Testing times

Sadly, the fronted adverbial raised its ugly head again this week, and prompts me to blog again about teaching children to use language. Cathartically, I imagine the fronted adverbial as a long necked carnivorous dinosaur, head waving from the primordial swamps in search of food. Entertainingly, it bobbed up on Michael Rosen’s Facebook page. Angrily, I read the rotten saga. Happily, I remembered I’m no longer a teacher. Crossly, I empathized with those who are. Achingly, I sympathized with the children.

Do you now know what a fronted adverbial is? Certainly, now I’ve modelled it ad nauseam, and you didn’t need to know the term for it anyway, because you’re not linguistics professors. Neither do children in junior school.

worksheet from Rosen
Worksheet quoted by Michael Rosen on his Facebook page

To be fair, I believe there’s some confusion over whether children themselves are supposed to know the term or just their teachers. I’m not churning through pages of Dfe* bumf to find out, but I can tell you enough people seem to think children need to know it for the 87,700 results of my Google search today to start like this:

fronted advbs(I’m not knocking my colleagues who produce these although I do think the one Rosen showcases needs to chill. You teach what you’re told to teach as best you can, and teachers are wonderful at sharing resources and ideas – the less prepossessing the subject, the more they rise to the challenge.)

A lesser relation of the fronted adverbial, the irregular past participle is another busy little pest that scuttles about causing mayhem to even younger children. Once it infested my classroom. The previous week, I’d teached regular past participles (a benign member of the same genus). We called them Ed. We walkEd about and talkEd about them, lookEd for them, hookEd some from the pages of our books, took – oh dear! and shook – gadzooks! – some into our writing and I releasEd the children into the playground where they shoutEd and playEd and exercisEd their dear little limbs in the satisfaction of knowledge learnEd (t?!) and a past tense story inventEd. Hooray!

DSC_0538
The awful reality of writing in Year 1, before teaching …ed. Teaching chronology looks overdue, too.

For the more literal minded of you, I didn’t teach the …ed suffix with a capital letter. I’m just banging home the point here. I did teach “…suffix ed” (yes, 6 year olds have to know the term suffix) with ellipses (I’m not sure they have to know ellipses but see comment on government documents above) and I telled them “Poor …ed. It isn’t a full name, it can’t go out on its own, it’s just the last part of another word, so it never has a capital letter.” “My name’s Ed and it does!” saided a boy. “Couldn’t your mummy have taken you on an unauthorised holiday today?” I spat through grat teeth.

I’m not against teaching grammar. I remember starting French, discovering verbs, nouns and adjectives and thinking this is jolly useful. A rule to apply. An apparatus to climb. A tool for cobbling together sentences. I wonder if you can do it in English too? Ah, yes… Why didn’t they tell me at junior school? The 1970s approach needed and the current approach needs to consider what’s age appropriate, from either end of the spectrum.

The advantage of grammar is government can test it, (like testing scales or memorising the periodic table. But would anyone teach those before playing tunes or lighting a bunsen burner?) The advantage of test results is government can judge the test takers and test teachers easily, categorise a school as in “special measures” (ie more tests), and solve the problem with an academy that makes money for shareholders. I first heard that from an Ofsted inspector and suspected her of conspiracy theories. But fast forward six years and these tweets make the same point:

Twitter page

Oops. That’s what happens when I don’t plan a post strictly enough – someone else takes over the rant. Where was I?

Teaching grammar can be fun. I invented the “Full stop police” and the children begged to play again. One child reads aloud and the “police” clap where the full stops should be. “Pass the full stop” requires a satsuma, representing a full stop. It’s passed around and the child holding it when the narrative comes to a full stop gets a segment. Or throw a black foam rubber ball… etc. There’s pleasure in finding patterns and rules in every subject. Nothing wrong with that, but do it at the right age. Infant children should be playing snap, not bridge. They should absorb the harder rules by exposure to good and varied writing, and have more time to read and listen to stories.

Teaching grammar can also be profitable. Here’s an article about what grammar schools earn from publishing mock tests for their entrance exams. They’re expensive to a parent on a low income, at between £28 and £60, as are the tutors to mediate them. Do I detect another conspiracy theory?

Let’s return to my 6 and 7 years olds, in their second week of past participles:

Me: Hallo children. Today we’re going to write another story. (Some smile, some groan. Children can be irregular too.) Another story set in the past.

Child (sounds pleased): With Ed!

Me: Do not call out, Jason. No, …ed will not be in this story.

Children (chorus): We likEd Ed.

Me: This week, children, we’re going to meet the irregular past participle. Soliloquy: Irregular PP is to PP as the hornet to the honeybee. He stings big time, repeatedly. A single attack can be enough to kill a child’s interest in writing for life, without expert treatment. You are only 7 – many of you are only 6. There is no known vaccine. So tread carefully, my dears. Better staff than I have lookEd at their year 2s and quailEd. Time for the dreary trudge of exposition.

Me: Any suggestions from you? Hands up! Readed? No, sorry. Eated? No. Buyed? Wented? No. Ringed? Like “the bell ringed?” No. Singed …now, you heard what I said about “ringed” so don’t push it…

Child: (piping voice, shellshocked tone) We’d be safer if we just didn’t use verbs at all.  

Little Amaara: (weeping) We won’t be able to write anything without getting it wrong! And I was looking forward to finishing my story from last week with Ed. (Puts head in hands.)

I remember when there were few government teaching guidelines. Poor or nonexistent guidelines, poor planning (including mine), inadequate resources, firebells, abusive behaviour – all these cause difficulties and part of a teaching career (not the part they show in the recruitment ads) is learning to overcome them.

I “helped” children sew when I was sew untrained myself I sewed trouser legs together (that’s another story). I was tasked with explaining STDs to embarrassed teenage boys who spoke no English. I attempted painting when the only paint in the stock room was brown, and gluing with Pritt Sticks that dried up before the pupils were born. I triumphed over an interactive (huh!) white board that wouldn’t be reorientated no matter WHAT so the pen never connected with the surface. I taught forces with magnets that didn’t work due to badly designed storage. I’ve written poems about snow with children who weren’t allowed (health and safety) to play in it.

But when the irregular past participle came buzzing along for the 6 and 7 year olds and nouns became noun phrases and verbs became present progressives and exclamations had to start with What (How ridiculous!) I wented home and choosed a fortifying drink and after 32 years I writed an email with my resignation.

exclamation
From 2017 KS2 grammar test paper

Mischievously, here’s a possible slice of revenge. On many Government web pages, there’s a bit at the bottom that says:

Government website 2

Have fun! But remember not to include financial information, duh.

Sorry about the rant. Will be back to posting about books, next week, via Smorgasbord,

©Jessica Norrie 2018
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Grandmother’s footsteps

My grandmother’s front door had panels of stained glass in a multicoloured grid design, so a child could gaze through and turn the inner lobby shades of pink, green, blue or yellow – dark for her mahogany hall table, light for the walls, overlaying already patterned floor tiles with new moods and stories.

In Gran’s cold bathroom, the terrifying wall mounted “Ascot” heater gasped as though about to explode. For all that, the water never trickled in warmly enough to dissolve the bath salts she kept in pretty pastel coloured layers in a glass jar on the tub (no shower). We slept under blankets, and paisley patterned eiderdowns (no duvet). There was a mangle to dry her hand washed clothes and bellows for the coal fire (no heating). Seagulls squawked close to the rattling single glazed sash windows with sills deep enough for a child to play on behind the curtains. She needed thick curtains, for the high ceilinged rooms were huge and freezing at the edges: we were always either too near the fire (come away, you’ll get scorched) or too far from it (come closer, you’ll catch a chill).

Grans house Pevensey Road
My grandparents’ house in the late 1960s (?). Seaside weather took a toll on the roof and brickwork.

The house loomed vast against the sky, and drained my grandparents’ resources. My grandfather had started life as a factory foreman and must have had some kind of buy to let mortgage, moving away from London to the cleaner air and cheaper property in St Leonards-on-Sea. The basement flat was let to a family, with a separate front and garden door. That didn’t stop us going down the internal stairs at whim on unannounced visits (I wonder now how the family felt about that). After my grandfather died in 1967, the upper floor was also let as bedsits, to ancient ladies who struggled up to their rooms by walking past my grandmothers’ bedroom and lounge doors (Oh, how I would like a hall way just for me.) A spry retired headmistress (?), her name easily remembered as she was Miss Toft in the Loft, rented the whole attic floor. To get there she too went through the hall and up carpeted stairs (more paisley, and ferns in brass pots). Our summer holiday job was to fill in the threadbare patches from little pots of red and black poster paint because your eyes are sharper than mine, dear. No paint on the stair rods, please. Stair rods! When did I last see those?

Waiting in the wings is a novel in which I hope to use such details. Meanwhile I’m drawn to searching for similar plunderings by better authors. Children’s literature is full of grandparents’ houses. Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered hers even though she moved away at five years old and never saw it again. “The floor was made from wide, thick slabs that Grandpa had hewed from the logs with his axe….smoothed all over, and scrubbed clean and white and the big bed under the window was soft with feathers.” L M Boston’s wonderful Children of Green Knowe series is set in Grandmother Oldknow’s house, where the architecture of the house itself enables her grandchildren to have adventures with their ghostly ancestors. And the beautiful domestic detail of Shirley Hughes’ illustrations for Alfie and Grandma would embrace anyone in need of a cosy home, whatever their generation.

But there were surprisingly few grandparents’ houses in the fiction for adults on my shelves. Of course, outside the Western world many grandparents don’t have separate homes. From Europe I found Proust‘s blend of domestic detail with memory and emotion. This begins at his great aunt’s home, imagining himself “lying, face to the wall, in a big bed with a canopy…back before my eyes the glimmering flame of the night-light in its bowl of Bohemian glass, shaped like an urn and hung by chains from the ceiling.” Elsewhere you have to hunt for ghosts through clues in the narrative: surely Galsworthy, writing in 1906, was calling on memory for his description of old Jolyon the patriarch’s house: “The door of the dining room was open, the gas turned low; a spirit-urn hissed on a tea tray, and close to it a cynical looking cat had fallen asleep on the dining table.” For a direct if malicious approach I was pleased to find Great Granny Webster still in print, though Caroline Blackwood appreciated her ancient relation’s entrance in Hove less than I did my grandmother’s thirty miles east: “… a huge forbidding black front door, which had a hideous stained glass covered porch full of potted plants that had to be watered day and night”. Anyone struggling with writing settings could take lessons from this short novel from 1977.

More recently, Anne Enright’s The Green Road casts spells in economical Irish prose garnished with select detail: “Hanna loved the little house at Boolavaun: four rooms, a porch full of geraniums, a mountain out the back, and, out the front, a sky full of weather… and not much Hanna was allowed to touch. A cabinet in the good room held a selection of china. Other surfaces were set with geraniums in various stages of bloom and decline; there was a whole shelf of amputees on a back sill, their truncated stems bulbous to the tips.” Enright leaves us to fill the little-used “good room” with our imaginations, while the geraniums take centre stage. Diana Athill, herself now over one hundred, has a chapter on her grandparents’ garden in Alive Alive Oh! “After breakfast Gramps would tuck The Times under his arm and proceed in a stately way to the privy… and if you noticed him going past a window you must pretend you hadn’t.” As so often reading Rachel Cusk I stopped half way through Aftermath with a shock of recognition: “In the gas-smelling kitchen, rain at the windows, my grandmother buttered the cut face of the cottage loaf before she sliced it.”

These sights, so out of date already, still exist in easy living memory (Cusk is at the beginning of her 50s and I’m nearing the end). Memories from childhood have a dream like quality which, if bottled, would make a fortune for some writing consultancy. (Proust’s got closest so far.) Memoir is currently a trendy genre – hardly a week goes by when I’m not invited on some memoir writing course. I wonder if the demand is so high now because planning laws have relaxed and we are so busy obliterating our past?  In these days of gutting old houses, stripping every internal feature to turn them into open plan white cubes, we must nurture our memories. Despite more ways than ever of recording our thoughts, the record itself is more fragile (think email as opposed to letters, thousands of photos forgotten on a hard drive rather than a few curated in an album). If you still have the chance, talk to your grandparents now, photograph their homes, record their thoughts and their daily routines. The pickings are rich, and moving. I’ve found it a homage and a privilege to write about my mother, my father, and now at least one aspect of one set of grandparents. I hope this encourages others to do the same. (Oh, and if you know someone who lives in the house above, do get in touch.)

Gran and papa
My grandparents on holiday in 1939. My grandmother wrote in the album: “We were recalled from Cornwall because war seemed imminent. War came and life has never been the same.”

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

What a difference three days make

I wrote this post on Tuesday, 30th January, admirably ahead of schedule for today.

Authors don’t have false starts, because all changes are part of the multiple drafting processes. But authors often have false ends – they think they’re done, and then a beta reader, editor, agent, or their own head says no you’re not, and back they go to the text, rectifying, snipping, embellishing, reshaping (it’s beginning to sound more like a haircut than a book).

Finally, in desperation, boredom, defiance or pride off goes the manuscript. Agent, here you are. I’m prepared to rewrite, but only for a commercial publisher. Failing a publisher, I’ll self publish! But either way, that book is done to a turn.

Author takes time off. Eats toffees, ambles round the park, sneaks to an exhibition. For some, it’s only a few days before they’re thinking: next book? I’m assuming this process gets faster as they notch up the novels. After my first, I ummed and ah’d for months before I had any tentative thoughts, let alone jottings. The second novel is traditionally tricky for all authors and often referred to kindly (or patronisingly) as a hurdle to vault en route for the sunlit uplands of the third, merrily mixing metaphors as you go. But with one remarkably debonair click of the mouse, off went Second Novel last week. I hope you’ll hear of it again in some form, but if not, never mind: already this week idea number three is tickling my brain.

mouse happy

This time, I’ve taken advice on what the market wants.  Well, heard advice anyway. I can’t write gripping psychological thrillers but that’s ok, I’m told people want something more cheerful. I can’t write minutely researched historical fiction, because I’m too slapdash and anyway, they’re so last year. I won’t write violence and I don’t understand science fiction and I’m irritated by cosy crime.  I’m too down to earth for fantasy and I can’t invent some new literary form so novel (pun intended) and mould-breaking there’s a new book prize established in my name. But I’ve spotted a chink in the genre armour, a tiny keyhole of opportunity and I’m going to try and tailor something to fit its requirements. Third Novel won’t take four years like First Novel, or two like Second. I’ll knock it off in time to present it to my agent by Christmas and save the expense of a more conventional gift.

Only yesterday I was shuffling around the house feeling pressured and heavy (is it a good sign that this wild mind can go from haircut imagery to submarines in four short paragraphs?) Today a couple of characters introduced themselves as I walked round the block – what a help a sunny day is. The setting’s in the bag – the longer you live the more places you’ve known: how useful. There’s a glimmering of plot, always the hardest part for me. I have a very corny working title and a fragile 3000 words in a New Folder. To think there are people, events, ideas and developments ahead just waiting to be pulled out of my head and fastened on the page! It’s exciting like going up in a balloon, like candy floss (revolting but I’m in such a good mood it sounds nice), like the letter with my place at university, or the moment the clouds lifted from Mount Fuji.

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If my idea works and I keep writing, I’ll get to the drudgery stage quite soon. If it doesn’t – well, that’s one reason for publishing this blog post today. The edifice can’t come crashing down because so far it’s only sketchy foundations, but even if they sink without trace, even if the fleeting inspiration, er, fleets, I wanted to pin down the excitement of the almost blank page(screen), the promising project, the journey in prospect. Also, if I’ve announced it, maybe someone out there will hold me to it.

This is what I have to say this morning (Friday 2nd February):

The Magic Carpet (I may as well dignify Second Novel with its title) came back from agent yesterday with third round of comments (let no one say agents don’t earn their 15%). Most remarks justified, and he’s “still not sure about the beginning”. (This has been changed often. It’s surprising how moving different chapters to the front can herald a different genre each time – not necessarily one I want or that subsequent chapters remain faithful to.) I would now like to put it behind me, frankly. But if The Magic Carpet never flies, even on CreateSpace let alone commercially, how will Third Novel ever soar free of those Second Novel blues?

No time for Third Novel today after considering agent’s comments and writing Friday blog post. Perhaps the blog should go? Perhaps Magic Carpet should be fed to the moths? Perhaps it would only be Third Time Unlucky?

mouse sad 3
The only symbol left on my exhausted keyboard doesn’t augur well…

The End, as written on Tuesday, 30th January: Back next week if not too busy!

The End, as written on Friday, 2nd February: Back next week (possibly).

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Jessica Norrie’s Literary Column – Reading from the very start.

This was my first post for Sally Cronin’s “Smorgasbord” blog this week, hence no Friday post here yesterday. Do visit her blog. It has a wealth of posts on a wide variety of subjects! Wherever you read this post, I welcome comments as always, and will be back here next week as usual.

Smorgasbord - Variety is the spice of life

Reading from the very start

Greetings to Smorgasbord readers! Some of you know me already from Sally’s reblogs. Now I’m invited to write a four weekly post on books and literature. It’s an honour for me to think what may attract a new audience as my own blog is verging on the niche… so let’s start at the very beginning!

What is the beginning?

Before I wrote fiction and blogged, I was a translator, teacher and teacher trainer, with students ranging from 3 – 80+. I learned if a child learns young enough to appreciate different points of view through reading stories, the habit ebbs and flows but is never quite lost, with huge repercussions for how their lives develop.

Non-fiction can be told as stories too. The beginnings are usually clear, the plotting goes all over the place, the ends may be murky, but there’s always a story in…

View original post 1,617 more words

Suspending disbelief – in a Nutshell

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell was on my Christmas list in 2016. In 2017 one of my own nutshells noticed and as soon as there was a lull after New Year, I cracked it open and relished every morsel.

I wrote here about adopting the point of view (POV) of someone quite different to oneself and referred to Nutshell as an audacious attempt which would require a writer of McEwan’s calibre to bring off. I think he succeeds. The story is told from inside his mother by an 8½ month foetus. Our hero’s name doesn’t appear to have been discussed yet (although there’s a clue in Uncle Claude and mum Trudy) so I’ll call him U for Unborn. Some practicalities are deftly dealt with: U expresses the readers’ doubts for them by explaining that he has a good command of language and ideas because he overhears his insomniac mother listen to so many podcasts. Anyone who’s spent a day with the randomness of Radio 4 will attest to the vocabulary building properties of such a pastime. He’s also a budding oenophile who can distinguish with appreciation between “a good burgundy (her favourite) and a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta”.

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I can’t see how this foetus will ever be a toddler, so sophisticated is his knowledge already, but as far as I know no one other than authors for toddlers (whom I applaud) has ever tried to write in a toddler’s voice. I’m currently trying to write in the voice of a bright seven year old and even that poses huge limitations on vocab and conceptual understanding. U can discuss the Middle East, modern warfare, the advantages of Norwegian tax arrangements, and he’s an accomplished poetry critic. He can provide a convincingly visual picture of his father’s “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Square”, market value included, but he can’t yet envisage the colour green, although it crops up frequently in his imagery. This may be because the men in Trudy’s life adore her green eyes, and McEwan makes it achingly clear that U loves his mother even through her many faults.

It’s true that young babies, especially before they learn to make much noise other than crying, can often look wise and reflective, fixing their stares, their expressions ciphers. They lose this as soon as they become mobile or verbal, so McEwan hedged his bets correctly in opting for an unborn.

U is going to need all his brains because he has unfortunate parents and his parents have unfortunate lovers. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.” (Surely this generation would talk in centimetres?) Obviously U has little physical strength, but he does find he can manipulate the action of both the penis and the novel with a well timed kick. He has plenty of chances to practise; there’s a lot of sex. In this nutshell of a novel, under 200 pages, McEwan fits the universals of birth, love and death into a tight plot and timescale – there’s no spoiler in noting it’s all got to happen within four weeks at the maximum, before U is born either still or kicking. I apologise for insensitivity but the way his adults behave he should clearly have been on the “at risk” register since conception. “Anxiously, I finger my cord. It serves for worry beads.”

Anne Corlett's scan
34 weeks gestation, with thanks to Anne Corlett. See below for links to Anne’s writing.

Of course, we have all been foetuses, and who’s to say we don’t remember the experience? McEwan is drawing on universals here, and as far as one can tell he succeeds – Nutshell is an exciting, funny, violent, shocking read although curiously unemotional, and the audacity of the author makes him self-conscious: “All the sources agree, the house is filthy. Only clichés serve it well: peeling, crumbling, dilapidated.”

Through U’s eyes – no, through U’s hearing, taste and touch which are so far his most active senses – McEwan describes the piqued poet father and the slimy brother. He’s poignant and perceptive on the pathos of a pleading man no longer loved, and has fun with U’s irritation with Claude, for example his ponderous reading of a menu. The supporting roles – young woman poet, detective – are well evoked from within the stomach wall and McEwan plays with stereotypes: “The sergeant thinks she’s a stickler. Bound for promotion out of his league.”

But McEwan hasn’t been a pregnant woman, and he’s least successful with mother Trudy. I was able to suspend (almost) all disbelief and root for U all the way but this POV of a first time heavily pregnant woman was unbelievable and not in the way tennis players use the word as high praise. Surely no woman at 38 weeks could sink so much drink, endure bags of rotting rubbish in her own hallway or appear so oblivious to the limits on action imposed by her near confinement.

Otherwise, a brilliant book. Now to try an even less comfortable POV, perhaps McEwan could venture out of the professional classes? (To be fair, he goes into this himself, in the Guardian, August 2016.)

Writing this, I’ve remembered another, lovelier, even sadder unborn POV, in “Prayer Before Birth” by Louis Mac Neice (1944). It’s read here by Mark Rylance Actor, director and writer at an Anti-War Mass Assembly in Trafalgar Square on 8 October 2011. (For light relief see the high vis jacketed soundman who arrives on stage just as Rylance is being introduced!)

The scan photo is the baby of Anne Corlett at 34 weeks. Anne, previously shortlisted for the Bristol and Bath short story awards, released her novel The Space Between the Stars in 2017. She offered the photo after I posted a request in Book Connectors, proving you can make some impressive literary connections through Facebook (I refer to the association with Ian McEwan and MacNeice rather than myself).

Below are my own nutshells in December 1993:

nutshell 1993

From next week I’ll be blogging monthly on books and literature for Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord. My posts there will appear on Saturdays, repeated here afterwards, but most weeks I’ll still be here on Fridays. Comments are always welcome wherever you read the posts!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

Prologues – with hindsight

Browsing my favourite fiction authors, what do Helen Dunmore, Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Margaret Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) do, that Margaret Atwood, Ian McKewan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) don’t?

1411219Clue: It was good enough for Chaucer and (sometimes) Shakespeare, but has a reputation as a turn-off in submissions to agents and publishers. At the Guardian Masterclass I attended, the invited agent said: “Never send me a submission with a prologue!” And here are two more, quoted on the Writer’s Digest:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”

“Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

In the Facebook group Book Connectors the thread “Do you read the prologue?” has given me a blog theme for the second week running. (Thanks!) It’s turned into something of a straw poll. It seems most people do read prologues, regarding them as part of the story. I’m in that camp – in a well-written story, every word and section is there for a reason. If you skip something, you’re receiving incomplete information. But one BC, Melvyn Fickling, responded he’d skip the lot rather than read a prologue:  If I’m checking the Look Inside feature on Amazon and see a prologue, it’s not just the prologue I don’t read… 

In the BC discussion there are also references to prefaces and introductions. Let’s clear up the difference. Here’s an easy definition, from American Dorrance Publishing:

ExposureThe primary reason to include a prologue is if there’s an important element of the story that took place prior to your book’s main plotline. A rule of thumb is that the prologue will explain important information that doesn’t necessarily follow the timeline of the rest of your book. (It follows that an epilogue covers events that take place after the main timeline. But I might alter “prior” to “outside” – I’ve found a number of prologues whose events occur midway or late in the stories they introduce. For example, in the prologue to Helen Dunmore’s Exposure – reviewed here – a protagonist is going home towards the end of the story.

An introduction might be by someone else, and discusses the background, style, genesis and authorship of the story, but isn’t part of the story itself. It gives insight, and may contain spoilers, which is why I usually read it at the end. Introductions overlap with prefaces: there’s a useful discussion here, too long to quote, of what a preface should contain – the main thing is, it’s also not part of the story and it may or may not be by the author. Fortunately the thread hasn’t mentioned forewords – yet. Don’t get me started on those!

There’s general agreement that prologues should be relatively short, and contain business that occurs outside the main story that the reader needs to know in order to follow it. There’s a fine line between relevance to the approaching story and an information dump, though! I found a sober pro prologue summary by Carol Benedict and  elsewhere Kristen Lamb identifies seven deadly prologue sins in colourful detail.

planning-2
A lazy plotting style?

Lamb’s sinful prologues can be summarised as superfluous, irrelevant, tautologous or too long. The information they give could either be left out, or easily  communicated at some other point in the story, for example in a flashback, through a character remembering or recounting events, or as some form of story-within-the-story. Fickling was vehement: Too many times it presages a lazy writing and/or plotting style. 

Let’s imagine a heroine, Lazy Author. (No relation to me personally, oh no.) Lazy Author gets to the end of her first draft, realises she’s making unreasonable assumptions of reader knowledge – how could her readers know all the details inside her excited authorial head? So she sticks the missing facts in a prologue before the story opens. Just so we all know where we are.

I can’t believe the Dunmores and Ishiguros bumble along like that. What’s their approach?

28921The Remains of the Day opens with 17 pages of prologue, set in 1956. Chapter 1 then harks back to 1922. I make that two of some people’s rules broken, but Ishiguro is such a master, it’s fine. Memory tells me the film version used the same structure, so director James Ivory must have agreed.

Exposure: only 2 pages, their chronology within the story unclear until the very end of the book. One rule broken, but a tale told with such élan is above rules.

My Brilliant Friend – 4 pages of prologue, with chapter 1 onwards a flashback. Not fancying a scrap with Elena Ferrante, I’ll turn a blind eye to this and her many other broken rules (repetition, internal monologue, ranting…) Her prose screams along the page and seems to demand fierce interruptions the better to rebuff them, insert a blank page, and return to the fray.

The Twelfth Department, by William Ryan – who just before publication of it was running the very Masterclass on which his agent colleague banned prologues – has a 5 page prologue which establishes a setting and some characters, provides backstory for those who may not know his detective Korolev from previous books, and contains a violent, though not fatal, hook. Could that have been done in Chapter 1 instead? I was reading so fast I didn’t care.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith has 40 pages (40 pages!!!) of prologue before what she calls not chapter but Book 1. It introduces the main character and the unusual theme. I read it a long time ago and the enormous prologue obviously didn’t stick in my mind as a fault.

Margaret Forster’s non-fiction Precious Lives has a 14 page prologue, setting out her reasons for writing her memoir, but in anecdotal, quite emotional style, which distinguishes it (in my mind anyway) from a non-fiction introduction.

These are all authors whose sales and reputations survive their prologues unscathed. On my shelves I did come across one rather pointless prologue, that simply repeated later themes, in a recent highly praised debut by a creative writing graduate. Despite its evocative setting, impressive cultural knowledge, some lovely writing and a poignant subject, it was so badly edited that a redundant prologue was (in retrospect!) not so unexpected. There were no acknowledgements in the edition I had, so we don’t know who was responsible, and at least it was only half a page. And the one page prologue in Emma Healey’s touching, otherwise brilliant Elizabeth is Missing seems at first glance disconnected with the first chapter. Readers are frustrated if the prologue sets something up and then there’s no hint of it in the following chapter – maybe that’s why some claim to skip them.

18635113(I should add that for this post some of the books I’m glancing through were read long ago. It’s not always quick to rediscover where the prologue fits in! A sharper mind would have anticipated that difficulty, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing.)

Another Book Connector dissenter said: I hate prologues. I even hated my own prologue the one time I wrote one. I just think I should be able to more eloquently tell the story than use a big, fat label like Prologue. I think if I feel I need a prologue maybe it is because I’m not starting my story correctly.

Fair point. But does it presuppose a linear narrative through a logical chronology (tautology? Ed.) Can a prologue save the situation when time, viewpoints and tenses are less traditional, or be something to refer back to during a complicated plot? I’m reminded of rewinding episodes of Inspector Morse and descendants to review the bit before the titles start.

In my first version of The Infinity Pool, I tried to increase the suspense gradually until (a thing) happened. A friend who teaches creative writing said: “You’ll lose your readers before they get there. Put the thing at the beginning, as a hook”. To all intents and purposes, it then became a prologue, but I didn’t call it that. (Did I just confess to the lazy writing/plotting style lambasted above?)

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I’m still learning my craft. My current WIP is done but for a decision on three possible beginnings. Should I introduce all the characters at once or one by one…nail down the theme or leave it to be discovered…frame the whole thing with a corresponding epilogue? Clever Dunmore, in Birdcage Walk, calls her first 13 pages Prelude – even though they take place “now” and (in the book) precede a story set between 1789-1793. I must be hoping to bring off a similar trick as I’ve headed one of my possible first sections simply: Before.

Prologues, duh! This blog post is just the start of my problems…

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author seeks genre, hook an advantage

NY resolution? I’ve resolved my second novel will be doing the rounds of the publishers by next month. First to tell them what I write. I think it’s literary fiction. Every now and then I look up some definitions to make sure:

Wikipedia: Literary fiction is fiction that is regarded as having literary merit, as distinguished from most commercial or “genre” fiction. The term and distinction has been criticised by authors, critics and scholars, especially because a number of major literary figures have also written genre fiction, including Doris Lessing, John Banville, Iain Banks, and Margaret Atwood…

Oops! I don’t want to offend anyone. My work isn’t necessarily better than the work of the genre writer next door. And Doris Lessing is (was) amazing. Serve me right for relying on Wikipedia.

Goodreads: Literary fiction is a term … principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction. 

Crashing in with the size 9s again…Then again, that “claims” to hold literary merit suggests anyone can join in. I expect Trump along any day with something he wrote between tweets.

In 2014 Huff Post’s Stepen Petit thought he knew what it isn’t:

…To put it simply, Literary Fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre.

…Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.

I hope my writing does that. But where does his definition leave, say, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Pullman or the wonderful YA author of dystopian philosophy, Philip Reeve? And Lessing and Atwood are causing trouble again.

The recent Arts Council report on the plight of literary fiction authors also found it heard to define its subject:

Literary fiction…is not an absolute category. As with other art, it is what people believe it to be; hence we leave its boundaries undefined. What it definitely is not, for our purposes, is poetry or plays. We are looking at fiction.

Arts Council report

NowNovel (quoted for no better reason that that it’s flying high on the Google radar) says literary fiction…

  1. Is valued highly for its quality of form and creative use of language
  2. …explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. …Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction…

Hmm. Star Wars in any form makes incomprehensible demands on me but I’m quite happy with Jane Austen – surely it depends on the reader?

My favourite and final definition came from Sandy Day on a recent Book Connectors thread that started as a discussion of the Arts Council Report:  …literary is a style not a genre. Every literary book fits into a genre, love story, mystery, thriller, social drama, etc. It’s the style of writing, the subtlety, the metaphors and originality of language, that make it literary. (Do investigate Book Connectors: there are some refreshing discussions there with readers, authors, bloggers, reviewers…)

I work hard on subtlety, metaphors, originality etc but if they fail to ignite, maybe my book could sneak in as contemporary fiction. Waterstones, I notice, put both E L James and Kate Atkinson in this category and add “modern” to the label. It should be broad enough for me, then. If Zadie Smith doesn’t quibble at sharing a genre with Jeffrey Archer, why should I, veteran of the Great Amazon Dinner Party that I am?

Or do I write commercial fiction? Well, no, since I couldn’t possibly make a living, or even pay for another holiday, from what I earn as a writer. However, if my work did start selling by the shelf load, would it then become “commercial”? Having been to the Oxfam shop with duplicate Christmas presents yesterday, I could suggest one defining characteristic of commercial fiction is anything you can find multiple copies of there. But this definition from the grandeur of Curtis Brown Creative is probably better:

Lots of our students … don’t want to be told what they’re writing is “commercial fiction” – but really what we mean by this is that a novel’s strongly story-led and with potentially broad appeal. Commercial fiction is less about style, voice and innovative use of language/form than literary fiction but there’s also an area where the two meet and blur – that’s often called ‘sweet spot fiction’ and it’s top of many publishers’ wish-lists.’’

Sweet-spot fiction! That’s what I write (in my sugar coated dreams).

Hook 11
Ian McKewan hit the sweet spot for me in 2016, but Lionel Shriver (2013) didn’t.

How can I get from where I am now, to the sweet spot?

Harvey Chapman quotes literary agent Nathan Bransford:…Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It’s just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem – absolutely nothing is happening and thus it’s (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot.

Ah. I do have a plot. I’m just not sure where it is. It’s not heavy enough to have sunk below the surface (good), so perhaps its subtlety has floated it free altogether, flotsam on a sea of interior monologue (bad). We dipped a toe in the water with two submissions in 2017. One editor replied: I think Jessica is a very accomplished writer, and it’s great to see how much she achieved with THE INFINITY POOL, but I’m not sure this is for me – I felt it just didn’t have a hook that was quite commercial enough for (name of publisher).

Adrift in an over populated ocean, I need a net to gather in my shoal, or even just one hook. As the second editor pointed out:

While there was a great cast of characters I just felt that there were perhaps too many so it was difficult to really connect with all the characters and there were too many changing viewpoints so the narrative didn’t quite have that flow. (Her words certainly flow,  unsubmerged by punctuation, but she makes several very valid points so I mustn’t carp. There’s a plaice for what she says – sorry, I’m away with the fishes.)

Stand by for a rail disaster or perhaps a bomb in the shopping centre. That should dispose of a few changing viewpoints, and at least I’ll be back on dry land. I never liked (him/her/them) anyway. Then for my hook!Hook 12From the same rejection email quoted above: I really liked the device of… (my secret device, patented to me: when it hits the sweet spot you’ll know what it is)… to bring out the stories, I thought that was a really nice touch and something quite different.

The hook’s there, it just needs sharpening. Happy New Year and watch this space!

©Jessica Norrie 2018