Darn – Happy Family‘s book launch can’t happen on April 25th. But it’s not cancelled, just deferred. We’re moving it to when we can all gather and mingle in safety. Details to follow.
A consequence of the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown is that I’m staring at my phone more. I know it’s wrong but I can’t stop swiping. And I’ve come across a Facebook group dedicated to my school’s alumni. There they all are, my classmates, the good, the bad and the extremely naughty, all grown-up. It’s meant to be a forum for all ex-pupils, but the posts are dominated by my cohort. It must be the fact we have more past than future that’s exciting my classmates. I put it down to nervous chatter.
Swiping through the discussions I find their ‘voices’ sound the same today as they did all those years ago. This shouldn’t surprise me but it does. They don’t seem to have changed at all – although the Facebook photographs suggest otherwise. We look like our parents and some of us look like our grandparents. Especially me. Gravity takes its toll and the weight of years has led to bad knees and bald heads – or is that just me again?
Not everyone in my year has joined the group and most of those who have, dip in and out. I wonder how many there are like me, who watch silently from the sidelines. I suspect I haven’t declared myself for the same reason we lost contact in the first place: the bonds weren’t sufficient. As in all things, natural selection knows best. Interestingly, those with whom I have kept in touch haven’t appeared in the group either. I’m not sure what that says but I think it says something. Perhaps we all died and no-one told us.
There are, however, a few who post comments all the time, and I’m ashamed to say this raises uncharitable thoughts. Is it because they prefer who they were to who they now are? Or is it vice-versa – a chance to rewrite history by replacing one personality with another? Time, the great leveler. Be nice now and people might forget what an awful shit you once were. The irony is that those who keep feeding the discussions of school memories, were, at the time, the keenest to leave school.
Certainly, friends I remember being pushed to the fringes of playground society are now in cheerful discourse with those who pushed them there. That’s good, but I wonder how long this social re-balancing will last. Once a Piggy always a Piggy, as Ralph and Jack might write on their post-apocalyptic Island Friends’ page.
Talking of Piggy, I was hoping to find some posts about me but disappointingly my name seldom crops up. I am so absent I had to check I actually went to that school. It seems I left little or no impression on anybody which is odd because I have a clear recollection of being popular. Too bad that’s a memory nobody else shares. Not even my friends.
However, other, darker, memories are posted. Complaints of casual racism, chronic bullying and punitive abuse by teachers. But just as casually, any attempt to discuss these traumas are closed down with comments such as ‘that was then and this is now’ and ‘it’s best to move on.’ Best for whom, one wonders? And move on to what? It’s clear the idyll is not to be broken. This is a happy website for happy memories. Even so, I am reminded that it is dangerous to be different. That is true now and it certainly was then.
And so the posts return to safer ground. We are challenged with questions such as ‘who was your favourite teacher’ and ‘what music did you dance to’. I liked to head-bang to Lyrnyrd Skyrnd but that’s not something I’d want to share with the group. Or should. We all have our murky secrets. But frankly, there are only so many posts I can read on the subject of ‘who remembers Miss Finaghty’ before time spent in this way becomes disappointingly repetitive.
I have a platonic relationship with the past. I don’t want to forget it but I also don’t want to relive it. I would jump at the chance to be sixteen again (knees permitting), but only if I could take my current mind with me. I suppose like most people I am secretly trying to walk up the down escalator.
Being social media migrants means we should be careful about getting too carried away in an online world. We might forget this jaunt down memory lane is in reality a public and open forum. Feelings can be hurt, confidences broken, libel laws breached. Worse still, we might encourage each other to wear cheesecloth again.
One day we will all know everything about everyone. There will be no secrets and the past will sit side-by-side with the present. Only the future will remain unknown and unknowable, as COVID-19 has demonstrated. But that’s how it should be. ‘That was then and this is now’ is indisputably true, but it’s tomorrow that interests me. Especially as I still hope to be in it.
From: James Ellis
To: <Customer Care>
Subject: Re: Complaint – unused deposit taken [ref:_99DFT6200_gtDDS529:ref]
Date: 10 Mar 2020, at 08:27
Dear <Customer Care> – a few comments on your response to my complaint. From one writer to another.
From: <Customer Care>
To: James Ellis
Subject: Re: Complaint – unused deposit taken [ref:_99DFT6200_gtDDS529:ref]
On 9 Mar 2020, at 15:03, <Customer Care> wrote:
Hello James Ellis !
JE – An exclamation mark! Did you just leap out from somewhere? It does make it look as if my name has been automatically inserted, though. And seriously, neither of us are that excited. Go for a comma, or a full stop (period). Or even (heaven help us) a semicolon. Anything but an !
Thank you for contacting <Customer Care>.
JE – Well, that’s okay. But I would have preferred not to have had to. This is where you need to insert your apology.
The inconveniences you experienced are not acceptable to our standards.
JE – Nor mine. This is going really well. But it would have been better if you actually referred to my complaint here. Can you automate that in some way?
I want you to know that the comments and suggestions we receive are taken seriously.
JE – And I want you to know I expect nothing less. But strictly speaking, it’s neither a comment nor a suggestion. It’s a complaint because you have taken my money unnecessarily. And, in my opinion, the ‘I want you to know’ is too intense.
They tell us what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong and how we can improve.
JE – Yes, but it’s not all about you. It should also tell you I am dissatisfied. See above comment. This is now revealing itself as a generic response and the initial goodwill I had is receding. No mention of my specific complaint yet.
Your willingness to share your recent experience is genuinely appreciated.
JE – If you’re trying to mollify me, it’s coming across as me being patronised.
Please accept my sincere apologies.
JE – Hey, there it is. But it’s buried. This should be at the top of the email.
Be assured that any and all of the issues you’ve raised will be addressed, and that appropriate action will be taken. I have opened a Customer Service file, to document your comments, which will be reviewed by the department in charge to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.
JE – Great. This is what we want – some action. Please can I see your Customer Service File after it’s been reviewed so I can see how you will ensure this doesn’t happen again. That is, taking my money unnecessarily and the 5-10 working days to repay it. If I can’t see it, then you need to rethink the purpose of this paragraph. And I’d be careful using the word ‘ensure’. Someone might hold you to that.
If you should need any further assistance, please feel free to reach out to us again by replying to this email.
JE – See comments above. Hope they are of some help.
I have an idea, elusive and shadowy, but definitely there. The shape of something. The right something. It needs to be pushed and prodded (gently), given substance by being handled. Coaxed into the light so I can see it more clearly. A story. A novel. A something…
I am not a plotter. At least, not yet. Let the characters talk. Get a flavour of their voices; the tone of their behaviour. For now leave the ‘plot’ up to them – the sequence of events and the order in which those events unfold.
The crafting and honing and structuring and arcing and three-act-versus-fiveing, and the sanding and polishing and waxing and editing and proofreading and welding and cutting and turning and trimming and changing and sewing and betareading and previewing and wrapping-up-and-tying-in-a-bowing and serving-up-on-a-dish-for-your-delectationing, all can wait.
The things I want to write down, to capture wholly, comprehensively, exhaustively and to my satisfaction, are caught up in that twisting tumbling shape. They are the shape. They are to do with being and not being; the little things and the big things; things I’ve seen and known and things I wish I had; moments and continuums.
As part of its pre-launch marketing process, Unbound have arranged for Happy Family to be serialised on The Pigeonhole. This is a great way to get reviews and build a buzz before its publication early next year. You can check it out and get early sight of the text here: https://thepigeonhole.com/books/happy-family. If you do, please a leave a review.
This is both exciting and daunting because even though it’s pre-publication, it’s now ‘out there’.
So, where are we in the overall publication process? Well, all of the editing and final proofreading is complete which is why The Pigeonhole can use the text. In the next two or three weeks I will see the roughs of the cover design – I can’t wait for that – and shortly before Christmas, pre-publication digital versions will be sent to formal reviewers to get cover quotes – perhaps some of The Pigeonhole reviews will be used too.
After that, around February, it’s the full launch of the actual book and distribution to bookshops. Hooray!
After much discussion the working title of my second novel, An Other’s Look, has been changed to Happy Family.
I love this title because it works at so many different levels. The book is scheduled for release in early 2020 and it has now been through two rounds of developmental editing, a full line (copy) edit, and a full proofread. And some very nice things have been said about the book along the way – here are a few examples:
‘The novel feels extremely fresh and contemporary … One of the clever things about the novel is that it shows how rather than bringing families together in the same way that board games such as Monopoly, Battleship, Cluedo etc used to, AR games can be used to drive families apart and further isolate the individual from society.’
‘As a comment on the way modern day game development could affect the whole idea of the happy family, and its invasive potential repercussions for vulnerable players, it is a sobering piece of work.’
‘Its imagined snapshot of the huge part AR may have to play in the future, and the hefty price tag consumer expectation versus reality may come with … is both fascinating and terrifying in equal measures. A particularly effective scene showing the disconnect between reality and the imagined world is both perfectly imagined and genuinely frightening.’
‘Could you please tell the author that I really enjoyed this book … I could even picture the characters… and who should play them in the film!’
I can’t wait to see the cover design.
As the old joke goes: ‘There are three rules to writing novels. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.’ I like that. Recently, I was a guest speaker at a writers’ workshop and I was asked what rules I follow. I paraphrased Elmore Leonard and said never start with the weather. It wasn’t a satisfactory answer.
The same questioner then asked me if I could recommend a good book that taught fiction writing. I quoted the old saw: ‘You can’t teach someone to be a good writer but they can learn.’ Again I sensed my reply had gone down badly. Specifics were needed. Well then, my questioner demanded, what have you learned?
I looked around. What had I learned? “Don’t force it,” I said.
“Don’t force it – if it’s not working, move on. And be thoughtful. Write thoughtfully. And don’t butt in when your characters are talking. Keep out of it and let them get on with it. And trust your readers. They’ll get it, they really will. Read it out loud all the time and when you’ve written it, whatever it is, put it away and let it brew. And most importantly, be you. Don’t be any other writer. Write like you write.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Any other questions?” I said. Fortunately, there weren’t.