Friday, September 21, 2012

Why "just" is so unjust


Did I make a total fool of myself?

Was I unrealistic? Was I wrong to think, this time, maybe this time things will turn out differently?

I thought I had magic on my side. Not so much because of my writing, which frankly took a very long time to get off the ground. When I look back at some of my early efforts, I feel as if I have bitten into a lemon.

No, it was the subject matter, the discovery. When I jumped into this world, the story began to write itself, and I was certain I was on to a Sure Thing.

It was all about Harold Lloyd, sometimes called the Third Genius of silent film comedy. His life seemed unexplored, or at least not explored in the way Chaplin's or Keaton's had been. Turner Classics had just started showing his films, a lot of them, so it seemed as if every time I tuned in I saw him in some obscure short or other. Later I saw him in his full glory in the feature films that propelled him to greatness.

I was in love, and writing feverishly: a story had sprung up about a young woman going to Hollywood to fulfil her obsession with Harold Lloyd. And yes, I was aware the premise might be seen as cliche - the young girl getting off the bus and being awed by the Hollywoodland sign (as it existed then) - but my hope was that Harold's dynamism and quirky charm might win readers over.

I have never researched anything to this depth, and somehow I'm still doing it, finding bits and pieces that fascinate me, even though, at the same time, it's like being steadily kicked in the teeth.

When I allowed myself to fantasize - and for the love of God, what else do writers DO? - I saw this book soaring, finding a substantial readership for the first time. My first two novels were (wince) "critically acclaimed," code for "they didn't sell" . The Glass Character, a reference to Harold Lloyd's nickname for his screen persona, did not soar as I had expected, but plummeted like a shot partridge, landing with a sickening thud.

I am aware that since I last published in 2005, things have changed. Hell, everything has changed, even my own attitude. I anticipated a sort of
comeback, and after awhile it evolved into an expectation. I forgot all about the Ten Commandments which some rinkydink Charlton Heston of an instructor chiselled into my brain at some writer's conference: A writer must hope, but never expect.


What if we assumed that attitude towards, say, sex? Would the human race even exist any more? What is hope, anyway, except a form of expectation? In any case, I tried everything I could think of to get this book published and got absolutely nowhere. Very few even read the thing. Maybe the very idea of a novel about silent film seemed boring to them, something the public would never be interested in. Never mind that The Artist, a silent movie about silent movies, had just won Best Picture at the Oscars, one of the biggest upsets in film history, and Martin Scorsese's Hugo featured a Harold Lloyd scene with the main character dangling off the hands of a huge clock.

Did I lose my objectivity, fall in love with Harold Lloyd to the point that the story somehow went off the rails?

Did fascination somehow devolve into a crashing bore?


In my writer's life, it seems I've had mostly failure, if you count failure as rejection and not being able to get your projects off the ground. It's all about being noticed. Wagging your ass, as far as I am concerned. When I referred to wearing a clown suit the other day, I was talking about something that actually happened at a writer's seminar.

A woman who had had a formulaic detective novel published with a small press claimed that if you wanted to be published, you had to be "shamelessly self-promoting" and do anything and everything to get noticed.

"Wear bright colors!" she exclaimed. "Stand out! Make them remember you!" I remember she had an eye-assaulting orange shirt on with rainbow suspenders. It really did look clownish, as if Wavy Gravy had landed in the literary world.

I wonder about this "shameless" thing. So what is the opposite of "shameless"? "Shameful", I guess. The implication is that self-promotion is usually seen as shameful, something we simply must not do if we are to keep our dignity.

This is worse in Canada, it really is. We have to hate our own work, or at least disparage it and be modest about it to a clinical degree. And for God's sake, don't let anybody see it! At the same time, our heads are swivelled around 180 degrees by the (mostly-American) lecturers at the Surrey Conference who tell us to promote, promote, promote. Leap over the usual rules like Evel Knievel soaring over the Snake River Canyon.  If you don't somehow make this leap (it used to be Oprah's book club, until even Oprah plummeted to the very last name on the Fortune 500 "50 Most Influential Women" list), you'll either be stuck in the perceived backwater of literary fiction, or will never publish at all.

Everyone seems to know that the main way to make the fabled leap is to "know the right people", but it's never spelled out exactly how you do this. Every attempt I haved made to contact people who might help me has been brushed off or ignored outright, leaving me feeling humiliated and stupid.   Maybe you really do have to attend cocktail parties where everyone is slightly swacked, and rub your foot against an influential guy's leg under the tablecloth (or maybe tackle him in an empty conference room). 


In case you think I'm some sort of paranoid crackpot Ma Kettle type with a smoking shotgun, let me tell you a story. I went to the Surrey conference just as my first novel Better than Life was about to come out in 2003, and it was like attending one big giddy literary party.  I had already signed deal for the second one, then called Nola Mardling. I also had an agent who appeared and disappeared in the happy hubbub of the conference. I ran into an old professor of mine who was obviously thrilled with what was happening. Then I won a minor writing award at the conference. And when people found out I had a "book out", a real live PUBLISHED book, they were amazed and wanted to buy a copy. It was a heady time, but it was also very typical of me and my life that it all crashed, savagely, a year or so later. And I still don't really know why, because I swear to God, I tried as hard as I could.

The book had been taken out of my hands and no longer resembled what I had written. Even the main character's name and the eponymous title had to be changed. I can't describe how this affected me. She died. She was dead, her identity had been destroyed, and yet I had to trot around and promote the thing as if she were still alive and well.

The result was, I didn't know my character any more. She was a stranger to me. Everyone was mildly shocked: why should this bother you so much? Why is it such a big deal to you, only two words changed? Readers won't know the difference, and that's all that matters. Not one person saw why I was upset, no one tried to help or defend me; I was completely abandoned at one of the worst times of my life. By now we were on two different planets, and I was no doubt being perceived as "difficult" or even crazy. 

And a writer must be, in any and all circumstances, grateful.

Why did I put up such a fuss over such a minor detail as my main character's name?  Because it changed the entire energy of the book.

Think of it.

Oliver Smith?

Moby Brown?

Suzy Karenina?

You get my drift.

So why would I want to venture into such shark-infested waters again?

The definition of insanity, in some circles anyway, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I suppose that is what I have been doing, trying to transcend what happened and transcend the news that everything is different now, that it's nearly impossible to get published unless the publisher thinks your book will sell, not just sell but leap across that fabled gap into Fifty Shades of Greyhood.

I'm just waiting for Fifty Shades of Grey Part 7 or 19 or whatever it is up to now.  These things make writers crazy, for I hear the book (books?) is/are absolute shit. I can't stand to read them (so obviously, I have no right to have an opinion), but throwing up was never my idea of a good time. When I try to work a little sex into my novels, everyone is deeply embarrassed and tells me I must tone it down or take it out altogether. Meantime, middle-aged porn rules, with frumpy fat schoolteachers furtively masturbating in bed besides their oblivious snoring husbands while the heroine gets tied up and whipped by some guy who looks like Fabio in a suit.


It's a fuck book, folks, and it just shocks me that it has taken over the way it has. All my writer's life I've heard, "Well, why don't you just write. . . " (whatever is "hot" and selling like mad at the time). I want to do a whole post on that word "just", because it makes me want to SCREAM. "Just" means, "it's simple, don't you see it? Why aren't you doing it already? Why haven't you thought of it by now, any idiot can see it!"

Just find an agent. Just write a genre novel. Just copy someone else's salacious, gut-squirming style. It's like telling a terminally-ill person to "just" take milk thistle or meditate, it's very simple, or "just" have a more positive attitude, and you'll be all better in a flash.


The number of "justs" in someone's vocabulary is in inverse proportion to their actual knowledge about the subject. The less a person knows about writing and publishing, the more they bore and exasperate you with their endless blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.  And I have had it, I really have.

I hate "just". It's a diminishing sort of word, condescending, implying you somehow can't see the most obvious solution to your problem and need to be set straight.  It's  almost the opposite of "just", which means, more or less, fair.  Just, in the sense of insulting gratuitous advice, isn't clearly defined in any of the dictionary meanings I've found. It's not an adverb, but a kind of command, and the closest simile I can find is "simply" (meaning you could do this easily, if you had half a brain). Simply write a novel, get on the bestseller list, and make a million dollars.

just Pronunciation: /dʒʌst/

  • based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair: a just and democratic society fighting for a just cause
  • (of treatment) deserved or appropriate in the circumstances: we all get our just deserts
  • (of an opinion or appraisal) well founded; justifiable: these simplistic approaches have been the subject of just criticism


  • 1exactly: that’s just what I need you’re a human being, just like everyone else
  • exactly or almost exactly at this or that moment: she’s just coming we were just finishing breakfast
  • 2very recently; in the immediate past: I’ve just seen the local paper
  • 3barely; by a little: inflation fell to just over 4 per cent I only just caught the train
  • 4simply; only; no more than: just a bad day in the office they were just interested in making money
  • really; absolutely (used for emphasis): they’re just great
  • used as a polite formula for giving permission or making a request: just help yourselves
  • [with modal] possibly (used to indicate a slight chance of something happening or being true): it might just help
  • 5expressing agreement: ‘Simon really messed things up.’ ‘Didn’t he just?’
(I notice that the last one looks a little like "sexpressing". Maybe my next novel should be called Sexpression. Or how about How I Tied Up and Tortured Publishers for Fun and Profit? Or even How I Learned to Love Being Tied Up and Tortured? It might just fly.)

1 comment:

  1. That a book you didn't like got published doesn't mean that there's 1 less space on the shelf for your book. Why not self-publish for Kindle? Plenty of people have done okay with that.