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How To Be Perfect - Opening page

Hi everyone!

I've always written for children but I have a few months off over the summer and have decided to write an adult book. I'm frustrated by getting quite far along the path with agents (requesting my MS and even redrafts but then not choosing to represent me despite really liking my books). So I'm hoping it's an easier task for adults.

I've started writing something but I don't really know where it fits into the market. It's a comedy about a woman in her thirties who moves back to her childhood home after living abroad for ten years and expects all her childhood friends to be impressed by her, when in reality they've actually achieved a lot more and moved on with their lives. She has a bit of a social meltdown (which plays out in the first chapter below) and decides to set about trying to improve every aspect of her life, first through self-help books. It plays on our society's obsession with perfection and eventually slides into some existential, magic realist questioning of reality (which will hopefully be more organic over the course of a novel than it sounds in this paragraph.)

I'd love to hear any thoughts people have on it as I'm really torn at the moment on how to spend this free time I have. 

How to be Perfect

 Chapter One
 This is a Low

 “Don’t fucking judge me!” That was the best I could come up with. Eighty pairs of oh-so-judgy eyes on me and that was my only comeback.

I wish I could blame it on the alcohol. The glasses of sangria Adam had been couriering over to me all evening smelt of more than just Rioja and orange juice but that’s hardly an excuse.

If I was being kind, I’d probably accept that Chloe Arthurs had a hand in it. That cow had been looking for a way to get her own back ever since I’d made out with Ricky Eng on the school trip to Hever Castle when we were thirteen. If she hadn’t stuck her weirdly small nose in I’d have had a perfectly nice evening.

And yes, any normal person would admit that the cocaine didn’t help. Three lines in quick succession, off the back of Stacey Palmerton’s fiancé’s hand in the men’s toilet, hadn’t exactly sharpened my mind.

But let’s be honest for a second. It wasn’t the booze or the coke or little-nosed Chloe or even Stacey Palmerton’s fiancé that got me kicked out of the engagement party. It was me; Lizzy the fuckup. Lizzy the train wreck, the fiasco, the absolute calamity.

When Stacey poked the door to the cubicle open, I thought I’d hit rock bottom. Neil the fiancé had his trousers down, his pathetic “Here Cums the Groom” boxers still visible, and for one stupid moment I thought, This is it! It’ll all be uphill from here. 

“How could you do this?” Stacey began to silently sob and Neil started in on the “Babe, no seriously, babe. Listen to me, babe.” Chloe was grinning at me over Stacey’s shoulder, her inner monologue no doubt going wild with excitement as she served up her frosty slice of revenge.

Once I’d adjusted my top and subtly extracted myself from the cubicle in that overpolite, slightly insane way that people caught in the middle of an argument do, I let out a sigh of relief. I honestly thought that my night, and perhaps my life, could not get any worse.

I got past Stacey without her hitting me. I sidled around Chloe without having to suffer through one of her sanctimonious lectures. That twat Neil was being smacked across the face with Stacey’s tastefully accessorised clutch bag so, all things considered, I’d got off pretty lightly.

“You bastard. How could you do this to me with her?” Stacey’s banshee wail burst into the hall as I opened the toilet door and every last person there turned to look at me. My heart stopped for a second as I saw the eighty pairs of eyes lock on, but I still thought I could ride it out.

I made an eek sort of expression. It was meant to be a humorous glad-I'm-not-him face, the muscles pulled tight on one side of my neck, the opposing eyebrow raised. I’ve never done much acting but it was sterling work. I’m pretty sure I’d have got away with the whole thing if it hadn’t been for the swingy door on the toilet that reopened one last time to release Stacey’s “How could you fuck Lizzie Chandra at our engagement party?” into the world.

I stopped walking and eighty pairs of eyes held onto me like tractor beams. Their owners sketched a mental image to describe to their friends later on. Mousy looking girl, white powder all over her nose like she’d been huffing blackboard dust, left breast not quite returned to position, obviously a slut.

And all I could think to shout in reply was, “Don’t fucking judge me!”  

The barn-like hall was silent. There’d been music on tenminutes earlier when I’d gone into the toilet, but right then it was so quiet you could have heard my sense of self shatter. Stacey’s dad was the first to react. He cut across the dance floor, a microphone for the impending speeches still in his hand.

“I think you’d better leave, Lizzie.” My one-time maths teacher’s voice travelled through the P.A. system to make sure that every last person understood that I was the one who’d lured his future son-in-law into the men’s toilet.

My head was foggy. I knew that there was some great injustice unfolding, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. I couldn’t move either. As Mr Palmerton put his hand on my shoulder and Mum and Dad shuffled into view to check that it was their abominable hussy of a daughter who was causing a scene, it felt like my shoes were made of iron.

The section of my brain that was responsible for getting me the fuck out of there was busy humming the theme from Friends. Sadly, whichever part was in charge of social immolation was still fully functioning.

“But, Mr Palmerton… You…” The cocaine spiking through me at just the wrong moment, my voice was as broken as a twelve-year-old boy’s. “You were my favourite teacher.”

Which is when I started to cry. Not a demure, ladylike whimper. It was a full on, nose-running, face-reddening, tears-as-big-as-slugs-sliming-their-way-down-my-face sobfest.

Her arms crossed, her head shaking, Mum couldn’t watch any longer and made a run for the exit. At least my best friend Adam was enjoying himself. He was the one raising a bottle of champagne, shouting, “Bravo, Lizzie. Bravo!” from over by the bar.

Mr Not My Favourite Anymore Palmerton grabbed me awkwardly by the top of my arm and marched me after my mother. And that’s one thing I will blame the booze for – who has fucking sangria at a fucking engagement party in fucking Surrey anyway? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have tried to pretend that everything was fine, wouldn’t have waved at the party guests as I left and cry-mumbled, “Congratulations, Stacey. Have a wonderful evening,” if I’d been on Appletise all night.

Outside, in the cool fresh air of the Scout Hall car park, my mother was finally free to tell me off.

“Really, Elizabeth. You’ve showed yourself up. There’s half of the Wallington W.I. in there!”

And I was free to lean over the handrail and vomit out the booze and aperitifs, the sudden force of which took me head over heels into the bush beneath. Which is where I stayed, thinking, Yep. This is just where I deserve to be, until Dad arrived to help me home.

Replies (13)
  • 21st century Bridget Jones? It's a great beginning and even without descriptions of the cubicle or the characters I can picture exactly what's happening. The swearing is part of the story here (think Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral) but much more and it will lose its impact.

    • I've often faced that question of what to work on next. Is there an easy answer? Not really. The question is: where is your passion? Which story does your subconscious mind actively engage with? Which does it keep spitting out ideas for?

      As to the whole female pen-name thing? Why? Be honestly yourself. Be the man who can write that book. It's one hell of a selling point.

      • An entertaining read.

        One thing jarred - "since I'd made out with Ricky Eng...". Not sure if the younger generation of Brits use "made out" but it feels very American to me, and I would use the word "snogged" instead. Or similar.

        The swearing is all fine by me but as others have pointed out it will likely soon become tiresome if you keep it up at that level - and actually the pace might become a bit much too unless you give us something to like about Lizzie. Her behaviour thus far is utterly reprehensible and although hilarious I will quickly lose sympathy with her unless I can understand why she's got to where she is.

        I've written a rom com with a male MC and entirely from his POV. Nobody has taken it up yet but I'm not attempting to mask my gender. I can see that a publisher might want you to use a gender neutral name (like J K Rowling) but I think an agent might be cheesed off if you applied for representation as Brenda Jones and then turned up to the meeting as Benedict. Although these days nobody is allowed to object, so who knows...

        • Thanks for more lovely comments, all.

          So, some conclusions....

          I will not pretend to be a woman
          - I think that one of the joys of writing is getting into someone else's skin. I'm tired of reading about straight, white men and I think I write pretty well from a female perspective having been surrounded by women in almost every part of my life so I will continue to write about people who are different to me. I think it only should only be considered problematic if someone is claiming that they are representing a true-to-life experience of an identity other than their own. For example, my last book was from the perspective of a teenage boy with a personality disorder. I lived with a girl for several years with that condition, my brother is a mental health nurse with years of experience working with people with such disorders and several of my friends have dealt with severe mental health issues but I'm not suggesting that I can really claim any great authority on how it feels to be that person, just as I don't know what it's like to be Chinese or gay or transexual - though I believe a fictional story, if sensitively told, can gain a lot from diversity.

          I happen to live about an hour away from the region of La Rioja and I can tell you that plenty of people over here will use a decent bottle of wine to make sangria. Even worse, some of my Spanish friends will take the nice bottles of wine we serve them and add coke!!!! Shock horror!!! (it's called kalimotxo and it's actually quite tasty if you don't want to drink too fast - though any old cheap red wine will do the job. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalimotxo )
          Are you Spanish, Sarita?

          The opening explosion of obscenity-
          I imagine that most of you will be happy to hear that Lizzie is a very much redeemable character. This opening, as she hopefully describes, is the low which she has to hit in order to climb back out the other side. We learn already in the second chapter, that the opening isn't really a fair reflection of her character but that she is someone who isn't happy with the path her life has taken and is looking to turn things round - hence the title.

          Magic realism -
          Well, that's not really the term for it, but it gives a bit of an idea. Speculative may be more popular these days. I know it would be easier to sell a straight up women's fiction comedy but I like feeling that I'm doing something a bit different and it's mainly just a weird twist at the end and some references throughout that you don't realise the significance of until then. It could still be sold as a cookie cutter comedy.

          The big plan -
          Well, after all this, I think I'm only going to write this book in fits as I've gone back to an old project that I'd set aside for some reason. I went through a period of binging on Agatha Christie books about five years ago and wanted to write a funny modern equivalent. I was surprised to find when I looked this week that I've already written 20,000 words of it and I read it yesterday and couldn't stop laughing (in a car full of people I didn't know). The voice of the main character is quite similar to Lizzie but then it's the only other thing I've written for adults and I think I based both of them on a friend of mine. So I'll be posting a bit of that before long so you can all rip into it!

          Thanks again.  

          • Sevillana by adoption, Benedict. In Andalucia we use Don Simón for mixing (though never with coke) and save the Rioja for special occasions ;-)