Ex-Lax at the Checkout

Sometimes as writers we observe and make a choice about judging characters, whether in real life or on the page. We take a stand on their attitudes and actions and adopt a position on it. This was one of those moments.

I was at the supermarket checkout buying a box of Ex-Lax, an industrial pack of toilet paper, a packet of Panadol, a tube of Anusol ointment for haemorrhoids, a box of Sudafed, a tub of Vicks Vapo-Rub, a bottle of Eucalyptus oil, a bottle of Aspirin, a packet of Voltarin, a box of Codral Day and Night tablets, a tube of Deep Heat Rub, a tube of Clearasil, a Home Enema Kit, and a box of KP24 for head lice.

You know what the check-out chick said? Guess.

‘Have a nice night.’

Didn’t bat an eye. Did not register one iota what this collection of items meant. Hadn’t a clue what she had just put in my bag.

Or, maybe, just maybe, she was simply following the corporate script she had been trained to say automatically, no matter what, making her an ideal employee from the company point of view.

Or, even better, perhaps she was showing deep compassion by refusing to see me for the sick, sick puppy that I was that night. Instead, she might have been internally racked by sympathy for my situation, yet she knew that to acknowledge even one item on this list would be to open up both of us to a terrible encounter. Because imagine if she did.

‘Ex-Lax, eh? Bit of a plumbing situation downstairs? Mr Brown refusing to leave the building, is he?

‘Um…it’s for me Mum…’

‘Sure it is.’ She turns to the girl on the next check out. ‘Shell, what’s that new constipation thing we got last week. I’ve got a guy here who’s backed up something chronic. Turbo something. Turbo-Poop? That’s it!’ She turns back to the PA mic and her voice booms out over the store. ‘Check-out assistance, a jumbo pack of Turbo-Poop from aisle 7 for this poor bugger down here who looks like he hasn’t done a number 2 since 2002.

Then she’d smile sweetly at me and ask, ‘Is there anything else I can help you with?’

So after she had ignored every embarrassing product I’d bought and wished me a good night, and I was turning all this over in my head, running the gauntlet from her being robotic to compassionate, I decided to err on the side of generosity and not judge her, which is something we should try do with our characters from time to time, and in fact, with our fellow humans in general. I held up the bag and gave it a gentle pat as I looked her in the eye, and said, ‘Thank you. It can only improve from here.’

(first posted as guest post at BestChapLit on 13 August 2013)


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How to put a vibrator on your cover

This is a burning question I’m sure many of you writers are facing. I know it kept me up many nights. In the interests of helping out fellow toilers of the pen I have been encouraged to share my secrets. I worked with marketing whiz David Roberts and designer Polly Leddar who came up with the cover for my novel Pangamonium. This is what I learned in five easy steps.

Tip #1 – Size
Now we all know that men obsess about size but really, seriously, no one is going to buy your book if you slap a giant schlong on the front cover. Unless your book is The Great Gatsby. Even if that is your personal preference you have to remember that not every reader shares your tastes. Some of us want to be teased a little rather than having our eye poked out.

At the same time, if it is too small, well, we all know how effective that is. My novel features a scene where boxes of vibrators are dumped out of a moving school bus to stop the Army chasing the good guys. So we felt that a bunch of vibrators on the cover would be a reasonable image. But when we placed them around the other elements to scale – a falling elephant, man and gun – they looked like tiny hand grenades. Obviously, that wasn’t what we wanted at all.

Tip #2 – Colour
Everyone of a certain age knows that vibrators come in all types of colours these days. But when your cover background is already Sari Pink it somewhat limits your options. Since we had refined the cover to a graphical style everything else on the front was black. And you know what they say – when you’ve had black there’s no going back. So black it was.

Tip #3 – Shape
Vibrators come in many diverse shapes today, and that’s a good thing, but not for a cover designer. The shape had to communicate what it was, without confusing it for what it wasn’t. Some vibrators are extremely realistic, right down to the anatomical level, but we weren’t making a medical textbook or a manual on schlongs. We wanted a sex toy. Polly fiddled  experimented with various shapes until she drew one that satisfied all of us.

Did it succeed? One book review blogger, Dr Lara Cain Gray, thought so: “For starters, I believe this is the first novel I’ve reviewed that has a dildo on the front cover.  It’s a subtle (ish) artistic interpretation of the device, but it is there.”

Note the qualification, “subtle (ish)”.  ‘Ish’ because as Lara wrote, “Pangamonium is a novel at once literary and low-brow”, and really, how subtle can you make a dildo on the cover of a book before you’ve lost that huge market for dildo-cover book readers?

Tip #4 – Position
It was Polly who came up with the idea. Once we knew the tiny falling vibrators looked like hand grenades, I asked her if she could come up with another option. She had already created a unique font for the word Pangamonium, inspired by an old Indian stamp. And the whole cover featured a stamp border, suggesting an exotic adventure in a foreign land, which indeed describes the plot of my novel. So she hijacked the letter ‘I’ in Pangamonium, which after all fulfils the essential shape components, and turned it into a dildo. Voila!

Tip #5 – Tone
We were nearly there, and yet we wondered if we had gone too far. How vibrator-ish could we make this image while retaining our dignity? I loved the cover but I asked Polly one last thing – could she find a way to introduce humour, while also making the dildo an object of fun and not of lust?

She went away and scratched her head and thought about what vibrators do, which is vibrate. And the solution appeared to her in a dream – make the dildo ‘vibrate’ on the cover by drawing it in three closely overlapping shapes. Now the “I” in Pangamonium really did look like a vibrating vibrator, and what’s more, it looked rather cheeky, or at least I thought so. But then, I was the one who had his main character get arrested when the suitcase he presented at the border to Panga was found to be full of sex toys – and it wasn’t even his, starting the mad, satirical adventure story with a heart of gold.

As the vibrator didn’t put Lara off, because she concludes about Pangamonium, “it offers a comical and thought-provoking romp for any reader in the market for some fresh, edgy, original fiction.”

(first posted on Rachelle Ayala’s blog on 17 Jan 2013)

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