What authors don’t bargain for

Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. A fool and their money are soon parted. Money talks… one thing money says is, “I want my books cheaper”. This recent post in a respected online book group page isn’t untypical.

“Today’s ebook offer includes ‘Fludd’ by Hilary Mantel. I absolutely loved her Wolf Hall series, has anyone read Fludd, is it worth buying? I know it’s only 99p, but I have so many of these 99p books cluttering my Kindle I only want to download highly recommended ones.”

Where do I start?

Value for money

The Wolf Hall trilogy comprises approx 1,888 pages depending which editions you buy/borrow/steal. The Kindle UK prices currently add up to £17.97/$23.60, the paper editions approx £29/$38). The three audiobooks offer 77 hours and 41 minutes of listening, from a service costing approx £7.99 per month after the first month which is free. On that basis the entertaining and educational experience Hilary Mantel provides, that the reader above “absolutely loved”, cost them 0.0095p per page on Kindle,  £0.015p in book format, or less than the price of a cinema ticket as an audiobook for 74 hours more entertainment. If you want to convert those into fractions of US cents, be my guest.

 

Now this reader wonders about forking out 99p ($1.30) for another book by an author s/he knows s/he enjoys. Fludd, in paperback has only 186 pages. Well, it IS more expensive – around a halfpenny per page or .69 of  a US cent.

Clutter

Can you clutter a Kindle? This nerds’ paradise article suggests a basic entry level Kindle holds approx 1,100 books and a top of the range Kindle Fire HD a whopping 26,992. I suppose you could argue the books get lost if you download too many, but since this reader knows the title and the author, s/he should be able to retrieve it easily.

Other book related problems – shelf space, dust-gathering, fire risk, mildew, weight the floorboards can support etc – don’t apply to Kindles.

 

Quality

Before spending a paltry sum on something requiring no storage this reader wants “high recommendations”. God help any authors and publishers hoping a reader might take a punt on an unknown newcomer. I believe readers can get refunds if they don’t ultimately agree with the recommendations others make, even though reading is a completely subjective experience. I don’t know the procedure, it’s too unethical for me, but I’m told it’s possible.

Price

99p ($1.30) is considerably less than a coffee, less than one sock in the cheapest pair from Primark and what use would one sock be to most of us? You wouldn’t know whether the coffee tasted good or the sock was comfortable until you’d drunk it/worn it for a while, but most people risk that without requesting recommendations, clearing stomach or sock drawer space (yet socks are real clutter) or worrying they’re overspending.

Kindle 99p

 

The author’s position

Hilary Mantel doesn’t need this particular reader’s money. Her “net worth” as calculated by grubby celeb websites is between $100,000 and $1million (£761,000). The broadness of the estimate says all you need to know about the precision and fact checking of such websites. Let’s assume her assets are at the upper level, easily achieved in the UK not by selling books but by annual property inflation of approx 7% since a now 68 year woman probably signed her first mortgage application.

Besides the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, since 1985 Mantel has published 9 novels, 2 books of short stories, and a memoir. Without counting journalism and articles and assuming (ridiculously) she doesn’t own any property to contribute to her putative net worth, very crudely dividing £761,000 by 15 books we find each has contributed an average £50,733 ($66,622) across 35 years. My source for these statistics is so dubious I’m not even admitting what it was. But we could double (triple!) these earnings and a prize winning author, whose work is televised, studied and admired worldwide, would still not be earning in the super rich league. She may be the Roger Federer of her field, but she has far less need of a Swiss bank account. I bet Mantel’s accountant keeps a beady eye on those 99p sales.

What about others? The “i” newspaper says last year UK authors, writers and translators earned on average £31,153. This is odd because according to the Society of Authors, “median earnings for primary occupation authors (writers who spend more than half their working time writing) are £10,497 a year… the highest-earning 10% taking home about 70% of total earnings in the profession.” That £10,497 has to cover living expenses before any becomes “net worth”. 40% of us rely on a second source of earnings.

 

Earnings per year

Some good professional authors of adult fiction churn out a book a year. Most take longer. There’s research, redrafting, muses that run dry or scamper in the wrong directions, beta readers and agents to consult and editors to pay. I’m getting faster…. my first book took five years, the second three, the third (not yet published) two. Mantel completed her 1,888 page trilogy in ten. How long did that coffee take to pour? How many minutes to run up a sock on a machine? (Perhaps an unfair comparison. I prefer my working conditions to the knitting machinists’.)

Affordability

In the UK thousands live below the poverty line, after appalling economic policy over the past decades, especially right now. Readers who genuinely can’t afford 99p for a book, please know my comments don’t apply to you. I hope there’s still a functioning public library in your area, where you can freely access all the books you want.

Are books a licence to print money?

The market makes most fiction available at some point, in some form, for 99p. Subject to affordability, you’re free to buy or not. But never express your doubts whether the product is worth it to anyone – writers, readers, bloggers, reviewers or Auntie Ethel – unless you actually want some poor author to rant a blogpost from their garret, a post that should have been a constructive book review or some sensible writing advice. You can always support public libraries you know.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

Those who can, teach and translate

I do have some news this week, but first I have a question for you: teachers 5

Did you ever go to school?

As many of you know, I was a teacher for 33 years. I posted a lot about it when I started this blog, because I was still in harness. Then I retired and with gratitude in my heart for a fascinating career that at last I was leaving (when I started I only intended to stay a few years), I blogged a farewell.

Four years later, what a lot of crap we’ve seen, and even more this week. Nurses, porters, paramedics and hospital cleaners have been refused a pay rise. They’re supposed to live on clapping and rainbows, I suppose. Teachers did get one (from existing money, so something else will have to go), and immediately teachers are blamed for it. Why have they got a pay rise? They haven’t even been in school! Lazy, workshy – and so on.

Right then, today the class task is 5 minutes silent reading which you’ll find here. It’s a heartfelt plea from a practising English teacher. Authors who read this: we need English teachers. They read our books and teach the readers of tomorrow! So head over and read her POV, please, and I want to see you back in here as soon as you’ve finished.

Now spend 5 minutes writing your answer to Susan English. How are you going to help put things right for this teacher and her colleagues? (You at the back – if we don’t get this done today we’ll all be staying in until we do.)

Teachers 3
My goodness, look at the state of that exercise book!

This possible model answer is more or less what I commented on her blog:

I do so sympathise. I taught all age groups and some teacher training/school improvement. In my NQT year (then called “probation”) I went to a family party at my new partner’s home in a county where they love to tell you they’re “proud to call a spade a spade”.

“What do you do?” asked an aunt/cousin/bad-fairy-at-the-wedding.
“I’m a teacher,” I said.
“Teachers? I wouldn’t give you the time of day for ’em!” she retorted.
And so it went on… party after party, all my teaching life:

“What do you do?” / “I’m a teacher…”
“Teachers? Ever heard that saying: ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. Ha ha ha! Oh I remember Mr X/ Ms Y. We used to love winding him up! And we made her cry! Yes, she used to run out the room weeping! Those were the days!”

These otherwise pleasant people somehow became bigoted monsters the moment you said you were a teacher. I can only think each of them had been damaged at an early age by one of the very few colleagues who doesn’t have pupils’ welfare etched deeply in their hearts.

Nowadays I go to parties (currently only on Zoom, of course) and when people say “What do you do?” I say, “I’m a writer!”
“WOW!” they answer. “That’s so impressive! I could never do THAT! You must be so brainy, have such focus, work so hard, have such imagination and empathy…”
“Yup,” I say. “I developed all those when I was teaching, and I did my best to develop them in your children too.”
“You were a teacher? Oh we had this teacher and we used to make her cry…” etc.

When you leave, write a novel about it. Or start one now. Writing The Magic Carpet was as good as therapy and it really boosted my morale. Yes, I HAD done a good job, yes I HAD worked hard, and I know you do too. Even if no-one else does, I’m saying, “You’re a teacher? Well DONE!” 

(A* for the blog post too.)

MC Pb cover jpeg - Copy
My teacher-therapy novel, started while still teaching and published last year. More fun than this makes it sound!

What other news do I have? It’s BIG news, it deserves a post to itself and next time I’ll have one. The French version of The Infinity Pool was published this week. It’s called Infinitude. Are you French? Do you know French people? (Could be because a French teacher started you off…) Soon I’ll be interviewing Isabelle the hard working translator but for now here’s the book cover, the link’s above, and here’s some bon vin français to drink a toast. Now please find someone to buy it, and/or Der Infinity-Pool which is the German version because guess what? Teachers DO mostly earn more than authors or translators. Except in respect.

 

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

What do you mean, in italics?

Well that’s annoying. I wanted to use italics in my title and WordPress won’t let me. Maybe if I upgrade to the paid version… meanwhile I’ll put quotes in this post, which I’d normally have italicised, in purple so the original italics still show up.

The word italics comes from Latin. The print style was named for the Venetian printer who used it first. The adoption of italic fonts has a fascinating history that leads the procrastinating blogger down many Googling byways. Do explore them one wet Sunday afternoon.

We use italics for emphasis. Just as some people wave their hands about more than others, so do some authors, often putting their italics into their characters’ mouths to avoid seeming too histrionic themselves. Jane Austen, brought up to discreet deportment and quiet speech, can be vicious with italics:

italics p & P 2 (2)
Pride and Prejudice, Penguin edition, Australia 2008

Nowadays writers are advised against adverbs. It would never do for Yazz, in Benardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, to think something “sarcastically”, but Evaristo suggests sarcasm with italics: once she’s graduated and working, she’s going to sell her house, correction, their house, which is worth a small fortune thanks to Mum’s gentrification of Brixton  By the way that’s not my missing full stop – Evaristo uses punctuation sparingly. But she relishes italics, as when Yazz’s Mum forbears to mention The Boyfriend, glimpsed when he dropped her off in his car. So much suspicion, pride, worry, judgement conveyed by italics and a couple of capital letters. 

My italics for the title acknowledge someone else wrote Girl, Woman, Other (shame). Fortunately Evaristo isn’t referring to the film The Boyfriend or confusion might arise. At least I’m assuming she isn’t, I’ve only just started it. Could be a bookblogger trap…

Authors may choose italics to differentiate between a character’s inner thoughts or dreams and what they say aloud, and also to differentiate timelines or points of view, clarifying them for the reader. Unhelpfully, I can’t find examples on my shelves now. I hope one  turns  up before this blog post goes out. I do find whole pages and paragraphs of italics hard to read and wish authors with split timelines/narrators would find some other way round the problem. I definitely read one recently. Maybe I threw it out for that reason.

Italics may be used for a recurring phrase, reminding us of what’s at stake or a character’s obsession. Olive Kitteridge‘s visit to her son in New York is punctuated by the neighbour’s parrot repeating Praise the Lord. Italics differentiate a letter or document from the rest of the text, or economically summarise occasions when the same thing was repeated. These examples are from The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins, whose short prologue and epilogue are also italicised.

italics F langton 2
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Penguin, 2019
italics Frannie langton
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Penguin 2019

Agatha Christie’s Poirot, stereotypical histrionic foreigner, lives and breathes italics.

Italics Poirot
Harper Collins, 2013

You’ll notice Poirot’s italicised French, like the Latin in the previous example. Italics of “foreign” words could mean three things: i) you do know what this means, dear readers ii) work it out from the context or iii) here’s something to look up, dunce. Here’s an extraordinarily basic example from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Society feels…the highest respectability is of much less importance than the possession of a good chef.”

Indie authors decide from themselves how much to italicise “foreign” words, preferably with professional editorial advice, and publishers have varying house styles. The trend is towards italicising less. Some authors reasonably object to “othering”. When words their characters use in daily discourse are italicised, it has the effect of making them suddenly shout “Look at this exotic word!” mid-flow. This article argues, with entertaining, informative examples, why such an approach  simply won’t do in a world where all cultures and idioms deserve equal respect. I found it on Ask a Book Editor (Facebook) and reposted it on Writers for Diversity (Facebook too). On both sites it elicited a lively, helpful thread with much food for thought. 

A rule of thumb is to explain meaning either directly or through context, unless you know the words have been incorporated into the language you’re writing in (check a good dictionary if unsure). Here’s The Song of Achilles, elegantly whisking the reader over the obstacle, and another example from The Braid by Laetitia Colombani, itself translated from French, which I think could have omitted the explanation as the context is clear:

Italics Achilles
The Song of Achilles, Bloomsbury 2017

IMG_5878[7126]
The Braid, Picador 2020
In The Magic Carpet, about five families of different heritages, I didn’t italicise pakoras because I expect my readers are familiar with Indian (umbrella term) food. I did italicise and explain the musical instrument names the first time because the children they’re given to didn’t know them yet either. Afterwards those words are in Roman print, not to break the flow any more than necessary. I may reduce the italics more, since reading the article I refer to above.

Italics pakoras MC
The Magic Carpet, Amazon 2019
italics MC tili dagga
The Magic Carpet, Amazon 2019

I’ve learnt something from writing this blog that’s probably obvious but needed spelling out for me. Too many italics over-egg the pudding. Like flouncy curtains or thick make-up, CAPITALS or exclamation marks!!! Flicking through my books I found the writers I most admire use hardly any. I’m not saying the examples above are bad, the books they come from are wonderful in their different ways or I wouldn’t include them. But less is definitely more. I suspect my Novel 3 has rather a lot. Inside I’m thinking: is that why it hasn’t been snapped up by a publisher yet? 

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Games for readers and writers: when main characters play hide and seek.

How hard can it be to find the main character (MC) in a novel? No prizes for David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Mrs Dalloway. Playwrights may play tricks: Julius Caesar dies in Act 1,  we’re left Waiting for Godot who may not even exist, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. But novels are easy.

Or are they? Even the classics can fool us. Are the four Little Women equally important? As an avid bookworm and would-be writer I should have identified with Jo, but the recent very good film confirmed what I’d suspected since childhood. Amy leads the pack.

Some successful modern novels deliberately make it hard to identify the MC. The reader can be tricked even when the name’s in the title. Madeline Miller’s beautiful  The Song of Achilles (2011) is, you would think, the story of Achilles. But it’s told by his 11250317life companion Patroclus. From inside Patroclus’ head, we experience his compelling conflicts and joys, although Achilles’ story is the more glorious and dramatic. So which is the main character? (Digression: Miller makes them so lifelike she dispels the myth that classical history is for Eton posh boys. Do try this unputdownable yarn featuring palaces, caves, love, death, war, the sea, women both unfortunate and powerful, interference from the gods and some daring plot changes.)

43890641._sy475_Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell, 2019) was Shakespeare’s son, one of three children. The novel begins from Hamnet’s point of view but for a unarguable reason it doesn’t continue that way. From about a third in it’s more about his relations and his part in their lives. Hamnet’s mother’s point of view takes up the most space, among others. So is she the main character? Or is the MC still the eponymous hero, or even William Shakespeare because without him we wouldn’t know this family existed or have so much detail of their daily lives?

10376392._sx318_sy475_Monica Ali’s Untold Story (2007) poses a similar question. As it opens, three friends are at a birthday tea in Middle America. The narrative presents them as all apparently of equal status. The fourth guest, Lydia, doesn’t turn up. When we do meet her later, it turns out she’s crucial. But she’s not the childless suburban divorcee they think they’ve made friends with. She was born a UK aristocrat who had an unhappy marriage with the heir to the throne. Later, she escaped paparazzi hounding to live under the radar in this backwater. Princess Diana is never mentioned by name, but she looms on every page, through references to recognisable incidents, characters and dresses from “Lydia’s” former life. The reader doesn’t need telling who the character is based on; there would be no Untold Story without Diana. So who is the main character (and who’s that on this cover?) Remember, outside fiction “MC” stands for Master of Ceremonies.

39346652._sy475_These three authors play highly skilled hide and seek with their MCs within the accessible literary fiction genre. Going downmarket (absolutely no disrespect) M W Craven’s 2018 detective novel The Puppet Show (2018) is an MC master class. Disillusioned detective Washington Poe appears on every page and we travel with him. We know only what Poe knows, experience all incidents alongside him. We see the world through Poe’s jaundiced eyes, share his bafflement on bad days and recover with him later. The conclusions we reach are Poe’s conclusions. So whether we like him or not, we empathize with him because he’s the most interesting and immediate character. Which is great news for Craven, since The Puppet Show is the first of a Washington Poe series. His map is the one to follow if those of us toiling on writing’s lower slopes are to avoid losing our MC at base camp.

The idea for this post came from reading a friend’s ms. She tells me the main character is Anna, her narrator who’s preoccupied by a younger man, Zoltán. From inside Anna’s head, we learn about Zoltán mainly through what he tells her – and he’s reticent by nature. Even so, the reader has a much more vivid impression of Zoltán, because Anna’s character/events arc is vague while Zoltán’s story is dramatic and emotional. Anna is hiding within an otherwise clearly written story, and that simply ain’t right for a main character. (These aren’t their “real” names. I’m happy to do ms critiques but I’d never blog about recognisable details before they’re published.)

One confusion can cause so many others we have to abandon the game. Let’s not mince words: hiding the MC can also mean losing the plot (reader’s nightmare) or muddying the genre (writer’s, agent’s, publisher’s, marketing nightmare).

MC on windowsill (3)

Anyway do as I say, not as I did. Writing with the blissful freedom of not having studied the rules, I thought my Infinity Pool was clear enough, but one review complained the MC vanishes and reappears. Then I couldn’t decide between The Magic Carpet‘s narrators so hung on to five of them (with clearly separated chapters for each voice.) My third novel, currently blocking publisher’s inboxes, does have one clear leading voice, but there was an early struggle between three characters and for months the least suitable muscled to the fore.

I’ve made a vow: Novel 4 will learn from Washington Poe. My MC will announce her/him/their self on page 1 and not leave your sight until The End. The next task is to make them interesting enough for you to stay that long. But that’s another story.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Declutter your writing – advice from a hoarder

Are you one of the many people who’ve profited from lockdown to write? Have you written so many words you’ve reached “The End”? Congratulations! Now there’s another task. Words are like belongings. One minute you’re setting up home with only a mattress on the floor; the next, it’s time for a clear-out!

This article from Writers & Artists gives a rough idea of word counts for publishable fiction in most genres. A rule of thumb is not to exceed 100,000 words (fantasy can go longer). One fellow student on a creative writing course told me his 250,000 word novel offered better value for money. But value lies in entertainment, moving and absorbing the reader, not in padding and clutter. Authors design with words: their product must be fit for purpose, attractive and practical. William Morris said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” and 120 years later Marie Kondo agrees. Achieving the right 100,000 (or fewer) words is an opportunity for quality control.

We’ve all gazed at a cluttered room in despair, wishing for an elegant purposeful space where people linger. An overwritten book isn’t so different. But where do we begin, and can we make the task enjoyable?

edit your ms 1

You’d assess your furniture before a house move. It’s a good time to offload those uncomfortable armchairs, the toppling standard lamps and occasional tables everyone bumps into. You can take a similar overview of your plot. The minor characters and incidents you wrote way back, the time they break the hoover or have tea with his second cousin…is that still interesting or relevant? Envisage emptying a boot load of junk at the tip. My student friend’s story perked up no end when he threw 150,000 words in the skip.

(Some writers keep a folder for discarded episodes, on the grounds you never know when they might come in useful. Morris would allow this as he approved of re-purposing, but don’t tell Kondo.)

edit your ms 4

When you’ve sorted out the big items, consider what’s left, paragraph by paragraph. Look for:
repetition eg: you’ve already said that was Madame’s favourite chair
contradictions eg: the vegetarians who eat a turkey dinner at Christmas.
overcrowding eg characters and incidents whose existence makes no difference to the plot. The great aunt we never meet again after Chapter 2, the Irish jaunt you wrote because you happened to be in Dublin.

Sentences must earn their place. Either:
edit your ms 8 (2) • by enhancing the mood: the crimson sun pulsed on the horizon.
• by leading the plot forward: “The chemist’s had an accident!” the florist shrieked.
• or by doing both (but watch out for getting too elaborate): Crimson sun rays glittered on the water trickling from the upturned peony bucket towards the chemist’s inert body.

You can have a good laugh while learning a serious lesson from the BBC radio show Just a Minute. These examples show easy it is to commit their three key faults.
edit your ms 7 (2)Hesitation: “Pedalling through sauerkraut” is a great image, one of my favourite French idioms. But would you know it means getting nowhere fast without another sentence to  tell you? Metaphorical language can delay and confuse; direct description is quicker.
Repetition (again): I had no idea how often my characters had no idea until an editor pointed it out. Identify and ration your own go-to phrases.
Deviation: Afterthoughts and side issues (beating about the bush when you should be tidying up). Often they’re in brackets. Chuck the brackets and what’s in them, or if it’s useful flaunt it in the main text.

Certain pesky single words linger like bric-à-brac through every clear out. Be ruthless!
• Use the “Find” feature to locate quite, really, very, too, also, somewhat, rather, just, hardly, almost, certainly, definitely, nearly. They’re boring.
• Stylish authors show time passing with a change in the light, clothing or weather; leave first, then, next and finally to primary pupils’ exercise books.
• Everyone overuses suddenly, albeit, however, although, anyway, but. Gradually cut them out. Then cut out gradually.
• Adverbs are often redundant. She shouted loudly. Shouting IS loud – we don’t need telling.
The mosquitoes feasted (active). She was bitten by mosquitoes (passive). I rest my case. My case is rested.
• The article (that) I’m reading is full of bullshit. You know (that) that’s unfair. Track that down and chase the unnecessary ones from your manuscript.

Finding both the will and the skill for a clear out can be hard. For some authors it works better to follow this process in reverse, warming up by hunting down single words and hoping they’ll shed some plot and a few characters along the way. The risk is rewriting page 1 a zillion times and small-scale daily fiddling with material that’s later thrown out; the advantage is minute, forensic knowledge of every page.

Whichever your approach, the time will come when you can stand in the doorway and feast your eyes. Is the main character identifiable? Does the plot progress without hitches? Do the settings support everything else? Then you’re ready to invite beta readers and agents to stay! Readers will feel like honoured guests in your refurbished room. I’ve worked the analogy to death, so with one last snip I too am at

“The End”.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Turning to crime

There are two new gumshoes on the block. It would be a crime not to investigate them.

gumshoes

A good detective always looks for connections. Both these books are the first in a new crime series highlighting cities and the parts of cities you may not otherwise visit (especially now). Both are launching during this pandemic. Both authors have journalism backgrounds. The first reported from Sarajevo and the camera in his story is positioned much as a sniper would be. The second author once reported for Scotland Yard and there is a certain world weary delivery to his narration: I wasn’t feeling half as cool as I was making out, but I knew enough to keep a clear head and leave the worrying to later. Both new investigators are operating on foreign soil: Juan Camarón, who was brought up in Spain by a Cuban father, finds himself in Glasgow and Daniel Leicester is an Englishman in Bologna. Both authors make good use of the possibilities this sets up for misreading a situation but also understanding it more objectively, for mistrust and also misplaced confidence, and for light relief too. One of the murder victims Camarón investigates is called William McGonagall, but he doesn’t recognise the name. (Dismemberment, albeit fictional, seems an unduly harsh punishment for terrible poetry.) And Leicester, as he helps some tourists with a menu, reflects:  There are few things more suspicious to an Englishman abroad than another Englishman abroad.

Let’s cut to the chase.

figure in photoKevin Sullivan’s The Figure in the Photograph has a fast moving, victim strewn mystery which Camarón, who narrates, is attempting to solve by making a photographic record of activity in the local area at regular intervals. It’s 1898, he’s excited by this new method and speculates that one day there may be moving pictures taken by cameras on the street. He’s aided and hindered by the local police, a professor of pathology, the neighbourhood chemist, a mortician and various strongly drawn sisters, wives, daughters and maids. He’s also deeply traumatised, having recently witnessed the murder of his own father. He tries to repress his grief in keeping with male expectations of the period, and this along with his foreign usage of English result in a terse, deadpan style of speech and a narration that stresses facts over emotions – making it all the more powerful when love and redemption do begin to seem a possibility. Camarón’s walks through Glasgow streets with their contrasts of road and river, poverty and wealth, proud Victorian buildings and tenement slums made me want to visit. My grandfather trained as a chemist in Glasgow only a few years later, and the dispensaries he worked in must have resembled the one in the book. So I have a personal interest, but this story and setting should fascinate anyone (the first few chapters take place in Cuba, which provides another contrast).

Buildings feature heavily in both books – the old cathedral of Santiago, the Glasgow shipyards, in Bologna decaying palazzi and practical (rain shelter) porticos. Outside the Bologna walls 1970s housing projects are the modern European equivalent of slum tenements. Both books feature a death in the streets attributable to poor health and safety – in one a man is run over on train tracks that cross the road, in the other a cyclist is knocked off her bike while not wearing a helmet.  Both gumshoes have been recently bereaved.

quiet deathA gumshoe should be vulnerable, a bit cynical, have a quirky view of the world, an interest in human nature, and hold strong principles that almost in spite of himself wish to see justice done, however flawed the human beings it concerns. In the present day Bologna of A Quiet Death In Italy, Tom Benjamin’s hero Daniel Leicester speaks fluent Italian but can still be tripped up by dialect or colloquialisms. He works for his father-in-law Giovanni “il Comandante”, an ex police chief running a private detective agency, and the case he’s on brings him into conflict with three powerful p’s – politicians, property and police. Mix in a dose of accidental anarchist death, as per the famous play by Dario Fo, and you have a mystery more tangled than a bowl of spaghetti bolognese (that’s tagliatelle al ragu to the locals. Like Montalbano in Sicily, Daniel Leicester and associates always have time for lunch).

So – two good reads, two promising new detectives, two sequels to look forward to.

I was going to say I don’t normally read much crime other than grandes dames such as Highsmith and Paretsky but I realise since I began blogging I’ve discussed all the books below and in the early days I spoofed a two part Agatha Christie tribute after visiting her house in Devon.

Two mysteries remain, the first a red herring. What was my motive for writing this post? If you answer correctly I’ll congratulate you privately but edit out any spoilers (two rules of crime writing – keep ’em guessing and give your reader resolution. The second is why I don’t write crime.) The other thing that’s fishy is why The Magic Carpet hasn’t soared to an Amazon number 1 while on promotion the way The Infinity Pool did. Reader, you, your family, friends, colleagues and any random strangers you encounter hold the key to solving that one and you have eight days left before the price goes up again.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

“New normal” fiction

When a plot includes a pregnancy going to term or religious festivals that move around the lunar calendar it’s important to be precise with the timescale. I fine tuned my first two novels as I went along. Novel 3, currently under submission, is a response to a specific event, and ends at a point when the issues first raised begin to be resolved. All three books are “contemporary”, taking place not long before the projected year of publication.

Now, writing in New Normal times, the dates of the story are even more crucial. If the events I’m beginning to explore for Novel 4 take place before December 2019 the pandemic needn’t figure. Any story set later than that must now include the effects of Covid-19 on timing and location, wherever they belong on a scale from wispy background rumours to overwhelming. Otherwise it would be like setting a book in 1916 and not mentioning World War 1. So many political, physical and local variables govern the viral load infecting my story that I must factor them in from the start, or my timeline may be wrong, my characters unlikely and my events impossible for their setting and situations. I’ll sound as confused as our Prime Minister.

Although my chosen theme could work either side of the pandemic, so many of the story props around it will change that I can’t put off the decision. And, unlike for a book set during the Spanish flu epidemic, or during the worst of HIV infection, the number of victims is still unknown and the consequences and effects of lockdown haven’t been objectively measured. If I start my contemporary novel NOW, by the time it’s published my assumptions for how it progresses and ends could seem ridiculous.

In my case I’ll probably cop out and either not write at all or set the story well before bells ring in the new year 2020. (The many writers of Brexit novels couldn’t see they had the same problem, although the agents and publishers who rejected them did. Nor did they realise readers might be bored or repulsed by the subject matter, or, if interested, would by the time of publication know more about it than the author.)

Are writers in other genres any better off?

There are some great possibilities for crime writers. Smuggling and doctored vaccines come to mind, although it would be hard to better The Third Man. But plots can’t include: empty domestic property (though lots of empty workplaces); meetings, rallies, parties, institutional education, entertainment, non domestic accommodation, public events or sports venues. There’ll be no unobtrusive shadowing people through crowded streets or detectives interviewing ancient relations in care homes. Characters can’t travel far from home, let alone internationally, or use public transport without sticking out like a sore thumb; and they’re unlikely to go to hospital unless they have Covid-19. The public, bored at their windows, will denounce anything out of the ordinary for the sheer fun of it before the plot can develop; hunches will be hard to follow up and helpful contacts go awol; the criminal fraternity will be preoccupied looking after number one.

Romance is online only. Strangers can’t find love in bars, theatres, parks or at dinner parties. Physical contact is ill-advised even if they do meet. Attractiveness, let alone kissing, is just not the same with everyone in face masks. The media and a vigilante public hamper running secret affairs. Office romances don’t work from home and young nurses are too haggard and stressed to catch the eye of hardworking doctors. Lady Chatterley is indoors social isolating with her vulnerable husband and even Mrs Bennett reluctantly recognises now is not the time for matchmaking. Blood vows and pacts, balls, weddings, or christenings? Certainly not! Whether cops or lovers, characters will have little change in routine or conversation to propel the narrative forward. No chance meetings, few coincidences, most of their time spent staring at screens. Today’s idea of a giddy whirl is solving a Sudoku while the lockdown beer loaf bakes, and optimism means hoping the Patience will work out.

It’s easier for some authors. In the Fantasy genre anything can happen. (That’s why I tend not to read fantasy; I prefer the tension of limited possibilities – though not as limited as currently.) History is already over, so barring differences of interpretation and fact selection, fictionalising events involves the same storytelling skills it always did. As for Horror, Science Fiction and Dystopia – well. That’s what we’re in now, isn’t it? I predict most 2020 novels will fall into these categories.

A week is a long time in pandemics so having had the idea for this post, I’m not waiting till my usual Friday to publish. It might be out of date by then. I also wanted to remind you that The Magic Carpet is on promotion at only 99p until the end of May, if you’d like to visit an unfashionable London suburb between early September – 14th October 2016. Bizarrely, it’s currently selling better in Germany than the UK, but those pre-virus, post Brexit referendum days, just after Eid 2016 and still pre-Trump, may now hold a strange kind of charm and they’re still just about contemporary.

Stay well everyone, and alert, although that’s not the word I’d have chosen.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

A good deal of author news!

It’s funny how the sense of myself as a “real” writer comes and goes. The smallest thing can puncture my self-belief. But this has been an excellent week and I can hold my head high. When I looked up my ALCS payments they were much improved following a dip last season; my agent said Novel 3 is ready to pitch to publishers; and the French translation of The Infinity Pool appears almost ready to publish after a hiatus in which the translator quite reasonably got on with earning her living. In more good news, after many nominations by my agent, The Magic Carpet ebook has been selected for a UK Kindle Monthly Deal. Please tell your friends that from today for a whole month they can fly my magic carpet for 99p. Especially tell the parents, grandparents, child care workers, city dwellers and teachers – it’s uncanny that I wrote about urban families struggling and interacting as they cope with a home/school project and now here so many of you are homeschooling!

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99p for the ebook for a month!
In an aside for fellow writers, it was selection for this sort of deal that pushed The Infinity Pool up the charts back in 2015. I think Amazon also advertise them, whereas normally we indie authors are left to sink or swim, so I’m hoping for better visibility, more reviews and improved sales. Being in a deal may also mean it’s price matched globally – worldwide friends, it may be only 99¢ or a very small amount of whatever your local currency is. (Please let me know – if I look at non UK sites I don’t necessarily see the correct data.)

To anyone still wondering whether they’ll get good value for their 99p, another affirming thing to happen this week was a BRILLIANT new review from bookblogger Felicity Grace Terry at Pen and Paper. I’m quoting it at length, not to omit too much of her enthusiasm. But do visit her blog for a refreshing style and good recommendations and not least to pay homage to a bookblogger who’s been at it more than 10 years! And please do comment when you get there – I know so well how much bloggers appreciate comments.

{OOH! A story about the telling of stories. For us bibliophiles things don’t get much better than this, right?}

…I just don’t know where to begin sharing all of the aspects that made it such a joy to read .

…Hats off to the author for giving us such a memorable and authentic cast of characters. That she gave them all (both as individuals and family units) such a unique (and thankfully stereotype and cliche free) voice; that each relationship (indeed every event) was written with such depth, it wasn’t long before I came to invest in them (and) they became as friends and neighbours…

Insightful, heart warming and thought provoking…

Not just well researched but heartfelt; the author’s knowledge and love of teaching young children apparent. That the novel explores just how the issues adults seek to keep from children believing they are shielding them can have a profound effect is just one of the many, many things that, characters and plot in general aside, made The Magic Carpet such an engaging and, yes, important read for me.

SUMMED UP IN A SENTENCE … The utterly engrossing story of a society trying to assimilate different cultures, backgrounds and faiths peopled by characters you cannot help but invest in, The Magic Carpet is every bit a story of our times.

Enormous thanks to Felicity, and thank YOU for your attention. Please do spread the news and I’ll report back later whether there’s still gold in them there deals the way there was last time. Meanwhile stay safe, all of you. And that’s as near as I’ll go to mentioning l*ckd*wn.

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©Jessica Norrie 2020

Striking the right note…

I’ve heard there’s this nasty bug going around… No, that’s too trivialising. EVERYONE’S GOING TO DIE! Alarmist, untrue. All things must pass: cliched but almost certainly correct. How are you all, blog followers (unless you’ve dropped out for which I wouldn’t blame you)? I haven’t posted for months, partly due to a second glaucoma operation (fitted in just in time) and partly now due to, well, this bug that’s going around. It’s high time I checked you’re all ok out there, and shared some positives from how I’m passing the locked down time.

This is normally a books and writing blog. books for blog 2Reading does help, it’s true. I’ve finished the latest Philip Pullman – very entertaining, very dark, perhaps a few too many meetings of the Magisterium to hold my interest and I’m not sure he’s quite as secure writing the young woman Lyra as he was writing the child – but as always brilliantly inventive, perceptive, unpatronising, chilling. I needed a complete change after that, so am in the middle of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. Just as chilling, in its way. Women are 47% more likely to die in car accidents, because safety trials use male dummies as default. Female pianists are 87% more likely to suffer from RSI due to the size of a standard keyboard. A male investor, faced with a business plan for an  innovative breast pump that outclassed the commonly used standard US models, recoiled in disgust. It’s wittily written, informative, and just as you’re despairing, it has messages of hope. Books for blog 2.4 (2)Then when I’m ready to return to fiction, my pile is not for the faint-hearted. Just as well we’re in lockdown.

I finished the 3rd edit of Novel 3 and sent it back to Agent X. Agent X expressed irritation the other day because authors were clamouring along the lines of “you must have loads of time for reading now”. So I won’t nag Agent X, but y’know, if I don’t have a publishing deal by midsummer, I’ll…I’ll…well, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Still with an eye to words and writing, I signed up for the Curtis Brown Creative Weekly Writing Workout, if only because I have absolutely no idea how to follow Novel 3 and some of their ideas may help. I’m playing online Scrabble with old friends and relations – this site is marvellous because you can swap tiles, use outlandish dictionaries no one else has ever heard of, search for bingos and definitions…It’s more about placement and less about your own skill than the traditional board game, and there are no adverts to distract you, with unlimited games, languages and combinations all for $15 a year.

walk for blog (2)Every day we go for a walk. Sometimes in countryside within walking distance, sometimes through streets. We seem to be noticing more, and valuing it. Here is a garden in the next road, complete with sculptures and cowslips. On our walks I surreptitiously break off cuttings of overhanging plants, as I was all set to order for empty spaces in our garden when what one choirmaster calls “The Great Adjournment” began.

The ex infant teacher in me is lapping up the online ideas posted to help (or pressurise) parents trying to homeschool their children. As soon as we finish the next plastic milk carton, I’m going to make an Elmer. I don’t happen to have a stock of coloured tissue paper, but there’s wrapping paper, old magazines to cut up, my partner’s clothes…I may unearth my neglected mosaics kit, perhaps when I’ve exhausted the puzzle I bought in Kyoto art gallery (those were the days). Simple pleasures: a jigsaw, a good cup of coffee, and Jenni Murray’s rich, reassuring voice on BBC Woman’s Hour.

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Credit for the Elmer design goes to Amy Trow from https://www.facebook.com/groups/houseboundwithkids/

The days start with my home made version of yoga and stretches and then I practise my piano, fortuitously delivered just before lockdown. That means it hasn’t had its inaugural tune, but the friend with whom I swap 5 minute recordings of what we’ve managed today hasn’t complained so far. I’m not posting a recording here as I do have some pride, but the regular, extra time will surely result in a better technique and wider repertoire by the time lockdown ends – won’t it?

I’m very sad there’ll be no Wimbledon and no Dartington this year. I’m apprehensive about catching the virus. I’m concerned for people who were vulnerable before any of this even started – refugees, domestic violence victims, the mentally ill and the disabled. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to see my children, friends and Hackney Singers in real life rather than on Zoom, but otherwise the piano (2)simple life is rather appealing to me. I’m hoping we’ll all reset our values and habits as a result of this episode. Perhaps we’ll value home cooking more, and fashion that lasts, the company of our partners and our own company. Perhaps wildlife will thrive with less polluting traffic, and have you seen how clear the sky is without aircraft? Maybe our government will at last resource our NHS as it deserves and recognise how much low paid and low prestige workers contribute to society. In the West, at least, some of us had become decadent and spoilt. Perhaps as a species we’ll learn some timely lessons.

I don’t underestimate the difficulties, and I do sincerely hope you all come through unscathed. Take care, wash your hands, stay at home, count your blessings, and if you are a key worker of any kind, I particularly thank you and wish you well.

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©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

The right to write

My blogging friend Mary Smith commented last post, re Edna O’Brien’s Girl, on controversy surrounding white authors using the voice of black characters. Girl was so fast paced and compelling I finished it in three sittings. Then, looking it up on Goodreads, I found a question from a member:

Who else thinks a young, black woman would have been a better authorial choice for this topic/concept?

There were three very different answers (plus the point that authors choose topics for their fiction rather than the other way round).

1. If we start to say that only young black women can write about young black women, where does that eventually take us? To more constraints on what women can and can’t do and there’s more than enough of them out there already.

2. I feel uncomfortable with a white woman telling this story and making any profit from it whatsoever.

3. (recommending a non fiction account): Helon Habila may not be a woman, but he is a highly regarded author and poet from Nigeria.

46195759Girl is told from the point of view of one of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014, the best known of many such abductions. To me the novel is less about a black-only experience than one example of  what throughout history and all over the world men have done to women in the name of religion, power or both. Regardless of race or age, Edna O’Brien is a woman who, raised in Catholic Ireland, knows all about repression. Maybe this makes her a better “authorial choice” than a Nigerian man who would not experience rape or forced marriage in the same way, menstruate, become pregnant or breastfeed, all significant in the book? But, if we discourage men from imagining such lived experiences, how can we expect them to develop empathy? Maybe O’Brien’s just a different authorial choice. She’s quoted on the British Council Literature website: “Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.

I’m not sure you can open up the world with modern levels of migration and travel, then criticise eagle-eyed writers for using the material they find there. More stories become available. An author can only select one and write about that or the boundaries become too fluid. Even an author of the calibre and experience of O’Brien still needs a manageable story, a heroine, a resolution. She was 84 when the Chibok abductions happened; I do salute the research she did, her energy and will to shine a light on injustice in the way she knew best.

The example of male violence she chose is by black African men on black African women and children. If words are an alchemy and story does conduct lives, they should be a power anyone can develop. Black female writers are also theoretically free to use any subject matter they like, but they may have less chance of becoming writers in the first place, for educational and financial reasons, health, class, gender restrictions… all this will also vary depending whether they are rural, urban,  African, Caribbean or western black women. In 2019 they still have less chance of getting published by a wary, traditionally white industry than Edna O’Brien who was working for the publisher Hutchinson when her first novel, The Country Girls, was commissioned (!) in 1960. (Yes, dream on.) Were white people even having this conversation then, when authors were arguably less familiar with “other” cultures? Anyway after six decades of success no one was going to turn down her newest novel, whether set in Ireland, Nigeria or outer space. Whereas, any quick Google of publishing rates for authors of colour confirms the findings of this Publishing Research Quarterly article:

The narrative that there are just are not enough authors of colour writing is (…) used to explain their lack of inclusion in the publishing industry; however, numerous authors of colour have countered this, saying they have struggled to get agents or, if they do have agents, publishing deals. (…) many authors of colour felt pressured to write identity books (…) that reflected their ethnic or cultural heritage or to draw upon cultural stereotypes—in order to be, or continue being, published. (…). These books often had to cover topics such as “racism, colonialism or postcolonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”. 

We all struggle to get agents, and if we are unknown as writers and not celebs in any other sphere the agents then struggle to get us published. But this and other research, for example carried out by We Need Diverse Books, confirms the more boxes you tick out of being minority ethnic, disabled, female, working class, unemployed, mentally or physically ill, LGBQT+, non Western, non white… the less likely you are to be published, and the more you are needed by readers.

When, in 1969, man walked on the moon, the boys at school were fascinated. I wasn’t: the protagonists wore boring spacesuits not pretty frocks, and I didn’t understand the physics. As a girl it made less impact on me, while my male contemporaries still remember it in great detail. I wasn’t reflected, didn’t feel I owned it. The closest the career suggestions I got came to astronaut was air hostess. So people of all backgrounds and abilities must appear in books. Everyone needs to be reflected and have ownership, everyone needs the opportunity to learn to write and publish them. The quality of writing is still paramount – you wouldn’t drive across a bridge built by hairdressers in a car designed by a first year apprentice, and equally writing is a craft that needs skill, training, practice and reward. It must say something interesting and say it well. There must be the freedom to write about anything and anyone, to use the “alchemy of words” to conduct anyone’s life or lives, and nobody should get published without redrafting, editing and perfecting. BAME writers should be free of having to write only about BAME people’s primary concerns, but if that’s true it follows that O’Brien too may write about what she likes.

Studies suggest that reading some kinds of fiction makes human beings more compassionate, enabling them to see life through other eyes. We have centuries of opportunity imbalance to correct, but let’s do it by bringing opportunities for diverse writers up to the levels enjoyed by white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied financially resourced middle class writers, not by building barriers to what each group may write about. Not by creating exclusive pockets that only insiders may occupy, but by welcoming everybody’s efforts to write about everybody else, even if some of us have difficulty and even pain recognising what they produce.

I did worry whether I knew my characters when writing The Magic Carpet and published it in trepidation, opinions having become more forthright since I started it in 2016. Last year an Asian-American YA author withdrew her work from publication following fierce online objections to how it was perceived to depict slavery. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is embroiled in argument over writing judged racist. So I had grounds for worrying I’d be criticised (fine) or trolled (not fine) for representing characters from backgrounds not my own. Suffice to repeat my characters are fictional, from five different backgrounds which by definition can’t all reflect mine, and were researched with colleagues and friends from those backgrounds as well as other sources. I couldn’t have written about London children otherwise, since in 2016 when the book’s set, the primary school population, depending on area, had between 33-94% ethnic minority* pupils and between 14-75% bilingual or multilingual users. My intention was to respect and celebrate this, but if readers find factual errors I’m open to corrections and ready to discuss how I’ve made my fictional characters think and feel. Whew! *This means not White UK heritage and I’m not happy with the “otherness” of the term.

Zadie Smith brilliantly defended writing in and of different voices in the New York Review of Books in October. 3711Unlike me, she’s of Jamaican/English  mixed heritage; like me, she grew up in London. My school friends were Jewish, or of Indian, Turkish, Greek and Black Caribbean heritage; my plumber was born in Pakistan, my solicitor is Greek Cypriot, my doctor Australian, the man who laid my garden turf Moldovan. I have this hinterland to draw on for research which I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in rural middle England. Does that give me more right to write about multi-ethnic character casts? Or should I have used a sensitivity reader? I may explore that another time.

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Evaristo shared her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood.

Let’s hope as more diverse authors get through publishing doors, more points of view will be heard. There are creative writing programmes, scholarships and competitions open to specific age, ethnic and income groups as well as to everybody (good luck scrolling through the enormous list on the links above!) It will take a while for these to redress the balance – the Coretta Scott King Prize had already been going 48 years when the PN article I quote appeared,  the Lambda Literary Awards (LGBTQ) started in 1989, the relatively tiny Barbellion Prize (for writing by ill or disabled authors or on that subject) has only just launched. But doors once opened will not close. A young Nigerian undergraduate on the last writing course I attended was writing a fierce, passionate, difficult book set in the Biafran war and the present day. Perhaps her book will be published. Perhaps next year a black woman will win the Booker Prize all to herself.

What to conclude? It’s an inexhaustible topic and I’m exhausted. I think people should be able to talk, read and write about anything and everything, but it must be sensitive and not incite hatred. Subject to that, everyone has the right to write. If they intend to try publishing what they write, they must ensure they’ve researched it thoroughly. However, in a capitalist world we must be realistic. Every good writer has the right to self-publish, and every really good writer whose returns will cover their production costs should have an equal opportunity to be published by a traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers have started efforts to increase the diversity of both their workforce and their authors; it’s well overdue and the world is watching. The right to write is everyone’s; the right to publish should depend on quality alone.

© Jessica Norrie 2020