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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MC on windowsill (3)

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Turning to crime

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

gumshoes

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

Let’s cut to the chase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2020

A good deal of author news!

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

Magic carpet ecover[880].jpg
99p for the ebook for a month!
In an aside for fellow writers, it was selection for this sort of deal that pushed The Infinity Pool up the charts back in 2015. I think Amazon also advertise them, whereas normally we indie authors are left to sink or swim, so I’m hoping for better visibility, more reviews and improved sales. Being in a deal may also mean it’s price matched globally – worldwide friends, it may be only 99¢ or a very small amount of whatever your local currency is. (Please let me know – if I look at non UK sites I don’t necessarily see the correct data.)

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

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

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

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

Insightful, heart warming and thought provoking…

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

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

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

MC Pb cover jpeg - Copy

©Jessica Norrie 2020

To Be Read in Twenty Twenty

Sometimes I feel I don’t plan my writing career seriously enough. Although Novel 3 has gone to the agent, Novel 4 doesn’t exist yet, even as an idea, a germ of an idea or anything less tangible than that. An email from a list I should have unsubscribed from popped up today with details of a free short story competition and I thought I’d try a quick story based on an amusing episode over Christmas. There’s a 2000 word limit but who says you have to make it that long? I wrote the amusing episode down and filled it out a bit. I was only on 200 words and the amusing episode had been milked for all it was worth, plus I was having qualms about making hay from people who’d shown me nothing but goodwill. Short stories are hard to get right and one reason is wrongly viewing them as something you can dash off in answer to random competitions in an inbox. So sod the short stories (again). I was given several books for Christmas and my just-before-it birthday and if I read enough of other people’s writing craft perhaps I’ll be guided towards the place where Novel 4 lies in wait.

TBR 2020 2

Of these nine books, I’d asked for five. I’ve already finished one, although I read it as slowly and with as much care as I could. Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite authors. There’s a slow cooking and slow eating movement, and there are mindfulness and internet-free days and reading Elizabeth Strout comes into a similar category, ideal for the limbo time between Christmas and New Year, probably less suited to commuting. She observes ordinary people in an ordinary place doing pretty ordinary things and she makes them extraordinary and universal. Olive, Again is an older Olive Kitteridge, which I’m now rereading to remind myself of her back story and those of other residents of Crosby, Maine. Olive is now on and beyond a second 43820277._sy475_marriage. She has mellowed but her go-to judgement is still “phooey to you”. She’s kept her marbles (which she dreads losing) and she’s keeping her temper better than she was. The endearing, human thing about Olive and those around her is that they’re all still learning how to live and they know it. They’re by no means perfect and neither are their partners and at times they’re deeply intolerant of each other. Olive’s son, Christopher, is horrid to her and this may or may not be because she was a bad mother. Fortunately moments of humour and love redeem all this and Olive has a wonderful capacity for compassion and understanding when you’d least expect it. But even the meanest Strout character has the capacity to recognise their mistakes and try co-existing more helpfully. “It came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”

I also asked for A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier. If this is half as good as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Lady and the Unicorn I’m in for a treat. I shall save it for after my next eye operation in mid February because in the lovely hardback edition the font is a generous size. I’m not sure whether to read Joanna Cannon‘s Breaking and Mending account of life as an NHS junior doctor before or after that – the care I’ve had from the overworked but always patient, expert, and caring staff at Moorfields Hospital has been excellent and although I asked for Cannon’s book it may not give me the sweetest of dreams as I trust myself to their care again. Another request was Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a fictionalised account of the experiences of the Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. I found her last book, The Little Red Chairs, almost impossible to read because what it described was so awful. But I can’t fail to respect an author who at nearly 90 years of age is still confronting injustice and violence against women with such uncompromising bravery, and who still crafts every word with such angry care. On a lighter note, I wanted The Binding by Bridget Collins because I’m a sucker for that sort of cover – I call them Paisley covers and there have been a spate of them recently. (It doesn’t look as though the contents are very light-hearted though, and reader opinion appears divided.) My partner coupled it with Jessie Burton’s newest novel The Confession, which I’m hoping will be as good as her first and better than her second. Another lovely cover anyway!

My ex husband and I still give each other books every Christmas and birthday. He’s a Harper Lee fan, and rightly guessed I wouldn’t yet have got around to Go Set a Watchman. (When my first novel came out it briefly whizzed past this in the Australian bestseller lists, a moment of author glory you must forgive me for harpering on about as there haven’t been many more.) He also gave me The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, which has a plug on the back from Rose Tremain. Well, if it’s good enough for her…

And finally who wouldn’t want a David Nicholls Sweet Sorrow to look forward to? Bittersweet, poignant, coming of age… it sounds as though it will be much like the others but they’re all so well written and delivered. It will, I hope, be a comfort akin to watching afternoon TV when I was kept home from school as a child with a cold.

Finally, I’ve been an increasingly laid back gardener since reading Richard Mabey’s Weeds last spring. Knowing this, my partner found Wonderful Weeds by Madeline Harley. Next year we’ll (mabey) eat nettle soup and make nettle linctus for the compost, nurture the last remaining bees on dandelion nectar and feast on foraged forest fruits.

TBR 2020 weeds

So what with operations and all the reading and stewing nettles, Novel 4 may not be along for a while. Phooey to that, as Olive Kitteridge would say.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

Good reads to give and receive

Books as presents 2

Last December I posted what I’d enjoyed reading in 2018 and kind people have asked for an update. I have three categories for books nowadays – those still to be read, those destined for the charity shop, and those I liked so much they earn a place on my shelves. It’s been a pleasure for this post to look along the rows and find them for you. Most are not recent – if you want to read about flavour of the month books there are always the newspapers and all the wonderful #bookbloggers. But these are what stuck in this reader’s mind.

43611453._sy475_Storming in at number one for the second year running is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been rationing her so I don’t run out of gems. This year’s favourite is Life Among the Savages. These columns about motherhood, although her children must now be older than I am, still ring true. Here’s part of her second paragraph “I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living – sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things – and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves (….) I begin throwing things away, and it turns out although we can live agreeably without the little wheels of things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.”

Christmas books 2019 1
…little wheels that have fallen off things

As I was reading this, imagine my uncanny delight when I discovered in the pocket of the old cardigan I was wearing – an unidentifiable little wheel off something! Anyone who’s ever attempted to amuse sick children, schlepped them round a department store or directed household tasks from the labour suite will identify straight away with Jackson. “So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen,” as my mother would say, raising her head from her book for a moment to consider the pile of undarned socks. (At least women don’t darn husbands’ socks anymore.)

Julie Otsuka published The Buddha in the Attic in 2011. It’s the story – completely new to me – of the Japanese “picture brides”, young (and not so young) women chosen and brought to the US by Japanese men between the wars. No groom looked quite as their photo had shown them. This is a story of hardship, disillusionment, making do, humour, 10464963cultural displacement, hostility and integration, as poetic as The Grapes of Wrath from a female Japanese point of view. It’s difficult to quote from, for it’s written as though in several voices, themed by arrival, accommodation, agricultural and domestic labour, childbirth, children, the war and so on. My husband is not the man in the photograph. My husband is the man in the photograph but aged by many years. My husband’s handsome best friend is the man in the photograph. My husband is a drunkard. My husband is the manager of the Yamamoto Club and his entire torso is covered with tattoos. My husband is shorter than he claimed to be in his letters, but then again, so am I…We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113 degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. 

13330466Also from America, also from 2011, comes Winter Journal by Paul Auster. In the beautifully considered phrases you’d expect from him, he chronicles his life via the buildings and countries he’s lived in, the relationships with parents and women, the illnesses or accidents his body has undergone as well as the joys and sensations, the food he’s eaten, the cars he’s driven, his love for his daughter, the people he’s sat shiva for…. He’s sixty-four at the outset of this journal, and it’s intended as a sort of audit, far less self obsessed and more universal than I’m making it sound. A quote would be another massive paragraph, but whoever you are, if you read it for yourself you’ll find echoes.

36670917One of my favourite British authors is Jon McGregor, and his 2006 So Many Ways to Begin rivals the two above in the quality of the prose and the universality of his description of a long, more or less successful marriage over several decades. There have been problems – mental illness, redundancy, family schisms. There have been successes – homes created, a much loved daughter, love held and exchanged. Life could have been different; it may have been better; the narrator husband is on the whole thankful it wasn’t worse. Why have I left this book in the country? I’d like to be able to quote you every line. (For anyone who couldn’t quite concentrate on the wonderful but dense Reservoir 13, this is a more straightforward narrative, with more plot. But the strength as always is McGregor’s enticing poetic language.)

40130093A running theme here is poetic prose. It’s combined with a riveting turn-the-page plot in Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. (And at last a book from 2019!) In late 19th century Oxfordshire, a small child is pulled from the river Thames and brought to an inn on its banks. She was dressed in the simplest of shifts that left her arms and ankles bare and the fabric, still damp, lay in ripples around her. The child seems to have drowned. Yet she is not dead. She is healthy, but she doesn’t speak. Who was, or is the child? Who will claim her, who will heal her, and how will the story affect the characters around her, the innkeeper and his family, the farmers and watermen, the pioneer photographer, the self taught nurse and the delinquent son? The only thing I didn’t like in this book, although it accurately reflects attitudes at the time (and today) was the depiction of the river gypsies: it was hard not to read it as racist and it wasn’t justified by the plot. That aside, it’s a great homage to the tradition and language of the best fairy tales (which of course don’t usually give gypsies a good press.) One to save for next time you have a mild cold and need something to nurse it with on the sofa.

37573276My last recommendation is non-fiction, although it is about teasing out the stories we tell ourselves and reframing them for a better ending. In Therapy is transcriptions of conversations, originally on radio, between psychotherapist Susie Orbach and her clients. As she says: Each individual who comes for help craves acceptance, though they may be diffident or even tetchy…I find the particulars of learning how an individual’s internal world works fascinating. This is not so different from creating characters as a writer, only Orbach’s are real. The threads are as compelling as any plot, as some people work towards understanding themselves better and she tries to help others avoid getting even more bogged down than they were when she first met them. It’s not the end of the road, she is able to advise one man, it’s the beginning of something new and possible. Highly readable, whether you agree with her methods or not.

I don’t deserve to live in this company, but in my novels I do try to make my prose as poetic as theirs and sometimes I succeed. If you’re still stuck for Christmas presents, try The Magic Carpet! I can hardly review it myself, but there’s a lovely one here.

Magic carpet wrapped for Xmas

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

 

We’re home from the blog tour!

My first Amazon.com review appeared on the other side of the pond recently, and it’s a great endorsement of both The Magic Carpet and the blog tour process: When I read the first few paragraphs of a review on a book blog I happened onto… I thought-wow! I really like the way this author writes! I left the blog and immediately bought the eBook. And I did not want to stop reading… I felt warmed sometimes, and then very sad sometimes, and educated in things I didn’t realize, and … finished … with a hopeful heart. I think many people would benefit from reading this book

This was a less interactive blog tour than most. I was due to have an operation in August, so rather than take on several q and a sessions, Anne at RandomTours suggested writing guest posts and choosing extracts in advance. The rest would be reviews. I was quite excited! As the Tour started, my sales had stuttered after a decent start. My Amazon UK rankings weren’t threatening Margaret Atwood or even A. N. Other. I only had a handful of (good) reviews.

Magic Carpet BT Poster .jpg

Day 1: A gentle start, from The Bookwormery. No immediate change to Amazon rankings but it was lovely to see Lesley’s review there (I can’t find it on her blog now so I’m glad she copied it elsewhere) and on Goodreads. Note to self: don’t be impatient!

Day 2: To my great pleasure as a committed Remainer, I went European on The Magic of Wor(l)ds which is a Belgian blog. Stefanie, a Dutch/English/Spanish/French speaker who like my own daughter is a corporate translator, hosted my guest post on “Challenging my characters“. Dank je/thank you/gracias/merci! Note to self: Comments may not appear in English…

Day 3: Woke to find MC at #33,000 on Kindle Store. Watch your back, Margaret Atwood… We haven’t reached the glory days of my Great Amazon Dinner Party, but maybe we’re getting there with a wonderful review from The Book Decoder, who’s given an Amazon.com link, although it appears on Amazon.uk. Note to self: Make sure universal link works well.

Day 4: Naughtily, I got impatient at seeing nothing until late in the day, then remembered with shame the blogger is a mum and Special Educational Needs teacher – she has other things to do with her time. Her Herding Cats review when it came was stunning. I was so touched that this women, who could have been a character in my novel, had got it so right – and shocked that she was still responding to comments at gone midnight! Note to self: Don’t assume the blog tour organiser does ALL the work. The author must still be alert to posts going up, which could be any time of the day or night, ready and able to share them widely, and available to respond to comments. 

Day 5Random Things Through My Letterbox.  It’s good news to be featured by Anne Cater who is bookblogger royalty. This was my second guest post, so I skimmed it but I’m very grateful for the wide reach it will have had. Note to self: Bloggers all use different formats and have different audiences. I now realise the tone that works on my own blog sounds a bit, well, pompous elsewhere. 

Day 6: The most amazing review I’ve ever had would have made the whole tour worthwhile all by itself. Since previous days had already set the bar high for blogger understanding and appreciation in reviews, this one had to be good to outdo them. Huge thanks again to Julie at A Little Book Problem who also gave me a lot more insight into a_little_book_problem1how bookbloggers feel when tour organisers come knocking! This is one of the ones that you volunteer for because it sounds interesting and you have a gap in your schedule. You want to help out the organiser. You pop it in your diary and pretty much forget about it until it comes round in your reading rotation. Sorry to continue the quote, but, well, wouldn’t you? Then boom – you realise that you have stumbled on a beautiful gem of a book, a nugget of gold that dropped into your palm unexpectedly and you are so, so glad that you are a book blogger and that has allowed you to discover THIS book, this book that changes the way you think about things, that makes you see the world differently after you’ve read it. This is what makes book blogging such a privilege and a joy. As was receiving a review like that.

Day 7B for Book Review This was a second European blog (Dutch?) The first extract, with my Somali heritage mum and daughter reading a book together. I hope it gives a good flavour. I hope it makes people want to read. That’s all I can do. Note to self: If an extract will appear in a small lime green font on a white background, keep it very short and snappy! I’m not sure anyone read this.

Day 8TheBookCollector32 This one didn’t happen. Shame – I’d have welcomed appearing on a blog hosted in India especially given the origins of the characters in the book. So after some hesitation I contacted the blogger and she will post a review next month. I’m glad she’s feeling better!  Note to self: nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

Day 9Being Anne. I’d begun worrying about this guest post, realising how pompous my articles can sound. But rereading the “story” about storytelling I’d written for Anne, it worked well. Anne’s another highly experienced and prolific blogger (what is it about the name Anne and bookblogging?) and spreading the word a lot too. She’s also delightfully honest, admitting that The Infinity Pool has sunk without trace inside her Kindle.

Day 10: Over the Rainbow Book Blog Another busy mum posting late in the day, with a last kind review to add to the ones I look at when morale is low. She turns out to live locally, so I’m hoping for coffee and a chat sometime.

My UK rankings whizzed up to only 15,000 short of Atwood. I’ve gained several excellent Amazon reviews with additional Goodreads ratings and reviews in the bag for future quoting. The effort for me was writing some guest posts, collecting links, photos and extracts and sending them with (the very reasonable) payment to the organiser. Then I had to share the results on Facebook, Tweet madly and respond to comments.

Would I do it again? Probably. The sales had a modest spike, but haven’t paid for the blog tour yet. For now I’ll settle for critical acclaim over money in the bank, hope that some of the blog readers will still buy, review and recommend and take a break from marketing to work on Novel Three.

The Magic Carpet Advert .jpg

Things I’ve learnt:

  • Give the tour organiser the right short link. Some bloggers were linking to Amazon.uk, others to Amazon.com, one didn’t provide a buying link at all.
  • When writing guest posts, remember other bloggers use different formats to mine. Long earnest paragraphs look daunting. Other bloggers may not lighten them with illustrations so they appear dense. Avoid this with a lighter style of writing.
  • Set aside time for commenting, sharing on social media and thanking bloggers.
  • You do get a bit addicted to the attention and it’s still worth contacting bloggers individually. Since the blog tour ended The Magic Carpet has also visited Linda’s Book Bag and Katy’s Writing Coffee Shop and lovely Sally at Smorgasbord has been kind enough to reblog past posts too.
  • Learn how to use the hashtag properly or don’t use it at all – I’m not sure mine always leads to the book. Sometimes you get rival products instead.
  • Don’t expect the earth and don’t get obsessive!

Jessica Norrie ©2019

 

We’re going on a blog tour!

When I published The Infinity Pool in 2015 I barely knew what a blog was, let alone a blog tour. I didn’t envisage blogging myself, and I had no idea of the goodwill, time, energy and commitment put into spreading the word about books by bookbloggers, helping readers choose and writers survive.

More experienced authors pointed me in their direction and I began to get in touch with them, mostly via Facebook. It could be laborious – not because the bookbloggers were obstructive or unhelpful, quite the opposite. They were generous, informative and kind. But life became full of tasks and lists:

  1. Identify and visit blogs.
  2. Get a deeper sense of their flavour by exploring a number of posts.
  3. Read guidelines, consider if they apply to me.
  4. If they do, construct a polite contact email.
  5. Await a reply, consider whether to contact again (most bloggers are very prompt about responding so this wasn’t often necessary. However, a sub task was keeping a record of who I’d contacted.)
  6. Sort out what I had to do when they replied with an invitation, eg write guest post / send blogger a copy for review / answer blogger’s q and a / fit answers to quirky format only used by individual blogger to help them stand out. Send them.
  7. Put together all the other documents they need, eg extract / links to buy book / author photo and biog / social media links / cover images. Send them.
  8. Make a note of the date the post will appear.
  9. On that date share it on Facebook, Twitter and anywhere else I can think of, bearing in mind that overkill is, well, overkill.
  10. Share it again later (remember overkill though. And underkill.)
  11. Thank anyone else who’s shared it on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  12. Now I have this blog of my own, reblog the post (having first remembered to ask if the original bookblogger is happy with that).
  13. Respond to any comments, on the original blog and my own.
  14. Thank the bookblogger…
  15. Add details to my file of “online presence” because agent told me publishers like to see authors have one when considering whether to take their books.
  16. Repeat…

It all takes time; my eyes even then were finding it a strain spending too much time gazing at screens; my grasp of Twitter was (and remains) more a case of clutching at straws.  

As one kind early reader of The Magic Carpet said, “Such an impressive leap forward!” Now a proud author second time around, I’m about to have my very own blog tour for #The Magic Carpet. No’s 1- 8 on the list are taken care of by the blog tour organiser – huge thanks to Anne Cater at #RandomThingstours! I’ll certainly still be contacting bookbloggers who aren’t involved at some point, but for now I’ve enough time on my hands to spend some of it adapting a much loved children’s rhyme (appropriate as my book involves children discovering the power of stories and words). 

MC blog tour

To the tune of “We’re going on a bear hunt!”

We’re going on a blog tour. It’s going to be a good one! I’m a bit scared  – What will the bloggers say?

Uh uh! A guest post! A compelling original guest post! I can’t not write it. I can’t write badly…Oh, gee! My audience is waiting!

We’re going on a blog tour. It’s going to be a good one! I’m a bit scared  – etc.

I did write more verses but I’ll save them for a rainy day when I can’t think what else to blog about. A troll comes into it, but I think we have him licked. I’m sure you get the gist.

Anyway, whether readership, reviews and sales rise or not, THANK YOU to the clever, generous, unpaid, sharing bookbloggers from The Bookwormery, The Magic of Wor(l)ds, The Book Decoder, Herding Cats, Random Things Through My LetterboxA Little Book Problem, B for Book Review, TheBookCollector32, Being Anne, and Over the Rainbow Book Blog for showing my book to the world from Monday 16-Wednesday 25 September. Also for spreading the word about books in general, to benefit readers and writers everywhere.

The Magic Carpet Advert 2

©Jessica Norrie 2019

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 glaucoma (occasional) diaries

This is NOT going to turn into a blog about my health. There’s nothing wrong with bloggers charting their health; many are very brave and interesting people and when you have mental or physical health issues you have to get through them however works best for you. But this is my books and writing blog!

That said, last week I had very kind responses with requests for an update, so here goes. And you never know, an occasional diary of glaucomatous events may help with notes for novel four. (“Don’t forget me!” squeaks novel three.)

I have nothing but praise for the skill and kindness of the medics and nurses at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. It’s early days and I’m finding in a strange way that I’m much more preoccupied with the day to day unrolling of the treatment than with whether the eventual desirable outcome is reached (which is to retain and protect my remaining right eye vision before it goes the way of the rest).

Glaucoma fields test
This is a “fields test” on my right eye, last December. The black sections are vision lost to glaucoma. The treatment involves trying to stabilise pressure behind the eye to halt or slow any further loss.

First Dr K answered a simple question I could have asked weeks ago but didn’t dare. Turns out a “bleb” isn’t a bit of medical equipment/foreign body/object/weird plastic thing the size of a Macdonalds toy as I’d assumed. It’s a drainage flap cut directly in me. Curiously, when he explained this he was so matter of fact about it I didn’t mind at all.

Go figure –  Dr K (I’d name him in dispatches but will ask his permission at the next appointment) cut and stitched the inside of my eyelid. He had no computer guide or laser tech magic; he did it by hand. At follow up appointments he adjusts the stitches by pressing/pushing lightly on the eyelid, to alter the pressure of fluid on the eye, much as you’d adjust gathers in a curtain. I had a general anaesthetic but since that wore off I have felt no pain and minimal intrusion from the stitches.

If you’re looking for a quiet relaxing thing to do in the frenetic City of London on a midweek afternoon, you can’t beat a well judged general anaesthetic. Sure, I was a bit hungry after fasting since 7am, so while waiting to go in I’d described all the things I’d like to eat. Anticipating a post GA sore throat, I conjured up smoothies, yoghurt, jelly, juice. I asked for dried apricots and prunes – lying around all day might slow things down. I’d satisfy my energy needs with pasta salad with mozzarella, take sundried tomatoes and dark green leaves for iron, and a flapjack or cereal bar just in case. Plus grapes because after all I was a patient. I was just passing the time but in the hotel room that night I found: a bright orange smoothie and one called Blue Machine, honey yoghurt, mandarin jelly with fruit slices, apple juice, dried apricots, prunes, pasta salad with pine nuts, more pasta salad with roasted vegetables, olives, sundried tomatoes with mozzarella balls, rocket and watercress, strawberries, grapes, an oat flapjack, a cereal bar, and some camomile tea. As it turned out the anaesthetist’s skill had avoided a sore throat and I was more sleepy than hungry. Fortunately B always has an appetite, and we hope the cleaners enjoyed the things we left in the morning when we couldn’t manage them after the hotel breakfast.

Glaucoma sunglasses
Which would you choose?

The operated eye is bloodshot at levels Boris Karloff would envy, which offsets my blue irises brighter than any coloured contact lens. My glasses prescription no longer fits and I find glare difficult. A kind friend who gives a lot of parties brought round all the sunglasses people left in his house and didn’t collect, which helps, although it further complicates the issue of whether anyone has seen my glasses. I have a plastic eye shield to wear in bed in case I scratch the wound, and over the next three months over 600 doses of eyedrop, antibiotic or anti inflammatory to take. Have filled the prescriptions asap (did you hear about Brexit and the medicine shortages?)

But it’s only a week later, and I can now read several pages without tiring (Shirley Jackson, must tell you about her another time). I can report that the general anaesthetic did wonders for my back! Today is the first day back at the computer without discomfort which is just as well as I have six posts to write, for a Magic Carpet blog tour and some other commitments I made. The cure for any sad carpet is a good airing, aka publicity. The Magic Carpet is earthbound after its initial flurry. If it had sails, I’d say the wind was out of them, despite recent puffs from some excellent reviews for which I’m very grateful. So friends – if you’re nearby please visit (I’m still a bit wary of outings that might get dust and pollution in my eye). And if you can do anything to help The Magic Carpet weave its way further up the contemporary fiction charts at Amazon, I’d appreciate it as much as any bunch of grapes.

 

Glaucoma meds
…and that’s just one of the meds. Hooray for the NHS!

©Jessica Norrie 2019

Are you looking for a Magic Carpet?

81wjjzeuuxl._sl1500_I searched Amazon for The Magic Carpet. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a… small carpet, according to Amazon. It’s only available in purple and averages 4* reviews. One says: “It does move, that’s the only downside I’ve found so far.” Most people love it.

the men on magic carpetsThe phrase appears too in the title of a book about coaching sports superstars, which until today shared with mine the distinction (?) of not yet having any reviews on Amazon.co.uk. It looks really interesting though! Sending full supportive wishes to my fellow author over in the US, where he is well reviewed. Update: the day after uploading this blog post, I left the review starting blocks so maybe he will too.

81lvd0ecnnl._sl1500_A magic carpet is also a battery powered ‘shimmer and shine’ toy which despite mostly rave reviews, someone says was “the worst toy we bought this Christmas”… (“the dolls themselves are fine but the shoes come off too easily” – er, maybe they’ve been told not to get mud on the, you know, carpet?) The carpet, which “magically flutters” (nifty use of wheels there) “responds to being tilted with over 40 sounds and fun phrases.” Must find a three year old to buy one for.

It’s a tarpaulin, which is “100% waterproof” and has “4 corner attachment points”. I’m liking this product best so far. It sounds so practical. But not really magic.61m1hdqwsel._sl1500_…a carpet shampoo… nah. Life’s too short for shampooing carpets, but each to their own. One customer gives it 5* so she (my sexist guess) must have been blown away.

…an enviably precisely described Vinsani Magic Clean Step Mat Non-Slip Backing Machine Washable Doormat Carpet Runner Rug Liner – Black/White – 45 X 150 cm”…Too long for a book title, though.

…a children’s colouring in kit but I bet adults can have a go too. Colouring in is so last year, but they’ve added simple sewing to help you relive another forgotten childhood activity.

Craft it Baker Ross

It’s all those things and more but The Magic Carpet is also MY SECOND NOVEL! Apologies for shouting but I need to get this piece of contemporary fiction off the ground. If you add my name to your search, or just search in “Books” you’ll avoid all the carpets let alone cleaning them, and no one will make you play with anything unless you want to.  You can choose the enchanted ebook or the bewitching book (paperback). Then you can drift away, until, coming down to earth with a bump, you write a spellbound review so the one I have already doesn’t feel lonely.

Does that sound like a deal? Amazon won’t accept reviews from known connections of the author, so I need more random readers to make their voices heard or my book will never rise through the section rankings to the magical top 100. Thank you! Now we can all live happily ever after… Good luck to all those other products too and hope you appreciated the shout out.

Jessica Norrie ©2019