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Onyx reviews: How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

What better way to humiliate and upstage your former girlfriend on her wedding day then to become a best-selling novelist? This isn't Pete Tarslaw's only reason for seeking this goal. He also thinks that it will make him famous, financially comfortable and will lead to a cushy teaching job at the English department of some respectable college where he will loll around, smoke pipes and seduce affable young coeds. Live the good life.

Pete's scheme sounds like a good one. Of course, Steve Hely's novel wouldn't be interesting if the scheme went exactly as planned.

It's two years since Pete graduated from university and was taken by surprise by his equally lackadaisical girlfriend, Polly, who suddenly acquired aspirations and a goal: to attend law school. Pete is content to work for a shady company that turns illiterate college application essays into works that aren't so good as to create suspicion but which are head and shoulders above what he started with.

Polly's unenthusiastic invitation to her wedding in a year's time goads him into action. Once he decides to write a bestseller, he realizes he needs to do some research, having never written a novel. He's not concerned with writing a good book, he simply wants to write one that will become popular. To that end, he studies the bestseller list and the books that are on prominent display in the chain bookstores he visits. 

He distills the elements that make them popular into the roadmap for his book. It must contain a murder, a conspiracy, a secret club. The prose must be lyrical. It should contain extensive descriptions of food and include scenes in as many reader-filled towns and exotic locations as possible. These are but a few of the nearly twenty rules he derives, and he sets about cramming all of them into the ungainly faux-literary bookThe Tornado Ashes Club

Of course, he discovers that there's more to writing a book than simply outlining it. There's the annoying bit where the writer has to sit down and put words on the page. To accelerate this process, he avails himself of trial pharmaceuticals he cons his roommate into providing, a speed-like substance that sends him on binges where he writes thousands of words in a single setting.

It helps that one of his old college friends reads the slush pile at a reputable publishing house, so he doesn't have to go through the ordeal that most writers face: waiting months or years for a response. He also discovers the dirty secret of the publishing industry: nobody knows what book is going to be successful. Everyone from the lowliest reader to the most illustrious editor lives in perpetual panic that someone will discover that they don't really know what they're doing.

In any case, to keep a long novel short, Pete's road to publication is smoother than normal. The first review is devastating (and accurate), but subsequent reviews are kinder and his book actually makes it to the fringes of the NY Times bestseller list. After that, The Tornado Ashes Club starts treading water, destined for the remainder table after a brief flirtation with success. Pete can honestly present himself as a bestseller, but he's more likely to attract looks of sympathy than awe, and he hasn't exactly become rich or famous from his novel. 

As Pete brushes elbows with the literary establishment during a book tour that takes him from well-attended book expos in California to tedious appearances at Creative Writing workshops in Montana, Hely skewers well-known popular authors. Does crime writer Pamela McLaughlin bring to mind Patricia Cornwell or Danielle Steel? Is high-tech military writer Nick Boyle a thinly veiled version of Tom Clancy? Tim Drew = Dan Brown? And what about Preston Brooks, Pete's undeclared nemesis, a man he has grown to loathe because of the self-serving platitudes the man spouts about the truth and sanctity of writing? Perhaps intended to conjure up thoughts of Cormac McCarthy?

When he goes off message during a high profile interview and says some ill advised and controversial things about his own work and that of other "talentless writers" (taking particular aim at  Preston Brooks), he inexplicably finds his star rising again, as well as his Amazon sales ranking. His publishers are at first aghast, discussing apologies and damage control, but they soon realize the truth of the adage: no publicity is bad publicity. He ends up participating in the literary equivalent of the Gunfight at the OK Corral only to discover that his weapon isn't loaded and everything he thought he knew about writers was wrong. 

To complicate matters, some of the freelance work he did for his former boss—filler text for financial prospectus documents—has come to the attention of federal agencies. "When state police guys seizing your computer is only the second-worst thing to happen to you in a given week, that's a bad week."

The book is padded out with overlong extracts from fictitious novels, including The Tornado Ashes Club and works by McLaughlin, Boyle and Brooks, along with humorous extracts from the NY Times bestseller list and other reviews. It's not quite as funny as it might have been at first, but Hely picks up speed as the book develops and his targets come into clearer focus.

Book reviewers aren't spared Hely's scathing commentary. According to Pete, they are "the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people's work." He goes on at length, describing their poor hygiene, their ill-fitting clothing and shuffling gaits. It's good medicine against bad reviews, since any reviewer who pans his book can be written off as overly defensive.

The success of How I Became a Famous Novelist is predicated upon the reader's relationship with Pete Tarslaw. He is a superficial, lazy, unmotivated and cynical young man, but as he gets swept up in events, he becomes less shallow and more likeable.

The novel is simultaneously critical of the effete literary establishment and a love song to books. Pete comes to understand that it is readers who make books popular because an author has touched them. "Fictional characters that only exist in words on a page somehow seem to know better than I do how to live your life."

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