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My so far unpublished novel The Magic Carpet involves the demands schools make on families.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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What a difference three days make

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

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

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

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

mouse happy

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

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

14556521_10154750446787323_7166637374389067201_o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Happy Blogiversary to me!

Blogiversay cake 2.3I didn’t know the word “blogiversary” existed last year, and now I’m having one myself! Strictly speaking my first post went up on April 9th 2016, but since then I’ve established a pattern of book and writing related blogging every Friday. This is the closest Friday, so I hope you’ll join my celebration by entering my draw for one of four giveaways:

510glyvrrdlGiveaways 1 & 2!

Two paperback copies of “The Infinity Pool” for the winners of those who comment below (UK only, for postage reasons, sorry).

 

Giveaway 3! This costs me nothing but time and I’m sure I’ll find it interesting. I’m offering a critique of a piece of writing up to 2000 words (open to writers worldwide but note my usage is UK.)

You could submit the opening  of a novel, a short story, an academic essay, a book review, a blog post, a presentation text, a persuasive letter, a memoir – whatever you like. I’ll comment on coherence, structure, readability, style and content (unless it’s academic or technical). I’ll check grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. I’ll do this using the tracking programme in Word. It doesn’t have to be something you’ve written already, any time in the next 12 months will do. (I aim to get these critiques done by email within a month of receiving your writing, and I reserve the right not to enter into further discussion afterwards unless we both want to.)

Giveaway 4! I’m offering a similar critique of a piece of writing up to 1000 words.

Blogiversary cake 1.1

What are my credentials? Well, I studied European Literature at Sussex University. As a teacher I marked work  – all ages, right across the curriculum – for 33 years! I wrote articles back in the day for DC Thompson magazines, and I’m a qualified translator. I’ve written successful academic essays and dissertations, and many papers, reports and policies for my teacher training work. I’ve published a novel and a textbook for primary schools. I write this blog, if you want to explore my own writing style further, and I’m working on a second novel.

For Giveaways 1,2,3 and 4 please comment below to win. Please state in your comment whether you’d like the book (UK only) or one of the writing critiques (anywhere). Please comment before midday (UK!) on Friday 14th 2017.

Also – a near Giveaway!The Infinity Pool ebook is on a countdown deal on Amazon UK and US, from Saturday (midnight UK) for 7 days to midnight (UK) on Friday 14th. Your chance to read (and review please?) for only 99p or whatever they decide is the equivalent across the pond.

anniversary-2x

So – the blog’s a year old, I’ve written nearly 60 weekly/occasional posts or around 60,000 words, and three weeks ago I was nominated for a Blogger Recognition Award! I’ve saved it for today’s celebration. The lovely blogger who nominated me is Marlena at Fabulous Fusions, who I found when I was researching Punjabi customs for the novel I’m writing at present. She’s in a mixed race marriage with a multilingual child and after my career teaching such families I want to celebrate them as much as she does. I found useful information on her site but also much more – diversity, connectivity, tolerance, open mindedness, the future – everything the UK so badly needs right now. It’s typical of her generosity that she nominated me for my first award. Do visit her blog for yourselves.

Below is the award in the form she gave me (top left), and some of the other forms I’ve found on Google. If someone holds the copyright, let me know! I have tried to find out…

It was appropriate Marlena’s award turned up so close to me completing my first year, as the questions you have to answer (if you decide to take part – nothing’s compulsory) lead you to reflect on why, what, how, who, when, etc. Here goes:

How and why did I start the blog? Kicking and screaming! I’d published The Infinity Pool in July 15 and it had sold quite well, but 10 months in interest was tailing off and I was finding social media time consuming, stressful and random. You have to blog to maintain interest and build an audience, said Amazon. You have to blog, said Goodreads. You have to blog, said Writers and Artists, and the Alliance of Independent Authors, and Books Go Social. Blogging is great, said Book Connectors. More social media, I thought. But maybe I could control the way I used it better if I held some of the cards.

I knew I didn’t want to concentrate on book reviews, because I like to choose what I read and read it at my own pace and I don’t always want to comment on it. I do like to write, but was disheartened: I’d started a few second novels and chucked them at around 10,000 words. I thought a blog might unblock me. Regular, shorter, less intense assignments, snacks rather than a three course dinner. Also, I have opinions and it struck me this was a way of recording them. So I stopped kicking and screaming, and began composing (and deleting).

tennis player 2How’s it going now? I was still teaching until July, and my highest viewings were around May and June for arguments against SATs (won that one this week, it seems!) and discussion of how children learn to read and write. A couple of posts on Shakespeare boosted my ratings, and my posts on a trip to Japan are still being shared 6 months later. I’ve written about narrative, via tennis, mosaics, and packing a suitcase; I’ve written about diversity in teaching, society, literature and my own writing; I’ve begged the UK not to leave Europe (lost that one!) I’ve discussed children’s books and feminist writing, writing in translation and songwriting and I’ve wrestled with the Three Edded Monster.

I take my hat off to those who blog every day. Once a week is more than enough for me. I love the writing part, and sourcing illustrations is really creative. Sometimes I draw them myself, which has revived a pastime I hadn’t tried for decades. Sometimes they involve bizarre montages. I can always think of something to write, even if occasionally an idea only occurs as my Friday deadline hits the letter d. I’ve built a modest audience, I’d like to see it increase but who’d have thought a year ago I’d have one at all?

In particular I’ve made online contact with some incredibly kind and generous people, who regularly comment, sometimes repost, and are always encouraging and interested. I know I don’t return this enough and can only plead lack of time, as the blog has done what I wanted it to do and unblocked the second novel, now well under way.

child writing edited

Advice to new bloggers

Take time to choose a theme, font size and colours that are clear to read. The biggest turn off for me is something I have to peer at to decipher.

Keep posts reasonably short and edit, edit, edit. Break up text with images.

Check copyright on images and words very carefully indeed before you use them. If you keep it original you’ll know you’re safe.

Respond to other bloggers who show an interest. They are the key to increasing your audience! And most of them have very interesting blogs too.

My nominations

I’m nominating these fellow bloggers for the Blogger Recognition Award. Most of the blog titles are self explanatory. I ‘ve tried for a selection of smaller and larger, individual and group blogs. I hope those I have included will be pleased, but if not, just ignore it! If anyone feels unjustly left out, please comment and I’ll link to you in a future post.

blogger-recognition-award1The Daily Annagram – occasionally offensive, always very funny. Anna takes no prisoners!

Crafting Your Novel  …as it says on the tin

blogger-recognition-awardThe Writers Newsletter…this tin says it all too

Pamreader  A book reviewer with more challenges than many

Bookalicious – books and travel from a travelling bookworm

Tanya Cliff: “The Quill That Shatters Glass”

thelearnify-3Books from Dusk till Dawn – see the tin!

Morgan Hazelwood:Writer in progress – as she says

Julie Proudfoot a helpful and stylish Australian writer

 

bloggerrecognitionawardBooksandbeyondreviews.com I especially enjoy his Friday Face Off series comparing different book covers

Cathyreadsbooks Has a number of different angles on working in the book trade, writing, and reading

Olga  Núñez Translator and writer

blogger_recognition_award_1025x853D.G.Kaye US author, traveller and blogger

Annabelle Franklin children’s author

Jude Lennon children’s author and one time classroom colleague of mine!

blogger-recognition-award-badge1Tina Frisco the most positive voice in the blogosphere

Brit Fic Posts by contemporary British authors

Oh dear, that’s 17. Never mind – do check out their blogs. All of them are different, yet all of them very interesting.

If you accept this nomination (you don’t have to):

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide links to their blog.
  • Write a post to show you have the award and attach the logo to your post.
  • Write a brief story of how your blog started.
  • Give a piece of advice to new bloggers.
  • Select 15 other blogs you want to give the award to (I notice some people do fewer than 15, if that seems too many. I thought it was at first but look what happened!)
  • Comment on each blog and let them know you have nominated them. Please don’t be offended if they decide not to mention it on their blog or make any awards of their own as it is entirely up to them what they put on on their blogs and when, and your award may not fit with their plans.

Thank you Marlena one more time for my own nomination – I was very touched.

Congratulations to all new nominees!

Jessica

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Getting it right

mrs-ahmed-2
My attempt to sketch my Somali mum. Her story is not all as depressing as my bad drawing makes it look!

I posted recently about how well an author must know their characters. Much of my time since has been spent trying to make mine authentic. I’m nearing the end of a first draft of a novel set in multicultural London. My story follows five families, but only one reflects my own heritage. I’m pressing ahead with this, because although there are increasing numbers of wonderful books exploring the experience of specific individuals and communities, there are not yet enough that show us together, looking at how we all participate in and contribute to our institutions, our schools, hospitals, local government, commerce,the arts, sport, the media. Post Brexit, it’s essential to depict our cities as the relatively successful melting pots they had begun to be. By that I don’t mean to belittle the disadvantages experienced through racism, class or poverty. But in the UK, compared to some parts of world, I think we were, pre Brexit, tentatively moving in the right direction in terms of rights and opportunities for all. (If you don’t have a right in the first place, how can you defend it?)

But – please don’t say I told you so – I’m now realising how much more I have bitten off than I can perhaps chew. It’s all very well thinking I can write about a Punjabi heritage family because I taught classes with at least 25% such pupils for over twenty years. The difference now is that instead of them entering my classroom (and as we all know, everyone sheds something of themselves when they enter a classroom, for their own self preservation), the direction is reversed. I want full access to their homes and their thoughts.

mr-ling-2
My businessman dad

It’s quite a leap. For example, consider their back stories: content I may not end up even putting on the page but which must be verifiable if my characters are to be rounded and believable, more than just stereotypes or caricatures. I can imagine the childhood of my white UK character, and that of her parents and even grandparents, through a lifetime of my own cultural knowledge.I know enough about everything from which magazines each generation read, what the biscuit tin looked like, to what would have been a special treat or horrendous setback. I know so much I have the luxury of discarding most of it, selecting only what fits best.

But of my Punjabi family’s back story I know very little. I can trace their route to the UK. I can work out roughly at what point they were able to take on a mortgage, the location of the nearest gurdwara, and which generation received what in way the way of education. But in what ways does their daily lived experience differ from or match my own? Their choice of furniture, the way they move around their homes, how much privacy their children have, how they feel about Brexit and Trump, Bake off and Bollywood? It’s as though they had drawn their window curtains to stop me peering in.

A place of very little knowledge isn’t a bad point of departure. It means everything I find out is a bonus, could influence the plot, colour my decisions and the reactions of my eventual readers. It also means BEWARE! I’m tempted to use every small fact that comes my way. But I must pick and choose, when I have enough material, just as I would for the others. I mustn’t get fixated on one website, read just one book, ask only one person. I need a cross section, to check and cross check, and maybe, as I would for any character, go for the fact that’s atypical, the feature that doesn’t follow the crowd. My characters aren’t going to be interesting just because they’re Punajbi, Somali or born in Hong Kong.They still have to be eccentric, lovable, martyred, in poor health, artistic, bigoted, comical and sometimes unpredictable.

61ploihpwxl-_sx363_bo1204203200_The alternative path, with less risk of getting anything wrong, also risks making them too bland. Michael Rosen, in an otherwise very positive review of Peter in Peril, about a Jewish child growing up in Nazi occupied Budapest, says: “my only slight quibble is that the family are de Jewified.They have nothing cultural or religious marking them out.” But what marks them out must be correct. I received a lesson today, when in answer to my question a helpful Punjabi reader told me my Punjabi grandmother would be “very unlikely” to have behaved as I said she had as a young girl. My first reaction was irritation: now I have to alter my plot, dammit. It also affects my grand finale. Second reaction: whew! Thank goodness I asked. There are only so many mistakes an author can make before a book sinks into the one star mire.

Therefore I’m humbled by and grateful for the offers of help I’ve had from Punjabi and Gujarati people, some known to me from work and others complete strangers, alerted to my needs following a chance remark to a helpful book blogger – please do look at her Bookalicious-traveladdict blog here. Yes, by all means, said the friends she contacted on my behalf, do email us your questions! Here you are – the answers by return! Anything else you want to know, just ask! heroine-with-suitcase-2The generosity with their time and thought is very, very much appreciated – all to help out an author they hadn’t heard of two days ago. Book bloggers have received a bashing in some places recently: let me put on record that to a woman (they’re mostly but not all women, and unpaid) the bloggers I know have given practical, prompt, generous and efficient help whenever I as an author have asked them for anything.

So onward we march, my heroine and I. The word count hasn’t increased much, but the quality of the words has. I think I’m ok now for sources to flesh out my Indian heritage families, but if there are any UK born Somalis out there, or anyone who is of Hong Kong Chinese heritage and bringing up a child in the UK now, I would be very pleased to hear from you. Who knows what havoc you could play with my plot?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Achievements and deletions

A spate of ideas had spated. A flow of words had flowed. I thought all that was needed was to continue at roughly the same rate and in a few weeks a final first draft of a second novel would spew out. But my heroine‘s been delayed again.

heroine-with-baby
My heroine asked me to reuse an old picture, to save time drawing a new one.

The reasons this week? One was a stand alone story for children that sprung unexpectedly from the novel a few months ago. A publisher showed a glimmer of interest, if I could adapt it to be suitable for a wider market. I spent time tinkering. My heroine didn’t mind, she’s a mother herself.

The local bookshop advertised for part time staff. Could be fun, could keep me off Facebook. I spent hours compiling a CV, before realising, though I sympathise with the difficulties of a tiny independent bookshop trying to stay afloat, the rate of pay and terms were so poor I would end up enemies with the owner. My heroine was drumming her heels. So in lieu of fresh ideas I made corrections to a previous section of the novel that I’d printed off.

This week I had appointments with the dermatologist, dentist, hygienist, and at the eye clinic. No, they didn’t keep me waiting long; no, there was no devastating news to put me off my stride. But it gave me the chance to research ideas for a novel about our wonderful NHS. I might make some money to donate to the poor old behemoth (the scriptwriters for “Casualty” must be laughing all the way to the blood bank). I also tried to participate in the online Mslexia Max Monday forums with authors, editors and publishers. But my internet was on a go-slow (in solidarity with my heroine?)

planning-3
What a planning document!

On Tuesday morning I worked out how A would lead to B and  C result from that. I wrote the episodes (2,000 words – hooray!) and added them to my structural plan (a table with columns for chapter numbers, characters involved, location, how the action moves on, page numbers, themes highlighted, and any national/local/historical events that ought to be referenced). Then I had fun colour coding it with contrasting pastel backgrounds, one for each week of the narrative (spread over five weeks). Now it looks like a block of Neapolitan ice cream.I spent some time admiring it. My heroine sniffed.

On Wednesday I wrote the synopsis, for sending to a mentor I’m meeting in March. It eventually emerged coherent.Then I edited down my first 6000 words to 3000, because that’s the limit she’ll look at, and managed to fit a list of key questions for consideration at our meeting to one page. A reasonable day. My heroine lost quite a few calories/words in the course of it.

On Thursday I looked at my emails before starting work. How fascinating – one involved an invitation to a Gala Dinner to celebrate one year of the Jolabokaflod campaign in the UK. I can’t not go to that! It’s at the Café Royal, and there will be networking opportunities and canapés. Or should that be canapuneties and opportés? Either way, jolly good book trade fun. Acceptance entailed looking at their crowdfunding campaign and book promotion possibilities for The Infinity Pool. I shall report from the field next week. It reminded me I must get some new business cards, so I spent a happy hour designing those (book one side, blog the other). Anbook-launch-invite-small equally fascinating email concerned a book launch (see left) and a course to be run by Writers & Artists, From First Draft to Final Draft, with William Ryan. I once took a Guardian Masterclass he ran with  Matthew Hall and it was excellent. I look into details; I note I’ll be abroad during some sessions; I consider it anyway. At least the dreaded synopsis is written, and the 3,000 words are ready!

Then there were two free video courses to investigate.The first was from The Write Success, about writing a catchy blurb, and the second from The Writers’ Workshop. I probably won’t watch them unless there’s a transcript so I can skim the introductory rhetoric such videos tend to feature. I spend enough time in front of a screen as it is. But there may be gold within. There was the Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society newsletter, less dry and more useful than you may think, and some correspondence with my German translator, about publishing possibilities there. My heroine shrugged. She’s not in the right book.

With a birthday just before Christmas and a family of bookworms, I have an enviable TBR pile. I’ve got through a lot of them – an author has to read, to see how others achieve results. My heroine is also a reader, so she’s resigned to that.

All this before the window cleaner pinned me to the doorstep. In five minutes I discovered he loves Del Shannon, runs the Del Shannon fan club, went to LA once on his way to Australia and called on Del Shannon, took Del Shannon jogging, then went with Del Shannon to watch a studio recording session but found it boring as he doesn’t like music. Eh? Do not pinch this character, folks, he’s mine, although he won’t fit into the current WIP. However he could be somebody’s dad (not my heroine’s).novel

Today is Friday, when my blog post takes priority. So as far as the WIP goes, heroine, I make that approx 2000 words added, 1000 deleted. Not bad for a week’s work.

Finally, I spent time thinking about an elegant, hilarious, informative writer who has been around all my life and has continued regularly to produce fine words in the face of illness. I’m so pleased there’s another Saturday Guardian column by Clive James today (updated 28th January) and I’ll always treasure this one from last week which I feared might be the last.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

The heroine now arriving at platform 1

Last seen through a glass of Prosecco, my heroine returned this week. She flickers a bit, but she’s coming to life. This week she’s made cakes with her daughter, had the courage to oppose a demo against her right to be in the country, and rewarded herself with an ice cream after it had gone past.

heroine-with-suitcase-2Who knows what mysterious alchemy transforms a character in an author’s mind, sketched in outline, conceived but not yet three dimensional, into a creature of flesh and blood? I don’t, but like passengers on an erratic train service (though better than Southern) my characters turn up in an unscheduled way. They leave the train at the far end of the platform and gradually become substantial, walking towards me as though they were there all the time and don’t understand why I’ve only just got to the station to meet them.

My heroine is a tactful traveller. Unlike her author, she brings an overnight bag only, which she carries herself.The episode she’s packed today may involve another member of her family, her current mood or perhaps her state of health. It may appear trivial (that ice cream) but lead to something important (what if the ice cream van driver were a serial killer?) Her one bag is significant: full of essential documents and the wherewithal to survive: perhaps her immigration status has been revoked, she’s lost a job or her child has been injured and together we must find a solution by the end of the book (if all goes in her favour).

Look, she’s brought her friends with her. They’re taking shape too: the neighbour, the child’s teacher, the man in the flat downstairs. Helpfully, my heroine is telling me what the weather’s like that day, what clothes she’s wearing, even that her net curtains need a wash. (Can I possibly turn that into an interesting plot point? You just watch me!)

heroine-with-baby

It’s a strange feeling when your characters come to life. When I was working on the last novel, I remember lying in the bath one day (bare with me), vaguely thinking about people I used to know. I wondered what happened to W, whether X’s marriage lasted, if Y ever managed to stop drinking, and if Z’s career turned out as brilliantly as it looked likely to do…and then, I started wondering what happened to Adrian? What was he doing now? With a shock I sat up. Nothing would happen to Adrian, unless I made it happen, heroine-with-suitcase-1_newbecause I’d invented him. And yet for a moment he’d become so real to me he’d joined the flesh and blood ranks of people I’d happened to lose touch with. How strange – but what a good sign. It must mean I’d invented a rounded, interesting, believable character.
Next week: will my heroine stay in the shadows, blaze in all her glory, give away so many plot secrets it won’t be worth writing the book – or will she hide in the siding of my mind while I write here about something else entirely?

Watch this space (please).

©Jessica Norrie 2017

The great Amazon dinner party

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It’s time to test the water in The Infinity Pool  (seen above taking its annual holiday in its spiritual home). The paperback was published twelve months ago tomorrow, preceded two weeks earlier by the ebook. Why the hiatus? Who knows, but it gives me an excuse for two birthdays, like the queen. Although at the time I remember being dizzy with impatience to hold the printed object in my hand and turn some real pages, nowScreenshot 2 I’m glad because between anniversaries I had a major boost in the Amazon rankings – by over 100,000 places! It’s been fascinating to see who I’m sandwiched between from one day to the next. This week I’ve been in proximity to Margery Allingham, Val McDermid, Jodi Picoult, Kate Morton… honoured, I’m sure. It’s like being a last-minute reserve guest at a stellar dinner party – someone must have dropped out and the hostess knew I wouldn’t be doing anything I couldn’t cancel for the sake of such a night. Three dinner parties simultaneously in fact, because of the different categories we all feature in.

My major boost came about 13872752_10153663698687231_3085885263817280783_nbecause a dear friend, who took the cover photo, returned last month to the island where I’d been inspired to write the book. He took a paperback with him and gave my Pool a plug. The guests there must all have Amazon Prime, so I haven’t made many actual sales from it, but the “pages read” on Kindle Unlimited have zoomed into the stratosphere, burning my ears and returning me to the unhealthy habit of inspecting my Amazon rankings whenever they’re updated (once an hour). That’s how I know that seated to my left is the eminent French crime writer, Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret) and I’m the bulwark protecting him from having to converse with Jeffrey Archer on my right. I have my uses, after all. But it’s one of those dinner parties where guests change places between courses, or even between bites – I may have quite different neighbours by the time I post this. I may even be back where I belong, chopping onions in the kitchen (there’s more than one way to produce a tear-jerker).

Meanwhile I haven’t dined so well chez Amazon since September, when The Infinity Pool shot to no 1 in Australia. I think it was because of Stuart’s cover and the temporary promotional price – 99¢. I’m told books are very expensive in Australia so here was a bargain indeed. Amazon put me into the Crime category, and although the Australians downloaded me until they cracked their computers (I imagine), they didn’t like me much. Not enough blood! Hardly a murder! Where’s the incest and why’s the rape offstage? Boring boring boring, declaimed the worst three word, one star review. We changed the category to Literary Fiction where the expectations are more, well, literary, and I was comforted by sharing a table with Harper Lee, shunting The Girl on the Train briefly into a siding (she’s back now), rocketing past the Martian and bidding ciao to Elena Ferrante.  (No wonder Elena Ferrante’s a recluse, having to sit next to the Martian at the Amazon dinner party).

Screenshot 4Back in UK Mysteries, Thrillers and Suspense, I’m rubbing shoulders with John le Carré and Irvine Welsh. Meanwhile Sylvia Plath has not unreasonably chosen to shelter in Psychological Fiction but found herself next to me. I do hope she’s not feeling too conflicted to chat today, and I think as a grown up I could hold my own. Not like the day when, in my teens, I was introduced to Margaret Drabble at a party given by some friends of my parents. I adored, read and reread her books, identified with the heroines, tried to understand the points she was making (I didn’t attempt her sister AS Byatt). And that’s more or less what I gabbled, blushing and stuttering my generalised admiration. She smiled graciously and moved on to consort with more stimulating fellow guests.

Perhaps the memory of that toe curling embarrassment was what stopped me taking advantage of an even more impressive opportunity a few years later. I was living in Paris as part of my degree, and mentioned to my landlady that I was writing my year abroad dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. “Tiens!” said Madame. It turned out she was distantly related to or had been distantly befriended by or was an old schoolmate, or something, of “Simone”. Would I like to meet ‘er? I could per’aps interview ‘er for my studeez? I shivered. No no, I was busy that day/week/month/year. I regretted it deeply, but it would never be convenient for me to meet the greatest feminist philosopher and writer of her day, who still intimidates me now. What a dissertation chapter that might have been! What a coup over the academics of Sussex University French department!

Famous writers seemed to be two a centime in Paris. The very first day there, gawping the wrong way at the traffic as I crossed the road, I literally bumped into a monsieur who set my shoulders back in the right direction with a polite “excusez-moi, mademoiselle”. But it was the friend accompanying me who had to be picked up off the pavement. “You just jostled Samuel Beckett!” he hissed. Merde alors. Another unsuccessful encounter with a literary giant.

Maybe that’s why I prefer the Amazon dinner party. You can imagine the conversation instead of actually having to hold it, name dropping and star spotting to your hearts content. Now please excuse me: it’s time for virtual coffee and chocolat with Joanne Harris before I slide back down the rankings and lose the opportunity.

Amazon dinner party

© Jessica Norrie 2016