Lost Christmas – Writing a Christmas Story

Everyone should have a go at the Christmas genre. Needs to be short – readable on Christmas Eve.  Usually includes a character who doubts the power and potential of Christmas. Some supernatural intervention. Someone who’s loveless or troubled. Babies or children in a key role.  For me there should be a balance of traditional and contemporary achieved through setting and style. It doesn’t need to be awful, although the film equivalents have often tried their best to be so. Some two-per-center nod to A Christmas Carol or Gift of the Magi seems pretty essential and a universally recognised theme that transcends anything too specific about Christmas celebrations whilst still wallowing wholeheartedly, effectively and convincingly in every last pudding that has fed the plump Christmas Zeitgeist. Pick all or any of the above or ignore as necessary – So…

In this one,  stifled by yet another worst Christmas ever and family pressures, Geoff gets a chance to change everything

Lost Christmas – A Story for Christmas

Now. The end. Finish. Take your parsnip mash, your Harrods crackers and your bacon-crusted line-caught cod….  Geoff had stifled the explosion but this was it. My thoughts. To you. All. Take the drizzle of pureed fish eggs and the brassica shavings, take and stuff ’em… stuff ’em where…

Down the table Gwen had prepared a special face, a long-term married and terminally disappointed face. Her face allowed scorn and frustration to creep where her husband could find it, while the family got her tight smile and placid forehead. ‘No more wine, Geoff, darling.’ And as she swept past him, ‘Red cheeks. Just leave it will you.’

‘Is Geoff going to cheer up for tomorrow.’

‘He will Mummy.’ A grin, a laugh, the same chuckle she’d been giving here since she was five. ‘Won’t you, Geoff?’

Her familiar glare. Almost comforting after twenty years. Twenty years in which he’d failed to fit into her ambitions and ideals. Twenty years of her self-critical disappointment that Geoff wasn’t in so many ways someone entirely else.

Season of good will? They’re kidding. Season of hard work. Season of keep your mouth shut. Season of pleasing a family you never knew were part of the deal. Why do we, why do I have to cook? Why not do something different on the twenty-fourth? Just once. ‘My nephews and nieces like it. It’s traditional. Daddy expects it, so does Mummy.’ Well that’s fine then. That’s a good reason to spend the day in the kitchen. And now the traditional fish, before the traditional going to bed, all to remind your dad what traditional fun you all had thirty traditional years ago.

‘Your face. Change it.’

‘I’ll try. I’ve had it since before we met you know.’

‘More fish, darling?’

Gwen’s nephews and nieces seemed to increase annually, all of them with angelic foreheads and poisonous smiles. They hated half the things he’d spent the hours preparing, largely the green half. He felt his wife’s eyes take him in with another slap, before she beamed at dauphinoise from down the table and Puligny from up the table.

‘Geoff looks as though something’s wrong.’

‘He’s fine, Mummy. Aren’t you Geoff.’

Geoff tried to mould his face into something more Christmassy. The conversation about him would, he knew, continue as if he weren’t there or were too young or thick or foreign to understand their language. Perhaps he was.

‘You’re so bloody negative, Geoff. So bloody useless.’ Gwen spat into their austere,married silences. Over their twenty Decembers together, his under-tree offerings had become increasingly extravagant while Gwen’s face had had become increasingly dismissive. Geoff had haplessly suggested an amnesty. He couldn’t imagine her wanting anything he was likely to buy, and he’d got used to agonising at the way she peeled at the layers of gold-trimmed, velveteen paper. It was all too far from what she really wanted, too far from the promises they’d first made.

‘I’ve got another test,’ she hissed crisply as they shimmied past each other at the threshold to the kitchen.

Geoff had an armful of plates, reminding him of his student employment and years when Christmas had been worked for and well spent. Gwen had the corkscrew.

‘Didn’t you do one last week?’

‘That was speculative. I do one on the 24th of every month. You know that. And you’d better not have drunk too much.’

‘We can have a break you know.’

She twanged at the corkscrew and otherwise didn’t respond.

Routine had eaten at the best parts of him. Geoff was at his happiest when he could slide from between the jaws of routine; most full of cheer when the daily, weekly, monthly cycles of their lives could be ignored. Then December came around and the timetable had been arranged years before he’d even met his wife. Her family’s yuletide togetherness was hallowed, awash as it was with pillowcases of chocolate and family treasures made from toilet rolls and doilies, silver foil everything, plates and plenty, and a way of laughing that wasn’t altogether wholesome or shared.

There were more recent routines. Routines involving Gwen’s nieces and nephews:cabaret, jokes, recitals and the latest school reports. At regular intervals Geoff had had some infant’s Christmas puking to put up with, and was systematically relegated down the table to where this year, again, a highchair was rammed in between himself and one of the sisters. More spitty bits of napkin blow-darted through sawn-off drinking straws. This year, too, humanity’s most vile ten-year old was placed opposite, compere and chief contestant on his own rolling quiz. The child must have spent his year memorising Wikipedia pages and pronounced sagely and shrilly on everything from Roman mosaic culture to the chemical composition of sausagemeat.

Then crackers. Christmas Eve crackers. ‘Make a wish,’ came the annual bellow from Gwen’s father, accompanied by an expensively-mellowed guffaw. Geoff had once grumbled they were confusing the tradition with birthday candles. ‘You’ll make a wish now and join in, sunshine,’ was the retaliatory growl from a parent keen to assert the rites and responsibilities of his house. Geoff had never argued again. Instead he cooked the dinner for them all then ate fish and grinned and popped crackers, suffered baby belching, and read a joke. He usually pretended to join in with the wishes while he watched Gwen down the table closing her eyes so tight they seemed to suck the rest of her face into them. He’d studiously never asked what her wishes were. This year a surreptitious wish of his own had crept through his mind, but he was ashamed of it and knew he’d lie if anyone asked.

‘I’ve told you, that’s what our Christmas Eve has always been,’ argued Gwen through their bathroom door at the top of the house. ‘And always will be. For us as children and now for…’ she swallowed, ‘…for my nieces and nephews. It’s what makes it special. Sorry you can’t see that.’

‘I can see that. I just wish we could relax a bit.’

‘Relax?’ Her voice rang once more with the disenchantment she needed to blame him for. ‘And I know what present you’ve got for me,’ she said, glaring. ‘I’ve squeezed it. Not much thought went in, did it.’

Geoff gave a queasy grin. Christmas, despite the best efforts of the tv and the magazines and the radio and the department stores, had become a routine of tracking down gifts that others didn’t want, a traipsing through town in an effort not to be ridiculed by Gwen’s family come Christmas Day.

‘I just wish you’d try a bit harder,’ she continued, firmly enough for her voice to carry back downstairs. ‘It is Christmas time. Everyone else is trying for me.’

‘Very trying.’

‘I used to have such special times in this house,’ she sighed. ‘And Daddy will have questions, you can bet.’

Geoff had a dozen things he ought to say under his breath but couldn’t muster the energy. After a palliative hour’s silence, Gwen eventually leant over across the pillow and he got a rustly ‘sorry’ breathed into the cup of his ear. He felt uncomfortable. There had been so many sorries, and there was always one more for bedtime.

‘What for?’ he tossed back, not whispering.

‘For all this. For what we haven’t got.’ She frowned at the radio he’d put on and changed channel.

‘Doesn’t matter, love,’ he tried.

‘You don’t want it, do you.’

Geoff was caught by the abrupt untruth of this. He turned the radio off. ‘I do,’ he said at last. ‘I just, well, don’t see it as the only thing.’

‘Jesus, Geoff,’ she choked. ‘No wonder. No bloody wonder.’

He knew that her frustrations were deep and that these exchanges helped, whatever his own sentiments. It seemed useful to be silent.

‘Geoff. Are you listening? Do you care at all?’

He did care. He cared too much at times, although he had not shared the stages of despair and anger that were fuelled by Gwen’s sense of last chances.

‘I’m going to do my test,’ she heaved, wearily. ‘Not that you’re interested.’

Geoff closed his eyes, collapsing under an antagonism that had amassed over two decades and was pressing its full force onto the worst Christmas Eve they’d yet known.

‘I’m going out.’

‘What?’She said, crossly, rooting in their suitcase.

It was best to remove himself, he knew. He dressed again and told her he needed a breath of air but what he really needed he couldn’t express politely enough. ‘I won’t be long.’

‘If that’s what you have to do. I’ll text you the result.’

‘Sure. It’s just – these things are always so claustrophobic. Good luck.’

‘I wish you meant it.’

‘I do. Honestly I do. It’s just – oh, never mind.’

 

He left the bedroom that he and Gwen were always given, a roost for some shivering maid or nanny in Georgian times, he guessed. It now had cardboard boxes lining the walls and picture frames balanced against the furniture and it never felt a homely enough haven for the whole of Christmas.

Down past bedrooms for the siblings and their herds of kids, he went through the back way, pausing to admire the family’s fireplaces, which seemed to gape into the enormity of the house and promised easy access for the most obese of Santas. Four faces beamed out at him from endless stairwell galleries, Gwen and her sisters, chock full of Christmas spirit year after year and surrounded by gifts that would have embarrassed any number of kings.

Once outside, he took a right turn down the avenue between the rows of stately white buildings. A wintery dark snuggled against the porticoes, while subtly festive lights winked within each smug window. He’d been at university here but had never seen these houses. He went through other streets. The same after same. The same unblemishable whiteness, save those spikey stretches of forbidding black ironwork.

A jingle in his pocket told him a text had come. He went to answer it out of habit and then stopped himself, wanting something to reject. There was no need to answer. Not till he’d had a walk. Not till he’d had enough time to feel clear and fresh and re-enter life with a quick breath of something clean.

He spotted a shortcut. Past some crumbling stonework, under a particularly grotesque pair of frost-capped gargoyles, his feet clapped down the passage and, with a need to find old comforts, he picked his way gradually towards the town centre.

The lost familiarity of the place came quickly back as he padded through the remains of a recent flurry of snow. Roadside trees jolted a set of pleasant memories, as did a broken sign and, in the corner of his eye as he passed, a shabby shop window. This was where student life had been and, for a while, young happiness and the beginnings of work.

Smiling despite the ache of the evening he’d just lived through, despite the knowledge of his many failures, he passed the place where the old kebab van had parked. Past the police station. Past what had been a stationer’s and was, he knew, a coffee shop now. Like most town centres, everything was coffee houses or charity shops now. Except – it wasn’t. When he passed it had become a stationer’s again and he felt a slow welling of delight come from his boots through his groin to his stomach as he looked at rows of chipper pencils and stately fountain pens.

Then he cheered to see, down a well-known street, that the council had removed their hideous new traffic bollard. A couple of favourite shops seemed to have come back. All good news. He’d once stumbled along drunkenly here, hot and blathering with semi-scholarly joy, calling goodbyes up to unknown windows. A forgotten end-of-term exuberance came to him, rich and warm. There had been Christmas Eves here when groups of them had stayed on in digs, unwilling to let their perpetual party end. Then those years after uni. First desperate job. Those too brief years around these streets scraping a living and enjoying…

‘Watch where you’re going, son.’

‘God. Sorry.’ He managed simultaneously to smash into a lamppost and push an old man into the street.

The skull crack hoisted him back from the trance of living souvenirs. Looking down the street, he found the view strangely complex. Some elements slotted neatly into the gaps his memory had left, others brought a fretful jarring. Was something missing?

Drawing closer to classic haunts, the pleasures of recollection loosened from their stiff packaging and he allowed them to swell and spill, to find the old receptacles, the long empty hollows and pits. He noticed a gyrating mishmash of graffiti halfway along a crumbled brick wall. He warmed to see a clothes shop that had supplied him with university togs, still offering the same stuff to the same types.

Approaching the wine merchant’s on the corner of a favourite square, more thoughts began to break from his long-trussed memory. He paused to look up into the sky, isolating a specific day from the swirl of thoughts. It was a day he had thought of often, but never daring more than the lightest of touches on those original sensations. Now though, enriched by this pause in the beginnings of snow outside the booze shop, every sense took him back. He felt an almost breathless harmony with this space, remembering with troubled emotions that exact day.

Yes. He had come to this shop on the whim of an extra bottle to share, eager that the evening shouldn’t end, eager to encourage an ambitious optimism. He’d bought champagne, or a near-ish substitute. He’d taken it back to the dim, low-ceilinged flat that he’d laughed in and smoked in and told stories in through most evenings that year. Ellie’s flat. The flat of endless conversations. The flat of words that mattered and glasses of wine that were important.

What had happened to Ellie?

He shook himself again, wondering at the snow and the preponderance of reminders. A smile was making his cheeks ache. It was a smile he’d forgotten he could do and one he really couldn’t help.

The off-licence. Drink? Well, rude not too, Geoff, mate. One for old time’s sake if nothing else, even if he had to push the cork in and swig it from the bottle.

Inside the shop, the champagnes lay cradled in wood and straw right where they always had. When he caught a large, hand-written pricing he couldn’t help chuckling at his luck. Clearly an error, but maybe if he just wiggled the bottle and chucked the cash on the counter, who knows?

As he went to pay, though, he felt a pain in his face. Something in his nostrils that seemed to pull him back towards Gwen and the tribulations with her loathsome father. With a sudden, sober need to do a good turn, he decided he’d point out the ticketing error.

‘Some joke, mate?’

The youth at the counter looked at him with gormless indignation.

‘Is it some joke – the prices?’ There seemed a familiarity about the shop assistant. Someone’s cousin, someone’s son? Who knows what sad characters stick around these death-trap university towns for life.

‘Do you want the manager? They should be right. Sorry.’

Geoff glanced down the shelves. This was not the only top value offer. The next bottle. The shelf, the row, everything. Geoff felt his cheeks reddening. All too cheap. The hotness and the headache returned viciously. With a sudden compulsion to follow lost habits he went for tobacco instead. He hadn’t smoked since he’d first started going out with Gwen. A pack of the old favourites would be good, though. Rolling papers. A lighter. As he picked them off the counter he felt himself shake with the memory of nightly emergency trips, Ellie shouting from the high window for extra Rizla. He stuffed into his pocket a handful of unexpected change, pushing his way onto the street as a man bounced past him through the door. He lit up and gasped through the rush of easy pleasure.

Ellie. He sucked at the warm smoke and held onto it contemplatively. Of course. She’d had the flat at the top there, just as it rounded the square. They’d yelled whole conversations between her window and the door of the offie. Or they’d hovered there together and watched college friends beetle through the summer streets, or they’d inhaled the late-autumn dawn together after a night sat up talking about the world, its worthies and its worries. Wine was what they both liked. Wine, coffee, cigarettes and plenty of toast. Ellie had been the first person he told anything to: failed ambitions, future hopes, lost loves and those bright new girlfriends who’d seemed to promise everything. He’d had no secrets from Ellie. He’d told her about the sex he was having, the crushes he ached with and the foolish, foolish things he’d said in the mornings after dizzy discos. He’d told her about Gwen, the hot ambition and intoxicating pointlessness that was Gwen. Anything he’d wanted to share he’d shared with Ellie first, expecting her to help him celebrate or help him through.

It was a pristine night. From a window came a classic tune. He hummed to it, adding words where he could. Contrary to the forecast, snow was starting to fall again. His eyes went down the street. Parked cars, old but smart, their numbers… and before he’d had chance to clock the registration plates properly, words from past times rushed to fill his whole head. Loud came that flurry of phrases as he’d told Ellie about the new girl, the womanliest woman, the beautiliest beauty, the first sight he’d had of Gwen. A waft of skirt and sleek hair, an explosion of eyes and lips and flying to some cocktail do. Gwen who offered challenge and kudos and a whiff of some lifestyle he’d never yet known.

‘How can I ask her out, Ellie? I just melted, honest, melted at the opposite side of the road as she got out of that slick little MG she drives. What will I do?’

As he’d prattled and babbled from one sighting to the next, Ellie had coached and coaxed and gone to town on what he’d have to change to win over this new creature.

Christmas Eve. Of course, it had been a Christmas Eve. He recalled the burning conversation with Ellie about the baldness of their futures and the slender chances that we take or miss. With Ellie he’d ascertained the madness of the world and the need to grasp at what could too easily slip away. And it was after that conversation, after that cheeky extra bottle of champagne, that he’d gone out to catch Gwen. That was when… if he hadn’t managed to get the courage that night… and he’d run, run all the way to the pub he knew she’d be at, planning, always planning to race back to tell Ellie… to tell Ellie that he had found someone he could spend the love-bits of his life with.

Ellie, dear Ellie. He’d forgotten when or why they’d lost touch. Feeling a keener chill in the air now, Geoff gave another smoky blast out towards the window high among the roofs. He felt his palms moisten. Oddly, the curtains had never changed. He was sure he saw a face appear from among the snowflakes. Then there was a cough behind, a small group pushed around him, headed for the square, chattering busily, voices he knew, and a terrible thought began to creep into him.

He lost the stub of his cigarette and stumbled towards the nearby electronics shop, breathing hard. Opening his eyes, he found not sleek, trim televisions but fat, shiny black blocks. No phones, no tablets. Instead, bright rows of cassette players and chunky video recorders. Dread racks of out-dated electronics, here now and new. Geoff wretched, and his knees momentarily crumpled.

Quivering, he dragged his phone from his pocket. It wasn’t showing the time. The signal bars were dead. Nothing. Stranded. Except – there was still the message waiting. Gwen’s message. The little icon lit up cold and innocent as he gazed down at the screen. For a moment he wanted to press the button. He had a finger ready, but then, no, despite the headache and the shock there was something purer and brighter about his mood here and he couldn’t bear to cloud that feeling.

From the wine merchant’s, a young man was stepping onto the pavement. He was trying to light a rolled cigarette while hugging his bottle of champagne. There it was, that rhythmic stroll, as though caught between true laziness and an eager enjoyment of life. Never properly not hung-over. Keener on rolling that rollie than toeing the pavement line. It was him. Geoff felt as if he were inside the very shoes. He could recall precisely the way those steps negotiated cobbles and kerbs when drunk or excited. In fact he had vivid hold of those happy seconds. In a moment that young man – too young to know, too young to care – would tap his pockets and would find he’d left his lighter back in Ellie’s room.

Geoff watched, grasping at a tumult of ideas. He was hypnotised by this younger gait, the motion of his feet, the careless fall of the shoulders side to side. The feeling that he was inside those legs, those hands, those elbows, was too much. He stumbled into the road.

‘Y’okay mate? Y’don’t look too steady.’ The youth gave him a quick hoist back to a standing position. Geoff wobbled and held his arm up to clutch a nearby pillar-box. A sickness seemed to twist and drag at his stomach as though time were ripping within him.

‘I’m okay. Honestly,’ he panted, his chin on his chest obscurely.

‘Sure?’

‘Yeah. No matter. I’ll be fine.’

‘Cool. Got a light?’

Geoff tapped a pocket and, trembling, produced his new lighter for the youth to dip into.

‘Cheers, mate. A smoke in frosty air. Always a treat.’

‘Yes. A treat.’ And Geoff let him tramp towards the building opposite and the well-known row of buzzers.

He knew that this young self would be back out. A flickering confusion of fear and release struck him, adding to the race of blood in his head. So, it was still to come. It hadn’t happened. It was stuck here waiting, was it? That dash through the snow to where Gwen was – beautiful, unreachable, lofty and pristine Gwen.

The high window opened and closed. A motion of other colours moved as a veil between him and the snowy buildings. Ellie comes back from the window where she’s been checking for him. She rinses two mismatching glasses and waggles the half-made paper decorations she’s been doing. She switches the extra bar on the fire and tucks her knees under her chin. Now they’ll talk. They’ll talk about Gwen and this, his best, last chance.

 

There was something tearing at Geoff, a memory that was being shaped in one brain and desperately scrabbled for in another. He coughed desperately and the argumentative agonies of his latest meal with Gwen and her family crowded back in on him, overblown and raucous with Christmas. He surprised himself by suddenly bellowing out across the still and snowy square,’Are these the shadows of things that will be or that…’

Immediately heads at a second floor windows around the off-licence suggested he shut the fuck up.

‘And a happy bastard Christmas to you too!’

The swift exchange of expletives left their plug of adrenalin and anxiety. The on-going, abrasive recall of Gwen’s parents made his fingers curl into fists: ‘Can you give her what she deserves, Geoff? Are you up for the job, Geoff? She’s the second most difficult person in the world Geoff – after me.’ Oh the comedy he’d gone through. The comedy. The anger. The hate. A snowflake hit his lower lip, hauling him back to the bad tastes on his tongue, his first rollie for years, and this burying growth around him of a time that had ceased to be.

Was he a shadow then, sent to tease the past? It seemed for a moment that he was a spirit of Christmas future for the figure whose tobacco he’d lit. He flicked again at the lighter, gradually beginning to quake at the hard realities of his own form and presence. Fear shook him. The responsibility made him retch.

What could he do? Could he help out that former self? What had twenty years given him that he could now give back? Wisdom? Perhaps, but then he didn’t feel wise. Patience? He wasn’t patient. Maybe he was harder. Not in all ways but he believed his opportunities had hardened. Life had once been pliable. Opportunities had arced out into a boundless future like fishing rods to a summer dawn and his slightest twitch could shift their tips one way or the other. But as he’d grown older he’d found nothing was flexible any more.

For a moment he felt the freeze in his fingers and along with it a piteous,spiteful envy for that young man who had danced himself down the street and into a studio flat of conversation and laughter. What a world of opportunities that youth would see and scorn and allow to vanish. Here in not too many minutes he would be racing to catch Gwen – still only a faint fantasy and a lustful dream, still a chimera of selfish invention – to catch her before she left the pub for home on a Christmas Eve.

He tried to plant his feet through memories, and felt increasingly frustrated, as though time had cheated him, failing to behave, and was instead beginning to fizz and fade and reform, shaping him as it did. What had he said or done that had brought him here?

He looked back to the window in the rooftops. Ellie. What was the best of those visits to her flat? He thought back to the sunny radiance as dawn broke the flimsy curtains and he found himself on the sofa, waiting for her to get up and suggest a place for breakfast. Had she ever mentioned men she liked? Not often. Perhaps never. Perhaps just enough for their conversation to shift momentarily away from himself.

The snow was falling now in fat flakes on his shoulders, against his cheeks, making his face wet and cold.

‘Got somewhere to get to, mate?’ Someone passing had seen him swaying again.

‘I’m fine. Just… remembered something.’

‘Forgotten the kids’ presents, eh.’

‘No. Forgotten… something else,’ his foothold was loosening. His words sounded hollow, awkward, beyond drunk, yet horribly sober.

‘Hope you get what you need.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Happy Christmas.’

Yes, Ellie was the person he could have spent happier Christmases with. They could have had this very Christmas together, but he’d never returned from the mission that had begun his life with Gwen.

‘She’s class, Ellie,’ he wittered into a chipped glass of tepid booze. ‘Little black dress. Expensive earrings. Sits with the smart set. Smells of Chanel.’

‘You don’t learn, do you?’ That’s what Ellie had smiled back, fostering silence after those words. That’s when he’d decided they should drink champagne. That’s when he’d headed back out across the whitening street.

 

Outside the off-licence, Geoff stood waiting, the weight of twenty years pressing each square centimetre of his flesh, waiting for the young man he knew in some ways so well and in other ways not at all, waiting for him to broach the snow on his foolish, self-perplexing quest.

Inside the flat they laughed at the wine and the half-made decorations, enjoying the warm comedy of their shared ignorance. For a while they watched the white feathers in a dense, tenebrous expanse. Ellie picked up a sad-looking paper lantern again. ‘The place needs something more… heartening.’ She concentrated on the paper for a while, snipping. ‘So, what are you going to do?’

He didn’t hesitate. ‘I’m going to go and talk to her.’ He even grinned.

‘Sure I can’t tempt you to help clip out some snowflakes. Stick around. More warm wine in crap beakers. More mouldy wallpaper. You could have a present if you’re lucky.’

His grin was bright and champagne flavoured. Had he even listened? ‘I’ve got to dash. This is my best chance. Maybe my only chance.’

Her face kept a smile despite the grim, firm nod. ‘If that’s what you need.’

‘It is. If I dare. I’ve got to catch her now though. Don’t worry, I’ll be back.’

He would be running through the snow to introduce himself to Gwen. Gwen who came from a world that had bits he believed he wanted and could deal with. Gwen who had business and future and a leap away from a place that lacked anything to feel proud of. She was part of a smarter world, a successful world. Poised, solemn and infinitely elegant. She could help him. They could kick off a business together. Had he glimpsed stability? He could never have guessed at the tears to come.

‘Wish me luck, then, Ellie.’

Her voice was gentle and easily lost among the young man’s latest cacophony of hopes. ‘Good luck, mate,’ she said.

Geoff fumbled again in the deep pockets of his coat. A blink and he could be back with hatred and disappointment and a barking old father-in-law. A life where dissatisfaction clung to every footstep he made on their expensive carpets. All those nieces and nephews. The reminder of everything that Gwen wanted and everything he’d failed to give her. His mobile phone was under his palms, with batteries, with a message, but with no signal.

He kicked out at the snowy kerb and spat into the road. The door was opening opposite. Suddenly he saw the world again through those same young eyes. White. Clear. Open and hopeful. He felt the heart race, the muscle quiver. Off to claim ambitious love.

But it needn’t happen. He could stop this callow creature.

A word or two. Advice?

A fist or two? If he knocked himself to the ground would it hurt? Would it keep hurting? Would that pain transform him? Was that other life a wiser track to follow?

Geoff screwed his hands deeper into his pockets, readying himself. The phone he’d refused to look at became stuck between his fingers and, frustrated by duty, he pulled it out. Text. There was that one text that had rung in a time that seemed too distant to worry about. It clung though to his most tightly compacted memories, and was there to be read even though he could make no response. A sickness inside and a hot acid feeling in the muscles at the back of his hands and his wrists and his shoulders. He had to check what it said. It was the last thing to connect him with the places he most belonged.

There it was. One word. Two punctuation marks.

Positive!!

The word. The announcement. The one message that Gwen had been desperate to deliver in their twenty years together. The single thing that she’d truly wanted. Perhaps the only thing they’d shared a desire for, something that would sort out the hurt and the mess and an everyday routine that had become a challenge with no comforts.

A pulse of celebratory warmth took over Geoff, competing with the laborious logistics of escape. He stood in the street, beaming at the display on his phone. Positive. A father. Or he could be. He could be if he went back. If he responded to that single, simple call – a life in time that he had helped to start was crying now for permission to remain.

That was the question. Was it enough?

His youthful self was emerging now from a door just venturing to be ajar, an unsophisticated soul seeking protection from the problems it barely understood. A challenger to those possible worlds.

Geoff stared out at the falling snow. He felt for the first time a slowly squeezing breathlessness of choice. Weighing the world and his life of decisions, some too hastily taken, some only the shadows of decisions that had allowed him to drift in velvet air, he held onto a lamppost. As he chewed his lip a little sadly, the burden of all life’s choice of troubles filled his mind for a moment and then seemed to drop around him In a speckled wonderland of flakes.

***

How to get a novel published – if that’s what you really want…

Take heart. Take a big slice of heart. It’s actually easy to get published.

It’s obviously a lot less easy to publish exactly what you want to write, or exactly what you’ve managed to write, and it’s pretty damned hard to get a devoted readership. But…

Let’s start with easy – and I’m saying this after a newly mailed rejection’s just pinged the email with its next nail for the coffin – Yes. It’s easy. I keep telling myself that despite everything. For one it’s easier than a heap of other things that people don’t spend half as much time dreaming about.

It’s easier than getting onto TV. It’s easier than becoming than becoming a circus performer. Easier than becoming a tapestry-maker or a thatcher. Easier than getting to direct films. Maybe easier than finding an honest politician or a till-death-do-us-part relationship. Take heart. When you walk into a book shop, don’t feel depressed at all those lucky, lucky published people. Rejoice. The system wants this many published authors – even if they’re stuck on the shelves and the remainder piles – and it craves more.

Yes, getting published is a really achievable ambition. It’s obviously a lot harder to make a living at writing. It’s very hard to become known as a writer. It’s very hard to produce a treasured classic. But for many there’s a simple dream of is just being published.

Why?

Well, probably for simple affirmation, an acknowledgement by someone else that you deserve to be called a writer. It also chimes with all those reasons for being published that feel so wrong. Who do you want to teach you creative writing, for example, the lady who’s published or the lady who isn’t? That’s usually a question that everyone answers without even asking the potentially more important stuff: how good a teacher they are, whether their own work chimes with the student in question, never mind what they’ve published exactly and how reputable it really is outside a niche of die-hards, No. Published. That’s what makes you an author. That’s what makes your work worthwhile. And, if you’re not very psychologically careful, you end up thinking that’s what makes your life worthwhile.

Nonsense.

Write because the writing is what you need to do. If you’re published by someone it’s because they can see something beyond that need, an inroad, a paying audience, or a business opportunity – publication s not a sign that you are or aren’t a writer. Of course bad writers generally get published less than good writers, so, in some quarters at least, it is a badge that confirms you’re not a bad writer. It’s far from the case though that only good writers get published, or that somehow it’s being excellent that gets you published.

If you want to be published then the path is well known. It’s a fairly straightforward set of steps. The problem comes when… No, save that for the end. Here’s what I believe the steps are, and you just need a 90% productive effort on ALL of them.

Here are the steps

  1. Know what writing is
  2. Know the craft of writing
  3. Know the audience that suits you
  4. Make your suitably deliverable USP
  5. Know where you fit in the hierarchy of agents/publishers
  6. GO! (write…or rewrite…. or patch and scrape at what you’ve misguidedly started)

If you’ve done all of these properly, there you are. You should have no trouble getting published. Agents want books, good books, books they can sell, books from writers who know their audience and have got that neat USP. Publishers want the same. It doesn’t particularly need clever writing or deep philosophy or society-changing themes. If you’ve got your book done to the steps here then there shouldn’t be a problem. If you haven’t got one, then go back down the ladder and see where you didn’t get the 90% productive effort for one of the steps.

Getting published, step one: Know what writing is

You could by-pass this if you were already famous for something else, but let’s for a minute assume the publication will be because of the writing. Here’s your first step. Know what writing is.

Do you? Really?

For those who want to write and who need all their words in writing this stage may have been completed between the ages of 4 and 14, but then you have to be wary that your sense of what good writing is isn’t obfuscated by literature courses and social snobbery around what reading should be.

Reading is key. It needs to be reading that teaches you what writing is, though. You need to be alert to why a set of phrases works or doesn’t. Why one passage of writing is pompous and off putting, why another seems frothy and overly-sweetened. Classics are a must but it’s probably a 10% dose. The reasons why Joyce and Dickens are still read are not always because they illustrate what writing should be.

Get to know which writing you want to emulate. Make sure it’s writing that living readers acknowledge as good writing. Your style could well do with the spice of Woolf or Wilde or Wodehouse but beware of making that spice the substance of the meal. You need to practice your way into a deeper understanding. Exercise across a range of styles, do pastiches, emulate writing that delivers emotion successfully to you – and spread the range of emotions as wide as possible, emotions of pity, hilarity, anger, fear, disgust, affection, scorn. What writing does that for you? How could you do it for others?

Pick up on all aspects of style. Emulate it. Then step away from the copies and begin to understand what writing is for you.

Getting published, step two: Know the craft of writing

This is where the hard work starts. It’s not particularly hard work to know what good writing is for you and your hoped-for circle of influence. Knowing the craft of writing is something else.

There’s a few hundred thousand books out there, courses too, some good some bad. Blogs galore, as the developing craftspeople try to fathom what their shortfalls are and what aspect of the craft they’ll take to next.

For me being able to articulate craftspersonship is part of the process. That’s not to say you can’t do it without. There’s plenty of great books written through intuition and just riding the time-honoured patterns that you’ve been steeped in through endless reading. If you want to improve at anything though, get to the stage where you can articulate the essence of that craft.

It’s like chess. You can intuitively move pieces into or out of danger. Once you’re a grand master you probably have a raft of unarticulated sensations about the game. Yet in the step between beginner and master you will improve fastest when you’re able to say exactly why one move is better than another, to talk it through in words. Same with snooker, same with football. If you can give name to it then you begin to really know it. If you have to teach grammar, to explain the rules and the exceptions, then you know grammar. If you are a designer you know why something will work and can explain the parameters of design function – it’s not just a case of moving stuff about and maybe getting lucky.

It’s the same with writing. Can you say which bits of your writing are good and explain why?

That’s craft and if you can’t then this is possibly a step you’ll struggle to pass.  Why does one set of sentences work with better rhythm than another?  Why does one combination of words have more potency than a set of synonyms. What is fresh and what is stale? What is expansive and what is cluttered?

What qualities of character are most likely to get audience response? How are traits described and nuanced? How does conflict flow, develop and resolve? How are readerly expectations toyed with and variously delivered? How is a familiar pattern thrown open to unexpected delight.

Get the books. Do the courses. Think long and hard why some things work and some things don’t.

Understand all the rules. And if you’re breaking them understand exactly why.

Getting published step three: Know the audience that suits you

If you’ve got an eclectic taste this might be a difficult step. If you are desperate to be innovative and experimental then this could be the most difficult step.

It’s easiest if you love one kind of book and you’re desperate to emulate it. Romance. Fantasy. Teen dystopia. Tartan noir. Dada. These are genres with audiences and if you know that you want to grab that particular audience’s attention, then this should be a breeze.

Publishing is not about literature. That fact used to confuse and beguile me. I studied great works that had stood the test of time. That was what i thought literature meant. I believed natively that the literature had come from brilliant minds as a conduit of great souls, that there was something in the work itself that was of quintessential literary greatness and that that was why it had been published and cherished through the decades.

Bollocks. Of course.

Literature studies are not about great works, they’re about great publications. As a subject of study, a book that has had a publishing history and an audience and a social reaction and a critical history is a far far different thing from an identical book that was never noticed.  Even if you are going back to the text itself with the New Criticism the fact is that those texts have risen to a point of critical attention. They are works within markets and within social contexts. Whether it was the direct aim of the writer, or of someone who discovered the works lying in a drawer, or of some unscrupulous literary thief, the work evolves into, of and for an audience.

So, if you want to be published you cannot be sniffy about audiences. You can’t be random or natively optimistic either.

Nothing short of this: you need to define who will read your work and guarantee that, given the opportunity, they would respond to it as with a range of their favourites. No point saying that a work is for porn lovers who also like a bit of Enid Blyton, that isn’t a valid target audience; no point saying your audience is all those who’ve caught the Kabadi on TV and are sure to want a horror story based on the ghosts of former champions – that’s at best an uncertain audience.

Look at who’s reading books and make sure yours could be tossed into a pen of at least a few thousand who would welcome it as a familiar if uncommonly interesting friend.

Getting published, step four: Know your USP

Once you’re among that audience and you know them well and can imagine the looks on their faces when you show them your front cover – and as you picture a persona of a reader and take your imagination through their reactions to your work – this is the step where the difference, the exception, the quirk, the niche, the je-ne-sais-quoi is utterly essential. The Unique Selling Point.

This audience wants more, they can’t wait to get the next great thing, the novel that will make them feel the way they have with all their favourites in the genre, they want more but why do they want this one? The same but different. That’s what everyone wants. Same ball-park but a remarkable variation in the bleachers.

The best end of this is a quirky, utterly Zeitgeisty premise that makes everyone pant to get the full story. Easier said than done, but framing this is the best step in any journey to a publishing deal.

Again, articulate the difference. Show the significance and originality of that difference, and understand exactly how different it can be whilst still being with the same audience.

Getting published, step four and a bit: Make your USP suitably deliverable

It’s the same point but different. Call it a log line or a premise or a blurb but what you’re after for this step is an astonishingly concise and beautifully delivered sense of where that USP lies. If it’s all in the twist at the end that you don’t want to reveal until the close then you’ll struggle. If the USP is its befuddling complexity then you’ll struggle. If the USP is not unique enough then you’ll struggle. If it’s unique but not something that will sell then you’ll struggle. If it’s not one point but seven then you’ll struggle.

For maximum appeal then, you know your audience, and here is a concise statement of the one clear, exciting difference that makes it wonderfully saleable. If you’re unsure how it should go imagine how you’d sell Silence of the Lambs with a USP. Or Northern Lights, Bridget Jones’ Diary, High Fidelity, To Kill a Mockingbird – they all did it to a level that made them exemplars. 

There’s a stack of posts on log lines and blurbs. I did one myself a while back but have forgotten what I said. (How to craft a logline or blurb.) Egri and McKee have interesting opinions to share. Basically it needs to conjure the possible development in the mind of whoever reads it.

Getting published, step four: Know where you fit in the hierarchy of agents/publishers

So you’ve got the book done and written, it’s great. It’s got a USP, you can deliver it – who do you deliver it to?

Consider the tale of the Most Unloveable Man on Earth though.  This MUMonE wanted to find love. He bought a bunch of flowers and thrust them in the face of the first supermodel that walked out of the Ritz. No dice. He got new flowers and thrust them at the first supermodel that walked out of the Hilton. Still no dice. He did the same thing a third and fourth time and then gave. Convinced he must be unloveable and unattractive he threw himself off the nearest bridge.

The most demoralising thing for amateur writers is the endless stream of rejections. You’ll get plenty of those, everyone does. But as with the parable of the MUMonE, you can do yourself a favour and at least be pitching realistically.

How do you find an agent – well, of course you google ‘em up. Those first page of google agencies must be choking for unknowns. You want a publisher, well whack your manuscript off to Penguin, why not?

Just as some footballers are at Stevenage and some are at Liverpool, just as some horses are doing the Grand National and some are pulling drays, as some chefs are at The Dorchester and some run burger vans outside Dorchester, you need to recognise what your Zone of Proximal Development is and where you belong at this stage in your career. If there’s a pyramid to climb with your literary heroes at the top then its unlikely you’re going to leap up there immediately. Be sensible. Be patient. Be realistic.

Your, ZPD, Zone of Proximal Development, is where you’re capable of moving to next. Understand that while some publishing is a rags-to-riches success story for an ambitious unknown, most of it isn’t. There’s a publishing house for you, there’s an agent for you. Assuming you’ve got through all the steps so far then you’ve got something to sell and someone will join in your quest (publishing) rather than no-one (self-publishing)

Here you go. Find the right person to support you and go for it.

But is being published a real and worthy quest?

The problem of course is that you don’t really JUST want to be published. You want to write what you want, you want to do it your way. Or you do want the publication but not the work. Or you do want the work but not the achingly dull practice of the craft before the work becomes justifiable as a potential fame-maker. 

Is that a word? It should be (or someone can tell me what the established term is). Fame-maker. We sift around in the dirt, cringing at our own anonymity and we’re looking for the elusive Fame-maker. The illusive Fame-maker. The thing that will get us recognised and will validate us. That will make us good in another’s eyes.

We are alone, reaching out here and there. Our published work seems a chance that a larger than normal number of people will connect briefly with us, they will seize our ideas and understand how we feel. It’s great to reach out and connect and great to make a gift of your ideas.

Don’t get too distracted by that, though.

There’s something in the process that must take precedence over the product. The steps above aren’t just steps towards getting published, not really. They’re steps in making the experience of writing better, better for you the writer. If you know what’s good, know the craft, if you think about audience and who might ideally read what you write, if you focus in on what is unique about your own practice and you do that well enough to get a concise simple statement as to why what you offer is valuable, then you’re not simply making steps towards some business ideal like publishing, you’re developing a craft, one that is intimate with the human brain and its craving for language to make sense of experience.

Do the steps anyway. Don’t treat publishers as gods that you need to please. Please yourself. Just move those few steps closer, wherever possible, to those great ideals that our literary heroes have established.