theft, sincerity and pink hair: a day-late christmas carol

Somebody stole my phone today. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

The details don’t matter. I joined the masses trawling the ailses for Boxing Day savings, I made sure my handbag was zipped, I avoided flashing around the envelope with my Christmas cash inside, and then I was texting my mother, and then it was gone.

I think I put it down on the counter when I got served, but only in front of me, just below my hands, which held my wallet. Somewhere between my friend, who was right next to me the whole time, remembering to give me a voucher I was yet to use, and then me confusing the poor lady serving me because I presented it too late and changing my mind to avoid complicating things further, someone who is not me or my friend picked it up and walked away with it. And that was that.

I think. The truth is, I don’t know.

I am not a careless person. I keep my phone in my back pocket (because women don’t get to wear jeans with front pockets big enough to fit anything more than lint and fury, AMIRIGHT LADIES) at all times. I’m in the habit of sliding it straight back into that pocket the moment I’m done with it, so I don’t lose it, misplace it or, you know, get it stolen. Perhaps I did it then, before I took my wallet out of my bag, and fell prey to a skilful as hell pickpocket. It was, after all, a JB Hi-Fi on Boxing Day. Everybody there was a sweaty, budget-breaking sardine, and every time you moved in any given direction, you walked into someone or something and found yourself apologising to them or it.

I realised all of three seconds after being handed my receipt that something was amok. I didn’t recall putting it in my handbag as opposed to my pocket, but then I rarely do, such is the nature of a deeply-ingrained habit. My handbag is deep and pocket-y and finding anything inside quickly is impossible, so I shouldn’t have been concerned at that moment, but there it was: the voice of cynicism, rearing its head in the darkest corners of my brain, like a red flag billowing in an unlucky breeze. I’d been had, and I knew it. I just had to wait for the rest of me to catch up.

I bolted back to the counter, knowing I would find it next to the Eftpos machine, knowing if it wasn’t there, the girl serving me would’ve seen it and put it aside, knowing if she hadn’t, the kindly fellow shopper who came after me would have handed it to the security guards at the front of the shop, who would take it to the centre’s concierge desk, who would do an announcement over the PA, and it would be like in a Nora Ephron movie except I’d be running towards the iPhone 6 I’ve only had for two months and not Tom Hanks.

None of that happened, of course. The realisation that somebody had done something so undeniably shitty as this the day after Christmas made me cry, just for a bit, when I rang my mother, who was fresh off the plane on a much-needed holiday and suddenly faced with spending part of it liaising with our insurers. The Christmas correlation is a whole other blog post (I subscribe to the “I don’t know why we only put aside one day of the 365 in a year to give thanks, remind our family we love them and get all misty-eyed at our shared humanity, but one day is way better than none, and also stop buying so many damn presents” school of thought on that), but I think we can all agree: you don’t fuck with the festive season. Twelve hours ago, my cousin had announced to my entire family she’s pregnant with her first kid, and nobody stopped smiling until they went to sleep. Now, I’m in a parking lot with the smokers and skateboarders, tearfully telling my mother I want whoever did this to die and almost half meaning it.

Be a shitty human in your own time. At Christmas you’re on Baby Jesus’ time.  

I’m undoubtedly and without shame one of Those People who consider a piece of technology to be their fifth limb. I use it always and for everything. Texting, tweeting, emailing, reading, browsing. Checking the time. I say “without shame” because my kind get chided for being “glued to our phones”, I don’t think, within the boundaries of politeness, that there’s anything shameful in actively keeping in touch with both loved ones and current events. My phone is the medium through which I do both, because I’m not made of time and also I actually like technology. So, it goes without saying I felt headless when I realised not only was it Gone, it wasn’t Left-It-In-My-Car-Again Gone, Fallen-Between-The-Couch-Cushions Gone or Folded-Between-The-Pages-Of-The-Last-Book-I-Was-Reading Gone. It was Not-Coming-Back Gone. For reasons completely outside my control, for motivations totally beyond my comprehension.

And comprehension is a big part of what threw me in all this. Beyond being just plain rattled, I was shocked. Astounded. Downright befuddled and only capable of talking in questions consisting of just one word: “What? How? Why?”, like some primary school teacher deconstructing Diary Of A Wombat with her class. The feeling wasn’t unfamiliar. A few years ago, somebody reversed into the side of my car while I was at a show, and when I came out I had to crawl over the gearstick because the driver’s side door wouldn’t open. They hadn’t left a note, but I worked for the local newspaper at the time and needed no excuse to do a Lois Lane, writing an inside cover piece on the whole debacle. The day after we printed, a woman rang my editor to say she’d seen it happen on the night and written down the guy’s license plate, simultaneously ensuring I’d get his money for the extensive repairs and restoring my shaky faith in humanity. In spite of my inability to do a full Lois Lane this time around, it turned out there’s a Nice Lady Reading The Paper Who Did The Right Thing in this story, too.

She has pink hair.

She’s about my age. She wears outrageously cute floral dresses and a smile that strikes me as vaguely cheeky, as if grinning to herself almost constantly at something funny in her head. She’s skinny and she has a lanyard on with a name tag I can’t read. I ask her if she’s already serving someone because she’s walked towards me with a lot of purpose for somebody doing nothing, and she says she isn’t, with an expectant lilt about her, which makes me realise I might look as lost as I feel. I ask her for the cheapest, nastiest phone she has on offer, and she considers this a fun challenge immediately.

She takes one from the cupboard she’s unlocked, thinks it over a moment and decides she can “do better than that”, and by “better” she means “worse” and we both know it so I chuckle and just like that she has made me do what I have so far failed to: laugh. In the face of the person who took something that didn’t belong to them. At the idea of somebody who barely remembers what VHS means using a phone invented before Bluetooth. For not realising it could have been much worse, and it wasn’t, and it will at least make a good story one day. With the knowledge whoever did it is already far worse off than me for having done it, because some people are their own punishment, or maybe they simply needed it more than I do, in which case, I really hope it suits their purposes.

When the cheapest, nastiest phone has emerged from its hiding place, the girl with pink hair tells me she’s going to discount it to the point where I can almost pay with the coins I’ve accumulated in the cup holders of my car. She also says she can restore the phone number I suspended sometime between calling my mother again and filing a police report to the new SIM card, and I sincerely tell her she has made my day. At some point, she hands me an invoice with a flourish, and tells me, “We’ll split and meet back here”, like she’s Nancy Drew and I’m whoever Nancy Drew regularly had adventures with. I sincerely thank her, and sincerely smile, because sometimes I worry there’s not enough sincerity in the world and if there was maybe people wouldn’t steal phones off retail countertops while the owner’s handing over the voucher their Nan tucked into a Christmas card. When all is said and done, I ask her what her name is with my hand extended to shake hers in thanks, because I’ve read her name tag by now and I’m not sure how to pronounce the three letters written on it.

The thing is, there’s only one reason a writer will ask someone they’ll never see again for their name: they want to name a character after you. You’ve earned it. This is trade-secret stuff and I might get kicked out of the club for saying so, but you’ve inspired them, as weird as it sounds, for reasons good or bad. Maybe that character will die a thousand deaths and maybe they’ll meet a kind face in a bookstore on a rainy afternoon. Her name is pronounced unlike how I would’ve predicted and I file it away, and her handshake is strong and friendly and pointed. Handshakes of that kind might be rarer and more important than sincerity.

I left wondering if I might not replace my iPhone at all. The thought lingers. Now I have a Nokia in my life, and we all know how bloody brilliant they are. It doesn’t have email or a camera and it needed me to change settings before it could automatically update the time, but it has actual buttons, and it hasn’t been charged since I took it out of the box and couldn’t care less. I’d compare it to the phone I got when I was ten, but it doesn’t have Snake. You can’t have everything.

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Everyone’s an expert: On taking (and giving) writing advice

Or, How I Named My Protagonist After One Week And Many Sleepless Nights.

Every writer living or dead has sought out advice, at some point or another, about their craft – the dos, the don’ts, the only-if-you-want-to-get-laughed-all-the-way-to-the-rejection-piles. I’m the first to admit I couldn’t be less experienced about writing and lord knows I’ve spent many an hour Googling things only writers will understand:

“how short is too short for a short story”

“are semicolons really the devil”

“what even is passive voice”

“famous rejection letters”

Etc.

But recently I’ve been especially prone to the myriad bloggers and webkeepers out there who each have their own take on things, from the pros and cons of unreliable narrators to the dos and don’ts of writing for a young adult audience (my conclusion on that last part is: let’s not patronise the world’s most patronised demographic by being stupid adults and assuming their preferences can be neatly defined in a grid, list, and/or template. Yep).

In my recent and slightly desperate traipses through writer blogs and pithy advice columns, I’ve learned something really important and stupidly obvious:

EVERYBODY HAS THEIR OWN THING THAT WORKS FOR THEM AND THAT’S FINE AND IF IT WORKS FOR YOU, TOO, THEN YIPPEE, BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORRY IF YOU DON’T AGREE WITH THEM COZ THEY’RE NOT AN EXPERT OR THE BOSS OF YOU.

(Except you, Chuck Wendig. You’re definitely my boss).

Example time.

What led me to my hair-pulling canvassing of what the blogosphere has to offer? I needed a name. For my character. And I couldn’t choose. So I Googled it.

Do you guys KNOW how many names there are in the universe? A freaking LOT. In no time, I had a list of possible candidates as long as my arm (this is not an exaggeration and my arms aren’t exactly short) and I was thinking of going all Layer Cake on this thing, because how on Earth am I supposed to choose just one?

The best part is, of all the many crises we neurotic writer-types can conjure up on a damn-near daily basis, the “choosing a name for my character” thing is definitely my most frequent dilemma.

My spiritual guide and much-maligned BFF, JB, will vouch for this. If that boy had a penny for every time I’ve thrown names at him to see which stick, he would’ve bought us dinner last night and not me. (Sidebar: his laptop, which he somehow kept alive for ten years, died last week. Go send him a follow or a kind comment to help ease his pain). I resumed my usual game last week when yet another protagonist I may or may not be developing for this (eek) had their own existential crisis. Is there a name for when a writer has to deal with a character’s existential crisis and reshape their identity? I feel like there ought to be.

In any case, to Google I went. I typed in “how to name your c…” and autofill did the rest:

Image

I love that “child” is fourth, after “car”. GOOD JOB HUMANS.

So I knew straight away that at least I’m not the first person to routinely beat their head against the unique identifier wall.

First Rule of Google: You’re not alone.

Then I proceeded to wade through the mire that is, well, the internet. Because:

Second Rule of Google: Everyone’s an expert.

The Wiki-How article wasn’t the first one to come up, thanks SEO, but I’m a sucker for a good (read: terrible) Wiki-How article, so that consumed my attention immediately. Here it is, and all things considered, you could be given worse advice. My favourite thing about it is the brackets: “(see also, the Desai family from Coronation Street)”. At which point I leapt out of my chair and declared, “British soap operas? How did I not think of these fountains of wisdom sooner?!”

But seriously, I started to suspect I was wasting my time with dodgy advice about halfway through (it’s Wikipedia, after all), but my tipping point was the ninth and final pearl of wisdom, in which we learn:

“If your character has a best friend, enemy, partner, sibling, etc who they spend a lot of time with, it is best not to have their names too similar, or the readers may confuse the names. Examples include Rachel/Robert, Mary/Martin, Sophie/Sam etc.”

I think my gut reaction was outrage. I’ve already had a little mini-rant about my feels on patronising a YA audience, but these feelings extend to any and every audience. Nobody likes to be patronised, to be talked-down to, to get the feeling Their Version and Your Version are different because one’s been filtered, edited, trimmed and neatly polished For Their Own Good. Screw that. You stick a kid in front of Adventure Time and they’ll love it just as much as an adult will (adults, you will) but for entirely different reasons, and isn’t that the awesome thing about what we do? That people will understand and interpret things at their own speed? Maybe one will hate it and the other like it but at least both have formed their own opinions based on the same version of the same thing. Better yet, maybe the kid will hate it now and love it in five year’s time. Scrubs, I’m looking at you.

Anyways, I’ve said before that I’m no expert (that’s the crux of this whole post, if I’m being too obtuse), but I like to go into a draft without thinking my audience might get confused if I give two completely different characters – of different genders – names beginning with the same letter. Maybe that’s just my pesky inexperience shining through again.

Also, it would be remiss of me not to include the ever-wonderful and hilarious Hank Green’s thoughts on How To Name Your Baby Properly, which obviously, is relevant. Hank is the brother of author John (who’s responsible for THIS) and they vlog to each other once a week since they live on different sides of the country. His post is in response to this post, in which I learned the first person to attach an eraser to the end of a pencil was named Hymen Lipman. No, really.

Article number two the Google machine brought to my attention was the ever-reliable BabyNames.Com, weighing in on the topic of writers choosing character names as opposed to expectant mums looking for the perfect middle name – and this is actually perceptive of them, because:

Third Rule of Google: Baby name websites ARE character name websites. (My personal favourite is Nameberry).

So BabyNames.Com taught me that “exotic romance names are out”, which actually helped, because it meant I could nix Brittaeny Billingsley and Xander Humperdink and be two less in my list of candidates. I also learnt that the comments section on these kinds of websites are sometimes even better than the website itself, thanks to a lady who ended up naming her son Hildebrand because “Disney took Flynn” (that character’s real name turned out to be Eugene Fitzherbert, FYI. Clearly somebody didn’t watch the movie).

Third and last, and this is where my tipping point reached critical levels and I started thinking about writing this post, is this article, which suggested I name my character based on a certain theme. For example:

“A family with three sisters has the theme ‘spice.’ The girls’ names are Pepper, Nutmeg, and Cinnamon.”

I literally closed my laptop and walked away.

I’m not saying any of these articles (there are so many more) are full of bad advice. I’m saying, in a backwards kind of way, that when it comes to writing, I’m not sure if there is such a thing as Bad Advice, or Good Advice. You should probably employ common sense every once in a while, and I know I’ve heard many things from trusted friends and mentors that immediately strike me as an incredibly useful technique, but for the most part, I’d say there’s just Advice.

I’m grateful to have an internet and blogosphere chock full of writers with varying degrees of experience for me to turn to when I decide my character’s name no longer cuts the mustard and I get bogged down in pages of alternatives. I hope these people never stop posting about what they’ve learned so far, having done the hard yards I’m yet to do, knowing it might help their fellow writers to improve their game or crack that scene. But I also hope I, and every other writer out there, feels empowered enough to pick and choose which nuggets of wisdom they need to keep and treasure, and which they can safely let fall by the wayside without thinking it’s the difference between a million-dollar publishing deal and eternal obscurity.

I got my name decided in the end, but how? I did what I always do. Sweated over it, tried a thousand on that didn’t quite work, easily crossed off a few because I knew there was no way I’d be typing that twenty thousand times in a script, narrowed it down to ones I could think of nicknames for and paired a surname with a first name I wanted to use for reasons of metaphor, and voila. It wasn’t the most streamlined process in the world, but it worked.

The bottom line is, when it comes to writing, everyone’s an expert, and nobody is.

Oh, except Chuck Wendig. Chuck Wendig has something to say on the topic of characterisation, and I’m gonna go tattoo it all to my forehead.

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Footnote: Here are some blogs by authors I have the good fortune of actually knowing, if vaguely. They’re all very talented women and writers, they do write ‘advice’ posts from time to time, and they are definitely worth listening to. That’s my advice.

Amanda Curtin

Annabel Smith

Natasha Lester