Publish Out Loud (No Matter If Damned Or Proud).
"He's not a writer, he's a very naughty boy" – Simon (Acquisitions Director, Trad. Towers Publishing)
My latest short story was painted with a satirical brush. I may have chosen an easy target, but I was in a hurry to publish it – an irony in itself.
Many authors advise it’s best to have in mind a reader or two when you write, as it’s impossible to please everyone who reads your work. I created three characters for this piece who I wanted to give a voice to: an under-represented self-believer, a fading social warrior and a closeted, tortured angel.
I hope I’ve breathed enough life into them to touch at least their three respective readers.
"Found one!" Claudia cried out in triumph.
Ginny, workshop facilitator for the week, walked over to her desk. "Show me,” she said. Claudia [‘ADHD’, ‘ASD’, ‘BLM’; triple tick] held her book up for scrutiny. "No, Claudia, that's supposed to have a small 'b'.”
"But badgers have black bits," she protested, confident her honed skills as Junior Copy Editor (Romantic Fiction) were transferable to the post-lunch practical session. She refrained from using the pout which Simon should have noticed when he last ventured downstairs. It had prompted an unexpected reaction from Suzanne with a ‘z‘.
Ginny [‘anti-misogynism/racism/ableism/…’, ‘published alpha-female’; five+ ticks]
“More ticks for your tock?” Claudia ventured, eliciting a titter from a plant-festooned corner desk.
“No, I did not. Please try to ignore Jeremy’s comments during the sessions.”
“It’s only their hair that’s black, Clauds,” interrupted Suzanne with a ‘z’, sat at the adjoining desk. “All Daddy’s shaving brushes use it.” Suzanne [‘tall’, ‘natural blonde’, ‘impossibly bright’; quadruple tick] was so knowledgeable. She'd managed a C in Biology, back when you could still fail an A-Level, or not get into Uni at all. But, as the whole first-floor knew, she was also desperately unlucky in attracting some much-needed editorial love for her independent writing efforts. The recent blizzard of attention-seeking posts had only attracted the ‘wrong sort of reader’ for her chosen genre. Or any genre, given the latest DM’d pics.
"Isn't that right, Rashmi?" Suzanne called out to her colleague near the window [Occ. Health – Vit D Recomm.]. Rashmi stayed silent, as she had throughout most of their ‘We Can Be Blacker’ training week. Suzanne knew she wouldn’t respond. It was only a put-down ploy to belittle a rival. Throughout each compulsory, cringe-filled workshop, she’d confirmed her colleagues were fantastic at spouting rote-learnt acronyms, but unable to grasp what they actually meant, despite her repeated explanations.
Rashmi’s BIPOC-brown skin [‘diversity’; tick] and privately schooled accent [‘surprising asset’; tick], hit the right HR buttons, but often resulted in disconcerting confusion for her single white female colleagues [‘low pay expectations’, ‘highly recyclable’, ‘ensure nice on the eye’; tick count = Directors Only access]. But she’d still helped correct their misspellings when the inevitable deluge of newly self-diagnosed traits had hit their socials. She hated being so servile. It was like visiting her grandparents in Southall.
From behind the plastic office plants in the non-fiction corner, Jeremy [‘equality’, ‘LGBTQIA+’, ‘#metoo’; still double tick] called out, “Yoo-hoo, Virginia! Come and check out this one!”
Ginny didn't like colleagues using her given name. She’d only recently quashed all the tedious "suspension of disbelief" jokes from the sales department. It hadn’t been her idea to slurp from the champers cascade at the last team-building weekend. She hated fizz now, making launch parties very awkward. And she’d frustratingly retained a ‘thing’ for Tim in marketing [‘ex-Sandhurst’, ‘natural authority’, ‘diversity champion’, ‘MBA degree’, ‘white’, ‘cis-male’; ticks dependent on fizz level].
She remembered his chivalrous rescue during her attempt to inhale a Magnum to enthusiastic chanting. But any further recall of their privately concluded climactic scene had frustratingly faded to black. Only random snapshots still taunted her: of him acquiescing to her drunken demands for a wanton below-stairs act; of her rising on disbelieving, dishevelled tiptoes, before a final levitation to a glorious shoulder-bitten, thigh-wrapped ascension. She doubted she could identify the hotel wall which had supported her carnal connection [‘rampant rose in a garden wilderness’; plethora of drunken ticks] and given her dreadful grazes [‘back against the wall. sunday, bloody sunday, indeed’; regretful unticks].
Such recollections were de rigeur for the first floor’s ‘wild weekend’ post-mortems, traditionally held during a Monday morning en masse loo break. Her dead mother’s voice offered constant reminders to 'keep one's position in the pecking order', herself a renowned wielder of the brief, yet intensely satisfying, sub-plot.
Blaming the champagne never sufficed for her gossip-hungry, bubbles-tolerant entourage, and her addled recall had required adding a large dose of NSFW-grade spice. She’d resorted to an imaginatively edited ‘cougar-yet-tender’ tale of the passionate encounter, careful to explain the rationale for a necessary abdication of female agency. The goggle-eyed juniors had devoured her taut sentence structure and breathless delivery [‘sufficient detail to engage reader’, ‘might benefit from fewer cis-hetero elements’, ‘very strong sensitivity requirement’; masses of ticks], ensuring a lasting retention of the coveted alpha-female role. Yet she’d still felt an unexpected twinge of regret when Tim had replied within minutes of her sending the standard ‘give it two days’ email. ‘Yes, if you wouldn’t mind, Ginny. Best we tear out that page’. She’d had no other option after overhearing his wife was a huge fan of missing person psycho-thrillers.
Predictably, Jeremy professed to also having a ‘thing for Tim’ – or, more precisely, his vividly imagined thing. Ginny had refused to share notes on 'confidentiality grounds', which had confused Jezzer for the rest of their non-expensed yet still liquid lunch. She’d expertly diverted their dialogue towards his latest tedious obsession: mixed gender toilets. He didn't mind queueing at all if it meant more time for girlie gossip, he’d spouted. Over my dead, dickless body, Ginny had thought, still nodding in time to his effervescent wittering.
Ginny sidled over to quality check Jeremy's touted Black catch. O… M… G… She'd need a Jeroboam to acquire such a body of work. The giddy thought threatened to unleash some residual Pavlovian queasiness. On checking the imprint, she realised there was another potential upside to Jeremy’s suspiciously fortuitous discovery, and it had been simply ages since she’d conducted a satisfying book burning.
‘Other’ books were banned from the first floor to prevent pollution of young impressionable minds - Claudia’s being a prime example. The sole permitted exception was the graphic design bods scanning contemporary [define] covers to ‘accelerate time-to-market’ via secret pixelated alchemy [‘increased shareholder profits’, ‘Xmas Fund’; quadruple tick]. Yet Jeremy, an irredeemably uncloseted pulp addict, couldn’t help tucking into bundles of tawdry offerings touted by that dreadful discount book trader and its fuckindle monstrosity.
Ginny’s chest swelled to Amazonian proportions as she mercilessly launched her late afternoon blitzkrieg: “Helmut Tacheltorque hasn’t, isn’t, and will never be, a client of Trad. Towers Publishing,” she loudly and solemnly declared to the entire first floor. “This is clearly a self-published book, Jeremy. Look at the typeface.” Jeremy failed to wince as her fusillade of unflinchingly critical bullet points missed their reality targets with unerring consistency. “What on earth does an abject salary have to do with appreciating a good, hard covering? Grow some morals, man, and ditch your infernal device.” Throughout her tirade, Ginny waved the open centrefold at her appalled audience, their eyeballs desperately trying to fixate on what the image’s tiny caption couldn’t possibly be describing in full.
Her apocalyptic grrrl-power moment of depaginating denigration was reaching its climactic peak when the bloody intern's phone issued a series of bloody chirps for the millionth bloody time this week. They [‘genderless’; begrudging tick] were hiding behind several pointlessly printed slush piles, which Suzanne wittily referred to as 'her lunchbox of laughs'. Once a conducive ‘calm vibes’ zone had been setup to permit ‘acceptance and tolerance of others’, they’d insisted they couldn't stop its pinging, which they found comforting in the stressful work environment. Unfortunately, no-one else knew how their stupid bloody android thing worked. Not even the ripped Arab-looking IT guy [‘outsourced’, ‘diversity’, ‘bags of potential’; triple tick] who came every Friday afternoon to perform expensive – but “absolutely essential” – activities on toner-related technical items. Far less essential, but infinitely more interesting, were his repeated verbal efforts to uncover Rashmi’s on/off button [‘high degree of self-motivated exploration’; double tick]. After his third attempt, she’d had the gall to claim she could maintain the printers herself for no additional remuneration [inappropriate volunteer day request; four tick penalty]. It was hard to imagine she’d attended the same school as whassisname in Accounts.
Jeremy ignored Ginny's raised eyebrows and rigid gaze. "Sorry, love" he said, without meaning it, and reluctantly turned the glossy page to reveal a pale, withered creature set within a horror of sans-serif. Jeremy had once loved his job, before the paucity of non-fiction pictures began to strangle his output [‘cost-cutting’; confidential double tick]. He didn’t so much mind the recent sapphic surfeit [‘temporary market driver’; tick count TBC] as everyone deserved their turn at the meme wheel. But everything was becoming so much pettier these days. Best to keep your head down and get through the day, his friends kept advising. But he couldn’t do that, not after what he’d fought for. He might be content to spend his evenings sat home alone with his mangy dog, nursing a cup of cocoa and “tawdry” ebooks on the societal impact of 1980s anti-gay legislation [minus one million ticks]. But his workplace would remain his cultural battleground. Imagine how rushed off their feet his colleagues would be if they had both diversity and equality to think about? Why didn’t they try harder to recruit more men [tick, tick, tick…], like the science and tech bods had with women? No. He would continue to stonewall the wave of change engulfing him, whether through subversion or open dissent.
With an impressive command of door-hinge physics, Simon [Acquisitions Director; ticks n/a – obviously] strode onto the first floor, initiating a noisy crescendo of keyboard chat-taps and A4 paper shuffling. Making a pointless circuit of everyone’s desks, he perched on Claudia’s. Wielding the fruits of experience generously shared by Suzanne during a previous unsolicited one-to-one coaching session, Claudia slowly counted to three, without breathing or paying any attention whatsoever to the tautly defined quadriceps etched in expensive pinstripe. Suzanne with a ‘z’ had warned Claudia she risked her life goals by naively clutching at such displays of self-indulgent masculinity, with potentially catastrophic consequences from any untamed eagerness.
Claudia had been keen to discover why her impromptu and highly considerate mentor advised on such tactics. After hearing third-hand of Suzanne’s tale of woeful abandonment after another unrequited attempt to be internally commissioned, Claudia had vowed to uncover the identity of her repeat-offender-cum-upstairs-tormentor. She’d elicited the sordid details from a compliant Suzanne during a cocktail-soaked tête-à-tête [‘next-door bar’, ‘happy hour 4-6pm’; double tick]. Business often linked intelligence to naivety, and Suzanne struggled to give away too much, too soon. “I know they tell you to do that,” she’d wailed into her re-jiggered white Negroni. “But I can’t show it. I just can’t. Why can’t he use something – anything – to help pick better manuscripts, to spend more time on them, instead of demanding inciting excitement within the first few thousand words? Why does everything need to happen so bloody fast?”
So… her antagonist’s pronoun was a ‘he’. Despite her enormous brain, Suzanne couldn’t see the bigger picture: that time was money which should be invested in anything but a decent commercial assessment workflow system. Over-designed hardback covers, for example. Claudia knew rejection meant suppressing flagellant waves of self-doubt, and Suzanne had been consoled by her reminder she’d at least received some critical feedback. Her not-so-mysterious man was clearly a cunning break-her/make-her operator, focused on high-concept [define] women’s fiction. But he might also recognise the allure of statuesque female privilege and her carefully curated feed of thong-goggling vacation posts. It could be a vulnerable chink in his professional armour, confirming Claudia’s theory it wasn’t really about any objective test of a manuscript’s quality, but more who knew who; what they randomly clicked during a sad solo lunch-hour; or a cunningly mis-directional ‘Can we do anything with this lovely young author (see Instasnap link)?’ request.
Claudia was determined not to make the same mistakes as the thrice rejected and now eternally dejected Suzanne. She’d wouldn’t be asking her tormentor to plough through a poorly drafted novel which had been five candle-burning years in the making. Instead, she’d willingly proffer him a soothing pillow-talk pitch to dispel any thoughts of a shitty prologue, or an endless litany of appalling clichés. She wanted zero chance of the obligatory dire sex scene [penile PoV - yuck; delete in edit] to perform like Suzanne’s, a prescient forecast of her joyless, unfulfilled interactions.
No, making an advance should always involve a novel approach, thought Claudia, heart and hearth equally aglow with her excessive appetite for mixed genre potential and vividly wrought characterisation. A synopsis-obsessed decision-maker might assume she was only one tedious query away from the Can’t Even Recycle bin. But she’d vowed that even his discerning bookmark wouldn’t be sliding between her beckoning pages until her release coincided with his final push for a record sales quarter.
Resurfacing with wide-eyed blinks and an unseen flush, Claudia realised Simon was staring at her with more than his usual concern; his expressive eyes a beguiling hue of honey-brushed brown. “Hello? Claudia?” he said, waving a hand in front of her face. “Would you mind bringing up that proof I asked for this morning? I need to check you’ve given it a thorough going over.”
Claudia groped for the right words as her mouth turned dry with anticipation. “Yes, yes. I’m very sorry for not getting – bringing – it up earlier.” Casting a glance towards the pale imposter Virginia, she risked an alpha put-down: “I’ve had to channel my inner Black all day, despite raising an obvious objection.”
Simon’s eyebrows shot up, then quickly descended into furrowed thought [‘high EQ score’; tick]. “Really? Er, okay – we can talk about that another time.”
“I’ve got nothing planned after work...” An eyelash flutter escaped her rigid grip. Just the one. But Suzanne with a ‘z’ still spotted it.
“It shouldn’t take us long to go through the proof. Just be properly prepared this time.”
A good sign, a very good sign. Instead of a rushed quickie in the elevator, thrusting initial chapters at him in a flutter of failure, he’d cleared his desk to make room for her efforts. Just as he had with Suzanne. Claudia glanced over at a beseeching pair of perfectly sculpted eyebrows, urging her… not to… don’t…. But it was impossible to suppress another long-dreamt scene, and she was already urging Simon on towards her penultimate chapter. Whatever you do, don’t blow this chance, girl. ‘Modesty, grace, charm, tact. Modesty, grace, char—’
She surfaced again: “I would indeed value a moment to prepare myself, Simon,” she pronounced. “And I assure you I will come upstairs as promptly as I can.”
“Er, right. See you in my office then, and please don’t take too long with whatever you need to...” His voice trailed off. He’d also spotted Suzanne’s piercing gaze of betrayal. Time to leave.
Claudia again held her breath as Simon’s thigh slid from her desk in one deft, supple motion. She watched with rapt attention as he swept out of the room, an untainted knight smitten by her ‘lovely young author’ potential. Or maybe her modest grace and charming tact. Maybe.
This is it. This is my chance.
From the sole reality-focused corner desk, a lone voice called out: “A fiver on Claudia not being chaptered and versed before the weekend’s out. Like the last time. And the time before that. And…”
“Shut it, Jeremy,” she yelled back, her poised social mask slipping in frustration at being so crudely diverted from her deserved prize. “If I ever want bed-editing advice from a tedious non-fiction backlister, I’ll be sure to sprinkle some prehistoric fairy dust over the snow white sludge at the bottom of my TBR.”
“Ooh, hark the cliterary fiction fairy getting fu—”
“That’s quite enough, Jeremy!” shouted Ginny, her face turning fizz-pink.
<1st Floor Goss Grp>
Received Message: [omittted users: <Jezzer>, <Clauds>, <SwithZ>]
OMFG. Emergency loo meetup 9am. Be there.
[Intern36 has left the group.]
The stand-off was broken by almost every phone pinging in bloody unison, only for them to be drowned out by Suzanne’s heart-rending wail. Claudia rushed out after her, narrowly beaten to the office exit by the intern, who stumbled down the emergency stairwell, a compressed stress ball gripped in each hand [no, no, no. red = left, green = right; all ticks permanently rescinded]. Ignoring them, Claudia followed Suzanne’s anguished cries into the first floor’s only safe and accessible space for spilling out abject, self-pitying emotions [door sign: ‘Single-gender policy under review. Bear with.’]
Given her day job, Claudia considered herself something of an expert on repressed emotions laced with easily foreseen tragedy, unconfined longing and ‘high-stakes interpersonal tension’. Approaching the end ‘flush your sorrows away’ cubicle without the customary tact, she pushed open the door to reveal a smudge-eyed, streak-cheeked Suzanne with a ‘z’.
What a blubbing mess, she thought, crouching to gain eye contact with the inconsolable panda. For every still-dressed visitor to this permeable sanctum, a deep inhalation is a prelude to the required unburdening, whether it be unprofessional, confessional, or just weirdly obsessional. And so it was now, as Suzanne’s shuddering intake of breath risked an ear-popping air pressure differential.
“Oh, Suzy. What’s wrong now?” Claudia asked, her tone hitting half-way between Enid and Roald.
“Only… only my sister calls me Suzy,” Suzanne managed through copious tears.
“Well, I’ll be your sister for today,” said Claudia, the offer triggering another wrenching sob and more waterworks. “Now, come on. Tell me what’s the matter.”
“Jeremy… He… he bet the other way on me. When I tried to… with…”
“With Simon?” Claudia asked, awkwardly placing an arm around still heaving shoulders. A damp hand reached out to clutch hers in recognition of her insight. Claudia accepted the touching gesture, despite the risks. She really couldn’t cope with another piercing wail.
Suzanne looked up, her blue-blue eyes stained red. “I thought you’d guess,” she sniffed. “You’re the clever one, really. And it was… obvious, I suppose. I’m sorry… So sorry… for not telling you. I didn’t… I didn’t want to spoil your chances.”
‘Spoil my chances’? Claudia thought. As if.
With a loud, hopefully last, sniff, Suzanne rose from her closed lid and extended her lithe arms towards Claudia for the traditional end-of-tears comfort hug. But Claudia detected a resonant hum, perhaps even a shimmer, between the long-fingered hands, tempting her into another world. A divergent portal was opening, an unshared fantasy magicked into lavatorial fiction. Suzanne had entered the specfanfic zone and had cast her die for Claudia to enjoin with her willowy frame. This was no drunk at 2am [‘still made it in by 8:30am’; tick] nightclub aberration. Could she really have succumbed to excessive role-playing or, worse, dressing-up in daylight? But Suzanne was looking at her in the same way as her last errant swipe had on their second and final date. ‘Variety, spice o’ life, innit’ had been tatted above his semi-turgid tackle. Claudia had disagreed (on copyedit grounds alone) and the dark space in his sad little trophy cabinet had stayed empty. Wanker.
But that’s not you, Suzanne with a ‘z’. You’ll be forever-tagged instead as a tormented angel [<1st Floor Goss Grp>: ‘Undeserved trope’, ‘multi-archetype potential’; triple tick]. And it’s not me either; certainly not here, not today. I have other plans.
Claudia spun the toilet roll until she had an existential-problem length of paper and stuffed it into the snivel-damp hands of her failed mentor and confused enchantress. Exiting the cubicle of shame to afford Suzanne and her perfect, twitching red nose some privacy, she leant over the scented plastic clutter of rosehip and hibiscus until her own nose almost touched the mirror. A double-barrelled discharge trumpeted through the toilets, triggering a broad, white smile. She also needed a moment to breathe deep, step back and take stock of the rapidly evolving situation. Her closest competition had been eliminated - perhaps permanently. Now was the time to ascend to acquisition and embrace her symbiotic destiny with Simon. ‘Modesty, grace, charm, tact,’ she repeated to herself, again and again…
Some walls needed ears, or novels would never be written.
During her brief time at Trad. Towers, Claudia had been careful to project an unimpeachable classical lit-fic visage of demurring graciousness when conducting her professional editing duties. But simmering inside her both night and day was a fearsome ambition to achieve incontrovertible and permanent recognition for her real barely-contained passion. Her manuscript’s words ached to be revealed to an eagerly waiting world. Simon might think he could dissuade her again with another trite sentence, dismissing her parchment and presence with an entirely subjective gut-risen lunch hunch. But his cursory excuses of a trifling thematic error or trivial plot hole wouldn’t sway her this time. No, no. Not today. Today, Simon would be pitched into oblivion by her comparative allusions. By the end of her revised, effortlessly delivered pitch, he’ll be begging for an extended opportunity to guesstimate the sales she knew her labours would grant him and his team – including the usual accompanying plaudits and associated benefits.
They were all so manifestly wrong – Jeremy, Virginia, the whole rank lot of them. Claudia craved the wholesale admission of false judgement in denying her undoubted potential. Her book was the finest she’d ever written. She knew it, and soon Simon would too. Swearing on her bible of a manuscript from beginning to end, she would do her damnedest to put Black back on the publishing map, barricading the never-ending deluge of white sisterly crap she’d had to endure editing for bloody months.
You were right about one thing though, Jezzer, you fading queen: Say it loud and say it proud.