some coffee. Father, where have you gone now? Get off the street. Here, sit down on the step, drink this.

His descent into oblivion had other repercussions. While he slept off his many stupors, the remnants of our house began to decay with neglect. I did what I could, with what little I could find. Patched roof, taped windows, glued furniture. I was not a natural in the handiworks department, had not been born a son, and had not been gifted with the talents of my father’s calloused hands. I did my best. It was usually enough, for the moment.

As for eating, that was another matter. His purse usually arrived home empty, and I would often wonder how long the food in our kitchen could last. It became harder and harder for me to keep it stocked. Father didn’t care, having little interest in food, but my mother certainly did, and there are only so many times that a girl can give up her dinner for a hugely fat and ungrateful mother.

It’s all the dinner there is, Mother. There isn’t any more. I’m sorry, Mother. I haven’t any coins today. He’s sleeping, mother, please don’t wake him! We’ll have bacon tomorrow. I’ll buy it for your dinner. Tomorrow.

Some days he had actually come home with the hand-cart full of firewood. Those were fortunate days, for although he’d done nothing about selling them and providing some precious cash, at least I had something to sell. I knocked door-to-door while he snored in the stinking front room, restless, moaning and shouting in his drunken haze. I could usually sell the wood in a couple of hours, but it annoyed me to return after school and find that cart piled high near the front door.

Of course, this was still better than seeing an empty cart. That usually meant he had sold the wood already, and drunk its proceeds. It also meant there would be no money for groceries that day, and I would tally yet another inventory of what little remained in our kitchen cupboard.

Eventually, of course, things scraped closer to the bone. I began adding household possessions to the pile of wood as I went door-to-door. Perhaps the neighbours really did need another frypan; perhaps they just felt sorry for the small girl selling anything she could live without. On some days, my black braided hair felt like I was dragging a noose, weighing me down as I trudged the dusty streets and hoped that the next household might just buy the tired clothes I’d outgrown. My worn-out shoes and ragged socks hid exhausted feet which barely carried the stick-thin and fair-skinned child. It was fortunate, perhaps, that I had no thought of the future, beyond whether we would eat tomorrow. No thought of the years ahead. I could not have conceived that things might get worse. That some day there would be nothing left to sell, nothing left to eat, and nothing left to do but go hungry and stare at the barren walls of our tiny cottage. And fortunately, I did not see such a day. We clung to existence, just.

My father drowned his sorrows at earlier and earlier hours, and one day while walking, tripped over a low wall and broke open his skull on the road below, never to draw breath or alcohol again. I should have been upset. I should have been heartbroken. Perhaps the only part of me which ached was that I had never had a father who cared about me, and now, I never would.

Would I have been useful if I were a boy? Would I, Father? Would you have taught me to cut firewood, how to build a chair? I’d have tried very hard, Father. I’d have done my best to make you proud.

The neighbours arranged his burial, fed us for the first week, humoured my mother with her incessant and helpless wailing, patted me kindly on the head and slipped a few coins into my hand. But before long, we were alone. And now, the firewood did not arrive unsold at the door. I continued with the cart, devoid of wood, but the customers soon dried up, having no interest in shabby, useless items.

The rose no longer bloomed, no longer blessed me with its captivating perfume.

My mother lived another six months, probably just to complain about having had her heart broken. And in the end it was her heart which gave way, shortly before my twelfth birthday. With little left other than the clothes on my back, I went to live in my uncle’s house.