Jack Lasermouth is a writer. Mostly science fiction but quite a bit of fantasy too, not to mention a shot or two of crime, an air kiss of romance and the odd self-conscious brain-stretch of literary. He’s not had much published so far, however, just a couple of stories in magazines that pay a few dollars a pop. He doesn’t really know why. Editors usually send back his stories without comment, other than the occasional generic ‘not what we’re looking for at the moment’. Once, he wrote back saying, ‘So, what are you looking for?’ but didn’t get a reply.
When he writes, he tries to find something different to build a story around. It might be a joke his mother made recently, about how young people today look like zombies, shuffling around with their blank stares fixed on their little glowing screens. That one, he turned into a story called, ‘Zombies are Coming, Just as Soon as They Finish Texting’ but it didn’t sell.
When he tried literary, he thought he ought to delve deep into his psyche and find something beautiful, artistic, insightful and interestingly confusing to write about. He remembered feeling self-conscious at school, about liking science fiction when all his teachers told him it was crap. That story was called ‘Requiem for a Child’s Fascination with Quantum Theory as Expressed Through his Father’s Existential Sigh’. But that didn’t hit an editor’s button either.
Then he applied to a writing workshop at a science fiction convention, got a place and forgot about it until he received an email reminding him that he needed to submit a story by the end of the weekend. He had plenty of old stuff that he could put in but then he noticed that one of the expert critiquers in his group was a literary agent. Big chance! He needed a novel, or at least the first few chapters, and fast.
In the pub that night, the empty Word page on his laptop glowed at him accusingly and he realised he was done. He’d used up every original thought he’d ever had. His story juices had run dry. His tale-telling pecker was at half-mast. His plot balloon had been fatally pricked. But he couldn’t give up this chance to impress an agent. There must be something . . .
What if instead of looking for something original he borrowed a few old ideas and stitched them together with a slightly new twist? Hmmmm . . . His mind ranged around the hundreds of books he’d read, focussing particularly on recent novels. Noir . . . always a safe bet. Hard-bitten detective . . . lives in a hovel . . . drinks heavily . . . hasn’t had a case in weeks . . . ooh, better still, let’s put him in the future so he can use some cool tech to help solve the case . . . make the setting a little bit Blade Runner, a touch of the Matrix . . . Colombo-ish character; cleverer than he looks . . . now we need a twist . . . Ah, yes! He’s a transvestite! Likes to dress up as a female policewoman; attends crime scenes to get inside info – sorted!
At the convention, he joins his critiquing group. When it’s his turn, the first to speak is a writer; someone who’s actually been published quite a bit. Lasermouth looked him up online a few weeks ago and read some of his stories. He had to admit they were original all right but a bit intense for him. He had to think hard to keep up with them. Anyway, this guy lets Lasermouth have it straight: advises him to lay off the clichés and reach for something he actually cares about: a theme, an emotion, a passion . . . Jack nods and takes notes but he isn’t really paying attention. He just wants to get published.
Now it’s the agent’s turn and Jack tries hard to read her face. He’s fearing the worst, after a real author has just expertly fingered Lasermouth’s little exercise in casual copy-catting.
Her face breaks into a wide smile. “I loved it!” she says. “It’s a great homage to California noir. Your main character is a wonderful collection of tropes that crime readers love. And it’s a brilliant twist to make him a transvestite . . . ”
The published author is rolling his eyes but Jack doesn’t care. After all these years of rejection, he’s basking in the cool breeze of promise flowing over him through the agent’s suddenly opened door.
All he has to do is tell her the book’s finished then leg it home to bash out a quick 90,000 more words borrowed from various other sources, disguised just enough to pass muster.
Later, in the bar, the published author buys Jack a drink. He’s still feeling giddy from what happened after the critiquing group was over, which was the agent asking him to send her the rest of the book as soon as; adding that she was pretty sure she knew a publisher who’d take it on.
“Congratulations,” says the author but his eyes seem to be saying something less straightforward.
“Thanks,” says Lasermouth. “I can’t believe she loved it.”
“What do you think she loved about it?”
Now Lasermouth recognises what’s in the author’s eyes.
He takes a long swallow of beer and straightens his shoulders, accepting the road he’s just decided to take for the rest of his writing life.
“The fact she can sell it,” he says.