Plotting with Sophie Hannah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Norrie 2021

Mojo gone? Mustn’t grumble!

People in England do grumble; it’s a national hobby. For example, I wear my Remoaner badge with pride. One grumble leads to another, as here when I meant to write about not writing and found myself on Brexit by my second line.

This blog post grumble is cheaper than a therapist and may find friends among the online rumble of grumbles about books not selling, authors uninspired, authors unappreciated. One author started a recent Book Connectors thread with: “I’m sure I’m not alone, but boy, I feel alone right now”. Respondents described “terrible inertia”, “terribly demoralising times”, “soul-destroying hard slog”, “disappointing book sales and no vigour to promote”. Publishing a book in a saturated market is like “screaming into a din.” Twitter too is full of moans, not only from authors. It’s a great place to bellyache, beef, bitch, bleat, carp, cavil, chunter, complain, create, find fault, gripe, grizzle, groan, grouch, kvetch, mither, pick holes, protest, sound off, whine, whinge. (That’s my riposte to writing teachers dictating you must only use the verb “said”.)

Much author grousing is justified. The disrespect for the time and effort taken to produce a book, the hoops to jump through to get it published, friends and families all wanting free copies or buying one between twelve, with their first question “What are you going to write next?” Then there’s the stranglehold of genre; the expensive, sometimes formulaic creative writing industry; piddling advances and low royalties; piracy; gatekeeping from trade publishers; too few stockists; Amazon dominance; the difficulty of getting noticed/reviewed; the high cost to indies of (often excellent) editing and design; the scams from fake services… The assumption that all self-published authors write crap – this blog post was delayed as I fired off a response to a smug thread on the Facebook “Extreme Pedantry” group.

I blame my own current inertia on recent rejections from trade publishers. I do understand rejections are a rite of passage, even a badge of honour, and mine are “improving”. They’re now increasingly detailed, thoughtful and almost wholly positive. Novel 3 is currently garnering rejections in this vein: 

“…what an original idea. I am glad to have seen it…she does write nicely”

“I have finally had a chance to read (NOVEL 3) and admired it very much… I did enjoy its emotional range and vivid setting… Hope you find it a great home.”

“I thought it was so unusual, and for someone who doesn’t LOVE (this kind of) book I was absolutely hooked! The writing was particularly lovely in places and I enjoyed it very much as a reader.”

“I found it really original with an extremely interesting premise, and thought Jessica was really successful in accomplishing what she set out to do.  The mother’s physical distance but emotional intimacy with her children… is really well realised and very evocative. I enjoyed the lyrical quality to the writing, and like I say it was very different to all the other submissions I have considered recently.”

“I think that this novel has a brilliant message…”

“…all the best with finding a publisher for Jessica – she is a very strong writer with brilliant ideas.”

And since going to press: I was intrigued by the premise and the themes – which Jessica explores with great tenderness – and I think the writing is excellent.

On bad days, “good” rejections feel no different to someone saying “Call this crap a book?” Of course they are, but you do find yourself wondering just how good your package has to be to jump through the acquisition committee hoops and remain true to your own voice. I take my hat off (some days with more grace than others) to those who write multi-volume crime series and romances but that’s not my skillset. I write standalone fiction. The worst any editor’s said about Novel 3 is: “it’s slightly didactic”. It’s an overtly feminist novel, for Goddesses’ sake. Do editors find fault with Margaret Atwood for being didactic? (Virago were sent Novel 3, but haven’t responded – yet.) Also – as of yesterday – “It’s too diffuse“. Fair enough.

I managed 14,000 words of Novel 4 and have sent them to my Zoom writing group for their opinions. I’m happy to wait for their response, as I haven’t opened the file since August. It seems rather pointless. Novels 1 and 2 were both well received when self-published after trade publisher rejections, but sales have dwindled. I don’t want to send Novel 3 down the same path. And if I still can’t get a publisher to risk an advance on me – any sum, however modest, would be acceptable – why bother with months of back and eye strain, revisions, self-doubt, rejection all over again?

Yet, what to do with my retired days? The choir can’t meet; the clothes shops can’t open their changing rooms; I can’t Zoom all day.

So I understand the grumbling authors online. The responses from the writing community are fantastic, ranging from virtual hugs through practical encouragement and pep talks. Spare me those last; I don’t need to hear about other people’s six figure incomes from churning out five books a year and embracing the marketing side. But the empathy and sympathy (never could understand the distinction) – are great: long may they continue. When I’ve been sufficiently hugged, I’ll be back in a position to use the practical advice. Thank you all for that.

The rumbling grumbles surely reflect creeping poor mental health among the general population, as the evenings chill and second wave Covid lies in wait. Everyone has trials – my son who’s self-isolating two weeks into a new teaching post with no tests available; the shop staff afraid to ask customers to wear masks; my daughter whose possibly fractured foot wasn’t x-rayed for months (yes, months); the elderly man in town this morning who showed me his “cancer card” and asked if the public toilets were all closed. When does a grumble become a legitimate grievance?

We authors must put our grumbles into perspective. But I’ll spare you a pep talk. Please consider yourselves hugged instead.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

The right to write

My blogging friend Mary Smith commented last post, re Edna O’Brien’s Girl, on controversy surrounding white authors using the voice of black characters. Girl was so fast paced and compelling I finished it in three sittings. Then, looking it up on Goodreads, I found a question from a member:

Who else thinks a young, black woman would have been a better authorial choice for this topic/concept?

There were three very different answers (plus the point that authors choose topics for their fiction rather than the other way round).

1. If we start to say that only young black women can write about young black women, where does that eventually take us? To more constraints on what women can and can’t do and there’s more than enough of them out there already.

2. I feel uncomfortable with a white woman telling this story and making any profit from it whatsoever.

3. (recommending a non fiction account): Helon Habila may not be a woman, but he is a highly regarded author and poet from Nigeria.

46195759Girl is told from the point of view of one of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014, the best known of many such abductions. To me the novel is less about a black-only experience than one example of  what throughout history and all over the world men have done to women in the name of religion, power or both. Regardless of race or age, Edna O’Brien is a woman who, raised in Catholic Ireland, knows all about repression. Maybe this makes her a better “authorial choice” than a Nigerian man who would not experience rape or forced marriage in the same way, menstruate, become pregnant or breastfeed, all significant in the book? But, if we discourage men from imagining such lived experiences, how can we expect them to develop empathy? Maybe O’Brien’s just a different authorial choice. She’s quoted on the British Council Literature website: “Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.

I’m not sure you can open up the world with modern levels of migration and travel, then criticise eagle-eyed writers for using the material they find there. More stories become available. An author can only select one and write about that or the boundaries become too fluid. Even an author of the calibre and experience of O’Brien still needs a manageable story, a heroine, a resolution. She was 84 when the Chibok abductions happened; I do salute the research she did, her energy and will to shine a light on injustice in the way she knew best.

The example of male violence she chose is by black African men on black African women and children. If words are an alchemy and story does conduct lives, they should be a power anyone can develop. Black female writers are also theoretically free to use any subject matter they like, but they may have less chance of becoming writers in the first place, for educational and financial reasons, health, class, gender restrictions… all this will also vary depending whether they are rural, urban,  African, Caribbean or western black women. In 2019 they still have less chance of getting published by a wary, traditionally white industry than Edna O’Brien who was working for the publisher Hutchinson when her first novel, The Country Girls, was commissioned (!) in 1960. (Yes, dream on.) Were white people even having this conversation then, when authors were arguably less familiar with “other” cultures? Anyway after six decades of success no one was going to turn down her newest novel, whether set in Ireland, Nigeria or outer space. Whereas, any quick Google of publishing rates for authors of colour confirms the findings of this Publishing Research Quarterly article:

The narrative that there are just are not enough authors of colour writing is (…) used to explain their lack of inclusion in the publishing industry; however, numerous authors of colour have countered this, saying they have struggled to get agents or, if they do have agents, publishing deals. (…) many authors of colour felt pressured to write identity books (…) that reflected their ethnic or cultural heritage or to draw upon cultural stereotypes—in order to be, or continue being, published. (…). These books often had to cover topics such as “racism, colonialism or postcolonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”. 

We all struggle to get agents, and if we are unknown as writers and not celebs in any other sphere the agents then struggle to get us published. But this and other research, for example carried out by We Need Diverse Books, confirms the more boxes you tick out of being minority ethnic, disabled, female, working class, unemployed, mentally or physically ill, LGBQT+, non Western, non white… the less likely you are to be published, and the more you are needed by readers.

When, in 1969, man walked on the moon, the boys at school were fascinated. I wasn’t: the protagonists wore boring spacesuits not pretty frocks, and I didn’t understand the physics. As a girl it made less impact on me, while my male contemporaries still remember it in great detail. I wasn’t reflected, didn’t feel I owned it. The closest the career suggestions I got came to astronaut was air hostess. So people of all backgrounds and abilities must appear in books. Everyone needs to be reflected and have ownership, everyone needs the opportunity to learn to write and publish them. The quality of writing is still paramount – you wouldn’t drive across a bridge built by hairdressers in a car designed by a first year apprentice, and equally writing is a craft that needs skill, training, practice and reward. It must say something interesting and say it well. There must be the freedom to write about anything and anyone, to use the “alchemy of words” to conduct anyone’s life or lives, and nobody should get published without redrafting, editing and perfecting. BAME writers should be free of having to write only about BAME people’s primary concerns, but if that’s true it follows that O’Brien too may write about what she likes.

Studies suggest that reading some kinds of fiction makes human beings more compassionate, enabling them to see life through other eyes. We have centuries of opportunity imbalance to correct, but let’s do it by bringing opportunities for diverse writers up to the levels enjoyed by white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied financially resourced middle class writers, not by building barriers to what each group may write about. Not by creating exclusive pockets that only insiders may occupy, but by welcoming everybody’s efforts to write about everybody else, even if some of us have difficulty and even pain recognising what they produce.

I did worry whether I knew my characters when writing The Magic Carpet and published it in trepidation, opinions having become more forthright since I started it in 2016. Last year an Asian-American YA author withdrew her work from publication following fierce online objections to how it was perceived to depict slavery. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is embroiled in argument over writing judged racist. So I had grounds for worrying I’d be criticised (fine) or trolled (not fine) for representing characters from backgrounds not my own. Suffice to repeat my characters are fictional, from five different backgrounds which by definition can’t all reflect mine, and were researched with colleagues and friends from those backgrounds as well as other sources. I couldn’t have written about London children otherwise, since in 2016 when the book’s set, the primary school population, depending on area, had between 33-94% ethnic minority* pupils and between 14-75% bilingual or multilingual users. My intention was to respect and celebrate this, but if readers find factual errors I’m open to corrections and ready to discuss how I’ve made my fictional characters think and feel. Whew! *This means not White UK heritage and I’m not happy with the “otherness” of the term.

Zadie Smith brilliantly defended writing in and of different voices in the New York Review of Books in October. 3711Unlike me, she’s of Jamaican/English  mixed heritage; like me, she grew up in London. My school friends were Jewish, or of Indian, Turkish, Greek and Black Caribbean heritage; my plumber was born in Pakistan, my solicitor is Greek Cypriot, my doctor Australian, the man who laid my garden turf Moldovan. I have this hinterland to draw on for research which I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in rural middle England. Does that give me more right to write about multi-ethnic character casts? Or should I have used a sensitivity reader? I may explore that another time.

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Evaristo shared her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood.

Let’s hope as more diverse authors get through publishing doors, more points of view will be heard. There are creative writing programmes, scholarships and competitions open to specific age, ethnic and income groups as well as to everybody (good luck scrolling through the enormous list on the links above!) It will take a while for these to redress the balance – the Coretta Scott King Prize had already been going 48 years when the PN article I quote appeared,  the Lambda Literary Awards (LGBTQ) started in 1989, the relatively tiny Barbellion Prize (for writing by ill or disabled authors or on that subject) has only just launched. But doors once opened will not close. A young Nigerian undergraduate on the last writing course I attended was writing a fierce, passionate, difficult book set in the Biafran war and the present day. Perhaps her book will be published. Perhaps next year a black woman will win the Booker Prize all to herself.

What to conclude? It’s an inexhaustible topic and I’m exhausted. I think people should be able to talk, read and write about anything and everything, but it must be sensitive and not incite hatred. Subject to that, everyone has the right to write. If they intend to try publishing what they write, they must ensure they’ve researched it thoroughly. However, in a capitalist world we must be realistic. Every good writer has the right to self-publish, and every really good writer whose returns will cover their production costs should have an equal opportunity to be published by a traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers have started efforts to increase the diversity of both their workforce and their authors; it’s well overdue and the world is watching. The right to write is everyone’s; the right to publish should depend on quality alone.

© 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?)

 

 

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©Jessica Norrie 2018

A prescription for blocked writers

I’d written my Work In Progress into a dark, locked cellar. It was time for something to stimulate and inspire. My budget precludes a long writing course, and I don’t like online learning. But since 2014 I’d had positive experiences at a Guardian Masterclass with William Ryan, a summer workshop with Marina Warner, and a Spread the Word mentoring session. So I booked “Building Stories” with London Lit Lab. The course aimed to “use the experience of our public and private spaces to inspire evocative fiction.” At the very least I’d have the privilege of working in two of London’s most impressive buildings. At best I’d start writing my way back upstairs.

Attendees included published and unpublished writers, academics, artists and therapists hoping to write fiction or poetry, and our tutors were Zoe Gilbert (Folk) and Lily Dunn.

Riba hall
RIBA, 1st floor landing, with busy participants

Our Saturday setting was the Royal Institute of British Architects, designed by George Grey Wornum, with interiors by his wife Miriam. Light from huge windows and etched glass doors floods the gleaming floors and emphatic angled spaces. Why architects would need a ballroom isn’t obvious, but they have one here to suit the most demanding Cinderella, with a grand staircase for her glass slipper to trip down and curved sofas inviting assignations. The library was modelled on a cruise liner and the soundproofed council chamber had a throne. In our conference room, originally white leather walls had turned uncleanably yellow from the smoke of a thousand meetings. We creaked across sprung floors and hauled ourselves up from the public space to narrower private staircases. Then we jotted our sensory impressions in short unpolished phrases, some of which we shared, anonymously.

An architect helped us study plans from the RIBA archives, including homes, schools, a debtor’s prison, a pheasantry, and an exhibition space. Our new understanding transformed them from codified diagrams to pictures in the mind’s eye. Stories unfolded.

Next, we were to imagine a building used other than for its original purpose. Writing an activity that didn’t fit the space would subvert it, creating tension. A derelict house, bereft of domesticity, is sinister. A church converted to flats must be deconsecrated. When a psychiatric hospital becomes a gated estate of private homes is it more or less of a refuge for the residents? Tube stations in the Blitz with people sleeping on the platforms, stables for cars instead of warm, living horses, ice hotels, the ruined swimming pool where Djokovic practised tennis as a boy. Map the mismatch, said Zoe and Lily. We scribbled away under the nicotine walls. I found myself immersed in a semi-serious idea from years ago, clamouring to be used. It had come to the fore because repurposing a building activates parts of the brain we don’t often use.

After lunch we discussed the psychology of spaces. How conversations run depends whether we’re sitting in a cafe or on a roller coaster. The rooms we’ve lived in are repositories for dreams, thoughts, conversations we’ve had in them (think of Proust). I was reminded how unsettled my father’s house seemed, when he was in hospital and I was popping in to pick things up. Something intangible had left with him, as though the house already knew he would never return… In the deadly quiet of the soundproofed council chamber we read of a Kate Chopin heroine in her hallway and her bedroom, her emotions and expectations adapting to each. The more private space meant she could explore her own secrets, have her epiphany and the story could move on.

We imagined someone with a secret, in a place where they feel safe. What happens? Zoe had postcard portraits, for anyone without such a character in mind already. Hooray! One was Protagonist J, in my stalled WIP. Now I know what he looks like! I described his safe space, nothing like the cold flat air of the council chamber but encouraged into existence there. Then I threatened it.

For a final Point of View, we were given a secret character – mine was a woman with a migraine – and had to write her POV on entering RIBA that morning. Could the others guess her traits from our narrative? It was an elegant way to end the day by referring to how far we’d come since we met.

BL seen on a staircase
British Library foyer, showing “The Tapestry”, from a Kitaj painting with the same name.

The British Library was a contrast on Sunday, our home turf a colourless basement “learning room” with an enormous expanse of white table, and no natural light (but better than my cellar). In groups we tried Erasure poetry, extracting evocative words and phrases from existing work(s), erasing or juxtaposing them to “write” something new. I was tired so on this occasion it didn’t do much for me, but others were immersed and stimulated, creating new poems together on huge sheets of paper. (My Erasure on that sentence might be: It did       for me,      creating    on     huge sheets. ) I thought of Rachel Whiteread’s blank windowed buildings, and of my favourite sentence from Reservoir 13: “There was weather”. So often, silent spaces are as important as what’s there.

Riba writing in council chamber
Council chamber, RIBA

BL room
Our learning room at the BL

We wandered the British Library, making notes for a story about some aspect of the building, or an object housed there. Touch, memories, smells: not only visuals. We drew mind maps of our journey, and of imaginary places in the invisible, non public parts of buildings. This time the huge sheets did work for me, my notes proving fertile fodder later.

BL underground
Who knows what’s in the invisible spaces of our public buildings?

In the afternoon with much shushing and confiscation of pens, we wrote in the Reading Room, normally closed on Sundays. (Pencils only, for fear of marking valuable books.) This room exuded concentration, and we all wrote for forty minutes in palpable silence like brocade drapes muffling us from distraction. (Bit overwrought – Ed.)

BL lightswitch
We stood back for the bigger picture and homed in in the details

Lastly, we discussed editing, considering two versions of a Raymond Carver story. A useful, practical discussion, ending with wine and some shared readings of our stories, before I dived even further underground for the tube home.

Thank you to Zoe, Lily and colleagues for a constructive and enjoyable weekend. For me, the tendency to focus on more literary fiction was especially welcome. These courses don’t end with the final well earned glass of wine, but give participants ideas to draw on for years to come. I enjoyed taking the writing medecine so much, I’ve treated myself to a day at Chawton too. I’m on my way back upstairs!

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©Jessica Norrie 2018