DEBRIEF: The Ragged School (A Treasury of Brenda and Effie)

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The Ragged School: A spooky new school opens on the moors, bringing to light new memories for Brenda…

Publication date: March 2017

Completion date: Sometime in 2013

Number of times subbed: n/a

Placing the story: Sometime in 2016, Obverse announced a collection of stories about Brenda and Effie, the heroes of Paul Magrs’ series that begins with Never The Bride. The submission process in theory involved pitching an idea, and then writing a story if the pitch was accepted, but I had written ‘The Ragged School’ years ago. In a fit of overexcitement, I initially pitched my story as a comic adaptation of the piece I had already written, and pitched a sample page which you can see here, but in the end it was sensibly decided that perhaps I should just stick to my original story…

The story of the story: Anyone with even a passing knowledge of me knows how much a fan I am of Brenda and Effie; Never The Bride and the rest of the series are one of my favourite books of all time, and I have always found something enchanting and comforting about their spooky world of Whitby. Naturally, of course, I wanted to write for it. Back somewhere in the 2012/2013 era, I decided I was going to start a writing project in which, every time I read a novel, I would write a story in the style of that book afterwards. Like many of my projects, I flagged quickly (around the third story, which was meant to be imitating David Sedaris), but in its brief moment of productivity, I’d written ‘The Ragged School’. It took inspiration from a huge school building at the bottom of the hill on which I lived, an old Victorian ‘ragged school for girls’, according to the big letters carved in the stone above its doors. The particular phrasing of it caught my ear; initially I assumed it was a specific name, i.e. THE Ragged School for Girls, but in researching I discovered that it was rather A ragged school for girls, ragged schools being Victorian-and-later institutions for the poor and unfortunate. (And if you’re particularly interested in the building, it features as the exterior of the police station in No Offence.) From the idea of the school came the image of the desolate moors, and from this I veered towards horror imagery – the scratching in the walls, and the eyes in the dark – though of course, in Brenda and Effie, there is no horror that cannot be lessened by a cup of spicy tea.

It’s quite odd coming back to a story years after you’ve written it, especially when that story was itself deliberately written in an imitative style. The editing process taught me a few things: I cut nearly a thousand words from the beginning in which not-a-great-deal happened, which I’d originally written because the bits of the books where Brenda and Effie knock around drinking tea and gossiping were always my favourite bits; that kind of thing is fine in a full novel, but in a short story, time is rather more of the essence. At the time, the chief lesson writing ‘The Ragged School’ had taught me was how difficult it is to balance a large cast of characters and keep each of them pertinent to the adventure in an ongoing story; when it came to editing, I concluded that this wasn’t quite as necessary to a short story format, and excised some of the extra bits with Penny and Robert that existed only to make sure they had lined.

Nevertheless, it was quite pleasing to be able to return to an old story and not wince in embarrassment; it was even more pleasing to finally be able to give my Brenda and Effie story an actual place to be published and read. This collection really does look genuinely wonderful, so please do go buy it, read it, give it away, buy another copy. You can find it over here at Obverse Books.

(Plus – because I am a man of many hats! – I was also very excited to get the chance to create the cover art for this book. Fine, fine, I’ll stop boasting now.)


I’ve shamelessly stolen the following blog format from the excellent B.R. Sanders, who’s been posting these about their own short fiction. (Seriously, I’ve even stolen the title.) Partly this serves as a shameless announcement (Hey you! Go read my story!), partly a record of my writing along side the record of reading that this blog exists as. But I also think that writers don’t always talk about the industry as much as they should, and I find it fascinating to read about when other writers so perhaps someone will enjoy it in return. (It sure helps when you receive your 27th rejection note to be able to read of other stories that have met the same fate.)

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