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Care factor

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One of the most common things I see young writers doing (that was a classic mistake made by yours truly for many years) is trusting the reader to put their faith in you. Your work. Your characters. The promise of your enthusiasm. When you’re submitting a manuscript to a publisher, this will be the faith you assume they’ll have in the thickness of your manuscript, the blurb you’ve provided, your cover letter. If you’re a feature writer or a budding journalist, this will be your design, your pictures, your catchy headline. If you’re an academic writer, you’ll be relying on your good name and your bulky reference list. You think that, for this reason, you can take the time to develop your characters, set your scene, dilly-dally around with the glorious little world of ideas you created with your brilliant mind and your bare hands before you get to the action, the problem, the juicy bits, the money shot.

I’m here today to tell you, writers, that you’re wrong.

Classic newbie, teenage and generally untrained writers start their stories with an alarm clock going off. I’m sure you’ve all done this. It’s the start of a new day for your character, so why shouldn’t his adventure begin when he opens his eyes? Your surly detective, gorgeous businessman, stubbled half-wolf or whomever has become your new muse saunters to the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror, reflects on all his facial features one at a time, because you can’t begin telling the story until your reader knows what he looks like, right? He’ll shower and dress and go out for the day, be whipped by angry solar winds or duck through the rain to the nearest taxi or begin sweating immediately in the oppressive Florida heat. What you need to realise, however, is that by the time he’s chosen his tie your reader has put your work down. No matter how handsome, hungover, haggard, or hurried your hero is, he’s just a hero at this point next to thousands upon thousands of heroes littering the forgotten manuscripts of the world, and until he faces something, proves himself, wins the lady, whatever, he’s going to convulse and die on that page like a freshly-sprayed roach, the animation choked out of him by the toxicity of a short attention-span.

I’ve met quite a few people in the publishing industry over the last couple of years, and what I can tell you about them is that their fuse is short. The big publishing houses of Sydney are facing upwards of three thousand manuscripts a year, and taking about ten debut authors onto their books in your category per annum. Somewhere, right now, a young editor is sitting down at her desk with her morning coffee and her Weetbix to a three-foot high pile of slush pile hopefuls, and before she copyedits the major work in her list, sends forty emails, writes the company newsletter, books flights and dinners and hotel rooms for her boss, updates the company social media page, talks shop with her colleagues, makes a few rejection calls and fills in the staff survey that’s been haunting her inbox for a month, she’s going to give a half an hour to this pile, because that’s her quota. That means she’s got about three minutes for your work. That means you’ve got the first page to impress her. And your guy gets up out of bed and looks at himself in the mirror.

Give me a break, honey.

Always, always, always, start with a problem. A question. A cliffhanger. A drama. A fight. An escape. A fall. A deal going horribly wrong. If your people are going to rob a bank, start when they kick open the heavy glass doors. You can go back to their origins if you need to. If your man’s going to get shot in a prison escape, drag himself under a truck, fall down a sewer drain and be rescued by a woman with a hard jaw and a big gun, start with the sound of the blast. Don’t have your children sitting in class listening to the teacher on the morning of the day they’ll be kidnapped. Start with the feeling of the abductor’s hand gripping their arm out of nowhere, that stomach-flipping, sideways yank, the paint-chipped van door, the musty smell of the carpet. There’ll be time to tell me what your muse looks like. There’ll be time to set the scene. There’ll be time to explain what his apartment looks like and what brand of coffee he drinks, but until I’m hooked on his problem, I just don’t care. I Just. Don’t Care.

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Years ago, I picked up a novel while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and the first scene was a guy loading a gun and climbing into the bathtub to blow his brains out, pulling the shower curtain over so he didn’t make a mess, thinking about his wife and how she’d be home any minute and how he’d better do it quick before she could talk him down. He’s pulling the trigger (literally, the springs are creaking) and the phone rings. It’s work calling him in. A big case. A girl is missing. They need him. He looks at the gun in his hand and listens to his wife’s footsteps in the hall and thinks it’s all just too hard. He’s afraid. He doesn’t think he can do this anymore. I got to this point and the doctor called me into his office, and when I left I forgot to look at the name of the book. To this day, I wonder what that book was, what happened, whether he changed his mind about his life. That first page struck me dumb. What an intense problem. What a way to start.

If you’re a journalist, you’ve got less than a page to hook your reader, because your column, article, advertising strip is going to be crowded onto a double page spread full of pretty pictures and scary block headlines, or if it’s unpublished it’s going to be crammed onto a desk or into an inbox with miles of other freelancers, most of them actually free. If you’re an academic, you’ve got an even bigger problem: because most of your readers will be students, and it’s quite likely they’re only reading your work because someone’s got a gun to their head. Find the action, whether you’re writing about tea or the next James Bond, whether your work is designed to lull or get hearts thumping. Your reader will never care as much as you. They will never invest as much as you, imagine as well as you, or love, hate, hope, fear, or hang out on a solution as long as you. Never.

But you must make them care, if only a little, straight away. Because they won’t take the time to get there on their own.

She was perfect

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You will never be good enough.

That’s the hard truth. You, reading this right now: you’ll never be good enough. That is, good enough for ‘them’. Your mother. Your father. Your friends. Your colleagues. That guy who leaves you for someone thinner, younger, smarter, dumber, someone with kids, someone who ‘understands him’ better than you. You’ll never be the sex kitten you imagine yourself to be. You’ll never be the top of your industry. You’ll always have someone in front of you in the race. So you should just stop running, right? Open a packet of chips, why don’t you. You deserve it. You tried.

Let me explain.

I’ve had a pretty successful day. This is about the first year of my life that I’ve been completely financially comfortable, so when I got hit with a $1,200 rego bill I ran around collecting the components I needed and paid it, straight up, no drama. I met my PhD supervisor for lunch and had my progress evaluated, and passed with flying colours. I spoke to her about my upcoming novel like an excited child filling her mother in on the approach of the Christmas season and promoted my part-time writing job on a brand new site on my Facebook page following its launch. I emailed a few students, then went to the gym and ran 6km. While I was running I was feeling pretty good. Here I am, everything ticked off for the day, doing a workout. Go me!

I was working up a sweat, not really struggling, pumping along to the music. I looked ahead to the next row of treadmills and noticed a woman probably ten years older than me running about two kilometres per hour faster than me and not sweating. Damn, I thought. I leaned out and looked at her time. She’d been running longer, too. Disappointment crept onto me like a light, grey cloud. Jeez, I guess I am pretty slow. A slow runner. The sweat flicked off my fingers onto the base of the machine, and the string between my earphones started getting in the way, flapping on my chest. Awkward. I’m a slow, awkward runner. I wondered if anyone could see my speed. I moved my towel over it. The temptation to get off the treadmill pulsed in me like a heartbeat.

When I graduated from university, everyone congratulated me. My dad was so proud he cried (multiple times, loudly and dramatically). There were drinks and hugs and photographs, cards and bunches of flowers. Then everyone wanted to know when I was going to do my Honours. Holy Moley, settle down! I only just finished! So I did the Honours. Then the Masters degree. Then I enrolled in a PhD. Everyone wants to know how long I’ve got left. How many papers I’ve published. How many classes I teach.

When I got married, people wanted to know when I was going to have a child. When I got divorced, they wanted to know if I’d found someone new yet. A few even suggested I ‘turn’ and start seeking women to fill the partnership hole in my life. My progress wasn’t fast enough. It had been a year, surely there was SOMEONE who would have me. ANYONE.

I want to make it clear that the above is not a rant, a whinge, or an extended complaint session on how difficult it is to please everyone. I hope that the right reader will see this as an article of inspiration; because while you cannot please everyone, while you will never be good enough for everyone, realising this will set you free.

You will be hated in life. You will make things, do things and say things that people don’t like. You will fail. You will embarrass yourself. You will make mistakes. You will offend others. You won’t run fast enough, speak confidently enough, dress beautifully enough or obtain the ‘perfect body’ for any more than a week before you get bored of it and drop the joyless lifestyle required to maintain it.

You can be proud, however. Now and then you can be proud. And I don’t mean the kind of Facebook status pride that is only validated by the comments and likes you receive from others, the kind of pride that glows in your face or vibrates through your excited words. I’m talking about the pride that makes you feel warm and content just before you fall asleep, that you wanted to do something, have something, say something, be something, conquer something, and you did, for no one else but yourself. Pride is not a series of words, nor should it be something brought on by others, defined in you by the level of satisfaction you get from ‘them’. You’ll never satisfy them. But you can satisfy yourself. You can love yourself. It’s not a shameful thing.

When you die, they will not write ‘She was perfect’ on your gravestone.

And even if they did, you wouldn’t know it.

Dating: Cold Approaches

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(This article appears on 5why, a Gen Y news site. For more of Kat James articles, visit 5why.com.au).

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I don’t approach strange men often, as I feel it’s not really my place to make the leap. As a strong believer in keeping chivalry alive, my usual modus operandi is to simply facilitate a man’s approach, either by placing myself directly in his path or innocently asking for something so that he can play the hero by lending it to me.

Both of these strategies have failed dismally in my time, however. I once artfully slid in front of a man on his path to an unmarked door in a shopping centre with the hopes of giving him a good look at my striking rear-view; only to find myself confronted by a busy men’s room. Like the short-skirted, long-jacketed ice queen in the famous Cake hit song, I once asked a potential Mr Right to borrow his pen in my local bank and found it was one of those novelty gel pens where the bikini slides off the stripper. Awkward.

So for the most part, I field approaches, and if I could tell the men of Sydney one thing on this subject it’s that the recent trend in going for the ‘Quirky Attention-Grabber’ approach is deeply flawed.  On my way to swim laps a few months ago on one of my brief but frequent fitness binges, a lifeguard I had noticed was particularly concerned by my water safety for hours on end stopped me before I could get in, finally having gathered the courage for an approach. Without so much as a hello, he blurted ‘I’m going to move to Alaska.’

I paused and considered this before replying ‘Oh?’

‘Yeah,’ he laughed, nervously.

‘It’s legal to own dangerous animals there. I’m going to own a wolf and an eagle.’

I knew what he was doing. It was the classic ‘Quirky Attention-Grabber’ approach. I was supposed to be amused, shocked and bewildered by his comment to such a degree that it would be impossible for me to move on without knowing more. It failed, of course, but it did prove an amusing Facebook update.

I’ve received the Quirky Attention-Grabber online, in dating site messages that simply read ‘Hey, baby. If you could have one super power, what would it be?’ I’ve received it while standing in line at a bar with a friend, when an Irish guy asked me what my favourite scary movie was. A man in my local gym once laid the QAG approach on me by offering to put my hand weights away and then comically pumping them like they were hard to lift, flexing his biceps inches from my face and grunting.

The failure of this approach lies in the modern woman’s ferocious determination not to be tricked, bribed or lured into any situation with a man, even if it’s a simple conversation by a pool, without complete clarity. The empowerment of women to choose or lose their partners without stigma means that we’ve educated ourselves on the science of detecting the deadbeat, and trickery and illusion is his number one calling card.

The modern woman doesn’t want strategies employed toward capturing her like she’s some kind of elusive Amazonian butterfly.  She wants to see you, the real you, in all your romantic and respectful glory, with all your humour and cleverness employed toward making her stay with you, not snaring her in your trap.

So put away your bear traps, modern man. Set down your copy of ‘The Game’. Forget what your mates tell you about the perfect swagger or the pull of the put-down and simply smile, look at her eyes, and say ‘Hello.’ Trust me, it’s a winner.

Fuckwit

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This is my mother’s table. It was her father’s. When she was little, he used to make pastries on it. He’d stretch the dough and sausage mince as far as it would go because his income was small and his family was big. When he was finished, she and her siblings would make faces and shapes out of the slivers left over. It’s been 35 years, and she’s still mourning him. Just yesterday she reminded me not to throw the table out when she’s dead, because it’s one of the last things on the earth that was his. One of my fuckwit little sisters wrote ‘I ❤ dimond 4 life' on it. Honey, if you can't spell it, don't guess.

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What does your face look like now? Are there any new lines or dots? It has been about a year since our boat hit the rocks and we stopped our high talks about what it means to be alive, die and whatever happens after that. It’s been about a year since my immune system untangled itself from yours and started breathing unfamiliar air. Are we celebrating this anniversary, the death of our relationship? It’s been about a year since our bodies were near but in my mind unfortunately, you are still there. Please leave me like I left you.

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Gratitude

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My supervisor at the uni has asked me to speak to a class about ‘The Writer’s Life’.

Oh, God.

Everybody likes talking about themself. Anyone who tells you they don’t is lying, or trying to sound modest. You don’t have to be arrogant to talk about yourself. Our memories, hopes, desires, hurts and successes are our most precious possessions and to pass them on to others and see them experience that through our words gives us a primal joy. The greatest way to talk about yourself is in a way that is designed to help, grow, warn or express love to others. So I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about the content. What do I tell a group of aspiring writers? How do I treat that fragile, beautiful, elusive dream that is the artist’s life?

You can crush a writer’s hopes so easily. We’re emotional people. We listen, reflect, dream and wonder unlike any other species of artist. Unlike visual artists, we paint in symbols, sounds, tones and shapes in two colours only: black on white. Unlike musicians we sing in silence and rise and fall through artificially constructed lives and worlds, not notes and beats and voices. It takes a different kind of mind to do what we do, and a group of those special minds are going to be trained on me.

What do I say? Most of you will never show your work to anyone outside your immediate family. You will write it, love writing it, cherish its characters and wander its halls and alleys, and then you will put it away somewhere dusty and dark, and there it will live until its pages crumble and ink smears and eventually it is thrown away. Some of you will forget that childish desire to escape into your fantasies and turn your love of words to news, magazines, blogs, television, and tell the stories of others, forgetting your own. Some of you will drop the dream all together and give your stories to your children in lamp-lit rooms years from now, and in a way they will live on through their words to their own little ones.

Some of you will push your stories out, however. Share them, change them, build them, tear them apart, obsess over them until they are polished beyond recognition: something you began that escaped you and turned into a beast with its own mind. Some of you will fight, and beg, and pray, and scream, until you hunt down and convince those who share your love of the lives you created, those people with the power to lift your work up, to let it fly free.

What happens to your art, whether it’s printed and sold and carried by strangers on trains, or whether it languishes in the back of your mind or the back of your drawer, relies on so many things. Your patience. Your heart. Your determination. How you wrote it. Where you wrote it. When you wrote it. Who you wrote it for. But before all of those things, before the thing was anything, before your fingers set to the keys and the words started spilling out of you, you had a desire: the writer’s desire to tell the story. And where ever that came from – god, the wiring of your brain, your need to escape, your upbringing, your boredom or discontent or sadness or relief – it is unique. My desire to write, the need that thrives in me, that has always been there and that I grow a little each day, is the greatest gift I have ever been given.

Gratitude for that gift, I think, should guide you.

Kat James: Man Eater

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(This article appears on GenY news website 5why . For more Kat James articles visit 5why.com.au).

My name is Kat, and I’m a man-eater.

I try not to be. I try really hard. But something about my recent hard luck in love and the inherent vulnerability of the men I seem to attract means that I’m somehow unable to resist the urge to grab on for an exploratory bite, and once I’ve got a hold it’s all I can do to minimalise the carnage.

My ex-husband left me a year ago for another woman after a tumultuous seven-year relationship that included a marriage even shorter than Kim Kardashian’s first foray into matrimony, and ever since then I’ve been punishing men. Poor men. Swimming and splashing and laughing in the seductive and glittering waters of the dating scene. They never see it coming. Good times turn to bloodbaths in the blink of an eye, and the only person left laughing is me.

I was what my ex-husband himself referred to as ‘perfect’. I paid my share. I organised dinner parties. I was delightful to my diabolical in laws and I cheerfully waved him off onto alcoholic and drug-fuelled binges with the lads every weekend. I made a devastatingly good lasagne and I talked politics with his bosses with charm and wit. I was sweet, sexy and pliable as double chocolate cookie dough.

It wasn’t enough. And in turn, I’m showing the men of Sydney that they’re not enough for me. No matter what they do. No matter how hard they try. I’m hard candy, baby, and when I finally break I shatter into dangerous, gum-shredding splinters. It’s an addiction I’m trying to sate.

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My modus operandi is to find men online, encourage them to fall deeply and uncontrollably in love with me as soon as I conceivably can, and then I dump them; without warning, without mercy, like a black-eyed monster rising violently and unexpectedly from the shadowy depths. Often, I do it by text, and I try to find a reason that is as minuscule and understandable as I can.

I dumped a man because he interrupted my friend. I dumped a man because he was too short. I dumped a man because I reached over during a movie and grabbed his arm and he jumped in fright. I dumped a man because he said ‘Permission to come aboard, mam?’ during sex. Twice. Actually that one was probably justified. I mean wow, dude. Way to throw off my groove.

I think part of my murderous rampage, my moonlit serial-killer spree, is vengeance for mistreatment by my husband, but the other part is confusion at who I really am. I met my husband when I was nineteen and allowed him to construct my identity, so for seven years I lived as the delightful, bumbling sidekick to a self-proclaimed hero who demanded a yes for everything.

I was convinced that I was stupid, that he needed to manage our money, our careers, our future plans, because I didn’t have the vision to make my own way in the world. In a day, I was handed back the wheel to a life I’d never learned to drive, and now I have no idea where I’m going or how I’m going to get there.

I’m terrified of giving anyone else a smidgen of steering power, in case I lose control again. I warn men off my wheel with growls and snarls, and if they keep trying to reach out I karate kick them the hell out of my car at high speed.

I have the feeling I’m not alone, because I hear tell of ‘psycho’ women who are ‘only out to mess with men’s heads’ from my potential victims (before they know they’re speaking to one). I guess I’m here to advocate for all the ‘psycho’ women. Men have plenty of ways to get over their hurt, a hurt they’re never encouraged to acknowledge in the first place. They drink and fight and sleep around, punch walls and bond with their broken friends.

Women are different.

A drunk and promiscuous woman on a tear-stained binge with her mates is looking for trouble. I reckon I could land a solid punch to some freshly-painted plasterboard, but I just paid fifty bucks for this manicure. I’ve spent years cultivating the image of Ms. Success with my friends, so I’m not sure I want to bust it open right now by revealing how scared I am. The Boulevard of Broken Dreams is a lonely place for the single woman of 2013, so don’t let anyone tell you that you’re psycho just because you don’t know how to act anymore.

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I have a date in two days time with another of my potential victims, but this time I have a plan to ensure my unsuspecting little swimmer makes it safely back to shore. I’m not going to struggle to make sure he knows how successful I am in the couple of hours we’ll sit down to dinner. I’m not going to hint at trouble I’ve caused before with the legions of men who are magnetised to me, and I’m not going to spend hours working on my dark, delicious, devil-in-a-blue-dress appearance.

I’m not going to set minimums for his income, his height, whether or not he pulls my chair out and whether or not he swears before I do. I’m not going to bait him into arguments he can’t win and then back him into a cage of his own ill-built logic, however incredibly fun that little game has proved to be.
I’m going to take a deep breath, have a great time, and be the happy, hilarious and slightly odd-ball Kat I used to be. It’s a decision, going against what my nature is telling me, but I think every now and then we need to question the animal we’ve become and see if we can’t evolve into something more beautiful. Because if there’s one thing I know about clever, new-age women it’s that we sure know how to reinvent ourselves, and no matter how much we deny it, many of us still believe in love.

He’s taken the plunge. I see his silhouette floundering, ducking and diving against the sky. Dinner time.

I’ll let you know if he survives.

Attention span

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At the library, quiet study area. Couple of teenage girls sit down at the next table and start studying the Holocaust. They study it for nine minutes. Then they switch over to iTunes and search for Will.I.Am.

Young Candice

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Sitting at the library cafe, waiting for it to open. Childminding lady comes in with five toddlers, sits them all on chairs. They sit quietly babbling, looking around, waiting. Suddenly, a little white-haired girl in a flowery dress thrusts her hands in the air for no apparent reason and shouts ‘YEEEEEEE!’ at the top of her lungs. All the other toddlers stare, shocked. I stare. The lady stares. She’s a young Candice, that one.

Puss in yard

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*outside, calling the cat, shaking the food box*
Me: Puss! Puss! Pussy! Come on puss! Pussy pussy puss!
*small boy pokes up from fence, held by two adult hands*
Me: Miles! Little man, have you seen my pussy? Uh, oh, um, I mean, have you seen my cat?!
*laughter from behind fence*

Billy’s cafe

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Weird times at Billy’s cafe this morning. I changed my daily order from a mocha to a soy cappucino: you’d have thought the world had come to an end. So many ‘Ormagawd’s. Then I notice a Swiss couple watching me eat my breakfast avocado. She leans over and says ‘Nice to see. Very nice to see.’ I hope she’s talking about the avocado and not my cleavage.

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