Magic Realist Poem

Most magic-realist literature comes in the form of novels, but it also appears as poetry. A few years back I wrote a long poem called Something in Nothing. The poem is broken up into parts.



He felt his shoulderblades
stretch and itch,
as he gazed across the café
at the girl.
Over the rim of the coffee cup
he saw her smile,
a secret smile as she read.

He wanted to cover his face,
he wanted to cover his feet,
he wanted to rise above it all.
Such was the ache of it.
Such was the tightness
of the shirt on his back.
Over the coffee cup
he drew the set of her jaw
with his eyes.
He noticed the slight shade on the cheek.

Suddenly she looked up
and saw him.
That was not the way of it,
that was not how it should be.
She should not see him,
not like that,
not with those dark smiling eyes.

That night in the bedroom
he thought of her,
as undressing
he found on his back
three sets of perfectly formed wings.

I have been busy organising another magic realism bloghop and this poem is part of it.  The hop is like a magic realist mystery tour, with all sorts of posts appearing on the many blogs taking part. Click on the links below to hop around the various posts.

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Favourite Poem – “I loved you first: but afterwards your love…”



Christina Rossetti is a Victorian poet who tends to be overlooked. If people know her at all, it is either for her poem Song which tends to be read at funerals and the lyrics of the carol In the Bleak Midwinter or as the sister of the PreRaphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But she is an excellent poet and this poem, an exploration of the dynamics of love, is one of my favourites.



Magic in the Real World

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This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop 2015. For links to the other blogs taking part, check out the links below

For three years I have been reading and reviewing magic realism on the Magic Realism Books Blog. And the more I read, the more I am of the opinion that magic realism is not a genre, but a way of looking at and describing the world – the real world. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said: It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. 

Magic realism is a rejection of the modern Western rationalist and scientific world view, which excludes the marvellous and unexplainable. You can see this in terms of cultural differences between the West and other cultures. But I believe that, like me, the majority of people in the West actually have a magic realist outlook on life. Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that: The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. I totally agree.

When I am writing (especially when I am writing poetry, but also sometimes when I write fiction) I am conscious that I am experiencing and seeing the world differently. It is a form of heightened or extended reality. Michel Ajvaz wrote: The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn’t run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it.

Fantasy crosses the frontier and stays there. Magic Realism presents the world with the frontier in place – glimmering in the twilight. It does not deny reality but is, in Alejo Carpentier’s words,  a privileged revelation of reality, an unaccustomed or singularly favourable illumination of the previously unremarked riches of reality, an amplification of the measures and categories of reality, perceived with peculiar intensity due to the exaltation of the spirit which elevates it to a kind of “limit state”.  Without magic, reality becomes two dimensional. The magic illuminates and throws the “real” into relief. The real can only be seen fully if you see it from different angles and perspectives, if you can hold it up to the light and look into it and see that the magic is inside and an integral part of it.

blog hop 2015 dates


Approaching Book Review Blogs

I have been reviewing at least a book a week for two and a half years over on my magic realism blog. I am also an indie author, so you could say I have a foot in both camps. I try to support my fellow indie authors on the blog by reviewing indie books as well as traditionally published ones, but there are times when I wonder why I bother.

When I started out reviewing, I was pretty naïve about dealing with requests for reviews. I have become a lot more hard-nosed about it. I now get a lot of requests for reviews, from indies and from traditional publishers, and I also want to read some books that I choose for myself. It takes time to read and review a book, as I want to do justice to the book and the readers of my blog. That time is unpaid and comes at the expense of other activities including my own writing. I do it because I get pleasure from supporting other writers, because I hope I am promoting the genre, to please my followers, and also because I feel it helps my own writing. So let me give you some tips on how to approach a reviewer like me.

TIP 1 Read the blog’s review policy
I only review magic realism books. The clue is in the blog title. And yet I am regularly sent emails asking me to review books that don’t seem to be magic realist at all. Either the author is just emailing every book blog going or for some reason thinks that I will make an exception for their book. Either way they will be refused.

TIP 2 Follow the instructions in the review policy
They are there for a reason. Follow them to the letter. I ask people to put Review Request in the email subject line. Anyone who doesn’t do that, doesn’t get looked at. Not because I am pig-headed about it, although failure to follow my instructions doesn’t exactly endear you to me, but because my emails are set up to automatically put emails with that subject line in my review folder. I also ask people to explain why their book is magic realism, so that I can make a decision as to whether to accept the book on my to-review list. But again a lot of people don’t do that and so their books aren’t accepted.

TIP 3 Research beyond what the review policy says
If reviewers can see that you have actually read their reviews as well as the review policy, they are more likely to accept your review request. But there are other reasons for doing so. For example, every reviewer has genres they like and others they don’t. This may not be apparent from the review policy, but if you read the posts it will soon be so. Look at the reviews of books they didn’t like as well as the ones they did. You are looking for someone who likes books like yours. For example you may find that they like the story resolution to tie up all the ends or that they don’t like first-person narrators. Take note of these preferences and don’t submit a book which includes some of their pet hates. You might even find something that you can use to help make your case for a review, e.g., I see that you are a fan of Alice Hoffman, I believe my book is in the same style of magic realism

TIP 4 What to say (and not to say) in your email
Address the reviewer by name if you can. Ask politely for a review. It is also a good idea to put book review request in the subject line. Sometimes it is not always clear to me what I am being asked to do. Be pleasant but not overly informal. Include in the email the book’s genre, your name, book title, a short blurb that clearly states what the book is about, awards (appropriate ones only), number of pages, and publication date. Do not include attachments such as the review copy, or cover (unless you are told to in the review/submission policy). Say that you can send the review copy in a variety of formats including Kindle format, epub and pdf. Check your email for errors before sending it. I suggest you include just one link in the email: to the book’s page on your website. On this page you can put more information, such as extracts of reviews, book cover, sales links, etc. You want to reduce the amount of work the reviewer has to do and having just one link does that. And lastly thank the reviewer for considering your book.

TIP 5 Wait
Don’t hassle reviewers if they do not respond to your email. If they don’t, put them down as not interested and move on. Even if they do accept your book, expect to wait for the review. As an indication my waiting time for indie reviews is six months.

TIP 6 Submit a good, properly edited book in the format the reviewer wants
When the reviewer accepts your book, send the book promptly in the format requested. But bear in mind that the review may still not happen. I have accepted books for review only to refuse to review them later, because I found them unreadable. I can forgive the occasional typo (not all reviewers are so forgiving) but if they are frequent I will not review. The other problem can be one of formatting. Actually this is a problem with books from traditional publishers as well as indies. Bad formatting makes reading too much of a task and, like editing errors, gets in the way of my appreciation of the book.

TIP 7 Say thank you for the review
Your thanks can take several forms. In addition to a thank-you email, it can include a comment on the post, or promoting the post via Twitter, Google+ or Facebook. It could mean subscribing to the blog.

TIP 8 Don’t complain or have a go
The review is the personal opinion of the reviewer and you gave them a copy in return for a fair review. They have done you a favour and given up several hours of their life to read and review your book. If you don’t like the review, don’t fire off a comment. Walk away and calm down. Think about what they said. This is someone who reads a lot of books like yours (as you know because you read their blog, right?) and what they have said is worth considering calmly. Maybe you still want to reply. If you do, always start your comment with thanking them for their review. Is it a good idea to reply? Sometimes, but only if you can do it in a way that doesn’t look like you are arguing with the review. The readers of the blog will side with the reviewer, not you.

Good luck.


The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice

I have just discovered that Louis MacNeice’s verse drama for the BBC is available on the BBC’s website – here:  The play is inspired by a few lines in Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

Listening to it brings back happy memories of my teenage years and the Arts Centre I belonged to. It reminds me of Garibaldi biscuits and tea drunk out of chipped mugs. It reminds me of  sitting on sagging armchairs in the EOS room arguing about poetry and life. But we didn’t just talk and argue, we also performed. And we performed this play – not as a theatrical production but as a play for voices. It is hard to see how the subject matter could be performed for anything else but the radio. The play is play of the imagination and where better for Roland to journey to the Dark Tower than through the dark shadows of our minds? The actors’ accents may sound a bit dated, but this is an extraordinary poetic play.There certainly was a golden age in postwar British radio, when the BBC embraced experiment and welcomed poets, using composers like Benjamin Britten to provide the music and world-class actors, such as Richard Burton, to do the poets justice. What has become of that patronage? Maybe the internet will come to the rescue. Maybe the future of ebooks will include performance. Let us hope so.

As I have said in a previous post we also performed at the Young Arts Centre verse plays by Dylan Thomas (Under Milk Wood), Lorca (Blood Wedding) and Christopher Fry (Boy with a Cart and The Firstborn), to say nothing of verse plays by Euripides and Shakespeare. What a grounding! Is it any wonder that I have written two verse plays or poems for voices?


Favourite Poem – John Donne’s The Good-Morrow

When I was a teenager I received the LAMDA Gold Medal in verse-speaking. I was also very active doing poetry readings of my own and other poets’ works. My husband and I met as teenagers in a group which wrote and read poetry.

On New Year’s Eve my husband and I were having dinner at the house of two dear friends – Neil Philip and Emma Bradford. Neil had picked up on my post about my New Year’s resolution to do something about promoting my poetry and over dinner suggested I consider podcasting. My lovely husband bought me a seriously nice microphone, so I would have no excuse not to produce some podcasts. I have now signed up with Podomatic where I have my own channel, but I can also embed the poems here on my blog.

The first poems I recorded were some love poems, which I put together on a CD for my parents’ wedding anniversary. Among them is this poem, which has a very special place in my heart, in that this poem was read at my wedding. I hope you like it.


Shadows in Story Structure

I was fortunate to have as a mentor a story editor who was a Jungian. We had a number of discussions about the Jungian concept of the shadow and its importance to writers, which I hope to capture here. But first let me just point out the Shadows that feature in my Healer’s Shadow trilogy are not Jungian shadows. Are you sometimes surprised and ashamed by your own behaviour? Do you say “I don’t know what came over me. It was so unlike me…”? Do you sometimes take an immediate dislike to a complete stranger? Now don’t lie – of course you do, we all do.

So what’s happening? And how is this relevant to the storyteller’s art? What is happening is that your shadow is showing itself. According to Carl Jung, who coined the phrase: Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. As children we learn (and are taught by our parents and society) that certain behaviours are unacceptable and these we repress – jealousy, prejudice, anger, greed, certain sexual fantasies. They haven’t gone away, they have been thrust into the subconscious and form our shadows. They stay in the dark waiting to burst forth. They do this in our dreams, at times of stress and as projections on to others. So when we say, “It was so unlike me,” alas that isn’t true, it is like us, because our shadow is part of us, but we are blind to it.

Firstly the tension between the subconscious shadow and our conscious projected selves is at the heart of drama. The shadow could be said to be the hero’s fatal flaw. Remember that the shadow emerges at times of stress and inevitably that means that it will appear when our protagonists are under pressure. These outbursts put the protagonist in danger, as it does for example, with a heroine who keeps falling for dangerous men. Or at the very least they will result in the protagonist hurting those who love her. An understanding of the shadow helps us to create fully formed characters and to place them in danger. In some books the conflict between the shadow and the conscious self is externalized – most obviously in Jekyll and Hyde and The Wizard of Earthsea.

Secondly the encounter with the shadow is part of the story structure. Jung’s analysis of myths and fairytales, which informed his development of the shadow, was further developed by Joseph Campbell in his seminal book The Hero With A Thousand Faces and this in turn was popularized in Christopher Vogler’s. The Hero’s Journey is divided into a series of key stages, in which the encounter with the hero’s shadow is core. The reasons for this are various. Maturity requires an acknowledgement of the shadow within us, so facing the shadow is part of the hero’s maturation. The shadow can contain not only negative aspects but also one’s true potential and so the hero gains the treasure that he seeks. Furthermore our antagonist and our protagonist are linked psychologically. As one can project on to others elements of one’s own shadow, so an antagonist is likely to display elements of the protagonist’s shadow, and when the hero confronts the antagonist he is confronting his own shadow at least in part.

Thirdly I have spoken so far only about the individual’s shadow, but civilizations also have shadows. These collective shadows express themselves through wars and persecutions of minorities. We carry within us a mix of our personal shadow and the collective darkness. It is the reason why we can behave so out of character when in a group. If your novel is concerned with such matters, it helps to understand this. The shadow then is central to conflict in any story. I was hugely excited when I discovered this truth and I hope this post helps you understand the shadow better.

A version of this article first appeared on the now defunct Indie Exchange website.


A Poetry New Year Resolution

For my magic realism review blog I recently read and reviewed Larque On The Wing by Nancy Springer. In it a middle-aged woman is forced to confront her 10-year old self. The child reminds the woman of the early dreams and aspirations that she has abandoned. It made me think what that girl in the centre of the photo above would have thought of the adult me. That Zoe was confident in her ability as a poet with reason. By the time I was 13 I had been published and was getting noticed. I had no fear about what I wrote, no self doubts. I took the plaudits without embarrassment or question. When the Director of the Cheltenham Literature Festival told me that Philip Larkin, no less, had said I was the best young poet in Britain, I was pleased but not surprised. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was and made no effort to get that in writing. How many times have I regretted that since!

What happened? Well – life in many ways. My gift was too easy, too natural. It came and went without my being in control. I can go for years without writing a poem and trying to force it just doesn’t seem to work. I have intermittently written several major pieces of poetry in a flurry of white-hot words, sufficient to make a body of work, but there are long periods of non-production. These periods were filled with career, motherhood and all the other joyous demands on my attention. But shouldn’t I also be doing something about placing my poetry in the public domain?

Two years ago I had a serious and life-threatening health emergency. I had always thought that I had time to promote my work, but as I lay in the hospital bed hitched to a monitor it was pretty clear that that was a false assumption. I published one of my long poems for voices – Fool’s Paradise – as an ebook with Amazon and won the EPIC (Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition) award for best poetry book in 2013, but it isn’t getting to the readership I would like.

As a poet I am very aware that even the books of the most successful poets have limited print-runs, so effectively giving away my work doesn’t worry me.  But what must I do to reach out and make my audience aware of my presence? It means going public, of marketing, of pushing my work and that does not come easily. How I wish I had that young girl beside me, to give me the confidence and the necessary chutzpah I find I am so lacking now. Ironically it is not that I doubt the quality of what I have written, I have never lost that inner belief. It is the translation of that into some public action that is so difficult. So here is a New Year Resolution – I will get off my insecure butt and face this. I am not yet sure how, but I will do something.


First-Person Narrative Some Issues

“Reader, I married him.”

One of my favourite books and certainly one of the most influential on me as a writer is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I loved that book as a teenager and I still do. The narrator of the book is Jane herself and she speaks directly to me and the millions of Bronte’s fans. There is something wonderful about the way the character engages us in her story: it is as if Jane is in the room with us. She is as honest a narrator as she is a character and you are immediately on her side. That immediacy is one of the strengths of first-person narration. But there are downsides, as I discovered when I wrote my trilogy The Healer’s Shadow.

I soon discovered that not all readers are fans of first-person narration. One reviewer told me categorically that she didn’t like first-person narration because there was no suspense – she knew that the hero/heroine would survive to the end of the book. Actually that isn’t always true, but I can understand where she was coming from.

I also discovered that not everyone understands some of the devices and rules of first-person narration. One criticism my book Girl in the Glass has occasionally received is that the tense sometimes changes to the present, even though the majority of the book is written in the past tense. This happens when the central character is talking about an incident which is particularly vivid to her. This is acceptable in a first-person narrative, because the narration is reflecting what happens in real speech. When we start to relive the past, we will often start talking in the present tense. I could play safe and not shift tenses, but I feel that loses something.

I was reminded of the problems of first-person narration recently because I was reading a lovely book also written in the first person – When Rosa Came Home by Karen Wyld. The problem first-person narration gives a writer is that you can’t jump out of the head of the narrator and into someone else’s, which means that the story is filtered by what the narrator can see and know. At the macro level this means either the narrator has to see what happens or be told it by someone else who has seen it. Some readers (and reviewers) believe that a good book explains everything at the end – they want to understand the motivation of all the main characters, they want to know what happened to so-and-so who leaves the narrator’s world at the end of part one. If you are using a first-person narrator you will either disappoint them or create a narrator whose omniscience is not credible. Be honest – do you understand your own motivation, let alone anyone else’s?

Of course there is an upside to this problem and that is the games you can play with your narrator misinterpreting other characters and circumstances: an unreliable narrator as they say in the trade. It does seem to me that all narrators should be unreliable (to varying degrees) if they are human beings. My central character regularly gets things wrong and part of her character arc over the trilogy is how she comes to realize how wrong she has been.

On the micro level there are certain things that I have learned to look out for when I am going over my books. The most obvious of these are descriptions of things that are not visible to the narrator. These can be quite minor, but I find they can jolt me out of the first-person narrator’s consciousness. Another issue I try to tackle is the overuse of phrases such as “I saw”, “I heard” “I tasted” etc. In a way they are redundant in the first person – of course I saw it, I wouldn’t be describing it otherwise. There is a very real danger that you will overuse the word “I” in first-person narration, which is just as off-putting in a novel as when you are listening to someone. First-person narration’s very strength – its immediacy – can be negated by the overuse of the word.

First-person narration is a minefield for the writer. As I have outlined above, you will alienate some of readers just by using it, and others you will upset because of the limitations of the first-person narrative. There are even some agents who refuse to accept manuscripts written in the first person, but then some of the most successful books ever written recently and in the past have had a first-person narrator.