Lisbon, 16 March, 2014
I put my foot in it today and I’m afraid I’ve got myself in a real jam. I went up against some well-connected people, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my career hasn’t gone down the drain as a result.
It happened during the quarterly meeting of the Lisbon Chapter of the Portuguese Writers’ Guild. I had put in a request to be assigned characters and locations for a book, but during the meeting things didn’t go as well for me as I’d hoped. I got worked up, I lost it, I said stuff I really shouldn’t have.
I’m still on edge, and I suppose this isn’t making much sense to you, is it? You probably don’t even know what the Guild is or have a clue what I’m talking about.
Just give me a moment. . . I’m still shaking like a leaf. Let me get a grip, try to calm down, and then I’ll explain everything from the beginning.
If you believe what its high-ups say the Guild is practically as old as time, and certainly dates back to the origins of the written word.
It is present worldwide, embracing each and every country and region through its network of Chapters. Wherever there are authors, the Guild is active.
Four times a year the Chapters convene meetings, which always start in exactly the same way, with the solemn reading aloud of the Guild’s statutes. The opening paragraph states:
“The Guild was founded by the first scribe in the history of Mankind. All the great literary works were written under its auspices, from the Vedas, and Homer’s epic poems to the most recent best-sellers.”
Obviously this is complete bullshit. I myself calculate the Guild to be two hundred years old at most. But when I attend meetings I dutifully make out I believe this mumbo-jumbo, just like everyone else is busy pretending to do.
Because the Guild controls everything: the publishers, the writers’ sites, the big graphics companies, the literary prizes, and God knows what else.
If I weren’t a member, I couldn’t be a writer. Independents are boycotted; it’s as simple as that.
The original idea for a writers’ regulatory association wasn’t a bad one because if every hack could pen just what he/she wanted, everybody would pretty soon be writing about the same things, wouldn’t they? Vampires in vogue. . . then I guess every book written would be about vampires. No, wait, it’s all about romance now. Fine, let’s all switch to writing romances then.
The Guild prevents this from happening by decreeing in advance exactly what each author is allowed to write about. The idea is to give the most popular themes to the most experienced authors, in order to increase the chances of a book’s being a success. Newbies are directed to try their hand with the more obscure literary genres first, so as not to make a mess of best-selling themes.
As the saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The original idea might’ve been good, but it rapidly degenerated into an entrenched system of persistent lobbying, back-handers, and string-pulling by the faceless literary powerbrokers who operate in the shadows.
But let’s get back to me, shall we? Today was the quarterly meeting of the Lisbon Chapter of the Writers’ Guild, and, as I have already said, I had requested to be assigned characters and locations for a new book.
The meeting was held in a huge amphitheatre with hundreds of writers present, seated row after row. It was presided over by three eminent literary figures, placed above us on a dais furnished with a table and comfortable lounge chairs.
While awaiting my turn, I had to sit through a seemingly endless number of assignments being handed out to other authors. I tried to appear interested and enthusiastic, clapping at the appropriate moments and smiling ingratiatingly at the colleagues seated nearest me. I don’t know if it is true or not, but there are recurring rumours that spies are planted among us during meetings and I didn’t want to risk any public show of disaffection.
The first author to be considered was a complete idiot and lickspittle, one who is known to me personally. He is Vice-President of the Chapter, and has never written anything that amounts to much. During the ceremony he was given the go-ahead to write a romance, located in Bora Bora, Polynesia, between the playboy heir to a mega fortune, and a princess from a dispossessed European royal family.
If they had given me a story like that, you can bet I’d turn it into a worldwide best-seller, but in the hands of that idiot it will amount to nothing.
I won’t bore you with the long list of plots that were handed out and my thoughts regarding the authors who received them. Suffice to say that the best characters and locations fell into the hands of the most inept, but with the right “sponsors” and contacts, while promising newcomers were given the literary equivalents of Mission: Impossible.
Eventually it was my turn. A voice rang out, saying: ‘Pedro Barrento.’
I stood up and tried to look humble (always the safest bet with these people), while I waited to hear my fate.
‘Genre: romance,’ announced the Chairman from his elevated position, nose still buried deep in my file, without having the common decency to meet my eye.
Great, I thought to myself. That doesn’t sound too difficult, and allows me a decent shot at success. It looked like finally they had decided to be reasonable. I prayed for an exotic location, or maybe a world-famous city: New York, “the city that never sleeps”, Paris, “la ville lumière”, or even Venice, “la città dell’amore”.
‘Location: Lisbon and the South Bank of the Tagus,’ continued the Chairman in the same arrogant, monotonous tone.
Damn it, I should’ve known something like this would happen, I fumed to myself. It’s always the same old scam. To he who can barely write his own name they give Bora Bora, the perfect setting for a romance, while to me, a reasonably gifted writer (though I do say so myself), all they’re prepared to offer is his own back yard.
As a setting for romance the South Bank of the River Tagus could hardly be worse. It’s a real black spot: architecturally impoverished; a miserable, blighted urban dormitory inhabited by people who can barely make it through to the end of the month on their meagre income. I guess the “Lisbon” part of the brief is my only hope, I told myself. Maybe there it will be possible to put something together. . . it all depends on the characters I’m allotted.
‘Characters: in Lisbon, the residents of an old people’s home. On the South Bank of the Tagus, two girls in their late twenties/early thirties, an old man, some construction workers, a computer whizz-kid and a high flyer.’
I just stood there, mouth agape, unable to believe the injustice of it.
In Lisbon, where I could still hope to base a proper romance with some substance and impact, they give me a bunch of old geezers, while the girls are confined to the South Bank of the river. Who the hell are they supposed to date? The construction workers? The computer geek? Romance and computer freaks don’t mix so I’m left with the high flyer. What am I going to do with him? Get him dating the two girls at the same time?
To be honest, I flipped then. As they were about to call the next author I did the unthinkable, something that had never before happened in the entire history of the Guild. I raised my voice and made a complaint.
‘I’m very sorry but I don’t think this is fair.’
A deathly silence pervaded the room.
The Chairman, having just set my file aside, rested one hand on it, adjusted his glasses with the other, and fixed me with an incredulous glare.
‘Would you mind repeating that, sir?’
I was shaking all over, cursing myself for the lack of self-control which had led me to protest. But it was too late now for me to back down.
‘I am terribly sorry. I don’t mean to appear ungrateful, but it seems to me that the locations and characters I’ve been assigned don’t go together at all well. At least, not in the context of a romance. . .’ My voice faltered and broke off. I couldn’t imagine what they would do to me for daring to protest like this.
‘Mr Paulo Barreto, do I take it that you are lodging a complaint, questioning the story you have been given?’
‘It’s Pedro Barrento, not Paulo Barreto,’ I told him. ‘And. . . er. . . a complaint is probably not the way I’d put it. . . ’
The Chairman cut short my clumsy attempt to defuse the situation and launched into a diatribe in which he denounced me for being of bad character, lacking in morals, someone who thought he was above his fellow Guild members, in shameless pursuit of special dispensation, etc., etc.
When this tirade came to a conclusion a buzz of approval swept through the hall. By then all I wanted was to forget it and take myself off, but that wasn’t allowed to happen. The three committee members conferred briefly, exchanging hushed whispers, then the Chairman resumed talking.
‘This assembly does not wish to be accused of stifling anyone’s creative freedom; therefore, the committee has decided that, in spite of the fact that the author in question is palpably undeserving, we will concede an additional few elements for inclusion in his book.’
I was on tenterhooks by now, not sure whether they were trying to be kind or if this was all a trap.
‘The committee has decided to permit two new plot strands, featuring a ghost and a journey by aeroplane.’
I couldn’t believe my ears. Everything suddenly became so much simpler. In the first two chapters I would kill off all the characters who didn’t interest me – in road accidents, shipwrecks, or something of the sort. Then the high flyer would jet off to Bora Bora with the hotter of the two girls, where romance would blossom.
At the tropical island paradise, they would then be chased by the ghost of her ex-boyfriend (probably one of the men I had killed off in the early chapters). This scenario had all the blockbusting ingredients I could want.
The men on the dais watched and waited, imperturbable, for my sighs of relief to give way to an ear-to-ear grin. Then they added:
‘However, as this concession not only represents a huge departure from precedent, but also an injustice to other writers, who accept the elements they are given without complaint. . .’ here he emphasised the last word ‘. . . we are obliged to impose certain restrictions. The ghost must not appear before the last few chapters, and the aircraft may only be used at the very end of the book.’
I was gutted. They had made it appear as if they meant to help me out while all the time leading me on with false hopes. Instead of adding variety to the story, the two additional elements made it virtually impossible. What use could I possibly have for a ghost and a plane trip almost at the end of the book?
‘Is there anything else?’ asked the Chairman, a note of sarcasm in his voice. ‘Or may we continue, Mr Barreto?’
Fuming inwardly, I thanked him politely and resumed my seat. I felt the eyes of my fellow writers boring into me as I thought to myself: I’m totally screwed.
***** || *****
Now I am at home, lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling. I can’t get to sleep.
I think I have come up with a plan though. I’ll start with the old age pensioners in Lisbon. I’ll get them playing around with some sort of irrelevant activity, just to keep them busy and out of the way of the main plot.
Then it moves on to the two girls and the high flyer. I need to capture the readers’ attention right away with a hint of romance, just to make sure I don’t lose their interest while I resolve my initial difficulties with the dramatis personae assigned to me.
Regarding those minor characters living on the South Bank of the river, I’ll see if I can find some subordinate role for them. When I start writing, I’m sure the inspiration will come.
And after these opening chapters I’ll finally be free to concentrate on the romance, preferably between the high flyer and one of the girls. This seems to me to be the only course with any commercial potential.
It is a bit of a slow preamble but it’s the best course I can think of, considering what I’ve been handed. I’ve got to make do with what I’ve been given, there’s no alternative.
As for the ghost and the air journey, I’m sure I’ll get them into the story somehow. It almost goes without saying that it’ll be a bit contrived, but what other course do I have? Best not to worry about it too much now. When the time comes, I’ll think of something, God help me.
Thank you for reading the first chapter of
“Marlene and Sofia – A Double Love Story”.
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