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

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

“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

 

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

 

 

Maps for lost readers

Tidying up last week, I came across this initial sketch for the road The Magic Carpet families live in, made when I realised I wasn’t describing their comings and goings consistently. I may have had early thoughts of including it with the book – I’m a sucker for any book that has a plan or a map at the front, such as the Cluedo style plans used by Agatha Christie. A Book Riot post here has more great examples.

map 1 for MC

I recently read two contemporary books with house plans for endpapers. It’s a dangerous device as they do suggest extra riches within – Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s Peculiar Ground lived up to the promise with panache as reader and writer explored the grounds of her stately home setting together, but for me bestseller The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle didn’t work for several reasons, one being that the map didn’t match the story.

Joanna Cannon, in The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Fredrik Blackman in A Man called Ove write their residential street settings so clearly that my mental picture tricked me into remembering plans that aren’t actually provided – I had to check my copies before I realised. I don’t think Richmal Crompton’s William Brown books provided one either, but fifty years after first reading them I could guide you round William’s village to his house, his long suffering school, the Bott’s nouveau riche manor house, and the various cottages where the Outlaws and assorted bespectacled men and tall lady writers lived. My mental navigation skills had first been stimulated by Joyce Lankester Brisley, author of Milly-Molly-Mandy, who does provide a map of M-M-M’s village and by the maps in my Pooh Bear books of the Hundred Acre Wood. Copyright won’t let me reproduce them here but you can see them on the Look Inside pages on Amazon.

A house, a small village, a cul-de-sac – these are all excellent settings because the writer can keep them closed to trap the characters inside while their story unfolds, or open them up partly or in full to admit strangers, dangers or resolution. With only one way in or out (or a sinister back way known only to locals, as in Cannon or Helen Kitson’s The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson) the writer can control character movements as a good general would deploy troops. A fan of early BrooksideI was particularly attracted to a cul-de-sac – a French word but the French don’t use it. They say “impasse” instead, which is much less helpful for plot purposes. Real British cul-de-sacs tend to be designed for and house a more homogeneous demographic than Brookside’s – but in London the monstrous permutations of the property, rental and social housing market lead to all sorts of cheek by jowl variety and make life much more interesting.

So I set The Magic Carpet in a cul-de-sac, with a mix of family structures, incomes and backgrounds, and initially just the school their children attended to unite them. In my childhood, we’d have played outside in such a street. I hoped my characters might grow into that. My initial layout didn’t last: I changed the road name, moved some families and evicted others, swapped addresses, added some posh flats, divided some houses into maisonettes and extended others. I got rid of the central block and paved over most front gardens, with only a posse of gnomes resisting on one of the last remaining lawns. I turned  the luxury flats and the poorest house (council tenanted via a private landlord) to face the main road and the dangerous world outside. With no planning permission required, it was quick and easy. Unfortunately all my new maps turned out like phalluses; if you imagine the (deleted) outline of the close you’ll see what I mean. So with no budget for a pro to  resolve that particular embarrassment, I didn’t include it in the book. But you people who read my blog are special, so here’s my amateur effort: an additional reading aid just for you.

MC final map 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

 

Dragging my plot uphill like Sisyphus

Novel Number Two, The Magic Carpet, has been well received at the publishers – the rejections are very kind and positive. Here’s a typical one from last month:

I thought the ensemble characters were great and all clearly had their own well thought out narratives, and it was really interesting to see a novel not sit in a typical middle class setting. Unfortunately however, that being said, I am going to pass on it for the moment, purely as I feel it doesn’t quite sit in a specific genre, and as such it might make for a tricky sell in the commercial fiction market.

Do I care? I’m pretending I don’t. I read Camus as a student, and took his retelling of the Sisyphus11987 lesson to heart. (In brief: Sisyphus annoyed the Greek gods. He was punished by being made to roll a boulder uphill for the rest of his life. Every time he got it to the top, it rolled straight down again.) My agent will just have to go on bowling Novel Number 2 (NN2) uphill at the publishers and catching it when it rolls down again.  KDP/Amazon can have it in the New Year if we’ve had no joy by then.

I’m concentrating on Novel Number Three (NN3). I’m at that stage of a first draft when I have 90k words of material (picture Sisyphus aka me heaving my boulder optimistically uphill). I know I’m going to cut at least 20k words and add some other bits as yet unknown (boulder rolls about a third of the way down). I know what the end is – in fact I have several possible endings – up we climb, Sisyphus! But I can’t decide which scene should form the beginning (watch out below, boulder coming down). Different characters keep pushing to the fore and shouting “I’m important too!” (Broadly speaking, this is good news, so up goes Sisyphus with a boulder that seems lighter today.) But there are also some characters, who meekly admit: “I know I’ve taken up a a lot of your time and energy over the last few months, but actually I’m really, er, boring. Why not delete me?” Crash! Boulder hits base camp. Injuries reported.

Sisyphus 5
Notes weighted down by basket of random oddments that arrive on my desk from places unknown. But look! There’s a small boulder of fools’ gold. How apt.

Although all I’m actually doing is copying, pasting, cutting, repasting, rewriting  chunks of prose on a keyboard, I do feel as though I were pulling a boulder up hill. My ms has a  weighty quality, just as it would if it were a paper copy. I’m tempted to print out the whole lot and move it around physically. I’m sure it would reveal both structural weaknesses and restructuring answers. The only reason I don’t is my moody printer, which bears a grudge against me worthy of any Greek god. It rattles out union rules if I so much as change the settings and 350 pages would end our negotiations for good.

I joined a writing course, currently throwing up more questions. Professional wisdom advised NN3 wouldn’t sell with the subject I’d got and a man narrating in first person. So I changed the narrator to an omniscient female, in third. (For some reading platforms, there follows an unchosen paragraph break imposed by WordPress, whose editing quirks are a known blogger problem. Please excuse the interruption to your service. )

Sisyphus 4
A book I really should finish reading

Changing narrator involved lots of cumbersome changing of tenses and pronouns, and rewriting chunks of plot that really wouldn’t work in a female voice (see below). Once I’d beaten the POV confusion into order, it seemed to work. Then someone I respect said: “I’d like to hear more from the men. Have you considered a male narrator?” I think, as of last night, we’re agreed on which narration works best, meaning there are only about 40K words to cut and replace, now. Sisyphus can take a breather, half way up, or down, depending how you look at it.

Then there’s the content. Since I’ve been working on NN3, I’ve happened to read The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, The North Water by Ian McGuire, and John Boyne’s wonderful The Heart’s Invisible Furies. In the evenings I watched A Very English Scandal, an excellent BBC drama about homosexual Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. Suddenly I found myself writing scenes of male gay sex, mostly consensual. They do say you should write about what you know, but I have form in the art of bluffing. Years ago in the midst of a World Cup, I went to a party given by a policeman, and managed to convince his colleagues I was an expert pundit on the strength of three football related remarks I’d learned off pat.* I wonder if my male gay sex scenes will be as convincing. But then any sex scene is hell to write, ripe for ridicule and reliant on a finite set of possible moves – (more than three? Discuss.) It does pose problems for a female narrator, though, omniscient or not. Maybe she should transition – again.

I do have the theme, which is unarguably resonant at present. But I’m fighting a rearguard action to defend my style against the gods of marketing. Words are like wild flowers in an endangered ecosystem. We need to recognise and protect them or they’ll disappear. I don’t mean deliberately shoving in obscure vocabulary in cleverdick Will Self style. But I do mean active, precise verbs that mean exactly what they say: “clamour/  suggest/ yell/ murmur” as required, in preference to “said” (not every time, obvs). And sentences that just occasionally have the subject at the end and the passive voice permitted once per chapter if the author’s been good.

Perhaps I should give up and just plug away with sales for NN1 – the good old Infinity Pool, a manual of carefree optimistic mistakes of the sort made by a debut novelist who’d barely heard the term “creative writing”. Did I tell you it’s on offer on Amazon.uk until the end of this month? Jump in, but please be kind.

Sisyphus 6

*I still know the three gems of football punditry but they’re no longer convincing. If I mention Paul Gascoigne those of you over a certain age will know why.

©Jessica Norrie 2018