How to get started on a first novel. Five things I wish I’d known earlier.

There’s bags of advice out there, of course. Hopefully whatever you’ve found so far has been fabulously helpful and you’re ready to get going. As someone who’s started more novels than they’ve finished and finished more novels than they’ve published and is still rewriting those nearly-but-not-quites almost to death, there are a few things that I wish someone had given me all those years ago when I first started.

The first big goal is getting started at all, and a number of narrative theorists go very, very deep on the impossibility of the beginning. The second big goal is giving yourself a better than decent chance of keeping going until the end of the first draft. Getting a draft out, even a crappy one, is a major effort – it’s 80,000 words or more where there used to be 300 blank sheets for Goodness’ sake – that really is a major effort and, make no mistake, anyone who’s written a vaguely readable draft of a real novel deserves to feel proud of their efforts.

The goals after that probably shouldn’t concern those at the stage of a first go, but they might eventually include improvements, increasing readability, harmonising style, squeezing that 5% extra out of all the conflicts and turning points. If you want to get published then there’s a whole array of imponderables and unknowns and lucky breaks that aren’t really about planning or motivation. Like a hole in one for a golfer, you need to be good enough to get close on a regular basis, but the actual drop into the hole isn’t something that can happen just because you want it to. That’s what luck is. When you’re starting your second novel you can get luckier by being more up on the Zeitgeist, being more canny about characterisations and markets and of course being more craftspersonly about those time-honoured conventions of narrative and prose. Some of those  you’ll find out before you start, but, like a new recruit to the army who sort of knows there’ll be assault courses and mess drills but who will find out a whole lot more as they begin the first steps of the journey, there’s a lot to learn just by getting started, by doing, and by accepting that your first go (maybe even your second or third go) will be more about learning than producing.

So, to add to the many other bits of good advice you’ll be getting online or in the many great how-to-do-it booklets, here’s four things I wish someone had told me when I first tried to put a novel together.

Your first novel #1: Give a name to your desired approach to writing

This is something you’ll know but may not have articulated – what kind of a writer are you trying to be? The chances are you’ll love a whole range of writers and styles and periods. Which one (or ones) are you trying to be? Or, if being unique is your aim, which ones are you trying NOT to be?

To illustrate, I studied music in my youth. When it came to composition the kind of music I wanted to make up was the music that was most recently in my head. I’d have a bash at a Mozart horn concerto pastiche and then an hour later I was trying to slap a ground bass and cluster chords into something outrageously modernistic (and, it has to be said, outrageously bad!)

As a music listener you can listen to any music you can get your ears on. You could have plainchant before breakfast and Mahler after the first cappuccino. Grunge before croissants and an accordion cafe for brunch. But you can’t compose like that.

For the book writers you can read all sorts, love all sorts and have your favourites in a dozen different camps, styles or centuries. But what a reader will want is consistency. Even if you want to make a clever shimmy of pastiches part of your thing, there’s a consistent narrative voice that has to hold the thing together and has to have chosen to BE one thing or the other.

This is a really important point here when it comes to keeping your project up. If you start a Rom Com but then read a really good thriller and wish you were writing one of those, what do you do? A Hugh Grant floppy haired hero suddenly gets badass with guns in Act II – then for a real finale, goes all Star Wars for a bit before pulling off his mask to reveal he’s the elf king. Doesn’t have to be anywhere near that extreme to be lethal. The killer blow is if you now hate your initial Rom Com idea and give up on it (but fail to retain enthusiasm for your thriller or sci-if or whatever).

“I can’t help you because I don’t know what it is you want,’ says the character Tre Cooper in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, ‘…one moment it’s the tortured genius creating great art and the next you just want your face on the telly.’ It’s a big thing – you have to choose what you most want to be as an author and reluctantly let go of the other choices of identity.

You’ll have your own names – play with a few more, but get a real handle on what kind of writer you’re going to be. When Rankin came up with the term Tartan Noir – at a publishers party I gather – he’d already known for years that that’s what he was, at least when publishing under that name.

As a writer you might be: the Intellectual, the Stylist, the Dour wit; the Epic Poet; the Classicist; the Dissillusioned, the Funkster, the Observer… just make sure that you’re the same thing every morning when you pick up the pen or sit down at the keyboard or speak into the dictaphone.

What’s your type, your style, the label you’d like to be known by when critics choose one word or phrase for your work?  The quicker you can nail it, the better you’ll focus.

Your first novel #2: Don’t (necessarily) make yourself begin at the beginning

It’s a real divider of opinion – do you write your novel as though you’re a reader? A very slow reader of course, but, basically, do you start at the beginning and work your way through, wanting the outcomes that a reader will want and then either satisfying or delaying them in the following pages or chapters?

Or, do you plot out your work first and then, when the structure is established, come in with the scenes, the voices, the dialogues that pad it out?

Or something in between? Do you write the exciting bits and then go back and tie them together? If there’s a crazy denouement and a slow-burn mystery then maybe it starts and the end and goes backwards. One of the best prose stylists and best plotters, Arthur Miller, describes his process for Death of a Salesman as one where he began with the scenes that he knew would be most troublesome, leaving the ones he could visualise most easily till the end. I suspect for most of us it’s often the other way round

Screenwriters are so plot-driven and ruthlessly darling-killing about what is, after all, a ruthless time-is-money industry, that they would not dare do anything but plot out, usually with Post-it notes or similar, swapping bits in and out and testing them first against the paradigms of McKee and then against a live studio audience.

Novels don’t necessarily work in such extreme ways, but it is worth grasping a few of the much talked about elements of the debate:

For example, once you’ve told your story, will you get bored and never finish it? Remember screenwriters are well paid and have an objective. For novelists there’s something about working through the story that’s in their mind, only understanding its twists and potential as part of the process of writing. If you’re prepared to do this with one draft and then throw it away and start with the better plotted version, fine. Good books tend to need more careful plotting than a meandering explorative approach will allow, but if the process is the main thing – and it well might be – no problem and get that peregrinatory head on.  If you’ve got the plot sorted on Post-its, though, will you be fully motivated to go back and fill in the gaps?

Whichever way round it goes for you, be prepared to test out some scenes that are outside the chronological order – whether that’s your writing chronology or that of the narrative. You may find there are useful time twists – a chance to get the more interesting things in a better order and not one that follows standard time. Write test dialogues, odd sentences, phrases or metaphors you want to repeat to make themes. You may find you learn more about characters, you may find that some scenes are just impossible – too tortuous, too complicated, too boring – and need to be written out.

It’s not a hole by hole game of golf you’re playing. You’ve got a chance to do the driving range, the pitching targets and the putting green and then put together your ideal round at the end.

Or, like Mahler’s notes for a symphony, there’ll be a little passage that comes to you that you know needs to be in the middle and to which you’ll now build towards.

Or, as the advice goes that we were once given as undergraduate students. Don’t worry about the beginning of your essay. You’ll all be waffling till the brain engages. Accept this, write it as necessary. Then, when you’re writing the ending, go back and remove what you thought was the beginning. Your new beginning will be where your brain has joined you, fully engaged.

Just don’t forget to go back and fill in the gaps.

Your first novel #3: Characters that know they are characters

There’s a good line in McKee that goes something along the lines that Hamlet is no more a real person than the Venus de Milo is a real person.

One of the biggest hurdles for every writer but especially for the newbie is understanding where reality and fiction separate. The most common complaint from anyone asked to look through an early draft of a first novel is that it has that recognisable and very thin veil of an autobiography about it. Basically, the characters don’t suffer from not being rounded or for being too wooden. The bigger problem is that the characters are too damn real.

Very few people lead the lives of an engaging character in a novel. Human lives are messy, humans are balanced, humans avoid conflict by habit, humans are subtle and take a lot of working out. How often do you sit and wonder about the lightly nuanced quirks in yourself or your best friends or those people who really, really irritate you? Months, maybe years, a lifetime. Real people take a lot of working out.

Book characters are not real, the best ones just seem it.

Think through all the most celebrated fictional characters. Not just Lancelot or Heathcliff, Mrs Malaprop or Robert Buzzard, but those who seem more rounded, Hamlet, Margaret Wilcox née Schlegel etc. They are striking because they can be identified by a few highly visible personality traits.

They seem it because they’re larger than life, however subtly so. They have a narrow range of specific character traits that are designed to put them in conflict with other characters who have specific, challenging traits. While Walt Whitman can accept the contradictory fact of his own being – “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” [Song of Myself] – characters only contain so many multitudes.  Characters who contain multitudes tend to look at best wishy-washy, at worst confusing and unlikeable.

Characters need to change and your protagonist needs to change the most visibly – your novel is after all their journey towards some sort of transformation. They may start vain and selfish and go through something astonishing that makes them very different. You can’t make a character though out of someone with nicely balanced characteristics with occasional self-interest and occasional altruism. There’s no place in literature for the man who sees both sides of both sides. Characters are engaging and memorable because they illustrate a type or represent a characteristic. That’s not to say that everyone can be named after a deadly sin or cardinal virtue like Knowledge in a medieval mystery play (“Euery man I wyll go with the and be thy gyde In thy moost nede to go by thy syde. ” etc…) but even the most rounded and subtle successful literary characters are nowhere near as rounded and subtle as a real person.

That’s one reason why I don’t personally like the idea of developing characters from a kit of life experiences – favourite colour, childhood pet and so on, what Blake Snyder (I think) calls the Frankenstein method. It fills a fun creative writing class while everyone makes up the person they wish they were, but how much of it is really relevant. If you’re devising histories for your characters then the events need to be major and relevant to the bold archetype they will become. Beaten up by grandparents, failed to find love as a teenager, read too much Congreve, played too much Fortnite, whatever… I will admit this much, that it adds a pleasant veneer of realism if each character has an identifiable taste in dress or harps on some former trouble – but remember if too many details are irrelevant to the internal drama then the reader will pick them up as pointless or decorative and it will weaken your overall effect.

Your characters in a novel need to be characters – that way they’ll seem more believably human.

Your first novel #4: Plot or voice – what kind of book will this be?

For me, the most audibly upheld binary devision in the creative writing world is this: plot or voice.

Even if you ideally want a bit of both, you’ll probably have a sense of what kind of books you already like and what the primary excellence of those books might be.

There may not be an absolute black’n’white for any of these (It’s not PG Wodehouse vs Jeffery Archer but maybe Dickens vs James or Shakespeare v Moliere…?) but when you’re starting out, there’ll be one or the other that will be making you want to write.

I’ve known people walk out of creative writing classes because the presenter was teaching plotting techniques when the student was adamant that voice would lead the best works. I’ve known storytellers boast that they’re not much good at the style or the language end of things but they’re gonna be world-beaters when it comes to constructin’ narrative.

If you’re not sure, try and think through some favourite books and what draws you into them and through them. It’s not to say that there’s no plot in voice books or no voice in plotted books, but what’s the main driving feature?

This is a factor made harder by traditional English Literature studies. Literacists would, on the whole, have you believe that the more intellectual reads are essentially plot free and that the ivory tower reader is more interested in quirks of literary device than the mere plots that soap opera viewers crave.

For me, I feel that comedy is largely voice led although the best voices need a plot that does them justice. Ben Elton is read for his voice, surely, despite the fact that his plots are usually engaging. Ditto Stephen Fry, both of whom I’ve loved on TV and page, both of whom are clever and entertaining writers. Frustrating as it may be to those with literary exclusiveness as an aim, that’s why they’re world famous for it. I like the narrative voices and the voices of their individual characters. The plots help give shape but they’re not the end point. P.G.Wodehouse is probably in a similar bracket,  if rather easier to confess a liking to at literary dinner parties. Hang on though, it’s not necessarily a quirky, humorous, instantly recognisable style I’m talking about here. It’s just an approach. What motivates you to write. Why do you think someone would enjoy reading it. I mean, you probably wouldn’t read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage for the plot, nor James Joyce’s Ulysses.

For me Jane Austen is about plot even though not an awful lot happens, as is Hardy, as is George Eliot. However much you enjoy their style and the overall voice, it’s something else that’s in there that motivates the reading.  The motivation, I believe, is in who does what, when, why and the repercussions. That to me is plot. Sure, Enid Blyton was about plots, although her tone was spot on for the Zeitgeist when she was writing. Harry Potter is its plot with the same caveat.

Plot doesn’t mean page-turner, doesn’t mean anti-literary, the plot doesn’t even have to be marvellously intriguing or twisty as the rides at Alton Towers. The choice doesn’t mean anything except this: do you want your new book to be recognised as one with a concrete and carefully structured plot.

A regular response to this seemingly binary approach tends to be for someone to introduce what they see as the third way and the most intellectual approach of all – character.  That, they say is the Austen, Eliot, James, Shakespeare thing – and it’s what makes them literary.

I see character as something separate though, rather than a third way. Books that are about the analysis of motive and about the incremental shifts of mood and affection as one person slowly moves their index fingers across the table towards the other – they could be driven by plot or voice.

Some people say screenplays are plot and novels are voice, but I think this isn’t necessarily so. It’s certainly not useful to starting some major writing.

What you need is something that will colour your chosen approach and help you focus on being the best you can be at that aspect first and foremost.

So decide:

PLOT: if you’re going down the plot route then there are lots of great books about the science of plotting. How to make readers expect and how to entice them deeper: how to give the antagonist their necessary structural arc; making your heroine want something that the reader sees but she doesn’t; satisfactory conclusions and mid-point lows. While we all have the three act standard structure embedded in our entertainment DNA, it’s worth seeking out and learning all you can. This is an approach I only leaned about later in life, after I’d done literary degrees and read myself stupid and written pages and pages. I liked it and I wanted to pass the message on, as you’ll see elsewhere on the blog: Taking the Scenic RoutePlanning to Keep it UP.

VOICE: this isn’t necessarily the voice of a character but it may well dictate how your book takes shape. It readily suits people who are working with autobiography – either true to memory or semi-fictional. Also those who want immediate effect from the written word – comedic or erotic writing for example, both of which might suit a dip-in just as well as a cover-to-cover read. First person character narratives are often a great place to find great literary voice. The same is true of other atmospheric writing like horror or travel writing. Is style the same thing – perhaps. Okay, not everyone can be Bill Bryson or Jeanette Winterson, but working hard on achieving a likeable or powerful voice may well be your primary aim. There are books and genres where the voice leads and the plot supports rather than the other way round, but neither can quite do without the other.

Whereas there are dozens of excellent and hundred of quite good books and websites on plotting – it is essentially a science, or at least a craft, in that it has learnable rules and a no-nonsense set of reasons as to how it works – voice is something a bit more gifted to you in mysterious ways. If that’s what you want to do then its about practising up those innate habits around word selection, phrasal balance, rhythm, tone, borrowings, pastiches and corruptions. It may be impossible to articulate the particularities of voice and style that appeal to you or that you use best, but if you can it will be a step towards understanding what drives your pages forward.

Me, I went from voice-focused to plot-focused and then back towards voice to something with a bit more balance – I wish I’d considered this divided path when I first started instead. Plot or Voice. Like a ballroom dancing couple they may both prove essential to the final display, but one will clearly lead.

Will you be sculpting the sound and the wonder of the individual page, or will you be focused on the wide canvas of the plot?

Remember, what you’re deciding is not, shall I have no plot or no voice, but which of them will lead and which one will get the focus of your attention in the early days.

Your first novel #5: The three chapter and synopsis test

There’s an interesting example in the book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, which sets out to demonstrate the need to be freely productive. A class in the States was divided in half for a design project. One was told they only had one chance to build an object for appraisal and that it would be judged on its closeness to an ideal. The other half were told to build as many objects as they could and they would be appraised by the number of objects they turned out.

The interesting fact was that the half that produced the most objects also produced the best objects. Their multiple makings had solved problems and developed efficiencies which led to an improved raw excellence in what they were producing.

Could this help you with your novel?

I’ve sometimes wondered if we (if one, if they) should start a ‘three chapter and synopsis club’, and put it in place of a creative writing class. The aim would be not to work hard at a pre-organised pet project, but to produce as many packages of three chapters and synopses as possible throughout the year. Then you’d go back over the ones you’d done and see if a new level of excellence had emerged. If nothing else – like Ronnie Barker’s Seven of One series where Porridge and Open All Hours first appeared, neither of which were at first glance favourites – you’d have a set of works to examine and see what direction you wanted to take.

Also bear in mind that publishers generally ask for three chapters and a synopsis, so it’s not a bad thing to get absolutely nailed before you go for the long-haul.


Good luck with that first go – or second go or whatever you’re doing. It’s a brave thing, a difficult and time-consuming thing. Some people make it look easy and I suspect that’s because they learnt early what some of us have taken a long time to recognise. Keep learning. Keep writing. Keep editing.

 

 

Almost Steven Gerrard – Competition winning short story

Winner of 2012 Creative Writing Olympiad, Sussex 

The secrets of the adult world challenge a young boy’s belief in his sporting hero.

almost-steven-gerrard-short-story-winner

Almost Steven Gerrard

Steven Gerrard started coming to our house the day we were expecting a bloke to fix the lamps in the attic.  He must have done a good job cos Mam’s face lit up a treat.

Steven Gerrard! Liverpool captain!

She told me on the Saturday.

‘I’m off to town.  You coming or staying with Dad?’

Town with Mam usually means chocolate. Or crisps. This time she leaves me gazing at snazzy boots and the new away kit and seems to be gone for ages.

‘Had to meet someone,’ she shrugs when I ask her.

‘Who?’

‘Steven Gerrard’, she breathes with a hunching of shoulders and her gifted way of sparking cigarettes.

‘Wow! Just wait till Dad hears.’

But Mam says it’s a special secret and I can’t tell him.  Shame, cos it would have really cheered him up. When we watch football together on telly, he’s the one who tells me which red shirt is which and when to get excited. He probably knows things about Steven Gerrard that Mam’ll never find out.

He was a bit of a player, too, my Dad, when he was little. He would’ve been England centre-forward if he’d been spotted earlier and trained harder and not taken up smoking. It’s his leg though now, he says. And the long shifts, I reckon.

I’m getting better myself – one-two off the kitchen wall, chip the pothole – I can score like Steven Gerrard when I’m on my own against the garage door.

And the garage door was fine for a while. Mam was just happy that Dad’s old banger wasn’t there during the day. Embarrassed us all that car did and showed everyone just what my Dad had brought us to. I liked it though. It smelt of oil and Saturdays and it was a shame that Mam frowned when she heard it coming back.

Maybe that explains the grin on her face once Steven Gerrard started sticking his car there. Escort. Cracking motor. White and wonderful and waxy, with fins at the back and spider-web wheels. There was even a rude message on the back window. People from down the street would point at it, oohing and whispering and elbowing each other.

This put our drive out-of-bounds for football, but that’s okay. I know scoring’s not really the same if there’s no defence.

I thought Steven Gerrard would maybe take me for a kick around since Dad was out of action but he never brought his boots. I did sometimes see his shoes at the bottom of our stairs, though, and I couldn’t complain really cos I was getting loads of chocolate now.

‘Stevie G’s great, isn’t he, Mam.’

She stares blankly. Steven Gerrard’s wasted on her really.

‘What did you tell your Dad?’

‘Nothing,’ I say and she gives me more chocolate.

‘Don’t say a word, otherwise he’ll stop coming.’

‘He looks different in real life.’

‘Yeah well, they’re so tiny on the telly.’

‘The telly makes his hair look shorter.’

‘Yeah,’ she said, sucking a ciggie, ‘it does that, telly.’

‘We should tell Dad one day though. He reckons Steven Gerrard’s the top man.’

‘Your Dad’s right for once.’ There’s a bit of cheek chewing and she sizes me up with squinty eyes. Then she smiles and touches a finger tip to her mouth. ‘It’s fun having secrets, isn’t it.’

Her nail is all glossy and oval-ended and beautiful. Mam’s always been beautiful, I reckon. But it’s as if she feels it inside now. It must be why she’s smiling more. I didn’t want to tell her that this particular secret was hurting a bit. I know that sometimes secrets can keep you warm at night, too, when everything seems cold and clouded.

Close up, Steven Gerrard looks nothing like he does in the newspaper either. He’s got a gold tooth and lots of rings. He’s a kind of orange colour, too, which Mam describes as ‘golden’ when I ask her. She says it’s scorching on his boats in Sam Tropy and Bare-Ritz and if I play my cards right I could go there for holidays next summer.

He encourages my football talent if nothing else, does Steven Gerrard. It was him who first suggested I went to the big park. It seems a long walk just to play by yourself, but there’s a whack of extra chocolate if the whole squad get hat-tricks – double if I take it to extra time and penalties.

So, although I tell Mam I don’t really want to go any more, Steven Gerrard’s keen I keep trying. ‘Here’s a transfer fee’, he grins. ‘See if you can get a couple more games in before your Dad gets back,’ and I get twenty quid and it feels like fantasy in my fingers.

 

‘You all right, son?’ Dad asks when he pokes a head round my bedroom door on a Tuesday evening.

‘Dad, you know how some things exist, but then they don’t really, like Father Christmas and the Pry-Minster’s promises.’

‘If you like.’ I’ve not really noticed how my  Dad smiles before, but it’s as though he’s dredged it from dark places with untold efforts especially for me.

‘Well… oh, nothing.’ I wanted to keep talking cos Dad always tries to give the right answers, but I didn’t know what to say. Instead Dad tells me why he has to go the hospital again next weekend and I make him promise he’s not going to die. He laughs and says he’s not going anywhere so I’d not get my hands on his fortune yet. His fortune’s a trophy he won in the darts league – only B team and some of the silver plastic’s chipped off, but it’s still cool to have something fortune-shaped for the mantelpiece.

‘Do you have to work so late, Dad?’

He gives a nod served with another smile. ‘Sorry, son.’

‘Just, well, if money’s tight again, I’ve got some you can have.’

‘Really.’

‘Twenty quid,’ I confess after a pause.

‘Right.’ He ruffles my hair with the end of his newspaper and gives me a look as though he knows more than he wants to tell. ‘We’re doing better in the league’ he then says, cheerfully. ‘Steven Gerrard’s been playing his socks off.’

I sort of open my mouth like I’m trying to swallow a snooker ball and wonder why I wanted to say something that I wasn’t allowed. I guess that’s what it must be like to grow up.

 

‘You’ve not told anyone our secret?’ Mam says, gazing out of the window and smoking quick and high into the air.

I flick about nervously in my pockets. In fact I’d pinched a cigarette and stashed it there, but it had snapped and most of the stuffing was knocked out of it. Did that matter? I’d never smoked before. They seemed to make Mam happy though and maybe they’d work for me.

I ask, ‘How can it be a secret when his Escort’s always there?’

‘It’s a different type of secret,’ she says and giggles. She always giggles with Steven Gerrard but has a frown ready for Dad when he’s due back from work.

I heard her giggling upstairs once when my attacking-midfielders got injured and cold and needed the toilet. I went in through the back door and heard raucousness upstairs. Maybe the attic lamps had gone again. When I called up, everything went quiet.

‘You okay Mam?’

‘Yes. Great sweetheart. Don’t come upstairs.’

‘I saw Steven Gerrard’s car parked down the street. Is he visiting again?’’

Silence and then a muffled, ‘Hang on,’ and I guess she was fine cos she gave the kind of giggle I remembered from holidays as a toddler in a tent.

‘Dad’s coming now, too,’ I shout back, ‘I can hear his car.‘ And there’s a new kind of banging next and plenty of other noise as feet thump on stairs and the back door slams and whatever.

I was going to tell Dad to watch he didn’t trip on Steven Gerrard’s shoes, but the shoes had gone so I suppose Steven Gerrard had gone too.

Funny the way he breezes in and out, Steven Gerrard. When he’s on telly, Dad tells me he’s got pace and brings vision to the team. At our house, if nothing else, he’s brought chocolates and cash and a smile to my Mam’s face.

I don’t know though, like presents and chocolate, some visitors seem to make people happier for a bit and then, maybe, sadder and different.

 

There had been giggles and even real laughter for a bit, but it blew away like smoke. Mam beat the bedroom drawers until they coughed stuff up into a suitcase.

‘Sweetheart.’

‘Yes.’ I wondered if she knew my pockets were full of mashed cigarette.

‘Sweetheart, if I don’t live here, you’ll come with me, and it’ll be good, yes?’

The words dissolved around me in a smoky breath. Was it a question? Of course I would. Boys always lived with mams, didn’t they?  ‘So, are we going to live with Steven Gerrard?’

‘Who?’ she said irritably and then patted my head and smiled.

I didn’t really want to move, partly cos the park was getting good now. I’d even found a couple of kids who’d kick the ball back to me.

Also, we’d already had this chat too many times and I knew there was no answer to the ‘where’ question.

A week later and she’s tapping her heels in the hallway, one hand on a suitcase. ‘Look, sweetheart, there’s some things that people decide and it, well, you see…’

‘But they’re teaching me to chip the ball and everything.’ I refused to move.

‘Just, come on. Get your bag.’

I shuffled my toes on the floor and by the time I’d stopped biting my lip she was boiling over. ‘Look, pick the bloody bag up! Everything you need’s in there.’

My football wasn’t in the bag though, nor was my Dad.

‘Mam, ‘I’m not going,’ I said.

‘Oh for God’s sake!’ She pulled her suitcase onto the front step. ‘What are you playing at?’

Playing? I wondered how to explain. ‘It’s not just about playing. Sometimes you need someone to play against and know there’s something to play for…’ I stopped because I didn’t know what I was saying really and tears were dribbling on my face.

‘You can’t stay here. We’ll have a great time, you me and…’

‘And Steven Gerrard?’

Her voice went gentle again. ‘We’ll, love, you know…’

‘Dad’ll stop you,’ I blurted because there was nothing else I could say, and Mam groaned into cupped palms.

‘I need to go now,’ she quavered and a tear pricked her eye. ‘And I want you to come with me.’ She stopped there. A car horn had sounded down the road.

‘We have to go now. Before…’

‘Dad’ll stop you!’ I repeated, my stomach swelling up into my rib cage and a burning sensation ridding me of tears.

She said nothing but ‘sorry’ as she clattered out of the gate and scraped her suitcase down the cement path.

I stood there sweating. Dad would know what to do. All I had to do was tell him they’d gone and he’d know. He’d stop it all. He’d stop whatever was hurting me. That’s what dads do.

I listened to the clock clicking against the silence. I knew it wasn’t the real Steven Gerrard she’d gone with, cos he was great, the real Steven Gerrard; he knew what it was like to play hard and fair and win… my Dad did too.

I heard the grate of a key and my Dad came in with a hug. I clung to one thought that was something like, ‘get her Dad.’ We could rescue everything. Course we could. There was still time if we jumped in the car right now because dads can do anything.

Or… maybe we didn’t need to.

‘You okay son?’

His smile rose up through a concerned frown and I breathed deeply, pulling him towards the back door. ‘Come on, Dad,’ I said and gave him a grin that could have been almost adult. ‘We’re off to the park. You can be goalie.’

 

 

 

______________

 

 

 

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.

Ronnie O’Sullivan is a published novelist. Why do we write fiction, and what of our self (and not-self) remains?

Book cover with title and author and narrow street view of walking person

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s 2016 novel, Framed.

I’m not sure I’ll read Ronnie O’Sullivan’s novel. I might. I didn’t read his autobiography, but I have an interest in snooker and in the plight of those who’ve reached enviable levels of excellence and struggled to cope. I may even go to it in disbelief – a novel? Rocket Ronnie. But then why not, and I warmed to his comments during the launch publicity that the fictional story, in contrast to his autobiography, had helped him better understand himself through the process.

Do we write to know ourselves or for others to know us?

There’s a heap of reasons why someone wants to write. I’ve talked to people about the mass of words that burden their heads, the way every thought seems to require a fine sentence to make it more real and manageable. Others talk of the need to get that rush of evaporating thoughts into some permanent state in order to reorder and to play. Others need the invention, the pleasure that comes with manipulating a narrative around invented characters who may or may not have the quirks and traits of our friends and enemies.

For some there’s the expectation of that warm hug of childhood memory, that our works are loved and wanted and so we are too.  It can become a need to be heard, a tool for response in the desire to be unachievably meaningful to others’ lives. There’s the ‘being read’ and that’s where it all changes.

And of course anyone who can physically write can creatively write. At the very least they can contribute meaningfully to a ghosting process, and that’s perhaps no worse that Jeff Koons directing a porcelain factory to make a model Michael Jackson. One way or another craft has a democracy about it that many find enormously irritating. While musical composition or painting or magicianship need a journey of skill enhancement before you have anything to show another human being, while stand-up comedy or juggling require  some honing and testing before you dare go before a critic, writing is one of those things – like photography perhaps – that few people want lessons in and that everyone can get an odd good random result at, even if they’re not sure why.

Writing though is the use of words, as are many of our thoughts, as is our examination of self and motive. Whether we are good with them, or great, or not so terrific, there’s a familiar urge to get words down in a form that others might take them on board. There’s a sense that the self has gone with them in some form. There’s a chance that what that self becomes is distorted by our clumsiness, our ungainly phrase, our less than perfect delivery of narrative flow. What changes when we want to write but can’t.

Kundera springs to mind as someone who has characters that want to write but can’t. There’s a whole genre there, even, from Adrian Mole through Stephen Daedalus back to Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee. Not everyone who can’t write is lucky enough to have help – or to have major companies happy to launch us as first timers. Nevertheless, those who can write do; and then they often expect an audience. And there have been many explorations of what it is to hanker to express something through fiction and to struggle with the process.

This brings an interesting question about the need to write. Some of this is of interest in the consideration of what the author might be doing when the writing is shown to another person, and how the self might be adapted or tested upon the reception.

There are a set of circumstances through which this transfer might take place, and again I’m minded of Kundera and that marvellous passage possibly in Laughter and Forgetting where he talks of a desire to be seen by unseen eyes. Here’s a quick set of thoughts that someone else has probably done as a research project but strike me as important to revisit.

Types of audience for writers

  • The author reads their writing aloud.
  • The author has the writing read in their presence.
  • The author places the writing somewhere, knowing who will read it later
  • The author places the writing somewhere, not knowing those who will read it later, but certain that it will be read.
  • The author places the writing somewhere, not knowing whether or not it will be read later.
  • The author reads the piece themselves then destroys.
  • The author destroys the piece without reading it themselves

This seems to offer some sort of parabola, the elements in the middle are distinct in scale. Those at the beginning and end are opposites but have a distinct authorial involvement.

Also each of these allows one of at least two distinct versions, those being whether or not the author is identifying themselves before hand as the author. This may then grow to a veritable hall of mirrors of possible versions, with authors announcing known or unknown versions of themselves, or any number of variables on the false author possibility from a simple pseudonym to an elaborate additional authorial being.

Back to the simple list above. The first two give some direct feedback and have a relationship with performance acts and the multiplicity of creative interplay between performer and audience. This is not normally the preference of an author, though. It is unusual in traditional written fiction and more familiar to publicity tours or fully-performative events for which a piece is specially written.

Many writers would harbour an ambition to be in at number four on the list. An audience that is guaranteed but unknown to us. As amateurs we are most regularly in at number five – like some am-dram Waiting for Godot, our hoped for audience may never come.

There are nuances of the exposed self in each one of these. Do we know the reader of our work, do we know their type or how they will make their judgements? Are we inviting this scrutiny from a predicted reader? How does that condition us and what does it make of self when we write for them?

Stories are legend of those whose readership has passed outside the one they had hoped for or predicted. It’s hard to say ‘poor’ JK Rowling without a snigger, but, if for a moment we have some sympathy, there was an author who created a quite wonderful saga for 7-11 year olds, replete with the many tried and tested literary elements for the age group. Suddenly however, global fame means that it’s being read by those who are rather older, and criticised for what it is or isn’t or, worse, what it should or shouldn’t be. (I’ve heard literary critics moan about everything from unrounded stage baddies in the series, to the lack of a coherent principle of physics.)  JK is famous for keeping her private life as private as possible and has said that, through publication, she expected to stay unnoticed in the background while the book and the characters became famous. Hard cheese, JK, hearts are bleeding.

That’s quite an interesting notion of what a book does for an author, and one that many would perhaps recognise. Our book is what has become famous. Our book is looked at, examined and tested against the rights and wrongs, the excellencies and deplorabilities of the world’s expectations. And – by chance – we, the author are not.

It’s not true of everyone and there are plenty of flamboyant, extrovert characters in the pantheon of literary high-achievers. They don’t seem to be the norm, though. Salinger and Harper Lee may be examples of those who rebuffed journalistic approaches and were characterised as reclusive and perhaps they are good examples of authors who actively feared the fame that their books had achieved and the scrutiny that they themselves were then under.

It may not be too wide of the mark to say that those who gravitate towards writing are seeking something of this possibility around the written word. Writing becomes us, (it goes with our hair…ba-boom!). It does though, we momentarily become our writing, but then it passes from us, never to grow old in itself but to find new life in other minds.

There’s a common trope of the aging painter collecting their early works around them. Collected works perhaps provide a literary equivalent. Here is a chance to assess, to see what we sent out into the world and get a sense of how those representatives fared without us. A chance to reflect how much of self was in them, to see if we still recognise what is there and to see if we can welcome them home without shame.

They are us when we want them to be. How many authors write under a pseudonym and for what reason? One reason is certainly the distance that it allows, as well as the active ‘becoming’ of some other self that it allows. How do we feel if our work is being talked about with the talker unaware that we are listening or that we are the author. Do we pounce into the conversation – well actually, you’ll be amazed to know…. Or do we stay silently proud or shamed?

Are we nervously weighing the control we have over the offer of visibility, like someone dressing to please, we tread slowly away from what is unremarkable and find our way across the see-saw ever closer to what is only too noticeable. Where is the balance and where do we feel most comfortable.

The real fear, surely, is that we will not be able to control the overbalancing rush if it comes. That others will be making the decisions. We offer up control, and, at the same time, seek vainly to retain it.

Jeanette Winterson has been very clear on many occasions that she is a fiction writer. She sees it as a misogynistic belittling of women’s writing that they are accused not to be writing fiction but instead can only write what they know, or about who they ‘really’ are. Is it that fiction is part of a more cultivated approach? In the same way that a more brilliant painter will see the world anew and paint it beyond its own reality, perhaps the fictionalist is getting at the world in a more productive, deeper way.

Autobiography is a well-examined phenomena in literature that is known to shed interesting lights on their authors that weren’t desired, predicted or acknowledged. False auto-biography is commonplace. In the case of Thomas Hardy, he released an official ‘biography’ which was later revealed to be an auto-biography.  There are a range of pseudo auto-biographies, among which are those that:

  • are openly autobiographical and read as informative and semi-objective in scope and tone
  • are openly autobiographical and acknowledging the subjective point of view and its likely limitations
  • claim to be autobiographical but admit swaying from facts (as others would likely accept them)
  • claims to be autobiographical and are consciously but covertly altered from facts others would accept
  • claim to be autobiographical and are unconsciously misrepresenting facts others would represent differently
  • are released as a fiction with disguised autobiography – possibly without full recognition of that likelihood

Is there a sliding scale here, from the desperate attempt at appealing to possible truth to the conscious attempt at falsehood? And does that scale include another parabolic feature, where the centre of the two extremes is something else, something more furtive yet literary.

There are ways for things to not be autobiographical when they emerge: a pseudonymous author, an Alice B Toklas alternative, a non-person, a fictionalised self, a mock self hyped and remedied, or just a character in and of itself alone, the simple way in which all fiction has something of the author’s life in them just as all portraits are in one way or another also self-portraits.

How might any of these identifiably contain more or less of a self that we would choose to show or hide? Or is it simply text from which the author evaporates, freed by their own Barthesque under-importance?

And which is Rocket Ronnie? Hopefully for him a happier man for his writing.

Western Road Brighton – a city’s lost decade and a council’s public shame

Western Road Brighton South Side with boarded up shops and restaurants and the Georgian mock-Pavilion architecture above them.

It’s an embarrassment! Two boarded shops on a central thoroughfare in a tourist town – architectural delights above.

What happened to Western Road? The housing in central Brighton is some of the country’s most expensive outside desirable London; it’s a central thoroughfare between major parts of one of the best-known cities in England; it has architecture to be proud of as long as you keep your head high and yet the locale remains at best a desert, at worst a temple to the low cultural horizons of the twenty-first century British seaside.

Some hint at the city’s former ambitions can be seen if, rather than scampering past the boarded up shops, homeless ghettos and everything’s-a-quid arcades, you look up at the higher floors of the buildings. A walk from the Clock Tower to Palmeira Square offers a number of listed buildings, porticoed and enlarged between 1910 and 1930, designed to rejuvenate and make grand the thoroughfare of wealthy Brighton at the wane of Empire.

A hundred years on and the same buildings are home to only a few stores that aim for that same grand statement or nurture the promise that shopping is a world of elevated feeling, pampering and pleasure and honest satisfaction.  The upper storeys frown down now on a grubbier collection of high-street staples with their plastic signage.  Little testaments to the heightened possibility of the British high street experience exist here still – C&H, Kobar, Burts, Taj, and further towards the Hove border, the marvellous Cutter and Grinder. Back opposite Waitrose, the newly vanished Verano Lounge, once Loch Fyne and then a bar and billiard hall, is now another boarded-up frontage, joining its long-term derelict neighbour, once the site of video-shop Blockbuster. Look up and there are the towers and turrets of a mini Brighton Pavilion to enjoy, but no-one looks up.

Iron frame being erected, British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark)

British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark) From Peter Groves’ website

The 1870s took the ‘West Laine’ as it was from a thread of residential housing to a shopping street as it became the main route to the Brunswick Estate – now Brunswick Square and environs.  The Council pre World War One took action to acquire leases in order eventually to standardise the road’s width and bring some elements of planning to the district.

Through the 1920s and 30s the department store boom saw Boots, British Home Stores and Wades along with Woolworths and Marks and Spencers in 1932. A road of accessible and monumental shops, each with a brief to look as impressive as their products. Mitre House (one of the few buildings to have smartened itself in the past decade) also survives from this era. It seems woeful to point to the historic interest that elements of the street have.  Peter Groves speaks neutrally of the development which allowed only “remnants of old residential properties to remain” and points to Codrington Mansion, on the North Side, built in about 1830 and once the home of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, who captained HMS Orion in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  The plaque can be seen above a very ordinary row of shops. A plaque which has yet to be put in place further East might reference the Wisden family’s role in building the original terraces that lead up from Western Road. John Wisden (of the yellow cricket Almanac fame) was born and lived in a house on Crown Street again in the 1830s. By the 1930s big business was making the street grand, Seventy years later the grandeur was all but gone.

A comment on the mybrightonandhove site adds:

I remember as a little girl in the 50s going to a big shop called Plummer Roddis. My grandmother used to take me there and we’d have lunch. It was very posh, but not as posh as Hills of Hove! I also remember Wades, and Vokins down North Street and Hanningtons. What a shame we dont have such good stores nowadays. shops are full of cheap rubbish! Or am I just getting old?  By Lyn Horsburgh nee Waller (of the H A Waller & Sons family) (24/03/2013)

Those who mourn the demise of Hannigtons and welcome the John Lewis promises of a development on North Street might well see Western Road as a particularly desperate case in the annals of British high street history.

Despite the success of North Laine, Jubilee Square and the revitalisation of the seafront since the mid-nineties, many visitors to Brighton see only dirt and depression. This aspect lay in the background of the Guardian’s article on the British Airways i360, as Brighton’s “lost decade.” Western Road couldn’t have been more lost. In a part of England where two bedrooms will cost half a million pounds plus, and which, via Preston Street, could well form part of a tourist walk from the new seafront development by West Pier back to the station, in this bit of town, 10% of shop windows are boarded up, 20% are pop-up or bargain retail, the rest speak to a world of perfunctory everyday and recessional shopping that are part of no tourist itinerary. Primark is a top-end shop on this strip and despite some hot-headedness with planned delivery vehicles, their development did renovate the 1920s West-facing wall and keeps the imposing look that its 1930’s forerunner BHS had planned. It’s sad that the rag-bag of dismal shops here aren’t forced to smarten up to Primark’s example.

Western Road from the i360 at full height

Western Road from the i360 – the tops of the buildings occupied by MacDonald’s and Poundland

While you are advised to look up when heading along Western Road and catch the architecture, rather than the bog-standard corporate hoardings, there is now, of course, a chance to look down on some of these same streets. Three cheers then for the British Airways i360.  Have a glance from the top of the i360 and you see some of what you can so easily miss at ground level, the fact that many of the buildings of Western Road are fascinating and lovely. Above McDonald’s and Argus is a portico that could grace a Greek temple. Beside that are the 1930s department store developments that once sought to inject grandure into Western Road and did so with some style and some longevity.

Yes, at last, following walkouts by Ghery and others, Brighton has a new construction, one designed to bring tourists to spend money, enjoy the seafront – not to mention the lofty view of the sea and countryside – and recommend the place to their hoards of culture hungry friends. Surely the city will prosper, will be famous for something other than the rough-stuff of Cuffs and Peter James – we may even find Brighton is a destination of choice for those who fly to London and seek their day out from among the provincial towns – Oxford, Windsor etc. –  or the quirky interesting features of North Laine will flourish and spread. Or is this thought too genteel and gentrified a prospect.

Brighton can surely compete if we can get our visitors to the Georgian squares at Brunswick and Palmeira and back safely to the station.  However it’s far too easy as a tourist to come down, wander down Queens Parade, West Street, Western Road and then head home wondering what’s so special about this so-called tourist town. What indeed? The lucky ones turn from the station and go through the buzz of North Laine and onto the Lanes and find refuge on the much improved seafront, but it’s easy to miss, or easy to see kiss-me-quick Brighton as the only aspect, an overspill from the 1960s cliche of the dirty weekend resort.

Poundland, Western Road, Brighton

Poundland are allowed a window display of stickers in a conservation area and on a GII listed building

Too few tourists head for the sweeping Regency Brighton of the squares. Even fewer know the sloping, winding streets that make up Clifton Montpellier conservation area. Yet the conservation area touches Western Road, and includes the streets that rise up the hill from it. Heritage protection of all the houses mean most properties need planning permission to change their front doors, must paint facades every two years and can only have bona fide wooden bow sash windows. Yet the Western Road shops seem to get away with atrocities. The council have let Poundland stick their national standard product stickers in the conservation zone on a listed building. At one stage the shop even got away with a giant exposed satellite dish on the East wall. Brand icons proliferate unchecked on tawdry scraps of industrial plastic.  A blue Greggs sign vanishes alongside a range of temporary plaques that offer homage to the low-cost, short-lifespan end of shopping, while banners for closing down sales vie against the stack-em-high sell-em-cheap fly-by-nighters and the insidious brown chipboard that covers so many windows in the area.

Boarded up shop front on Western Road, Brighton

Site of former Jamie Oliver Recipease, closed in 2014. The legacy of the failed venture is a boarded up shop front two years on.

Jamie Oliver’s Recipease moved in, did okay, did a revamp and then shipped out. It’s remained boarded up ever since, with locals looking for who’s to blame and gathering that either the council have failed to control the area or some phantom pension fund have taken the upper hand. Someone must accept responsibility for unaffordable rents, unclean frontages, unmanaged and possibly by now unmanageable degradation. Yet the users, the inhabitants and the range of visitors seem too mixed to produce any positive push on a direction for this place. The percentage of houses owned by those who do not live in central Brighton is huge with smaller properties being prime pickings for landlords and buy-to-lets. In terms of ownership central Brighton regularly tops the most-expensive-places-to-live-outside-London charts. It’s even more of a force in the charts that show the gap between average earnings and average house prices. Few people who can afford central Brighton housing actually work in Brighton – it’s a commuter hot spot, too. By the looks of Western Road even fewer people who can afford central Brighton housing actually shop in central Brighton and at some stage perhaps even this trade will stop.  Boarded out shops cater for no-one.

Yet with the new i360 promising to show us new views of the fifth elevation across Brighton and offering a draw on tourists to the South of the country, there is perhaps some hope. The opportunity is there to make Brighton’s central areas a place of delight and charm for all users, whether passing through, shopping or living. Just get it cleaned up!

When to use which and that – and not give in to the Microsoft bullying.

Bloody hell, it’s happened again.  I’ve got a perfectly sound use of which in a defining relative clause and someone’s objected to it. A while back I had ten in a draft and a German colleague went through changing them all to ‘that.’

Yawn. Here we go again: When do we use which and when do we use that?

As any standard grammar will tell us:

Non-Defining clauses MUST use a comma followed by which.   Defining clauses can use either that or which and have no comma.  

In defining clauses (ones which ‘define’ or give essential information to identify the noun they follow), the author can choose ‘which/that’ to suit the cadence or the repeating patterns in the work.

So:

  1. The garden which we walked through had been trampled by Microsoft grammarians.
  2. The garden that we walked through had been trampled by Microsoft grammarians.
  3. My own private garden, which we walked through yesterday, had been trampled by Microsoft grammarians.

These are all good sentences.

The first two are defining. The clause following that/which is necessary to define the garden we’re talking about.

The third sentence is not defining the garden as it’s already clear which garden we’re talking about.

You cannot use ‘that’ in a non-defining clause – a rule of thumb is that you cannot use it after a comma. So

  • My own private garden, that we walked through yesterday, had been trampled. 

would be wrong.

With examples 1 and 2, because we have a new subject, there’s also the choice to miss out the that/which altogether.

  • The garden we walked through had been trampled….

Here’s an example with no new subject for the clause. We can choose ‘that’ or ‘which’ but we can’t miss them out:

  • The grammar which is being changed has only been changed because of soulless corporate practices.
  • The grammar that is being changed has only been changed because of soulless corporate practices.

You can play with these. And that can be contracted to that’s, which could be preferable for a more colloquial feel. To native speakers there’s an increased formality around ‘which’, perhaps, but IT”S NOT WRONG!

Why have Microsoft become the arbitrators of English language?

Language does change and that’s wonderful and evolutionary and makes us all feel like the soup of society is running down our faces and into a gutter where it can be spooned back over our heads. Great. The change which is happening in this case though, is one that comes only with a corporate convenience and the kind of change that comes through slavery to American grammar-checks.

How many more?  Is there a project to ascertain how word-processing devices are changing language and what the driving force is for that change?  With the that/which conundrum it seems simply to be a cosier algorithm for the grammar check programmers – only allow the word ‘which’ when there’s a comma before it. Always use ‘that’ when there’s no comma.

This isn’t simply a force of American English, the ‘that’ form is arguably more firmly embedded across the US, but grammar codes are not specifically trans-Atlantic on this one – in any case American English tends to hold more aged conventions for longer, as they do with ‘whom’, which in British English can seem fussy.

This is more particularly a Microsoft thing.

Our flow of creative choice has been stifled. More worryingly we don’t recognise it. Increasingly, the word ‘which’ simply looks wrong because it’s being expunged by word processing checks. We don’t trust ourselves, we just change to the MS patterns. We grow to trust and love our built-in grammar authority. Foreign schools with non-native speakers are looking for easy rules to give their students. It’s easier to give a rule than explain a quirk or offer a choice. Easier to mark. Easier to tick the box and move on.

Time to stand up for ‘which’ if you like it.  Or sell your soul to the company which gave you Comic Sans and Calibri fonts as the default look and feel of our world of words.

 

What’s on the opening page of your novel? – A first page check list…

Check listers – the life-saving nerds

A check list. Not the most flamboyantly creative solution to a writer’s journey, but a pretty useful base camp. Masters of a craft of course have an auto-checklist – just as any experienced traveller subconsciously cycles through the daily requirements and quickly senses when something is missing.  Such is craft.

If you’re not yet on auto-pilot, though, a list can push some useful questions at you. It needs to be your own check list – you can’t engage with some other anal-retentive’s bullet-pointing habits. That’s not to say you can’t take a few looks at what others are doing – others’ lists of essentials are part of that hive-mind development to which centuries of literature are testament. But make it your own. It’s your writing it has to work with.

Against the grain – I’m not the most natural list-maker – I’m trying to evolve a check list of what to put on the first page of a novel or, what to look for on the first page of a novel – gradually it’s seemed more like a wish list – sometimes it seems like it could work for any fiction – sometimes it seems to offer just some possibilities to think back over.

First pages of novels – the welcome mat on which the hasty traveller wipes her feet

Why a first page check list? There are plenty of blog posts about not getting trapped in the minutiae of first lines and first paragraphs – and they’re right. There’s no point blowing your valuable time titivating a primary page if everything else is sliding into oblivion.

When everything’s looking good, though, when you’ve got your magnificent work in place – and it is magnificent, trust me, you can’t put years of work into  something and it not be magnificent in one way or another – at that point give the first page of the novel a last rigorous check against a robust set of known non-variables. This is, after all, the calling card, the best foot forward, the tice and tempter – this might be all anyone ever sees.

And at the backs of our minds, however much we try to ignore it, we can’t help pondering what those fiends in the publishing business will think as their gattling-gun fingers rattle our offerings from in-box to trash. That submission of yours is one of thousands they’ll be skimming and binning between the breakfast pastries and the first triple espresso. Maybe – just maybe – they may snag on something of what you’ve spent your hours on, they may feel the feelings you’re trying to express, wake up to your USP – but then, who knows if they have human feelings anyway, such is business.

Forget publishing biz.  If nothing else you can reflect on whether you’ve produced your best work and whether there’s an easy-to-open doorway into that best work, or whether you’ve accidentally laid a minefield of savage and inhospitable material and a wasteland of dullness at the entrance.

What a reader should get from the opening page of the novel

There’s plenty of advice on opening a novel – any favourites?  It’s clearly useless and irritatingly vague to simply command – Interest me!

It’s equally obvious that a rewarding first page of fiction can come in thousands of possible forms from a set of jarring words or series of punctuation marks through to something that’s actually worth reading and those novels whose first pages have gone down in literary history.  “Tom!” “It was the best of times…” “It is a truth universally…” “and the clocks were striking thirteen”. There are many ways to flay this feline.

This then is some basics that I felt I wanted or needed when I looked at a first page – a list I came up with as I culled from here and there and added my own learning from favourite first 500 word blocks, opening paragraphs and so on, particularly when venturing near unknown authors’ works.

As a reader I want to believe :

  • It is clear who or what I need to focus my attention on here

  • This prose has made me engage emotionally and/or intellectually

  • I could trust this author. They know how to write for me

  • I have a strong sense of setting through salient detail that I’m hoping will expand

  • I have a strong sense of character through salient detail that I’m hoping will expand

  • I feel my emotions shifting around what is written here

  • I admire / pity / fear / am amused by this character

  • I sense a threat and want to know what the character’s response will be

  • I sense conflict and want to follow the counter response

  • I’m predicting the immediate next step for this character in terms of a clear problem or opportunity

  • I would want to know what happens to this character longer term

  • I would be sorry not to find out what this page leads to.

This seems to get a little bit further than just hopeful ‘give it your best shot’ advice. It speaks to mechanics and fundamentals rather than prescribing a type or style or formula. It allows for all but the most ‘experimental’ of openings, and might even give the experimenter some consciousness of what aspects they’re experimenting with. What it doesn’t give is the ‘how’ and that’s where personal inspiration and industry can be allowed near the list.

That’s my current list. It might change next week. Good luck with your own.

Is my scene a scene? Writers’ ‘idle drift’ and the amateur novel…

I’ve been taking the scenic route again. One thing I’ve found more helpful than it ought to be is to accept that ‘scenes’ can be meaningful in the novel as well as the play and screenplay – whatever ‘scene’ is and we’ll come to that in a moment.

It’s a fact of my own practice, though, that once I’d accepted the idea of scene and how it can focus a passage of writing, I realised there was a strong chance that any slackness in the dramatic thrust of the work can quickly be put down to a poor scene.

There are a lot of poor scenes in first draft novels. Bad scenes – non scenes – flat scenes… One reason for this is to do with the old chestnut that has preoccupied me throughout this blog. Novelists don’t like the trappings of the screenplay trade. Novelists like ‘voice’ they like ‘word’ they like character. Novelists like psychological tension and complex internalised brooding. They like slow pace and the see-saw between showing and telling. They hate ‘scenes’. They hate all that associated scenic scaffolding that underpins success for the mass-audience screen industries.

Yet it is ‘scenes’, in a very theatrical sense, that make up many of the most memorable chunks of favourite novels. Scenes are a dramatic unit, of course, and a scene shouldn’t be confused with a setting, To my own lists for regular examination I’ve recently added Sergeant Troy’s sabre wielding and Eustacia Vye’s twilight bantering from Hardy, Austen’s Mansfield Park theatricals, her P&P dance, Jeanette Winterson’s school scene with Sister Virtue in OANTOF, Hornby’s Quiz questioning in Fever Pitch, the Cricket matches in Fry’s The Liar or LP Hartley’s Go Between and certainly anything by converted screen writers like David Nicholls.

Even if you reject the practice, it’s important to recognise what a scene is and to make the most of one as it begins to suggest its place in your novel.

But what is a ‘scene’?

The best definitions of scenes, like it or not, come from playwrights. Scene is something that imposes itself much more readily on structure in theatre and film – it chimes with the audience’s consciousness of place and time, a contained unit of physical activity. A scene is more clearly a something when we talk theatre, and cinema is a short step away.

Historically, however, the English novel is rooted in epistolary practices rather than the stage drama, and this leads to obvious differences in approach. Technique at the arty end of prose writing tends to eschew scenic structure in favour of tensions between word groups and spidering psycho-dynamic evolution. I even reckon some scenes in novels only seem like scenes after they’ve had a film or play treatment – as we can see from films like Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses.

Yet it’s useful to reflect on what a consciousness of scene can do. Thinking in scenes brings a focus on contained environment, characters meeting for dramatic reasons, dialogue and action that has progress, dynamism and a shift in tensions. For the dramatist who has to haul their players into a space – real or imaginary – for a finite timeframe, the drama is driven by the act of creating scenic unity, the containment and the resultant tension. It is the scene that proves the dramatist’s best method for building dramatic tension.

This is not always how chapters or paragraphs are driven, and sometimes, perhaps, they should be – for their own good.

Scene shifting and the writer’s idle drift

Scenes – and its important that this means a unit of drama rather than a block of prose – attract attention and live long in the memory. They can be any length – any percentage of a chapter. Yet as novelists we can end up with scenes that fail to work in the way that dramatic scenes should. Sometimes this can be because the writer is not aware that they have a scene or because they are purposefully rejecting the notion of scenes.

Often a scene has emerged not through conscious, artful dramatic building but instead has crept up on us unawares. It’s common to find a scene has developed and been quickly killed flat through what I think of as my “writers’ idle drift’. They appear something like this – writer knows that there are ten pages needed before the crucial pivot action is delivered, ten pages of time need to pass in order to have too sudden a leap since the last main action. So what to do? Needs some build up, bit of tease, bit of foreshadowing? Or maybe now’s the time to make sure everyone’s fully aware of the troubled childhood of the character; or the grand philosophy of life from the point of view of the antagonist…. Or, while we’re wondering, look,  there’s a handy table for the characters to sit at, great, and they need some descriptive dressing of the  shadowy bar and there’s some menacing extras at a distant table and… they can talk…. and I’ve got some beef to get off my chest so one of them says that and then they keep talking… about…

It’s a horrible but common trap – a ‘scene’ becomes a place to bring characters rather than a unit of drama. This is especially true if our characters start gaining a life of their own. If we’re not careful they begin not to understand their place as fictions but instead become friends and enemies, lovers or dopplegangers. Soon, instead of functioning within a framework of drama, the characters are suddenly having quiet cups of coffee together, sharing a silence over a pint, yarning about their troubled weekends, playing unnecessary sports. Characters are soon running the show, having a gossip while you wonder what they’ll be up to later. They’re not part of a dramatic scene, they’re just there and you’re building the atmosphere around them and just hoping it’s a scene.

It’s essential to check first drafts for failed scenes, non-scenes, accidental scenes. To get myself to focus on these I put together a quick check list. This practice probably isn’t for everyone, but it’s a handy class exercise for you to invent your own system of ladders to get out of holes. Here’s what I ended up with as a first go:

Checklist for dramatic scenes

  • A charged environment. Some environments are naturally ‘charged’ and it’s important that they’re charged with expectation and potential rather than just noise or lights or gloom. Weather alone does not a charged atmos make. What’s charged about the environment here and how can that develop through the scene?
  • Conflict. The usual first request of any scenic endeavour. Opinion on this is often extreme and says “no scene without conflict”. It’s certainly difficult to make sympathetic, patient explanations work for you in terms of gaining interest from a reader who could put the book down at any second. What dynamic is there that pits one will against another. In other words what does one character want and how is that want being prevented. Is there any conflict in the scene? If it’s not open conflict is there a sense of tense expectation and an aim to achieve.
  • Unanswered questions. A staple from basic literary theory. What question is being asked at any given point and how long are we likely to wait for the answer? We could be waiting for explanation, or detail or the why and what that will fill out the theme.
  • Unresolved action. The other staple. If you’re trotting out a sluggish scene, is there something before it that we should be waiting for? Something as simple as a hovering fist or a lover doubting the next kiss can be enough to lift the flagging dialogue.
  • Change. Meaningful change, that’s another thing that everyone feels should be part of the whole work but often fails to be built into the individual scenes. Have a go. What change has taken place over the two or three pages you’re dealing with. Growth, realisation, disillusion. If it’s a scenic scene then how does this change, what steps what patterns of focus – how is this made meaningful? What swings have you established between high moods and low moods, positive values and negative ones, seeming success and seeming failure.
  • Beats/Steps. A movement towards a known goal.  A movement away from that goal. A shift of power from one character to another. A change from low to high mood, pessimism to optimism. A shift of pace in terms of change. – these all count towards a beat planning – beats make scenes – and again it might seem a bit screenplay and rigid but its amazing how much more effective a passage can be if it’s scenically viable in these terms.

Is my scene a scene?

One to answer for yourself and evolve what a scene usefully is for your practice. Basically, though, does your scene contribute to an ever strengthening set of reasons to keep reading?  It’s  worth asking yourself the question at any point – could I put this book down? What’s making me want the next parcel of information? What’s up in the air? When will the secrets be revealed? Will it go in that direction or the other? What if these people don’t move on?  Of course if you over-dramatise these elements then the cliffhanger effect can skew your attempts at subtlety, but at  every dramatic unit – scene –  think what is shifting ground, moving, threatening to change.

 

 

Literary agents and coping with rejection

The kindest rejection letter I ever got was from a literary agent in the US. He gave me a few pretty solid reasons why he thought the MS wasn’t going to suit his lists and why he had doubts on its saleability. Then he concluded with “now go and prove me wrong.”

How kind – how un-agent like. It was many years ago and still sticks in my mind as the latest, po-faced rejections come slithering in. Not that they slither onto doormats anymore, of course. A ping of email delivery and it’s over, another dream for the trash.  A hobby so lonely even Robinson Crusoe wished he could give it up just got lonelier.

If nothing else the latest round of rejections had me reflecting on coping mechanisms and what attitudes my thicker skinned, older self had developed that were unavailable during those early years.

It’s not as painful, but it’s still not pleasant. Exactly how it feels to a first time amateur is always hard to explain to non-writers. It’s also hard to explain to professionals, Professional journalists, broadcast and film writers – along with fellow professionals from acting to architecture – live on a diet of rejection and have their own numbness its sting – they also have a professional plan. These plans involve pitching ideas before committing, repitching an idea to suit a market, testing the market for new ideas, reusing project material for the next pitch and then pitching a lot.

It’s a bit different for the hobbyist who’s looking for a step towards publication. Especially for a novelist, for whom the markets are rarely a set of professionally orientated pitch and sell cycles. More common for the amateur is to spend years of dedication on a project that has personal meaning and commitment. The desire to publish is more to do with affirmation of deep emotional factors. It craves a reward that is very different from the professional pitch-monkey’s rolling band-wagon.

For plenty of would-be authors, the literary agents’ rejection of your manuscript isn’t the same easy agony as, say, a casual “get lost” from someone lovely you’ve asked on a date. For those of a certain mentality it’s more like someone has scorned your new born child, has made an insouciant and abiding decision that  the babe needs to die to save the world from its pernicious lack of promise. Yes there’s a strong tendency to make metaphors of parental loss. “Of all stillborn books the stillest” said Mr Swinburne of his first book – and he was right, a massive, massive flop, now unread and largely unreadable and worth a few thousand if you ever find a copy.

It especially hurts your pride of course, because the years of writing have brought with them a relationship with the work that is a deep form of love. It also tears away your dreams of what the future might hold. It’s wretched if you’re on your second or third effort and have improved hugely as to the craft. You think you’ve ticked all the boxes this time, fine-tuned like crazy, plotted to perfection and market-researched your characters’ likeabilty – generally upped your game to make your offerings better than lots that are already roosting in the bookshops. You’ve been nurturing a fledgling hope despite your fear of its growth. You’ve told yourself for days that super agent x wouldn’t possibly want your book, they’re too… but what if they did?  What if this was the magic boost that transformed you from unpublished to published author and thus miraculously turned your sad and sorry hobby into something you could actually be proud of?

Literary agents – the grim gatekeepers?

Of course the promised-land of publication is easily over-wrought by hope and imagination. For one thing we know (or at least know of) plenty of authorial experiences that are not as magically transportive as might have been hoped. There are hundreds of thousands of published authors. You’ve hardly heard of any of them. Hardly any of them are full time. Many are stressing over where their difficult second book is going to come from. Many of them are hawking their own books round provincial shops. We also know just how many books are out there – count them at Waterstones and the city library. So many books. An ocean of independently sprinkled drops. Surely they can’t all be so skillfully crafted and divinely inspired that they cannot be replicated by mortals. So maybe the success of publication is not about gift or skill or divine inspiration. And when you send to an agent or publisher, as satisfying as the rite-of-passage will no doubt be, it’s certainly not a golden ticket out of a hum-drum existence as a hobbyist.

It’s interesting that most hobby writers still long for traditional publication. There’s something about the confirmation and the sense of belonging that remains important to the writing mind. Despite the known ocean of books, when we get to add our droplet it’ll be because we were better rather than just luckier than the rest. Is this because we have a strangely awed impression of what a literary agent is or does? Or is it something about the hallowed nature of the book itself? Somehow a low-selling book that is stocked at Smiths and can be signed on the flyleaf  seems, for many, preferable to a better-selling, self-published e-tome.

For all the leaps towards democracy enjoyed by the digital practitioners, podcasters and YouTubers, the traditional prose fiction writer still craves affirmation in traditional ways and from a set of people that are almost mystically distant from our current base of associates. Like a toddler pleading for parental praise, we look to agents, publishers and strangers-who-like-books in order to get their blessing and feel approved. In this way it’s most unlike gardening, cooking, DIY and a number of other creative hobbies we could be doing instead.

Coping with rejection

It may be that literature needs agents the way pocket watches need Salvador Dali. However, for those that feel the craving for traditional acceptance we allow ourselves to feel as though someone mean and malicious and unreasonably powerful has strung us up despite our pleading and struggling.  My latest was a standard rejection, too, which for the hanged man seems like an extra bit of gleeful drawing and quartering and a voiding of rheum upon the pendulous body.

Why do we imply it feels so much like death and loss?  I had a book as a child that had an author father as a character and the MSS that came back through the door were described as “the bodies” – “I’ve removed the bodies”, says the father. That stayed with me. I think the novel was ‘Cross Country Pony’ by Patricia Leitch (fantastic read as I recall and well off the beaten track today – worth getting from ABE books if you have animal-loving children – and maybe a demonstration of how books float forever in minds and second hand bookshops and why as writers we want to gift our works to a traditional system…)

So, loss, sadness, vile bodies and fear in a handful of dust etc etc etc. Well, if it is grieving, then according to the Kubler Ross model you get five stages to go through – denial, anger, bargaining, depression before finally reaching acceptance. Accept what though? Accept that it’s rubbish and don’t bother?  Accept the monstrous difficulty of the task and keep going? Maybe accept that it’s really not a loss at all.

Let’s run with this one. What have you lost:  a magic carpet to sudden success – a self-pride you’ve always struggled to muster – five years of your life and sanity – your only child? Er – no, not really. Maybe it’s not loss at all. Taking something from the professionals, perhaps it’s a gain. A gain in experience, a pleasant well, maybe at the end of the more important journey of the artistic, creative practitioner.

However much of a knock back it feels not to have got your literary dream this day in this way, it was really only a passing attempt in a task that has so much more to it. It takes a bit of self-persuasion, but the step forward I know I need for myself is to stop seeing today’s email to super agent x as the final conflict and climax to my life-story as a writer. This isn’t a resolution to a complex tale in which I failed to triumph. It’s just a smile to a stranger in the street who may not have smiled back, but so what, I’m still walking onward.

There are a stack of coping mechanisms all of them have been useful to someone. There’s the sour grapes about the worthlessness of agents. There’s the claims of misunderstanding – they didn’t  get it, they didn’t even read it, “the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”… and so on. If you’re still young enough to do it you can always stick up and stare at the old Samuel Beckett favourite from Worstward Ho (1982) …”All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  (Although some Godot fans might prefer “Let’s hang ourselves immediately.”) There’s the beefier end of coping if you’re inspired by Beatrice Dalle in 37° 2 le matin (Betty Blue) – stick a pencil into the offending agent’s head through the eyeball.

We can be glibber than that, surely. We can be bolder. We can be more realistic.

To share my own coping mechanism here, I’ve made two lists. One is the way agents can appear when you’re investing emotionally and you’re daring to hope.  One is a bit more sensible to the realities.

Is this list-making practice part of the grieving process – is it anger, or bargaining? Or is it perhaps perhaps just acceptance of a landscape that is rich in unpredictability, ignorance and unreplicable lucky breaks:

Ways to see literary agents

1 – the agent is an omnipotent god

  • I believe that an agent’s aim is a concrete judgement of the literary quality of my work
  • I believe an agent makes empirical, evidenced and unchallengeable decisions as to the merits of my work.
  • I believe that an agent is a gifted and brilliant literary critic of impeccable taste
  • I believe that an agent has read and re-read my work, got to grips with its nuances and subtleties and has now realised the text was worthless
  • I believe that agents are world-leading business entrepreneurs whose every decision is strategically miraculous
  • I believe that agents have scientifically ascertained which books succeed and can replicate a best-selling formula with whatever works they choose
  • I believe that an agent sneered and joked with colleagues at the temerity of me sending to their sanctified agency
  • I believe that this agent represents the likely point of view of all agents, who all share a taste and judgement
  • I believe these people are agents of a Salieri-style god, sent to torment me in my mediocrity

Or, 2 – the agent is a human business person

  • I know the agent is making one decision only –  will this text be worth them backing as a business proposition.
  • I know the agent has to make quick decisions and will only pay close attention to one or two proposals that leap out for them personally as business ventures
  • I know that agents need a “same but different” guarantee to work on and will only invest their time in something that has this slight stretch on a current and known market
  • I know that agents reject thousands of scripts that are perfectly readable and enjoyable but would just take too much effort to push from an unknown
  • I know that agents are readers that have likes and favourites and are influenced by their ordinary, readerly tastes
  • I know that unknown authors are hard, hard work to get into a reading public that’s content with the status quo
  • I know that agents take on works that don’t get published or which don’t get readers – their decisions are not perfect and their failures are not subject to much scrutiny
  • I know that all agents have passed on works that later gained success elsewhere  – their decisions are not perfect and their failures are not subject to much scrutiny

Add your own points – or make a new list “the agent is a….”

For me it’s back to some sending. At least these days it’s cheaply done by email. Agencies, like critics, have a certain place in the scheme of things that can seem daunting and are a momentary nucleus of power over your destiny. There’s no hotel booking style website for us to rate our experience with agents. They won’t get dissed online if they fail to be friendly or polite or just or fair – and we don’t get stats on who’s accepted or passed on the next biggie.

If it suits you, go back to the most favourite literary coping mechanism of them all, a list of the now treasured works whose authors had to self-publish or self-fund or who were surprise successes, originally pushed into minor rivulets of the literary rio grande. From the Brontes to Captain Corelli to Harry Potter to Lolita and Lord of the Flies we’re afloat on a set of random decisions that we’re just hoping will go our way.