Fifty shades of boredom

July 15, 2012

Photo: John Wesley Ireland

I’m not very good at sex. Wait . . . let me rephrase that: I’m not very good at writing about sex.

I have completed two novels and great chunks of two others. In those pages you’ll find well-rounded characters and witty dialogue and rousing adventure. You will not find much in the way of graphic intimacy. A few meaningful glances followed by clothes slipping to the floor followed by . . . fade to black.

As a writer, I believe sex, like toilet breaks, should happen off the page, which probably explains why I’ve sold several million fewer copies than EL James.

Unless you’ve had your head buried in a honey cave lately, you’ll know Ms James is the author of the Fifty Shades trilogy. And if you think a better title would be Filthy Shades, congratulations, you just read my mind.

I’m no prude – far from it. My copy of Rosemary’s Baby used to fall open of its own accord at the sex scene. But that was two paragraphs, as opposed to every second paragraph in the Fifty Shades collection.

Is there a plot lurking amidst all the pounding? Not that I’ve heard. One reader told me she was nearly finished the third book before any kind of story arc revealed itself. And the characters? Cardboard cutouts have more personality. The writing itself? Splendid, she noted, but only if you consider it high literature to have your lead character gasp “Holy cow” or “Oh my” at regular intervals.

The reader in question is, of course, Viking Woman. Her gender is the target audience for these books, which are a sordid example of a new genre dubbed ‘mummy porn’. (Note there is no such thing as ‘daddy porn’. Why would men strain their eyes reading about shenanigans when the internet is filled with such pretty pictures?)

EL James has not re-invented the wheel by any stretch of the imagination. She has simply wrapped it in leather, slapped it into submission and left readers panting for more. All while dropping more F-bombs than you’d hear at a wharfie convention.

Like The Da Vinci Code and the Millennium trilogy, the Fifty Shades books have ridden a tidal wave of media hysteria all the way to the top of the bestseller lists. People are reading them not so much because they want to (one lady said the books bored her silly; another said she only read the sex scenes, and then only sparingly) but because everyone else seems to be doing it. It’s the lemming effect and if I knew how it worked, I’d buy a jar and spread it all over my books. And then myself.

In the meantime, all I can do is try to take advantage of the phenomenon as best I can. If the Good Wife is reading about all that huffing and puffing, then surely she must be open to suggestion.

What I lack in the way of Christian Grey’s money and allure I more than make up for in movie trivia. Think about it – is there anything more erotic than the food-sex scene from Nine 1/2 Weeks? Not only did it practically melt cinema screens at the time, but it is incredibly easy to replicate.

And so one night recently, after emptying the fridge of its most mouth-watering contents, I appeared in the bedroom doorway wearing little more than a look of anticipation.

Only to find Viking Woman’s copy of Fifty Shades Freed lying splayed on the floor where it had fallen, and Viking Woman herself sound asleep with the lights on. Leaving me standing there holding my sausage roll.

There was nothing for it then but to return to the kitchen and, since the food was already out, indulge in a quick snack. My wife may be reading mummy porn, but the only thing I’m gettin’ is fat. Oh my, indeed.

A version of this column was originally printed in the July 11, 2012 Napier (NZ) Courier.

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Photo: Duncan Brown/Napier Courier

I originally interviewed Napier, New Zealand-based author Charity Norman for a story that was published in the May 2, 2012 edition of the Napier Courier. Charity, who is related to Virgina Woolf, chatted with me for nearly 30 minutes. I wasn’t able to fit all of Charity’s quotes into the newspaper and so, in the interest of the world-wide writing community, I’ve decided to put together this blog post based on our conversation.

Charity, 47, was born in Uganda but grew up in England. After turning her back on a career as a barrister to concentrate on her writing, Charity and her Kiwi husband, Tim Meredith, moved to New Zealand in 2002 and then to Napier three years ago. They have three children.

Her first book, Freeing Grace, was published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in 2010. Her second book, Second Chances, will be published on July 2.

BMM: Did you always want to be a writer?

CN: Yes. As a child, I lived in Yorkshire and my father is a vicar – like the Bronte sisters, whose father was also a vicar. My father had seven children and Patrick Bronte had a similar number. I thought I was Emily Bronte as a child. I used to make up really appalling poetry. But, as life went on, I realised I needed a proper career and proper money. I was a barrister for about 15 years or so in the northeast of England. I practised in crime and family, which feed into (Freeing Grace). The book is about adoption and so I was able to use a lot of my experiences in court and experiences with working for local authorities taking children away from their parents or acting for parents attempting to have their children not taken away. All of that has fed into this book and the next and, I suppose, into my life.

BMM: Tell us about your first foray into writing, after you and Tim moved the family to New Zealand.

CN: The intention was I would have time to write, because I’d always wanted to, and I’d started a book after I had one of the children. I finished that book, which is now in a drawer, and I just kept writing. It’s very difficult to write in a vacuum, not knowing if you’re wasting your time, if you’re being selfish in throwing away financial stability for no reason. And then I started worrying that I was setting a bad example for the children. And then finishing the book and finding an agent and a publisher is such an incredibly nailbiting business. It was a huge process, that first (published)book.

BMM: What was your reaction to receiving the email from an agent asking to see the full manuscript?

CN: It was like a miracle because you can’t really believe it’s going to happen. You’ve lived in this vacuum for so long and you start to lose confidence and have this niggling doubt that you might be rubbish.

BMM: You’ve said that the hardest part came after you signed with an agent.

CN: When I got the agent, I was so happy. She is excellent and I thought it would be easy from there but, in some respects, it actually got so much harder. They wanted it rewritten. I did that, sent it back to the agent’s editor and I got an email back saying it’s not ready, you’ve got to rewrite it again. By the time I sent it back, that editor had left and the new one wanted different changes. I think I had four different editors and all of that was quite soul-destroying. I spent two years rewriting, which was an anxious time as I didn’t know if I’d ever get it sold at the end of it. Every line has been rewritten; some may have been rewritten 50 times. I’m not complaining because I genuinely think it was good for me. It was a great exercise. It was a bit like doing a degree in being forced to continually look at every sentence.

When my agent finally sent the book out, it sold within a few months.

BMM: What originally attracted the agent to your manuscript?

CN: They liked the writing, they liked the story. I think a good agent knows what she likes in terms of writing style. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a rewriting test. Agents and publishers like to see an author who is prepared to rewrite. I do think the biggest secret to being a published writer is being prepared to take constructive criticism onboard. You’ve got to be able to cross it out and start again.

BMM: How would you describe your genre?

CN: I am not fond of pigeonholes but (the publishers) call it as ‘upmarket women’s fiction’. I don’t really try to write literary, because that can be incredibly boring. I want what I write to be very readable. I want it to be fun. I do have things I want to say but I want it to be entertaining at the same time. Daphne du Maurier, for example, writes really good stuff, but thoroughly readable. Intelligent fiction doesn’t have to be turgid and impregnable, as some work is. I care about the writing but it shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

BMM: Reviewers have generally been kind to Freeing Grace. How do you react to having strangers comment on your work?

CN: I’ve got better at it but you find yourself doing sad, sad, sad things like Googling your own name, Or getting your child to. Here, in New Zealand, there was much more interest in me than there was in the book, which is perhaps a cultural thing because I’m local.

BMM: Do you write for love or money?

CN: For the love. Although, if I didn’t think it was going to bring in something, I’d feel tempted to go back to what was a lucrative job, an interesting job. (The book) has started to make more –  in particular the French have been really good and have sold many thousands of copies. That’s started to make more sensible money but if I worked out how much I was paid per hour for writing that first book, I suspect it would be half a cent, or something ridiculous.

BMM: With Second Chances hitting bookstores in July, are you worried at all about the dreaded sophomore slump?

CN: (With the first book) it was such a long slog – so many false dawns, so many times I thought they’d say this time it’s ready and it wasn’t – all those constant disappointments give you a better attitude. Eight years ago, I would have been biting my nails but I’ve got so much better at thinking, ‘I’ll just keep going. If it’s not selling, don’t panic. You’re lucky to be published.’ And I do feel so incredibly lucky to be published at all.

BMM: Tell us about your writing routine.

CN: In theory, it starts as soon as the children go to school. And I carry on without stopping, at all, until they come home from school, and then I write at night. In theory, I can go from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. In practice, someone phones, someone comes to the door, my husband walks in and out of the house saying annoying things, I have to go do this or that – so it never works like I’m hoping it will. And so I end up doing an awful lot late at night. When I get really desperate, I go stay in a cabin belonging to some lovely friends. Twice I have gone up there and done nothing but write for a week and that really helps. That’s really good for getting you over the hump.

The owners of Thorps Coffee House (in Napier) have also been incredibly good to me. When my house is chaotic, the washing has piled across all surfaces, the phone won’t stop ringing and I am completely desperate, I can go down there. It’s a haven. They let me plug my computer into their power source. I have a quiet table at the back that I think of as my emergency office. That and several cups of coffee – to which I am addicted – normally gets 1,000 words written. In fact (Second Chances) owes a lot to them.

BMM: Where do your book ideas come from?

CN: I used to take very long walks and a lot of ideas would simply come to me. I think that was a better way to write, to have time to let ideas form. I should make myself do that now more. Snippets from newspapers. The library. People tell you stories or you hear of stories. When you are thinking of things you can write about, things take on a different meaning to you.

BMM: What advice can you offer to new writers?

CN: Keep writing. You’ve got to write. A lot. Hone that skill. Never assume that you are skilled enough. You can always get better. Keep reading and keep rewriting. If you are criticized constructively, be grateful.

I need to buy a raincoat.

That thought was prompted not so much by the fact winter is now stalking Napier but, rather, by the news that porn films are about to be released in 3D.

Most people, at least publicly, denounce porn (aka “adult entertainment”) as the devil’s cinema, despite the fact that, from what I can see, there is very little evidence of idle hands. Most hands – and other assorted appendages – always appear to be quite busy, in fact.

I know, I know: Porn is disgusting and perverted and just plain dirty. Porn – like Barbie dolls – makes us feel inadequate about our own bodies.

OK, that last part I do agree with. I can imagine some poor bastard staring at the screen of his laptop then looking down into his own lap and doing a lot of heavy sighing and shaking of his head.

In reality, porn has been a friend to technology. A friend with benefits, mind you, but a friend nonetheless.

In the early days of home video machines, there were millions of naysayers who could not see the sense in buying an expensive VHS player and all those bulky tapes when you could simply trot off to your neighbourhood cinema if you wanted to watch a film. A movie collection? Why bother when they’re all on TV.

And then porn was released on video and suddenly home entertainment took on a whole new meaning.

The same with the Internet.

“You want information, sonny? Buy a newspaper or go to the library. You wanna talk to your friends? That’s why they invented the telephone, fer cryin’ out loud. What’s that you say? You can watch nekkid people doing what? You’d better show me this filth you’ve been looking at. And don’t tell your mother.”

And now, because the adult film industry has never been known to just lie there and let others take advantage of it, the decision to flog its wares in 3D was only natural.

In a time when nearly every movie being screened at a theatre near you is in 3D, I have to admit to not having a lot of experience with the format. I tend to watch most of my movies these days via DVD and, until they perfect 3D TV (and make them a whole lot cheaper), I will remain firmly rooted in the old-school world of two dimensions.

Years ago, however, I did view one of the Friday the 13th movies (I’m going to take a wild stab and say it was Part 3) while wearing those silly cardboard glasses. And I’ve sat through a couple of Imax films where I was amazed to find myself RIGHT THERE.

Some of those movies have gone beyond the visual and actually added the physical aspect to the experience. If a villain shoved a gun in the hero’s back, something in my seat jabbed me at the same time. If the cameras took me down a river on a rubber raft, I too was sprayed with water so I felt I was right there running those same rapids.

Some object or another was always poking straight out of the screen and threatening to impale me.

Which brings me back to 3D porn. You see where I’m going with this, right? Because I’m thinking the term “coming attraction” is about to take on a whole new meaning.

That’s why I’m signing off now and heading to The Warehouse. I hear there’s a sale on raincoats. I may just buy two.

A recent casual look through a random magazine revealed a surprising fact: teenagers still produce zines.

My exposure to these self-produced/self-photocopied literary offerings has been limited over the years. That’s primarily because they are usually placed in music stores and I haven’t had much call to visit such an establishment since the Baby Jesus invented iTunes.

We encountered a number of zines when I worked for the Langley Times, inevitably included in the portfolio of every kid looking for a summer intern job.

Looking through them was akin to experiencing a bad acid trip. At least that’s what people told me.

The type would swirl and dance around the pages like the hard copy version of ADHD. Font styles would come and go like a hungry cat through the door flap (a production trait known as “using every crayon in the box.” The writing would be juvenile in scope and style, the artwork crude, the production values pretty much nonexistent.

And yet . . . and yet you could practically smell the teenage spirit emanating from each and every page.

I actually admired the tenacity that went into these desperate attempts at sharing the writers’ opinion with the Great Big World. It’s not easy to create in a vacuum, without any clue at all whether your words are finding an audience. The 20th century equivalent of writing blogs, I suppose, and I’m guessing a lot of those zine-iacs are, this very instant, elbowing me aside as we all compete for our share of the blogosphere.

My favourite zine of all time was called Douche. Partly because of the edgy name, partly because of the superior quality of the writing, but mostly because one of the three 16-year-old girls who produced it was my daughter Brooke.

Brooke is my first-born child and, if reading The Hockey News to her when she was only days old somehow did not manage to impart my love of Canada’s national winter sport, I was pleased to see she did inherit my love of writing.

I asked Brooke about the Douche days and this is her reply: “I loved that time of my life. When you’re 16, every idea you ever have feels like it’s important and must be heard by the world NOW. Having a zine gave you a voice. I also love the DIY spirit. It still exists now, but with less crude tools.”

She then directed me to an entry she’d posted on her blog (www.missteenussr.com) where she notes, “If our goal was to create the most frustrating thing to read in the universe, job well done! Typed up nuggets of anger, love, fear or outrage printed off and Scotchtaped to pages, then copied at my patient father’s office after hours, where we’d make him tend to the printing while we wasted that compressed air in a bottle stuff shooting each other.”

Yes, I did have a small hand in the production of Douche. I would usher the trio through the back door of the Langley Times’ office, fire up all three photocopiers and have at it.

It was a smooth operation, well, except for that one time when the publisher – a pinch-faced Scorpio of a woman – walked in unexpectedly on a weekend.

I quickly explained that the girls were working on a school project and had provided all their own paper. The publisher was kind enough not to point out that, paper aside, they were still using the company’s toner and power.

“It was the most fun I had at that age,” Brooke writes in her blog. “Having a focused way of guiding my writing, so tender and silly back then, was a lifesaver and an early start to this word-strewn path I’m attempting to gallop down now.”

In the end, Douche only lasted four issues (the final cover is included with this posting). Interests changed, best friends drifted apart, and yesterday’s Most Important Thing in the Whole Universe was too soon relegated to Tomorrow’s Fond Memories.

Oh, right, that name. I’ll let Brooke explain: “ . . . Douche, as best as I can remember, was chosen because it was one of those female devices we thought most hilarious and foreign.”

Yup, that’s my girl. I could not be prouder.

I recently spent an evening in the company of female pink parts. Believe me, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds.

The occasion was a performance of The Vagina Monologues at the Hawke’s Bay Opera House. I’d heard of Eve Ensler’s play, of course, and – based on its rather blunt title –had a fairly good idea that the performance would feature women talking about their, um, netherlands.

The lobby was full when Viking Woman and I arrived. A quick head count revealed that I was one of about 15 men in attendance. I imagine my body English mirrored theirs: sticking close to our personal beloveds lest someone have the notion we’d shown up of our own accord, thinking here was an opportunity to cruise the cultural equivalent of Ladies Night at the local.

I’ve learned to keep my expression neutral at such events, both before and during the performance. A sour puss masks the inner uncouth bore. A visage that appears too nervous or apprehensive is an obvious target for ridicule, oftentimes from the stage itself.

Despite my best efforts to appear calm and relaxed and eager to be entertained – and looking not the least bit worried at the prospect of being exposed to the private thoughts of women that no man should ever be privy to – the drag queen who provided the pre-show entertainment still decided to lean on my shoulder while he/she/it performed a high kick.

More than a dozen other males in the room and I’m the one singled out? All that time spent practising my neutral expression was obviously a wasted effort.

The play itself was, uh, interesting. I smiled at the funny bits; I frowned at the sad bits. I openly winced at the frank, naughty bits. I felt myself squirming in my seat during nearly every bit.

I felt like an interloper. That I’d somehow taken a wrong turn on the street and wandered, unaware, into the ladies’ room.

Men, procreators that we are, seem to be always rabbiting on about their equipment in some context or another. I’m not fond of that sort of idiot-speak, and only contribute if I can fire a zinger into the mix and belittle, as it were, some blowhard.

But to hear women talk so casually about a part of their body they practically have to be a contortionist to see was . . . I want to say embarrassing. It was certainly disconcerting to hear women chat so frankly about their secret place. If the idea was to demystify the Holy Grail of womanhood, then Ensler has hit the motherlode.

I felt uncomfortable and maybe that was the whole point of the exercise. Or maybe it says something about my personal attitude about women and their reproduction organs in general.

For one night, at least, I understood that women really can roar. I’m not sure I enjoyed the message, but I definitely heard it. Loud and clear.

As far as Viking Woman is concerned, having now crossed both Puppetry of the Penis and The Vagina Monologues off her genital agenda, all she needs is to see a performance of Busting Out and her anatomy lesson will be complete.

Reality checks come in many guises. This week, for instance, it was the kid manning the cash register at the nearby Caltex petrol station.

I’d stopped in to buy a newspaper and, noticing a photo of reigning Miss South Pacific Joyana Meyer on the front page – clad in a coconut bra and grass skirt as she attended the Pasifika Festival in Auckland – I blurted out that I knew her.

(Full disclosure: I actually consider Joyana a friend. I took her photo on several occasions when I worked for the Cook Islands Herald. I also shot her for the 2011 Miss Cook Islands calendar, only to have her father insist he had the better shot. Yes, his sunset was more colourful than mine. But I couldn’t help but notice that Joyana is wearing more clothes in Daddy’s photo.)

The kid was impressed. He asked me how I knew her.

I told him I’m a journalist, that I’d just spent a year working on Rarotonga.

“A journalist,” he said, his eyes lighting up at the sheer glamour of it all. “How do you become a journalist?”

I very nearly told him the truth: being in the right place at the right time, lucky breaks, knowing people. Instead, I put on my Mature Adult Hat and said, “I went to school.”

That was not a lie. I did attend Kwantlen University College for a year. Even scored a Certificate in Communications. Says so right there, on my CV. Not sure I remember anything I learned in class. Not sure anything I learned in class ever helped me get a newspaper job. But, hey, like I said, it does look impressive on a CV.

“I’d like to do something like that,” said the kid. “I’m 23 years old, working in a petrol station, and I don’t know what to do with my life.”

Oh. Really?

I very nearly told him another truth: That faint light I see at the end of the tunnel? It’s a birthday cake with 60 candles on it. I very nearly told him that, even with 23 well and truly in the rearview mirror, I, too, have no idea what the hell to do with my life.

The kid was impressed that I was a journalist. I didn’t spoil the moment by saying I was an unemployed journalist. That I’d just spent the previous week sending off job applications to newspaper editors I am reasonably confidant will never bother contacting me. That I have e-mailed all my media mates in town and none of them has even bothered to expend the energy it takes to hit Reply and type “Go away.”

That, right after I bought the paper, I was heading to a seniors’ residence where I would spend the day in the laundry room, praying to the Baby Jesus that I would not have a close encounter of the fecal kind.

Twenty-three and no direction? Ah, my friends, those were the days.

My initial encounter with an iPad came poolside at The Bellagio in Las Vegas. My son, who works for Apple and is, I’m fairly certain, contractually bound to play with every new gadget, brought his model along to show off like a new father emerging from the delivery room.

And so we perched on the edge of our chaises longues, two grown men ignoring several metres of delightful female flesh clad in mere millimetres of clingy material, while we peered, mesmerized, at a glowing tablet of plastic and glass.

I’m a man. We’re hardwired to fulfil certain functions. Perpetuating the human race, for instance. Collecting Toys for Boys, for another. Which is why I had no choice but to purchase an iPad for myself.

I took it back to Rarotonga where, I’m willing to bet, it was the only one of its kind on the island. Unfortunately, for all its lovely beaches and lively nightspots and exotic dancers, Rarotonga does not have free WiFi. Nowhere. Not one place.

And so what I ended up with was a rather expensive ebook reader. But, considering the actual hard-copy weight of the 24 books I had stored on the machine, the iPad was already proving itself to be a wise investment.

Now that I’ve returned to New Zealand, where WiFi is as common as running water, I am starting to take advantage of another great feature of the iPad: I can surf the Internet while in the bathroom. What was once dubbed “the library” is now called “the office.” And they say men can’t multi-task.

As an iPad owner in New Zealand, however, I’m still in the minority. They are expensive ($800 NZ) and largely unavailable in electronics stores, which seldom carry anything Mac anyway. Even the Apple dealer in town had to order his machine from the company’s website because he wasn’t going to be stocking any in his store.

Viking Woman wasn’t exactly thrilled at not being consulted on the purchase but that was before I found her reading one of the ebooks. And, just like that, “my” iPad suddenly became “our” iPad.

On those now-rare occasions when I can spirit my baby away for some “us” time, I have accessed the iBooks Store section to see which novels from my favourite authors are now available in the ebook format, as technology changes the publishing world forever.

Stephen King. Check. James Lee Burke. Check. Stuart MacBride. Check. Joe Hill, Elmore Leonard. Check and check.

Just on a whim, I did a search for my own book, Brown Girls. And there it was, available for $5.99 from Smashwords. Staring back at me from the screen of my iPad, as bright and bold and beautiful as the offerings of King or Burke or the others. As readily available to the whole wide world as those uber-talented best-selling bazillonaires. You can even download a free sample. How cool is that?

At one time, you had to go directly to the Smashwords website itself to buy Brown Girls as an ebook. The last time I checked, I’d sold two whole copies, including one to a faithful reader of this blog.

But now that the purchase of my book is a mere tap away from those 15 million people who bought the first version of the iPad, surely my words would be selling like the proverbial hotcakes. Right?

And . . . no. Available for some three years now as an ebook and, after much jumping through hoops, finally given Premium Status in April last year, Brown Girls has yet to make me rich.

This is all a bit disheartening but all I can do, really, is get on with writing another . . . wait. What?

Apple is releasing iPad 2?

Dear Son: Meet me in Vegas. It’s urgent. Oh, and don’t tell Viking Woman.

BG coverGraham Beattie is an important man in the New Zealand publishing world. I know because he told me. He is so important, in fact, that, despite a request from a close personal friend, he was still far, far too busy to offer me more than a few stale crumbs of advice from his table of publishing experience.

Beattie did manage to take five seconds out of his hectic schedule to suggest I contact the New Zealand-based TFS Literary Agency. I did just that, sending a query letter to someone named Chris Else on June 22. Included in that letter was the entire text of the wonderful, magnificent, ego-pumping review Brown Girls received from Working Girl Reviews. Nothing like glowing comments from a neutral source to cause a literary agent to sit up and salivate.

Yeah, right.

Skip ahead 43 days to Aug. 5. Yes, that is more than six weeks later and, oh look, still no contact from Else or anyone, um, else at TFS to a query that takes 129 seconds to read. I know because I timed it.

Aug. 4: I send a short e-mail to Mr. Else asking — ever so politely — if he ever did receive my query and, if so, would he mind sparing 129 seconds to peruse it.

Aug. 5: In what can only be considered a strange coincidence, Mr. Else writes back the very next day after my e-nudge. To his credit, he apologizes for not contacting me earlier. But now he has concerns about the review I included with my query. Does this mean Brown Girls has already been published?

Aug. 6: Not so anybody noticed.

Aug. 6: Another e-mail from Mr. Else: Have I approached any other publishers or agents with Brown Girls?

Aug. 6: No.

Aug. 7: In that case, he asks, can I flick him the first 10,000 words.

Aug. 7: I can’t hit Send fast enough.

Aug. 19: This time, it only takes Mr. Else 12 days to write back:

Hi John

Thanks for the opportunity to look at Brown Girls. It’s good but I fear it isn’t good enough for us to want to take it on. The problem, in brief, is that a number of the characters, including your main character seem a bit cliched. Plus, I think we would have a much better chance of selling it in NZ if the main character were a (sic) NZer and not an American. Sorry.

Chris

Funnily enough, Mr. Else’s e-rejection arrived the very same day I received this comment from a member of authonomy.com:

Your writing is short, fast, and precise. The vivid imagery is amazing. “yellow fangs. greasy slobber.” “400 pounds of fat and sweat.” This is really, really good writing. (John R. Lindensmith, authonony.com)

Which, strangely enough, came after these comments:

The writing in this is deliciously taut. All the characterisation is good, minor as well as main. The MC (main character) is a bit of a hackneyed photo-journalist meets ’tec, but you infuse him with a back story of his novel and some mystery about his manhood that works to get over that. (Marc Nash, youwriteon.com)

. . . this is extremely good, very polished, writing. It feels complete to me as a reader. The plot’s good, and it slowly builds up intensity. There’s a real feeling of being there amongst the action. (Charlie Chuck, authonomy.com)

You set up the conflict – both social/political and personal very quickly, giving this pace and intrigue. Brilliant. (Elinor Evans, authonomy.com)

Five comments from five different people, four of whom are wannabe writers who are also voracious readers. In other words, the kind of people who actually buy books, thus providing agents like Mr. Else with their mortgage payments, courtesy of author commissions.

Five people. Four positive reviews. So who, exactly, has their head up their ass when it comes to assessing Brown Girls? Yeah, I thought so.

I pointed this out to Mr. Else (the difference of opinion; not the head/ass part) when I wrote back to thank him for taking a look at my writing sample.

I really wasn’t expecting a reply but, again to his credit, Mr. Else did reply:

Hi John

It’s not what I think so much as what I think potential publishers would think, which, of course, is certainly not what a potential reader would necessarily think. There’s nothing to stop you trying a few NZ publishers direct. There is not necessity to work through an agent in this marketplace.

Best

Chris

What I didn’t bother pointing out to Mr. Else was that it would take very little effort on my behalf to change the main character from an American to a Kiwi. As it is, I’ve already changed Jack once, because he started out as a Canadian.

But Mr. Else has already made up his mind and so I’m letting this one go. Because it will only turn into a pissing contest and no one wins those.

It’s just too bad they’re pissing on me.


I was thisclose to packing it in. To placing my MacBook in a sack of rocks and dropping it off the wharf at the Ahuriri Marina.

I had once taken joy in writing. Hell, I’d once made my living by writing, in the glory days before newspapers started hemorrhaging money and journalists.

These days, I sit my unemployed ass down in front of my computer and question the wisdom of wasting good electricity on bad ideas.

As a novelist, I’d hit a wall. A huge, hard, intimidating expanse that impeded any forward momentum.

Having grown weary of banging my head against the closed doors behind which black-hearted literary agents sit snickering, I’d edited my book, Brown Girls, for the umpteenth time and posted it on Smashwords, where it is available for sale in several different ebook formats (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1937).

There it sat, glory shining from every polished word, on the Smashwords home page. For about three seconds. Until the next 7,000 wannabe authors did the exact same thing as me — posting their deathless prose, submitting their mailing address and then sinking into the nearest chair with a view of the mailbox to await the arrival of the postman bearing a huge sack of royalty cheques.

In the meantime, to garner more attention (because writers are expected to not only supply their own PR drums but to bang them as well), I joined the Authonomy website (authonomy.com), which, to date, has turned out to be nothing more than the slush pile for HarperCollins (and, yes, I am now naming names after being discreet in Publish or Die! Part 8). The site is basically a popularity contest where the best way to move up the rankings is to play nice with others and hope they reciprocate. And where every Forum features one more writer admitting they have two chances of actually being published by HR: zero and none.

At one writer’s suggestion, I also joined youwriteon.com, which is more of a blind taste test — the samples you are asked to review are generated randomly and you have no idea who is going to be looking at your work, so you can’t cajole them into saying something nice. That all sounds a bit fairer except . . . except to date I have handed in six reviews and have only received one in return.

That’s the bad thing about being between jobs — everyone assumes you have plenty of time to waste.

What I should be doing with that time — rather than trying to say something (anything!) positive about the drivel I’ve encountered at both review sites — is writing. I’m about a third of the way finished with the sequel to Brown Girls. I’ve got at least four other books percolating in my brain. I have a completed novel from 12 years ago that is begging to be dusted off and loved again.

And then I hit that wall. That great, soul-sucking vortex of frustration where you could search in vain forever for a single crumb of encouragement.

Smashwords certainly wasn’t supplying it — I posted Brown Girls on May 17. To date, I have sold one (1) copy. I have earned $4.69. Yes, that is in US funds. Yes, that is $7.24 NZ. No, I do not feel any better.

The darkness was nearly complete. I was closing my MacBook and eying the stones in our yard.

And then . . .

And then a young lady calling herself newtowritinggirl happened.

We’re not exactly strangers, her and I. She is, in fact, the owner of the only ebook copy of Brown Girls ever sold. But buying something and liking it can be two different things.

Fortunately for my ego — and my MacBook and any sea critters in Ahuriri Harbour — newtowritinggirl appears to have enjoyed her adventures with Jack Nolan and Nurse Heather and Maina.

She sent this comment to my blog page: “I read it. I loved it. I will rave about it to anyone that listens!”

She posted this entry on her own blog (newtowritinggirl.wordpress.com):

The book was Brown Girls by John Wesley Ireland.  I read a review of it at Workinggirlreviews and had to read it from this.  I don’t know if it was the setting of the novel, the plot or the review, but I knew I had to read it.  Smashwords give you the first 20% free, a very good idea – especially in this case.  Ireland couldn’t have timed it better if he tried.  The last page of the 20% left you on  a cliff hanger.  I had to buy it to find out more.  HAD TO.  I’m very glad I did, it was great. I’ll do a full review of it when I have a little more time.

Today I am feeling better about life. Today, I am friends again with my computer. Today, I want to return to the Cook Islands, or Gisborne or New York state or Greece or B.C. — to wherever my next book is  set.

Today, I am a writer again.

Thanks, newtowritinggirl. Thanks for the puff of oxygen you breathed onto the dying embers of my creativity.

Should we ever meet, dinner’s on me. Anything you want.

Just as long as it doesn’t cost any more than $4.69 US.

BG coverThere is no greater joy for a novelist — other than, say, a three-book advance or a movie deal — than knowing that someone “got” their book.

To know that a reader identified with the characters, that they felt they were actually in the setting, and appreciated the various plot points enough to keep turning pages at a feverish pace until the book was finished and the hour had grown surprisingly late.

Some day I will experience that joy and it will thrill me to the marrow. I know because I’ve just had a very close encounter with that special brand of ecstasy.

It came courtesy of a woman who calls herself “Willow” and is part of a trio of ladies who operate the blog Working Girl Reviews, which invites authors to submit their work to be, well, reviewed.

In her bio, Willow notes she is a multi-published author and a professional book reviewer. In other words, she knows books. Good ones and bad ones.

It somehow fell to her to read Brown Girls after I submitted it to Working Girl Reviews as part of my marketing strategy to spread the word far and wide that my book is out there, dear readers, now please buy it.

The review arrived this morning and, if I told you Brown Girls had scored five out of five, you might stop wondering why a grown man is dancing around his office, still clad in pajamas and housecoat, high-fiving his wife even as she is trying to leave for work.

Here is the review:

***

Jack Nolan had his moment of fame having a best selling novel published at twenty-five and later writing the screenplay for the movie made from it. But Jack wasn’t thrilled with his new lifestyle or the hypocrisy of the people in it. His writing dried up. His agent was robbing him and his wife left, taking most everything his agent hadn’t. Jack went to the Cook Islands to get away and began taking freelance photos for the local newspaper. He stayed because he loves the islands. He loves the people.

When a tourist is found dead in one of the hotel swimming pools, no one seems to think it anything more than an accident, including the police. Jack isn’t so certain and his peaceful existence is about to explode. While he investigates the man’s death, a young girl disappears and Jack believes the crimes are connected. When the clues begin to add up, he finds himself dealing with the most monstrous criminals.

His personal life is disrupted as well by the arrival of an abused island girl to his home. Maina Rima’s family owns the land and the house where Jack lives and according to island custom she has the right to stay there. Jack isn’t thrilled with sharing his home with a roommate, but morally has no choice. Maina becomes a blessing in disguise, as she acts as his muse and he’s finally able to begin writing again. But Maina is hiding something that puts both her life and Jack’s in danger.

I’d love to say a lot more about this amazing book, but I don’t want to spoil the suspense for other readers. The author’s writing grabbed me with the first sentence and held me captive all the way to the last. A phenomenal writer, Mr. Ireland uses a scarcity of words that keeps the suspense high. Every line is significant—every word has importance. But even with that, his vivid descriptions of the islands and their people have a beautiful poetic flair that brings the scenes to life and absorbs the reader into the story. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes the genres of suspense, crime drama, mystery, or just a darn amazing read by an extraordinarily gifted writer. Don’t miss this one.

***

Now you know why I’m dancing. Now you know why I’m sporting a smile that may never leave. Please copy and paste this review to every person you know. And, if that person is a literary agent or owns a publishing company, send it twice.

Keep me dancing, my friends. Keep me dancing.

***

For the actual blog page of this review, go to http://workinggirlreviews.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/book-review-brown-girls-by-john-wesley-ireland/

Working Girl Reviews is at http://workinggirlreviews.wordpress.com

Buy Brown Girls at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1937