The International Writers Magazine- FIRST
Well of Lost Plots
To understand the Well you have to have an idea of the layout of
the Great Library. The library is where all published fiction is
stored so it can be read by the readers in the Outland; there are
twenty-six floors, one for each letter of the alphabet. The library
is constructed in the layout of a cross with the four corridors
radiating from the center point. On all the walls, end after end,
shelf after shelf, are books. Hundreds, thousands, millions of books.
Hardbacks, paperbacks, leatherbound, everything. But the similarity
of all these books to the copies we read back home is no more than
the similarity a photograph has to its subject; these books are
Beneath the Great Library are twenty-six floors of dingy yet industrious
subbasements known as the Well of Lost Plots. This is where books
are constructed, honed and polished in readiness for a place in
the library aboveif they make it that far. The failure rate
is high. Unpublished books outnumber published by an estimated eight
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Absence of Breakfast -
The Jurisfiction Chronicles
MAKING ONES HOME in an unpublished novel wasnt without its
compensations. All the boring day-to-day mundanities that we conduct
in the real world get in the way of narrative flow and are thus generally
avoided. The car didnt need refueling, there were never any wrong
numbers, there was always enough hot water, and vacuum cleaner bags
came in only two sizesupright and pull along. There were other
more subtle differences, too. For instance, no one ever needed to repeat
themselves in case you didnt hear, no one shared the same name,
talked at the same time or had a word annoyingly "on the tip of
their tongue." Best of all, the bad guy was always someone you
knew of, andChaucer asidethere wasnt much farting.
But there were some downsides. The relative absence of breakfast was
the first and most notable difference to my daily timetable. Inside
books, dinners are often written about and therefore feature frequently,
as do lunches and afternoon tea; probably because they offer more opportunities
to further the story.
Breakfast wasnt all that was missing. There was a peculiar lack
of cinemas, wallpaper, toilets, colors, books, animals, underwear, smells,
haircuts, and strangely enough, minor illnesses. If someone was ill
in a book, it was either terminal and dramatically unpleasant or a mild
head coldthere wasnt much in between.
I was able to take up residence inside fiction by virtue of a scheme
entitled the Character Exchange Program. Due to a spate of bored and
disgruntled bookpeople escaping from their novels and becoming what
we called PageRunners, the authorities set up the scheme to allow characters
a change of scenery. In any year there are close to ten thousand exchanges,
few of which result in any major plot or dialogue infringementsthe
reader rarely suspects anything at all. Since I was from the real world
and not actually a character at all, the Bellman and Miss Havisham had
agreed to let me live inside the BookWorld in exchange for helping out
at Jurisfictionat least as long as my pregnancy would allow.
The choice of book for my self-enforced exile had not been arbitrary;
when Miss Havisham asked me in which novel I would care to reside, I
had thought long and hard. Robinson Crusoe would have been ideal considering
the climate, but there was no one female to exchange with. I could have
gone to Pride and Prejudice, but I wasnt wild about high collars,
bonnets, corsetsand delicate manners. No, to avoid any complications
and reduce the possibility of having to move, I had decided to make
my home in a book of such dubious and uneven quality that publication
and my subsequent enforced ejection was unlikely in the extreme. I found
just such a book deep within the Well of Lost Plots amongst failed attempts
at prose and half-finished epics of such dazzling ineptness that they
would never see the light of day. The book was a dreary crime thriller
set in Reading entitled Caversham Heights. I had planned to stay there
for only a year, but it didnt work out that way. Plans with me
are like De Floss novelstry as you might, you never know quite
how they are going to turn out.
I read my way into Caversham Heights. The air felt warm after the wintry
conditions back home, and I found myself standing on a wooden jetty
at the edge of a lake. In front of me there was a large and seemingly
derelict flying boat of the sort that still plied the coastal routes
back home. I had flown on one myself not six months before on the trail
of someone claiming to have found some unpublished Burns poetry. But
that was another lifetime ago, when I was SpecOps in Swindon, the world
I had temporarily left behind.
The ancient flying boat rocked gently in the breeze, tautening the mooring
ropes and creaking gently, the water gently slapping against the hull.
As I watched the old aircraft, wondering just how long something this
decrepit could stay afloat, a well-dressed young woman stepped out of
an oval-shaped door in the high-sided hull. She was carrying a suitcase.
I had read the novel of Caversham Heights so I knew Mary well although
she didnt know me.
"Hullo!" she shouted, trotting up and offering me a hand.
"Im Mary. You must be Thursday. My goodness! Whats
"A dodo. Her names Pickwick."
Pickwick plocked and stared at Mary suspiciously.
"Really?" she replied, looking at the bird curiously. "Im
no expert of course butI thought dodoes were extinct."
"Where I come from, theyre a bit of a pest."
"Oh?" mused Mary. "Im not sure Ive heard
of a book with live dodoes in it."
"Im not a bookperson," I told her, "Im real."
"Oh!" exclaimed Mary, opening her eyes wide. "An Outlander."
She touched me inquisitively with a slender index finger as though I
might be made of glass.
"Ive never seen someone from the other side before,"
she announced, clearly relieved to find that I wasnt going to
shatter into a thousand pieces. "Tell me, is it true you have to
cut your hair on a regular basis? I mean, your hair actually grows?"
"Yes"I smiled"and my fingernails, too."
"Really?" mused Mary. "Ive heard rumors about that
but I thought it was just one of those Outlandish legends. I suppose
you have to eat, too? To stay alive, I mean, not just when the story
calls for it?"
"One of the great pleasures of life," I assured her.
I didnt think Id tell her about real-world downsides such
as tooth decay, incontinence, or old age. Mary lived in a three-year
window and neither aged, died, married, had children, got sick or changed
in any way. Although appearing resolute and strong-minded, she was only
like this because she was written that way. For all her qualities, Mary
was simply a foil to Jack Spratt, the detective in Caversham Heights,
the loyal sergeant figure to whom Jack explained things so the readers
knew what was going on. She was what writers called an expositional,
but Id never be as impolite to say so to her face.
"Is this where Im going to live?" I was pointing at
the shabby flying boat.
"I know what youre thinking." Mary smiled proudly. "Isnt
she just the most beautiful thing ever? Shes a Sunderland; built
in 1943 but last flew in 68. Im midway converting her to
a houseboat, but dont feel shy if you want to help out. Just keep
the bilges pumped out, and if you can run the number three engine once
a month, Id be very gratefulthe start-up checklist is on
the flight deck."
"Wellokay," I muttered.
"Good. Ive left a précis of the story taped to the
fridge and a rough idea of what you have to say, but dont worry
about being word perfect; since were not published, you can say
almost anything you wantwithin reason, of course."
"Of course." I thought for a moment. "Im new to
the Character Exchange Program. When will I be called to do something?"
"Wyatt is the inbook exchange liaison officer; hell let you
know. Jack might seem gruff to begin with," continued Mary, "but
he has a heart of gold. If he asks you to drive his Austin Allegro,
make sure you depress the clutch fully before changing gear. He takes
his coffee black and the love interest between myself and DC Baker is
strictly unrequited, is that clear?"
"Very clear," I returned, thankful I would not have to do
any love scenes.
"Good. Did they supply you with all the necessary paperwork, IDs,
that sort of thing?"
I patted my pocket and she handed me a scrap of paper and a bunch of
"Good. This is my footnoterphone number in case of emergencies,
these are the keys to the flying boat and my BMW. If a loser named Arnold
calls, tell him I hope he rots in hell. Any questions?"
"I dont think so."
She smiled as a yellow cab with TransGenre Taxis painted on the side
materialized in front of us. The cabbie looked bored and Mary opened
the passenger door.
"Then were done. Youll like it here. Ill see
you in about a year. So long!"
She turned to the cabbie, muttered, "Get me out of this book,"
and she and the car faded out, leaving me alone on the dusty track.
I sat upon a rickety wooden seat next to a tub of long-dead flowers
and let Pickwick out of her bag. She ruffled her feathers indignantly
and blinked in the sunlight. I looked across the lake at the sailing
dinghies that were little more than brightly colored triangles that
tacked backwards and forwards in the distance. Nearer to shore a pair
of swans beat their wings furiously and pedaled the water in an attempt
to take off, landing almost as soon as they were airborne, throwing
up a long streak of spray on the calm waters. It seemed a lot of effort
to go a few hundred yards.
I turned my attention to the flying boat. The layers of paint that covered
and protected the riveted hull had partly peeled off to reveal the colorful
livery of long-forgotten airlines beneath. The Perspex windows had clouded
with age, and high in the massive wing untidy cables hung lazily from
the oil-stained cowlings of the three empty engine bays, their safe
inaccessibility now a haven for nesting birds. Goliath, Aornis, and
SpecOps seemed a million miles awaybut then, so did Landen. Landen.
Memories of my husband were never far away. I thought of all the times
we had spent together that hadnt actually happened. All the places
we hadnt visited, all the things we hadnt done. He might
have been eradicated at the age of two, but I still had our memoriesjust
no one to share them with.
I was interrupted from my thoughts by the sound of a motorcycle approaching.
The rider didnt have much control of the vehicle; I was glad that
he stopped short of the jettyhis erratic riding might well have
led him straight into the lake.
"Hullo!" he said cheerfully, removing his helmet to reveal
a youngish man with a dark Mediterranean complexion and deep sunken
eyes. "My names Arnold. I havent seen you around here
before, have I?"
I got up and shook his hand.
"The names Next. Thursday Next. Character Exchange Program."
"Oh, blast!" he muttered. "Blast and double blast! I
suppose that means Ive missed her?"
I nodded and he shook his head sadly.
"Did she leave a message for me?"
"Y-es," I said uncertainly. "She said she would, um,
see you when she gets back."
"She did?" replied Arnold, brightening up. "Thats
a good sign. Normally she calls me a loser and tells me to go rot in
"She probably wont be back for a while," I added, trying
to make up for not passing on Marys message properly, "maybe
a yearmaybe more."
"I see," he murmured, sighing deeply and staring off across
the lake. He caught sight of Pickwick, who was attempting to outstare
a strange aquatic bird with a rounded bill.
"Whats that?" he asked suddenly.
"I think its a duck, although I cant be surewe
dont have any where I come from."
"No, the other thing."
"Whats the matter?" asked Arnold.
I was getting a footnoterphone signal; in the BookWorld people generally
communicated like this.
"A footnoterphone call," I replied, "but its not
a messageits like the wireless back home."2
Arnold stared at me. "Youre not from around here, are you?"
"Im from the other side of the page. What you call the Outland."3
He opened his eyes wide. "You meanyoure real?"
"Im afraid so," I replied, slightly bemused.
"Goodness! Is it true that Outlanders cant say red-Buick-blue-Buick
many times quickly?"
"Its true. We call it a tongue twister."
"Fascinating! Theres nothing like that here, you know. I
can say The sixth sheikhs sixth sheeps sick
over and over as many times as I want!"
1. "... This is WOLP-12 on the Well of Lost Plots own footnoterphone
station, transmitting live on the hour every hour to keep you up-to-date
with news in the Fiction Factory..."
2. "... After the headlines you can hear our weekly documentary
show WellSpeak, where today we will discuss hiding exposition; following
that there will be a WellNews special on the launch of the new Book
Operating System, UltraWord, featuring a live studio debate with
WordMaster Xavier Libris of Text Grand Central..."
3. "... here are the main points of the news. Prices of semicolons,
plot devices, prologues and inciting incidents continued to fall yesterday,
lopping twenty-eight points off the TomJones Index. The Council of Genres
has announced the nominations for the 923rd annual BookWorld Awards;
Heathcliff is once again to head the Most Troubled Romantic Lead category,
for the seventy-eighth year running..."
And he did, three times.
"Now you try."
I took a deep breath. "The sixth spleeps sics sleeks... sick."
Arnold laughed like a drain. I dont think hed come across
anything quite so funny in his life. I smiled.
"Do it again!"
"No thanks.4 How do I stop this footnoterphone blabbering inside
"Just think Off very strongly."
I did, and the footnoterphone stopped.
"Youll get the hang of it."
He thought for a minute, looked up and down the lake in an overtly innocent
manner, then said, "Do you want to buy
some verbs? Not any of your rubbish, either. Good, strong, healthy regularsstraight
from the Text SeaI have a friend on a scrawltrawler."
I smiled. "I dont think so, Arnoldand I dont
think you should ask meIm Jurisfiction."
"Oh," said Arnold, looking pale all of a sudden. He bit his
lip and gave such an imploring look that I almost laughed.
"Dont sweat," I told him, "I wont report
He sighed a deep sigh of relief, muttered his thanks, remounted his
motorbike and drove off in a jerky fashion, narrowly missing the mailboxes
at the top of the track.
The interior of the flying boat was lighter and more airy than I had
imagined, but it smelt a bit musty. Mary was mistaken; she had not been
halfway through the crafts conversionit was more
like one-tenth. The walls were half-paneled with pine tongue-
4. "... A new epic poem is to be constructed for the first time
in eighty-seven years. Title and subject to be announced, but pundits
reckon that its a pointless exercise: skills have all but died
out. Next week will also see the launch of a new shopping chain offering
off-the-peg narrative requisites. It will be called Prêt-à-Écrire..."
and-groove, and rock-wool insulation stuck out untidily along with unused
electrical cables. There was room for two floors within the boats
cavernous hull, the downstairs a large, open-plan living room with a
couple of old sofas pointing towards a television set. I tried to switch
it on but it was deadthere was no TV in the BookWorld unless called
for in the narrative. Much of what I could see around me were merely
props, necessary for the chapter in which Jack Spratt visits the Sunderland
to discuss the case. On the mantelpiece above a small wood-burning stove
were pictures of Mary from her days at the police training college,
and another from when she was promoted to detective sergeant.
I opened a door that led into a small kitchenette. Attached to the fridge
was the précis of Caversham Heights. I flicked through it. The
sequence of events was pretty much as I remembered from my first reading
in the Well, although it seemed that Mary had overstated her role in
some of the puzzle-solving areas. I put the précis down, found
a bowl and filled it with water for Pickwick, took her egg from my bag
and laid it on the sofa, where she quickly set about turning it over
and tapping it gently with her beak. I went forward and discovered a
bedroom where the nose turret would have been and climbed a narrow aluminum
ladder to the flight deck directly above. This was the best view in
the house, the large greenhouselike Perspex windows affording a vista
of the lake. The massive control wheels were set in front of two comfortable
chairs, and facing them and ahead of a tangled mass of engine control
levers was a complex panel of broken and faded instruments. To my right
I could see the one remaining engine, looking forlorn, the propeller
blades streaked with bird droppings.
Behind the pilots seats, where the flight engineer would have
sat, there was a desk with reading lamp, footnoterphone and typewriter.
On the bookshelf were mainly magazines of a police nature and lots of
forensic textbooks. I walked through a narrow doorway and found a pleasant
bedroom. The headroom was not overgenerous, but it was cozy and dry
and was paneled in pine with a porthole above the double bed. Behind
the bedroom was a storeroom, a hot-water boiler, stacks of wood and
a spiral staircase. I was just about to go downstairs when I heard someone
speak from the living room below.
"What do you think that is?"
The voice had an empty ring to it and was neuter in its inflectionI
couldnt tell if it was male or female.
I stopped and instinctively pulled my automatic from my shoulder holster.
Mary lived aloneor so it had said in the book. As I moved slowly
downstairs, I heard another voice answer the first: "I think its
a bird of some sort."
The second voice was no more distinctive than the first, and indeed,
if the second voice had not been answering the first, I might have thought
they belonged to the same person.
As I rounded the staircase, I saw two figures standing in the middle
of the room staring at Pickwick, who stared back, courageously protecting
her egg from behind a sofa.
"Hey!" I said, pointing my gun in their direction. "Hold
it right there!"
The two figures looked up and stared at me without expression from features
that were as insipid and muted as their voices. Because of their equal
blandness it was impossible to tell them apart. Their arms hung limply
by their sides, exhibiting no body language. They might have been angry
or curious or worried or elatedbut I couldnt tell.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"We are nobody," replied the one on the left.
"Everyone is someone," I replied.
"Not altogether correct," said the one on the right. "We
have a code number but nothing more. I am TSI-1404912-A and this is
"What happened to B?"
"Taken by a grammasite last Tuesday."
I lowered my gun. Miss Havisham had told me about Generics. They were
created here in the Well to populate the books that were to be written.
At the point of creation they were simply a human canvas without paintblank
like a coin, ready to be stamped with individualism. They had no history,
no conflicts, no foiblesnothing that might make them either readable
or interesting in any way. It was up to various institutions to teach
them to be useful members of fiction. They were graded, too. A to D,
one through ten. Any that were D-graded were like worker bees in crowds
and busy streets. Small speaking parts were C-grades; B-grades usually
made up the bulk of featured but not leading characters. These parts
usuallybut not alwayswent to the A-grades, handpicked for
their skills at character projection and multidimensionality. Huckleberry
Finn, Tess and Anna Karenina were all A-grades, but then so were Mr.
Hyde, Hannibal Lecter and Professor Moriarty. I looked at the ungraded
Generics again. Murderers or heroes? It was impossible to tell how they
would turn out. Still, at this stage of their development they would
be harmless. I reholstered my automatic.
"Youre Generics, right?"
"Indeed," they said in unison.
"What are you doing here?"
"You remember the craze for minimalism?" asked the one on
"Yes?" I replied, moving closer to stare at their blank faces
curiously. There was a lot about the Well that I was going to have to
get used to. They were harmless enoughbut decidedly creepy. Pickwick
was still hiding behind the sofa.
"It was caused by the 1982 character shortage," said the one
on the left. "Vikram Seth is planning a large book in the next
few years and I dont think the Well wants to be caught out againwere
being manufactured and then sent to stay in unpublished novels until
we are called into service."
"Sort of stockpiled, you mean?"
"Id prefer the word billeted," replied the one on the
left, the slight indignation indicating that it wouldnt be without
a personality forever.
"How long have you been here?"
"Two months," replied the one on the right. "We are awaiting
placement at St. Tabularasas Generic College for basic character
training. I live in the spare bedroom in the tail."
"So do I," added the one on the left. "Likewise."
I paused for a moment. "O-kay. Since we all have to live together,
I had better give you names. You," I said, pointing a finger at
the one on the right, "are henceforth called ibb. You"I
pointed to the other"are called obb."
I pointed at them again in case they had missed it as neither made any
sign of comprehending what Id saidor even hearing it.
"You are ibb, and you are obb."
I paused. Something didnt sound right about their names but I
couldnt place it.
"ibb," I said to myself, then: "obb. ibb. ibb-obb. Does
that sound strange to you?"
"No capitals," said obb. "We dont get capitalized
until we start schoolwe didnt expect a name so soon, either.
Can we keep it?"
"Its a gift from me," I told them.
"I am ibb," said ibb, as if to make the point.
"And I am obb," said obb.
"And Im Thursday," I told them, offering my hand. They
shook it in turn slowly and without emotion. I could see that this pair
werent going to be a huge bundle of fun.
"And thats Pickwick."
They looked at Pickwick, who plocked quietly, came out from behind the
sofa, settled herself on her egg and pretended to go to sleep.
"Well," I announced, clapping my hands together, "does
anyone know how to cook? Im not very good at it and if you dont
want to eat beans on toast for the next year, you had better start to
learn. Im standing in for Mary, and if you dont get in my
way, I wont get in yours. I go to bed late and wake up early.
I have a husband who doesnt exist and Im going to have a
baby later this year so I might get a little crankyand overweight.
"Yes," said the one on the left. "Which one of us is
obb, did you say?"
I unpacked my few things in the small room behind the flight deck. I
had sketched a picture of Landen from memory and I placed it on the
bedside table, staring at it for a moment. I missed him dreadfully and
wondered, for the umpteenth time, whether perhaps I shouldnt be
here hiding, but out there, in my own world, trying to get him back.
Trouble was, Id tried that and made a complete pigs ear
of itif it hadnt have been for Miss Havishams timely
rescue, I would still be locked up in a Goliath vault somewhere. With
our child growing within me I had decided that flight was not a cowards
option but a sensible oneI would stay here until the baby was
born. I could then plan my return, and following that, Landens.
I went downstairs and explained to obb the rudiments of cooking, which
were as alien to it as having a name. Fortunately I found an old copy
of Mrs. Beetons Complete Housekeeper, which I told obb to study,
half-jokingly, as research. Three hours later it had roasted a perfect
leg of lamb with all the trimmings. I had discovered one thing about
Generics already: dull and uninteresting they may bebut they learn
© Jasper FForde 2004
Extract by permission of Penguin Books
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