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THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ELUSIVE PLOT…

Don’t worry: this isn’t about me losing an allotment; it’s far more important than that. As background I’m currently at the getting my breath back stage with my new book The Shrewsbury Murders.

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At the beginning of July I was at last satisfied with my own final edit and turned it over to a professional.

From phone conversations so far he’s liking it and I’ll certainly be making the changes he’s suggesting. Mainly they cover the need to set more historical atmosphere when it takes place long in the past, especially when outside the UK. He even noticed that in one part I’ve used nineteenth century words but more in a way they’d be used now! I’m still wondering how I missed this; I need sometimes to think more about the moment and less about dogged plot advancement.

Normally I tell him everything but on this occasion left out that I radically changed the main plot almost when I was on the last page. I’m not exactly ashamed of this but it has the ring of really bad planning and I knew I’d plotted it very carefully. So what, I wondered, was the reason?

I’ll give out no spoilers I hope but the original plot centred on the replication of a notorious series of 19th century murders in modern-day Shrewsbury. Most of the original planning focused on how to do this credibly. In addition I worked at how to get suspense into the modern setting.

There’s a problem here that I’d sum up as the temptation to write the same murders twice but with different characters. First I just didn’t want to do that; second it would be short changing the reader by taking an easy way out.

To avoid it I constructed a present day plot that begins as a fresh story that gradually and only at the margins introduces the new series of murders. It has its own dynamics and slowly starts bringing the whole thing together.

It was important of course to write some credible victims.

At a party late last year I got asked quite a lot about the first book and what I was doing now.  I said I was after victims, so’s to speak, and how useful it would be to get a few real potted histories.

To my surprise and delight some volunteers emerged when word got round and I found myself chatting in turn with about half a dozen guests. They were incredibly helpful and provided a range of personal information I could never have just dreamt up, and knew I could use despite of course protecting identities. And they wanted me to use it; some of them reminding me as the night progressed!

Now I had what I was looking for I pulled together various fragments and came up with my literary victims. I did not use everything I was told because the context often did not require it. I did so once though and I’m wondering whether those concerned will recognise themselves in the composite character. I think I’m quite happy if they do as long as no-one else does either.

The flow of the book improved with my confidence that thanks to the kindness of others I could now write far more credibly.

All went well until I had only about a thousand words to go. At that point I began to feel dissatisfied with what was coming out despite it being per the plan. It wasn’t that I was struggling with what came next; more that I was reluctant to write it.

I had no idea why, so continued but with a few different scenarios. One is a lengthy river trip sequence that replaces what would just have been a house party. I liked it for what it was but still nursed this curious sense of anxiety about the planned conclusion of the book.

I got to the last chapter and wrote a couple of scraps of dialogue that rang feeble, almost as if we’d come all this way to a very predictable destination. Maybe we’d changed buses a couple of times for variety but they still had the same number on the front.

I stopped and wondered what to do. My one inflexible rule is to produce a book that I’d want to read myself. This one hit the spot for much of its length but by no means all of it.

I’m not a natural sharer on such occasions but would have happily shared this if I could think of a way. But I’d pretty much need to get someone to read the whole thing. And that wouldn’t really work either because I needed to know why I was unhappy before I could do anything about it.

I don’t have a Fortress of Solitude and wouldn’t use it if I did. Instead I put everything away and had a couple of days not touching the book itself but just mulling things over while I did other things. I walked a bit in town, stopped for coffee, chatted, all the usual stuff. At one point I remembered I’d promised to deliver the MS within a fortnight and wondered whether I’d get anywhere close. Worse still, would it get shelved?

I didn’t want to even think of that. But I determined not to get neurotic, and not to give up hope.

I was still thinking when I went to sleep two nights later. Next morning, waking very early, I felt I was on to something.  I made coffee, grabbed a pencil and wrote it all down before I had a chance to forget it. I went back to bed, couldn’t sleep, got up and started the rewrite.

The real plot isn’t about the re-enactment of the murders at all, although they are an essential component. It’s actually about the reason the original murders remain so well known and notorious after more than a century. That is far more mysterious as an enduring mystery, and what better way to discover the reason than via a present day replication?

Relief surged: the rewrite was almost a pleasure and I delivered it a week later. But I’d love to know how, when I’d been living with the thing for about two years, I missed what my own book was really about.

Comments and any shared similar experience are welcome: I’d like to hear someone say it’s happened to them too.

What I was careful not to change was descriptions based on the information my kind party victims gave me. Not forgiving oneself is one thing; letting down a whole group of new friends would be quite another.

The cover image also remains unchanged and is attached to this blog. The text of the letter is taken from the novel.

 

 

 

 

 

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BOOK LAUNCH AT THE SHREWSBURY COFFEEHOUSE (Blog Post Revisited)

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Until a fortnight ago I’d never attended a book launch. Sometimes I was in a hurry and just noticed one happening as I passed Waterstone’s or I’d seen them advertised and wasn’t much interested. And they were all of the turn up, buy, and get it signed variety.

A few months ago I was kindly invited to one. I was tempted because I would have very much liked to see the house – pretty much a castle really – and grounds. It belongs to an ennobled person I’ve met once or twice and who had self-published a lengthy book of poetry about his ancestors.

Like a spy in the night I did a bit of surreptitious checking and discovered the order of service. On arrival you received a conducted tour of the house and immediate grounds and then assembled in the library and were given one glass of white wine. The way I drink that wouldn’t have lasted long but that was all you got.

There would then be a speech by a quite well known associate of the author – many local dignitaries would be present it seems – and then the great man himself would talk about the book and read extracts.

While these were still fresh in your mind there would be a sort of shuffle to a table laden with his work and then everyone, and I mean everyone, would pick up a copy; pay for it – and with full colour illustrations these were definitely not cheap – then present it for signing and afterwards disperse.

Well, I did think about it but not for long. It might have been different if I ‘do’ poetry but sadly I’ve never been able to appreciate it much unless it’s something like Hiawatha or The Burial of Sir John Moore. You know: the sort of thing that stirs the blood a bit. But these – I had seen a few promo passages – were more introspective, contemplative, and without much rhyming.

So I politely declined. I was pleased to hear later it went very well; plenty of books were sold and the tour was lengthy, if a little chaotic when the guide lost her way for a while!

Then, rather like the number 27 bus another invitation turned up. Again the author, John Comerford, is someone I know slightly. His novel, which I have not yet read, is What Blind Customers and is available here http://bit.ly/YZIedm The venue was The Coffeehouse, a place I visit anyway where the service, coffee, food and most of all atmosphere hit the spot. I decided to go to this one; I’d know one or two people there and it would be good to congratulate John on getting published.

I met him as soon as I walked in. He didn’t know I’d got a book on Kindle and despite the hubbub insisted on looking at the reviews and reading the synopsis there and then. Quickly he was whisked away: he used to lecture at Shrewsbury Sixth Form College and there were many of his former students present, together with musicians, photographers, poets, and Rob Savage, a very up and coming film director. [Another candidate I hope for deciding one day he just has to film Project Overkill.]

John welcomed us all and very kindly included me in his long list of arts associated people there. He then launched into an excellent guitar / vocal section with one of the many talented musicians. Next came a former student who is destined to become an excellent stand-up comedian – I am so sorry I did not take a note of the names – and then there were more musical acts.

After that, selected guests read extracts from his novel – which I found amusing and clever and demonstrating a deep understanding for words and doubles entendres. There was genuine merriment in the room and the atmosphere was Let’s Party. I duly complied with a large glass of excellent Merlot; my companions wanted coffee and that was excellent too.

It went on with more of the same; the staff volunteering to extend their working day because everyone was having such a great time. Sadly I missed the final acts – including the excellent Chris Quinn whom I’ve heard and enjoyed several times before – because of time.

I remember Ms. J.S-C advertising a launch for Poker Face II which included cakes and freebies and free wrapping of her book as a pressie and wishing I could go, but sadly Northampton was an event too far at the time. It sounded like fun with a launch included. Which is exactly what this was: the author focused on guests having a good time.

So, if ever I have a launch I’m going in that direction. I would need to tap John for names of musicians and Ms. J. S-C for wrapping and freebie ideas.

But more than anything I’d want the guests to enjoy the party.

 

WRITING UNDER THE INFLUENCE…

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No, this isn’t what you think, although I must confess to occasionally having a glass of elderberry wine close by when I’m having a tough time with a chapter, which happens quite a lot! 

Instead, I’m talking about the influence of other books and writers.

First of all I don’t think it can be avoided, even when every effort is made to do so. For example I’m influenced in ‘my’ style of chapter headings. I like a date stamp and location, which feels a little weird if much of the novel is set in the same place. I’m not keen on chapter titles as such, probably because I’m not very good at them and always think that any I come up with are either meaningless or possible spoilers.

My date stamp / location thing I get from the later novels of James Ellroy, a writer I admire enormously. In his case it makes more sense as the books can move from Hollywood to Las Vegas to New York and so on. Mine are more static, yet still I can’t shake the habit. I only wish I’d been more influenced by, say, John le Carre´ who does an eminently sensible ‘Chapter I’ and so on, which at first and even second glance would be better for me. But somehow I’m stuck on dates and places.

Another thing I find irresistible is to occasionally switch tenses, with a particular penchant for the present tense. In the first draft of Project Overkill I went way over the top with this and can remember the many ‘phone calls from my editor that began “I am vexed by the number of times…” and so on. Many writers do this and I must have read quite a few of them because I liked it big-time, especially in action sequences. When I redrafted Overkill I axed huge chunks of Present in favour of its more sensible relative Past tense, and have not fallen into that particular trap since. I learnt a lot during that episode, which presumably is an example of undue influence providing a good lesson. [Alternatively it probably means never be excessively influenced by anyone else’s style.]

Despite the final sentence above I never use parenthesis in a book because I think it’s lazy. Many other writers happily and successfully use brackets but I will sit for minutes on end redrafting to avoid them. In The Shrewsbury Murders – still in production and which by now you’ll all want to avoid like the plague – I had a lengthy section I was happy with before realising I’d omitted one vital bit of information that I could happily include in brackets. I didn’t of course; instead I rewrote the whole chapter to integrate the snippet into the chronological narrative.

I discussed this with my editor: he rolled his eyes heavenwards and said ‘Why?’ I told him I just don’t do brackets and he sadly gazed into the middle distance. I’m not sure where this aversion originated, but suspect it was novels by Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler, both of whom wrote clean narratives that told their story without add-ons or supplementary bits of information in brackets.

Speaking of Fleming he had a brilliant pen for short sentence description. My favourite is when he describes a dead body as looking like an empty envelope. Rereading a piece of Murders recently I found I have described one as looking like a vacant room. Not an intentional copy – I don’t do that – but clearly paying homage, and for better or worse I’ve left it in.

I also like those words and lines that you associate immediately with one character.  In Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer you just know one of the agents is unpleasant because he is always telling people to ‘explicate’. So a character you like says something to this guy and the next line of dialogue is “Explicate!”, and you immediately visualise him. I’d love to have a try at that but haven’t got round to it. A famous one of course is “Shaken not stirred.” I don’t think anyone could get away with that but whenever I’ve been tempted to do something similar I get this mental flash involving Ms. J S-C. It is time for her annual thimbleful of wine and she approaches the quivering bartender with an icy stare and growls “Decanted, not from the bottle.” This has happened a few times so it’s her fault I’ve made no progress.

Some influences of course work in a different direction, i.e. you know you’ll avoid them all your writing life. Chief among them is those unfortunate individuals who are found in a pool of their own blood. This is so often repeated over the years through all kinds of media that for a while I used to think it was commonplace for folk to die in a pool of someone else’s. I would imagine hospital and police station situations where one gobsmacked official said to another: “Guess what? Today I had a case when someone died in a pool of their own blood! How often have you seen that?

Close behind are the poor souls who choke on their own vomit, as distinct from someone else’s. This time: “I’ve seen everything now! Someone swallowing their own vomit before some other sod could throw up all over them!”

Yes, I guarantee I’ll never use those.

Another device that fascinates me is multiple endings, where they are told from different standpoints with an epitaph to boot. I’ve no idea why, maybe it’s because having lived with the book so long I’m reluctant to finally let it go. Anyway, until some kind reader of this blog advises me otherwise I’ll claim that as my own.

So I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that given writers all read other writers we all get influences and play with some of them until eventually we find something that is actually us.

[I was of course tempted to write that paragraph with a date stamp, from three different perspectives, and add an epitaph. But instead I’ll just sign off until next time.]

 

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop…Again! :-D (Blog Post Revisited)

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The wonderful Maria Godley (this is her blog  http://marie-mariegodleybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/words-we-want-to-hear.html?spref=fb ) tagged me in ‘The next big thing’ blog hop. It’s always so lovely when someone thinks of you and I was well happy when Maria asked me to take part. I know I’ve just taken part in this particular hop but that’s because I’m a donkey and I said yes to three different and quite lovely people and then realised that they were all inviting me to do the same thing. Rather than not accept the fabarooney invitations, I decided I would do them on three different works in progress. Not sure if I’m breaking the rules but…you know…I’m a rule breaker! Get me! Anyways, a massive thank you to Maria and please visit her wonderful blog, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Okay so now I’m going to attempt to answer the following questions:-

 

1.  What is the working title of your current/next book?

Poker Face III…I haven’t thought of a proper title yet! Sorry!

 

2.  Where did the idea come from?

Well basically finishing book two pretty much gave me the idea for writing a book three, it kind of seemed like the next logical step ha ha! No, in all seriousness, the plot developed because there were just so many things that I wanted the characters to do and experience.

 

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

The Poker Face series is a young adult/crossover series that seems to appeal to lots of different people both male and female, young and…a little bit older.

 

4 .  What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m rubbish at this question and I just don’t know. I will go check google images now and do a ‘young fit actor/actress’ search and then come back…wait…I’m just checking…computer is slow…nope, sorry, I am officially rubbish at casting actors!

 

5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Ruby Palmer is forced to grow up pretty quick and, though she’s not a stranger to loss, nothing she’s experienced so far in her turbulent and dangerous life has prepared her for what’s to come.

 

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Self published, let’s call it a career thing 🙂

 

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I wrote books one, two and three at the same time (so not very long) but I’m sure the edit will take an eternity!

 

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Erm…Poker Face and The Puppet Master??? He he ha ha ho ho  ho I’m being clever and annoying, I know this 😀

 

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The characters, Ruby, Danny and Alessi mostly. The more I write about them the more opportunities they create for me to write about. They are like model characters and they make it all so easy.

 

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

This book brings in a couple of new characters, some stay, some go and some will break your heart. It has been read by just a couple of people so far and they laughed, cried and once again rooted all the way for Ruby. This book takes the characters on an emotional journey and Ruby continues to show that when it comes to getting even, she’s the best!

 

Right, I’m done and would like to name Justine Manzano (@justine_manzanohttp://justinemanzano.wordpress.com/ as ‘The Next Big Thing’. Right, your turn, Justine! 😀

The Next Big Thing – Blog Hop – Blog Post Revisited! :-)

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Dear all,

My wonderful friend, Kizzy, (this is her blog http://kizzylee.wordpress.comhas tagged me in ‘The next big thing’ blog hop and I am very touched that she would think of me. So, firstly, I would like to say a very big thank you…THANK YOU! There you go, Kizzy 😀 Above is a link to her fabarooney blog where you can find all sorts of eerie and mysterious goings on. You should go check it out now…but come back because I’m about to tackle the following:-

 

1.  What is the working title of your current/next book?

The book I am working on right now is called Unconventional, I think!

 

2.  Where did the idea come from?

Basically my good friend, Heather Smith, (@heather5mith) loves attending film conventions and collecting autographs of her favourite actors. Once upon a time she attended a Harry Potter convention (in Milton Keynes I think it was) and she was queuing to see Robert Pattinson who played (who did he play???)  Now, she was expecting to see the young lad who played the part of a teen boy, but when she got to the front of the queue she looked up to see that this particular teen boy had grown up…in the best possible way! Ha ha! She lost control of her brain and mouth and didn’t quite know what to say or do. The really funny bit (well I thought it was anyway) was that he seemed totally thrown by it all too. They both desperately tried to think of things to say (probably ended up talking about the weather) and then she got a gorge picture as proof that he was indeed VERY BLINKING HANDSOME! After seeing said Exhibit ‘A’ (snap with autograph on it) I can see why she had some trouble in the speaking department! Anyway, it gave me the idea for a romance novel.

 

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

This was going to be a young adult book originally but then I decided I wanted to explore some important issues…and perhaps throw in a very grown up sex scene too (actually all sex scenes are grown up, surely…whatever). As a consequence I had to up the book to an adult romance.

 

4 .  What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

It would be nice to see Robert Pattinson play the part of my actor, Jasper Farrell, considering it was loosely based on him in the first place! As for the female character, who knows! Someone young, fit and gorgeous probably! Applications on a postcard please 🙂

 

5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After a massive and painful fall out of love Summer has vowed never to go there again but, unfortunately for her, she’s caught the eye of young actor and international heartthrob, Jasper Farrell, and he has other plans.

 

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Self published, probably always will be 🙂

 

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Not long. I can’t remember to be honest because I wrote this book before the Poker Face series. It’s had to wait patiently until I could find the time to give it some much needed attention.

 

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh my word I honestly don’t know. It deals with manipulation, fame, media and the rehabilitation of love. It’s probably a mish mash of any book that deal with those topics.

 

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Basically the picture that Heather showed me. Rob was looking all hot and tall with his hair ruffled, shirt open and sleeves rolled up. He looked and sounded like the perfect gentleman and it’s a lovely picture of him and my friend. All of that, as well as some of life’s rich and not so rich experiences, inspired me to get writing this story.

 

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It is soon to be published and I am currently trying to pluck up the courage to just go with my very first sex scene. It doesn’t actually have any sex in it but it is all about the build up and I’m not sure I can go there quite so openly and honestly. If readers are into exploring their emotions and feelings then this is definitely the book for them. It deals with death, love, hate, obsession, sex and teenage relationship abuse with characters that are cute, funny and vibrant. What more could you want? Don’t answer that please!

 

Okay I am officially done and would now like to name Heather Smith as ‘The Next Big Thing’. Heather has recently finished her debut novel but she doesn’t have a blog so she may well post it here. Keep a look out for her, the book is very exciting…I know coz I’ve already read it! Go me! Right, your turn, H! 😀

 

ALAN SHAW – WHEN A CHARACTER REFUSES… (Blog Post Revisited)

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Before going back to it in the first week of January I’d last worked on The Shrewsbury Murders for a couple of hours on 23 December. It was hardly creative writing; more a stop-start exercise on a chapter that should have been easy but was now proving stubborn.

What bothered me most was the fact I knew exactly what I wanted it to achieve but I kept hesitating. All I needed to do for the plot was introduce an old cottage in Wales and the mother of Cassie, one of the main characters. Cassie’s mom Penelope was to be something of a forlorn figure, very unwell and plotted to die in the not too distant future. She was late 40s; pale countenance; lonely and overall sad. Like her antecedents she’d known a lot of men but ultimately none had wanted to stay with her.

The cottage came easily enough; I’d actually toured a former mine manager’s cottage during a trip to Wales in August and taken photographs. And I knew what Penelope would look like and pretty much what she’d say. But when I began to write her the oddest thing happened: the image I had kept being replaced by someone vivacious; unlucky, but still hoping for the best. And this person was in robust health with a sense of humour and a hard edge to her. I suddenly had great trouble describing her per the original plan. I could almost feel her behind me hissing ‘I’m not like that!’

So strong was this impression that I decided on impulse to write her in the new unplotted way to see what happened. I’ve had similar things before but only with major characters, and doubtless all other writers have too. I set about it and for the first time that day the words flowed well and the figure behind me relaxed. She’d become attractive, vivacious, and her ‘victim’ aspect had changed to that of someone who realised most of her issues were her own fault. She was also feisty and just a bit sexy. She was definitely not going to die of a ‘wasting disease’ as my plot overview intended.

I discovered she smoked rollups and enjoyed Mike Ambrose’s  cocktails so much she took his recipe for Dry Martinis. She also now had good rapport with Cassie who treated her more as an older pal than a somewhat estranged sick mother. She somehow got herself invited to Shrewsbury where the murders are taking place. The chapter also acquired a ghost that scares Mike but which she is matter of fact and almost humorous about. All this rolled off Microsoft Word as if I’d planned every detail. I felt I’d done the character justice but then realised it was ridiculous to write her this way when it tore up a chunk of plotting and removed rationale for what would happen a couple of chapters further in.

I’m not the most disciplined writer in the world but I’ve plotted Murders carefully and had no reason to interfere with a perfectly acceptable scenario. Writing the novel as planned wasn’t easy so why on earth make it harder at this relatively late stage? Much easier to stick to the original plot: credible in context and providing a neat way to reveal the cottage’s dark secret.

It was very late and I decided to stop and revise it tomorrow. I was annoyed with myself for wasting two hours or so for the pleasure of giving myself unnecessary grief. I had no idea why I’d done it and went to bed feeling distinctly low.

Early Sunday morning I fed the cats, chopped logs for kindle, emptied bins and suddenly had an idea whereby I could give the unwanted section a piece of additional business that would make the overall plot far creepier than my original. But I would still be left with a major structural problem. ‘Don’t be tempted’ I thought, but soon found myself putting the new words into last night’s unwanted section just to see how it read.

Like the other unwelcome words it read well. Nevertheless if I seriously considered keeping it I’d need a clear explanation for the new activities the chapter now contained. The ghost would be difficult but matters preceding it even more so. Again I just wanted to go with the original plot, but there was Penelope reappearing, wagging her finger and insisting she would not be merely an empty vessel; she had as much right to come to life as anyone else in the book.

I gave myself an hour to sort it out or go with plan A. By noon I still couldn’t square it but the new sections remained unchanged. I had no idea why and once again retired in confusion. We had lunch, watched a football match, went for a long walk, lit the fire, washed up; all the usual stuff. By six I was back at the desk and doing more research. If I kept the new stuff I had to find a way to justify the additional Mike / Cassie / Penelope activity and find a credible place for Pen later in the book.

An hour later I had it, and excitedly wrote it out in pencil on scrap paper. I slept better that night; did the final changes Monday morning and now have my cantankerous and rebellious Chapter 10 in the main draft. I’m happy and believe Penelope is too.

I still have no idea how it all happened and just hope none of the other characters decides to rebel. But I am sure, despite the risks of judging your own work, that what I have now is more interesting, varied and a better read than what I would have had originally.

So thanks, Pen: you’ve earned the right to grow wings and take a more permanent place in The Shrewsbury Murders.

I just wish I knew how.

 

An indie book’s not just for Christmas…but Christmas is a pretty good reason to buy one! Blog Post Revisited! :-)

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Whoop whoop it’s nearly Christmas! It’s a good job signed and gift wrapped copies of Poker Face and the Puppet Master make great presents for young adults and adults alike! Ha ha!

If you are local and you would like a copy (minus postage) please inbox me on my Facebook author page   www.facebook.com/JessSturmanCoombs  

If you aren’t local but would like to order one please visit my website http://jesssturman.wix.com/jess-sturman-coombs  and select the Paypal option on the relevant book page.

Happy Christmas all!

 

PS both books will also be available and gift wrapped at the launch on the 19th December 2012. Please see this link for details http://jesssturman.wix.com/jess-sturman-coombs/apps/blog/the-puppet-master-launch-poster  and remember that children are most welcome to come along.

Why not join us for a drink and a mince pie! 😀 x

With lots of Christmas love from me!

 

Jess 🙂 x

 

 

 

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