I stumbled onto that TV show Newlyweds the other night, and quickly became engrossed. I never realized this was a documentary about two pop stars; I just assumed it was some kind of reality TV show where the recently wed compete to break up each other’s marriages. Hmm… actually, that’s not a bad idea. Let me just call my agent…
One of the things I loved about Newlyweds was that Jessica seems to have a rent-a-friend: a person hanging around whose only job is to laugh at her jokes. Next time I go on book tour, I’m asking my publisher for one of those. (Max: “So you’re Jeremy?” Jeremy: “Right! Ha ha ha! Very good!” Max: “You and me are going to get along just fine, Jeremy.”) In fact, I could do with one in everyday life.
The other thing I loved was the dialogue. If this thing was scripted, I’d be campaigning for them to hand over the Emmy right now. See, I have something of an addiction to throwaway dialogue. This is an exchange between characters that has no bearing whatsoever on the plot, but is fun anyway. Or, at least, fun for the writer. (It’s very liberating to write a scene that doesn’t have to do anything.) But it’s not so much fun to read, which is why my throwaway dialogue tends to get deleted between drafts one and two. It’s basically just me being tricksy, and I don’t think anyone wants to pay money to see that. You can just visit my web site.
Anyway, there was a tiny scene in Newlyweds that was so perfect that it sent me running for pen and paper. This is classic throwaway dialogue. It may well do nothing for you, but for me… goosebumps, dude. Goosebumps.
Jessica and Nick are walking down a hotel corridor. Suddenly Jessica lets loose an enormous sneeze.
Nick: Bless you.
Jessica: Is that true, that if you sneeze, your heart stops?
Long pause. Nick turns around to look at her.
Nick: Why would your heart stop?
Jessica (defensive): That’s what I heard… just… what I heard.
Nick: From who?
Jessica: I don’t know.
Nick: Never heard that.
I’m working up a new draft of Company, so the last few days I’ve walked down to my local café and scribbled away there. I’ve always hated writers who do this, because I reckon they’re concerned not so much with writing as with being seen to be writing, and those people are even more pretentious than actual writers. Whenever I see someone sipping a coffee over their laptop, I want to say to them, “Oh, you’re so important with your fancy computer, thank you so much for sharing this mystical act of creation with the world.” Of course, that’s a personal problem and I should probably see someone about it.
When I’m writing I like to be home by myself and play really loud music. But with edits, I’ve found it useful to get away from the study, the phone, and the urge to see if I have any new e-mail. So it’s off to the café.
After I turned up three days in a row with 200 pages under my arm, the waitress got curious enough to ask what I was doing. “Editing,” I said. “I’m working on a novel.”
“Oh,” she said, not very enthusiastically. Some people get very excited when they hear you write novels; others react like you said you work in the tax office. “What kind?”
“Um… a comedy with social comment.”
“Oh, okay,” she said. “So do you want another coffee?”
I did, but mainly I was impressed with myself for coming up with such a good definition. It’s not often that I come up with clever things like that. I usually need to go away and do a few drafts first. That’s why I’m a writer and not a stand-up comedian. But dammit, that’s a great definition. That’s what satire should be.
Satire has a bad rep. When Syrup was published, my agent warned me, “Don’t call it satire. Say it’s a comedy. Nobody likes satire.” My editor advised me against writing any more of it. And for good reason: most satire is boring as all fuck. It tries to sell you a moral first and tell you a story second; then, if you’re lucky, it might get around to being funny. I don’t want to read novels like that. I sure don’t want to write novels like that. I want to write the good kind of satire, the kind that has engrossing stories and characters you care about and are scary and piss-funny both at once. These are out there, too, but there aren’t piles of them.
So I often describe my novels as something other than satire. But because authors are terrible at describing their own books, I end up saying things like, “Well, Syrup is a kind of comedy-romance-corporate-thriller… and Jennifer Government’s more of a science-fiction-comedy-action-thriller… or… something.” It’d be a lot easier if I could say I write satire and know that people weren’t thinking, “Oh, dull, unfunny, pretentious crap.”
Maybe if I use my new definition a lot, that’ll help. Maybe I can change people’s minds one waitress at a time.