Hazel McHaffie

autumn

Why do we do it?

Writing’s a strange occupation. Like no other.

I’ve been catching up on the literary magazines, prompting various ruminations-from-the-recovery-couch this week which I thought I’d share with you, but, please, don’t read this as a disgruntled gripe. It’s a calm reflective autumnal sharing from one who’s in the privileged position of not seeking fame, not needing to pay the bills from royalties, not under outside pressure to produce the goods. I’m a compulsive writer, I thrive on simple feedback from satisfied readers, sharing an evening with a group of avid readers over wine and one of my novels, debating serious issues with those challenged by one of my opinion pieces. However, I am acutely mindful of others trying to carve a career in the perilous world of words; I care about the impact of anomalies and injustices on them. So here goes – a few reflections on the occupation of writing fiction.

There are no real goal posts, precious few rules, and even those committed to textbooks/how-to-books are rather unofficial and fluid and subject to modification, changing depending on the hands wielding the red pen or waving the chequebook. An indefinable mysterious ‘something’ separates out the brilliant from the excellent, the good from the mediocre. Style? Brio? Panache? Whatever. Every single new effort launches itself into this unknown abyss in hope, but with no guarantees – not even for the well established household-name author. And with thousands upon thousands of books being published every year the chances of standing out in a crowd are diminishingly rare.

And yet, despite this reality, the world and his live-in-lover and long-lost great-uncle’s mother-in-law seem to think they can be authoritative about a piece of work that someone else has slaved over for years. With no qualifications, no pedigree, no authority whatever, they think nothing of assigning one or two stars, printing a scathing review, and generally rubbishing a carefully-constructed work of fiction, merely on the grounds that it doesn’t appeal to them. And the author is usually frowned on if he/she goes on the defensive.

We writers all have our peccadillos and habits, and outside scrutiny can help to eliminate the most annoying ones. For example, editors will helpfully point out words that an author is rather too fond of, and I’ve done the same thing myself for serious scribblers who’ve asked me to critique their raw work. But should I have done so? Ben Blatt, an American journalist, has subjected a wide range of published fiction to some seriously ruthless data-crunching and he reckons that this is common; every writer uses one or more relatively rare words disproportionately often.
A few illustrations from published works:
Jane Austencivility
Zadie Smithevil eye
Dan Brownfull circle
Donna Tartttoo good to be true
It’s a bit like a fingerprint. Hmmm, I might need to re-think this one.

I confess I sigh heavily when I see celebrity after celebrity adding ‘writer’ to their list of occupations. Yeah, right! Knowing as I do the skill, hard slog and endless work that goes into even a modest-sized work of fiction, and cringing as I do at the ungrammatical prose of many a famous name at interview, I seriously doubt the authenticity of many of these claims. And I fear it simply feeds into a common perception that ‘anyone’ can write a book. I still have to grit my teeth when ordinary average people tell me they would be writers too if they weren’t busy saving the planet in some other more worthy and important way.

And yet celebrities command top positions with their publishers, landing lucrative contracts, often ousting the real best-selling writers, bagging the front seats in bookshop displays, the key position on the TV couch. How frustrating for master craftsmen to be overtaken by far less competent and deserving competition, to see their own publicity/marketing budgets (hello? do they still exist for ordinary mortals?) diverted to feather the downy nests of the rich and famous. Plenty of well-known established authors have gone public about this injustice/disloyalty, even jumping ship to continue in other more faithful publishing vessels.

Then there’s the whole business of valuing books – and those who create them. Readers want to pay the lowest price possible (mea culpa!). Ninety-nine pence for a work that should cost £8.99? – that’ll do nicely thank you. Absolutely nothing goes to the author who has no salary, no security, no say. Will you come and speak at my bookgroup/ library/evening salon/literary festival? Of course! And after the event … payment? Hello? Nothing/a bunch of flowers/a bottle of wine/a hasty meal/not even expenses. Commonplace.

And yet. And yet. And yet. We continue to write. Because we must. Because we are compelled to do so by some internal driving force. Because there is nothing to beat the exhilaration of stepping into the shoes and minds of protagonists of our own creation, realising our imaginings, hearing readers talk about our characters as if they are real people in their lives – a reward (in my opinion and circumstances) worth so much more than mere pounds and pence.

I love what I do! And as long as other people enjoy my writing, I’m more than happy to share the product of those months of isolation and hard work.

 

 

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Literary choices

Charles Ross appleAutumn leaves

 

 

 

 

As the cold winds whip through the cracks and the snow gleams on the hills, my mind goes back to that wonderful Indian summer we were enjoying a few weeks ago. Temperatures into the 20s, mmm. Vibrant colours, cloudless blue skies. Remember them? Far too glorious to be inside, so I split my working days between my study – pressing on with publication of Inside of Me – and out in the garden – reading. And now that warmth and sunshine is a memory I’m so glad I seized the moment.

Afterwards Afterwardsby Rosamund Lupton seemed like a good choice. One that would make made me usefully ponder literary tactics and styles. And perhaps question my own preferences.

Plot: a private school maliciously set on fire; teenage Jenny trapped inside; her mother running into the blaze to rescue her; her young brother paralysed with fear left outside; a sinister presence hovering around the ICU; the unravelling of marriages and secrets in the hunt for the arsonist.

Verdict: Instant hook, plenty of ongoing tension to juggle with. Tick.

The range of suspects: a presumed wife-beater, a touchy-feely male teacher recently sacked from the school, an 8-year-old boy, and an unknown stalker who’s been threatening Jenny with everything from hate-mail, excreta through the letter box, paint being thrown over her, to an oxygen tube being tampered with.

Verdict: Lots of false trails and no, I didn’t guess the real culprit too early. Tick.

Unusual literary tactic: Jenny and her mum are spirits now, freed from their damaged bodies lying immobile in hospital. They can penetrate anywhere; a useful literary device to give the reader insights, observe actions, know thoughts.

Verdict: Not sure. Saw the point; had difficulty suspending disbelief.

Narrative style: Second person. Hmm, my least favourite style, I confess. The ‘you’ in this case is Jenny’s dad; the narrator her mum. But it works in that it tracks the whole family’s responses to this tragedy.

Verdict: It was fit for purpose but didn’t win me over to second person narration. Am I getting too set in my ways?

Little literary gems:

A woman police officer speaks in her ‘uniform-and-truncheon voice’.

The mother, Grace, is running towards the burning school at ‘the velocity of a scream’.

The smoke went into her lungs and she was ‘breathing barbed wire’.

Memories from the past become ‘a paracetamol for my aching mind’.

‘Hard lines of misery are scraped across‘ Jenny’s grandmother’s face. Medical facts hit her ‘like flying glass, cutting new lines’.

Jenny’s phone is a teenage ‘life in eight centimetres of plastic’.

Grace is told that the ovaries of her twenty week female fetus are already formed. ‘I felt the future curled up inside me: my body a Russian doll of time.’

Verdict: Huge admiration (tinged with envy maybe?) for the author’s ability to toss in such evocative phrases. Tick. Tick.

OVERALL: An enjoyable and thought-provoking read during our extended summer, and a wake up call not to prejudge any aspect of a writer’s style. Everyone deserves a fair hearing.Reading in the autumn sun

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The Book Thief

I love autumn. All those crisp mornings, the sound of crunchy leaves underfoot, fabulous colours. Our copper beech hedge is a golden blaze at the moment. Something to do with the spring drought and cool damp summer apparently.

I’ve just returned from Oxford, travelling by train, and can vouch for stunning russets and vibrant reds through to sunshine yellow everywhere. But speaking of colours … what about this as a description:

‘Summer came.
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the colour of Jews.’

The Book ThiefDeath is the narrator of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s 1939. In Germany. The Nazis are increasingly forcing their politics onto the people, poverty and betrayal lurk in the scared streets, and Death is extremely busy. This could easily be a depressing, even macabre book, but it isn’t. Even Death himself is gently compassionate.

‘Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last gasping cries. Their French words. I watched their love-visions and freed them from their fear.

In complete desolation, I looked at the world above. I watched the sky as it turned from silver to grey to the colour of rain. Even the clouds tried to look the other way.’

And he is gentle with the reader too, slipping in the occasional spoiler to soften the approach to sadness.

Tucked away in a little town called Molching, on the outskirts of Munich, lives Liesel. She’s a child with dangerous eyes – brown eyes, who has already known death and loss. Late at night her foster father, Hans Hubermann, patiently teaches her to read. Liesel is utterly mesmerised by words, but there is no money for books, so she takes matters into her own hands and acquires them by stealth.

Three men exert a powerful influence over her: a young criminal, a fugitive Jew and a man with a heart of gold. And gradually realisation of the encroaching horrors of war impinge on her childish innocence. She becomes even more intimately acquainted with Death.

Zusak’s writing style is uniquely his own. Strange little curlicued inserts give vital information. Staccato sentences, truncated paragraphs, haul you without mercy into the very kernel of the emotions and experiences of the time. The almost childish writing fits perfectly with the whole life-view of the characters. Its very simplicity tugs at the heart strings.

And seeing things from his own perspective, Death paints wonderfully evocative pictures of …

… the holocaust:

‘When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. Their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, and their spirits came towards me, into my arms. We climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.’

… of the blitz:

‘The only sign of war was a cloud of dust migrating from east to west. It looked through the windows, trying to find a way inside, and as it simultaneously thickened and spread, it turned the trail of human beings into apparitions.
There were no more people on the streets any more.
There were rumours carrying bags.’

… of illness and death almost seven decades ago:

‘At thirteen, tragedy struck again when his uncle died.
As percentages would suggest, his uncle was not a hot-head like Max. He was the type of person who worked quietly away for very little reward. He was not a rich man. He did not take what was rightfully someone else’s – and he died of something growing in his stomach. Something akin to a poison bowling ball.
As is often the case, the family surrounded the bed and watched him capitulate.
Somehow, between the sadness and loss, Max Vandenburg, who was now a teenager with hard hands, blackened eyes and a sore tooth, was also a little disappointed. Even disgruntled. As he watched his uncle sink slowly into the bed, he decided that he would never allow himself to die like that.
The man’s face was so accepting.
So yellow and tranquil, despite the violent architecture of his skull –
The endless jawline, stretching for miles, the pop-up cheekbones and the pot-hole eyes. So calm it made the boy want to ask something.
Where’s the fight? he wondered.
Where’s the will to hold on?
Of course, at thirteen he was a little excessive in his harshness. He had not looked something like me in the face. Not yet.
With the rest of them, he stood around the bed and watched the man die – a safe merge, from life to death. The light in the window was grey and orange, the colour of summer’s skin, and his uncle appeared relieved when his breathing disappeared completely.
“When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist in his face.”
Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.
Yes.
I like that a lot.’

It’s salutary to see the war through the eyes of Germans. To realise the enemy is British. The hands that released the bombs that decimate Liesel’s home are those of the Allies. That the young pilot dying in the smoking and broken plane speaks English.

Suspend any preconceived ideas you might have, and if you can, your personal religious and moral beliefs, and let the poetry of this book speak to you. It’s at once moving and challenging, enjoyable and troubling. And when you’ve lingered a while over the last haunting sentence, do let me know which emotion predominates for you.

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