The Story

Hello.

Yes, I’ve decided to resurrect this blog. Why now? Well…I’m beginning to get the itch again. Don’t worry, it’s not scabies. I mean the itch to write. And I figured splurging my brainthinks onto WordPress would be a good way of flexing my typing muscles, trying to get back in the habit of writing regularly.

Jenny Trout posted a thing on her blog that resonated with me. Well, five things, actually. Blog posts she has since deleted, for her own reasons, explanation here. I know who she’s referring to, and I’ve known for months, possibly longer than a year, because we discussed the matter privately way back when, at a point we discovered we’d both had similar experiences. In fact it’s scary how many writers have their own personal “Erika”, which has become a pseudonym for, well…”someone who screws you over”.

Bronwyn Green, the friend Jen was defending, blogged about things here.

Today I exchanged a couple of messages with Bronwyn and she very kindly said if I ever needed to vent, she was there for me, and it made me feel quite squidgy and warm inside, like my heart had wet itself. It just goes to show that not everyone out there is a festering shitweasel. But when you cross paths with someone who is, it damages your ability to trust, or to build up friendships. I hesitate to use the word ‘damage’ as it’s very strong, but strong feelings are involved here.

The truth is, I don’t have Jen’s stones. Admittedly, she deleted her posts in the end, but she named the person who screwed her and her friends over. My concern has always been, “Ah, who’s going to believe me anyway?” By calling out a far-more-well-known author, there’s a chance of looking jealous. By saying “Actually, this, this and this happened,” after they worked so hard to cultivate a nice, pleasant, gee-golly-humblebrag reputation online, you look…well, damn, you look bitter.

That golly-gee-whizz act is an act though, and about the only thing she’s ever worked hard for or to protect, but anyway…

When I first started out it wasn’t a choice between success or failure; it was all just fun. And I had a friend, an “Erika”, who was at the same stage. Writing for years, never got anywhere, thinking it was about time we both knuckled down and made it happen, now or never, you know the score.

I did NaNoWriMo in…let’s see, 2008. I remember because it was the same year I’d finished an old job I had, and I had a lot more time on my hands. A lot less money in my pocket too, but hey, maybe writing would fix that? (Wrong. But I didn’t know it then.) I was accompanied on my journey by Erika, to whom I would speak near-constantly on MSN. Yes, MSN was still a thing back then. We’d encourage each other, share our work, have word sprints and the like. And we both fell into the same genre of erotic romance. I’ll be honest. I knew very little about the genre when I started writing it. In those days I didn’t outline. Hell, I barely knew what I was doing. I wrote 50k words that November, 25k in December, nothing in January, 10k in February and in March, I wondered if the manuscript would ever fucking end. Halfway through April I finished it and the first draft clocked in at approximately 150k words. No, not kidding. By this point, Erika had finished a couple of books and I’d fiddled with the synopses for them, suggested titles and the like. Bear in mind I’m not claiming to have told her what to write in the sense of “No, no, this is wrong. Write it like this.” It was more like, “You could do this,” or “I think you could solve that plot knot by doing X, Y or Z.” It was friends chatting and discussing what they’re working on. And talking about Erika’s books gave me a break from my own, which went on and on…and on…and on…

So, in April 2009 I was pig sick of my manuscript and was glad to have finished it. The rest of that year I spent…”helping” doesn’t seem the correct word. Hell, now I want to call it “carrying”. We’ll say…”contributing”. I’d write my own stuff here and there, but I was having fun flexing my synopsis-writing muscles doing that for someone else. When met with effusive thanks and praise, I admit, I fell for it. “Wow, I never would have thought of putting it that way!” or “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” sounds cheesy as fuck now, but back then, it was still what I thought was a genuine friendship.

Trouble is, if you keep giving someone a leg up, you end up getting trampled on.

Nevertheless, I wrote several synopses for another person who, at the time, expressed gratitude for them in our private conversations and, if nothing else, this enabled me to hone my skills in writing synopses and blurbs for my own books when the time came. I can point to several titles still for sale now to which I contributed, whether it be with titles, character names, scene suggestions, synopses, you name it. Christ, even pen names!

But, that’s the kind of thing you do for a mate, right?

Except…it began to get a tad…one-sided.

Erika sold books (or she sold books I’d helped her sell, whichever way you want to look at it) and her career was doing a lot better than mine. I had a first draft sitting on my hard drive, then two, wasn’t editing and submitting anything, and wasn’t sure what to do next. So I began to think about tidying up the book that became my first published novel. Erika was, by this time, published with a few relatively minor presses, and had further books contracted and scheduled to be published very soon. She suggested I sub to one of her publishers, so I did, and the novel was accepted. Cue serious excitement from me, congratulations from her, and all was well.

Except…

Erika was subbing to bigger and bigger epubs, getting recognition, suggestions to re-submit later, but couldn’t quite get a bite. There was one book she’d worked on that she liked, but there was something not quite right with it. So I had a suggestion, asked if she minded if I did something with the first chapter. She said no, go ahead, I asked her to give me an hour or two and I’d get back to her.

I remember printing it out and slicing it up with a pair of scissors. The timeline was…well, wrong. Instead of having a linear progression of events, it was better (I thought, and so did the publisher as it happens) to go BOOM! BIG EVENT! — backtrack, lead up to the boom — carry on from there.

I jigged about the word.doc on my laptop, smoothed over the edges, rewrote the joins, and sent it back to Erika. She loved it, said it worked much better this way, don’t know what I’d do without you, sub the manuscript, sold it, job done. (With a Scarlett Parrish synopsis, just so you know.)

Now this was with a pretty damn big epublisher, so I thought, if I can sell a book to a big epub for someone else, maybe I can for myself, too? So I knuckled down, started writing new stuff of my own. Got nowhere. For some reason, I just couldn’t make that break with my own books, but found it piss easy to sell books for other people. (Erika wasn’t the only one I wrote synopses for; another writer used a synopsis I wrote for her to snag an agent.) Maybe my fiction writing was just shite?

Then I got a R&R from Loose Id for what was then called The Devil You Know, but eventually became By the Book (now self-published here). The evening I got the email I’d been out, had a bad day, half-read the email, took it as a rejection and let off steam to Erika.

The response I got was…interesting. More or less, “Yeah, well, shit happens. Anyway, look at what I’ve written today!”

Hmm.

Upshot is, I noticed this happening more and more regularly. We were talking less and less about my writing plans, more and more about her writing success. She’d tell me about how much her early books with a minor epub were doing, how many hundreds of dollars she was making, how many thousands of copies she’d sold. Now, how much of this was true, I don’t know, but at first it made me feel encouraged. Hey, maybe I could make that sort of money too! Then discouraged, because I just couldn’t get a bite.

But back to that email from Loose Id. I read it again in the morning and realised it wasn’t a flat out rejection, but a R&R. Revise and resubmit. Make some adjustments, send it in again, that kind of thing. Great. Bear in mind by this point, Erika had sold books, both novels and novellas, to a number of different publishers, and I’d been looking for one where she wasn’t at, specifically so I could prove to myself I could sell my own book to my own publisher, without namedropping or using a friend’s connections.

And…Loose Id signed the book. Holy shit, I’d actually managed to sell a book to a well-respected epublisher, rather than a piddly, run-of-the-mill affair run out of someone’s spare room office. This was my chance to make it big!

Or at least, earn some proper cash.

The response I got from my “friend” was lukewarm. She just had no desire in discussing it. Brushed it off like it didn’t mean a thing.

And that kinda spoiled it for me.

Looking back, it seems obvious. As my writing began to take off, I had less and less time to devote to hers. But it was okay, right? She wrote fast — a hell of a lot faster than I ever did. So she’d always have more of a backlist than I, and I could still work on her synopses here and there. (Sure, now I see it. One of the reasons I didn’t finish that many books was because I was spending so much time on other people’s. I know. I’m dumb for taking this long to work it out.)

But that wasn’t good enough.

Things got proper wobbly when By the Book was published. I blew my advance royalties cheque, small though it was, on a new-to-me-but-secondhand sofa, and a DVD box set of Being Human. And Erika…by this time it was early 2011 and Erika had sold books to multiple publishers. Except Loose Id.

But…an acquaintance of hers got a job as an editor there, so suddenly Erika was all about cultivating this friendship, turning it into a more useful business relationship. I’m not saying she was mercenary but…okay, I am. That’s exactly what I’m saying. At the time, she said, “I’d been thinking about subbing to Loose Id for a while now anyway,” but when her editor friend promised to offer her a contract no matter what she sent in because “I’ll just tell my bosses it’s a fantastic book and they’ll let me sign you; we can work on beating it into shape later,” well, that was that.

“But Scarlett,” you might say, “didn’t you sub to the same publisher as Erika way back when?”

Yes, I did. At Erika’s suggestion, and back when we were at more or less, kinda, the same level of success. Ish. At the time of my sale to Loose Id, I had one published book at a single publisher. Erika had, goodness…looking back, must have been around 10 books at multiple publishers, and big ones. BIG publishers. Besides my start-out novel, I sold one book to Loose Id and, to be honest…it felt like she was pissing in my cornflakes, couldn’t bear for me to have any success of my own.

She waited for the day I received two rejections — two — to announce, “I’ve decided to take [Editor Friend] up on her offer. I’ve got [Book X] sitting on my hard drive doing nothing, but she said she’ll sign anything I throw her way.”

So I asked her words to the effect of, “Do you think it’s appropriate to say that when I’ve had two rejections in one day?”

And she simply said, “Everyone gets rejections; just fucking deal with it.”

It felt like she’d waited until I was feeling pretty damn awful to announce, “That thing you worked really hard for, and are really proud of? I can take it, easily. Not by working for it, but by using a connection. It doesn’t really mean anything to me, but I can’t let you have this moment to yourself.”

That was the point our friendship, such as it was, died. I can be supportive of and happy for a friend — hell, if I couldn’t, why would I have helped her sell books? But as soon as I met with success, I was no longer as readily available to bolster her career.

By some weird cosmic coincidence, Erika had a book published on exactly the same day By the Book came out and yes, I’ll admit, that soured the excitement a little. But Loose Id was Johnny Big Bollocks in the epub world then, so I told myself it’d all come good.

As a result of By the Book and one or two other things I sold, over the following months I was contacted by three separate epublishers, inviting me to submit there. Not, I hasten to add, because I knew anyone at Publishers X, Y and Z, but because they’d read By the Book and liked it. I didn’t have to pull any strings, but this book could potentially help me sell the next one. Things were looking up.

Until I saw a review for the Erika book that came out on the same day as By the Book. This book was something I’d titled and rewritten in part. I know, I know. Why? Because I was a fucking mug and didn’t want to lose a friendship and while it was being written things weren’t too bad between us, really. Ick. I know.

In this review, Erika was praised as a writer who always picked great titles, and words to the effect of “But this time she’s really knocked it out of the park. It’s a play on words whose true meaning becomes clear further on in the book, blah blah blah…”

Bear in mind this is a book I’d heavily contributed to, so I got in touch by email to say “Hey, it’s me. Look, I caught the review for [Book Title] and I’d really appreciate it if you credited me somewhere with the things mentioned in the review. It’s a great book, and I know you worked hard on it, but there are things specifically mentioned in the review that you know are my work.”

The reply I got shocked me. It was probably the first time I’d directly asked to be credited for my own work in a book published under her name, but it was time. I was no longer prepared to tolerate her sense of entitlement, the emails bragging about how much she was earning, the “Suck it up, buttercup,” when I got a rejection and the temper tantrums when she received one.

“No. I don’t have to do anything you say.”

Fuck me sideways and call me Charlie. I’d only asked to be credited for my own work. I wasn’t asking for money, just “Actually, Scarlett gave me the title.” That would have done. But no, nothing doing.

Apparently once I started selling my own books and asking to be credited for the work I did on hers, that coincided with her no longer desiring to associate with me.

Then pretty much the arse dropped out of my world. This is real life stuff, not related to writing, so I’ll just say it boils down to nearly being made homeless, and someone I know having a cancer scare which required surgery. Within the space of a few days I went from thinking things were bimbling along just fine, to “I’m going to be homeless, and [name] is going to die.” I saw no other solution than to off myself. I remember sitting on the settee writing suicide notes to people; that’s how bad it got. I took a bunch of pills and started to run a bath but before I could line up the razor blades and get in, I…

…I fell asleep. The stress, combined with a gutful of painkillers, served no other purpose than to knock me out. It sounds righteously comedic now, years later, but I couldn’t even kill myself properly. I woke up to a session of puking of which The Exorcist would be proud, a cold bath, and kidney problems. These latter are still with me today, to some degree, but not enough to worry me in my day-to-day life.

I had a deadline for a book I’d sold before I’d even written it and, unbeknownst to me, my editor contacted the Boss Lady and said, “Scarlett’s having a really bad time of it; can she have an extension?” Then she got in touch with me to say the Boss Lady had given me another month. In the end, I didn’t use all of it, but I appreciated the gesture. The book in question was the only thing I completed that year as I had a bunch of other stuff to deal with. Hospital appointments, dealing with lawyers and so on. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and being creative wasn’t even an option. I dealt with my obligations and other than that, my writing ground to a halt.

I just don’t want to remember exactly how bad that year was. Things that had bothered me before didn’t seem important. When it comes to online matters, I am still aware of a lingering discomfort when it comes to one thing in particular. I was a member of a writing website, as was Erika. The number of people who got in touch with me behind the scenes to ask, “Is something wrong? I’ve noticed you and Erika aren’t interacting any more,” is embarrassing. The more observant of folks asked, “Is she deliberately ignoring you? When you post, she replies to everyone else in the thread, except you.” One fellow website member put it this way: “It’s like she’s making a conscious effort to pretend you don’t exist.”

Of course I privately told them the story. Some believed me, some did not. Most made sympathetic noises but I didn’t care much either way. I know what the truth is, and as I’ve said, my priorities shifted. Given that my meatspace life had turned upside down, that was my immediate concern. Sorting that out first.

Eventually I got there. It’s a process. There were some speedbumps along the way, not least noticing from my online activities that Erika had collected quite a number of co-writers who were named on the covers. Well, wasn’t that a kick in the teeth. They got a credit. Even the one whom she’d said privately was “Fat, ugly and talentless,” some time before. Why did I listen to such talk? Lordy, I don’t know. I heard it, and did nothing to stop it. But really, if someone speaks to you in that manner, they’ll speak about you in such a manner, too. Another person she chose to co-write with had been the subject of “I’ve never read her books and I doubt I ever will; they’re not really my thing.” Oh, but fast forward a year or two, and suddenly the author in question is good enough to collaborate with? Why? She sells, so she could be useful.

I, of course, had well and truly served my purpose. I’d stepped out of line by a) selling my own stuff and b) requesting credit for my work. I was no longer of use.

What did come in useful for Erika was cultivating a public persona very different from her private one. This is a woman with a remarkable talent for fiction when it comes to her online persona that she would do well to channel into the books she seems unable to write on her own. And even yet, it stings to see her publicly lauded when experience has given me a slightly-less-than-fangirly view. Double stings when people who know what she did are the ones doing the squeeing. I guess birds of a feather flock together. There are always going to be writers who will dole out praise if they suspect the situation can be twisted to their advantage.

That doesn’t change the fact the emperor has no clothes on.

As it happens, in around about 2013 I had occasion to get in touch with her one last time. It was purely business related, in connection with contractual matters at a publisher I’m no longer with. We exchanged a few emails, I asked about her latest project, wished her well, blah blah. And the reply I got was “Look, I’m really not interested in pursuing a friendship with you. Let’s just leave it there.”

I burned with embarrassment. Burned. I hadn’t been pursuing anything, and felt like I’d been caught making polite conversation with that guy. You know the one, that guy. He loves himself so much he can’t conceive of anyone not being half in love with him too, and every conversation appears to his ego, to be flirtation. My conversation with Erika was primarily about a contract with Publisher X from which I was trying to extricate myself, and thereafter, “I wonder if we can be civil to each other?”

I was summarily dismissed without even asking to be part of her life again. But then again, I served no purpose. Don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out.

My embarrassment was as hot as her ego is large.

Bronwyn Green recently asked me if I’d had trouble with my own work since these events, and I quote, “Like just having the will/interest/passion for doing it?…I’m hoping that’s not a common response.”

In truth yes, I have had a lot of trouble in even caring about the written word. I cannot blame that entirely on Erika as I did have other things going on in my life too. But the longer I went without writing, the harder it was to get back into it. I asked myself, why bother? I’d been let own before, worked really hard, got nowhere, and had my work appropriated, so is it really worth trying? I feel as if, right now, I’m starting from a lower position than I was in, in 2008. Then, remember, there was no choice between optimism and pessimism. No concept of “This could actually do me emotional harm.” It was just writing, right? Put words on paper. Create worlds. Make up shit. Profit.

Now I’m getting back into it aware of certain things that weren’t even on my radar way-back-when. But who knows? My writing may well be all the better for it.

Because of course it will be my writing, because I ride buses, not careers.

If I may, I’d like to end by quoting Jenny. (When in doubt, quote The Trout):

Grudges and unfairness do seem to have mass. Due to the events I talked about in those posts, my entire writing career has been tainted by that anger and hurt. And tonight, I get to let that go. And from here on out, I don’t have to think about any of that. I was walking around subconsciously trying to prove to myself that I was better than she had made me feel. […] a toxic person has unwillingly duped me into a mental competition. […] All of that past, all of those horrible things? They’re just the dirt I had to struggle up through, and those posts were the downpour that cleared the way.