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Reality check

by Well-heeled 

Posted: 11 October 2004
Word Count: 952
Summary: Angst is the last thing an agent or a commissioning editor wants to see from a manuscript. This is a story about why.

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“You’ll die alone, in mediocrity,” said Rufus, flicking ash over my laptop. “A few years will pass. Then no one will remember you ever lived.”

I looked up for a moment to return his impassive stare, pretending I was immune to the sadism. Then I carried on typing - the first few stanzas of Ode to a Nightingale. Rufus couldn’t see the screen and I didn’t want him to feel my light had gone out, no matter how much he made it gutter. Besides, there is an odd feeling of progress afforded by motion. Keep your fingers busy and a large part of your brain thinks it is being productive.

“You’ve missed your chance,” he persisted, licking the salt from a margarita glass. “A twenty-something could put this behaviour down to zeal. A thirty-something should know books are never written in bars. It’s gauche. You shouldn’t bring your laptop down here. It makes you look desperate to appear like a writer when all the real ones are getting the job done at home.”

“Is that where you craft each masterpiece?” I asked. “In the shed? Before breakfast, after some Hazlitt?”

“I prefer hotels, actually,” he said. “Luxury hotels where one can be well-fed, well-massaged and left for weeks on end without distraction.”

Rufus grinned, undoubtedly because he had managed to distract me, and nettle me, and remind himself of how far he had come. The glowing Apple logo on the lid of the computer lit his face from beneath, giving it a kind of pantomime villainy. Yet even then he looked handsome and self-assured. I resented the long nose and unbroken hairline almost as much as the huge advance he was rumoured to have secured on his latest novel.

“Do you feel you deserve your success?” I asked.

“What do you mean? Morally or professionally?”

“Both.” I picked up my own glass, where melting ice had diluted the last of the gin, and managed to moisten my throat.

“If I didn’t deserve my success, I wouldn’t have it,” he said. “Simple as that.”

“You regard yourself as a good writer then.”

“Of course. Don’t you? Isn’t that why you’re still struggling?”

“Do you regard yourself as a better writer than the others at your agency?”

“What does it matter? Readers seem to like my books. I don’t give a toss what they see in them.” He leaned back, drew deeply on his cigarette, and pretended to enter a kind of reverie. “Each royalty cheque is like an unexpected love letter, stuffed full of treats and approbation, none of it conditional.”

“So you have no goal beyond material success?”

“Oh please,” he winced. “Now you sound sanctimonious, as well as a dork. Of course I’m interested in the money, and the popularity. Are you telling me you’re not?”

“I just want to be admired by the people whom I admire.”

Rufus gaped in mock amazement. “Gosh, are you writing something seminal? Have I missed it taking shape here in the corner of the bar all these years?” He made to stand up, and for one awful moment I thought he was going to involve the surrounding tables in some impromptu humiliation. “Maybe this really is the best place for your debut,” he said. “Maybe you should stand up and hail everyone when you’re ready to be taken seriously. Is that your secret fantasy?”

A waitress sashayed past, billowing perfume through the smoke. I caught a glimpse of her lithe figure under the black body suit that was standard-issue in this place, and the cutely pinched nose under long eyelashes. “Hi Rufus,” she cooed. “Babe,” he replied. She was carrying a stack of glasses but managed to trail a free hand along his shoulder on her way to the bar.

“You know what the saddest thing about you is?” Rufus asked. I focused intently on the screen but he continued anyway: “You think there are still original ideas out there, even though they’ve all gone. The classics gave us a basic fictional topography. Everything created since is spread over the same bedrock. We had all sorts of medieval strata. Then came the Renaissance, rich soil and lush vegetation. Shakespeare was a gardener of Babylonian proportions. Since then we’ve had a few impressive heliotropes reaching some kind of enlightenment - Eliot, Joyce, Plath, maybe David Mitchell in the last few years. Now there’s a blizzard of writers like you, hoping to say something truly original. All they can hope is that their snowflake is unique before it melts.”

I remained resolute, staring at the screen, which was half-blank and half-full of someone else’s words. In my peripheral vision, I saw Rufus looking away, towards people on the other side of the bar, already disinterested in my suffering. He made to leave by standing and leaning so that our faces almost touched.

“Don’t ever call my agent again,” he said. “She’d already seen your shit on the slush pile before you told her we were friends, which we’re not, by the way. You don’t need me or her or anyone else here. You need a career counsellor.”

He patted me on the shoulder and walked away. By this time, I had refused to blink for so long that my eyes hurt. Watching the bright screen against the gloom had etched certain characters into my retina: “My heart aches…”

When I was sure Rufus had his back turned, joshing with enraptured friends, I slowly closed the lid of the laptop and slid it into my shoulder bag. Then I left some money on the table for the waitress, though she would never know or care that the tip came from me, and headed out into the rain.

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Comments by other Members

Al T at 08:00 on 12 October 2004  Report this post
Hi Well-heeled and welcome to WW. I enjoyed this a lot and think you write really well. Power dynamics is a particular interest of mine. However, I still wasn't entirely sure at the end whether I thought Rufus was an arrogant prick (or Martin Amis) and his non-friend a total saddo. I felt a bit sympathy and a bit of dislike for both of them, which shows that you've managed to create some complexity in such a short piece.

There are lots of great lines, but my fave must be:
Each royalty cheque is like an unexpected love letter, stuffed full of treats and approbation, none of it conditional
- fabulous!

Please become a full member and post more.

Best wishes,



Btw "I just want to be admired by the people whom I admire" is the way I've always thought, but I never write in bars!

roger at 09:51 on 12 October 2004  Report this post
Hi Paul, and welcome.

This is bloody good writing, bloody good. Hate the thought of what it's saying, probably because I know it to be true...it's a cold, hard world, but you don't half say it well. As Adele says, some great lines, loads of them. The whole thing really is impressive. So much so that I wonder if you're a pro writer. Are you?

Mooncat at 11:47 on 12 October 2004  Report this post
Hi Well-heeled,

You've set the scene really well and the characters are believable and interesting which make the reader want to read on. I liked the dialogue too and like Adele and Roger already mentioned, you do write some great lines.

Looking forward to reading more.


dryyzz at 13:13 on 12 October 2004  Report this post

What more can I add? The characters seemed alive. The prose appeared effortlessly written. (Though I kind of hope you had to work long and hard to get this to work.)

One thing, please don't tell me you knocked this one out in ten minutes, I'll probably puke.

Seriously though, as a self contained fragment, I cannot find anything negative to say.



Dee at 19:16 on 12 October 2004  Report this post
Well-heeled, (are you posing or is that wishful thinking? ;) ) hello and welcome.

Have to agree with the others. This is a really slick piece of writing. Faultless.

I had refused to blink for so long that my eyes hurt. Watching the bright screen against the gloomy bar had etched certain characters into my retina: “My heart aches…”
Love this line. Absolutely love it.

Hope you stay with us. I’d love to read more of your work.


scottwil at 03:11 on 13 October 2004  Report this post
It's a good piece Well-heeled, very assured. A terrific site debut. I can't add much that hasn't already been said. The dialogue is convincing as are the characters.
I especially liked the snowflake line.
Bravo and encore.


Well-heeled at 12:33 on 13 October 2004  Report this post
Thanks everyone for commenting on this so quickly, and for being so generous. This is my first upload to WW but I hope to contribute more stuff on a regular basis.

I find very short stories make useful studies of particular techniques. Here I was trying to focus on dialogue, which I find incredibly difficult. Am very pleased to hear you found the characters credible yet a little ambiguous.

While we're on the subject, I'd recommend a book called "Solutions for Writers" by Sol Stein, as the best source of practical advice on dialogue that I've ever found. This book was designed in part to help non-fiction writers make a successful transition into fiction, so if you're a journalist like me then you should find it particularly helpful.

Look Mr Stein up - he's an author of novels and plays, the former head of the Stein & Day publishing company in the US and a so-called "book doctor" who charges several hundred dollars an hour to help writers edit their novels and scripts.

old friend at 15:57 on 13 October 2004  Report this post

I found both characters very believable. They are sharply written and very well balanced, almost at the extreme ends of what one might call the writing fulcrum.

The successful, arrogant and almost cruel author comes across just that little bit more for I felt that he had some justification. Whereas the weakness of the other made me feel that he would always be a born loser. I didn't 'like' either but I don't think you aimed for this. What you did aim for was the combination of the two to achieve a well-written, convincing and very readable story. You succeeded!

One very small point for me was in the first line of the paragraph 'Rufus gaped...' Here you use 'something' twice. As Rufus is being sarcastic and as he is a successful writer I think perhaps the second 'something' might be changed (perhaps 'a masterpiece' or similar). Very well-written.


eyeball at 08:57 on 14 October 2004  Report this post
Hi Well-Heeled
I was only going to have a quick look at this and come back later, as I'd reached the point of reading with one eye, but I had to finish it. The dialogue is great, particularly from the Rufus side. I loved the speech beginning: 'You think there are still original ideas' The style reminded me of Jay McInerney. Looking forward to seeing more from you. Sharon

Well-heeled at 12:02 on 14 October 2004  Report this post
Thanks Sharon. If anything in this piece reminds you of Jay McInerney then I'm extremely flattered because he wrote my undisputed favourite novel of all time, "Bright Lights, Big City".

If anyone here has not read that book, they should do so immediately. It was a debut novel, written by a 29-year-old who had just been sacked from the New Yorker, where he was a very junior editor. What's amazing about the book apart from its brilliant style and bittersweet sense of humour is that he wrote it *in the second person*. That alone should have consigned it to the shredder. Yet it's also riddled with angst about literary ambition, and is essentially a story about failure (albeit failure that may allow the protagonist to purge all the bad things from his life).

Read it.

Anna Reynolds at 15:48 on 18 October 2004  Report this post
Well-heeled, it's confidently written, but I wondered what the relationship was exactly between the two men? why does Rufus bother with the lesser writer, is it just to enhance his own effortless status? and vice versa- why does he put up with Rufus' sadism? I must admit to a slight problem with writing about writers, but other than that, I suppose I wondered if we are meant to care for the characters? Is this a stand along piece, or is it part of something longer or the beginning of a book?

Well-heeled at 01:35 on 19 October 2004  Report this post
Hi Anna. Thanks for your comments. This is just meant to be a study, really. I wanted to practise dialogue. My response to your question about the relationship between the two men is this: Rufus is punishing the lesser writer for contacting his agent under the pretence of a non-existent friendship; the lesser writer is trying to put up with Rufus's sadism because, secretly, he craves acceptance. That said, he doesn't put up with it altogether, because after the "reality check" he walks out. My intention wasn't to generate sympathy for one character or another but to make them both as credible as possible.


NB: I hope I implied clearly enough that the two men frequent the same club. Their relationship amounts to nothing more, but the lesser writer has nonetheless tried to exploit it for the purpose of advancement. We see him pay for overstepping the mark.

Becca at 12:54 on 19 October 2004  Report this post
Hi Paul, and belated welcome to WW.
This was a neat story told straightforwardly, your writing is confident, and it's easy to read.
I suspected that both your characters were male by the way the cynical novelist was talking, (as he is of the type who calls women Babe, so to be true to character would talk to them in a different way to how he is talking to the other writer in the story. Although I'm not completely sure about the gender business!),
but at any rate I was therefore wondering about the title of the story your MC was writing. This is me stereotyping here, but 'Ode to a Nightingale' sounds like a love story written by a mature woman.
I like that we don't know much about the character with the laptop, but can see him/her in the reflection of what the other character says to him/her.

I've just read the other crits, and there was an assumption there as well that they were both men, although the scene with the waitress and the observations the one with the laptop makes does lead me to think it probably really is the case.

So, this is very professional looking writing, Paul.

James Anthony at 20:38 on 20 October 2004  Report this post
Can't really say anything other than that which has already sent. It's not snowing for me, just raining so why not just join in the praise. Loved it...

At one point I thought this could well be a conversation between the protagonist of The Information (Martin Amis) who is trying to write The Novel, and his successful writer friend.

And welcome to WW. I'll look forward to reading more...

take care

Hamburger Yogi & PBW at 05:29 on 02 November 2004  Report this post

I can imagine this happening somewhere in the UK. Reminds me of Paul Theroux's tales of coming up as a writer in London.

Verges on the overwordy (as my own work does, I'm told) but works well when the reader's attention is not drawn to the writing. Could cut this aspect by 3%.

Feelings are well covered in this piece - I was drawn in on that.

Ode to a Nightingale should be italicised. (Yeah, fusspot I know - but we have the html for it)

Hamburger Yogi

scoops at 11:20 on 19 November 2004  Report this post
I came and looked at this after coming across your vigilante piece on the Random Read. I think it's very funny and well observed. Like Hamburger Yogi, I could imagine a thousand conversations like that in bars and Starbucks across the great metropolis where writers sit with their Mac powerbooks, and it made me both cringe and laugh aloud. For some strange reason I thought of Martin Amis: maybe because Rupert is so repugnant he could be out of any Amis novel. I hope this is a scene from a larger piece. Shyama


I've just reeled back beyond Hamburger's note, and found someone's already drawn the Amis parallel. It really is darkly rich:-)

bjlangley at 11:43 on 19 November 2004  Report this post
Hi Well-heeled, I'm coming to this piece rather late, so don't have much to add. You wrote this piece with the focus on dialogue, you say? That's funny, because whilst reading I thought the dialogue was very strong.

All the best


Al T at 17:31 on 28 November 2004  Report this post
Hello again Well-Heeled,

I've spent the weekend with my head in the Sol Stein book you recommended. I wish I had read it before I started writing my novel, not in the middle of Draft 1001. Still, better late than never, I hope. Thanks for the tip.


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