Titles seek book

The Italian dramatist Pirandello wrote a play called Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is the best title ever. I’d make the bestseller charts if all a book needed was a title. I love titles. They come to me throughout the humdrum day and I think: Yes! Great! I forget many, but some stick. My problem is I haven’t written the stuff that comes next.

Trying to get through to the hairdresser reminds me I could channel Steig Larsson with The Girl with the Lockdown Hair. And another good phrase has rung through our house since March 2020. A glass or two of wine with olives and vegetable crisps saved the lockdown day with a semblance of structure. We knew we were drinking too much, so partner stopped referring to it specifically and substituted an invitation to The Things That Go With Wine (or on special occasions, The Things That Go With Fizz). These adapt easily. How about The Things That Go With Love or The Things That Go With Death? One Day I May Be Sorry for giving those away, but there’s no copyright on titles, so Be My Guest. Idioms make great titles.

Mrs Hellebore and Her Son Primrose sprung to mind on the first day of Spring. This will (or won’t) be humour – think The Diary of a Nobody and Lupin Pooter. Maybe Persephone will publish it when I’m a forgotten authoress. When? Who am I kidding?

Building without Dust came when I was mopping endless daily plaster residue from my keyboard during building work. I did once use it to head a review of Rachel Cusk’s work. Like Cusk, I love writing and reading about houses and homes, along with Kate Summerscale, Jane Christmas, Ann Patchett and hundreds of others. My eventual Building without Dust will be heavy on metaphor – tearing down the old to replace it with the new and then is the new any better? How long does the joy in it last? What’s the fallout from the process? It all sounds so grim I’d better just stick with the title.

Stealing Winston is my cosy crime idea. “Where are you moving to?” asked the removal man giving an estimate. “Near the Winston Churchill statue,” I said. He gave a great sigh of satisfaction. “AH! That’s my favourite statue in all Essex. Solid bronze, it is. Can’t think why no-one’s nicked it.” I stopped packing to scribble ideas about ne’er-do-wells saddled with storing and selling a whopper of a statue wot they’d pinched one night for a larf. Ideas ARE copyright so if I see this in the bestseller lists in years to come, watch out. 

Hooray for poetic titles. A beauty came up recently in an article about either the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo or the additional bits of Stonehenge they’ve found in Wales. Among the ancient remains were Traces of Ancient Sunlight. How lovely; sorry that’s the only trace of information I’ve retained.

Drinking in the Atrium/ Gin in the Atrium? The Counter Tenor in the Umpire’s Chair? Back to the Hammerklavier? What’s the genre? asks long-suffering agent. Well, it’s a bit niche…

The Infinity Pool was set in an alternative holiday settlement, whose management sold out in the minds of its eco guests by building a snazzy alternative to swimming among the local jellyfish. It also felt vaguely philosophical, giving my title a bit of extra heft. When we translated the title to French the philosophical side perhaps took too much precedence and the German translator added an explanatory sub-title. The Magic Carpet – which won’t be translated but would be easier – featured in one of the stories my child narrator drew inspiration from. Unfortunately feedback shows people think it’s a children’s book because of the title.

Thanks to Anete Lusina on Pexels.com for photo

In a recent thread in Book Connectors, my favourite Facebook group for bloggers, authors and readers, a writer complained her publishers always changed the titles she gives her books. If a commercial publisher took my books, they could call them what they like. They’d be entitled, for showing such faith in me. I just have to write the books first.

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Eureka!

I googled “inspiration” because you deserve a positive blog post after Recent Rant 1 and Recent Rant 2. The Oxford Languages Dictionary says inspiration is the process of being mentally stimulated to do…something creative and/or a sudden brilliant or timely idea. It’s my pleasure to bring you this overview of some forms the mental stimulation may take, with a pretty picture to help you through the gate to fruitful productivity.

Inspiration may seep in over time, from a writer’s familiarity with places, people or themes, or it may come suddenly from something specific. The first kind, described here, inspired The Infinity Pool. But The Magic Carpet sparked all-of-a-sudden in my classroom, with a 6 year-old pupil’s suggestion to his friend: “Why don’t we write everything in capital letters? Then Ms Norrie won’t tell us off for not using them.” (I awarded merit points for chutzpah.) In the finished novel, it’s become Mandeep’s idea on page 91. Novel Three started with an extraordinary signpost I saw on holiday. All will be revealed when (if) a publisher takes the same punt I did and invests in my story of a community deeply affected by the visual image in their midst. I’ve achieved 40 pages of Novel Four inspired by a scene in a play. So my inspiration comes from another writer’s inspiration.

Poetry or rhetoric is often deliberately written to inspire, but what’s everyday to some speakers can provide unexpected inspiration too. As our builders discuss the cellar stairs, I’m hearing of risers, winders, bull noses, dog legs, a suggested pig’s ear handrail but not balustrades or spindles (it’s just an ordinary staircase, honest). They assume I understand – builders always add the word obviously to anything they’re explaining. Their jargon reveals an undiscovered world for my future characters to root about in, obviously.

Strip specialised language to its bare bones and it can still conjure a story. In a Physics exam when I was thirteen, I forgot the correct wording of the Archimedes Principle, but got one mark for writing: “Archimedes got in his bath. He noticed the water level go up and yelled ‘Eureka!’ ” My description’s unscientific, but it opens the way for imagining the bathroom (if any), the servant who’d heated the water jumping at the sudden shout, whether modesty and privacy were important, whether Archimedes was routinely fastidious or perhaps preparing for a special date? So was he late because he stopped to write down his new principle? Did his date cast him off forever or come round to see why they’d been stood up? Then what? Tracy Chevalier or Robert Harris would have half that novel written already.

If I wrote cosy crime or comedy, a local walk might provide inspiration. I’d wonder what led to this resident’s sign about her cat?

And will Winston Churchill ever catch that bus?

Although lock down provides lots of writing time, it’s a disadvantage not being able to get out and about for inspiration. These Welsh rooftops, taken in Abergavenny, could frame an epic spanning eight centuries, of lives lived under the copper roofed church tower, new and weathered slates, Velux windows and solar panels, all nestling in the protection of the ruined castle walls?

I don’t think I’d ever again set a story somewhere I can’t revisit easily for research, but I’ve bottled the feelings that came from visiting the Vienna flat where Schubert died, or watching the artist painting in (yes, in) the river at Kyoto. They can be transferred to other stories.

Never ignore a sensation that gives rise to unexpected, surging emotion. As any therapist knows, stories often lie behind apparently illogical anger or fear and the triggers to tears represent a deeper loss. Last week we went to our first live concert since February. Paul Lewis walked on stage, and without a word began to play. I welled up at the first notes. Comparing notes afterwards, my partner had the same reaction. Underlying our pleasure and relief at hearing live music again were compassion for all who’ve lost loved ones, jobs or homes through this pandemic and sorrow at seeing our families so little. We felt for Paul Lewis too, only allowed an audience of 80 in a normally packed theatre.

If you derive a story from a piece of music you’ll be in highly respectable literary company: Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Murakami. Proust started it, exploring a musical phrase after moving on from the taste of a madeleine that took him back to childhood teatimes. But any writing, in any genre at any period can develop from the senses; the novel Perfume is almost literally inspired by smell. If you write a scene where one sense is missing, it will – counter-intuitively – make you more aware of it. The difficulties blind people have social distancing are a recent grim example, and Proust, a noted hypochondriac, might never have got past page 1 if Covid had removed his sense of taste and smell.

So keep your ears/eyes/noses/tongue/fingertips peeled. “Everyone’s in agreement we won’t tell Mick his son fell through the roof, then?” I overheard, passing a high garden wall. Suppose Mick’s son had hidden internal injuries that would only manifest later, or suppose someone spotted where they’d patched up the hole in the priceless fresco on the ceiling below? Suppose he wasn’t really Mick’s son! 

There’s no mystery to inspiration. I’ve considered the five senses, going outside, travelling (even just in the mind), people’s conversations, history, and other people’s art, music and writing. You’ll have your own ideas which I hope you’ll share in the comments below. Everyone has their eureka moment somewhere, just waiting to be discovered. Good luck!

© Jessica Norrie 2020

Declutter your writing – advice from a hoarder

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

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

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

edit your ms 1

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

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

edit your ms 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The End”.

©Jessica Norrie 2020