Thursday, 27 June 2013

What Women Don't Want.....Now Available


When six women from very different backgrounds are brought together in a market research focus group none of them expect to gain much from the experience.

There’s Ainsley, the beautiful focus group leader who has cruised through life on her looks, Neda, the Iranian refugee trying to come to terms with a new culture, Christine, the single mother raising three kids on her own, Olivia, the marketing graduate desperate for a job, Charlie the ‘bogan’ from a public housing estate, and Sarah, the well-heeled feminist academic with an unusual area of research.

Over the course of seven weeks each woman learns something important about herself as the group engage in lively debates about what women do and don't want.

What Women Don’t Want is a 25,000 word novella (80 pages).

            “Hello everyone, I’m Ainsley Walker. Thank you very much for taking the time out of your Saturday afternoon to be here. Your opinions are very important to us, and I’m looking forward to getting to know you all over the next weeks.” She paused for a moment to gather her scattered thoughts as she pushed her heavy blonde hair back from her face and crossed her legs beneath the table. “Just to remind you, we’ll be meeting each week at the same time for the next six weeks. Does anyone have any problems with this?”
The four women seated around the table in the conference room looked at her blankly, and Ainsley stifled a groan. Her throat was parched, her head was pounding and she was definitely not in the mood for this. She’d only intended to have a few drinks after work with some friends the night before, but somehow after her third drink all good intentions had gone out the window. It was well after three when she finally fell into bed.
On her drive to work she’d been praying she’d get a lively group that would take the pressure off her. Usually she arrived a little late to allow people to chat amongst themselves before she joined them. It helped break the ice and got things off to a friendly start. Today she was greeted with deathly silence when she entered the room. This group looked like it was going to be hard work, and that was the last thing she needed when they were trialling a new market research strategy. Only the thought of the ad she’d designed, which they’d be looking at soon, helped to buoy her mood.
She cleared her throat and tried to sound upbeat. “Okay then, this is a new type of focus group for us, and you’re our guineapigs in a sense. To make things more relaxed I’m just going to record what you say instead of filming you.” She smiled as she switched on the digital voice recorder, but only the young Asian woman with the name tag reading Olivia smiled back.  
“If you’ve ever been part of a focus group before you’d know that you only meet once, and usually you’re in a group with others who are similar to you in background. We’ve decided to break the rules this time, and we’ll be asking your opinions on a whole range of issues which I think you’ll find very interesting.” She glanced at her watch. “There’s still one more lady to arrive so I’ll give her a few more minutes. Please help yourselves to some tea or coffee and get to know each other a bit.” She gestured towards the tray of food and paper cups at the centre of the table.
The women glanced at each other and the table but no one made a move or spoke. Ainsley had to admit the dry sponge cake and no-name biscuits looked as appetising as cardboard beneath the harsh fluorescent light. She felt a slight pang of guilt when she thought about the hundreds of dollars they billed their clients for refreshments compared with what they actually spent.  To make matters worse it was a hot day and the air-conditioning wasn’t working properly. Sweat accumulated underneath her hair as she let her eyes wander from face to face and then around the small, sparsely furnished room with white walls and grey carpet.

The room overlooked a car park and the venetian blinds were drawn. Apart from the table and chairs there was nothing else in there except a wilting plant and an electronic whiteboard which took up nearly the whole rear wall. She wished she’d booked the larger conference room upstairs which had a view of Sydney harbour. She’d whiled away countless meetings gazing out that window, imagining she was on a yacht in the sun. It was especially hard to be here on a Saturday but she’d volunteered to take this group because they were discussing a campaign that she’d had her first creative input into. It was still a huge pain having to work on weekends though, especially with such an uninspiring bunch of women.
“Okay, while we wait I’ll tell you a little more about Innovate. We’re an advertising agency and marketing company. Our people work across both the advertising and marketing departments and are involved in all aspects of campaign development. This makes us a bit different from other market research companies.”
“How long is this going to take?” asked the woman seated to her right. “I have to pick my son up at four o’clock. If it goes any longer than that I’ll have to leave.” The woman had straight brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she was dressed in the suburban mum’s weekend uniform of tracksuit pants and runners. Ainsley instantly saw that she was going to be the serial whinger of the group, the one who didn’t want to be there but really needed the extra cash and let everyone know how much she resented giving up her time for this. She appeared to be in her thirties, and from the bitter, defeated air about her Ainsley surmised she was recently divorced or separated. The whinger usually contributed little and infected others with his or her negativity.
Ainsley had to make an effort to keep the impatience out of her voice as she answered the serial whinger’s question. “Sessions usually don’t last for more than an hour as they should have told you when you signed up. Any longer than that and we tend to get too far off topic. We’ll be finished well before four o’clock. I guess we should get started on introductions before we go any further. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?”
The woman didn’t look very happy at being put on the spot, and she rolled her eyes. “Oh, alright.  My name is Christine Thornton. There’s not much to tell really. I work as an admin assistant in the city and I have three kids. Two boys and girl, aged four, five and seven. I live at Ermington, and I’m divorced. That’s about it.” Bingo, thought Ainsley. She could always pick them.
“Thanks Christine. Who’d like to go next?”
“Hi, I’m Sarah Kendall,” said an attractive, well-dressed woman seated to Ainsley’s left. She sat up straight in her chair and looked around the room with confidence. She appeared to be in her late-thirties and she had very short dark hair and black rimmed glasses. The bag on the table in front of her looked expensive. Ainsley wondered what had compelled her to give up seven Saturday afternoons for a market research focus group.  
“Before we go any further can you please tell us what sort of advertisements we’ll be discussing? I just want to make sure I’m in the right group.” She smiled but Ainsley could see the steely determination in her eyes. The pushy control freak had just reared her head, and she was surprised she had managed to keep quiet for so long. This was the one who tried to hijack every conversation and believed that her opinion was far more valuable than the rest. True to form, she was already trying to force her own agenda on the group.
“When you sign up for a focus group with Innovate you don’t usually get a choice about what you’ll be discussing,” she replied with just a hint of coldness. “We’ll get to that in a minute. Would you like to tell us a little about yourself?”
“I do understand that,” returned Sarah with the same hint of coldness, “but my circumstances are special.” Of course they are, thought Ainsley, clenching her jaw. The pushy control freak’s circumstances were always special. “When I contacted your company to sign up they assured me I’d be in the group for feminine hygiene products, so I just wanted to make sure I was at the right meeting.” The other women looked at her in surprise.
“We prefer to call them feminine empowerment products, but yes, you’re right, that’s what this focus group is for.” She ignored the muffled laughter that always followed when she used this term for the first time. Personally she thought it was ridiculous but the company insisted on using it in focus groups.
“When you say feminine empowerment products, do you mean like tampons?” interrupted Christine.
“Well, yes, we’ll be looking at some ads for these products, but please don’t think that’s all we’ll be discussing. We’re very interested in the way women are represented in the media. I can assure you we’ll be discussing a lot more than just ads for feminine empowerment products.” She should have saved her breath because once the serial whinger found something to latch onto she did not let it go.
 “You mean to tell me I’ve signed up to spend seven Saturdays talking about tampons? My God, this is just unbelievable. Wait till I tell my friends, they’ll think I’m mad.” She looked around the room to see if anyone else recognised the insanity of it all and shrugged her shoulders when no one seemed to agree. “Oh well, as long as you’re paying me.”
The Asian girl seated at the front of the table spoke up for the first time. “You might think it’s silly but there are huge amounts of money at stake for the companies that make these products. I designed an advertising campaign for them as part of a uni assignment last year. It was really interesting. I’m Olivia by the way. I’ve just finished my marketing degree and now I’m looking for a job.” She beamed at her and Ainsley tried her best to smile back, but it wasn’t easy. Of all the women she had met through focus groups over the last three years, the graduate-looking-for-a-break was the one she despised the most. This one fitted the bill perfectly.
            Although it was a Saturday afternoon she was dressed as if she was about to step into a boardroom in a smart business suit and full make-up. On the table in front of her was a portfolio which no doubt contained mock marketing plans which she was ready to whip out at a moment’s notice. She was definitely looking for a foot-in-the-door, and someone to be avoided at all costs. If she showed too much friendliness towards this one she would find herself bailed up after every group and bombarded with questions about openings in the company. She knew it was tough out there in the job market right now, but it was not her responsibility to act as a mentor to graduates who couldn’t find jobs on their own.
“Great. Nice to meet you, Olivia.”  She was attempting to move on quickly before Olivia could enlighten them all about her career plans when there was a commotion at the door and a woman carrying several plastic shopping bags entered the room. The representative from the western suburbs had finally arrived. From the looks of the tattoos on her arms this one appeared to be housing commission stock. She would no doubt have a lot to contribute to the conversation, usually peppered liberally with the word ‘fuck.’  The woman had curly light brown hair and she was dressed in jeans and what looked like a men’s t-shirt. Ainsley guessed she was in her late twenties, and she picked her as a single mother with kids to different fathers. They always had plenty of candidates from this socioeconomic group to choose from. They were attracted by the easy money.
“Hi, everyone. Is this the focus group?” she said, dropping her bags on the floor and flopping down into a seat before Ainsley could answer. “Sorry I’m late but I had to have a smoke before I came up in case we didn’t get another break. It’s bloody hot in here.” She fanned herself and looked around the room expectantly. “I’m Charlie.” The other women nodded and murmured hello.
“Hi Charlie, you haven’t missed much, we’re just getting started. I was explaining…..”
“We’re going to be talking about tampons,” said Christine.
“What?” said Charlie.
Ainsley closed her eyes for a few seconds and massaged her pounding temple. “We are going to be talking about advertisements for feminine empowerment products among other things…..”
“Feminine what?” said Charlie.
“Feminine empowerment products,” said Sarah before she could answer. “Better known as women’s sanitary products. Some of the ladies are having a hard time getting used to the idea but I’m actually writing a thesis on the way the female body has been medicalised and pathologised in the media. This subject is right up my alley, so to speak. It’s a very fascinating area of research.” So that explained everything, the pushy control-freak was an academic, meaning that she was the absolute worst of her kind. Ainsley realised she needed to sort this woman out quickly.
“Whatever. I can talk about tampons. As long as you’re paying me I really don’t care what we talk about,” said Charlie, leaning across the table and helping herself to a couple of biscuits.
 “Now that we’ve established what we are going to be talking about there’s one lady who hasn’t even had a chance to introduce herself. Please, tell us a bit about yourself before we move on,” said Ainsley, looking towards the far end of the table.
The pretty young woman was in her mid-twenties. She was wearing a headscarf and appeared to be from a Middle Eastern background. Based on the embarrassed expression on her face Ainsley identified her as the nodder of the group. The nodder didn’t say much but tended to agree with everything that other people said, even when they totally contradicted one another. He or she rarely expressed an opinion and they were basically a complete waste of time when it came to focus groups. She wished there was some way to weed out the nodder, but it was impossible to tell who was going to fall into this category before the group actually met.
“Hello,” she said. “My name is Neda and I come from Iran. I am 23 years old. My husband and I have been in Australia for six months, and we have one baby daughter. I am very glad to be here today.”
“Your English is very good,” Ainsely replied, trying not to smile at the thought of Neda the nodder.  “Do you have any questions about anything that’s been mentioned so far?”
“Just one. Are we really going to be talking about tampons?"
What Women Don't Want is available for 0.99 cents through Amazon.

Monday, 3 June 2013

What Women Don't Want......Coming Soon

The second draft of my novella, What Women Don't Want, is well under way and I hope to have it completed before too much longer. This book has been a very long time in the making and it marks a change in direction for me. For the first time I'll be publishing something that contains no romantic elements. In fact there's only one male character in the book, and he is a very minor character at that.

The best way of describing this book is as feminist fiction. It doesn't have a conventional storyline because it basically consists of six women in a market research focus group sitting around talking. It centres around the way women are represented in the media, and it pushes a definite feminist agenda which I'm happy to own up to. I'm not sure if there's much of a market for this kind of book, but there's only one way to find out.

The cover, which I love, may seem a bit misleading because it looks very much like a chick-lit type of book . There is a reason for this, but you'll have to read the book to find out! The designer of this cover called it 'Summer Day Girl' and this actually played a big role in the direction the story took because it started out as a conventional romance but then took on a life of its own. I'm a big believer in the importance of great covers and there are a few that I have my eye on at the moment. Browsing through available covers gives me so much inspiration and I think it's an important part of the creative process that shouldn't be left until last.