News from the writing group

Some authors roam their keyboards alone, but many like the comfort of a writing group. I found mine when, after weeks critiquing each others’ work on a Writers & Artists course, four of us decided to continue.

When the world was normal we met in an art deco cocktail bar in Holborn. Sometimes we’d emailed extracts in advance, sometimes it was more ad hoc. Then in lockdown we read each others’ entire books and commented, raising our glasses on Zoom. It really has been invaluable.

One of us, Sofia Due, has just published an earlier novel. Ed and Lily is a cleverly constructed story of the dangers of “couple fatigue” – when you’ve developed a particular way of doing things and nothing’s really suiting either of you but you don’t realise the damage you’re sustaining along the mundane way. Lily, working in Cardiff, has ideals, Londoner Ed has ambition. Ed is organised, Lily is chaotic and spontaneous. On Christmas Eve Ed’s booked a romantic getaway to Iceland – but Lily’s working late and misses her train. The book unravels how they got to this point through flashbacks. The reader’s kept wondering if this is make or break to the very last page. All good fun but it deepens with Ed’s family background and Lily’s job for a frontline charity. Here’s what Sofia had to say about it:

As the privileged (I think) first blogger to interview you, I’ll ask the obvious. What inspired Ed and Lily?

I had this idea about a couple who meet quite young, and everything is perfect but it’s almost too much, too soon. They’re not yet ready to settle down, not where they want to be as individuals, but to achieve what they want, they might have to leave the other behind.  To make a relationship work, does one person always have to compromise and give up their dreams or can both succeed?

I started writing this in 2017 and about 20,000 words in, I saw ‘La La Land’ and thought, ‘Yes, exactly, that’s what I’m trying to say.’  There’s a wistfulness about the choices they made and what was right for them. Either way, to stay or go, would have been right – in different respects and with different outcomes.

Lots of us have had relationships like that, where to make the relationship work means changing direction, taking a chance, moving country and that will cause some difficulties. This is a story about whether you stick it out or go it alone.

It’s also about how we don’t talk about the important things in relationships, especially if things are going wrong. We’re scared and ignore the elephants in the room because once you start discussing things, you can’t be sure where it will lead. 

It’s a clever structure…

The structure was always like that, with alternate chapters from each point of view, to create a dialogue between Ed & Lily. The idea was the story started at the end, when the relationship was in trouble so it would be more detective story than romance, examining what went wrong, why, and whether it could be fixed.

Once I’d committed to this structure, it seemed like every book I picked up was doing the same. What I wanted was that with each chapter, the reader’s sympathies might change.

And how would you describe the genre?

I put this book through the new writers’ scheme at the romantic novelists’ association, twice. The second reader said it was more of a love story than romance as romance is supposed to do the ‘boy meets girl, something gets in the way, they get back together’ structure and this doesn’t. When I started, I was aiming for a simple love story but somehow, in my stories someone always ends up in a refugee camp!

Lily’s a vibrant, funny, realistically flawed character, based on anyone in particular?

I’m glad you think so, and no, not really. Aspects of her life and work are based on people I know but I’m surrounded by warm, competent, well-meaning women who over commit. She’s a bit scatty, but that’s what happens when you have too much on your mind, when you aren’t concentrating because you have a mental block about something else.

I found it harder to warm to Ed, although I cared so much about Lily it didn’t matter. Can you sell Ed to me?

Ed is kind and funny (I hope) but he lost his mother very young and is scared of more loss. The self-sufficiency and minimalist personal style is a defence; if he doesn’t have much, there isn’t much to lose! He’s liberal and open in his attitudes and appreciates that his rival for Lily isn’t someone else but her aspirations – which he supports. He’s shocked when he finds he might be wrong. He really loves Lily but he’s frightened of losing her by making demands and caging her. Without meaning to, that’s what he’s done. He needs to set himself free. As Lily says, ‘You were wearing a Hawaiian shirt when we met.’ He can change, although he doesn’t have to, just show he could.

That’s interesting. Other people have wondered how he puts up with Lily!

Lily works with refugees in war zones, a serious balance to the “boy meets girl” flavour of the main story. Is this based on your own experience?

To an extent. Refugees find their way into everything I do but although I worked with some children in the Calais jungle, most of my work is office-based. I’ve never done field work in a refugee camp. The camp in the book is fictional but based on places I’ve seen. The refugee stories like the woman walking for hours on a broken ankle or offering bracelets in exchange for help are real.

Why did you make Ed an architect?

Perhaps because when I started writing, we had building work and I was comparing the rubble with the computer drawings and thinking what I needed was a nice architect in my writing life to take my mind off the mess. It’s part of Ed’s conflict. He likes clean lines and open space but his loyalty to the people he loves means he’s surrounded by fusty antiques.

You started “Ed and Lily” written some years ago. What made you revisit it?

I finished it in 2017 and got a few requests for the full manuscript, but it wasn’t taken further. I worked with a mentor during 2019 to rework the timeline. Again there was interest, but it wasn’t taken up. Usually, I try and write something every day but during the first lockdown, I found it really difficult. I decided getting this book out would be my creative project for the year, to keep me looking forward. It’s been fun, I’ve had a lot of involvement in it. I also thought stylistically, it was now or never for this book. After the times we’ve been going through, who knows if realistic characters with ordinary problems will be what we want to read about!

Who would like this book for their birthday?

Perfect for people with birthdays in the next few months. They’ll get a chance to appreciate the timeline countdown to Christmas.

Buy links:

Ed & Lily eBook : Due, Sofia: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

The Book Guild Ltd

Ed & Lily by Sofia Due | Waterstones

Ed & Lily by Sofia Due | WHSmith

Ed & Lily : Sofia Due : 9781913913298 (bookdepository.com)

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Sofia_Due_Ed_Lily?id=6Es_EAAAQBAJ

The ebook will soon be available through other retailers, such as Apple, Barnes & Noble US, Kobo and OverDrive.

©Jessica Norrie & Sofia Due 2021

No signal

In last night’s disturbing dream my phone was useless and I couldn’t communicate. Partner said: “Good premise for a crime novel.” I don’t want to write a crime novel, but as always a title came straight to mind. No signal covers 1) my blog hiatus 2) the rural disadvantage of partner’s house 3) physical and metaphorical aspects of lockdown, and 4) the event that stopped me blogging much and writing at all.

In January a dear relation, not elderly, had a stroke clinicians labelled catastrophic, overnight losing independence and professional, social and cultural involvement to massive brain damage, semi paralysis, and total speech loss. For weeks she had “no signal”. Now she smiles, shrugs, raises her eyebrows, taps one hand, and cries.

For two months we could barely signal back. Covid allowed only three hospital visits, justified to management as therapeutic. Discharge was to an understaffed, pack-em-in uncare home with photos of forty Covid victims prominent in the foyer. At my first “visit”, I balanced on a steep grass bank and gurned through a closed double-glazed window, probably terrifying a confused, pain-racked, depressed, non-verbal Charlotte. After two weeks, strictly timed fifteen-minute visits were allowed, when she cried and cried. I have told the regulating authorities…

Finding urgent, pleasanter, safer care with no previous knowledge of the sector, was difficult. It’s a buyer’s market, nursing homes having lost so many residents, but judging suitability when you can’t go inside to witness staff and residents interact is tricky. There’s the selling agent’s word for it, pre-Covid inspection reports and glossy brochures with more chintz than people. You can tell a lot from the smell, mutters a district nurse friend. In normal times.

Nor could we access the typically £82000 pa fees of a good home because Charlotte hadn’t appointed Lasting Power of Attorney (have YOU done this? It costs £80/£160 online and takes just a few weeks to come through). She couldn’t agree to LPA because she’d lost mental capacity so our only avenue was the Court of Protection. Even with an excellent solicitor this takes seven months and £4000+. So whatever your age please apply for LPA today, for your loved ones’ sakes! Without it, we can’t deal with Charlotte’s bank, maintain her house, access her phone or computer… or shut the bailiffs up. But hooray for the social worker who organised interim payment of home fees!

Identifying, informing, updating friends, navigating legal, financial and medical protocols takes hours. Though still without CoP status, a contradiction requires me to advocate for Charlotte as her Deprivation of Liberty Safeguard representative. Therein lies a moral minefield.

Amid the pandemic, all NHS staff dealt professionally and kindly with Charlotte, as far as we know. Yet it’s compartmentalised and random. Some individuals communicate with next-of-kin; others won’t until CoP is formalised. Doctors spent two days saving Charlotte’s life. Then she became the therapists’ responsibility. The excellent hospital team discharged her to the community team who visit rarely and tell me nothing. Emergency hospital admissions for IV treatment open communication black holes. True to form, our Etonian government guidelines for care homes are delayed, illogical and impractical. So Charlotte, who can currently be visited immediately during her frequent hospital stays, suffers ten lonely days of self-isolation whenever she returns “home” (which is a good and caring place, but, obviously, not the lovely house she can no longer access). Each time, the private speech therapy I’ve sourced is postponed and even on her birthday she couldn’t leave her room.

This prolonged whinge is my entirely selfish point of view. Writing from Charlotte’s would mean exploring the wrenching experience of a loved one more deeply than I can bear – it’s an imagined state of mind to be visited only in the small hours or small, safe stabs of trying-to-understand. So I divert my thoughts to all that must be done. To write her POV would also mean experimental language even more demanding than McGregor’s (below). There’d be pages of wailing pain, of being bypassed and misunderstood, occasional enjoyment of tastes (dysphagia permitting), embarrassment, exhaustion, depression – very common post stroke, frustration, boredom and loneliness and where’s the happy ending? Disabled readers might cancel it and they’d probably be right.

But this is a books and writing blog! Poignantly, my last chat with Charlotte was about a book review here. Stroke is common in life, less so in literature. The only one more physically serious than hers that I’ve read of is in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, also filmed. Dominique Bauby, in his forties, was riding a professional wave as editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when a stroke paralysed him almost completely. He could only dictate this memoir, letter by letter, by flicking his left eyelid. I could quote the whole thing… For obvious reasons it isn’t long, but it’s beautifully written/translated and extraordinary.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight is inspiring – see her TED talks on YouTube. This American brain scientist had a major stroke aged 37 and viewed her eight-year recovery as a unique research opportunity. She explains the medical jargon and her own psychology and cognition with clarity, humour and joie de vivre. A helpful checklist of carers’ dos and don’ts highlights the devastating damage stroke can cause. “Recovery was a decision I had to make a million times a day. Was I willing to put forth the effort to try?” If this exceptionally positive and informed young woman found it so exhausting, what hope is there for others? But at least our NHS, beleaguered though it may be, means a stroke victim needn’t try to remember which hospital her health insurance covers, mid-stroke.

In the UK the Stroke Association have cheap communications aids for recovering stroke victims, though little for Charlotte’s more severe condition. Bolte Taylor happily relearned from children’s books; others may feel patronised which is where the SA booklets come in.

I’ve reviewed Jon McGregor’s precise and moving writing before. In a happy coincidence for me, his latest novel, Lean Fall Stand provides the reassurance of finding my experience reflected in good fiction. I won’t name the stricken character as he’s introduced in a different role, the stroke a deus ex machina for the reader as well. Quoting McGregor’s language play would need more context than my space permits, but, never obscure, he has surprising fun with a victims’ conversation group, light relief (not parody) after the grimmer initial weeks. There’s sympathy for his carer’s reaction too, the weary, questioning love/unlove of a mostly absentee partner when sudden responsibility strikes hard at her own life.

Which is more or less where I started this post. As I write, the stroke related emails drift in… I hope that explains the recent absence of signals from me. Take care all.  

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Oyez oyez

I marked my 5th blogiversary and promptly disappeared from the blogosphere. Ongoing family stuff, you know how it is… So this is a have-to-write-one-now-or-may-never-make-it-back post. It’s a miscellany of announcements. Are four items enough for a miscellany? A mini-miscellany, perhaps.

First, my enterprising German translator Michaela Pschierer-Barnfather persuaded me to record an extract from The Infinity Pool – me in English, she in German from Der Infinity-Pool. This is for the YouTube channel TranslatorsAloud –  also on Twitter @LoudTranslators. It’s a great site showcasing literary translators and my debut novel is privileged to provide their first item of translation out of English! Literary translators (indeed all translators) are an overlooked and undervalued breed. In the days of foreign travel I often used to marvel at the number of bookshops and the size of their translated stock, the evident enthusiasm of overseas readers for the words of other cultures and languages. Meanwhile we in Brexit Britain point our stubborn, leaky boat vaguely towards Australian harbours that probably don’t want us. I invite you to be the judges of my recording as I can’t bear to watch more than a few sentences of myself. Michaela’s came out really well and I do wish this hard working, professional translator and everyone else on this fascinating site good sales and many enjoyable projects to follow. Here we are in all our glory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDq9QFu2NrQ&t=4s

Michaela

Second, I promised fellow author and blogger Gail Aldwin I would publicise her blog on mine. Gail has many gifts – writing, teaching, warm encouragement of fellow human beings – but also one problem. For some reason Facebook will not let her post items from her blog, which is just rotten for an author. Anyway, back in March Gail approached me for a review of her book This Much Huxley Knows. I snapped that I don’t take review requests. She apologised for asking and offered to review The Magic Carpet instead and to interview me on her blog. I took her up on both offers, and the review was great. How generous is that? I said – in some shame – I would reblog my guest post from her blog. Then WordPress wouldn’t let me. The social media gods really do have it in for this blameless person. So she suggested I copy and paste it. But I think it’s better read in its original home on Gail’s blog because then you can also explore her books and the writer services she offers. Thank you again, Gail, for the opportunity, and I wish you good luck with your books and better luck with social media.

Item three. Many indies dream of getting a “proper” publisher, but fate can still intervene against mainstream publishers and authors. You may have read a rave review I wrote of Kevin Sullivan’s first-in-a-new historic Glasgow crime series, The Figure in the Photograph, published by small but historic firm Allison and Busby. Sullivan writes a jolly good detective yarn with engaging characters, interesting themes and evocative settings. This series opener should have been launched at Glasgow Waterstones in Spring 2020. Does anything about that ring a plague warning bell? Waterstones had put up their Covid shutters and didn’t reopen for months. The stylish hardback edition was destined for a library market but libraries closed too. When the paperback and follow-up hardback, The Art of the Assassin appeared in early Spring 2021 the bookshops and libraries were still shut and launches and festivals were online promise only. Some new books have found a voice via social media but I’m sure these are not the only new books which have gone under the general radar. Anyway – three cheers for another grand yarn of Edwardian wrong doing in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Juan Cameron the Scottish/Spanish detective-photographer hurtles round gracious riverside houses, stations, theatres and slums as he mixes with Viennese professors, Cuban exiles and women who on the whole are brighter than he is. Do track this slightly bumbling sleuth down. We all need good reads this rotten May as hailstones replace lockdown to keep us still indoors.

Sacré bleu! The last laugh lies with my fourth item. Comedian Ian Moore ‘as also created a new detecteev, wiz apologeez to ze French. Death and Croissants will be published on 1st July and already comes recommended by Alan Carr, Josh Widdecombe, Sarah Millican, Adam Kay… If you can’t get to France this summer this may be the next best thing. It’s even been compared to Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club, although I’m too jealous to read him so I can’t comment. I wish Ian every success, and if you can’t wait there’s a free prequel available here, with a quiz thrown in. Amusez-vous bien!

It’s nice to be back, but for now au revoir.

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Five glorious years!

WordPress tells me I’m five this week! Not a message I expected to see when I wrote my tentative Welcome in 2016. Right now I’m very preoccupied by what’s best described as a Demanding Family Event so will keep this post brief (at last! you sigh). It’s a quick rundown of the posts you and I liked best every year. Thank you for travelling with me; do please revisit and return, and I’ll do my best still to be writing for you (and me) in 2026.

2016: My most popular post with (for me) a whopping 1,357 views obviously struck a chord with the teaching profession I was about to leave. Read my thoughts on teaching writing at Back to the Writing Bored. I haven’t changed my mind! But the post that pleased me most was The Great Amazon Dinner Party because my first novel The Infinity Pool had done so well. If Shakespeare had sat SATs was aimed at the same audience as the writing bored. I’m also pleased to reread my memories of a wonderful workshop with Professor Marina Warner at Dartington, which led eventually to The Magic Carpet.

2017: Most popular post: The Best Independent Bookshop in London. Could be subtitled How to Bring up a Bookworm. If you are more or less raised in a good bookshop, your welcome to the world of words is assured. Runners up in my own mind are diversions into UK travelogue: an exploration of “my” corner of East London called The World in Four Short Blocks and Marsh Frogs Sing Loudly in the Ditches which came from a trip to the ancient Sussex town of Rye. I also wrote a little about cultural appropriation as I worried my way into The Magic Carpet. I wouldn’t dare start writing that book now, but it has its merits and I hope Getting It Right expresses the sensitive dilemma so many authors face.

2018: Most popular post: I was surprised but pleased for my German translator to find this was Sought and Found in Translation, after the publication of Der Infinity-Pool. But I also enjoyed exploring an unusual POV In a Nutshell, and was humbled and proud (if you can be both at once) to be asked to start a fortnightly books column for Smorgasbord, one of which is here. I kept that up for a year or so before asking to contribute more occasionally so that I could get on with my own writing. But I was so pleased to be asked and Sally and her crowd of co-bloggers have become good and supportive friends. Finally, although sometimes along with many of you I feel as though I Can’t be Bloggered, I did have a bit of fun giving a backward glance to Prologues.

2019: Most popular post: The Magic Carpet – Standby for Landing. This is one flight that hasn’t been cancelled so if you haven’t bought it yet… I also had the interesting experience of a blog tour in 2019, and there are a couple of posts about that. Not sure what I was doing otherwise, there seems to be a six month gap in blog posts.

2020: Most popular post: What Authors Don’t Bargain For. As when I struck a chord with all those angry teachers, I seem to get the biggest audience when voicing a collective grievance. Hope it makes people think! It was a sad spring, 2020, and here I am saying Au Revoir to Europe and just two months later worrying about how to write fiction in an age of pandemic. I hope you’ve all stayed safe and well into…

2021: …when as I say an ongoing family event has taken most of my time and attention, and my most popular post so far is from people revisiting my Easter Eggheads quiz of a previous year. My post on a workshop with Sophie Hannah did well though, and if you look back through there are others on writing courses each year. I’ve learned a lot in five years. Please stay with me, even if we’re both erratic, for the next five.

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Titles seek book

The Italian dramatist Pirandello wrote a play called Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is the best title ever. I’d make the bestseller charts if all a book needed was a title. I love titles. They come to me throughout the humdrum day and I think: Yes! Great! I forget many, but some stick. My problem is I haven’t written the stuff that comes next.

Trying to get through to the hairdresser reminds me I could channel Steig Larsson with The Girl with the Lockdown Hair. And another good phrase has rung through our house since March 2020. A glass or two of wine with olives and vegetable crisps saved the lockdown day with a semblance of structure. We knew we were drinking too much, so partner stopped referring to it specifically and substituted an invitation to The Things That Go With Wine (or on special occasions, The Things That Go With Fizz). These adapt easily. How about The Things That Go With Love or The Things That Go With Death? One Day I May Be Sorry for giving those away, but there’s no copyright on titles, so Be My Guest. Idioms make great titles.

Mrs Hellebore and Her Son Primrose sprung to mind on the first day of Spring. This will (or won’t) be humour – think The Diary of a Nobody and Lupin Pooter. Maybe Persephone will publish it when I’m a forgotten authoress. When? Who am I kidding?

Building without Dust came when I was mopping endless daily plaster residue from my keyboard during building work. I did once use it to head a review of Rachel Cusk’s work. Like Cusk, I love writing and reading about houses and homes, along with Kate Summerscale, Jane Christmas, Ann Patchett and hundreds of others. My eventual Building without Dust will be heavy on metaphor – tearing down the old to replace it with the new and then is the new any better? How long does the joy in it last? What’s the fallout from the process? It all sounds so grim I’d better just stick with the title.

Stealing Winston is my cosy crime idea. “Where are you moving to?” asked the removal man giving an estimate. “Near the Winston Churchill statue,” I said. He gave a great sigh of satisfaction. “AH! That’s my favourite statue in all Essex. Solid bronze, it is. Can’t think why no-one’s nicked it.” I stopped packing to scribble ideas about ne’er-do-wells saddled with storing and selling a whopper of a statue wot they’d pinched one night for a larf. Ideas ARE copyright so if I see this in the bestseller lists in years to come, watch out. 

Hooray for poetic titles. A beauty came up recently in an article about either the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo or the additional bits of Stonehenge they’ve found in Wales. Among the ancient remains were Traces of Ancient Sunlight. How lovely; sorry that’s the only trace of information I’ve retained.

Drinking in the Atrium/ Gin in the Atrium? The Counter Tenor in the Umpire’s Chair? Back to the Hammerklavier? What’s the genre? asks long-suffering agent. Well, it’s a bit niche…

The Infinity Pool was set in an alternative holiday settlement, whose management sold out in the minds of its eco guests by building a snazzy alternative to swimming among the local jellyfish. It also felt vaguely philosophical, giving my title a bit of extra heft. When we translated the title to French the philosophical side perhaps took too much precedence and the German translator added an explanatory sub-title. The Magic Carpet – which won’t be translated but would be easier – featured in one of the stories my child narrator drew inspiration from. Unfortunately feedback shows people think it’s a children’s book because of the title.

Thanks to Anete Lusina on Pexels.com for photo

In a recent thread in Book Connectors, my favourite Facebook group for bloggers, authors and readers, a writer complained her publishers always changed the titles she gives her books. If a commercial publisher took my books, they could call them what they like. They’d be entitled, for showing such faith in me. I just have to write the books first.

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Inspiring Reading for Pleasure

I really liked this post from school librarian and children’s author Rachel Coverdale about reading for pleasure whether you’re a child or an adult. After the year we’ve had, reading should be about enjoyment, enjoyment, enjoyment (and any year…)

Rachel Coverdale

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A child who consistently reads is a child who consistently learns. About anything, not just the school curriculum. In “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell, you learn all about horses pulling carts and all the relevant technical terms – you don’t get that on the curriculum. In “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson, it’s amazing what you learn about mountain climbing – you don’t get that on the school curriculum. In “How to Train Your Dragon” by Cressida Cowell, you learn all about dragons – you definitely don’t get that on the school curriculum!

The question is – how do you get your child to be interested in reading in the first place?

Well it starts in the womb. Really! Of course, Erin the Embryo cannot understand what you are reading, but she can hear the sound of your voice and the rhythm of your words. At the same time she…

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Plotting with Sophie Hannah

My Work in Progress and I languished, less WIP than RIP. But all was not lost, with the opportunity of advice from a bestselling writer. Sophie Hannah was giving a Guardian Masterclass last Tuesday. When my previous books were ailing, doses of professional writer wisdom revived them. Another Masterclass, days at Jane Austen’s house and RIBA/The British Library, and evenings in Bloomsbury were just what the doctor ordered.

I’ve been mired in familiar worries, explained in previous posts, that my poor plot and sluggish pace will yield an unpublishable book. Hannah was having none of that. Her PhD in Positivity trumps my Diploma in Negative Thinking. I once met another course leader who allowed “Yes, and…” and banned “Yes, but…” They’d be soulmates.

First Hannah had us write one thought about “our thriller” in the Zoom chat box. Participants wrote of frustration, being stuck, dead-ends, plot knots, losing faith, lack of time/inclination, and not having even started. Clearly I wasn’t the only one stuck in the mire.

Hannah runs a 14-week course called Dream Author. These two hours were a brief introduction. Anything in italics is a direct quote from her.

The facts about your book are less loaded and awful than your thoughts about it. You maximise your chances of the desired result if you realise the difference between facts and thoughts. Facts are neutral, objective. We have thoughts about them, and we can choose to have positive ones. We can audition our thoughts, only casting the helpful ones. Thoughts lead to better feelings. Positive feelings drive our actions. Actions get results.

Fact: I have written 30,000 words of Novel 4. Thoughts: “What great material from which to edit the best parts” OR “Shapeless waffle”. Audition: reject second thought. Feeling: I like editing (this is true). It’s a chance to select the best I can do. Action: I’ll edit maximum ten pages a day (manageable goal). Result: tight start that’s easy to build on.

Yes, but… was in my head. Yes, and… cut in Hannah. Discover the things that work by trying out the things that don’t. Even unsuccessful things are useful.

To get started, imagine your ideal reader. The instinct is to think of groups (women/animal lovers/YA). Hannah prefers to envisage an individual, an avatar, perhaps yourself. Write the book you’d read, themes and characters that fascinate you, with the writers you enjoy in mind.

To generate idea, you need to regard everything with curiosity, as a possible starting point. Yes, and there are so many: overheard conversations, tiny one line news stories, a glimpse of a church from a train. My third novel starts with a pub sign. Hannah’s right, stories come from small beginnings. You can take an everyday situation and just change a few details to make it weird.

Start by writing the blurb! Yes, but a blurb’s meant for the cover of the finished novel.

Exactly! Writing the blurb helps you visualise the final product. PLUS it provides the overriding question the story promises to resolve for the reader. I do like this idea. As Hannah says, writing the blurb makes YOU aware of what you’re undertaking – tone, setting, characters, mission statement. Put the character in an intriguing plot situation, and as you write keep referring back to that central question. Her blurb for her most successful book, Haven’t They Grown, promises to show how an impossibility can appear possible. (Her description had me so hooked I ordered one.)

Now the planning. This is where famous bestselling author Sophie Hannah, and I – indie author with just a few exclusive fans – differ. Her planning takes her at least two months. The novel’s 80-100k words then take her about 4 weeks (!) and her revisions 3 days (!!) because she’s solved structural and editorial problems at the planning stage (!!!) My planning, er, happens as and when. My first draft takes me around nine months and as for the subsequent drafts…. I ignore, er, consider, er, solve problems when they derail me or someone points them out.

Yes, but I really ENJOY writing whereas planning is a necessary evil. Although, supposing I did want to try, how would such a detailed plan look?

Right. It may run to 100 pages, full sentences describing the chapter rather than the chapter itself. It includes dialogue. It’s effectively a plan and first draft in one. You can depart from it, but it’s like a handrail on steep steps. If you know it’s there, you can relax and not use it. Relaxed, you’ll write better. Successful books usually have a solid, shapely structure – readers don’t realise but structure is what keeps us hooked.

Hannah’s plans are plot led. Realistic characters aren’t fixed, they react to events. Hannah puts them through the same fact, thought, feeling, action, result sequence she described in the coaching session. This method of developing characters is not at all “me”, but I’ll try it. I’ll embrace it! Yes, and I’ll follow her other advice, to address ”plot knots” by noting them, identifying what’s NOT working and taking the least worst alternative. Believe in advance your decisions will be right, and commit. If I decide planning’s fun, it will be! I’ll give myself achievable goals, celebrate success and trust myself to create something good.

So, a jolly practical pep talk. Yes, and in other news, my lovely German translator has a project for an online reading of The Infinity Pool / Der Infinity-Pool. Yes, and a delightful fellow author/blogger/creative writing teacher has offered a guest post and review for The Magic Carpet. Yes, and in a hopeful sign for Novel 3, the editor at the publisher I dream of working with has informed my agent that her long silence is because she hasn’t yet read it, not because she’s ruled it out. Opportunity knocks!

Jessica Norrie 2021

Guest Post #5 Hello Home…

I wrote this a month ago for Chantelle’s blog which is full of interesting things. I’ve had such a lot of sad and unexpected “stuff” to deal with since then (ironic that my last post reviewed a book about grief), that I now long for the uneventful days of January and am very grateful to have this to put up on what should be my usual fortnightly post. Meanwhile I hope all my regular readers are fine and running for those vaccines the moment they’re offered!

The Glorious Outsiders

Welcome to another guest post for my ‘Hello Home…’ pandemic themed feature. It would seem all of us have experienced or are still experiencing a lockdown of some sort while the corona virus continues to blight our lives. Although we are all in the same situation, we experience it differently because our homes are all so different. Thinking about this inspired me to write a piece a few weeks ago dedicated to my house and what it has meant to me during these strange and unsettling times. Today please welcome authorJessica Norrie. If you would like to know more about Jessica and her books, her links and bio are at the end of the post!

Counting blessings

Today was exciting. The window cleaner came. Then, a scaffolder’s lorry, delivering to the house opposite, blocked the road for two hours!

In lockdown I’m sure we look out of the windows more…

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First the quiz, now the answers. Well done everyone!

Many people said my Christmas Children’s Book Quiz was too hard – sorry! I was just about to provide more clues, when a friend who is a bit of a Hermione emailed me with a 98% score! (If you haven’t tried the quiz yet, it’s here.)

Whether you raced home like Hermione or are sulking in a snowdrift, I hope I conjured childhood memories and showed you books you haven’t heard of. Children’s literature deserves every bit as much attention as writing for adults, so I’ve added links to explore further (or enjoy reminiscing). One thing I’ve learnt from setting this quiz is that my knowledge needs updating, something for the next lockdown perhaps.

Round 1: Did you, like me, read these as a child?

  1. Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was a product of his time and class, with much of his writing jingoistic. But these animal stories remain delightful.
  2. The Children Of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston. Not now as well known as she should be, Boston wrote ghost stories based on her own ancient home. The second, The Chimneys of Green Knowe, was unusual in featuring a heroine whose blindness isn’t central to the plot.
  3. Peter Pan by J M Barrie. Strange notions of childcare here! But as stipulated in Barrie’s will, Peter Pan royalties go to Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital in London.
  4. Just William by Richmal Crompton. She preferred her numerous novels for adults, but William – who never ages – is universally recognisable.
  5. Thomas The Tank Engine by the Rev W Awdry. Despite brilliant illustrations the original text is somewhat dense, but the characters have adapted for each generation.
  6. Island Of The Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. This is a stirring story of an indigenous teenage girl’s survival after cruelty leaves her alone on a a remote island. See some of the Goodreads reviews for more in depth thoughts. I loved this as a teenager.
  7. The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. The first in a long, wonderful series. Aiken is up there with Pullman and Rowling for creating imaginary worlds and intelligent female leads.
  8. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Charming, nostalgic, romantic…
  9. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. Streatfield’s knowledge of theatre helps this classic story of yet more disadvantaged young girls deciding what they want and going for it!
  10. The Borrowers by Mary Norton. There are definitely Borrowers in my house. Inventive, and yet it teaches about vulnerability and inequality too, if you want morals in your children’s reading.

Round 2: A Picture Tells a Thousand Words

  1. Lucy and Tom’s Day by Shirley Hughes. This was first published in 1960. Hughes, now in her 90s, is still producing high quality stories and artwork, something new for every generation.
  2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. The first book I read my children, when they were just a few months old. I’ve used it for the happiest teaching ever since, in lots of different languages.
  3. Peace At Last by Jill Murphy. Another brilliant, repetitive bedtime story even for the youngest babies.
  4. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines / Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” Who wouldn’t carry on after a start like that?
  5. Funnybones by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The skeletons try to scare the humans but they’re much too funny!
  6. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Just to show that a book can captivate without words. Briggs has also produced much darker work, and drawn a touching biography of his parents.
  7. Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Brown. Beautiful illustrations, funny ending.
  8. The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley. I still can’t read this without welling up – try it for yourself or just admire the fabulous pictures.
  9. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. This 1962 US classic was possibly the first published picture book to feature a black child without stereotyping. It was still popular with the children I taught up to 2016.
  10. So Much by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury. At this family party, seen through the eyes of a toddler, you’ll have SO MUCH fun!

Round 3: Classics Old and Newish

  1. Anne Of Green Gables by L M Montgomery. The later books disappoint (me), but Anne Shirley as introduced here is great fun, overcoming a rotten start in life to win everyone’s hearts.
  2. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. The message about learning good behaviour through disability is cloying now, but this story fascinated me as a child. Again, the sequels are less successful (I think).
  3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Still good enough to make a great recent film. Amy was always my favourite, but you’re supposed to like Jo best. The sequels? Nah…
  4. Noughts And Crosses by Malorie Blackman. A simple but clever premise, and an excellent recent TV series. Some reviewers miss the point!
  5. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling. Not sure where you’ve been if you’ve missed this one. An imaginary world that’s given pleasure to millions, despite some of the author’s recently expressed opinions running into opposition. The sequels work brilliantly, if at too much length.
  6. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe by C S Lewis. A wonderful series for any child (or adult) who’s ever played about with a fictional universe. It’s a shame about the girls’ roles and the blond, noble Narnians against the dark skinned evil Calormenes, but the imaginary world created and the love of nature and animals remain outstanding.
  7. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Having loved this as a child, I was surprised how wordy I found it when reading it to my own children. But a roll call of illustrious illustrators have had enormous fun with the invention and characters over the years.
  8. Winnie The Pooh by A A Milne. Now the subject of many Facebook memes, Pooh remains as lovable and silly as ever.
  9. Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass) by Philip Pullman. My use of the UK title of the first in this fantastic series may have thrown some of you. But hey – it’s meant to be a mystery. The recent BBC adaptation does it far more justice than the film.
  10. Mary Poppins by P L Travers. Quite dry to read, compared to the film, but worth persevering.

Round 4: These characters are (part of) the family – but in which book(s)?

  1. Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace Ingalls are the daughters in the Little Houseseries by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Controversial now for the way some (not all) characters view American Indians, but beautifully written and fascinating social history as long as it’s clear it’s from the point of view of white “pioneers”.
  2. Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are The Railway Children (E. Nesbit) For an Edwardian woman, Nesbit had an extraordinary life.
  3. Pod, Homily and Arriety are The Borrowers (Mary Norton). See above.
  4. William, Charles, Percy, Fred, George, Ronald and Ginevra are the Weasley children’s full names (Harry Potter). See above.
  5. Kurt, Marcie and Minal Cricket are the siblings of Clarice Bean, in the series by Lauren Child. A popular contemporary series.
  6. Pongo and Missus are the parent dogs in The 101 Dalmations (Dodie Smith). This link is to the edition I had as a child, as I prefer the cover to one with film stills.
  7. Sally and I (her narrator brother) are visited by The Cat in the Hat (Dr Seuss). When he comes back things get even crazier!
  8. Lily Rose, Kate, Jim, John, Jo, Peggy and baby William were The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett. The language may seem patronising, but when published in the 1930s it was ground-breaking as the first British children’s series to feature a poor working class family in a realistic way.
  9. Naledi, Tiro and Dineo were siblings in Journey to Jo’burg by Beverley Naidoo. It’s an easy to read story of children living in apartheid era South Africa. For my mixed ability classes of 12 year olds it packed a powerful emotional and educational punch.
  10. Ahmet is the schoolboy refugee separated from his family in Onjali Rauf’s prizewinning 2018 debut, The Boy at the Back of the Class, illustrated by Pippa Curnick. There’s also a US book with the same title by Tahlie Purvis, which I hadn’t heard of when I set this quiz. Take a point (or two) if you’ve answered with that one (or both)!

Round 5: Animals

  1. Paddington by Michael Bond. Pooh may like his honey, but for Paddington only marmalade will do.
  2. Orlando, the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale. Hermione tells me there’s also a heroine called Marmalade Atkins in a series by Andrew Davies.
  3. Wilbur is described as SOME PIG in letters spun into Charlotte’s Web by E B White.
  4. In The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, Ferdinand is a bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight in the bullring.
  5. Mog is Meg the witch’s cat in Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski’s Meg and Mog picture books. Mog is also the Thomas family’s cat in Judith Kerr’s Mog the Forgetful Cat series. There may be more!
  6. One owl service is a set of dinner plates featuring owls with magical properties in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.
  7. The second is the postal service provided by owls in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. See above.
  8. The two benevolently despotic elephants I thought of were Babar by Jean de Brunhoff, and Uncle, by J P Martin. Hermione also suggests Colonel Hathi from The Jungle Book.
  9. In The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis, Diggory’s Uncle Andrew was planted (and watered) by an elephant who mistook him for a tree. Google “images from The Magician’s Nephew” to see this incident as depicted by the wonderful Pauline Baynes. (Must blog about children’s illustrators some time.)
  10. The Elephant’s Child (Rudyard Kipling) was spanked by his aunts and uncles for his insatiable curiosity. See Just So Stories, above.
  11. Elmer, in David McKee’s picture books.
  12. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.
  13. Anansi the spiderman features in traditional folk stories that originated in Ghana and spread to the Caribbean. Anansi tells stories and plays tricks.
  14. Although a dog, Nana was nanny to Wendy James and Michael in Peter Pan (see above). They escaped through an open window as she was babysitting.
  15. Mole, in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Round 6: Identify the author and/or the book(s) they are talking about.

  1. “It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers.” Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) said this of The Cat in the Hat (see above). The UK Dick and Jane were Janet and John. Janet helped Mummy in the kitchen. John helped Dad wash the car. They were boring.
  2. “… reviewers at the time said things like: “in spite of the strange title, it’s a very good book.” Judith Kerr on When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit interviewed in the Guardian 18/2/15
  3. “… my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders.” Christopher Robin Milne, in his autobiography The Enchanted Places, showed resentment of the Winnie the Pooh books by A A Milne.
  4. Richmal Crompton complained here that William Brown “takes possession of every story I try to write, even though they are not about him.”
  5. “I knew it would make people feel uncomfortable.” Malorie Blackman writing here about Noughts and Crosses.
  6. “If you read my novels, you know, they’re not black novels – they’ve just got characters in them…” Benjamin Zephaniah quoted in The Guardian 14/10/14

Round 7: Snippets of random information

  1. Tolkien and C S Lewis drank together in The Unicorn pub, Great Malvern, Worcestershire, whose gas lamps feature in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (see above).
  2. James Thurber was part blind after being shot in the eye by his brother in a childhood game of William Tell. (The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O was a favourite of mine as a child, in the Puffin edition with illustrations by Ronald Searle.)
  3. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and once married to Prince Andrew signed a seven book “nurturing” children’s book deal in Australia and New Zealand in early 2020. I think authors should get contracts on merit, not because they are linked to the UK royal family. So I am not giving a link to her books. 10,000 bonus points if you agree.
  4. The UK children’s author and illustrator who said “I get on with (children) perfectly well but spend time with them? No, no, no…” was Quentin Blake.

Round 8: And lastly, in honour of a Europe I’m so sorry and angry to leave, have a go at these questions:

  1. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (whose parents were Polish).
  2. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (France). See above.
  3. Miffy by Dick Bruna (Netherlands).
  4. Strewwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann. This link is to the German edition because I loved the picture which was on my English copy as a child. Horrifying stories of awful punishments for children who misbehave.
  5. The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank (Holland). Apologies if I muddled you – I always thought this had the title I’ve given but now see recent translations call it The Diary of a Young Girl.
  6. Fables by Aesop (Greece).
  7. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (Sweden).
  8. Pom, Flora, Alexander and cousin Arthur are Babar’s triplets and nephew in the French books by Jean de Brunhoff. See link above.
  9. When they’re told by the Brothers Grimm (German brothers who collected fairy tales from all over Europe).
  10. Pinocchio (by Italian Carlo Collodi) and Johnson are both shown with noses that lengthen with every lie.

I hope you enjoyed my quiz. Do keep sharing it, and let me know how you did by commenting below. Happy new reading year!

Questions and answers © Jessica Norrie 2020.

Quizzing around the Christmas tree!

This Christmas will be quieter than usual so here’s a quiz to print off and mull over. See how much you can do without Google! Please do post comments and scores, but not answers – they’ll be on the blog after Christmas. You may have to think back to your childhood, maybe even your parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods as I’ve realised many of my choices are old fashioned. If any 21st century children and grandchildren would like to contribute up to date and more diverse examples of well known books for a future quiz that would be great and you can email them to me via the blog.

There are a whopping 75 questions (I worked HARD on this, or you could just call it self-indulgence). Score 1 point for every correct fact you get – eg a point for authors and for picture books illustrators’ names. A point for the title or series, extra for the countries the books come from in Round 8 and any other answer to a specific question. I make the maximum score 150 but it could be more. Let me know what you get – and note, some books and authors may appear in more than one question.

Here’s an example, for two marks: TMG by PP would be Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

Round 1: Did you, like me, read these as a child?

  1. TJSS by RK
  2. TCOGK by LMB
  3. PP by JMB
  4. JW by RC
  5. TTTE by RWA
  6. IOTBD by SOD
  7. TWOWC by JA
  8. TLWH by EG
  9. BS by NS
  10. TB by MN

Round 2: A Picture Tells a Thousand Words

  1. LATD by SH
  2. TVHC by EC
  3. PAL by JM
  4. M by LB
  5. F by J & AA
  6. TS by RB
  7. HS by EB
  8. TMC by AB and NB
  9. TSD by EJK
  10. SM by TC

Round 3: Classics Old and Newish

  1. AOGG by LMM
  2. WKD by SC
  3. LW by LMA
  4. NAC by MB
  5. HPATPS by JKR
  6. TLTWATW by CSL
  7. AAIW by LC
  8. WTP by AAM
  9. NL aka TGC by PP
  10. MP by PLT

Round 4: These characters are (part of) the family – but what is the book or series?

  1. Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace
  2. Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis
  3. Pod, Homily and Arriety
  4. William, Charles, Percy, Fred, George, Ronald and Ginevra
  5. Kurt, Marcie and Minal Cricket
  6. Pongo and Missus
  7. Sally and I
  8. Lily Rose, Kate, Jim, John, Jo, Peggy and baby William
  9. Naledi, Tiro and Dineo
  10. Ahmet – and why is he on his own?

Round 5: Animals

  1. Who liked marmalade?
  2. Who WAS marmalade?
  3. Who was SOME PIG?
  4. Which animal hero of a 1936 children’s book banned by General Franco and burnt by Hitler was, according to Life magazine, accused of being “everything from a fascist to a pacifist to a burlesque sit-down striker”?
  5. Who had a cat called Mog? (At least two possible answers.)
  6. Describe an owl service…
  7. …and another?
  8. Two benevolent despots in children’s literature happen to be elephants. Can you name them?
  9. In which book did someone’s uncle get planted by another elephant who thought he must be a tree?
  10. And whose aunts and uncles spanked him for his insatiable curiosity?
  11. Who is made of patchwork?
  12. .…and who of velveteen?
  13. Where in the world does a spider play tricks and tell tales, and what is his name?
  14. Which canine babysitter lost sight of her three charges?
  15. Who got fed up with spring cleaning?

Round 6: Identify the author and/or the book(s) they are talking about.

  1. “It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers”
  2. “It was a brilliant title but the publishers didn’t like at first. Even reviewers at the time said things like: “in spite of the strange title, it’s a very good book”
  3. “It seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders.”
  4. “He takes possession of every story I try to write, even though they are not about him.”
  5. “I knew it would make people feel uncomfortable.”
  6. “If you read my novels, you know, they’re not black novels – they’ve just got characters in them; it’s about who they are, you know, the story and it represents the communities that I’ve lived in, which are very mixed communities. I don’t sit down and go “right, I’ve got to write black literature for black people” or anything like that. I just write stories.”

Round 7: Snippets of random information

  1. Which two UK authors used to enjoy a drink together in this pub, in a town whose gas lamps inspired a famous scene in a book by one of them?
  2. Which humorous US cartoonist and writer for adults and children was part blind after being shot in the eye by his brother in a childhood game of William Tell?
  3. Which Brit signed a seven book children’s “nurturing” book deal in Australia and New Zealand in early 2020? (10,000 bonus points if you can guess my thoughts about this.)
  4. Which UK children’s author and illustrator said about children: “I get on with them perfectly well but spend time with them? No, no, no. There’s no need, you see. I just make it all up.”

Round 8: Lastly, in honour of a Europe I’m sorry and angry to be forced to leave:

Photo by Mau00ebl BALLAND on Pexels.com
  1. (Picture book) WTWTA by MS
  2. (Picture book) M by LB (oh! I already had this in Round 2. 2 free points then.)
  3. (Picture book) M by DB
  4. (Poems) S by HH
  5. (Autobiography) TDOAF by AF
  6. (Classic) F by A
  7. (20th century Classic) PL by AL
  8. Where might you find Pom, Flora, Alexander and their cousin Arthur?
  9. Why might reading fairy tales not be an entirely happy experience?
  10. How have cartoonists recently compared Boris Johnson to an Italian classic character?

Questions © Jessica Norrie 2020. Photos of The Unicorn and Snowman with books © Jessica Norrie.