Hazel McHaffie

bestsellers

Thrillers and master storytellers

The Times once said of Harlan Coben‘s writing that it had ‘lighthearted lessons for life sprinkled throughout‘ but that it wasn’t ‘about preaching, it is about catching you by those short hairs on the back of your neck.

And that’s what makes a thriller. That elusive something that I’m struggling to identify and capture for my own current novel.

Given that over 70 million of Coben’s books are in print worldwide and the last ten consecutive novels all debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, I think it’s fair to say this is one author who definitely knows how to get a message across!

it’s actually weirdly appropriate that I’ve been reading The Innocent at the moment. It’s about somebody waiting nine years to exact revenge. I’ve been waiting rather a lot myself recently – for appointments, for test results, in hospitals, in GP waiting rooms, for advice – not nine years certainly, but long enough to make an absorbing book a godsend. And long enough to know that a brilliant reputation and a sustained plot-line that keeps you turning the pages, can compensate for a lot.

OK, Coben’s relentlessly staccato sentences, his use of the second person POV, in-house American police jargon, mile-long list of characters, don’t exactly float my boat. And I’m not going for mass shootings and exotic dancers and police corruption. But what does grab me is this author’s ability to create suspense, to plant cliff hangers at the end of most chapters, weave an intensely complex but authentic series of connections, (the inside of his brain must be like an immense circuit board!) and make me really really want to know why someone is sending ex-con paralegal Matt Hunter incriminating video clips … what his beautiful wife is really up to … why a dead nun, Sister Mary Rose, is found to have breast implants … why the FBI are involved … and who is going to come out of this whole mess alive.

Yep, this is thriller writing. I can quite see how and why it works. Question is: can I do it myself? Only time will tell. But I’m going to persevere. And keep studying the experts. Six Cobens down, five to go.

And the way things are going right now I might be doing more reading than planned! Here in Central Scotland we’ve been on red alert (the highest level which includes danger to life) for the last two days. Siberian winds and snow, unbelievably low temperatures, air and land traffic at a standstill. It’s causing major disruption to millions (no exaggeration) but looks stunningly beautiful to those of us who aren’t stuck on motorways for thirteen hours, or skidding to work in a care home, or battling through drifts to reach an ill or vulnerable person. I dare not venture out on a photo-shoot to capture just how deep the snow is, so this snap of one protected corner of the garden must suffice.

Stay safe, folks.

 

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Creating a bestseller

I think I’m pretty realistic about my own potential as a novelist but it doesn’t stop me exploring the reasons for other writers’ phenomenal success. So I was intrigued by an article by Debbie Taylor, founder and editorial director of the women writers’ journal Mslexia, in the June/July/August edition. What is it about certain books that appeals to so many people that they become runaway bestsellers, she wanted to know? Ears pricked. Eyes wide open. Brain in gear. Is there any hope …?

Well, apparently researchers have textually analysed 20,000 published novels using a bank of 1000 computers (mind spins into boggle-mode) and come up with some answers. And such is the accuracy of their findings that editors and agents all over the world are apparently sitting up and taking notice. Well, you would, wouldn’t you, when ‘of the 55,000 new novels published in the US each year … just 200 reach the New York Times bestseller lists (0.3 percent) and only four will stay there long enough to sell a million copies (0.007 per cent)‘. An algorithm to improve on the odds? What’s not to like?

Ahhh, well … of course, there’s bound to be a strong cohort of discerning professionals in the real book world who’re understandably sniffy about an inanimate piece of kit being a better judge of literary merit than their finely honed, expertly trained, clever human brains. But Debbie T has stirred the pot and tipped in findings from a number of research teams and spread out a number of conclusions for us to taste and test.

OK, so what does make a runaway success? Four main characteristics to start with it transpires:

  1. One signature topic per author
  2. One of the additional topics should be in conflict with the central theme
  3. A recognisably realistic setting/characters
  4. Emotional closeness between the main protagonists.

Hmmm. Nothing revolutionary there, I’d say. Moving on … What about the plot? A variety of aspects can be compelling, it seems:

  1. Emotional roller-coasters for the characters and readers
  2. Plenty of peaks and troughs to maintain suspense
  3. A protagonist with conflicting impulses
  4. Larger than life characters
  5. A central dramatic quest
  6. High life-and-death stakes
  7. Several intimate viewpoints
  8. An interesting setting
  9. A high-concept what-if premise

In short, authors need ‘to think about what readers want‘.

  1. Stimulation.
  2. Entertainment.
  3. Emotional engagement.
  4. Hooks and cliff-hangers. The kind of breathless ups and downs that films and TV series are made of.

And if that isn’t all too depressingly obvious, you don’t even need to be able to string a sentence together elegantly. Staccato sentences, limited vocabulary, predictable plots, can make it to the mega-bestseller list because … and here’s the nub … if it’s to sell in its millions a book has to be read by people who don’t read much as well as by confirmed bookworms. Intellectual readers might sniff at the poor structure and lack of literary brio but as long as they’re addicted they’ll all want more of the same.

It’s a cruel unjust world out there, guys!!

Elsewhere in the same journal, novelist and short-story judge, Deborah Levy gives her personal take on why one writer’s work is more compelling than another: ‘In the end, it is about the mystery of that thing called Voice … it’s about the particularity of the writer’s attention: how she is looking and listening.‘ Yes, indeedy. A slippery something but we like to think we’ll know it when we see it.

Oh, and I must remember to drop a few hints in appropriate quarters … according to this same edition of my literary magazine,  Kate Summerscale‘s publisher sent her ‘an extraordinary profusion of flowers‘ to congratulate her on a new book deal! Hello? VelvetEthics Press are you listening?

Chance would be a fine thing!!

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Valuing mothers

Thanks to all the recent adrenaline surges from thriller-reading, my current novel is starting to take shape. The old brain needed a swift kick-start it seems. The story (working title: Killing me Gently) includes a parent/child relationship where things go seriously wrong so I’m also looking at more reflective works, books that don’t have you biting your nails or fearing your own shadow, but nevertheless haunt your thoughts after you’ve turned the last page. What makes them work?

Please Look After MotherPlease Look after Mother by Kyung-sook Shin, an acclaimed South Korean author, is one I’ve just finished. It tells the story of So-nyo, an illiterate wife and taken-for-granted mother, who has lived a life of sacrifice and unremitting work. A few years earlier she’d suffered a stroke leaving her with terrible headaches, confused and vulnerable. When the story begins she’s travelling from her rural home to Seoul to see her grown up children, but somehow she gets separated from her husband when the doors of the packed train close behind him leaving her still standing on the platform. He gets off at the next station and returns to get her but she has vanished.

Her daughter and sons do their best to find her. Disappointingly little prospective happens in the story post-disappearance, but along the way places, events, chance comments, keep triggering retrospective memories of So-nyo and her life. The family see her differently now she’s gone, regretting the things they never said to her.

She’s always been there in the background, unremarkable, low-achieving, self-effacing. A simple impoverished South Korean housewife. Boiling octopus, sauteeing anchovies and toasting seaweed. Forcing a left-handed child to become right-handed with the simple expedient of punishing left-handed activity. Money always scarce.

When the malt fermented, the entire house smelled of it. Nobody liked that smell, but Mother said it was the smell of money. There was a house in the village where they made tofu, and when she brought them the fermented malt, they sold it to the brewery and gave the money to Mother. Mother put that money in a white bowl, stacked six or seven bowls on top of it, and placed it on top of the cabinets. The bowl was Mother’s bank.’

Her devotion to her children is not reciprocated. She is a wallpaper figure. They don’t even notice her periods of mental absence, or the obvious signs of extreme pain.

‘Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

But now, the longer she eludes them, the more her disappearance troubles them. And a deeper and more universal mystery is unravelled: ‘affection, exasperation, hope and guilt add up to love.’ They begin to appreciate just what a powerful influence this insignificant little woman has been in their lives:

‘When she was younger, Mother was a presence that got him to continue building his resolve as a man, as a human being.’

I must confess, this wasn’t a book I’d rave about. It left me unsatisfied somehow; I wanted more resolution. And I really really really dislike second person writing; it’s one of my all time pet hates. What’s more this particular example has the temerity to make the ‘you’ refer to a different person in different sections, compounding my aversion!

But that doesn’t stop me valuing the healthy message it conveys. And learning lessons for my own writing. We would all do well to revisit the sacrifices our mothers made for us. Willingly and without complaint. To ask ourselves, can I do for my family what she did for us? It’s all too easy to take our nearest and dearest for granted.

‘Before she went missing, you spent your days without thinking about her. When you did think about her, it was to ask her to do something, or to blame her or ignore her. Habit can be frightening thing. You spoke politely with others, but your words turned sullen towards (her).’

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

I doubt whether Please Look After Mother would feature highly on that jolly little bestseller-ometer I told you about a couple of weeks ago, and yet it’s contributing to the sum total of books which can encourage us to empathise with human beings and help to create a more civilised society. That’s worth more to me than whopping sales figures.

Strange how real life often throws up weird coincidences. By chance I was actually sitting next to a South Korean translator at a meal a few days ago. I had something relevant to talk about, thanks to Kyung-sook Shin.

 

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Confession time

I’m starting this post at 2 o’clock on Monday morning. Why? do I hear you cry?

Well, I made the fatal mistake yesterday afternoon of accepting a cup of caffeinated coffee. Now, I know caffeine is a no-no for me; I KNOW it is. My consultant has TOLD ME it is. So why …? Well, I had just fed 30 people Sunday lunch; I had an empty stomach; I was very much in need of a quick boost of energy at that precise moment. Trouble was, I didn’t need to be hyper-stimulated at midnight … and 1am … and 2am … and … So I’m paying the price for a stupid moment of thoughtless self-indulgence.

No point in compounding the iniquity further, I thought; I’ll just use my night (unsociable hours, we used to call it in my nursing days) wakefulness to catch up on writing, and hope to nod off a bit on the train in a few hours time. I was having to get up at 5 anyway to get to the station for the early Crosscountry train to Birmingham. What’s an hour or two extra between friends? So here I am at 2am writing this week’s post.

Where was I? Aha, yes. As I was saying last time … my thoughts about authors who write books I both love and hate … leading to a confession.

Big breath … Come on! I’ve had a whole week to summon up the courage to reveal it … No, I haven’t hit the bestselling list … No, I haven’t sacked my publisher … But … I have done my best to … bury one of my books. There, it’s out.

My first published novel, Holding On? was written in the 90s, before I studied creative writing.Holding On? I’m indebted to Henry Hochland, the publisher who snapped it up while the ink was still wet, for putting my foot on the first rung of the fiction ladder. To my utter astonishment, the book quickly became a set book on degree and professional courses. But – and it’s a big BUT – I’m now so embarrassed by its deficiencies, that I don’t even list it on my website. I just wish I could re-write it, knowing what I know now.

Phew! From private burial to public exhumation in one fell swoop. I feel like I’ve just admitted to a particularly unsavoury addiction.

I wonder, will I be equally unhappy about subsequent books as the years roll on? Time will tell. I do periodically take stock, and I often regret certain publishing decisions. But then, as the sticker on my computer used to say: Perfection is always one more draft away.

All I can do is implore you, if you come across my first attempt, don’t dismiss me out of hand. If you read the second, third, fourth … even sixth, bear in mind that I’m a work in progress. Even Ian Rankin reckons that the reason an author goes on writing is that he knows he can do better; the perfect novel is always hovering just beyond the current one.

In all my periodic analyses though, one resolve remains constant: not to write to a formula. I want to keep the yawn factor – ‘if-you’ve-read-one-McHaffie-you’ve-read-’em-all’ – to a minimum. I prefer to fit the format and genre of the writing to the subject matter of the book. So far I’ve had a stab at romance, crime, family saga, first person diary, and multiple-perspective narrative. I love the challenge of experimenting with new styles (as you know, I’m quickly bored). Maybe I run the risk of alienating readers who are strictly one-genre fans, but at the moment at least, I think it’s a risk worth taking, to be true to my topics. And to date I’ve been lucky enough not to lie awake at night worrying that my readers will have the sort of demands which burdened writers like Audrey Niffenegger or Yann Martel, or Donna Tartt, who were expected to live up to the standard of previous highly-acclaimed novels. Enough to give you writers’ block before you even start pounding the keyboard.

Of course, if one of my books were eventually to emerge into the glare of fame (well, one can always dream!) I might sink my principles, bury all past efforts (metaphorically speaking), and jump with alacrity onto the passing bandwagon. But while I luxuriate in the shadows and freedom of obscurity, I shall cling onto my personal idiosyncrasies, please myself, and enjoy what I do.

Monday evening:
What a difference a day makes.

My mother has taken a turn for the worse, so I’m returning to Birmingham immediately to spend what time is left with her. Which might have implications for my blog. And it has nicely put paid to my interview for radio on Thursday. I hope I’m forgiven.

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