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

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.

Review: the Writers’ & Artists’ Guide to Self-Publishing

Last year I was asked to contribute to the Writers and Artists Guide to Self-Publishing. To be more precise, the publishers asked self-published authors to contribute case studies, I responded and they kindly included me. The pandemic delayed my author copies. My thanks now go to Eden Phillips-Harrington, Assistant Editor of W&A yearbooks at Bloomsbury Publishing, who’s written a useful chapter on how publishing – traditional and indie – actually works.

Like others, I didn’t plan to self-publish. But after not quite making it past the editors/gatekeepers of trad publishers despite my agent’s best efforts, that was how my first and second novels appeared and I’ve been learning how to go about it ever since. As for my contribution to this guide, I felt as Groucho Marx did about his club – any book that included my advice wouldn’t be one I’d want to read. Now I realise the guide is a readable mix of useful reassurance, information and “next steps”. Even my words of wisdom may help someone somewhere.

All such information is available online, notably at ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) but I did like holding it in one volume, reading from start to finish how the process works, and scrawling pencil notes rather than trawling through linked web pages. W&A is a highly reputable brand and this guide has a practical, no-nonsense approach from a bevy of well qualified and established experts (apart from me). A good general introduction for absolute beginners to the self- publishing world, it also contains information still unfamiliar to me after five years, explains concepts I was pretending to understand and signposts old and new tasks I must get around to (website! Email list!)

The very clear chapter on editing explains, with checklists, what different types of editor do, in which order, with timescales and tasks. Using an editor is non-negotiable. Self-published books have a rotten reputation, partly a hangover from vanity publishing days and still sometimes deserved. It follows that self-published authors have a responsibility to all colleagues and readers to ensure their product is of blameless quality.

As a contemporary fiction author who doesn’t need illustrations, tables, photographs etc, I’ll admit the detailed chapter on design made my head swim! It’s maybe best read after the chapter which explains both physical and ebook production. Providers include firms that undertake every aspect of production for you, including editing, design, manufacture, distribution and marketing, specialist services you can dovetail (you hope) together, and market giants like Ingram Spark or Amazon. Together these chapters start you off whatever your project, establishing when you can go it alone and when you’ll need to pay for professional input.

The distribution model, sales and royalties to expect (or aspire to) are outlined next. These differ widely according to decisions you take at the production stages; bullet pointed lists assist you. Two factual inaccuracies in this chapter highlight the drawbacks of a paperback guide to a constantly changing subject: since it went to press Bertram UK wholesalers, sadly, went into administration, and UK ebooks are no longer subject to VAT.

I HATE MARKETING MY BOOKS! Fortunately, a sympathetically written marketing chapter has made me more receptive. I’m almost basking in the sentence Put the readers’ needs first and you won’t ever feel uncomfortable or like a salesperson. I’ll never write “I love marketing my books” but the checklists, practical suggestions and myth-busting do help. However, fourteen printed links to online sources is too many for one chapter. That’s fine for ebook readers, but…it would have been better to summarise what they say.

Although I HATE MARKETING MY BOOKS, here’s one: http://getbook.at/TheMagicCarpet

The authors’ case studies show the enormous amount of mutual help authors provide. I cannot stress this enough. It’s only human to envy others sometimes, but by and large self-published authors form a supportive and generous community, especially online. It’s also nice to see book bloggers recognised. These mostly unpaid reviewers and publicists give invaluable service and should be treated with care and courtesy at all times or they’ll give up and then where will authors be?
Most people needn’t cover every item on the TEN PAGES of to-do lists, but they do mean you won’t leave anything out. As the guide says, “enjoy ticking them off”. The further information sources and glossary at the back should come in useful too.

Occasional statements beg for expansion. Some strong independent publishers prefer to deal with authors directly, says the Introduction. Since most self-published authors don’t by definition have agents, I imagine readers screaming “Who? WHO?” Although I do understand, in the present climate, how quickly details change.

Although I HATE MARKETING MY BOOKS, here’s another. Http://getbook.at/TheInfinityPool or for the German and French type the title and author into Amazon.

Genre and cost are two elephants in the room. I think genre is within the guide’s scope as the closer a book fits a genre, the more likely a self-published author is to succeed. My own sales have fallen foul of not being crime, romance, horror etc. How did I fall into the quagmire of “general fiction” and is there a helping hand out there?

Producing my first novel cost nothing. A friend supplied the cover photo, a designer friend put it together, we uploaded everything to KDP and off we went. It sold 4000+ copies. Well done me, but I squirm now. Professional editing would have made a good debut better. Second time round I bought design, editing, proofing, a blog tour… maybe £2,500? Your budget is very important! You will be covering all costs yourself and you need to be clear what these are! says chapter 4. But the guide is coy about the sums involved until you reach some of the author case studies which – gulp! – give food for thought to would-be millionaires.

So – helpful, practical, a very good start or waymarker for any self-publishing journey. Now would W&A please publish a guide to using the updated WordPress Gutenberg Block Editor. It has about the same speed and flexibility as its namesake, a printing press designed around 1440. Apologies for any swearing that’s leaked while attempting to write this post. See you next time, unless I give up in despair.

©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

 

Child’s play? Writing a child narrator

I started jotting down ideas for The Magic Carpet during my last few years of teaching. After retirement, it became therapy, to get teaching out of my system – the lessons I’d learnt, the people I’d met, the “all human life is there” reality of any school community. It threatened to be heavy going for its future readers, as it turned into a teacher’s sour rant against the government.

School signFortunately, the words of a wise headteacher came to mind: “Jessica, always remember the only people with an unarguable right to be in this school are the children. Not the head, the staff or the caretaker, not the parents – just the children.” She was right, so I decided to tell my story – of diversity and language, of education gone wrong and going right, of friendships, tiffs and damaged and happy families surviving, imploding or just plodding on in an increasingly intolerant London – through the eyes of the children.

The Magic Carpet starts in September with a new Year Three class (pupils between seven and eight years old). I’ve worked with learners from three to adult in my career, but my most recent classes were Year 2 up to July, the very same age group. I wasn’t just familiar with the voice, I’d been surrounded by thirty examples of it daily. Up shot several imaginary hands: “Miss! Choose me!” I imagined thirty children, sitting cross-legged on an imaginary carpet in front of me as I took an imaginary register. “I can only choose – let me see – five at most,” I said. The hands stretched higher; the pleading volunteer groans got louder: “Me! No, choose me! I’ll be really good!”

My story involves the relationship between home and school. I was looking for a quiet, perceptive, articulate narrator, who’d know when to stand back and observe and when to express their feelings. Alka and Nathan, a girl and a boy, fitted the bill. Then someone a bit clumsy to add humour, like in a pantomime. That was Sky. As I wrote this self-centred child I softened towards her; she had her own problems. Remember the class excitement when a new pupil arrived? I’d introduce Xoriyo. She’d see what was really going on and be an agent for change. Finally, I chose Mandeep, for likeability. Teachers shouldn’t have favourites but in retirement with a fictional class, you can do as you like.

Henry M 3
Assembly at my children’s school, 2000

Now I found a new problem. I’d describe something, then realise even the brightest Year Three child wouldn’t know that concept or vocabulary. Nathan’s father goes online dating, but Nathan would hardly be tagging along, reporting back. Sky’s mother, despite her self-doubt, is a good mother, and would hide her mild depression from Sky. Several elements of my story took place after the children’s bedtimes, or in areas of experience they wouldn’t yet have. But after I’d simplified the language and ideas to account for all that, the voices of Alka, Nathan, Sky, Xoriyo and Mandeep sounded indistinguishable.

A more sensible writer would therefore concentrate on one child narrator, as in Stephen Kelman’s brilliant Pigeon English or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But I wanted to reflect the variety of personalities, backgrounds, and abilities in a typical class. When I’d nearly finished The Magic Carpet, Guy Gunaratne published In Our Mad and Furious City, also juggling five diverse points of view. He does it very well, but his youngest narrator is already a streetwise teenager, out and about by himself. If my seven-year-olds did that, they’d come to the attention of social services – or not  – and I’d be back to ranting.

Mid dilemma, the children took over again. Xoriyo opted for a silent protest – a period of selective mutism, not uncommon when a child wants to stay in control of things. Mandeep ran off to play football; Nathan was absorbed in computer games and Sky was moody. That left Alka, a beautiful, bright, shy child who is bewildered and distressed when her secure world is turned upside down by an incident at home. With just one child voice, it became simpler. If she doesn’t know the name of something, I make an adult tell her – “Mum says that plant’s a buddleia.” If she overhears part of a phone conversation, she interprets what she hears literally. She tries to make sense of events in her life by drawing parallels with fairy stories, as all children do (which is why traditional stories remain universally popular). She thinks of law enforcement in terms of school rules. Parents keep her quiet by telling her off or other children bully her or once literally gag her. Once, she tries screaming to get her way. Sometimes she thinks problems through to terrifying logical conclusions because her seven-year-old self can’t get them in proportion.

With Alka in place, four adult narrators flocked to stand guard. Sky’s mother, downbeat but dogged; Nathan’s father, gradually remembering the power of the imagination; Xoriyo’s mother, speaking on her daughter’s behalf for as long as necessary, and Mandeep’s grandmother who has never lost her original childish joy. I hope you enjoy meeting them all in The Magic Carpet – as one Amazon review says: “It is a lovely novel and will resonate with all parents and teachers. Recommended.”

Jessica Norrie ©2019

 

The Magic Carpet – standby for landing!

Once upon a time, starting in 2016, an author wrote a story about children and adults in London telling each other traditional tales, and how the tales came to their aid when their lives took unexpected, not always welcome twists and turns. The author hoped to publish her novel in 2018.

Hey ho. London’s a complex city. Any transport a reader jumps on in such a place is bound to be delayed, make unscheduled stops at diversions and events, carry eccentric and delightful and difficult and conflicted characters before arriving safely at its destination. Since I started writing The Magic Carpet, world statesmen have visited (some more worthy of the name than others); royal weddings have pomped and circumstanced down the aisles of chapels and castles; Prime Ministers have come and gone, and all that time I’ve been concentrating on a specific few weeks in a cul-de-sac somewhere around the wiggly bit of the eastern Central line. I’d got my structure, but was otherwise still drafting when Guy Gunaratne  impressively stole my thunder by bringing out an edgier, inner city five narrator novel set in London. I reviewed it here. His characters are teenagers and older; mine were only seven when I invented them. They must be preparing for secondary school now. After making them negotiate domestic minefields in the book, I hope they’ve had a more peaceful time since.

Now hold on to your hats! The Magic Carpet will finally be landing on 22nd July in ebook format, and shortly after that in paperback. You can preorder the ebook here, ready for the start of the school year when the narrative begins. Meanwhile, let me show you the cover, designed by Jennie Rawlings at Serifim. I’m so happy with this. I love the bright colours, their impact like the gorgeous fabrics worn by the mums clustered at any London school gate at home time. Jennie’s drawn a ribbon flow of narrative binding together the characters. There are hints of Chinese characters and Islamic art to indicate some of their different heritages. She’s made the children at the centre of the book hold hands at the fringes of the carpet, which is great because in my story it’s the children who show the adults how to join together, and on the spine of the paperback (which I can’t show quite yet) she’s put a little rabbit for reasons you’ll have to read to find out. She’s chosen a strapline quote that sums up the power of telling magic stories for any community.

Magic carpet ecover This is the ebook cover. On the paperback, being finessed as I write this, there’s also a blurb and some ego boosting words of praise. I need those at present – no matter how many drafts and how much time is spent, I’m sending my characters out into the world with all the trepidation of a parent sending a child off to school. I hope they’ll be ok – no, I know they will be! At the the very least I do hope I’ve whetted your reading appetites!

©Jessica Norrie 2019

Fortune favours the brave

I chose this title for today’s blog post for two reasons:

1) This is a new venture: my first author interview on the blog. When given the opportunity I was keen to write about Jennie Ensor and her book because I so admire what she’s done. If this goes down well I may do more interviews in future.

2) More importantly, Jennie’s novel is about childhood sexual abuse. It’s not autobiography and shouldn’t be read as such, but during the publishing journey she has opened up about her own childhood experiences. The reception and sales of the book look pretty good to me so far and she has much to be proud of. Hence the title. Now on with the show.

40951635The Girl in his Eyes (Bloodhound Books, Sept 18) is the story of Laura, a young woman who can’t find her niche in life. She drifts through jobs ranging from unfulfilling to dodgy; she can’t give of her best in either, and she can’t make friends. “As if she had no free will whatsoever.” She was sexually abused by her father Paul, who “always had to be in control”. We soon see he was in control of Laura’s mother too, rendering parenting from both sides damaged. Without spoilers, the plot involves whether Laura can recover and also whether she can stop it happening to others. Ensor’s background is journalism. She sets out the context, the facts, the questions arising and the denouement efficiently, readably and well. I’d have liked a more original style in places, but style is hardly the most important thing about this novel, and it’s a page turner.

It’s hard to find Laura’s personality for the first two thirds of the book, for Laura as well as the reader. That’s the point – what happened to her in childhood has effaced her as a human being. “…an invisible cloak separated her from the world, containing within it all the bad things …she couldn’t let anyone see.” Her story is told in third person, with her mother’s and, bravely, her father’s in alternating chapters. Though I cringed as I read, I think Paul’s are the most successful chapters. Ensor captures (what I imagine to be) the self justification and twistedness of an abuser so well. Paul is only too real, nasty man, and so is mother Suzanne. But do read it and find out for yourself.

Q. I liked the discreet, reticent way you wrote the abuse scenes, and also those when Paul is attracted to another 12-year-old girl, Emma. The worst scenario would be accidentally writing something that some readers found seductive, yet to avoid such scenes altogether would be to create elephants in the room. Did it take you a long time to find the right balance?

A. Most readers seem to agree that the grooming/abuse scenes in the novel are not at all gratuitous or over the top, though for many they were unsettling. I did my best to write JEnsor blog postthem so as to minimise the possibility of some readers getting turned on by what Paul was doing – or wanting to do – to Emma, but I also wanted to indicate clearly to the reader what actually was going on. When I first wrote those scenes I didn’t think about balance, I just wrote what came to me. Later on, I cut a few descriptions of Emma from Paul’s point of view, e.g. how Emma smelled to him, and certain things which seemed too intimate or likely to offend/repel. Details can be powerful but beyond a certain point, I think it is definitely best to leave things to the reader’s imagination.

Also, there is the issue of point of view. The novel is all written in the close third person. Given that I wrote the grooming/abuse scenes from Paul’s POV, I knew it would be possible at times for readers to interpret that Emma is being ‘seductive’ with Paul rather than purely a victim, because in his twisted mind that’s how he perceives her. I wanted to get inside his head but felt uneasy about readers being drawn into too high a degree of empathy for his loathsome behaviour. However, I intentionally let some of Emma’s actions remain open to interpretation, to show how the carrot of being discovered as a model affects her better judgement. All in all, this needed a lot of pondering to get right.

Q. Laura has one friend, Rachel. “…sometimes she had the disconcerting feeling that Rachel looked on her as an object of curiosity, much as a biologist might examine the contents of a petri dish”. Does Rachel do all that you’d want a friend to do in Laura’s situation? Do you think Laura looks on herself that way, too?

A. Rachel is not the ideal friend, for sure. She is interested in Laura and has some insight into what she is going through, but is unable or unwilling to go the extra mile to support Laura. When I wrote the scenes with Rachel, I didn’t feel too much sympathy for her. But by the time I came to redraft the novel a few years later, I had more understanding of how difficult it can be to support a friend who is behaving self destructively. As for Laura’s view of herself – I wanted her to be, for much of the novel at least, unaware of how her behaviour is driven by her past abuse, so that she is, to an extent, surprised by how she herself acts.

Q. One aspect I liked was how you explore the mother’s experience, as wife, mother and friend. “Even now [says Laura], I’m going round on tippy toes to save (mother) from the harsh reality.” I got the sense you started off quite judgmental but became more sympathetic to her as the story continued – would I be right?

A. I wanted to show how Laura’s mother Suzanne develops as a character in response to her overwhelming pain of knowing what her husband has done to their daughter – which is something she has suspected deep down but not been able to face. I also wanted to show how the relationship between Laura and her mother changes as a result of this. Laura is rightly angry with her mother early on, but by the end of the novel both women have changed. I wouldn’t say I became more sympathetic to Suzanne, but I definitely hoped that readers might take a more nuanced view of her by the end of the novel.

Q. This is an affluent, suburban family – or appears to be. Appearances are very important in the book. Why did you decide on that particular social background?

A. Yes, this is an affluent family, living in a detached house in a prime part of London (Wimbledon village). I’m attracted to the idea of dark things coming from the outwardly ‘normal’ suburban family – and it is somehow less expected that a sex abuser will live in a nice house, have a fast car and a good job, which I think makes the set up more interesting.

JEnsor blog post 2From what I know about paedophiles, apart from being mainly men they come from all social and economic backgrounds – from the well-off professional classes to the unemployed. However, I do think that it’s plausible that stressful situations such as the threat of unemployment and subsequent loss of power might affect a man’s behaviour. The novel is set in 2011, during the last economic downturn, when employment was particularly insecure, and the stresses on a successful businessman in his fifties facing redundancy for the first time (as Paul is) would be significant. In my own family, which inspired some aspects of The Girl in His Eyes, my father was often out of work and our family was impacted by the resulting high stress levels and uncertainty about how we would get by. Paul’s current job insecurity is perhaps one factor that drives him to start grooming another girl.

Q. You’ve written the book in sections from three points of view. How comfortable was it to put yourself inside Paul’s head?

A. I started out with that structure as it seemed the best way to tell the story. I wanted to show how all three characters respond to extreme circumstances, in a way that would let me get inside their heads but allow me to pull back at times (eg to help the reader understand what was going on for a character).

Re Paul, I wanted to show the development of his attraction into an increasing obsession towards Emma, and how his distorted thinking enabled him to consider doing things other men wouldn’t. I had several men in my head who I drew from when creating him. While I enjoy writing ‘bad’ characters in general, it was certainly difficult and draining at times to go to some of the places I needed to go to with him.

Q. Describe your emotions since the publication of The Girl in his Eyes.

A. Huge relief and excitement that the novel was finally published, and gratitude that it was getting such strong (and mostly very positive) reactions from readers. Also I felt both anxious and at times frankly terrified when I began talking publicly in the media about my book and its inspiration – the family I grew up in and my own experiences of abuse as a child. Thankfully, I’ve had much support online and from those close to me. I’m very glad I was able to share some of what drove me to write this novel, and in doing so to spread the message that victims of sexual violence and abuse should not be shamed into silence. After speaking live to Jo Good on Radio London knowing that thousands had been listening, I was on such a high you wouldn’t believe. As I’ve said in other places, the speaking out I’ve done lately has definitely awoken my inner activist!

Q. What will you follow this book with – or do you think you deserve a rest?

31200537A. Though I care greatly about many social justice and women’s issues, I’m definitely a writer first and foremost. I’m pleased to be getting absorbed in work on a fourth novel, a psychological thriller with supernatural elements. I hope to finish the first draft before my third novel is published next May with Bombshell Books, an imprint of Bloodhound Books. It’s rather different from The Girl in His Eyes – a family drama with a brazenly comic streak, about a scientist who’s torn between her stalling career and the demands of her family. I think I needed to cheer myself up after the darkness in my first two books!

Q. Finally, I’ve worried about chapters in my own work in progress, where a character abuses a child. Do I have the right to write of this, not having experienced it myself? As my blog readers will know, I do think it raises questions, writing in the voice of those who’ve had experiences I don’t share.

A. I strongly feel that writers should write about anything they want or need to write about, no matter what they’ve experienced and what colour, gender etc they are.

Hear, hear!

I was very chuffed when Ensor commented: “Your questions are about the most thoughtful I’ve received, and I would have answered them all if not for the space constraint!” So if you want to hear answers to more of them, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll invite her back. Or take a look at her own Blog/website,Facebook,Twitter,Instagram and/or Goodreads pages.

© Jessica Norrie 2018; Answers ©Jennie Ensor 2018

Last but not least: any readers affected by issues raised in this blog post may want to consider contacting the National Association for People Abused in Childhood at https://napac.org.uk/ or by phoning 0808 801 0331.


	

Mark my words: teaching, writing, learning

My so far unpublished novel The Magic Carpet involves the demands schools make on families. I was pleased to see my themes reinforced this week by Andria Zafirakou who’s been named “the world’s best teacher”. Ms Zafirakou is one of so many committed, imaginative colleagues who deserve awards, and interestingly, she works in ways this government may barely regard as teaching. With characteristic goodwill she’s now using the prize and publicity to reinforce the same messages I believe in.

Ms Zafirakou teaches creative subjects, art and textiles – yes, they do matter, Mr Gove and successors! She provides breakfast because hungry pupils can’t learn – take note, ministers who proposed abolishing free school meals for over a million children this week? She knows their housing conditions because she makes home visits, unlike the council leader who’d never entered a tower block before Grenfell burned down. She sees children onto the bus at night to protect them from gang violence. (How sad – senior staff were doing that when I was on teaching practice in 1983.) She greets them in their home languages and shows them art from their own cultures before asking them to appreciate  “our” Renaissance.

A G girls use this one
I’ve blanked these faces in a snap I found from a 1985 school outing, as a courtesy to their now middle aged owners. If one of you sees it and wants the original, get in touch!

I got burnt out after far smaller efforts than Ms Zafirakou makes. When you leave teaching to be a writer, you swap wielding a red pen over other people’s work to being marked yourself, first during the writing process and then at the final exam. It’s a salutary lesson. I’ve been working out level descriptors and grade boundaries for The Magic Carpet since my agent began submitting it.

A* I thoroughly enjoyed reading it / absolutely loved this / a great cast of characters / Jessica is a very accomplished writer/ it was such a topical read / engagement in such a wide range of contemporary issues

A – a clever idea / certainly timely and thought-provoking / an enjoyable read / really authentically written / I thought that was a really nice touch and something quite different

B a nice premise / it’s a lovely novel and I wish you lots of luck placing it elsewhere / well written

C –  I couldn’t quite see how we would position it on our list and it is for this reason that I’m going to have to pass / I wish you the best of luck in finding the right home for it / We were a little conflicted on this one 

Dconcept a little contrived / the pace suffered a bit / this didn’t quite grab me enough to take forward / voice not distinctive enough

Edifficult for me to invest in the characters / a bit confusing due to the amount of characters and the contrast between children’s and adult voices / too many changing viewpoints so the narrative didn’t quite have that flow

Fail – I may have been a little over generous to myself with these grade boundaries, as none of the (real) remarks above have led to a bidding war or indeed a single offer, so in a sense they’re all fails. 

What to do? I could move on – my sardonic mother would say: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up!” I could revert to teaching. Or I could learn from the grade E lesson – too many viewpoints.

One theme of The Magic Carpet is how differently people experience the same intended provision. My story shows diverse pupils in a typical London school, the contrasting ways their families support them (or don’t/can’t) through one school demand, and the implications for their futures. The story theme and structure involve multiple experiences stemming from the same request, so I’ve written several viewpoints. But I did whittle them down from the standard thirty in a class to five, and each voice does have discrete chapters. In real life they’d all be clamouring at once! I also focussed on a single homework project, whereas as any parent knows, schools often make simultaneous demands: uniform, outings, payments, charity events, sports, closures, exams…

Although the disparate audience is any teacher’s everyday reality, successive governments have proved increasingly dense in their pursuit of a one size educational model for all. (Stay with me: it’s a novel, not a political discussion paper.)

School languages
My bible, for many years of my career, published by Reading University in 1996.

Families don’t have a simple, single point of view. I chose the voices of two mothers, a father, and a grandmother who provides daily childcare. Also one child, because too much discussion of schools doesn’t allow children to speak. They’re from different ethnic backgrounds, because around 37% of Londoners were born outside the UK.  Readers need to get their heads round these five viewpoints, which are initially separate but link as the story progresses. By comparison, a teacher seeing infants off at the end of the day routinely receives random information from up to thirty carers of any gender, orientation, religion, mother tongue, ability or class (potentially involving housing, health, safeguarding, relationships, finance, tuition, leisure, progress, immigration status…) I wanted to get a flavour of that onslaught, without leaving anyone as overwhelmed as teachers often are.

But the E grade editors tell me it’s confusing. A simple aid, discussed by Book Connectors recently, would be to insert a list of characters by household at the beginning. I prefer that to radical surgery. Cutting the viewpoints would weaken the point: the mix of generations, heritages, preoccupations and capacities sharing the same space.

On a lighter, equally important note, The Magic Carpet is about stories, creativity and drama, learning through fun and allowing children a childhood.

I’d love this quote from Ms Zafirakou on the cover of The Magic Carpet: It’s great to say every child should have the same potential, but you need to know the personal background and the lives of your children, and how different and complex they are.” I hope she’d approve of my fictional children who in their creative storytelling are, as she advises, “communicating…  building up social skills, talking about and breaking down role play…  life skills that every child needs.” They’re being entertained and entertaining too, as my readers will be if/when the magic carpet makes its maiden voyage and lands on the booksellers’ tables.

So I’ve decided neither to give up or cut viewpoints for now (unless a publisher offers to guide me). I’ll maintain faith in my product, and wait for one of the people who “absolutely loves this” to be Chair of the Board and override everyone else. I’ll continue to advocate for children, through writing, not teaching. Meanwhile congratulations, Andria Zafirakou and all the teachers and assistants like you.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

A prescription for blocked writers

I’d written my Work In Progress into a dark, locked cellar. It was time for something to stimulate and inspire. My budget precludes a long writing course, and I don’t like online learning. But since 2014 I’d had positive experiences at a Guardian Masterclass with William Ryan, a summer workshop with Marina Warner, and a Spread the Word mentoring session. So I booked “Building Stories” with London Lit Lab. The course aimed to “use the experience of our public and private spaces to inspire evocative fiction.” At the very least I’d have the privilege of working in two of London’s most impressive buildings. At best I’d start writing my way back upstairs.

Attendees included published and unpublished writers, academics, artists and therapists hoping to write fiction or poetry, and our tutors were Zoe Gilbert (Folk) and Lily Dunn.

Riba hall
RIBA, 1st floor landing, with busy participants

Our Saturday setting was the Royal Institute of British Architects, designed by George Grey Wornum, with interiors by his wife Miriam. Light from huge windows and etched glass doors floods the gleaming floors and emphatic angled spaces. Why architects would need a ballroom isn’t obvious, but they have one here to suit the most demanding Cinderella, with a grand staircase for her glass slipper to trip down and curved sofas inviting assignations. The library was modelled on a cruise liner and the soundproofed council chamber had a throne. In our conference room, originally white leather walls had turned uncleanably yellow from the smoke of a thousand meetings. We creaked across sprung floors and hauled ourselves up from the public space to narrower private staircases. Then we jotted our sensory impressions in short unpolished phrases, some of which we shared, anonymously.

An architect helped us study plans from the RIBA archives, including homes, schools, a debtor’s prison, a pheasantry, and an exhibition space. Our new understanding transformed them from codified diagrams to pictures in the mind’s eye. Stories unfolded.

Next, we were to imagine a building used other than for its original purpose. Writing an activity that didn’t fit the space would subvert it, creating tension. A derelict house, bereft of domesticity, is sinister. A church converted to flats must be deconsecrated. When a psychiatric hospital becomes a gated estate of private homes is it more or less of a refuge for the residents? Tube stations in the Blitz with people sleeping on the platforms, stables for cars instead of warm, living horses, ice hotels, the ruined swimming pool where Djokovic practised tennis as a boy. Map the mismatch, said Zoe and Lily. We scribbled away under the nicotine walls. I found myself immersed in a semi-serious idea from years ago, clamouring to be used. It had come to the fore because repurposing a building activates parts of the brain we don’t often use.

After lunch we discussed the psychology of spaces. How conversations run depends whether we’re sitting in a cafe or on a roller coaster. The rooms we’ve lived in are repositories for dreams, thoughts, conversations we’ve had in them (think of Proust). I was reminded how unsettled my father’s house seemed, when he was in hospital and I was popping in to pick things up. Something intangible had left with him, as though the house already knew he would never return… In the deadly quiet of the soundproofed council chamber we read of a Kate Chopin heroine in her hallway and her bedroom, her emotions and expectations adapting to each. The more private space meant she could explore her own secrets, have her epiphany and the story could move on.

We imagined someone with a secret, in a place where they feel safe. What happens? Zoe had postcard portraits, for anyone without such a character in mind already. Hooray! One was Protagonist J, in my stalled WIP. Now I know what he looks like! I described his safe space, nothing like the cold flat air of the council chamber but encouraged into existence there. Then I threatened it.

For a final Point of View, we were given a secret character – mine was a woman with a migraine – and had to write her POV on entering RIBA that morning. Could the others guess her traits from our narrative? It was an elegant way to end the day by referring to how far we’d come since we met.

BL seen on a staircase
British Library foyer, showing “The Tapestry”, from a Kitaj painting with the same name.

The British Library was a contrast on Sunday, our home turf a colourless basement “learning room” with an enormous expanse of white table, and no natural light (but better than my cellar). In groups we tried Erasure poetry, extracting evocative words and phrases from existing work(s), erasing or juxtaposing them to “write” something new. I was tired so on this occasion it didn’t do much for me, but others were immersed and stimulated, creating new poems together on huge sheets of paper. (My Erasure on that sentence might be: It did       for me,      creating    on     huge sheets. ) I thought of Rachel Whiteread’s blank windowed buildings, and of my favourite sentence from Reservoir 13: “There was weather”. So often, silent spaces are as important as what’s there.

Riba writing in council chamber
Council chamber, RIBA

BL room
Our learning room at the BL

We wandered the British Library, making notes for a story about some aspect of the building, or an object housed there. Touch, memories, smells: not only visuals. We drew mind maps of our journey, and of imaginary places in the invisible, non public parts of buildings. This time the huge sheets did work for me, my notes proving fertile fodder later.

BL underground
Who knows what’s in the invisible spaces of our public buildings?

In the afternoon with much shushing and confiscation of pens, we wrote in the Reading Room, normally closed on Sundays. (Pencils only, for fear of marking valuable books.) This room exuded concentration, and we all wrote for forty minutes in palpable silence like brocade drapes muffling us from distraction. (Bit overwrought – Ed.)

BL lightswitch
We stood back for the bigger picture and homed in in the details

Lastly, we discussed editing, considering two versions of a Raymond Carver story. A useful, practical discussion, ending with wine and some shared readings of our stories, before I dived even further underground for the tube home.

Thank you to Zoe, Lily and colleagues for a constructive and enjoyable weekend. For me, the tendency to focus on more literary fiction was especially welcome. These courses don’t end with the final well earned glass of wine, but give participants ideas to draw on for years to come. I enjoyed taking the writing medecine so much, I’ve treated myself to a day at Chawton too. I’m on my way back upstairs!

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©Jessica Norrie 2018