Calum Henderson helps the bloke from 800 Words finish writing his column, then sends it to three New Zealand editors to see if they’d give him a job.
The main character of TV One’s Thursday night comedy-drama 800 Words is a middle-aged Australian bloke called George Turner, who has just moved to a small town in New Zealand with his teenage kids for a fresh start after his wife died.
He’s apparently an extremely big deal weekly newspaper columnist in Sydney, so much so that he didn’t seem to have had any other form of employment. His editor Skypes him to say his readers are begging for his column to come back. So he does.
Sprinkled throughout the first episode are shots of him tapping away at his MacBook Pro, slowly reading aloud as he types like some kind of murderer. Yeah sure he’s popular – but is he any good?
I wanted to pitch his column to some New Zealand newspaper and magazine editors and see if they’d give him a job. But when I transcribed every word he’d written in episode one, it only came to around 300 words. There was a beginning, some middle, and an end. It didn’t make a jot of sense. I had to ghostwrite the other 500 words myself.
Stopping short of setting up a fake email account and trying to fully Catfish them, we instead sent three esteemed New Zealand editors the column and asked them to reply as if they’d received it ‘on spec’ from George Turner himself. Here’s the column (ghostwritten additions in italics) and, below, the responses.
George Turner: On rash decisions and new beginnings
Logically, the best place to start the story of the new beginning, is at the beginning. But where is the beginning?
I guess the beginning is that I’m back. I went away for a while because our lives changed, and decisions needed to be made. And the rule about decisions – especially big, life-changing ones – is that opinion is always divided.
So it was when I told my kids – Miss 17 and Mr 14 – that I had bought a house in New Zealand. “OMG Dad!” sighed moody Miss 17, “WTF!” She was firmly in ‘Team No Way’. Mr 14 barely glanced up from his computer game. Later, he told me he backed my decision, but I could tell he wasn’t sold on the idea. Call it parent’s intuition.
The truth was, ever since their mother died, our lives just stopped. If our family was a computer, she had been the hard drive. Without her, no matter how many times I pressed the reset button, the damn thing just wouldn’t boot up.
I looked at my kids, and I began to reminisce about my own childhood. I yearned for a return to those endless summers at the beach, in a small town called Weld on the West Coast of the North Island, Aotearoa. On a whim, I searched Google and found a real estate listing for the exact house my family used to rent back in the day. It was fate.
The experts on this stuff reckon some of the most stressful things in life revolve around death, buying and selling real estate, emigrating, and international travel. Only an idiot would do all these things at the same time.
I am that idiot. And things didn’t exactly get off to the best start. Within seconds of arriving in Weld, our rental car was written off by a runaway artwork. The fire brigade, ambulance and tow truck were called out – which is to say half the town were there. What a way to introduce yourself!
Things only went from bad to worse. If I thought the car I rented off a woman in town was a pile of junk, it was only because I hadn’t seen my new house yet. I was beyond livid. You know what they say about real estate agents – there’s nothing ‘real’ about them and they never ‘(e)state’ the truth!
In short, the place was a wreck. No power, no wi-fi. Uninhabitable. It wasn’t even the one I had spent summers at all those years ago after all. What had I been thinking?!
When you make big, life-changing decisions, you get used to the voices of opposition, and tune out the loud ones. Then there is a little voice in your head that says you’ve made the biggest mistake ever. Then you pray for a silver lining.
I went looking for that silver lining at the beach, in the roaring surf. I wanted the salty water to wash away all the muddled thoughts that were clouding my mind. I wanted to catch the perfect wave, literally and metaphorically. I nearly drowned.
Sometimes with big decisions, there is a need to go backwards, to reclaim the things you’ve lost along the way.
What had I lost? How about everything. The love of my life, for starters, but also my surfboard, and perhaps also my dignity. The ship carrying all of our belongings from Sydney sunk. So had my heart. I looked at my kids, and thought, strewth, have I ruined their lives?
Then it hit me like the wave that knocked me off my surfboard. I hadn’t lost everything at all. Far from it, in fact. I still had my kids. And they still had me. We were – and we always will be – a family. And now, we were members of a small and tight-knit local community with an improbably high number of beautiful single women.
I guess where you live – and why you live there – are secondary to who you’re living with. Because, after all, they’re the most important things in life.
So I find myself in this strange little country at the arse end of the world, surrounded by strange people, with a whole new set of responsibilities.
And at the end of the day, when a new beginning has begun, it’s the new people in your world who define a new start. They make your rash decision stand or fall. It always comes back to the people in your life.
I now live in another country, in a town called Weld, which is where my rash decision has led us. Opinion is still divided as to the wisdom of this decision, but for now this dead-end town on the edge of nowhere feels right. Like home.
Rose Hoare, former editor of Sunday magazine, replies:
Thanks for this.
I think your predicament is really interesting. Running away to start life in a new town after suffering a huge loss is something lots of people have probably dreamt of doing, and I’m interested to hear how it actually pans out for you.
In general, I think your situation is interesting enough on its own, that it doesn’t need you to add your musings on top. So I’ve cut almost all of the internal stuff and would like you to beef it up with more external observations.
I found the first couple of pars a little waffly (“Logically, the best place to start the story…”) and think the column would be stronger if you started with your kids’ reaction to the moving decision and maybe introduce them a bit more and/or explore their reaction further, or open with “Some of the most stressful things in life revolve around death, buying and selling real estate, emigrating, and international travel. Only an idiot would do all these things at the same time.”
Likewise, I’ve cut the metaphor about your dead wife being like a computer’s hard drive, “You know what they say about real estate agents”, and “I wanted to catch the perfect wave, literally and metaphorically.” I think it’s pretty clear that by going surfing you’re hoping to escape your problems.
And similarly, I’ve shortened “When you make big, life-changing decisions, you get used to the voices of opposition, and tune out the loud ones. Then there is a little voice in your head that says you’ve made the biggest mistake ever. Then you pray for a silver lining. I went looking for that silver lining at the beach, in the roaring surf. “ to “I went to the beach, into the roaring surf.” And I’ve changed “Sometimes with big decisions, there is a need to go backwards, to reclaim the things you’ve lost along the way. What had I lost? How about everything.” to “I had lost just about everything.”
[Don’t worry, I know this seems like a lot of brutal cuts, but that’s how Gordon Lish made Raymond Carver famous.]
I’ve also taken out some of the stuff about being “in this strange little country at the arse end of the world” and “this dead-end town on the edge of nowhere”. You’ve only come from Sydney, which by world standards is not far off being another dead-end town in the middle of nowhere. I get that you feel isolated and you’ve moved from a big city to a small town, but it rings slightly false to make too much of the change, given that it was probably not much more than a three hour flight.
Re the ending: you describe a lot of mishaps — being duped by a real estate agent, your car being damaged, a near fatal surfing incident — but you end by saying that Weld feels like home. Could you explain why?
Otherwise, could just end column at “When a new beginning has begun, it’s the new people in your world who define a new start. They make your rash decision stand or fall. It always comes back to the people in your life.”
This leaves us with just over 500 words.
Could I ask you to tell us a bit more about your previous life in Sydney? Could you describe the town a bit better? What’s its primary industry, what’s it famous for, what are its unemployment and crime stats like, what’s its ethnic make-up like, who’s running things there, what’s its beach like etc? Presumably you’ve visited the local school – what were your impressions?
I’d love to hear more about the improbably high number of beautiful women…
This is a great first start, and I look forward to seeing a revised draft. Is EOP Monday possible, please?
On a personal note, my main impression after reading this column was concern for your kids, and how you are going to manage financially. Have you started a job search yet? Not sure what your house cost, but I’m sure you realise there’s no way you’ll be able to support yourself, let alone feed two hungry teenagers on the proceeds of a weekly column. You are welcome to seek syndication for this, but it’s pretty niche in terms of its focus. Are you GST registered? Someone from accounts payable team will contact you with a million forms to fill in, and we pay at the end of the month after publication, so you won’t get your $288 (@45c per word, less 20% tax on schedular payments) until end of Dec, at the earliest.
Finlay McDonald, former editor of The Listener, replies:
Dear Mr Turner,
Thank you for your submission which I have yet to read. Our standard column length is 800 words and yours is only 789 according to my Word document. If you would kindly provide an additional 11 words I will gladly publish the piece. An advertisement has just fallen out of the next edition so I have a page free. I have no contributor budget at the moment, but I’m sure you’ll agree the exposure is ample compensation in itself.
Nicola Legat, former editor of Metro, replies:
Dear Mr Turner
Thanks so much for sending in a sample of your writing and suggesting that Metro might like to run a monthly ‘Report from Weld’ column.
You and your children are obviously coming to terms with all sorts of confronting issues there, and I’m glad it’s mostly working out. But I’m afraid that I found the column pretty superficial. Have you tried Woman’s Day?
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