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A story in the next Liars’ League HK: Supply & Demand (and some writing notes)

On Monday, September 24, Liars’ League HK will read one of my stories, in an evening themed “Supply & Demand.” It is at Social Place on Stanley Street (in Hong Kong), and here is the full line-up:

Four Dates I Never Knew I Went On (Penina Francus)
Walls (Brindley Hallam Dennis)
The Grate (Jess Worsdale)
Workshop (Lucy E. Marcus)
The Buzzard (Helen Chambers)
Swiped Right (Michael Clarke)
Tricks of the Trade (Jerome Cigut)

I hope you’ll make it there!

And if it is any interest, here is how Tricks of the Trade came about.

Whenever I prepare a story for a themed call for submissions, I start by defining the words of the theme. (This was deeply ingrained in me by high-school and university teachers, especially when we studied philosophy: if you started composing with the wrong understanding of what was being asked, you could end up with an F, no matter how good your copy was — simply because you were off-topic.)

One thing I like to do at that stage is to go a bit off-road: because French is my first language, it sometimes gives me additional directions when the words of the theme are Romance (i.e. descended from Latin) words. Here, without a dictionary or Internet nearby (I was on holiday, hiking in the countryside), I wondered what was the etymology of supply and demand. Supply (translated in French by ‘offre’), looked like ‘supplier‘ (= to beg, to implore); and demand (same in French, ‘demande‘) seemed related to ‘mander‘ (= to send for). After checking, it turned out I was wrong on both counts: supply comes from Latin supplere (to fill in) rather than supplicare (to implore); and demand descends from demandare (to hand over, to entrust). It’s ok being wrong, you just have to say it with confidence and no one will notice… (Just joking.)

The easy conclusion of this preliminary definition was to tell the story of a buyer and a seller. But to make it a story, I needed conflict: I needed one of the two characters to want something the other wouldn’t give. First idea at this stage: a buyer keeps being pestered by a completely hapless salesman, and never agrees to buy anything. But this still didn’t make a story: it just made a scene. For a full story, I needed a twist, something that would make the situation change.

What if suddenly the seller had something the buyer wanted, but he couldn’t sell it, and the buyer now was the one who had to find a way to make the other agree to the transaction?

The next step was to find what was this thing the buyer would want. I didn’t really know, so I considered a McGuffin of some sort, preferably something so ridiculous the audience would find it funny:

As most of you know by heart, a goojis made by Bintin is pretty much the most valuable thing you can lay your hands on, especially if it’s supplemented with a sindjak in traditional origami. The fimbul must also be in prime condition, but that goes without saying…

I wasn’t convinced — I wasn’t sure anyone would go with the joke. Back to the drawing board.

Why didn’t the buyer want to take the goods the seller had? Often it’s because of mismatch: the goods offered are not exactly what the buyer wants, and no amount of cajoling or manipulation will make up for it. Here, the buyer could be a posh tosh looking for, say, fine vintages, while the seller kept offering him cheap, crappy bottles, never taking the hint that this wouldn’t do. I could play on this — on the delusion of the seller, in particular, or maybe on a combination of stupidity, delusion and this type of annoying guile sleazy car salesmen are famous for. One inspiration for the seller was “Monsieur Pignon,” the hapless protagonist of many plays and movies by Francis Veber, in particular the excellent Diner de Cons (which was poorly remade in the US as Dinner for Schmucks).

I wrote a first draft along these lines, and realized that this guile could be my twist: what if the seller knew he was selling shite, but played dumb just to fool the buyer?

This first draft interested Liars’ League HK, who then asked me to make some revisions.

At this stage, the manuscript had had time to rest, and I could read it with a little more distance. I realized I didn’t like several aspects: in particular, the twist was both too sudden (almost “ha-ha, got you there old chap!”) and too obvious (well, I didn’t think so when I wrote the story, but the editor seemed to have guessed it immediately…) I consequently felt I needed to improve it.

In the meantime, I had thought about the mechanisms I liked in Veber’s Diner de Cons: in particular, its snowballing chain of catastrophes. The initial action (inviting someone dumb at a dinner party to laugh at his expense, without him knowing) triggers a sequence of detrimental events; and every attempt the characters make at correcting the situation leads to even more dismal consequences. It’s a storytelling mechanism, and well done (as is the Diner de Cons), it can be either devastating (for drama) or hilarious (for comedy).

I really wanted to try it.

So what if… an initial action (buying a few cases of apparently good wine) led to a chain of ever-increasing catastrophes?

If you want to see the result, please come to Liars’ League on the 24th.

(Edit 14/10: or come check the video and text here!)

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