"Hello, everybody. My name's Jason, and ... I'm a writer." I swallowed the ball in my throat and sat down amongst the twelve sorry souls framing the circle.
Jessica, our esteemed facilitator, whose blog was a haven for failed would-be writers the world over, gave one of those smiles that said she understood, she knew. They all did, they'd all been there; still were, like me, trapped, addicted to the writing dream. It would never go away. After all, I'd almost made it. I still could, if ... I mentally kicked myself, hard. That kind of thinking had lost me Alice in the first place, had led me here, tonight, to this dingy Town Hall classroom with its cheap plastic chairs scraping across worn parquet. My last chance to kick the writing habit.
I waited for the inevitable question, feeling all the words stacked up inside me, ready to smite down on something, anything, anyone, but mainly the writing industry.
"How did it start, Jason?"
I bent forward, elbows on knees, staring at a point somewhere beneath the scuffed wooden floor; better not to see my fate reflected in their sad faces.
"It began in the American University in Paris." A few murmurs, raised in register. "I attended a class on Creative Writing. Pretty good, actually. A prize-winning Canadian author. She taught me the basics. The craft." My consciousness streamed: craft; witchcraft; covens; secret societies; writing groups; sorcerers; evil versus good.
"I started with shorts, you know, a bit of flash fiction. Seemed harmless at the time, a hobby." Whispers of recognition. I risked glancing up. A pudgy woman's face glazed back at me, lost in her own recollection, pages turning before her eyes. The floor was safer.
"Then I had this idea for a novel."
Intakes of breath. Like some here, I knew exactly when I'd crossed the line between hobbyist and addict: the moment, that sweet seduction. But it was hard to say it. Words had power, whether spoken or written down; better in the head, not so dangerous, less editing required.
"Carry on, Jason," Jessica"s voice urged, like an old-style shaman doing a bit of trepanning, to let the bad vapours out of the head.
"One evening, I was in a writer's group." So clear: Jen, Chris, Dimitri, Laurel, and Mary Ellen. We'd been tearing shreds off each other's work, as usual, in almost-constructive criticism. Up till then, it had been fun, a challenge, but something I could put down. Just a way to meet people in a new city.
"They started talking about one of my characters: 'John wouldn"t say that,' Chris had argued, Laurel agreeing. 'He's not that type of guy.' And it went on -- you know how it goes, I wasn't supposed to say anything, to intervene. I wanted to, though. I thought, hey, it's just writing, it's just something I made up. John's not real. But they carried on discussing him, then another character, Louise, as if they were actual people." I unwrapped tightly interlocked fingers and folded my arms.
"We've all been there, brother," said a voluminous, swarthy man, quite unlike my rake of a brother.
Jessica leaned forward, tangled curls leaping off her shoulders. "I'm going to ask you a question, Jason, a key one, to know how far you're in. But you don't have to answer if you don't want to, alright?"
I nodded. She was pretty. Maybe I should ask her out later. It'd been a year since Alice ... But Jessica looked professional, no cleavage showing despite the summer heat, and pants rather than a skirt -- she'd probably decline. Maybe I'd ask anyway; writers cling to forlorn hopes.
"Did you finish the novel?"
All sound vanished, like it was switched off, twelve pairs of eyes lashed onto mine. Suddenly it didn't feel like a circle, more like a jury, with me in the dock. All of these would-be, wannabe writers, yanked out of their reveries, focused on me like lasers. I swept around their hunted faces, guessing who had finished, who hadn't. The question was key, categorizing my level of addiction. I faced Jessica.
Half the others sat back, half hung their heads: finishers, unfinishers. Fell at the third fence, the greatest whittler of the hordes of would-be writers. Now I knew who was who in the circle. The finishers were prouder, like me, and also in deeper. Each sub-group would pity and envy the other in equal measure.
Jessica stood up, shorter than I'd expected, propped up on high heels. "Okay, let's take a quick break to grab a beverage before we get down to business." She gestured to a table in the corner with a couple of aluminium flasks and paper cups. She put down her clipboard and pen, and then it hit me, something that had been missing since I walked in; no one else had pen or paper or laptop. Writers without pens. Smiling, I levered myself upright and followed the crew over to search for herbal tea.
"Hi, Jason, I'm Bob."
Bob was paunchy, sporting comfy, lower-end clothes suggesting he lived at home, maybe worked from there, but probably not. The kind of face that beams at you, but so lined there'd have to be an equal share of pain just beneath the skin.
I nodded a hello. No hand was offered, so mine stayed in their pockets. I saw the question coming a mile off, a downwind train approaching fast. I picked up a plastic cup, hoping to get off the tracks, but someone else nipped in front of me. Bob fired up, inflating his chest.
"Memoir," he said, deflating a little. "Published, you know."
Bob had uttered the magic, secret word. Around here it was akin to saying "Voldemort" in Harry Potter's Hogwarts. I raised an eyebrow.
He jiggled his head, deflating some more. "Seventh fence."
Empathy stirred in me, like a forgotten relative. "Tough break."
He laughed, a little too loud. "Publishers, eh? Take ninety per cent, then after the first month they ignore you, don't market you anymore, don't do anything."
His happy lines submerged, while sad ones opened up like fissures.
Falling at this fence was supposed to be the worst. Like the ninety-nine per cent of wannabe writers who hadn't quite made it that far, it wasn't that I didn't believe it to be true, I just wanted to know that particular pain. Until you were published, being published meant everything. Why I was here. To give up writing. There, I'd said it. But I hadn't written it down, had I? So maybe it wasn't true yet.
"Anyhow, you're the newbie, Jason. What's your poison?"
Like any half-decent writer, I paid attention to speech and noted the tense Bob had used -- present, rather than the imperfect. Like an alcoholic, writerholicism isn't something that ever really goes away. I drew in a long breath. "SF."
"Whoa, impressive. Sub-genre?"
A smile edged out. "Space opera; hard."
"Style? Banks? Orson Scott Card?"
"Reynolds, mainly, a dash of Bear, a twist of Asher and Morgan thrown in." I arrived at the hot water dispenser. Nothing came out. Bob zipped around me and tilted the silver flask toward my cup. Steaming water gurgled forth, drenching my flaccid teabag.
"Thanks." I absently stirred my mint tea with a white plastic spoon, inhaling the tang of its fragrance. Should I ask? Well, if I couldn't ask here, where could I?
"How many copies?" A lot of writers would parry that one, saying they were artists, not interested in the number of sales, more interested in getting the next book out, bla bla bla.
Bob's face darkened, like a cornered animal. "Two-fifty-four."
I hadn't come here to make friends, specifically, but I appreciated his candour, his courage in such an admission. "Title?"
"Nice." I raised my tea to his coffee. "You made it, Bob, don't knock it. Send me the link, I'll buy a copy."
His face flushed, the crevices around his mouth wavering. He glanced left and right, ensuring no one was listening, then mumbled, "Thanks".
Jessica rescued us, calling us back to our chairs.
"Michael," she said. "We haven't seen you for a month, how've you been doing?"
The spotlight fell upon a tall fifty-something man, grey suit matching greying temples. From the cut it was clear he had a good day job. He shifted, then stopped, evidently wrestling with whether to feel guilty or not about something or other.
He cleared his throat. "Well, I, er ..."
The patient look on Jessica"s face seemed genuine, or was that just practice?
"Tell us what happened, Michael."
"I got a call from my agent."
Two others in the ring shook their heads, the rest didn't; the ones who hadn't made it past that particular fence.
"Oh, Michael, what was it this time?" Jessica"s patience slipped.
Michael's eyes lit up, reminding me how hearing from my agent used to make me feel as if I was surfing the big breakers of the literary world, or about to ...
"Another editor was interested. New York."
He didn't have to say more. This was the Big Tease. New York, the hub of publishing, the writer's Hollywood. But then if it had come off, he wouldn't be here, or we'd have heard about it the moment he set foot in this place, if Jessica hadn't thrown him out first. After all, this group was about getting beyond writing, giving it up, because it could waste and destroy lives, subtly, just like any other drug.
She let the silence draw him out.
"Well, I got close this time."
We all knew, as did Michael, that saying such words was like tying your own noose.
"Only ... the editor said my manuscript was too long. And he said it needed ... a vampire."
I burst out laughing, came under Jessica's glare, and choked it off. Only Michael seemed relieved that someone else saw the absurdity. I'd had similar comments -- 'Could you just slice off forty thousand words, get rid of a couple of characters? Too many protagonists vying for central stage.' At the time I'd wondered how Tolkien would have replied. I'd thought about explaining that it would destroy the nature of the book, not to mention its sequel; that I'd been trained to write my story as an expression of inner truth, told never to prostitute my art just for the sake of being published; that my few trusted readers loved it the way it was.
But by then I already knew the lay of the land, the difference between what writing manuals, groups and conferences tell you, and what brutal reality shows you. My book was too long for a debut novelist. The maximum acceptable word count was one-ten thousand, one-twenty if really exceptional. Why hadn't anyone just told me that before I finished my epic novel? So, no editor was going to take it, no matter how good the style or how much they liked it. In the end I just said "No".
Michael and Jessica were talking, but I slipped into my internal monologue, as writers so easily do. I'd come here to find answers, to break the cycle, to escape this dream-turned-nightmare. That had been a turning point for me, with that editor. I had, as Michael had put it, come so close to a deal. That was when my eagerness, forged in the fire of thousands of hours of writing and editing over the course of five years, alchemised into bitterness. I'd been duped, along with countless wannabe writers. Be a writer. All you need is time, a decent laptop, a bit of money, planet-loads of patience, and a skin as thick as a rhino's to cope with all the rejection letters.
Everyone has a book inside them. I'd repeated that little epithet to Alice one day, in the autumn of our good old days, when she'd started to glare at my Sony laptop like it was a competing mistress. She'd hit back immediately. "Bullshit. Most people have nothing in them worth reading, and can't string a sentence together. It's like saying every rock has a sculpture inside it. Maybe it does, but you don't see every Tom, Dick and Harry picking up a chisel and saying 'I'm a sculptor', do you?"
I'd laughed, because she was right on. But she hadn't, because she'd already seen our future. She'd grabbed me by the shoulders. "It's a con, Jason. It's a big industry, squeezing time and money out of people's dreams. I've seen it on those websites: hundreds of courses, conferences, writer's groups, services from how to write a query letter, how to get an agent, to cover art, marketing, distribution; the whole shebang."
It was worse, too. The trick, the real con, was the mythic statement that if you persevere you will finally succeed, underlined by fables of writers who finally got published on their third or fourth novel. Persevere, and you will make it. Like all good myths, it had a grain of truth, but for most wannabe writers, it was just as much a lie as tobacco ads showing healthy, ageing cowboys riding the plains, puffing on cool menthol cigarettes.
"Jason?" Jessica and the others were staring at me like I was the new zoo inmate.
I shifted in my seat. "Sorry, what did you say?"
"The nine fences -- I just wanted to make sure you knew them, since we refer to them a lot in these meetings.
"Sure," I said, omitting the fact that I'd read that particular book, the one I wished I'd written, especially since it made the bestseller list.
"Fence One is the beginning writer. People come along and they've read some books, seen some films, and met someone who invited them to a writing group. They start playing around with writing. It's fun, it's social, and they have absolutely no clue about grammar, point of view, show-don't-tell. The first fence is the craft. These writers are just hobbyists, they usually get nowhere, and then drift into another hobby when the going gets sticky." The lucky ones; they escape unscathed.
"Fence Two is voice. Trying to breathe a spark into otherwise mechanical, though serviceable prose, something that makes the reader want to read on rather than turn on the television."
"Number Three is cohesion. Usually writers by this stage are good in some respects but literally can't pull it together. Take the novel, for example, usually they might be good on character but poor on plot, or vice versa -- ignoring for the moment Henry James' character is plot -- and so their novel ends up a patchwork quilt. They never finish." I noted one or two chew their lips and look askance. I hurried on.
"Four is editing the work into a submittable manuscript. Some are good writers and crap editors, and unless you're really talented, that's not nearly enough. People think one or two drafts might do it, but in reality it's more like six or seven complete edits, and most don't have the stamina." Several pairs of eyes stabbed into me. But writers should tell it like it is. They rarely see it like it is, however -- not that surprising for a societal subgroup who believe in, and peddle, fiction.
"Five is getting an agent. This is a transitional fence, because this is where a really good writer can still fail, because in a way getting an agent has more to do with marketing yourself and your work than writing. Aside from the query letter, which is a killer sub-fence in its own right, you need to do a lot of research about publishers, agents, the whole industry, to make your pitch work. The question is why a writer should know all these things, because readers don't care, and the readers are the real customers aren't they?" I eased off; this was one of my high horses. "Anyway, it's where the writer really finds out how publishing works, the fact that it's a contact sport, and you have to get out from under your laptop and mix with literary consultants, agents, editors, publishers, and find out what they want -- because what they want largely determines what the readers get."
Michael banged the arm of his chair with his fist, a grim smile across his weathered face.
"Sixth fence is the highest: getting that publishing contract. This is the fence where I fell --" or did I and my horse back away, the cost of jumping it seeming too high? "-- and it"s a bummer, because you think that once you've got an agent your problems are solved, but truth is they're not, unless you've managed to nab one of the top five per cent of agents. First you get excited because your work gets onto editors' desks at Random House, Penguin or Hachette. Then come the polite rejections, and you start working your way down your agent's publisher list, until your submission package -- or entire manuscript if you're lucky -- is skimming publishing houses you've never even heard of. You're left wondering why you have an agent at all, and if you should change your agent."
"Did you?" It was Michael, his voice like gravel.
"No. I stayed loyal to him; he was -- is -- a good guy." Kept my agent, lost my wife. My throat dried up. I took a sip of my tepid brew, coughed. "Seventh fence --" I glanced at Bob whose eyes were drilling holes in the floor "-- is marketing." I let it hang a moment, meeting all the faces around the circle. "The big M, the final sting for the chosen few who think they've hit a home run. Most published authors get one book out there, and it fails to sell more than a few hundred copies, even if backed by a publisher, who as we all know these days does pretty much nothing in terms of marketing. They leave it to authors, armed with Facebook and apparently unlimited time on their hands to cold-call people and hassle local bookstores and write glib, self-serving book-promotion articles."
I put down the cup I was crushing. I stared at Bob. He stared right back. I saw my future, my present. I didn't like it: the self-pitying, the whining, the lost edge, the crushed dreams. The fingers and thumb of my right hand -- my write hand -- coiled, missing their friend, begging me to go find my pen. I'd lost everything I'd cared about because of writing, and so I'd stopped; but what remained was just the ghost of a character. My life, my own personal novel, had become a blank page.
I needed to bail out fast, here and now; having a cruel mistress was better than having none. I took a breath -- Jessica was going to murder me.
"Most authors who reach this stage get disillusioned, and stop doing what they really enjoy, what makes them happy -- "
"Yes, well, thank you, Jason," Jessica said.
"They stop remembering why they got into this in the first place."
Bob"s eyes filmed over.
Jessica leaned forward, raised her hand. "Jason, we must --"
I saw my future in Bob's happy-but-oh-so-sad face, so I addressed him; addressed myself.
"They stop writing. This fence can kill you as a writer, but if writing is in your heart, giving it up kills you, too."
Jessica was on her feet. "Enough, Jason!"
I hadn't got to the last two fences: getting the second book out and making a success of it, so you weren't a "one-book-wonder"; and, finally, managing to make ends meet as a full-time professional writer, no mean feat unless you were Stephen King.
I leaned back. "The End," I said, smiling; but Jessica was experiencing a sense-of-humour failure. The rest of the group fidgeted, avoiding my gaze, except Bob, Michael, and Jessica. Her eyes cored into mine.
"I need a word with you, Jason, if you please?" She indicated the back of the room.
I didn't get up. The dross I'd been carrying around in my head for over a year since Alice left, finally cleared. I knew what I had to do. It wouldn't get Alice back, but maybe I could save myself. I still had all my stories and manuscripts on a memory stick back home, the one Alice hadn't managed to find and erase before she quit our apartment, leaving a hand-written note pinned to my Sony by a steak knife, saying "You won't thank me, but I'm going to free you of this disease, Jason."
I felt calm. "Nobody makes us write, Jessica. It's an industry, sure, like any other, and it's rough, because there are too many writers, and most of us aren't that good, even if there are some who are good and still don't make it. It seems personal because we pour our lives into it, screw up our marriages, fail at work, become poor, all for this dream which usually doesn't come true."
Her lips flattened to a pencil-line. Her arm flexed, pointing to the door. "We're beyond having a word, now. Please leave, Jason, and don't ever come back."
I stood. "Thank you, Jessica. I got what I needed. Sorry if I derailed the process, really." I offered my hand. Hers continued to point. I nodded, my footsteps the only accompaniment as I departed.
Outside, I inhaled deeply, and stared up and down the street. I waited a minute. Not one, but two followed me out: Bob and Michael. We formed a smaller circle, like three conspirators. They stared at me with an intensity that was entirely justified -- I'd been a tourist in there, but they'd just burned a bridge, maybe their last one back into normal life.
"Here's the deal," I said. "We meet once a week, we read each other's stuff -- if it's shit, we tell each other, likewise if it's good. But we always read it. And we agree that we'll continue writing, even if we never get published, because it's about the need to write." I held out my hand, palm down. They placed their palms on top.
"I know a quiet bar nearby." Bob said. Already he looked five years younger. Michael beamed. We quickened our pace to the bar; after all, someone there should be able to lend us a pen.