Forget Me Not
February to July 2006
Here’s what I wrote in submission letters to agents and publishers at the time...
Forget Me Not takes place in a world a little way removed from our own but still very recognisably originating in modern Britain as we know it. It tells the story of a regime where the ruling classes have decided that those who do the dull, ordinary, menial tasks of the world would be far better off and happier with life if they were not bothered with such soul-destroying handicaps as love, ambition, hopes and dreams. To this end they have conditioned the majority of the populace to forget all the personal details of their lives – they wake up each morning with their memories wiped clean, a blank slate with only the basic knowledge needed to perform their allocated jobs being maintained. Then, one day, a young woman who is a part of this class – labelled ‘the Saved’, as the ruling elite believes they have been salvaged from a life of depressed drudgery – begins to remember the details of her life from day to day, and the novel follows her story from her first remembrance to her tragic conclusion.
It was a day just like any other day.
She opened her eyes and looked up at the plain grey ceiling. Instinctively, she knew it was time to get up, but she did not want it to be. She wanted to remain where she was, warm and safe under the white bed sheets. One quick glance to her right, at the chronometer mounted next to the window, told her that this was impossible. Seven o’clock. Time to get up.
Why she had to get up at this time she did not know. She was though aware that there would be terrible, dreadful consequences if she did not. So with a last, savouring moment’s snugness and warmth under the covers, she braced herself, flung them aside and exposed her naked and trembling form to the harsh realities of the cold morning.
The cold and the dawning realisation of a day at work ahead gave her the urge to throw herself back into bed at once, but her instinct to save herself from harm was stronger, and groggily she stood. Aside from the bed, the only other furniture in the small, square room was a plain brown wardrobe. Just along from the wardrobe, in the far corner, a doorway with no door led to whatever lay beyond. She had a hazy, vague impression of what that might be, but no concrete images came to mind.
I don’t recall specifically what prompted the idea of Forget Me Not, other than the idea for the basis of the story coming randomly into my head at some point, and deciding it would be an interesting idea to pursue. I wouldn’t say I am a particular fan of dystopias as a literary genre, but being a great fan of George Orwell I was, of course, already very familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I think that not long before I wrote Forget Me Not I had read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, so that would undoubtedly have been an influence. The lead character in Forget Me Not is called April, a very definite nod to Nineteen Eighty-Four (which takes place in that month, and I had a theory at the time that the month crops up more often than others in Orwell’s work).
I actually started writing Forget Me Not before I had even finished Lone Britannia, which probably shows you how much faith I had in how that other novel was going. Throughout 2006, I was employed in a very dull job at Norfolk County Council, as an administration assistant (i.e. a paper pusher) in the adult social services department. Part of my role involved spending hours at a time working in a windowless room in the centre of the sixth floor which was, effectively, a large stationery cupboard. This dull work gave me a lot of time to think, and as I was usually on my own, I must confess that I took to writing out sections of Forget Me Not in longhand.
After I’d finished Lone Britannia in the spring, I began typing up and fleshing out Forget Me Not, and the writing continued into the summer, battling against a laptop which was on its last legs and needed to be turned over and repeatedly whacked on the bottom to get it to boot up. It also had a propensity to freeze while writing, making almost constant control-Ses between sentences an absolute necessity!
It’s a short novel, which almost invariably means better when it comes to my work – tighter and more focused. It has a definite beginning, middle and end, and the protagonist, April, undergoes one of the better examples of character development I’d come up with to this point. I think it’s a nice central idea, too, and in better or more experienced hands something might have resulted from it.
Once again, though – and thankfully, I think, for the final time in my novel-writing efforts to date – it suffered from my impatience with the process. I still had a naive belief that the first draft was pretty much it, and hadn’t yet learned to take notice of all the very clever and successful writers who said in interviews and articles that the rewriting and redrafting was the important part of the process. I regarded a first draft as the best I could do – foolishly, given how much you can improve a piece of writing with hard work and care.
It actually turned out to be the last novel I would write for three years. I did start some projects in 2007 and 2008, and got tens of thousands of words into a couple of them, but everything eventually ground to a halt, novel-wise. This was partly due to apathy on my part; partly due to developments in my personal life; but mainly I think because I suddenly had something very new and exciting happening in my life. In the summer of 2006 I began getting one day a week of voluntary phone-answering work at BBC Radio Norfolk. This gradually developed into regular part-time and fill-in paid work in 2007, and a full-time job there in the spring of 2008. As I climbed my way into the spectacular good luck of a job at the BBC, writing took a bit of a back seat.
It’s wrong to ever let your work get in the way of your passion, and I would always throughout this period have said that writing was the most important thing to me, if anyone had asked. But on the other hand, escaping from Norfolk County Council was pretty important, too – it was a morale-sapping place to be.
Forget Me Not was the first ever novel of mine to have had its full manuscript read by an agent, so that was progress of a sort. I’d submitted it first to Laura Morris, the agent who’d entered into correspondence with me over 1963. It took her a few months to reply, and when she did get back to me it was a personal, kind and entirely reasonable “no thank you”.
In late 2006 and early 2007 I sent it to another 38 agents and publishers – as with 1963, I actually kept a spreadsheet tracking them all! One of these was the agency Gillon Aitken Associates Ltd. A lady called Billie Hope wrote me an e-mail that contained one of the most exciting lines of prose I have ever seen – I still get a little burst of adrenaline now looking back at it:
“I read with interest your letter of introduction dated the 5th of January and would very much like to see the manuscript of ‘Forget Me Not’.”
She didn’t even ask for sample chapters – the whole manuscript, straight away! I duly sent it off and of course the result was a rejection, but she was good enough to exchange a few e-mails with me telling me what she thought was wrong with it, and why she didn’t want to take it any further. One of the major flaws was the simple fact that it was so much like a first draft – still so full of clumsy writing and typographical errors, etc. She advised me in future to take more time over the re-drafting, although it would take another novel and another lady to drum that message more forcefully into my head.