Monday, 3 February 2014

Nick Green: Publish and be dimmed

Me under the floorboards
There’s a typescript of a novel under the floorboards of my house. Some months after we moved into the place, we mustered the willpower to rip out the hideous brown carpet downstairs and put down laminate flooring, as befits every stiflingly middle-class existence. When I say ‘rip out’ I mean of course ‘pick up the phone and call the flooring people’, and when I say ‘put down’ I mean put down the phone. But I was very much in the house. I saw it happen.

Because I was there, on the front line so to speak, I was able to see the ‘real’ floor of the living room when the carpet came up. Almost in the threshold of the living room (this is important, treasure-seekers) were a few loose boards. I defy anyone confronted with a few loose floorboards not to prise them up and peer down into the void. (Aside: I’ve also noticed that, whenever you strip wallpaper from a wall, there is always writing underneath, graffiti, drawings, bizarre demonic messages, etc. Always.)

Under my living room floor was a dark, cool space above a bed of gravel and assorted detritus, left presumably by the builders of the house, many moons ago. It was dry and airy under there, and it occurred to me that something sealed in that space might survive unchanged for many more moons to come.

But this one is quite good.
Upstairs I had a complete typescript of my first ever children’s novel. (This wasn’t The Cat Kin – that was just my first published novel. This story was called The Century Spies and – by coincidence – it was a story about children finding a long-buried time capsule containing letters from the past. I think you can see where this is heading by now.) For two years I had been trying and failing to get agents and publishers interested in this magnum opus. Some liked it, but all agreed it was ‘missing something’. No-one could quite tell me what. So I had the tatty typescript still kicking around the house like a teenager who refuses to acknowledge that he’s now of working age.

There I stood, staring into this hole in the floor beneath my house. I fetched the typescript from upstairs, wrapped it in plastic bags and slipped it down into that hidden space. A few hours later, the laminate floor had been laid, leaving no sign that anything might be hidden beneath.

I like to think that one day, in the far future, maybe not till the house itself is demolished, someone (or some hyper-evolved woodlouse) may come across that wrapped package, and they will open it, and they will discover the last surviving copy of ‘The Century Spies’. And they will find out what a bad writer I was.

Because all those agents and publishers? They were right. Every single rejection letter they sent me was justified. The story sucked. Individual passages might have seemed well-written, but taken together they didn’t amount to a hill of partially digested beans. Because it wasn’t a book. It was practice.

Now I breathe a sigh of relief that e-publishing wasn’t around in those days. If it had been, then ‘The Century Spies’ would be out there now. As would, no doubt, my previous ‘novels’ (oh! Didn’t I mention those? They were sword-and-sorcery. ‘The Century Spies’ was Tolstoy compared to those). All my excruciating juvenilia would be loose in the world, to haunt me for ever more.

And this one is a bit better

‘It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt,’ said Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln (except that it was probably neither of them – they took it so literally that they didn’t even say it). And sometimes, it’s better to remain unpublished than to push your work out there before you’re match-fit. When you publish a book, you’re effectively saying, ‘This is the best I can do.’ And then you go on to believe that.

But it cuts both ways, too. When an editor rejects your book, they aren’t necessarily saying, ‘You aren’t good enough.’ They might be saying, ‘I believe you can do so much better than this.’

And I did.


catdownunder said...

Love that idea!

Jan Needle said...

Great stuff, Nick, thanks. The other thing you always (used to?) find in obscure places, like under floors and behind wallpaper, was the legend MUFC. I've found it as far afield as scratched on the back of a litter bin on an atrocious 'main road' in the old Yugoslavia, and inside a concrete pillbox on the desolate wilds of the Connemara coast which looked as if I was the first person to find and enter it since god knows what war. Not being a United fan, but being fascinated by such phenomena, I took to carving it myself, young vandal that I was. I managed it once (not distastefully obviously) in a picture postcard townette on the Swedish lakes, called Mariafred (which translates as Pax Maria or the peace of Mary, depending on your language of choice. It's not the name of a gender confused child). I wonder how many pictures of the mighty Ferguson will emerge from the lost-hope darkness of underground rooms over the next millennia?

Bill Kirton said...

Wise (and very entertaining) advice, Nick. The thought hadn't occurred to me before but, having recently uncovered some old stories and 'poetry' which I'd forgotten about, I too am glad that I wasn't ever in a position to embarrass myself by letting anyone else see them.

Lydia Bennet said...

an interesting slant on the ebook debate, Nick. does this mean some of the anti- brigade are right about a flood of dreck pouring into amazon like some polluted tributary? some from bad writers who are deluded and some from good writers who are deluded that they've evolved enough for publication when they haven't... how many of us have enough detachment to acknowledge some early work is duff? or maybe it is a lost masterpiece denied to the world by genre-category obsessed publishers. hmm, much food for thought.

Dennis Hamley said...

My first novel (published) was crap.

madwippitt said...

That's you under the floorboards? Are you a Borrower? Or just very, very big spaces under the floorboards?

Kathleen Jones said...

Some friends bought a house in need of renovation. STripping the wallpaper in the kitchen they found lots of graffiti (it had once been a squat) including the words 'Mrs S died on the toilet', which they didn't think much about until they uncovered a papered over cupboard which had lots of junk inside including a crematorium urn full of ashes. Gave them a funny turn and they've never felt the same about the house!

Lee said...

Embarrassing myself is what I do best. So don't knock it!