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

 

The end is the beginning

In keeping with my new snappy style, I’m allowing myself 999 words max for this post. Most bloggers manage with much less; my problem is, I like wordy writers (Dickens, Balzac, Woolf) and my models have made me wordy myself. I’ve learnt that to write well in a spare elegant style, much as I admire it (Stoner, My name is Lucy Barton), you have to write better than I can. I bury infelicities in my forest of verbiage, but would be rumbled if every word stood out clear from the page. A writer with six hundred plus pages to fill can explore their own meaning aloud. It must be nailed first time in a novella.

28260537What I produce currently is somewhere in between. My beginnings are strongish and longish but not defined enough; they show just enough promise to keep readers on board. My middles are saggy, pushed upright by occasional props (I’m still referring to my books, not my body). My endings just happen, like a learner parking. I’m aware of my writing shortcomings: hence taking a course named “Beginnings and Endings” at Jane Austen‘s house last week, run by Rebecca Smith.

Gentle reader, you may feel I could have chosen a less wordy writer than Austen, but she was a model of economy compared to her predecessors. She packed a universe of meaning into a paragraph or sentence where they had taken pages. She might start with back story (Persuasion) but she was through it in a few pages where other writers of the time needed many chapters. Or she’d start with apologies (for forefronting such poor heroine material, in Northanger Abbey). Other books leap straight into the drama of the situation: money’s tight, so a daughter must be offloaded onto richer relatives (Mansfield Park); five daughters need husbands, two imminently (Pride and Prejudice). Her beginnings are dynamic; reader is faced with situation, situation develops. Characters encounter drawbacks, relief, more drawbacks. The situation of the main characters is resolved and secondary characters illustrate other possibilities. It’s very neat, very satisfying, very tongue in cheek, and produced almost clandestinely. After the breakfast dishes were cleared, and if she didn’t have to entertain younger relations or attend to her mother, Austen would settle in a cramped corner at a tiny table to write her morning pages until the room was needed for lunch.

 

We had rather more space and time for our writing, in the learning centre or wherever we liked in the flowering garden. We were greeted morning and afternoon with the most hospitable refreshments I’ve known a course provide (RIBA take note, with your measly coffee coupon on your otherwise excellent writing day). We spent the morning considering Austen’s and our beginnings, and our ticket included a entry to the house. If you can’t get there yourself, take a guided tour with my Smorgasbord colleague’s Jane Austen on a Motorbike, and my own slideshow below. Our purpose, though, was to write.

 

When I ran teacher training, the session after lunch was known as “the graveyard”. I had to hit the whiteboard running, with my most invigorating material to avoid participants’ yawns and snores. Whether or not Rebecca had that in mind herself, her proposal for the afternoon was dynamite. Simple, but an eye opener for me. “Start with your ending,” she said. “If you know where you’re heading, it’s easier to get there.” And so we wrote our endings. Then we wrote our very final pages, the mood we wanted to leave the reader in. I hadn’t been listening, and wrote the final ending before the main ending (do keep up at the back). But even doing that the wrong way round proved her point: to plod along writing your narrative according to its chronological order may well be what makes it sag. Like dragging your feet on a long walk, when the pub you were hoping to reach for lunch is always beyond the next hill and when you do get there, they’ve finished serving food.

13585779I’ve been having a blip about blogging. Writing a weekly post, however enjoyable and stimulating, threatens to scupper Novel 4 as it did Novel 3 . I mentioned this and Rebecca commented: “Yes, blogging uses a lot of psychic energy.” Psychic energy! That’s why I’m limiting the length of these posts henceforth. Psychic energy is just what Novel 4 needs. That was her first tip. Her second, about endings, unleashed mine.

I hadn’t known how Novel 4 would finish, until then. Ultimately I may make the end that revealed itself to me on the course a late climactic point and dream up an even more spectacular ending, but for now it gives me a destination. For an author daunted by planning, this was such a supportive gift. Thank you, Rebecca and volunteer hosts; thank you, other course participants, for your comments and thank you to those who read your  work – images of waves at sea stay with me in particular. I wish you all good luck, and many gentle readers.

(Here originally endeth this post. But by pure coincidence I’ve see the daughter of an ex teaching colleague has just published a Graphic Revision guide to Pride and Prejudice. So now it endeth with a plug for that. Who knew you could graphically revise JA?)

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

A funny thing happened on the way to the story

People have told stories since once upon a time. We know that from prehistoric cave paintings and sculpture. There may have been stories before there were words – through body language, perhaps. We know all societies create some form of music and that stories were told through music before they were written down. Homer’s epics (if Homer existed) were told to a musical accompaniment, for instance.

We tell stories to tiny children to comfort, entertain, process and explain (those who don’t, should). As adults, we call news scoops “big stories” and those who can afford it tell therapists our stories, retelling and reframing until with help from the therapist we arrive at the kernel within. More universally and informally, women recount what matters to them to their friends, and in healthy societies men do too. Was there ever anything less healthy than the requirement for British men to keep a stiff upper lip?

storytelling 2

In the days when there was more to training teachers than phonics and test scores, I was in an audience of education professionals addressed by Dr Richard Stone, a member of the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His anger simmered, as he recounted policing failures after this innocent young black man’s life ended so violently at a London bus stop. But his delivery was controlled, starting something like this: Let me tell you a story. Humans need stories. By sharing what happened in story form, we can make sense and learn from it. At times during his two hour talk, he stopped, silenced by the horror of what he had to say, and then with a deep breath, would repeat like a mantra: back to the story; humans need stories. He was a good public speaker so the repetition reassured us, and every now and then he threw in a witticism, to relax us with a relieved burst of laughter. That fortified us for the next onslaught. Because he told us the facts in story form, they’re still in my memory after eighteen years.

Youth murders in London have increased since then. Few get Stephen Lawrence’s column inches and anniversary documentaries. Little Damilola Taylor, 10 years old, was one who did, and Stephen Kelman based his funny, tragic book Pigeon English around a similar story. Other difficult situations lead us to storytelling too: Mary Smith cared for her father with dementia and fashions elegant, moving, funny anecdotes from what must have been painful experiences on her blog, My Dad is a Goldfish. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental ill health or illnesses such as anorexia, alcoholism or cancer to turn to blogging their experiences, and almost always they manage to turn them into self contained episodes – I am continually amazed by the skill of human beings to craft misfortune into stories we can all learn from and in a peculiar (cathartic?) way, enjoy. Memoir writing courses are increasingly popular: in today’s weeping world, do we need stories even more?

 

Scheherazade told stories to save her life, but it doesn’t happen only in fiction. This 1941 article, still astonishing now, tells of theatre, cabarets and even comedy performed by Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald.

The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:

“My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a concentration camp. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”

storytelling 1

Professionals and amateurs often use the episodic story form to make sense of tragedy: an example in mainstream media was Rebecca Armstrong‘s four year series about life after her husband’s serious car accident. Comedians can wring laughs and, crucially, empathy, from the darkest situations: Lou Conran made a stand up show from her experience of giving birth to a stillborn baby. “The upsetting bits are cushioned” she says, by the comedy. Conran “got hundreds of messages from people thanking me, sharing their stories. One lady in her 60s had told her adult children [about her own similar experience] and grieved for the first time.”  The Daily Annagram is a lacerating, hilarious, VERY sweary blog by a stand up comedian and writer called Anna. It’s mostly about the mess she and others have made of her life, and the way she pummels each fresh punchball of pain into anecdote is a master class in storytelling as survival skill. You cannot but wish her well.

Last week I was lucky enough to see comedian Mark Thomas with Palestinian colleagues in Showtime from the Frontline at Stratford Theatre Royal, London. Thomas and his colleague Sam Beale who teaches comedy impro ran a comedy workshop in the refugee city of Jenin, Palestine. Participants ranged from complete beginners to professional actors (“My dad insisted: Son, I want you to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor or a scientist!” “Dad,” I answered, “If I become an actor I can be all of those!” HIGNFY and Mock the Week please note: the class managed a better gender balance than you do, yes, in Palestine.) The compère at the graduation show was “the most depressed man in Palestine”; the Palestinian-Israeli founder of the theatre hosting the workshop had been murdered; most course participants had no chance of touring the UK with Thomas and their classmates. The audience fell spontaneously silent for a young man seen on video talking about how he’d like to play Romeo – but he was fatally shot before he could do so. You’d not think it promising ground for laughs…

…so of course the humour contained bleak moments. But comedy conventions like three elements (first element sets up a situation; second element reinforces/develops it; third element subverts it), clownish expressions and timing that held the audience in a trance made it first side splitting, then shocking, moving, funny again. An irony: it was similar to so much Jewish humour I have heard all my life, and indeed to humour from all over the world. At the post show discussion Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said : “You know, you Brits, you laugh at the same things we do, just in a quieter way.” Comedy is universal, even if we all have individual preferences. Asked about comedy in Palestine, Faisal said, “You know, we do not so much have a comedy tradition. But we have a very strong storytelling tradition, stronger than yours. And many of those stories have many funny bits inside.”

So let’s keep telling those stories. Some of us are bestselling professionals (a story I tell myself); some of us are just starting out, and some of us are still listening on our mother’s knees (I hope). But we are a storytelling species and if we can keep the storytelling going we may have a happy ending.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

A story and prizes for my second blogiversary!

The blog is two! Looking back I see I haven’t included as many short stories as I originally promised, so there’s one below. If you tell me what you think of it (good or bad), I’ll put you in the draw for a book prize – could be one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked or one I’ve written. UK only, sorry, readers elsewhere, but I’m a struggling writer….

Anyway, you’re all winners, because this story is for you. It came from my writing course at the British Library, when we had to identify an object in the Library to write about. No photos are allowed in the exhibition I chose, so you will have to make do with the brochure, but do visit; it’s free and very inspiring.

bl treasures
About the “Treasures of the BL” , from the current brochure

TEMPORARILY REMOVED

The exhibition’s sparkling name seduced me: “Treasures!” Entranced, I pored over illuminated manuscripts, hand scribed scriptures, painted vellum and pages of early print. I followed a sign that said: To the Magna Carta. But there was only a glass display case, containing a perspex-or-similar stand, and a printed sign with the  message: “Temporarily Removed”.

I racked my memory. What was the Magna Carta, anyway? And remembered: among other clauses, it declared that everybody, including the king, was subject to the rule of law and had the right to a fair trial. It was, in effect, one of the first declarations of human rights.

And now it had gone. Who took it?

Was it taken by a curator, for legitimate purposes? Perhaps it needed a polish, or was dog eared? Or letters had faded and blurred, and the curator had gone in search of ink and whatever medieval scribes used for Tippex – something made of flax, possibly. When she found nothing suitable for a running repair, she took the whole thing away for safekeeping. Temporarily, of course.

It was unlikely to have been stolen. The area bristled with alarms, the Magna Carta would have screamed “Traitors!” as it was lifted, and the thief immediately been apprehended by the elegant Egyptian security man and his Roman nosed Ukrainian colleague, with their ramrod backs and their epaulettes to die for.

I shared my disappointment with a fellow passenger on the trolleybus home. He confided a rumour, and a few days later it was confirmed by a brave investigative  radio reporter. The Home Secretary herself had had the Magna Carta since last Michaelmas quarter day. Picture the scene:

“Basil! I’ve forgotten the law of the land! Fetch me the Magna Carta!”

The under Home Secretary bowed. “You’ll have to fetch it yourself, I’m afraid, Cynthia,” he simpered. “Only you, the PM – and the King I suppose – have the right to remove the Magna Carta from the Treasures Collection.”

So the Home Secretary sent the British Library a pneumatogram and arrangements were made for her collect the Magna Carta at sherry time, to temporarily remove it to Queen Anne’s Gate or wherever it is the Home Secretary resides nowadays. You’d think it would be safe there, but…

… at tea time on All Hallows Eve, she was sitting by a roaring fire, her Persian cat Nero purring in his basket and Basil buttering steaming crumpets for the three of them. She was studying the Magna Carta, her eyes glowing in the firelight.

“This Magna Carta is too long.”

Basil knew that tone of finality. He put the butter knife down and wiped his hands on his pinny. Only that morning, during the regular watch he kept on the Fortnum’s community noticeboard, his careful fingers had stripped the address of a radical organisation from a recipe for gunpowder soufflé. Cynthia’s deft gesture was identical, pinching a section of the Magna Carta between her coral painted thumb and fingernails, and ripping it decisively away.

“Too many rights, too much to police, administer, and communicate. We can never assure them all. The country can easily do without this one.” Rip, tear.

“And this…”

With gusto the gleaming nails scored, tore and flicked.

Much of the Magna Carta lay in shreds on the Home Secretary’s monogrammed carpet. Basil scurried for the bronze dustpan and brush. Efficient percussion filled the room: stiff swipes of the bristles keeping time with Cynthia’s knuckles cracking.

“Decluttering, Basil. Taking back control. A compact Magna Carta will be neater than all that swollen old waffle.”

She rubbed her hands in satisfaction but her hooded eyes remained restless. “Then again, if a job’s worth doing…” She swooped on the shrunken pages.

“I’ve started so I’ll finish.”

That evening the British Library received pneumatogrammed instructions. The investigative reporter was too late to intercept them and could only report post factum. Visitors to the British Library now will find a new sign:

MAGNA CARTA. PERMANENTLY REMOVED

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Please leave a comment below before midnight BST on April 19th 2018 – improvements, continuations, deletions – to enter the draw. And please stay with me for a third year of words and fictions – it’s a fiction, by the way, that the Magna Carta is anywhere other than safely inside the British library, for now. It was something else – I didn’t check what – that had been temporarily removed.

prize 4

A goody bag from the funeral director

I wasn’t well last week, so this post replaces the advertised programme. I said I’d continue blogging about Lisbon writers. But Fernando Pessoa and Joe Saramago demand full attention. When your head and eyes ache, you burn with temperature, and you’re not feeling fit for human consumption, their wonderful words do little more than swim around like the ubiquitous Lisbon sardine.

By Saturday I could venture out, and a local shopping street again gave me a lesson in fundamentals. Once the lesson was about multicultural London; last time it was about birth. This lesson, as if to remind me there’s always someone iller than oneself (my cold had reached the self pitying stage), there was a beautiful pair of black horses, kept still by two top hatted gentlemen in morning coats with an elegant engraved glass carriage behind. All you need for a traditional East End funeral. Funeral 2a better

I prepared to walk past in a discreet and respectful way while getting a good look at the horses. But  – where was the coffin? There was only a cheerful lady dressed in black, standing in the doorway of the funeral directors, saying “Would you like a goody bag?”

My instinct, frankly, was to say no. It’s very kind of you but I’ve already felt like death warmed up this week and I am not in the mood for conversation with any representatives of the Grim Reaper, thank you all the same. (Although I did read a lovely blog post this week about the memoirs of an eco-mortician.)

But then all the way round Sainsbury’s I wondered, why would a funeral director be giving out goody bags? And what on earth would be in them? I renewed my supplies of tissues, honey and paracetamol with unseemly haste. What if the lady was no longer feeling so generous when I walked back past?

Funeral 1

 

I’ve only been into a funeral director’s twice (it wasn’t this one). I accompanied my father after my mother died, and a few years later I went back with my sister to arrange his funeral. I remember the employees as respectful, pleasant, rather inefficient on that second occasion (Me: You have been looking after my mother’s ashes so that they could be scattered with my father’s when the time came. Employee: Have we? Are you sure you don’t have them at home? But they did, as I knew, having been there when the arrangement was made, and they were tracked down in a warehouse – the actual scattering is another story.)

But why would you go into a funeral directors if you didn’t have a funeral to arrange or a body to view? Or possibly a crime to investigate or a novel to research?

If intrigued by a goody bag, you might.

The low sun shone on the still quiet horses. It was hard to get a good photo, and felt intrusive, even though there was no funeral, no coffin, no body. The goody bags were stacked by the open door of the shop (would you call it a shop?) but nobody was there now. How sad. Presents had been offered, but people were walking past. I peeped in, and picked up a bag: “May I take one of these?” I called, but softly, in case they were dealing with a proper customer.

Out came the lady in black, and another top hatted gentleman. “Please do. It’s our 200th anniversary. Please, help yourself.” In such uncharted conversational territory, my small talk dried up, I smiled, and left.

Tomorrow I shall go back, and if they’re not busy (but how would I know – outside is well screened and you have to press a doorbell) I shall call in again. When my father’s shop notched up any kind of anniversary, they had big boozy parties, celebratory offers and competitions. But a funeral directors can’t really be seen doing that, and yet, it’s quite a thing to celebrate. 200 years of funeral care! The social history they must have at their fingertips! It would be fascinating to hear more.

Also, it’s the best goody bag I’ve ever had. I benefitted from their need to keep things tasteful. Of course there was a balloon – there has to be a balloon in a goody bag – but it’s as understated as a balloon possibly could be. Some people with a baby are coming to view my house tomorrow, perhaps the baby would like the balloon, or would it send them the wrong message? Hmmm… There were two useful little tins of mints, and two packets of seeds which in a lovely coincidence were forget-me-nots (my mother’s favourite flower) and sunflowers (my father’s). There was a pen, and best of all – they must know I’m a writer – a very good quality notebook with lines ruled, a ribbon bookmark, elastic closure and a matching pen with holder!

funeral goody bag 2 better

Of course, funeralcare is a business like any other and if they don’t make a profit they won’t survive. They do have a captive market, and it was a celebration, but this was nonetheless effective advertising if passers by weren’t too inhibited to engage with it. So I said to B., “If I’m still living round here when the time comes, this firm, W. English & Sons, is the firm I’d like to  use.”

“The problem is, you won’t still be living,” he said.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Newborn

Sometimes a story arrives from nowhere with the emotional load intact but the end unclear. We were in the basket only checkout queue. The world came to a stop for us and for the cashier when our attention was magnetised by swimming eyes not yet old enough to focus. The baby’s mouth formed and lost small shapes, his head flopped on his mother’s chest, and all without a sound.

newborn Rob

His mother held one hand under his padded bottom, one on the handle of her enormous buggy. Her wire basket was perched against the handle. She leaned back, the baby pinned to her chest by an awkward gravity. Out darted her hand to transfer each item one by one from basket to belt, back it went to steady the baby between each grab. She gauged the risk each time with frightened eyes, but seemed unable to let go of the buggy.

She headshook away offers of help, but her gaze latched onto me, then onto my partner, then turned to the cashier.

“This one’s very new, I think?” I said. You don’t often see such tiny babies out and about.

“One week,” she announced. Her accent was French I think. Her eyes darted from one of us to the other, the pupils wild.

“Your first?”

“Yes. He’s all right in the pram. But not when I take him out. He cries when I take him out.” But the baby wasn’t crying.

“He won’t feed.” She stared us down: “Fourteen hours without taking milk.”

“He looks fine,” I said, because he did. Alert and content, relaxed, quiet. Perhaps nuzzling a little.

“I had to come out for some formula,” she said.

“Oh!” I said before I could stop myself. I’m a full time busybody, and over two decades ago had the luck to find breastfeeding came naturally.

Her face was very white and her stomach still big. I don’t think she heard me.

“He’s lovely,” intervened the cashier. My partner smiled.

At the next aisle, a good natured voice: “Excuse me…” The new mother was absently pushing her empty buggy back and forth, and the twisting wheels had caught in a lady’s trolley. I don’t remember, from my buggy buying days, what those fully rotating wheels were called, but at that time you paid extra for them. My wheels never got caught in anything that I recall. But my buggies were much simpler affairs.

Newborn mum tried to bend, baby and all, to free the wheels. The other customer bent as well. She got there first and they jiggled with the baby scrunched between them until the two contraptions were released.

Ros newborn 2

“You’re brave, bringing him out so young,” I encouraged her. “Well done! I took weeks when I had my first to go out alone with her.”

“He’s fine when he’s in the pram,” she repeated, still clutching him with one hand, still trying to push items along the belt. So why not put him back in the pram? Such an easy thought, at a distance of twenty plus years.

“And I had a C section,” she said. “One week, that’s all.” She repeated this, too. “C section. One week ago.” She needed to retell the story often enough for it to make sense. How vulnerable they both were.

“You’re doing very well.” Busybody me again, with little evidence either way. “But you must take care, take care of yourself, he’s fine.”

“Yes, take care,” said the cashier, and we exchanged looks. Surely this young woman should not be out alone yet with her baby.

“My boyfriend is …ing”. Our faces showed we didn’t catch what she said he was doing. Then they showed we thought he should be there.

We picked up our bags. Time had stopped long enough. Goodbye, good luck. A silent wish she would soon feel more comfortable. Outside, I was reminded of my gratification, once I’d relaxed from newborn nerves, when strangers clustered round my new baby. Once a stallholder shouted “Ow, look at the loverly biby!” (This is not a pastiche. It’s how they really sounded in Walthamstow  market where ‘enery ‘iggins could still have found work if anyone would stand for it.) But her husband added: “Ain’t you ashamed o’ yerselves, bringin’ a little angel like that into this terrible world?” And he gave an enormous chuckle to show it was not ill meant.

Of course, the world is even more terrible now. (And better, in other smaller ways.)

I keep thinking of the young French woman. She disturbed me, out and about, in shock. But at least outside, she can find an easy audience through the beacon of her baby. She can begin to talk out her trauma, with different or less detail each day until the structure of the story falls into place for her and the facts become familiar enough to make sense.

Whoever she is, wherever she went home to, whatever her boyfriend is or does, I hope four days on from this encounter her shock is subsiding. I wonder if the unspoken concern of strangers has been of any use to her and if she mixed the formula. It reminded me of writing the newborn scene in The Infinity Pool, and of how I tried to help my heroine get through.

When there is a birth, not only the baby is newborn.

Newborn Ros
Photos are of my own children, now adults, at about the same age.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

A day in the life of Agent X

Agent X stretched after a poor night’s sleep. She really ought to get more exercise…spend less time staring at screens…eat more sensibly.

But a new day beckoned. She had a fascinating submission to read – she’d requested the full ms after tearing through the first three chapters and was looking forward to finding out what happened next. She wasn’t entirely sure how to place it, but the writing was so good and the premise so original, she was expecting competitive bids from several publishers. If, of course, another agent didn’t snap it up first, like the author she’d been slightly too slow to respond to last year who ended up with a six figure advance.

Agent 4Her existing authors were clamouring too. There might be answers to their questions among the 112 new emails in her inbox. She made coffee, cut a crisp pear into safely unsticky wedges and took them to her desk.

 

Dear X, Lovely to see you at the Book Fair. I’ve now had time to read The Pontoon Bridge by Amos Fearsome and I agree the writing flows beautifully and the plot has some interesting twists. However, I couldn’t quite identify with the main character, and so, with regret, I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline this one.

Dear X, Thank you for reminding me I’ve had Pull the Other One by V. Erbose since last year. Sorry about that! It’s a great idea, but I’m afraid this one isn’t quite right for our list. I wish you luck placing it elsewhere.

Hi X! Just to let you know I really enjoyed The Darkening Sun by Omar Zafiq, and will be taking it forward for consideration by the acquisitions committee next week. I’ll keep you informed on the outcome.

Dear X, Peter Plainman, Accountancy Services Ltd, is able to offer you a special offer of only £YYY for 12 months insurance against the additional cost of responding to any HMRC investigation during the tax year 2017/18.

Dear X, Please find attached the contract for Above and Beyond as agreed for signature by yourself and author Martin Middleman. Please sign and return…

Dear X, Please join us for drinks at the Globe on … This is a farewell jolly for all our associates over the past ten years. Regretfully we are winding up the company as the pressure on small publishers has become unsustainable. But we ‘d like to go out with a traditional publishing bang!

Dear X, Please join us at Amazon Towers for the Kindle Self Publishing Awards on….

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to The Bookseller is now due…

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to our worldwide publishing database is now due…

Dear X, I submitted my ms Tedium Dismissed! last week and I’m wondering whether you received it as I have had not a response from you as yet…

Agent 2Dear X, I am emailing speculatively as I appreciate from your website you dont deal with dystopian fantasy.  However I’m sure your going too feel differently when you enter my world! In 140,000 amazing words I explore landscapes no one else could possibly imagine, with my heroine Alexandra the Greatest who’s battles against the greatest evil the universe has yet known are inconceivable! I am a stay at home dad and would be available to meet, subject to childcare duties, at any time convenient to you within easy reach of Basingstoke…

X tapped keys, forwarding, deleting, commenting, replying, congratulating, ignoring. (But it wasn’t really ignoring, as deciding whether to ignore in itself took time and thought.) She remembered to roll her shoulders, a few random yoga moves her nod to preventing back ache. She highlighted sections of a trade press article about the legal ramifications of digital royalties – essential but dull information she regularly digested on behalf of her authors.

Agent 7
A range of agents are listed in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

It was wonderful working from home (the business couldn’t afford office overheads), but she missed the daily walk to the station, the water cooler banter and opinion exchange. Thanks to some recent successes she didn’t worry about losing touch – her existing connections kept her informed, as did social media and the trade press. For every promotion, move, retirement, or redundancy there was a new appointment, a new intern, or a regretfully slimmed down company to build productive relationships with, and weekly trips to meet editors and authors. She arranged these for coffee or tea times to avoid the cost of lunches – her accountant would only swallow so much – but they made for a change of scene. When she wondered if she wouldn’t be happier commuting all week, maybe to a desk in the foreign rights department of a glamorous trendsetting agency in Camden or Islington, she consoled herself that her one woman operation saw so much variety, personally dealing with each author right through from submission to post publication. Agent 1

Now to be inspired: the new ms! She settled on the sofa with her laptop and more coffee. Chapter Four…

It didn’t grab her as the beginning had. But it was definitely worth pursuing. Three hours later, she’d decided, impressed by the well produced text (no attention tripping typos). The middle sagged, and would need some robust structural editing, which she hoped the author would welcome, because the end more than compensated. What an exciting find (overall)! She emailed straight away to express her strong interest and suggest a meeting. It was important to meet authors, face to face or on Skype, because her role was to take care of their baby. She needed to know if they were open to suggestions, confident, adaptable, able, eventually, to help market their work. If you got on well it helped so much. Ideally there’d be more books later, so this could be a relationship lasting years – she checked. Yes, this author mentioned a sequel in preparation, and had a self published backlist that looked respectable enough to bring to a publisher’s attention.

She’d still eaten only a pear, but decided to tick off some admin before an early supper. (She ought to continue her line edit of a revised draft she’d been sent – it could be sent out once the author had agreed the corrections. But it would be better left to tomorrow; she was getting tired now.) She dumped a pile of unwanted paper submissions firmly in the recycling box. It felt less terrible to do that than it had when she first set up the agency, because she did state clearly on the website that she only accepted work  electronically…Although sometimes the only human being she saw all day was the postman, ringing the doorbell with the latest vast packages.

Dear X, Please would you clarify the position on my royalties for Celebration at the Pierhead. I have been chasing the publisher without success and wonder if you would be able to resolve this…

Agent 3Dear X, I’m very disappointed with sales for Going, Going, Gone. What are your thoughts, going forward, for promoting this? I didn’t realise, when you advised me to self publish because you felt you had submitted it to all possible publishers, that the onus for marketing would be so fully on my shoulders. Also I am wondering whether, if I had it translated, it would do better in the Latin American market. Can you suggest a translator who would be willing to undertake this? I would suggest we share the cost…

Dear X…

But it was time for supper. And to start the debut novel everyone was raving about – always worth trying to identify the spark that had inspired a record advance.

************************************************************************

Dear readers of this blog post/story. If you are an agent, please consider this a submission. Please advise whether it would be better if my heroine was a private detective rather than a literary agent. Please suggest whether it should be set in London or the Outer Hebrides perhaps? Please advise whether I’d have more chance of publication if I submit it under my own name (white middle class middle aged straight UK female) or give myself the nom de plume Fatima Begum or Leroy DaCosta? On the other hand bearing in mind the successes of McEwan, Faulks, de Bernières, and Barnes should I go for John Smith? And btw would I stand a better chance if I considered transitioning before or after publication? 

If you are an editor, edit away! I welcome critiques.

If you are a reader, please review it!

If you blog, do comment, reblog, share…

Note: Agent X is an entirely fictional character drawn from a composite of observations made to me by literary agents big and small over the last few decades. Her head’s just above water, and she’s on the verge of a big, big breakthrough (maybe). Or she may become a private detective. I invented her in response to this blog post which started a lively thread last week in the Facebook group, Book Connectors.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Long shots at short stories

I don’t go searching for short story inspiration, because although the imaginary ideal me often writes short stories, the real one only claims to. But occasionally a prompt pops up. Once, around 1982, it was a double bed in a Paris shop window. I was amazed by this cheaply made, ambitiously intended piece of furniture, with curlicues and carvings adorning each cream coloured plastic leg and corner. Shaded lamps were built into the looming headboard and incorporated bShort storiesedside tables featured radio cassette players and circular indents, the kind ships have to stop crockery sliding about in rough seas. The designers presumably anticipated lots of inbed activity.

I was so intrigued I got off my bus and walked back to inspect the bed more closely. Then for years in my head I developed a story of a young, pious couple without wealth, who are engaged to be married. One Sunday afternoon, out for a chaste stroll, they pass the same shop window and get it into their heads they can’t wed until they can buy this bed to bless their union. They save and save, but hopes of enough money become ever more distant…someone else buys the bed…they grow older and her reproductive years pass…they never marry. Like 1980s Chekhov, it would have been, had I written it.

JapanThe idea may have come from a fellow student in a shared house the previous year. This lovely, rather single minded Essex boy had never been out of the UK (not so unusual then). But his dream was to go to Japan, and he practiced for it, cooking tofu and miso in a wok, wearing a yukata, learning kanji, and saving frantically. He worked long hours in possibly the first Japanese restaurant in Brighton and did well: after six months he had over £200, a significant sum in 1980. Then he saw a state of the art sleeping bag in a travel shop, bought it for around £198, continued practising for his travels by sleeping in it every night until it was too worn to take anywhere… and was back at the beginning again, financially. (He did get there later, married a Japanese  woman and has had a good career, but my short story version would have been more poignant.)

In 1994, just after my son was born, a close friend was expecting a boy too. Our toddler Bobdaughters played together and we hoped for a similar friendship between our sons. Then her little boy was stillborn. In his memory I incorporated her descriptions into a story based around this juxtaposition of happiness and loss. I sent it with my friend’s permission to (I think) Good Housekeeping, but it wasn’t accepted.

Fast forward to 2013 and I did complete a second short story, following a mundane visit to a jeweller for a watch strap. clock 2Behind the counter I was surprised to see shelves packed with the type of clocks I didn’t know were still made, travelling alarms with attached coloured cases, Mickey Mouse clocks for children, faces with large numerals, Roman numerals, nothing digital. They were all priced and for sale, apparently without irony. But who would ever buy them? The shop had run out of time. My story, full of portentous time related imagery, about how the shop is not rescued by a Mary Portas type guru who gives it a makeover for reality TV, didn’t win the competition (Good Housekeeping again?) I submitted it to.

Two stories, two failures (in publishing terms). I gave up.

Until this year. Our Vienna trip provided an idea. We’d been to Mozart’s house, all bright display cases, clever montages, headphoned commentaries. We were unmoved. treble clef and mozartYou couldn’t sense the composer here, although the cheerful and informative staff would sell you Mozart chocs, jigsaws of musical scores, playing cards, and even a treble clef washing up scourer (the house warming present your musician friends always wanted). But the flat where Schubert died was another matter. We walked down a long, quiet street opposite the Majolika Haus, thinking we might be in the wrong place. The shops were closed and there was no-one about. We buzzed to enter the solid main doors, and climbed two flights of narrow internal stone steps. Quiet landings overlooked a quieter courtyard, the Schubert flat looking no different to the others. We rang Schubert’s doorbell. His own doorbell! (Well no, obviously.) In the lobby of the silent flat a young man sat behind the counter with a dull choice of postcards. My attempts at conversation met with a wordless response, but he did hand us an explanatory leaflet in English.

 

After the lobby there are two main rooms, not large, landing view and street view. One holds a few display cases with copies of documents written by Schubert and an inventory of his belongings at the time of his death. The other has his piano (see a previous post) and a console permitting visitors to listen to a small choice of badly reproduced recordings. I allowed the Mass in E flat to warble back through some elderly headphones for a while, but couldn’t turn it off and the soundtrack followed us into the third, smaller room, where Schubert died, possibly of typhoid fever, possibly complicated by the effects of syphilis and the mercury treatment he’d taken for it. His brother Ferdinand took him in and he was nursed at times by his thirteen year old niece. Ferdinand, his wife and children had moved into the newly built apartment only very shortly before, and the still wet plaster probably worsened Franz Schubert’s symptoms.

There were no other visitors. The ordinary apartment, the sparse displays, the bursts of beautiful, distorted music, the unfurnished room where the 31 year old composer died, the terrible start to the family’s life in a new home, presented without drama or sentimentality – no wonder the young curator was so reserved. Did he love Schubert’s music, and resent interruptions by the rare visitors? Did he want his museum to have the prestige and razzmatazz of Mozart’s? Was he oppressed or uplifted by the atmosphere, and did he have his own thwarted dreams? There may, one day, be a short story there, and if I could connect the themes of beauty, lyricism and malign fate with even a shadow of the musical interweavings in Schubert’s string quartets, I would have no need of rewards and prizes to feel proud of myself.

 

 

(I’m grateful for additional information to The Life of Schubert, by Christopher Gibbs.)

©Jessica Norrie 2017