The author caught the tube and went walkabout. He walked through the carriages like a mid-thirtysomething man looking for women in a nightclub, with passengers in the role of the potential victims of his chat-up lines. He was looking for something. Five years ago, he’d have been sure to have found it. This time, his first time in a long time, he hadn’t yet hit paydirt. But it was surely only a matter of time.
As part of the author’s new deal, his first three novels had been reissued as a single volume. “Reprinted, repackaged and re-presented to a whole new readership.” It was a perfect storm of opportunity. He glanced at his expensive slimline watch. He saw then what he had come to see. It was a man sitting quietly in the corner of a carriage, reading a brightly covered book. It was that very same single volume.
The author paused, brushed himself down and, with a look of surprise playing at the corners of his mouth and a glint in his eye, he approached his quarry, metaphorically licking his lips.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Gary Sayles. The very same. I couldn’t help noticing you were reading one of my books. Would you like me to sign it for you? Only I’ve got another one coming out soon. Yes, yes, that’s right. I’m making a long-awaited comeback…”
And he was.
Gary Sayles was a man with a lot on his mind. It was as though he had just discovered his first grey nostril hair while looking into a mirror on his thirty-fifth birthday. Because today was the day he went public with his idea. That morning he had a meeting with his agent, Norwenna, and his editor, Katie, at the HQ of his publisher, Barker Follinge. Normally Gary had been known for his punctuality: on this occasion he thought he’d let them know who was boss and arrived ten minutes after the appointed hour.
He met the two ladies in a conference room on the sixth floor. There was a long table in the room and a flip chart. He noticed his rider – a can of Dr Pepper, not too cold, a bowl of Cheesy Wotsits and one of his signed photos, in a frame – was already in pride of place. The girls were obviously keen to get started.
“Hello, Gary! Good to see you,” said Katie. “You’re looking very well!”
Gary smiled inwardly. She’d got into the habit of opening their meetings with an observation like this but on this occasion, she was right. He nodded enigmatically and transferred his smile to his face.
“Excellent!” said Katie. “OK. Before we start, then, I’d just like to run through the final touches.”
Gary approved. Whatever masterstroke he was going to drop on them today, it was nice to observe the usual courtesies and the manuscript always came first. By now this final honing of a manuscript was a ritual to him, like watching Match of the Day. Historically it took about four meetings and this was the fourth with the new book. Soon it would be ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting but grateful world.
I like what you do with lists. Because let’s face it – and Norwenna will back me up here – it is exactly the way men think. And it’s a trademark of yours, isn’t it?”
“At the risk of repeating what I said last time,” continued Katie, “I have to say that it’s looking very good. I think the shift to an older, wiser Gary Sayles really suits you. I mean, I really do think you’re going from strength to strength as a writer. There’s more substance to this one somehow. In fact I only have a few more suggestions to make. Nothing structural – I think the changes we agreed earlier work really well – but there’s one or two things we can still do to tighten up the prose in the last thirty pages. Do you have a copy of the manuscript with you?”
“Come now,” chided Gary. “You should know by now that it’s all in here.” He tapped the side of his head with one of his fingers.
“Of course!” said Katie. “And thank goodness for that! Righty-ho. So there’s a section on page two hundred and forty that’s the same as one on page two hundred and forty-three. I don’t know if you meant to repeat yourself for effect? No? OK, I thought not. Page two hundred and forty-two: it’s a ‘very hot day without a cloud in the sky’ when Lucy and her gay friend – what’s his name again? – ah yes, Fabrice – arrive for their heart-to-heart; when they come out they’re jumping in puddles. So I’ve altered that slightly. Ah yes. Page two hundred and forty-five. Now I’ve had some interesting focus group feedback about this passage…”
“Some interesting what?’”
“Focus group feedback. A few people have been helping us with the demographic profiling for your new novel. Well, they’re not sure about Ben kicking his dog. What’s its name? Tyson. They say it’s not suitable for the market we’re targeting.”
“But he’s having a midlife crisis!”
“I agree, Gary, to an extent…”
“… and Tyson’s a fighting dog!”
“A Yorkshire terrier, yes, Gary. But this isn’t American Psycho. And I think they felt it didn’t quite ring true. Maybe if Tyson doesn’t knock over one of Ben’s children ‘like a skittle with a bowling ball’?”
“I’m not too sure–”
“– it’s just that they do have a real understanding of feel-good fiction… and they’re all such fans of yours…”
“Well. I suppose I can agree to that,” said Gary, “but only because I know they know what they’re talking about.”
“Good point, Gary, well put! Now. Where were we? Ah yes. Page two hundred and forty-seven: I think we can lose the ‘silently’ from ‘she shrugged silently’. Page two hundred and forty-eight… Ah yes. I’m going to be honest with you here. I think the list is great. I like what you do with lists. Because – let’s face it – and Norwenna will back me up here – Norwenna? – it is exactly the way men think. And it’s a trademark of yours, isn’t it? I remember it from your earlier works. It’s just that twenty things on the list is maybe one or two too many.”
“Hmmm. I suppose so. I can always use the last few again. The next time. Maybe in a different context…”
“Exactly! Brilliant! I think that’s a very good point. That’s another of your gifts that you’ve obviously honed, your ability to recontextualise material! And it reminds me. Next up we have page two-fifty. Up until this point, I’ve managed to keep the number of cliché… of easily recognisable phrases down to what we agreed: two per page. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we can afford to skimp on them. It’s this ratio that makes you unique. There’s no one else even attempting these percentages. And it certainly has implications for brand loyalty. But between page two hundred and fifty and two hundred and sixty we’re up to three or four, which may be giving your readers too much of a good thing…”
Gary allowed himself to drift on the sea of Katie’s voice. She was one of only a handful of editors still employed at Barker Follinge and the fact that she worked almost exclusively with him was an indication of how big a cheese he was. They’d had their disagreements, of course. Strictly speaking, Katie’s background was marketing, not editing, and she’d taken time to adjust to the unique qualities of his writing. On occasion she’d been overly draconian with his prose.
After his first editor started work on his debut she’d taken to drinking at odd times of the day, smoking cigarettes. Taking time off because of ‘her nerves’.”
But then he’d had a tricky relationship with everyone who’d worked on his books, even Elizabeth, whom he’d only known for a couple of weeks before she’d died, tragically, during the initial read-through of his new manuscript. The editor for his first three had been Steph and he’d never been sure about her little quirks either. After she’d started work on his debut she’d taken to drinking at odd times of the day, smoking cigarettes. Taking time off because of ‘her nerves’. And what kind of ‘career move’ was it to go from working as the editor of a bestselling author to stopping people in the street – in the winter! – and asking them if they’d recently had an accident at work?
“Right, so that’s the final few changes, then,” said Katie. “Now, I’ve got some news from marketing about the review coverage. Online, we’ve paid for I Heart Books, Books We Love, We Love Books, Bookslush, Bookchat and a new site called Bookchef. As for print, in keeping with the more serious themes of the novel, we’ve decided against targeting the usual suspects. So instead of Ciao!, Single!, Girlfriend!, Spritzer! and Bloke, we’re going with Career Woman, Urban Gent, Man Hug, Pheromone and Car. The supermarkets are all on board. We’re not going to go overboard chasing the broadsheets – we’ve got the Correspondent tied in but, frankly, who needs them? – but we’re close to finalising a deal with Metro and the Evening Standard. And I think you saw the review that Mike Parsons has written for the Mail? The only issue I have with it is the wording. He’s one of ours, you see, and I wondered what you thought about us asking him to change the ‘funny’ to ‘amusing’? We don’t want to be a hostage to fortu… no, no, that’s not what I mean. It’s just that ‘funny’ can have unfortunate connotations. One person’s Chris Evans is another’s Stewart Lee.”
“Not your core demographic, Gary, not your core demographic. Anyway, we don’t want to frighten the horses, do we?”
“Whatever,” said Gary, suddenly tiring of playing second fiddle to Katie’s conductor. “Look, do what you have to. I trust you. OK? Now I want to tell you about my idea.”
And so then Gary outlined his plan. Throughout, he kept an eye on the responses of his audience. Katie looked confused, like a lady who’d long since given up trying to understand the offside rule. Norwenna was her usual sphinx-like self. Gary was never sure what Norwenna was thinking. Sometimes he would catch her staring out of the window, as if she was imagining which colour of Spangles she was going to choose. When he had finished explaining, he waited for the ladies’ responses.
“I can see it. I think. Yes, yes, I can,” said Katie. For the first time in her life, she looked nervous.
“I think it’s a great idea, Gary,” agreed Norwenna, reminding Gary of what she brought to the table. “It’s brave, yes, but I think you’ll be able to carry it off.”
“I knew you’d see it my way,” he said. It was just as well that Barker Follinge were being so welcoming. He had no need to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. There weren’t many who could match his record of three bestselling books in five years. He was one of the few writers capable of tapping into what people wanted and giving it to them. In that respect he was like Mel Gibson in the classic noughties comedy What Women Want, only for both sexes. More to the point, he’d done it all the hard way. Not by retiring to an ivory tower and studying English Literature or any of that ridiculous Creative Writing but by working in the real world, struggling along with a Media Studies course and the harsh realities of working on a top twenty magazine.
As far as Gary was concerned, that was the end of the meeting. A journey which had begun ten long years ago with the delivery of his firstborn – conceived in ink and swaddled in a brightly coloured cover – was about to enter another chapter. He was itching to get out into the real world. His wasn’t a big idea but now he’d practically demanded the approval of his publisher, he would take it elsewhere, to where it belonged, to the people who bought his books.
From Books by Charlie Hill, published by Tindal Street Press.
Charlie Hill left school at 16 to work in a fish market and has since written for the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, the Independent on Sunday and the Glasgow Herald. His short stories have appeared in Ambit, Stand and The View From Here. Books is his second novel. He lives in Birmingham.
Neurologist Lauren Furrows investigates the deaths of two holidaymakers from a mysterious condition while on holiday in Corfu, finding help in the unlikely form of Richard Anger: independent bookshop owner, avant-garde (unpublished) short-story writer and borderline alcoholic. Together they discover the killer is a certain bestselling author whose insipid novels induce readers to lose the will to live. Can they stop him before millions die? Read more.