Hazel McHaffie

Amazon

Structuring a book

As a writer myself I’m always interested in the structure of books, especially when they’re a bit whacky, so I was intrigued by one I came across recently by someone who initially went down the self-publishing route and made a go of it. As he says himself in the acknowledgements: ‘Thanks to Apple for making reliable work tools and to Amazon for turning the writing of novels back into something one can actually earn a living from’.
(NB.
He has since been taken on by traditional publishers.)

Things We Never Said is Nick Alexander‘s fourteenth work of fiction, and he has adopted an intriguing style for this one. Catherine Patrick has just died from cancer. After her death, best friend Maggie gives the grieving husband Sean a box. It contains 29 envelopes and 29 photos to be opened one a week for 29 weeks.

The envelopes contain tiny cassettes on which Catherine has dictated a message for Sean about their lives together. She warns him it will contain some information that’ll be hard to hear, and indeed he is challenged, angered, saddened and moved by what she confides, as she fills out gaps in his understanding, things they never said.

The book is constructed around these photos and taped messages.
– Waiting for each Sunday to listen to the next installment, gives the author opportunity to flesh out the present; Sean lost in grief, remembering his wife, interacting with their daughter, family, friends; making decisions for the future.
– The photos resurrect memories of significant happenings in their lives, enabling the author to unravel the events and their impact.
– Listening to the recording, exposes the emotion, the reaction, the baggage, the unsaid and the unseen behind their lives together, maintaining the tension.

All relationships have their ups and downs, all have their secrets. Loss is universal. Nick Alexander develops this reality in a way that keeps the pages turning through 29 installments, knowing there will be painful revelations, wondering how they will pan out. We feel Sean’s impotence – there can be no confrontation, no opportunity to challenge or rage or explain or put things right. Catherine has gone. Sean must resolve the issues for himself and find a way to move on. I confess I wasn’t drawn in initially, the style was too staccato, the dialogue too banal.  But as the characters were rounded out I started to care what Catherine would reveal and how Sean would deal with it. It’s a design and technique that works.

PS. There are other novels with the same title. Not sure why people do this. 

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Calling all would-be crime writers

Anything that advocates books and reading gets my vote. And we writers are trained to look out for those anniversaries and special commemorative dates which might be useful hooks. Unsurprisingly, then, certain days this past week jumped out at me.

World Book Day was on 7 March, the day before International Women’s Day. Plenty of people and publications and organisations jumped on the bandwagon, with the usual plethora of articles and events. Quite rightly so. Universal appeal. Books open the mind … and transport … and educate … and improve the ability to empathise … and … but you know all that.

Did you know, though, how often The Big Issue extols the benefits of reading? Impressively often, actually. Over the years, as part of their mission to ‘dismantle poverty through creating opportunity‘, they’ve championed many causes: better literacy, keeping libraries open, tax freedoms for independent bookshops, reading lists, more book reviews, reading for pleasure for children, taking books into prisons … to name but a few. So, again unsurprisingly, this special edition devotes a large part of its pages to literary matters as its nod in the direction of the official World Book Day.

What’s more, this week they also launch a competition to find a new crime writer. Ambitious, huh? And no lightweight tokenism, either; there’s a two-book deal with HarperCollins for the winner – not to be sniffed at. They’re looking for ‘heart-stopping writing and nail-shredding suspense’. Any takers? Hats off to The Big Issue, I say. Most of us probably buy it to support their  efforts to drive social change, but it’s worth much more than a toss straight into the recycling box. As well as the competition details, for example, there’s a fascinating interview with Tim Waterstone who founded the biggest high street bookchain we know so well today. Now there’s a man who totally loves books! Even though he grew up in a 3-book household. Given his empire today he can afford to be generous, but nontheless, I like his healthy approach to the issue of bricks-and-mortar-shop versus online: ‘If you know what you want, you’re going to go to Amazon. I do it myself numerous times a year! But we all know online can’t replicate the same feeling of pleasure you get in a great bookshop.’ Well said, that man. And let’s support the independent bookstores in particular who don’t have all Waterstone’s advantages.

As for my own writing, well, I’m at the last-revisions-before proof-reading stage with Killing me Gently – when I’m not hurtling up and down the country, that is. Crazy month, chez nous. Must crack on …

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Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the writer’s besetting sin. Every book is flawed or even failed copy of the ideal book that existed in your mind before you began. And every book is, at some level, a correction of the one that went before.‘ So goes the editorial in the Spring edition of The Author.

How true. I used to have a sticker on my computer that said, ‘Perfection is always one more draft away‘, but I took it down in the end because … well, you know me!  Mrs An-inch-away-from-obsessive. I’d have been putting off publication date ad infinitum. In the end ‘good enough’ has to do, or the jolly old title will never see the light of day.

Over my Dead BodyBut I think it’s this abiding awareness of imperfection that’s partly what makes it such a joy to go out to meet real live folk who’ve read the books and love them, to listen to their comments and generous commendation. They come to the stories without all my baggage and yet they enter into the lives of the characters and talk about them as if they too know them personally. All very confirming.

I’ve been doing quite a lot of author appearances since Over my Dead Body came out, and people are so kind. So thank you, librarians, event organisers, audiences, readers – keep up the good work. We writers need you, just as you need us. And never underestimate the value of your feedback. If for any reason you can’t get to an event to speak to us face to face, pop a comment on our websites, or post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. We love to hear from you.

OK, my mind might have been wandering down the track of never being quite good enough, but that’s made me more aware of other kinds of perfection in our amazing world:SwanPoppySpider's webWe can’t go out and photograph the human brain but how amazingly crafted it is to be capable of conjuring up fictitious scenes and people so vividly that other brains can picture them and feel their emotions merely through black squiggles on white paper. Imagine that! I am lost in wonder.

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Publication day!

Well, here it is folks! Over My Dead Body – the finished article.

New books! The printer, Bell & Bain in Glasgow has done us proud, delivering the books on time and looking splendid, don’t you think?

Bell & Bain vanAll those of you who’ve followed/shared my agonising through this first experience of self publishing can now relax. It’s all come together. The experts we’ve consulted or bought in have been terrific, and we’ve forged some healthy bonds along the way. So far, no regrets.

There is now the small matter of promotion and marketing. And that’s where you can join in. If you read the book, do post a comment on Amazon or Goodreads – no need for flannel; honesty counts. But if you didn’t like something, please explain why. The more comments the better.

But most importantly, enjoy the book yourself. (Click here for details. Or order it through your library, of course.)

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A few statistics to conjure with

Out and about with the granddaughters this week, we’ve learned a lot of fascinating statistics about owls, debunking a fair few urban myths along the way. (Did you know that The Scottish Owl Centre houses one of the largest collection of owls in the world? Yep – fact not fantasy. Everything from the huge Siberian Eagle Owl to the dinkiest Scops Owl – 40 species, 100 birds.) Anyway, contrary to popular conception, owls are not wise, which makes them a fitting symbol for what I want to say in this blog.OwlLast week the following email appeared in my Inbox: ‘On behalf of the Goodreads team, I want to say thank you. You’re in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads! Your many thoughtful book reviews help make us a vibrant place for book lovers.’

Wow! Goodreads is ‘the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations!’ – by it’s own description anyway, so I indulged in a little warm glow. Top 1%, huh? Not to be sniffed at. But then I discovered that they’ve just announced that they ‘now have 20 million members, up from 10 million members just eleven months ago.

OK, do the maths, and I’m one of 200,000 top reviewers. Hmmm. Not that impressive, eh? Especially not since reading is part of my job. But I find their site really useful for keeping tabs on what I’ve read, when, and what I thought of each book. So thanks, Goodreads, for a very useful facility.

You might remember I was toying with two topics for my next book: anorexia or abortion. Well, I decided the next step might be to see how many other novelists have written in this area – suss out the competition. Assess where the biggest gap is.

Type ‘novels including anorexia‘ into Google and up come 52 titles through just Goodreads and Amazon. With a footnote saying ‘218 best eating disorder books’ which presumably means non-fiction. Do the same thing for abortion, and 27 come up. Hmm. Not what I was expecting. Of course, it could all be to do with shelving, the blurb available, keywords, that kind of thing. I’m sure more will surface once I start reading. And I quickly discovered that a large proportion of the eating disorder ones are teen fiction.

By reading synopses and reviews of them all, I’ve whittled it down to a dozen must-reads on abortion and probably 29 on anorexia. Looks like I’m in for the long haul, anyway. Watch out for an onslaught of reviews, Goodreads!

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Reflections and resolutions

A very happy New Year to you if that’s possible. But if you’re struggling or sad at this time, I wish you a measure of peace, and better things to come.

So, here we are at 2013. No more procrastinating. Those of you who follow my blog will know that I’m now about to face some really big questions about my future direction. Do I go independent with my next book? Should I rely on Amazon, given their questionable moral leanings? How far am I prepared to go to promote and market myself? What about an agent? Do I join the ranks of Twitterers or do I not? That kind of thing.

Now, I have to admit, I’m in the top league when it comes to self-criticism. I always think I could and should have done better – with pretty much everything I do. And all the stories of Olympic success this past year seemed to highlight my own mediocrity, so towards the end of 2012 I confess I was feeling rather underwhelmed by my prowess in the literary stakes. But then I gave myself a severe talking to, and decided I should leave dubious emotional response on one side, and apply cold clear logic to the task of analysing where I’m at, before thinking about where I want to be, and a possible route there.

And that’s how I came to be looking back over 2012 at the opportunities that came my way, and I was actually surprised by the number of invitations that arrived on my doormat (or desktop) that recognised the niche I’m trying to fill. Guest blogging. Sitting on panels. Chairing debates. Leading workshops. Visiting reading groups or society meetings. Speaking to students. Challenging, stimulating, and rewarding experiences all. Oh, and fun.

However, an agent I approached in the summer (in a kind of last ditch approach) didn’t respond (their way of saying no). Spirits plummetted. Ahah! Emotional response again. Dispassionate logic though reminds me that JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury bought it. (How sick must they be?) Did JKR, I wonder, get a sinking feeling?

The HelpKathryn Stockett’s bestselling The Help was rejected 60 times before it was taken up by agent Susan Ramer. Instantly my mood is brighter and a glimmer of hope vibrates in the air.

Moral of the tale? Don’t give up. Think positive. Look forward. New year: new opportunities. There’s a horrible tendency with most of us to home in on the negative – massacres, wars, murders, abuses, rejections, failures. But in truth there’s lots to be cheerful about. As The Spectator put it in its leader a couple of weeks ago, viewed objectively, 2012 was the best year ever to be a human being! Here’s hoping that 2013 is even better for you all.

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The Iron Lady

Commiserations to all of you who’ve pre-ordered Saving Sebastian from Amazon but still not received it. I’ve done my best to find out what the delay is but action hasn’t followed promises, I’m afraid. It’s available from The Book Depository and Luath Press but somehow has only this morning been processed at Amazon. Believe me, I’ve been grinding my teeth on your behalf.

Frustrating to say the least, so I’ve been immersing myself in other things – writing, reviewing, interviewing, reading, partying, preparing workshops …

And in between vaguely debating within myself : Shall/should I go to see the film about Margaret Thatcher or shall/should I not?

Pros: My long-standing interest in and involvement with dementia. I spend time most weeks with people whose lives are affected by it. My own mother developed it. I’ve written a book about it, Remember Remember. I’ve read piles of other books about it – fiction and factual. I care very much about the way people with dementia are treated.

Cons: an instinctive concern about the ethics of the film being made while Baroness Thatcher is still alive. Is it morally right? Would she agree if she were able to give properly informed consent? Plenty of people have been quick to criticise.

But this week I overcame my reservations and went to see it. My thinking and rationale: I should make up my own mind about the wisdom and rightness of it all, based on the reality, not judge it without a hearing.

I came away surprised by my own conclusion.

Meryl Streep is superb as The Iron Lady herself. Brilliant acting, brilliant makeup, brilliant screenwriting. How someone can inhabit a character to that extent, and be as much Mrs T in her eighties as in her forties, is a mystery to me. She richly deserves all the plaudits and honours coming her way.

Some of the supporting cast are less credibly the big political and family names of the time, but that was a minor distraction. One can readjust without losing too much most of the time.

The depiction of dementia is gentle and sensitive. The reality can be a hundred times worse. The ageing MT/The Boss Lady/Mrs T may be muddled about what’s real, and talk to Dennis (whom she can still see), and struggle to keep up with conversations, but she remains dignified and decently clothed and largely independent. It’s probably sanitised; I don’t know how badly affected the real Lady Thatcher is, but it is altogether appropriate and respectful. And yet a believable portrayal of dementia. The repetition, the confusion, the delusion, the focus on the past, the haunting fear.

Curious and unexpected, though, was the effect on my feelings about the woman herself. Yes, as the Prime Minister she was shown at her most strident and dictatorial, convinced of her rightness both at home and on the world stage. But because we were seeing her power years through the soft focus lens of her dementia, they were somehow muted. Perceiving her as vulnerable, doubting, fearful, unsure of her role in the past as well as the present – well, I felt a huge warmth and concern for her.  How good to extend that sympathy now while she is still alive.

I wanted to reassure her when she quaveringly wonders if Dennis had been happy, when she faces the fact that her adored son is not coming to see her, when she packs the last pair of her husband’s shoes in a black bag and says yet another last farewell. You did what you thought was right at the time. You had the courage to stand up for your principles. You made your mark when the opportunity presented. Now let it rest, concentrate on today. Savour each lucid moment, every happy thought. While you still can.

Another realisation came to me as I watched. Somehow the hallucinations and fluctuating memories make a perfect vehicle for conveying an extraordinary life in 105 minutes. I couldn’t have borne an hour and a half of political posturing and unflinching dogmatism. I had no difficulty staying with the meanderings of an old lady clinging to the past; the riots, the war scenes, the speeches, the lectures, brief glimpses through the fog of a clouded mind.

Would I feel the same if I were Carol Thatcher? I don’t know. But that’s more to do with what the film says about family relationships within the Thatcher household than about portraying her mother’s dementia.

So, contrary to all expectations, I personally think the film has the potential to do positive things for those affected by this illness, as well as for the lady herself. Not my favourite film of all time but I’m glad I went to see it.

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Publication day is here!

It’s a bit like buses. After waiting ages for a book to come out, two come out in one week! Yes, Saving Sebastian is actually in my hand. Looking beautiful too. A rousing cheer for Tom Bee the cover designer.

Saving SebastianDr Justin Blaydon-Green has his hands full. Three teenage daughters at home, one of whom is mixing in some dubious circles. A brilliant colleague at work antagonising the staff in his lab and dabbling in dangerous experiments. A cheery technician in the lab constantly quoting Oscar Wilde. A Nigerian couple, treated for infertility nine months ago, who’ve just given birth to twins, one of whom can’t possibly be their biological child. And now a beautiful young woman appealing for help to save her four year old son dying from a rare blood disorder. Just how far is Justin prepared to go before his world disintegrates?

Read all about it!

My publisher decided to give this book a sticker saying If you like Jodi Picoult you’ll love Hazel McHaffie. (Hmmm.)  And a challenging strapline: How far would you go to save the life of your child? I’ve just finished reading two other books from the States which adopt a similar tactic (more of that in a later blog), so my mind has been toying with the implications. But I’d love feedback from you as to whether it helps or hinders in my case. You know about my personal ambivalence when it comes to Picoult.

The second book is an extremely limited print run: Professor Devine’s Emporium.Professor Devine's Emporium

No Amazon links for this one! Thanks to DJ burning many candles into the night, the children’s story was ready for our self-imposed deadline, the first family birthday of 2012 – today! Happy Birthday, Lauren!

It runs to 119 pages and includes 151 pictures, so it’s a totally different production from the 355 pages with no pictures of Saving Sebastian. But I’m just as delighted to see it completed. And I know this one will be well received by every single person who gets a copy!

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The ebook saga

Wahey! It’s official. McHaffie novels have now launched into the ether!

Yes, as promised, an update on the ebook saga. (For any newcomers to this site I’m in the process of converting books from my backlist into electronic versions, and some of my visitors have requested information on the nitty gritty of a writer’s life.)

The first stage was surprisingly painless. Following advice from various people in the Society of Authors, I (with DJ’s invaluable assistance) duly researched Smashwords and set about applying their format to my Word documents. Everything went swimmingly and the three books duly went through the vetting process with flying colours. Here’s the evidence. So far so encouraging.

Book covers

Then … of course, there was bound to be a ‘then’. Smashwords informed us that they wouldn’t be able to issue the Kindle version until December at the earliest. So readers who use Sony or Apple or Kobo or Barnes & Noble or Diesel or Aldiko or Stanza machines can access them, but not Kindle people. Ahhhh. Pretty much every e-reader I know uses a Kindle.

OK. Never say die. We’ll convert it ourselves via Amazon. More careful research, and off we go, full of confidence after our breeze through Smashwords.

Except that the theory didn’t quite match the practice. Most things worked in the main, but weird illogical aberrations cropped up without rhyme or reason – with indentation and formatting and pictures. Only detectable in the downloaded version too, not on preview. (So what exactly is the point of a preview facility, then?) DJ, bless his cotton socks and unlimited patience, spent many solid hours plumbing the depths of each problem, and putting it right. And this week we’ve FINALLY cracked it. Vacant Possession, Paternity and Double Trouble are all now available to Kindle users.

We’ve learned a lot in the process, and hopefully future conversions will be less troublesome. And there’s a silver lining: I shan’t now be so sniffy about errors in the books I download in future, but spare a passing sympathetic thought for the poor unfortunate who had neither the time nor inclination to check every last page.

Oh, and if you find an error in one of mine, do let me know. One of the advantages of having the process in my control.

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Online reviewing

As I briefly mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m a recent pilgrim to the review blogosphere.

Now, I freely confess it, I’ve been overtly sceptical about social networking sites. Come on! Get out into the real world, make flesh-and-blood friends, explore life in all its richness. That kind of reaction. But since I joined Facebook myself, (on the solemn advice of those-who-know in the literary world, I hasten to add) I have revised my opinion: the two are not mutually exclusive. You can have warm touchy-feely actual relationships and still have meaningful contact with geographically distant friends or link up with folk from the past electronically.

The same goes for reviews. There’s more than one way to skin a rabbit. Time was when authors relied on newspapers, magazines, radio shows, etc to bring their books to public attention. A good review in a broadsheet? Extend the house; book that exotic holiday. A bad review? Reach for the whisky; stick pins in an effigy. No review? Empty the Prozac; steal into the nearest burrow, leaving a note. But with the decline of literary editors, the rise of the celebrity cult, and the increasing struggle of small independent publishers, times have changed. So it’s good news for non-celebrity authors hovering somewhat below the plimsoll line of bestseller. There’s a whole new review world out there accessible by the touch of a computer key!

And I’m not just talking about Amazon reviews. Everyone knows they can be written by proud parents, press-ganged friends, and even by unscrupulous authors themselves. No, I’m thinking of very readable blogs written by well-read, articulate bookaholics who give measured and honest appraisals of a vast range of books. Some of them have huge followings of equally avid booklovers, ready to pick up on the books that appeal to them, even occasionally add their own tuppence-worth. Great stuff for authors. As you can see, I’m full of the zeal of the newly converted!

But don’t take my word for it. Have a look for yourselves. A good place to start is with an exceptionally good example … or two … or four … or … Well, a few of my personal favourites are Cornflower Books, Dovegreyreader Scribbles, Farm Lane Books, Meandmybigmouth and Vulpes Libris (alphabetical to avoid playground squabbles).

But be warned … you could be gone some time!

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