News from the writing group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a clever structure…

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

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

And how would you describe the genre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you make Ed an architect?

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

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

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

Who would like this book for their birthday?

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

Buy links:

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

The Book Guild Ltd

Ed & Lily by Sofia Due | Waterstones

Ed & Lily by Sofia Due | WHSmith

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie & Sofia Due 2021

Plotting with Sophie Hannah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Norrie 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Those who can, teach and translate

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

Did you ever go to school?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(A* for the blog post too.)

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

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

 

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

What do you mean, in italics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

italics Frannie langton
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Penguin 2019

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

Italics Poirot
Harper Collins, 2013

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

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

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

Italics Achilles
The Song of Achilles, Bloomsbury 2017

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

Italics pakoras MC
The Magic Carpet, Amazon 2019

italics MC tili dagga
The Magic Carpet, Amazon 2019

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

©Jessica Norrie 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MC on windowsill (3)

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2020

Declutter your writing – advice from a hoarder

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

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

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

edit your ms 1

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

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

edit your ms 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The End”.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

“New normal” fiction

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

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

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

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

Are writers in other genres any better off?

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

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

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

 

 

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