Another dead darling

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I’m doing yet another draft and trying to solve the issue of a manuscript that is about 20,000 words too long. I’ve realised that I have a lot of great bits that are favourites, but are slowing the story down more than they are adding to it.

I’ve cut a lot of words, but it’s time to be brutal and cut stuff which includes plot and characters.

The below section is the intro to the Hunter brothers. I wanted to write the sort of local criminals that everyone sort of puts up with because they’re related to other locals and while you know they rob people, they wouldn’t touch anyone they or their family know.

They aren’t important to the rest of the story, so they’ve got to go. But they can have a little home here…

______________

[The below excerpt is from a draft of my novel: Dead Chatter]

Hunter brothers, Noel and Don, cousins of Peter Hunter who owns the farm that borders with Galaway, arrive. They turned up a couple of days ago from Melbourne. Everyone says they’re the bearers of good news, even though they look more like the bearers of implements to break your legs. Dad went to school with them and he always said they were evidence that Australia was once full of convicts. I like to think of them: Tweedle-crim and Tweedle-dim.

Noel’s buzzed haircut is growing out, but the edges of his skull tatt are still visible. His bad teeth and the way he sniffs speak of bad habits. Don is bigger and softer around the edges with a nose like road-kill and greasy hair that he never stops slicking back. They remind me of the twins in a way: two guys that speak with one voice. Noel is the one that does all the talking from the moment he arrives. Telling stories of the horrors they’ve seen, and the quarantine. He knows what everyone wants to hear, but waits and lets the impatience build until it’s a tense pressure holding everyone within hearing distance.

“Weeks of bloody silence, but then it came back I tell ya. I swear on me mother’s bones. The chatter came back and we were connected, weren’t we Don? It was less than a minute, an emergency connection, but something’s getting fixed somewhere.”

Don nods and his hair slips forward. He greases it back with sauce still splattering his fingers.

“It got weaker the further away we got from the city, but there were announcements telling us to go to these interstate locations, but we thought nuts to that and that we better come out and see Pete here as none of our messages were getting through.”

It’s like the whole party exhales at once. Noel goes on, and the questions continue. I want to believe them. I really do. But watching them bask in the attention as people fetch them food and beer in exchange for answers I can’t help thinking that they’re just saying what people want to hear.

Aunt Mia nudges me to go over and to take their picture. Noel looks at my camera intrigued and a little too hungry for my liking. Flame settles at my feet between me and them.

“That’s an antique, is it? Worth a bit. How’d you get it?

“Uncle Conner has a collection of old tech,” I say as I line up the shot. The fire creates shadows across their faces, like their real nature is surfacing. I snap the shot, the flash is bright and blinding. “He let me have this one, ‘cause what’s the point in taking chip-pics if they’re trapped in our heads. I’ve been taking photos of locals and everyone who passes through.”

“Well, did you get them newbies?” Noel asks.

“Who?”

“The ones that got ‘ere today?”

Don points to a group.

***

“Thanks gents.” I swing my camera over strap over my shoulder. “I’m going to go over there now.”

Noel smirks. “You go get ‘em Eddie.” He slaps me on the shoulder and Flame lets out a little growl.

I sigh. I hate being called Eddie, but I my sights are on Casey and Mr McCool and I’m not going to rise to the bait.

“Before you run off, don’t you wanna ask about your parents?”

Every hair on my body stands to attention and I feel giddy as several thoughts fight for space. It’s bullshit, but what if? I turn back and Noel gives me a crooked shit-eaters grin and I can’t tell if he’s being real or taking the piss.

“Come on, Eddie.” He spreads his arms wide like he’s inviting me in for a hug. A greasy hug that might make my camera disappear. “It’s been the first thing everyone wants to know, and all night I’ve been telling people, sorry mate, I can’t help ya. Then the first person I can help finally comes over and you don’t even ask.”

I bite. I can’t not. What if it’s real? My heart rises into my throat, beating a patter against my tonsils at the thought: news.

“You saw them?”

He glances at Don, his grin wider than a shark’s. He lets the moment stretch to satisfy some sick fantasy and I want to grab him and shake the words out of him.

“Yep.”

“When? Were they OK?”

“Right before we left a week ago. They were fine when I saw ‘em. Holed up in a house. Your Dad called out to me as we were cutting down some street heading north-east. Looked fine then, and probably still are as long as he stayed holed up and none of those hunter packs went through.”
What the hell was a ‘hunter pack’? But there were too many other more important questions.

“Where did you see them?”

He shrugs, and Don mimics the gesture after a slight delay.

“One of those snotty northern suburbs. Hipsters on every corner but you need to be a rich bastard to live there. What was it?” He says to Don. Don just shrugs again and Noel shakes his head and spits into the dirt. “Fitzroy or something. Either way it was definitely him.”

My heart leaps from my throat and drops heavy into my stomach. We don’t live in Fitzroy. But maybe he got the suburb wrong. Brunswick isn’t that far. Or maybe they had holed up somewhere else. I stare at his face, searching for a clue that he isn’t pulling my leg for a bit of fun. I wonder if my dad really would call out to someone he’d always called a ‘thieving bastard’.

I see a slip of a rotten smile pass over Don’s face and my doubt grows and with it my anger comes rushing forth, like it’s in my blood, coursing out to every corner of my body.

“You don’t say much, Don. Are you mute?” I ask, my hands tightening into fists.

“I ain’t dumb,” says Don, his neck turning an itchy red.

“Yeah,” says Noel. “He talks only when he needs to. You could learn—”

“I guess he doesn’t need to when you spin enough shit for two,” I say, and then turn and march off toward Casey and Mr McCool with Flame at my heels. And about three seconds later I know what my dad would have said – If I wanted to listen to an arsehole, I’d fart – and I wish I’d been able to say that to their faces.

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The cost of books – Part 2 – What it takes to make a book

I guess I should flag at this point that I work in publishing, but in the academic and educational end – not in trade. Trade publishing is what most people think of when they think of publishing. This is Penguin, Allen and Unwin and Text. Novels and non-fiction for the general market and most of what you would find in Readings and Dymocks.

There are some big differences between what it takes to make a novel versus what it takes to make an educational text and a lot of this had to do with different commissioning processes, text design and permissions (getting the rights to quote and used intellectual property owned by others).

For this article I’m going to talk as generally as I can about the steps a book goes through. I’ll start from the point that you’ve already got something you want to publish.

  1. Manuscript comes in to the publisher. First round of editing is structural – making sure the content is consistent and works as a whole. Then it goes back to the author for corrections (i.e.: to re-draft and fix)
  2. Then when the manuscript comes back it goes through copy editing. There will be several rounds of this. I’ve met a lot of people over the years who say that they have editing as a skill or that they’ve edited other people’s work. They think they this means they can call themselves an editor. I tell these people that they have nothing on a real Editor (I don’t work as an Editor, but I do work beside them marvel at what they do). Editing is not just fixing spelling mistakes and making sure commas aren’t abused. It’s about consistency. For a book it’s about taking anywhere from 60,000 to 160,000 words and ensuring that everything consistent in terms of spelling, grammar conventions, descriptions, word usage, information, citations, referencing styles and much more. They also write artwork and permission briefs. Seriously, being able to correct someone else’s grammar does not make you an Editor.
  3. While editing is underway a text design and cover design are created. Most people are more interested in the cover design, but the text design is a very important part. This is how the words will look on the page. This is what fonts will be used when and how. The spacing on each page is taken into account and how to fit all the content across the pages (due to printing processes books can only have a certain number of pages (this is why you may have read something with blank pages at the end). Most publishers try and avoid wastage and ensure the content fits right.
  4. And then there’s production. They oversee the process of the whole book and work with the editors, designers and printers to ensure a book comes out on time.

And that’s just a super cut down version of what it takes to make a book…I haven’t included everything that happens to get it into bookstores (physical and online stores) and readers hands.

xx

DD

The Cost of Books – Part 1 – Parallel Importation Laws

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There’s been a lot of talk about changing Australia’s parallel importation laws lately.

For those who don’t know what this means – Australia is a protected market. This means that if an Australian publisher has the rights to a book then a publisher from another country cannot sell the same book to booksellers in this country. This only relates to bulk purchases that will be re-sold into the Australian market and does not affect individual purchases. You can still go to Book Depository or Amazon if you wish and buy whatever you like.

The Australian Government is looking at changing this so that booksellers can buy from wherever is cheapest. And many individuals are thinking ‘Yay! Now I can get that book I want for $9.95 rather than $19.95.’ But they’re not taking into account that this also means an American publisher could do a huge cheap print run of Tim Winton’s Cloud Street and sell it back into Australia at a cheap price. This means those sales won’t go to an Australian publisher, which means they won’t get the financial benefits and will have to publish less. Most publishers’ lists are propped up by a successful 20% or so of authors. This allows them to publish books that might have small markets, or try new and unproven authors and ideas. Once the parallel importation laws change this will change too. Publishers will have to take less risks to stay financially viable.

If you want to see an example of an open market without parallel importation laws – look to New Zealand. Booksellers there can buy books from wherever is cheapest in the world. And there are very few local publishers. This means few avenues for local authors and locally published content.

And by now I’m sure someone is saying why don’t you just make books cheaper, and then they can keep the laws. If you’re interested please stay tuned on for Part 2 of the cost of books – what it takes to make a book.

xx

DD

Book Review – Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels was so brilliant and yet so emotionally scarring that it took me a while to pick up Sea Hearts. Margo’s writing is mesmerising as always. The changes in perspectives in each part are cleverly used to show the journey of the town of Rollrock and their sea wives, from how they were conceived by their creator, to their coming and changing the town, to their children and to their inevitable return.  But all parts weren’t even with some far more engaging that others. Misskaella’s story is the shining light and the perspective I kept wishing for the story to turn back to it even though I know the structure wouldn’t allow it.

There are moments in Misskaella’s story that are like a lot of Tender Morsels and a few of Margo’s short stories. Moments when you’re not sure if the magic is a real thing, or just a delusion of someone in a terrible and powerless situation: and the magic they weave is just their way of convincing themselves that they have some measure of control over the world around them. Margo writes these moments so beautifully and subtlety that the reader really has to question what side (real or not) that they will come down on and what this says about their own views. However, in Sea Hearts the other parts of the book make the magic real in a way that doesn’t happen in Tender Morsels, which I think actually makes Tender Morsels the stronger book of the two.

In saying all this, Sea Hearts is still a beautiful and heartbreaking story in its own right with an interesting multi-perspective structure used to build a story across the equivalent of a lifetime.

It is also published under the title The Brides of Rollrock Island – I guess for those who need a more literal title…

 xx

DD

Book Review – The Blade Itself (The First Law | Book 1) by Joe Abercrombie

When I read the first few paragraphs of this book I wanted to immediately put it down. I was wondering why so many people I know liked it as the writing was terribly self-conscious and the sort of action scene someone writes when they just love action and don’t care about characters or motivation. Fortunately I was completely wrong and this style subsides quickly and is replaced by some of the most brilliant character development I’ve read in ages. It’s a masterful example of show /don’t tell and it makes me wonder why that first scene was left as it is.

And it’s the characters that make this story. They seem fantasy pastiche right as they are introduced but that is quickly built on revealing more complex, flawed, real people. And I do love it as they are drawn together and we get their opinions of each other.  And it’s the character development that makes me forgive the somewhat aimless plot. It’s clear there’s a bigger picture going on (as there are two more books) but the clues don’t really seem to surface until we’re 70% through.

I like to look at series in two ways. Each book on its own, and the story as a whole across all books (e.g: The magicians – each individual book was frustrating in parts for different reasons, but when you pull back and look at the entire arch – it’s truly magnificent).

This one, on its own in lacking a little and felt like it ended suddenly. But I can’t help but think the things I am waiting for are being held off for one of the other two books. We shall see…

Review – The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6101718-the-magicians
Bright Young Things in Narnia
I found this a very conflicting read. I swung back and forth between loving it and wanting to fling it across the room. Just like A Confederacy of Dunces, it’s a brilliant book, but the loathsome main character is just makes the whole reading experience uncomfortable.
*Warning spoilers ahead*
And the desire to fling was almost soley brought on by the main character. But before I get into why he was so fling inducing I should establish that story reads as a look at the childhood fantasy worlds that children enter from the regular world, but treating it as if it was real and what if adults went there instead of children, i.e: what happens if adults confront their childhood fantasies and they’re real. So back to the main character – Quentin Coldwater. He reads like the anti-hero for what you would expect in a book like Narnia. He’s not heroic or brave; he’s completely self-centred and never learns not to be; and, the worst part is that he’s searching for happiness but has such an unrealistic expectation of what that is that he never really enjoys anything. Things he’s dreamed about come true and he never revels or enjoys it, always looking around the corner for the next thing. Not being able to ride with the main characters excitement and joy creates a block for readers. WOnderus things are happening, but we just get to hear Quentin moan about it. Saying thing, the writing is excellent and Quentin is consistently his killjoy self. He’s like that person that can be fun at a party for a bit, but you have to stay the hell away from by drink three or all you’ll get to hear is him talk about his own existentialist crap. There’s that, and the inaction. It feel more like the story moves around Quentin and the other characters pull him through it. Given what happens, yes there is a string-puller, but it’s still hard to spend so much time with a character when you just have to watch other people make him do things all the time, pushing him and his apathy to take action.
I really loved the idea that magic is super complicated and only the bright young super-intelligent can do it. I love the other characters, Penny, Alice, Elliott, and even Jane, and can’t help but wonder if this story would have been better if readers alternated between their perspective and not just Quentin’s (so reader could have a break from him). The world works well in most ways the way the magicians seems to just study to be magicians seems limiting. Also I think the author cheats at the end by never showing the return to Breakbills. It’s never made clear what Fog and the other teachers knew about what was going on, when it is clearly suggested that they knew something.
I think one of the things I find most intriguing about this story is the way it treats violence in comparison to a Narnia like story. In many Narnia like stories (i.e: English children of a certain era find a ‘magical’ world) the kids don’t necessarily like it, but they get swords and arrows and use them in the name of saving ‘insert cause here’. They do what needs to be done, and like many children’s cartoons, there is no real blood or gore. Millions may die between warring armies but that is backdrop and we only focus on key characters who might be only wounded or die off-screen (yes, I know there are exceptions to this particularly in recent YA, I’m just talking general rules here for the more old school stuff). When fantasy world violence, or indeed any violence happens in the Magicians it is brutal and confusing and it costs something.
To sum up, the book does some good things and some bad, but overall is an really, really interested idea and worth the time if you can stomach Quentin. I’m curious about the next book, but still can’t decide if it’s worth spending more time with him.

Review – Pure by Julianna Baggott

This book started so well. The world and characters are vivid and I loved the idea of how people are fused to the things they’d been near to when their world changed forever (the day of the detonations). Characters outside the dome get to carry a reminder of their lives before and how their lives changed and the author does an excellent job at showing how what they carry has shaped their lives (El Captain and Helmund being the best example). I also loved how this story allowed people to be grotesque and that there could be beauty and horror in the same thing.

The plot felt a little clunky and convenient at times, but I was willing to forgive that for its other virtues. Yes, the entire book feels like set-up, but it is the first in three so it is again something I can let go. But then the last 20% just turns into this big hot mess.

*Spoilers from this point on*

The action towards the end is clumsy and confusing – pretty much right from when they find the ‘mother’. And the mother, oh the poor mother. Of course she had to die, it’s a YA after all and the most common trope to make a kid become an adult and a leader is to kill off those they look to for protection. Having the main brother sit her next to the the older dying brother only to have his head explode and kill her so soon after they’d found her is one thing. Having the long lost daughter shoot her to put her out of her misery because she’s still alive is another. It felt like the author was saying that this death would impact all the siblings unless the participated. Seriously? Having the mother die at essentially the father’s hand wasn’t enough? It is possible to ruin a poignant and heartbreaking moment but taking it too far and I will be taking this as a lesson to apply with my own writing.

Also, the daughter, Pressia’s guilt is never addressed. She knows she’s bugged. She knows the enemy can see and hear what she can and then they use that to blow up the brother’s head so they can take out the mother. But Pressia never thinks about this. She never thinks she should remove herself from the situation to protect people, or blind herself, or even just feel a moment of guilt afterwards knowing that she was used to kill someone she’s spent her whole life dreaming about.

That and Lyda. Poor Lyda. When she showed up it was great as the book had been Pressia and a boyfest. But then Lyda came across as such a plot-device and seems to be there just so Partridge (main brother) gets a love interest. I haven’t read the next two books and I very much hope the author will prove me wrong on this.

I think I will try the next book, but only with the hope that now the set-up is complete the author can let her world shine and her characters develop without trying so hard.

xx

DD

How much should you plan a story? And a lesson learned.

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,

know writers who plan out every detail so they can write with out stopping and others who won’t even write a bio for a main character because they think that puts them in a box. Every one attacks planning a story in different ways.

John Marsden has said that he likes to think about a story idea for ages until it is all clear in his head and then he starts writing. Stephen King on the other hand says he starts with a concept (e.g. a dome appears over a city) and just writes and sees how people interact and playout within that concept.)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately after reading Allegiant by Veronica Roth.

It’s the third book in a series and I found it an incredibly disappointing ending and one that greatly suffered from the author having a ‘plan’ and making it happen rather than following the best story. Veronica has posted her reasons for ending the book the way she did here (Warning – contains spoilers) and it is well worth a read. I found reading about what she did and why made the ending make more sense. Yet this is what shows the ending as failure (too harsh?). I shouldn’t need the author saying what they had planned to appreciate the ending. I should be right there with it as I read each word for the first time.

And I guess I should make it clear that I wasn’t upset by the ending. A major character dies and a lot of people have just reacted to that. My problem was that the story was so full of plot wholes and made up science that doesn’t make sense that by the time we got to the ending I just didn’t care anymore. And in retrospect I can see it was because the author made a lot of unbelievable and contradictory stuff happen just so she could build to the ending she planned. And it’s only of those ending that sounds great when you lay out just the idea, but in practice (i.e: in the actual story) it didn’t work at all.

While it was a frustrating book to read I soldiered through because I had liked the beginning of this series so much. And I’m glad I did because I learned a valuable lesson for my own writing.

I like to plan. But I need to always take a step back and see if my grand plans are really the best and most natural story.

How do you feel about planning? Is it constricting or does it allow you to write without stopping?

xx

DD

The Next Big Thing (comes with extra zombies)

My friend Nathan had his first novel, The Chimera Vector, published with Momentum last year. He was the first ‘new’ author to be published by this new imprint of Pan MacMillain Australia and so far his book has been going great guns.

And I know as his friend you will think me completely bias, but if you like explosions, kick-ass chicks, and stories where the whole world changes – then read it, read it now.

Nathan is currently working hard on finishing the squeal and he talks about it here.

He also sent me these list of questions to answer about my current project…drum roll please…The next big thing!

1)      What is the working title of your next book?

Dead Chatter

2)      Where did the for the book idea come from?

A dream I had after a zombie movie marathon

3)      What genre does your book fall under?

Fantasy YA – Zombie Apocalypse (that’s big enough to be its own genre now, right?)

4)      What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Emily Browning as Ed (Edwina) Black (I’m sure she could be kickass with clothes on if we just forgive her for Sucker Punch).

Michael Dorman as Owen Lane (though he’s probably too old now, but in his Secret Life of Us days he would have been perfect).

Lawrence Leung could add the right amount of adorable awkward to Xavier Xu.

And Rebel Wilson as Aimee – just to add a touch of awesome.

5)       What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Technologically geared up zombies take over Australia with added Typhoid Marys, romance, angst and dogs (that may or may not get shot).

6)      Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

None of the above as yet. Preferably represented.

7)      How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

1 month – November 2012. I NaNoWriMo-ed it. Draft 2 planned for sometime 2013.

8)      What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Feed and Warm Bodies

9)      Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Just a general love of zombies. They’re way cooler than vampires and unicorns. Also there were a few things I wanted to address that stories never seem to – like why zombies want to eat people, and can you have different levels of zombies?

Also, while I knew I wanted to write about  Zombies, it was a comment I read, somewhere now forgotten, about all the chatter in our lives that really set off the whole idea. The comment was focused on how smart phones have us alywas connected and if left alone for a moment we will always reach for them to dip our toe into the chatter even if it’s for a minute or two when a friend goes to the toilet at a restaurant. In this story I wanted to take that idea of the chatter and being constantly connected further. Make people more dependent than a junkie – then take it all away and sick monsters on their ass.

10)   What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Given I work in marketing – the first thing I do is write a blurb…so here – have a blurb with love, kisses and extra body parts.

Chips are the best. Not the salty ones in packets or anything made out of potato. I’m talking about the one in your head. They mean you don’t need all the stuff they used to have in the olden days. Chips are your camera, your computer, your phone, your connection to the world and everyone you know.

So what happens if it gets infected with some mutant part bio part malware virus? Well, in two words – you’re fucked. But how fucked? Well that varies, depending on so many bloody things I don’t really understand. Mine means I can hear the dead…that much I know for sure.

I’m Ed. This is my story about the end of the world and how my life as I knew it went down the drain.

Welcome to my apocalypse.

 xx

DD

Dead Darlings – Cutting whole chapters from your novel

Dead darlings (DDs) come in many forms. It can be a line of description, a snippet of dialogue a whole chapter or even a character (at which point it really starts to feel like murder).

Today is about dead beginnings.

I’ve always struggled with knowing when to begin a story. Chapter 1’s are often where I get stuck, and while the rest of a novel may get 5 or so drafts the first chapter will get at least 20. Many of my writerly friends have said I’m lucky that I write good middles and endings easily, as fixing a beginning in easier than fixing a dud ending. I’m still not sure if I agree, but either way, the way I work results in a mass grave of DDs from the start of every story.

Today’s DD is from a YA novel called The Headstone House that I have been working on for a couple of years now. The story is currently undergoing its fourth full re-draft and has had a least 10 different chapter 1s. The one below is a version I was very happy with in terms of many aspects, however it was just slowing the story down too much starting from this point. In a way this still happens, just off screen and the reader now enters the story at what was chapter 3. Either way, after re-writing this scene several different ways and work-shopping it several times, it was bloody hard to kill.

To set the scene here is the blurb I wrote:

The Headstone House

 “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.” – Headstone

Blurb

Recently Jade lost what was most important to her. Now all she has left is a half-brother no one can find and an uncle she’d never heard of. But now he’s going to take her to live with him at the Chateau de Reves – The Castle of Dreams. And there are others who live there too. Others who have strange habits, secrets and rules.

Life with her new uncle is not what Jade expected. And she has so many questions, like why can’t she walk up the road? And what’s wandering lost in the bush? And why was this place once called The Headstone House? What she does know is that it’s a house where children forget: losing a little of themselves every day.

Can Jade remember not only who she is, but how to find the way home, before it’s too late?

 

And here is the Dead Darling itself:

Chapter 1 — The Rules and the Clown

Jade sat on Mrs Jenkins’ couch making a plan for her new life. Her dad had always said ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’, so she knew if she had a plan everything would all be alright. Even though thinking about her dad made her chest hurt and she had to blink really fast to stop the tears coming again. She fought them off, but more memories came rushing in like a wave. His laugh that sounded like a kookaburra. His clothes smelling of dirt and grease even though his hands always smelt of soap. His loud sudden sneezes that scared strangers. And his big rough sausage fingers that could tie tiny, delicate knots.

She wrote as fast as she could before Mrs Jenkins came in to tell her off. She wasn’t sure what she was doing wrong, but there was always something. Putting a pen too close to the faun leather couch. Risking spilling ink on the perfect white carpet. Sitting too long and making a cushion too flat.

Jade figured having Mrs Jenkins as a foster-parent was okay for a while. She didn’t spank her, or yell at her, or make her do all the chores. And at the funeral when Jade was crying so hard she couldn’t see, Mrs Jenkins had hugged her, handed her tissues and said nothing, which was just what Jade needed. But still, life with Mrs Jenkins was one long set of rules. Don’t run, don’t shout, don’t put your feet on the couch, take your shoes off when you come inside, put your shoes on before you go in the backyard, chew with your mouth closed, put your clothes away, don’t burp, cover your mouth when you cough. The house had no computer, no Wi-Fi and no TV. Instead there were hundreds of tiny porcelain bears and clowns arranged on shelves. They stared at her now as she wrote and the feeling of being watched prickled her skin. Whenever Mrs Jenkins’s wasn’t watching she turned as many as she could to face the wall.

Mrs Jenkins’ had also taken Jade’s mobile phone saying it wasn’t a toy for a little girl. Jade had insisted she wasn’t a little girl and stolen the mobile back from where Mrs Jenkins’ had hidden it in the pantry. She’d stashed it in the garden in her Dad’s old tackle box. Mrs Jenkins was petrified Jade would put a hook through her finger or, even worse, the faun couch. It didn’t matter to her that Jade had been fishing for forever. Jade’s dad had never bothered with this stuff. He laughed when she burped and they watched sitcoms and action films together while eating dinner with their feet on their faded green couch. The memory made her chest ache.

Jade has made lots of plans in the last few weeks. When she’d first come to Mrs Jenkins house she’d planned to run away and search for her brother, Ben. But then she’d found out she wasn’t staying here because she had an Uncle. Mrs Jenkins said he was her mother’s brother and he wanted to take care of her. Jade hadn’t known her mother had a brother, but Mrs Jenkins and her social worker insisted. And right now, Jade needed family like a fisherman needed bait. So she sat and wrote a new plan for her new life with her new uncle.

The doorbell rang: a tinkling rendition of Green sleeves that Jade always found depressing. But still she dropped her pen, leapt up from the couch and ran to the door. It was going to be Ben this time. She was sure of it. He’d always popped up just in time before, so it had to be him, and then they could meet their new uncle together.

She opened the door to find a clown.

He was a real, proper circus clown: like one of Mrs Jenkins’ figurines comes to life. He was short; barely an inch taller than Jade, and everything about him was loose and saggy like a kid wearing his dad’s clothes. A once-yellow shirt, baggy red pants with blue patches, and an enormous blue bowtie. His face was caked white with enormous red eyebrows that curved all the way up his forehead and back down again. Black triangles sat above and below his eyes making them the twinkles in a dark diamond. Frizzy red hair stood out from either side of his head, and a big red smile was painted right up his cheeks, level with his big red nose. He clutched a battered and bent blue top hat in front of him like it was a shield.

“Um, I think you’ve got the wrong house,” said Jade. She shut the door. Or at least she tried. The long red clown shoe stuck in the doorway. When the door bounced off it made a squeaky sound like a chew toy.

“Yu-you’re Ju-Ju-Jade, right?”

Jade thought he was going to choke on her name.

“Yes,” she said hesitantly, wracking her brain trying to remember if her dad had known a clown. She didn’t recognise him, but with the makeup it was hard to tell.

“I’m your U-un-uncle Rufus,” he stammered. He pulled at his collar like it was chocking him and then absent-mindedly flicked his bow tie. It spun like a propeller, buzzing like a weary bee giving up hope.

“Shut that door, Jade. You’re letting flies in,” said Mrs Jenkins, coming out from the kitchen. Then she saw the clown. “Who’s this, then?” Hands on hips she towered over both Jade and the clown. Mrs Jenkins was built like a rock from stone hedge with a grey perm and she gave him her best no-nonsense stare.

Rufus looked up at her and his hands trembled. His lips moved and his Adams apple bobbed up and down but he couldn’t a sound out.

“Now you listen here,” said Mrs Jenkins pointing at him. “Whatever you’re selling I’m not buying. You understand me young man?”

“I-I-I’m R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r”

Mrs Jenkins looked down at Jade. “Is he trying to say something dear or is that supposed to be an impression of car that won’t start?” She shook her head. “I never did understand clowns.”

“He said he’s my Uncle Rufus,” said Jade, feeling a little sorry for the poor clown and what was about to happen to him as she saw Mrs Jenkins’ face shift into hostess mode.

“Oh, well, why have you got him standing out there on the steps like a vagrant? Invite him in, invite him in!”

Jade gave the clown a sympathetic smile then ducked out of the way.  Mrs Jenkins clucked and fussed like a giant mother hen, herding him inside.

“Yes, this way, Mr…How did you say that again?”

“Uh…Au—Auguste,” he stuttered. “But p-p-please, just Ru-Ru-Rufus will do.”

“Oh bless, you’d think your parents would have given you a name you could say. Okay, you sit here. No, not there, here. Now make yourself comfortable. Jade, get that pen off the couch. Now you sit too please…Sit up properly, there’s a good girl.” Both Jade and Rufus did as they were told. There was just something in Mrs Jenkins voice that rang of every teacher you’d ever had, so your knees were bending and your bum was on the seat before you thought about it.

Once she had them seated across from each other, she clasped her hands together and said, “Well isn’t this a nice surprise?” Even though Jade knew she hated surprises.  “We weren’t expecting to see you until next week. Jade, you just chat to your uncle for a moment and I’ll get us some refreshments.” She hurried off to the kitchen.

The rules were bad, but the other downside to living with Mrs Jenkins was the food. She didn’t like normal people food. Oysters with soy sauce and liver with gravy were her favourite things.

But right now food was the furthest thing from Jade’s mind. She studied the clown, drumming her fingers on her notebook, trying to see if he looked like her mum. He was about the right height and had brown eyes but that was all she could tell. Underneath the makeup, wig and baggy clothes he could look like anyone. He stared at his hands, moving them like he was shaping invisible clay.

She wondered if he was going to take her to live in a circus. She hadn’t planned on that. She imagined a life of sleeping in caravans and travelling to a new town every week and wondered if she would make a good tightrope walker. That was way more exciting than a life of no TV and eating cauliflower and kidney surprise soup with Mrs Jenkins.

There were a million questions Jade wanted to ask. She spat out the first one that came to mind. “Why haven’t I heard of you before?”

He looked up surprised, then quickly looked away to study the lamp next to his chair. He flicked his tie again and gave a weary buzz. “Um, your ma-ma-mother and I haven’t spoken in a wh-wh-wh…some t-time. I used to, um, t-t-travel a lot.” He spoke like every other word got stuck behind his Adams apple. It jerked up and down like a yoyo, and his head bobbed as each word was released. With his big frizzy hair and small body he was a like one of those bobble-heads that nod at you from other people’s cars.

“Do you live in a circus?” said Jade, hopeful.

“N-no-not anymore.” He sounded sad. “I l-l-live in a house. By the s-s-sea. It’s a s-sort of b-b-boarding house.” Flick, buzz went his tie. His stuttering, stumbling speech reminded Jade of her Dad’s old Toyota. It had panels in three different colours, red, yellow and blue, and stammered and sputtered when it started or whenever they drove it anywhere new. She’d loved that car.

“So there are other people living there to?” she asked.

“Yes, and t-they have c-ch-ch…kids too.” His gloved hands left his tie and went back to his lap, twisting and turning like they were shaping air.

“Oh, did you hear that, Jade?” said Mrs Jenkins coming back, making Rufus jump. “You’ll have a whole bunch of new friends in no time.” She put a tray laden with devilled eggs on the coffee table between them. They smelled like off-curry and looked like someone sick had sneezed into half a ping pong ball.

But Jade was too excited to be put off by their stench. She scooted forward on the couch, kicking her heels against the base as she thought of running down to the beach with a pack of new friends. Mrs Jenkins frowned and tutted, but Jade didn’t care. Earlier she’d been so nervous about meeting her new uncle, but the idea of living with other kids in a house near the sea sounded better than anything she’d planned. Ben had always been much older and she’d always envied her friends who had brothers and sisters they could do stuff with. Now she’d have a house full of people to go swimming and fishing with: and fishing with her new uncle had definitely been part of her plan. “And can Ben come live with us too?” she said.

“Jade! Don’t be so presumptuous,” said Mrs Jenkins.

Jade didn’t know what that meant, and Rufus looked confused too.

“But he’ll be back. And he’s my brother so he’s your family too.” she explained to Rufus. “I’ll show you. I’ve got a photo” She pushed her self forward to leap off the couch and her foot clipped the edge of the tray, sending the devilled eggs flying.

Rufus copped the worst of the flying curry-snot. It splattered his hair, shirt and big wobbly chunk stuck to his bowtie.

“Oh, Jade, you silly, silly girl. Oh, no Mr Auguste. Don’t get up. You’ll tread it into the carpet. Jade – stay where you are,” said Mrs Jenkins before she rushed out of the room in a flurry.

“I’m sorry,” said Jade. Her cheeks blossomed little embarrassed roses. She picked up the tray and started to clean up the stray eggs wobbling on the white carpet

“It’s a-a-all…okay,” he said. “Though I’m used to b-being the one t-t-throwing food.” He picked up one that had survived and studied it. “But usually it’s much b-b-better t-to use cream p-p-pies. They make t-the b-b-best s-splat. Always gets a l-l-laugh. But, you n-never know…” He popped off his red nose and put the snotty egg on instead. “These could be f-f-funny.” His face screwed up as the off-curry smell struck. “Phwoar…” He pulled it off. A bit stayed stuck giving him a huge egg-booger. Jade laughed for what felt like the first time in forever. A huge smile filled Rufus’s painted one. It gave her hope her plan would work and her life with her Uncle could be like the one she’d had with her dad.

“You h-have your mother’s l-l-laugh, you know,” he said, he flicked the wobbly chunk off his bow tie and it spun, buzzing.

Jade thought that was strange as everyone always said she had a loud kookaburra-laugh just like her dad.

“Oh, whatever are you doing?” said an exasperated Mrs Jenkins. She’d returned armed with rubber gloves and two buckets, one full of cleaning products in neon colours, and the other full of water. She even had a dust buster tucked under one arm. “I told you to leave it.”

Rufus stood, brushing egg off his hands onto his shirt. “Well, um, I-I’m sorry. But we really do need to h-hit the r-r-r-road.”

“Really, so soon?

“Yes, we have a l-l-lo…far t-to go.”

“But you just got here. We can’t go right now,” said Jade. She wasn’t ready. He wasn’t supposed to have arrived for another week and she had planned on that.

But the adults were nodding and Mrs Jenkins grabbed Jade’s hand to take her upstairs to pack.

Jade pulled her arm out of the rubber glove grip and ran to the backdoor. She had to make sure she got her tackle box. She shouted she’d be back in a sec. Both the clown and Mrs Jenkins shouted after her.

The garden was neat grass and pot plants with gnomes perched on their edges. They were fishing and surfing and pushing barrows looking ponderous and their still frozen eyes creeped Jade out. She ran past their stares all to the back of the garden. Under a stack of old pots was her dad’s tackle box. She freed it and hugged it to her chest. As long as she had this, her dad would always be with her because he said ‘not even death could separate a fisherman and his lures’. It also had her mobile, her dad’s favourite old t-shirt, her mum’s watch and some photos of her parents, Ben and her friends and she wasn’t going to leave it behind for anything.

Then someone grabbed her arm and spun her around. Jade just managed to keep a hold of the tackle box.

“D-d-don’t you d-dare run away,” Rufus spat. His eyes were red he was puffing.

“I wasn’t. I was just getting this.” Jade held up the box.

“You were t-t-t-told….” He suddenly looked tired and scared. His hands were shaking “You b-b-better l-l-le…start t-to do as you’re t-told quick smart or t-the others w-w-w-will—.”

Jade glared at him and stepped back, hugged the tackle box to her chest.

Rufus held up his hands. “I’m so-so- sorry,” he said. His shoulders slumped he licked his lips. “I’m just so t-t-tired…and h-hungry.”

“Is everything alright?” shouted Mrs Jenkins from the back door.

Jade ran back to the house and Mrs Jenkins. “I just wanted to get this.”

“Oh, that box. It’s not safe,”

Jade gripped the box even tighter. The plastic dug into her hand like it was trying to fuse with it. Jade took a deep breath, ready to argue, but then Rufus said, “It’s o-okay. Sh-she can br-br-bring it.”

“Well, I suppose it’s okay if Mr Auguste supervises,” said Mrs Jenkins, even though she didn’t look happy about it.

Jade exhaled, and gave Rufus a grateful look.

“It’s just that she’s been through a lot lately. But you will take good care of her, won’t you?”

“Of c-course. The b-b-best. We’re f-f-family after all,” he tugged at his collar and then flicked his tie. Its tired buzz matched his face. He looked like the run across the garden had been a marathon.

And that was that. Before Jade knew it all her things were packed, with plenty of fuss from Mrs Jenkins about how messy she was. Then Jade was buckling up her seat belt in an ancient rusty brown car.

Mrs Jenkins gave her a bag through the window.

“For the drive.” A scent wafted out of the bag and Jade knew it was the one thing that Mrs Jenkins cooked that she liked. Rosemary and cheese biscuits. The smell of the rosemary reminded her of mother. She didn’t remember much about her, but her dad had always told Jade how she put rosemary in almost everything she cooked.

“Call me and let me know the minute you arrive, okay?” Mrs Jenkins dabbed at her eyes with a hanky.

“I’ll call,” Jade promised. She was sad to leave the woman who’d helped her while she cried for days after her dad’s funeral. But she was also thankful never to have to eat Mrs Jenkins’ tofu and sprout tart or be told off for putting her feet on the faun couch ever again.

Rufus mumbled something and put the car into gear. It came to life with a smoker’s cough.

“Bye.” Jade waved and watched as Mrs Jenkins’ and her house of rules disappear behind them.

<end DD>