Author seeks genre, hook an advantage

NY resolution? I’ve resolved my second novel will be doing the rounds of the publishers by next month. First to tell them what I write. I think it’s literary fiction. Every now and then I look up some definitions to make sure:

Wikipedia: Literary fiction is fiction that is regarded as having literary merit, as distinguished from most commercial or “genre” fiction. The term and distinction has been criticised by authors, critics and scholars, especially because a number of major literary figures have also written genre fiction, including Doris Lessing, John Banville, Iain Banks, and Margaret Atwood…

Oops! I don’t want to offend anyone. My work isn’t necessarily better than the work of the genre writer next door. And Doris Lessing is (was) amazing. Serve me right for relying on Wikipedia.

Goodreads: Literary fiction is a term … principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction. 

Crashing in with the size 9s again…Then again, that “claims” to hold literary merit suggests anyone can join in. I expect Trump along any day with something he wrote between tweets.

In 2014 Huff Post’s Steven Petite thought he knew what it isn’t:

…To put it simply, Literary Fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre.

…Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.

I hope my writing does that. But where does his definition leave, say, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Pullman or the wonderful YA author of dystopian philosophy, Philip Reeve? And Lessing and Atwood are causing trouble again.

The recent Arts Council report on the plight of literary fiction authors also found it heard to define its subject:

Literary fiction…is not an absolute category. As with other art, it is what people believe it to be; hence we leave its boundaries undefined. What it definitely is not, for our purposes, is poetry or plays. We are looking at fiction.

Arts Council report

NowNovel (quoted for no better reason that that it’s flying high on the Google radar) says literary fiction…

  1. Is valued highly for its quality of form and creative use of language
  2. …explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. …Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction…

Hmm. Star Wars in any form makes incomprehensible demands on me but I’m quite happy with Jane Austen – surely it depends on the reader?

My favourite and final definition came from Sandy Day on a recent Book Connectors thread that started as a discussion of the Arts Council Report:  …literary is a style not a genre. Every literary book fits into a genre, love story, mystery, thriller, social drama, etc. It’s the style of writing, the subtlety, the metaphors and originality of language, that make it literary. (Do investigate Book Connectors: there are some refreshing discussions there with readers, authors, bloggers, reviewers…)

I work hard on subtlety, metaphors, originality etc but if they fail to ignite, maybe my book could sneak in as contemporary fiction. Waterstones, I notice, put both E L James and Kate Atkinson in this category and add “modern” to the label. It should be broad enough for me, then. If Zadie Smith doesn’t quibble at sharing a genre with Jeffrey Archer, why should I, veteran of the Great Amazon Dinner Party that I am?

Or do I write commercial fiction? Well, no, since I couldn’t possibly make a living, or even pay for another holiday, from what I earn as a writer. However, if my work did start selling by the shelf load, would it then become “commercial”? Having been to the Oxfam shop with duplicate Christmas presents yesterday, I could suggest one defining characteristic of commercial fiction is anything you can find multiple copies of there. But this definition from the grandeur of Curtis Brown Creative is probably better:

Lots of our students … don’t want to be told what they’re writing is “commercial fiction” – but really what we mean by this is that a novel’s strongly story-led and with potentially broad appeal. Commercial fiction is less about style, voice and innovative use of language/form than literary fiction but there’s also an area where the two meet and blur – that’s often called ‘sweet spot fiction’ and it’s top of many publishers’ wish-lists.’’

Sweet-spot fiction! That’s what I write (in my sugar coated dreams).

Hook 11
Ian McKewan hit the sweet spot for me in 2016, but Lionel Shriver (2013) didn’t.

How can I get from where I am now, to the sweet spot?

Harvey Chapman quotes literary agent Nathan Bransford:…Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It’s just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem – absolutely nothing is happening and thus it’s (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot.

Ah. I do have a plot. I’m just not sure where it is. It’s not heavy enough to have sunk below the surface (good), so perhaps its subtlety has floated it free altogether, flotsam on a sea of interior monologue (bad). We dipped a toe in the water with two submissions in 2017. One editor replied: I think Jessica is a very accomplished writer, and it’s great to see how much she achieved with THE INFINITY POOL, but I’m not sure this is for me – I felt it just didn’t have a hook that was quite commercial enough for (name of publisher).

Adrift in an over populated ocean, I need a net to gather in my shoal, or even just one hook. As the second editor pointed out:

While there was a great cast of characters I just felt that there were perhaps too many so it was difficult to really connect with all the characters and there were too many changing viewpoints so the narrative didn’t quite have that flow. (Her words certainly flow,  unsubmerged by punctuation, but she makes several very valid points so I mustn’t carp. There’s a plaice for what she says – sorry, I’m away with the fishes.)

Stand by for a rail disaster or perhaps a bomb in the shopping centre. That should dispose of a few changing viewpoints, and at least I’ll be back on dry land. I never liked (him/her/them) anyway. Then for my hook!Hook 12From the same rejection email quoted above: I really liked the device of… (my secret device, patented to me: when it hits the sweet spot you’ll know what it is)… to bring out the stories, I thought that was a really nice touch and something quite different.

The hook’s there, it just needs sharpening. Happy New Year and watch this space!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

The Three Tenors

So you thought the three tenors were Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Vienna 3Pavarotti? Not so – they’re sausages, a frankfurter, some other darker variety and a veal sausage and they’re available in the Café of the Vienna Staatsoper. In this pretty room you may if such is your pleasure order “Three Tenors” or a “Rigoletto” (which is a sausage salad). My photo of this disconcerting dish is very small, for minimal offence to my vegetarian readers. (I chose the spinach strudel, with lettuce.)

51wntwjpdalSince in Vienna the three tenors can be anything, I’ve chosen a third variation: books, During a recent trip I read or reread three novels set in Vienna (with thanks as ever to the wonderful TripFiction site which you can consult for reading matter to match any destination you can think of). They give five stars to the first I chose, but I’m afraid I’d remove at least two of those. A Woman of Note by Carol M. Cram (2015) starts in 1827 with an excellent idea for a heroine, Isabette, a fictitious young woman pianist and composer whose ability rivals Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann. But it sinks into cliché with too many descriptions of a singer friend’s pretty gloves and blue ribbons. The author neglects what could have been evocative descriptions of this most visual of cities. Instead she gives us endless expository dialogue to help shift the one dimensional characters around in the style of a Woman’s Own short story from the 1970s, and provides a (mercifully) brief sex scene worthy of the Bad Sex awards: “He moved his hand up her thigh, his breath becoming ragged and out of rhythm. Andante to allegretto. …he pushed his body and hers to allegro.” Hmmm. I wonder what variations Mozart’s fingertips might have conjured for that.

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The piano in the apartment where Franz Schubert died in 1828.

Plot digressions into lesbianism and sexual abuse are worthy rather than interesting, although I am sure music teachers and promoters did abuse their protegées and played their parts in keeping women’s career prospects unequal. An erudite bibliography suggests a lot of authorial research (sometimes plonked unharmoniously into the narrative) and genuine pleasure in the music of Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin. This was a missed opportunity to create a convincing story and explore a fascinating period of women’s and musical history in a unique setting. Looking at TripFiction’s list again it seems others have dealt with the same theme, so it does get exposure elsewhere.

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Vienna State Opera House, which opened in 1869. The architect committed suicide after Emperor Franz Josef referred to it in displeasure as “a railway station”. I hope it’s not too heartless to point out what a good plot that would make.

51jrqt32cqlI had better luck with Mortal Mischief (2004) by Frank Tallis. It’s a 19th century detective romp. To judge by the selections listed on TripFiction, Vienna’s baroque and 20th century architecture and dense cultural history encourage writers to indulge in a wild cocktail of music, classical and modern art, sculpture, historical events, psychoanalysis, medicine, education, imperialism, nationalism and the whole gamut of politics, cafes and brothels, coffee and cakes, Vienna 13clairvoyance and fairgrounds, bombastic urban settings and the wonderful Prater park. Tallis just about brings it off – I was a bit bogged down by the heavy velvet brocade of his opening storm scenes: “Liebermann looked up at the livid millstone sky. Ragged tatters of cloud blew above the pediment of The Imperial like the petticoats of a ravished angel. The air smelled strange – an odd, metallic smell.” But as he got into his stride the descriptions became more digestible and it was a pleasure to revisit the Belvedere Palace grounds, the Secession Building, the University and the Prater as his story hurtled through the city like a Viennese tram, picking up colourful characters at every chapter – a surgical instrument maker, Sigmund Freud, a locksmith, prostitutes, actresses and mediums, English governesses, police chiefs, magicians and kitchen maids.  If some of them are more caricature than real, well, that reflects Viennese grandeur, exaggeration and cuisine. The musical accompaniment tinkled comfortably alongside the narrative whenever detective Rheinhardt and his doctor friend Max Liebermann took a breather with a relaxing session of Schubert duets. I was pleased to find these new (to me) discoveries feature in other adventures, particularly as Leibermann and the governess left a romantic thread unfastened at the end.

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Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building, from their information leaflet.

Mortal Mischief features the Reisenrad Ferris Wheel, and so of course does my third choice, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, the novel treatment of the screenplay Greene wrote for Carol Reed’s famous 1949 film noir. The Vienna of The Third Man is not the confident 1900s cultural capital of Tallis, and lacked the exuberant fairground where we spent our last morning. Instead it’s a bombed out city divided into four zones where petty and serious crime thrive in an atmosphere of curfew and desperation. “The Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away.

Actually there’s surprisingly little verbal description of Vienna as a setting in the book of The Third Man, which Greene himself said in his Preface “was never written to be read, but only to be seen. It was dedicated to Reed, “in admiration and affection and in memory of so many early morning Vienna hours at Maxim’s, the Casanova, the Oriental.” My forceful image of ruined buildings and unlit streets through which Harry Lime dodges his pursuers must come from the film. But in both, the labyrinthine sewers, scrubby landscapes, muddled policing and befuddled hero serve as a metaphor for fallen glory, profiteering and corruption. We saw very little of that in the bustling, affluent, well behaved city we visited, so Vienna has created a successful veneer since those days. Or maybe business dealings there now really are cleaner than in London. It wouldn’t be difficult.

Vienna 23
Warning: if you read this edition, the introduction contains spoilers for both plots!

Greene and Reed found more than one kind of suspense in Harry Lime’s confrontation with Rollo Martin (Hollie Martin in the film) in the topmost gondola – an idea to which Tallis pays homage when Liebermann also takes the ride with the man he suspects of murder. In Mortal Mischief the innocent characters also return to its thrills whenever they can – as Freud explains, it replicates the experience of flying. It’s a sad reflection on over stimulated 21st century travellers that we became rather bored when dangling at the top of the Ferris Wheel. Health and safety means there’s no danger of a villainous shove through an open door or of smashing the glazing, and the views are stunning. But the ponderous wheel turns slowly and waits a long time in each position – unlike the pacy plots of all three books above, though not dissimilar to the way my companion reported the Three Tenor Sausages sitting in his stomach. No Sachertorte for him that afternoon!

 

(Information for coffee drinking, cake eating bookworms: The cafes we visited were the Prückel, the Tirolerhof, the Mozart and the Oper, all equally memorable. The Tirolerhof in particular is a quiet reader’s dream, all customers engrossed in books or the newspapers supplied by the establishment, no music, and voices that rarely rise above a whisper. You could write a novel here before the waiter bothered you with the bill.)

 

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Pattern Creep and Plot Wander

I’m troubled by an earworm, an old folk tune with the lyrics run amok:

‘Twas a sunny May morning, the last of my youth,

As I plot wandered happy and free,

When Squire Pattern Creep in his herringbone tweeds,

With his wiles was the ruin of me.”

You what? I’ll explain. The expression “pattern creep” came from my mosaics teacher. What it really means is, you’ve got so involved in sticking on your little bits of tile that you haven’t noticed they’re not cut regularly, or they’re not stuck evenly, or they’re sliding around in pools of too much glue. Beware! Stand back! Your intended image has “crept”.

This especially affected me last month when I went on a weekend course at the wonderful Phoenix Studios.  I embarked on an ambitious mosaic panel – a herringbone design to echo my parquet floor. But I hadn’t allowed for my mediocre measuring skills and trembly tessellations, for my hand cut tiles being so much smaller and more numerous than real parquet pieces, with more potential for departure from my plotted line. Ever heard of curly herringbone? The sagging lines couldn’t be resolved. There was nothing for it back home but to chisel bits off here and there, then whole rows, and then the whole bloody thing and start again in the centre, with more meticulous selection, cutting, and sticking and no ragged border to lead me astray from the wings.

Pattern creep 10

For a writer, the syndrome is familiar. Mosaic Pattern Creep is not some Jilly Cooper seducer in a paisley dressing gown, it’s a tendency also known as Plot Wander, and I can’t be the only novelist/ story writer/ blogger to have been ambushed by it.

I started a novel about the power of fairy tales for children, all poetic language and lyrical images. My turns of phrase were romantic and swirly, elegant and mysterious, and my characters were filled with wonder. For about twenty five pages. Then my characters stopped soliloquizing and began pontificating. The story turned to gritty social realism, about the education system and racism and modern poverty and grime.

Pattern creep 3

I started a novel about a vulnerable, misguided artist who tried to sell her work door to door, unaware that her images could be misconstrued and she was pulling herself into danger. It was sinister and disturbing and I wanted the reader to shout “Watch out!”, and run after her to stop her before something terrible happened. The tension lasted a good, oh, thirty pages. Then somehow it became into a description of the road I lived in and the households within it. Nobody was ever going to escape their everyday cares reading that.

I published a novel about a beautiful island full of characters with wonderful illusions and high minded ideals, coming into conflict with morally upright, hard working, underprivileged locals. It was menacing and threatening and tense – for about forty pages. Then the themes got lost inside the characters’ introspection and reviewers accused the plot of disappearing. (To be fair to myself, although the book wandered away from the crime genre, it’s held its head up as contemporary fiction, I had a nice new review only yesterday.)

921359I tried a sequel, my previous heroine with a new relationship plucked from a new set of characters. After about thirty pages the warning signs appeared: paragraphs about shoddy building practices, a runaway housing market, and casual refugee labourers. I had ideas of an updated The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and was tumbling headlong into the same traps Robert Tressell did, of long winded, well meaning worthiness. (That’s not to say I don’t have great affection even for the boring parts of the original and still play around with the idea sometimes.)

I’ve written (counts back) about seventy blog posts that have begun with one premise and, often enough, wandered off down the side alleys of another. Does it matter so much, in a blog post? You can always return to it and edit it. You can always just add a few more tags. The links will probably only ever be read as part of Facebook posts or Tweets where patterns don’t just creep, they ricochet. But a story, a novel, should really be complete and unified at the point of pressing “publish”.

17333223That’s Plot Wander. It infects greater names than mine. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch comes to mind. The Lord of the Rings, too, and later Bill Bryson when he gets lazy and just repeats himself (I’m going to make some enemies here.) A minor case of Plot Wander may only involve an unnecessary character, or an unresolved question that didn’t matter much anyway. Severe Plot Wander has more dramatic symptoms: a character inexplicably changes name, age, or gender; the voice of a narrator doesn’t match their personality; a rural setting suffers from urban blight; a total change of genre occurs from one chapter to the next.

Does Plot Wander occur because the author is sabotaged by things that matter more – you could argue racism, housing, education and deprivation are far more important than any silly little love story or unsolved crime I could invent (it’s just that plenty of other people already commentate them far better than I could). Is Plot Wander some kind of automatic safety device, stopping an author from embarking on trite stories with unoriginal characters? (In that case, why does it work the other way too, halting a perfectly decent story and turning it into mush?) Is it that all an author can write is innate and pre-programmed (in my case gritty social realism) and s/he has no more chance of escaping it than of changing DNA?

You set out an idea. You tweak it, consider it, arrange it,choose the colours, and you think it has the potential to be great. You put it together, concentrating hard (you think) dedicating days, weeks, months to the composition. You stand back. It’s a loose, illogical, low impact shambles. (Was that Plot Wander or a new enemy, The Confused Identifier? One minute I’m referring to the author as he/she, the next they have become you.)

Pattern creep 6

You (?) get out the chisel and you start again.

(By the way, the sculptures – celebrations and discards both – are from the Phoenix Studio gardens where we take our lunch breaks. Do have a look at their courses. Chipping away at stone, life drawing, fine art and crafts are a wonderful complement /antidote to hacking away at words.)

‘Twas a freezing May morning, in my senior years,

And I’d scribed the bright words from my head,

When I saw on the page my ideas gone astray

Plot Wander had grabbed them, and fled.

Pattern Creep warning (or is it Abrupt Ending Syndrome?) I’ve blogged weekly since April 2016, and all without pay. When I was in paid employment I had holidays. My Union (me) thinks I may be due a short break. It depends where the plot takes me. I’m flying away – see you when I see you!

Pattern creep 7

© Words and photographs Jessica Norrie 2017

For Eggheads in search of answers…

Eggs 5

Oh dear! People said my Easter Eggheads Book Quiz was too hard! I didn’t mean to scramble anyone’s brains. Here are the answers, so you can pretend you knew them all along and pass on the pain to your friends:

  1. Who printed a story in which a “good wyf” from Southern England thought a merchant from the North was speaking French, because he asked for eggys which she knew as eyren?  The clue was in the verb, to print. The printer was William Caxton in 1490, and he tells the story to illustrate the (unchanged) difficulties of a proofreader and typesetter, in his prologue to the Eneydes (Virgil’s Aenid). This had already been translated from Latin to French and he was now printing an English version. Actually I found the reference on a post about Shrove Tuesday, here.
  2. 41kgazntxvl-_sx307_bo1204203200_Who shouted “What, you egg! […] Young fry of treachery!” and what is he doing to whom as he shouts it? […] is the moment in Act 4, scene 2 of Macbeth when the first murderer stabs Lady MacDuff’s son. The murderer calls the young boy “you egg” to show he represents the next generation.
  3. Which Shakespearean hero shares his name with a famous egg dish? This is Benedict (aka Benedick), from Much Ado About Nothing. Eggs Benedict is an American dish invented by a Wall Street broker, and has absolutely nothing ado with Shakespeare. 
  4. Who rode westward on Good Friday 1613? Good Friday, 1613. Riding westward is a poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne. It begins: Let mans Soule be a Spheare… I didn’t know this poem either until I found the reference in an excellent Guardian article about Easter in Literature.
  5. 406373Who met Mephistopheles during an Easter walk with his friend Wagner? Goethe’s hero Faust was out walking at Easter with his friend Wagner, when they met a poodle who followed them home and turned out to be the devil in disguise. Faust then made a famous pact with him. Faust was first published in 1808, so if you were thinking of a more famous Wagner, the composer Richard, I’m afraid that was a red herring – he wasn’t born until 1813. But the moral of the story is, take care around poodles.
  6. At the beginning of which children’s story from 1854 is the King of Paflagonia so absorbed in a letter from the King of Crim Tartary “that he allows his eggs to get cold, and leaves his august muffins untasted“? This is the delightful The Rose and the Ring: a Fireside pantomime, by W M Thackeray. Politically incorrect fun still, as old Countess Gruffanuff falls for young Prince Giglio. Thackeray’s illustrations are very funny too.  612b231allql-_sl500_sx319_bo1204203200_
  7. Which Victorian artist was described by his friend Charles Dickens as “sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved“? Who other than the pre-Raphaelite painter Augustus Leopold Egg, whose name I had wrongly remembered as a character in a Dickens novel.
  8. What was the name of Raffles’ sidekick? Bunny” Manders is Watson to Raffle’s Holmes in the series of novels by Victorian writer E W Hornung. No, I haven’t read them either.
  9. Who told Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean“? Humpty Dumpty, when she met him sitting on a wall, in Alice through the Looking Glass. They argue about it and he cracks first.83346
  10. Which decadent hero lived in West Egg? Jay Gatsby, from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. West (and East) Egg are fictional settlements of nouveaux riches and old money, based on similar places in Long Island. 
  11. Which seminal moment in Irish history forms the subject matter for Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the StarsThe Easter Uprising against the British took place in Dublin in April 1916. 15 Irish nationalists identified as leaders were afterwards executed at Kilmainham Jail. Whether they are described as traitors or heroes depends very much which historical or literary account you read.
  12. 18076Who “came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of his family?” This was Lord Worplesdon, described in Jeeves Takes Charge by P G  Wodehouse. You could read it, or watch the BBC series where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie acted Jeeves and Wooster just spiffingly.
  13. In which novel by Agatha Christie is there a character called Egg? Hermione Lytton Gore is nicknamed and always referred to as “Egg” in Three Act Tragedy, a Christie novel of 1934. There’s always another Christie novel you haven’t read…
  14. 4025Who liked “a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes” for breakfast? This is James Bond, described in From Russia with Love. My source was another Guardian article, on breakfasts in literature
  15. Which very sad black comedy originally starred Albert Finney and has been revived since with Clive Owen, Eddie Izzard and Miriam Margolyes among others in its cast? The original play was A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, by Peter Nichols in 1967, about the daily routines of parents with a very severely disabled daughter.
  16. When could you next hope to see the Oberammergau Passion Play? It’s only performed every ten years, and the next one will be in 2020.
  17. What colour were Sam-I-am’s eggs? Green! Read Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss to find out if Sam-I-Am ever does persuade the child to eat them.51n595qwkol-_sx360_bo1204203200_
  18. Who wrote the original story and script for “The Long Good Friday”? This 1980 gangster movie was scripted from his own screenplay by Barrie Keefe.
  19. What hatched at the beginning of a story from an egg lying on a moonlit leaf? Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, going strong since 1969.  I couldn’t quote the first page exactly as it would be too high a percentage of the entire text to pass without copyright infringement, but most parents and teachers should have recognised this. The first bedtime story I ever read to my babies, I’ve also taught it at evening classes for adults in French and Spanish. They tell me it did wonders for their fruit shopping vocabulary.4948
  20. Who made the assorted sweets from which if you were very unlucky, you might pick out a rotten egg flavoured one? This was one of the less sought after flavours of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, which you could buy in  sweet shops frequented by Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwartians.

A question some of you may have found easier: Which Bennet sister visited Rosings on “Easter-day” and was told by Lady Catherine de Burgh that she would never play the piano really well?

A question I completely forgot to ask, which would have brought my quiz more up to date: Which depressed egg is a Japanese cartoon Superhero?

Do let me know if you can think of any more. The deadline’s a week before Easter 2018, whenever that is.

Eggheads 4
Here’s another egg quote, from the Arden Dictionary of Shakespeare Quotations, compiled by jane Armstrong

©Jessica Norrie 2017

What can I say?

It’s Friday again. Unusually, I haven’t made any notes for today’s blog post during the week. I’ve done no writing or editing either in the past seven days. But if I don’t post, it’s the start of a slippery slope, a particular shame as I approach next week’s Blogiversary. So what can I say?

One good reason for not writing was reading. I finished On Golden Hill, which I thought one of best books I’ve read in the past couple of years. It’s a spoof on early English novelists like Sterne and Smollett (at least, I think it is. I’ve never read them, just accumulated enough literary bric a brac over the years to think I would know what to expect if I did. And now along comes a 21st century author with an easier to penetrate, shorter pastiche so I’ll never have to.)

On Golden Hill 2
Detail from cover of “On Golden Hill”

There are great characters – the hero, with the deliberately neutral name of Smith, his friend Septimus Oakeshott, a complex, poignant, wily figure, Tabitha the peculiar heroine, who echoes Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and the mysterious, tragic but ultimately strong slaves Achilles and Zephyra. Slaves from A-Z, you see? The descriptions of New York in the first decades of colonial settlement are fascinating, and the research into detail impressive – for example 18th century theatre craft or how citizens kept clean. There’s an amusing device, presumably Sternian or Smolletesque, whereby the narrator begins a minute description  – of a card game, for instance, or a duel, and then stops short, telling us he doesn’t have enough technical knowledge and we shouldn’t pay him any credence. Tabitha struck false for me almost from the beginning to the end, but otherwise, this was a stylistically impressive, richly entertaining story with, at the end, a surprising twist that reminded me I was reading in the present day after all.

Then I galloped through the latest Nicci French, Saturday Requiem. If you’ve been with this series from the start, on Blue Monday, you’ll be familiar with psychotherapist Frieda Klein who is unwillingly drawn into investigating whatever gruesome crime the police last made a mess of solving, all the while making powerful establishment enemies, continuing to see clients, and attempting to protect the interests of those who have suffered collateral damage. I thought Monday, Tuesday’s Gone and Waiting for Wednesday were excellent, but by Thursday’s Child I was finding it harder to suspend disbelief and Friday on my Mind has barely registered there.

I’m afraid Saturday is another step down for me. As usual, there was an ingenious plot and I couldn’t put it down but this time it was more because I wanted to tick it off than because I was gripped. Frieda has now walked around London in the small hours a few times too often – the London settings are normally evocative enough to be a character in themselves but these felt barely sketched in. She’s played too many calming chess games, confronted too many invasions of her home and threats to her sanity. As with Eastenders, you can only take so many episodes before you become too inured to be affected. In Saturday Requiem French toys only fleetingly with Frieda’s old adversaries before they disappear without explanation, and doesn’t bother to give her the usual love life or dysfunctional family related setback. This must be because even calm, counselled and counselling Frieda would be too damaged to continue into Sunday – the dilemma for which is set up on the last page and which French is presumably contractually obliged to deliver. It’s an object lesson for a crime writer. Never start a series of books with Monday, or worse still January, in the title.

To be fair, my concentration is not what it was (is anybody’s? Roll on the collective legal action against Facebook, Twitter and all their scheming relations for compensation for damage to our synapses.) Also I was tired after an exciting week. Top sopping for the Hackney Singers at the Festival Hall went very well on Monday, thanks very much for asking. Adrenaline flowed, the London Mozart Players sparkled, the soloists soared and the conductor brought the whole cast together in glorious celebration.

HS

All this just five nights after the same hall was evacuated and events cancelled for the attack on Westminster on Wednesday 22nd. I do not for one minute wish to belittle the suffering and shock of the victims and their families, but Londoners of all races and backgrounds are the heroes of this story. Why? Because in London terrorism cannot keep a foothold however much the media magnifies it: we all just get on with what is important to us. My daughter’s response on the night of the attack was to get on the tube and go into central London so she didn’t miss her evening class – all the other students and the teacher turned up as well. Ours was to deliver the concert we’d been preparing since Christmas. The audience was full, the South Bank was packed in the sunshine, the blossom is out and the great city of London is alive and well.

Blossom

(In my opinion London is more likely to sustain long term damage from the UK’s own foolish Brexit decision and our ridiculous posturing government – satirical material aplenty there for a modern Smollett or Sterne. My despair at that may be the less positive reason I lost writing energy this week.)

However – onwards and upwards! Next week – look out for a giveaway! Look out for some awards! This blog will be one year old and there will be due celebration.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Introducing Ed Itor, bully and critical friend…

…or more correctly her* multiple personalities, Copy Ed, Structural Ed and Picture Ed. They work as a team although as in all teams not all of them are always fit to participate.Sometimes they’re benign, and can’t find much wrong. That’s not such good news as it sounds – it only means they’re having an off day or they’ve lost their specs. They’ll find plenty to mutter about next time they look.

*You thought Ed was a man didn’t you? Ha! Ed is short for Edwina.

Ed Tracking 3

Sometimes their advice is straightforward. With an airy swipe Structural Ed points out the end of a paragraph would be better at the beginning, (or indeed the start of the book better at the end). Or not there at all. They monitor my daily allowance of telling not showing, telling me to dramatize more or change everything to dialogue. I love interior monologue, but neither Copy Ed or Structural Ed agree with me on that one so if you’re one of my exclusive group of readers you have the Eds to thank for pruning my neural suckers, and also for weeding if not wholly zapping my more clumsy metaphorical parasites.

If Structural Ed can’t find fault with anything major, such as the setting, characters, time scale, tone, or theme, Copy Ed, who has a more antsy persona, zooms in for a good old nitpick of my commas, m and n dashes, indents, and ellipseez (is that the plural of ellipsis?) She loves nothing more than a session of semi-colonic irrigation. The semicolon is, for me, the writer’s third gear. (When I learnt to drive, cars had only four gears and my favourite was third. You could start in third if you had to – downhill in my ancient Mini I often did – and complete whole journeys, up to quite a speed.) Ed tracking 1Often I’m not sure whether to continue with my sentence or leave it at that; at such times the semicolon is my friend. Copy Ed performs a regular purge; Structural Ed, meanwhile, is on immigration control. She’s spotted too many Points Of View (POVs to the initiated). Slipping in and out too often, with no legitimate reason to be in the text and frequently incorrect usage. They’re unreliable, multiple, I should insist they get entry visas or ban most of them altogether.

Picture Ed is quieter. Maybe I’ll make him male since we all need a consistent pronoun (Copy Ed told me that). He turns up fairly reliably every week with some copyright free photos I can use for the blog. Sometimes I’m short of ideas and if it wasn’t for the inspiration from his photos there wouldn’t be a post at all (for example when I corresponded from Leyton High Road). Sometimes he goes AWOL, off on some research assignment or just looking for a battery, and then I have to do a drawing, or create some sort of montage to illustrate my post that week. To that end, while I was busy taking photos of my keyboard in the bin (What? See below…) some gremlin stuck two sets of brackets in that paragraph! How the Eds are shaking their heads! And all those exclamation marks… Tut Tut.

Recently the Eds have taken to turning up when I’m reading the work of other authors. They sneak up behind me to point out that J K Rowling…really does use…far too many ellipses…when she wants… to show people …breathlessly…running away.. (and why not just say “they” instead of “Harry, Ron and Hermione” every time? She might have cropped a few pages that way.) Louis de Bernières gave a child two different ages within one page early in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, spoiling the rest of the book for me so much that I can’t find the exact reference because I gave it to Oxfam. Do read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. It’s a mostly brilliant book, great setting, characters, themes – but what’s with all the would’ve and must’ve let alone she’d’ve and he’d’ve and the extraordinary he ought to’ve in an otherwise formal literary tone? The Essex Serpent‘s Ed must’ve’d a bad day because the ending is disappointingly inconclusive, I might add… However Linda Grant in The Dark Circle can’t be blamed for inconclusiveness (inconclusivity?). She wraps up an otherwise sympathetically told, well paced, interestingly researched story of diverse believable characters with a brief part three information dump, as though she resented having to spend any more time with the reader.

 

Less recently, James, Faulkner, Woolf, Proust and Joyce wrote such long sentences they collectively traumatised all the Eds they knew, causing them to bluster hysterically and go off to find a pier to jump off before changing their minds because after all it really was a question of style or perhaps only a passing thought and such thoughts come and go never knowing which way they’ll lead a protagonist next on the great despairing journey through a world without the comfort of religious certainty full of railways and Guinness illegitimate children shame haunted governesses colonial unfairness mint juleps charlatans snobs and magic in the shrubbery? These past traumas may account for why the Eds of today are so keen on brevity, so down on adverbs and so fixated with colonic purging.

13732457(I’m a few chapters into the dense and beautifully written On Golden Hill by Francis Spufford though, and even the Eds can find nothing wrong yet. So as the best fiction should, it really is helping me escape into a different world.)

When the Eds mess with my reading mind I tell them to go off duty. Can’t I even read a book just for enjoyment any more? But I wish they’d turn up for emails, facebook posts and notes to the window cleaner. They seem to think that’s beneath their notice and yet I can assure them, I make plenty of errors then too.

But to a writer of course the Eds are helpful, really. I wouldn’t be without them, really (were those reallys really necessary, given that I’m not writing dialogue here…reallys seep from my neural byways along with actuallys and of courses and justs. They must be stopped! We don’t need my authorial interior monologue as well as interior monologues from all those jostling POVs.)

The only one I (really) can’t see the use for is their dark shadow, Mess with the Ed. (Copy Ed: Your readers won’t get that unless they read it aloud with a London accent. Me: Who cares? Nobody reads my stuff anyway. But since you insist I’ll add an apostrophe and change the e to lower case to show the dropped h. And if anyone notices maybe they’ll comment and then we’ll see who’s right! Structural Ed: Less interior monologue here, please. Get on with it!)

So – Mess with the ‘ed is the author’s equivalent of live-in emotional abuser. Isn’t your writing crap? Who cares what you have to say? Your characters are unbelievable (not in a good way); your themes pointless; your setting blurry; your ideas out of date; your prose over/underwritten; your dialogue banal, your plot – what plot? You think you’re an author? You think it’s worth even revising this so called first draft? You think the Eds don’t have better things to do?

Ed keyboard in bin 2I came across this article by William Ryan. I waved it jauntily at Mess with the ‘ed. But this week, even Ryan’s clarity and common sense ain’t working. I gaze at the first draft and really just want to give up. It’s uncanny but the keyboard has gone on strike in sympathy: despite changed batteries it’s skipping letters, disconncting, takng th sense frm my words even if I bang it like a high stepping typewriter.. Copy Ed’s refusing even to pick up her red pen until I invest in a new one…my inspiration is draining fast…Dementors loom on the horizon…letters n spaces dispersng… wht’s hppning….where are Harry, Ron and Hermione when you need thm?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Getting it right

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

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

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

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My businessman dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Achievements and deletions

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

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

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

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

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

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What a planning document!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2017

The heroine now arriving at platform 1

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

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

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

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

heroine-with-baby

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

Watch this space (please).

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Losing the plot

Six weeks ago I was in Japan, loving it so much I thought I could teach English there if I ran low on funds. I also have plans for Iceland, Cuba, India, Sri Lanka….

On Wednesday 2nd Nov, my horizons narrow. It’s a beautiful autumn day. Trees glow, low sun brushes everything gold. I drive to Epping Forest for a walk. The forest is almost luminous on this shining day. Most trees still have most leaves, but there’s already a crisp carpet of brown, red and yellow on the forest floor. Shuffling through is as fun now as it was in childhood, but we walk fast: it’s only 10am and the temperature is invigorating.

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Connaught Water, Epping Forest. Photo by Nikkii Barnett.

It’s the end of the year but the springtime of my ideas: the novel to which I’ve been doggedly adding 1000 words a day for the past month is taking good shape. Striking details and major plot threads form in my mind as I pace along the paths. Part of me can’t wait to get home and start putting them down – black for phrases to be added to my draft, red for ideas to be developed later.

Under the coating of leaves my foot hits a stump and over I swoop in an arc too fast to correct. My chin and nose make contact with the wooden edge of a footbridge and I’m sitting dazed on the floor with blood pouring from my mouth and nostrils. People pass tissues, but my shaking hands drop them on the dirt and others are soaked immediately. A lady with a pushchair offers baby wipes which sting my mouth clean. Somebody strokes my back, moaning “Oh Lord, oh my dear Lord“.

Behind me: “You’ll be on soup for the next few days, Jessica!” and “I knew a woman who fell that way and cracked a rib.” (OH Lord, oh my dear Lo…ord.) A third: “You need to sit in a long hot bath.” I love long hot baths but I think if I sat in one now I might faint and never get out.

I’m pulled to my feet and it feels more normal to be vertical. As I walk shakily along I only want to look at the ground. I’m aware of people staring but if I concentrate on small talk with my kind companion – who turns out to have been battling serious illness, bless her – then I’ll get back to the car park for the next decision.

Meanwhile I think, if I could get ice on this now….oh goodness what does my face look like..have I broken my nose? is that tooth in the right place? have I bitten through my lip? Blood drips on the top I bought at Tokyo airport (why am I wearing that?) I drive home followed by a volunteer, cautious as on my test.

I make hot sweet tea but can’t fit my lips round the mug. The wine sleeve I find in the freezer and hold against my face warms too fast (no wonder the Chablis is never cold enough). I try a huge packet of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel and the immediate numbness is a swipe of relief. I want to be left alone to mourn my face, the ruin of my day and all those ideas for the novel that seem to have trickled away with the lost blood. I lie with another old towel to protect the new cushions of the new sofa in the sunlit bay window in blissful agony enjoying the quiet hiatus.

B. arrives. He can’t believe our local hospital.What a maze of potholed paths, temporary huts, hulking arches, the derelict nurses home sulking in a corner. It was boarded up at least ten years ago. Somewhere in the mess is A & E, though it’s not where it was last time I visited, with my teenage son after he was mugged, and that location was different to the time before, when as a toddler he stuck a bead up his nose.

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At poor beleaguered Whipps Cross pedestrians have to watch their footing and the buildings have always looked sinister. But the staff delivered my children safely and have always come through in an emergency, despite funding that always goes elsewhere, reports of submerged morale, closure threats that ebb and flow and an ever increasing  patient pool.

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The nurses’ home

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At reception they say: “Gosh, you’ve made a mess of yourself!” which is gratifying as it means we’re not time wasters.I’m number 297; it’s midday and crowded. Most people are patient (sorry) and quiet. A couple with a two year old give her juice and crisps which she spills on the floor. She gathers them up with care and returns them to the packet. She is noisy, through boredom. They look at their phones and erupt about the wait: “For fuck’s sake!”

I’m called in. “How are you?” Well, obviously, I’ve been better. I’ll need stitches, preceded by the same injections given before Botox. Now I know for sure I’ll never have Botox: they’re as unpleasant as I was warned they’d be. I grip the metal bar of the couch and squirm and the surgeon who is kind but brisk says, Well done, well done.

Eat sweet cereal for glucose, she says. Then sleep. Don’t clean your teeth. Use a salt water rinse even if it stings. Oh, you’d better have a tetanus jab. I stand as though I’ve been punished in a corner of the empty room waiting for the nurse with the jab. I’m so cold I can’t control my shivers. See your dentist, they say. As we leave, about 2pm,  they call number 430.

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A & E

Thursday. I haven’t looked in the mirror yet. The ends of my hair are stuck together with blood but I don’t try washing it. I make tea and drink it lukewarm through a straw. I’m still cold. The dentist says I’m lucky – no nerve damage, no tooth damage and I could easily have cracked my jaw. I hide at home for the rest of the day dozing and watching Andy Murray’s downs and ups in Paris.

Friday. I sell my ticket for “The Nose” at Covent Garden. I have my own nose story, it’s pale grey and swollen. I pass time meandering round facebook and the internet. Somebody posts she can’t get down to writing her blog post and I challenge us both to finish one by 5pm. Getting it done feels like a step back to normality.

Saturday. I wash my hair! I clean my teeth! I’m tired and triumphant but it’s still only 10am. A nurse friend comes for coffee and advises Vaseline which makes my dry cracked mouth much better. My nose and cheekbones are yellow. B. takes me to South London for a change of scene and I watch a firework display from his top window. We eat very tender boeuf bourguignon and I try a small glass of wine. The food is delicious but the numbness the wine brings doesn’t feel right. I fear doing something clumsy to my stitches without noticing.

whipps-medicationSunday. A walk round the streets, hood pulled low. How awful if anyone thinks B.’s done this to me. On return my skin feels taut but he says it’s just the cold wind. A high point of Sunday is coming home on the Woolwich Ferry, not the horrible Blackwall Tunnel. We sit in the queue and contemplate the lights over the Thames. It’s a far cry from our night walk along the river in Kyoto. I sneeze several times and am perversely disappointed to find it doesn’t result in bleeding or particular pain.

Monday. My French pupil comes, a retired gentleman with a house in France. He doesn’t realise I have stitches until I tell him, so the wound must be looking better. But after teaching I lie on the sunlit sofa under a blanket and sleep for two hours. My nose is dark grey today but the bruise is smaller. In the local shop I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I’m ashamed of my battered face and cross with the beautiful autumn forest for betraying me when I just wanted exercise and fresh air. When did I last look at my novel?

Tuesday. My nose and left cheek are yellow again but the black gash on my lips is smaller.  I return unharmed from a daring long walk for a newspaper.Outside the world is worrying: Trump? Not Trump, surely. I decide to see if I can remember the ideas I had for the novel, and open the file for the first time for a week. But I’ve lost the plot, somewhere in the forest among the blood and the golden leaves.

Wednesday. Stop press: plot retrieved courtesy of Donald Trump. The horror of his triumph sends me back to the novel, because in it I’ve put people from different races, religions and belief systems living, learning and working together. Someone said this morning the only thing to do now is, each in our own way, to speak out against his values. What’s Trump done for me? Well, he’s directed me back to the outside world and he’s made me realise there are more serious matters than my face. Which in any case is almost back to normal now, thanks to the efficiency of the staff of poor old Whipps Cross hospital and the dentist. Thank you, NHS, and thanks to those decent politicians who created it.

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The proud Victorian arches are still beautiful in a sinister way.

© Jessica Norrie 2016