Hazel McHaffie

bookclubs

Critical input

Edinburgh floral clockSo, we’re into the last few days of the Festival here in Edinburgh. Next week, after a grand finale firework spectacular on the evening of the 31st, this seething, happening, nothing-surprises place will metamorphose back into our quiet and dignified capital.

Levitating figureBook Festival placard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since I wrote my last post I’ve been to an opera, several more dramas, and a couple of book events – including one where Marion Coutts was speaking (I reviewed her book, The Iceberg, about the death of art critic Tom Lubbock a couple of posts ago) alongside award winning Belgian, Erwin Mortier, whose book, Stammered Songbook, recounts his mother’s descent into dementia. My workaday kind of topics. However, I must admit the most valuable thing I brought away from this session was what not to do on the platform!

Edinburgh Book Festiival 2015But hey, what of my own writing, you may well be thinking? Well, good news! It took another giant stride forward this week.

As you know, I’ve had really helpful feedback from experts on limited sections of the novel, but that only takes me so far; I also need critique from people looking at the whole story and from a general readers’ perspective. So six very insightful and well-read ladies belonging to a bookclub already known to me, have been reading the first full draft of Inside of Me, and on Tuesday I went along to hear their verdict. They were tremendously positive and encouraging but I picked up some very useful pointers for improvements.

Now my task is to think through the wealth of suggestions from all quarters and decide what to revise, what to delete, what to leave alone. And I’m confident the end result will be a better, stronger book than that first draft.

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Honorable invitation

BlossomWhy a picture of spring blossom? Read on …

It’s a few years now since I left academic life behind, but I still get occasional requests to fulfil roles relating to my former life which are gratifying but must be declined in everybody’s best interests. I always said I wouldn’t become a dinosaur on the conference circuit and I’ve held to that resolve – even when very tempting genuine invitations came from Canada and New Zealand (two countries I’ve always wanted to visit).

But the letter that arrived here from the States a few weeks ago was doubly delightful – not just an unexpected and courteous request, but one couched in extravagant terms to boot, which I why I’m sharing it with you. The age of chivalry is not dead.

InvitationIt was headed ‘Honorable invitation’, and the text began by ‘soliciting’ my ‘gracious presence’ at a forthcoming World Congress in the USA. ‘Gracious presence’ … me?? They would be both ‘pleased and honored’ if I would ‘consent to be their speaker’. I mean, how could one resist such a charmingly fulsome request?

And no, it wasn’t junk mail; the conference actually exists. But I’m under no illusions: I am not the honorable gracious presence who could best fit their prestigious bill. Scraping the barrel comes to mind!

I duly crawled back down from this virtual pedestal and burrowed back into my secluded and unknown study where I scribbled on in splendid isolation. Ah yes, but I am emerging three times this month to honour other less flamboyant invitations: two to speak in libraries, one to a bookclub. Not international, not hugely prestigious, but much more realistic. And fun! In one of them the audience was made up entirely of young adults – all bookworms! Wonderful.

I know my level.

BlossomRather like the beautiful tree to one side of our house: one week gorgeous blossom at its best, admired and appreciated; next week petal confetti blowing in the wind, lightly resting in all sorts of places. Nevertheless still nourishing the ground it sinks into. Here endeth the lesson!

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Appearances – deceptive or otherwise

Yes, indeedy! Appearances (in both senses) can be deceptive in more ways than one.

One of the most enjoyable events I do is visiting bookgroups. Usually I sit in on their discussion of my book, and answer any questions that they direct at me about it. It’s always a great thrill to hear people talking about my characters as if they know them, reflecting on the people they like or dislike, the bits that resonated for them, the aspects that were less convincing. (Nobody’s totally assassinated my writing so far, which helps, of course!) It’s usually all very relaxed, with a glass of wine along the way, the odd crisp/nut/biscuit, and I have leisure to learn from their comments about what works and what doesn’t. Incidentally, the negative comments are often more powerful and instructive for me than the compliments.

However, last Thursday’s ‘author appearance’ was rather different. The setting, the welcome, the people, were all deluxe, but from the outset the questions came thick and fast – in my direction! My career, my subjects, my choices, my opinions, were all under the microscope. The assembled ladies had a wealth of knowledge and experience between them – both personal and professional; they were most encouraging and engaged and generous, but I was most definitely in the big black chair! They’d all read Over My Dead Body for this session but that merely served as a reference point; they were interested in the why and the how of writing about medical ethical issues – forcing me to  think fast. Why did I go down the fiction route after years in academia? Why did I write a particular novel at a particular time? What prompted me to write about that specific topic? Where do ideas come from? Why did such and such a character have to die? How do I cope with the emotional drain of writing such books? How would I tackle the issue of too few organ donors? It was all very stimulating and great fun, and very good for me to be put on the spot – I can prepare for a discussion on the book; I can’t really prepare for so many challenges out of left field. 

BookgroupI salute you, ladies! You were wonderful. This picture (apologies for the quality – I didn’t like to bring the big camera!) captures the essential qualities of a super session: intelligent articulate people, a stimulating topic, peaceful ambience, excellent lubrication. My only regret … I can’t join all the bookclubs I visit!

 

 

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A lamb to the slaughter

At the end of last year I was invited to a preview of paintings by local amateur artists. As I wandered along the corridors studying the exhibits, my heart went out to the creators of these works, also eavesdropping incognito not only on the compliments,  but also the ‘hmmms’, and sudden silences, and occasional unflattering comments. They’d laboured long and hard over those canvases, pouring something of themselves into their art. Irrespective of the appeal of any given painting, I had to admire their courage hanging their work for public scrutiny.

chosen paintingI personally liked a number of the exhibits, and indeed bought this one, which I’m delighted with.

So, given the hazards of parading one’s creativity, you might well ask, what on earth possessed me to put myself in the firing line quite deliberately, by asking a group of very excellent and discerning women readers to tear my current novel to pieces in front of me. Hello? I’ve long been conscious of the fine dividing line between normality and insanity, and my own teetering vulnerability. But this time my lapse was calculated.

To begin with I have a healthy respect for this group of professionals. Last year they invited me to go along to one of their bookclub meetings where they were discussing Right to Die, and I was impressed by the quality of their discussion. They engaged fully with the issues relating to assisted death as well as with the actual story and the art of writing.

And as far as my current writing goes, now is the time to hear constructive criticism, not when it’s between covers. Hitherto all my novels have been published by independent publishers, and the journey to the bookshops by this route includes stages of critique and editing. This might not happen if I do decide to self-publish Over My Dead Body, so I’m going to considerable lengths to get it polished as much as possible by other means. Approaching the bookgroup seemed like a splendid next step.

I made sure they all knew the terms of engagement from the outset: the book is in draft form and I’m looking for rigorous and honest analysis and comment. Flannel and flattery would render the process useless.

the bookclub ladiesSo I duly rolled up on Monday evening prepared to be slaughtered in the name of my art. (Can you smell the adrenalin already?!) In the event it turned out to be a really enjoyable and interesting experience. Initially they were concerned for me, being on the receiving end of their criticism, but I can honestly say I was not in the least bothered by it. There was a constructive point to it; it wasn’t malicious or personal. Indeed I’d invited it. It’s always a real thrill to have people talking about my characters as if they know them, and as one of the women said at the end, to have a roomful of people discussing a book in such an animated and engaged way said something about its overall appeal.

So what did I learn? The subject of organ donation is fascinating; all of them agreed on that. They actually wanted more fleshing out of the transplant bits (that really surprised me). Indeed, some found the subplots I had included as hooks, ‘distracting’ and ‘too emotionally draining’. Curiouser and curiouser! (Does this say something about my own over-exposure to the subject?)

The other surprise was that a child character I struggled with most, they all loved. I’ve several times been on the point of removing her sections; now, thanks to their input, I have the confidence not to do so.

So, what next?  I have to weigh up each of their comments and consider how much any changes would disturb the overall balance of the book. Taking out a child crime and/or a missing woman and/or a psychotic father and/or a severed limb and/or a wrecked marriage and/or a drug smuggling would inevitably alter the weightings. And might result in a total collapse of the infrastructure of the story … HELP! Adding more descriptive detail might alienate people who want fast action and variety.

I’ve been scribbling furiously ever since, but trying not to rush into too many radical revisions. After all, as the familiar adage has it: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. And I’m the one who has to stand by the finished product.

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Authentic fiction

I do love hearing from readers, and I’m always impressed when they make contact. It’s something I rarely do, but should do more often – no, not with myself, with authors whose work I’ve enjoyed.

‘Star letter’ this week goes to ‘Trish’ who wrote asking for the reference for a medical thriller mentioned in my novel Right to Die. The main protagonist, Adam O’Neill, a journalist who has developed Motor Neurone Disease, lends the thriller to his GP, Dr Curtis, and writes in his diary:

Right to DieHe’d brought back a book I’d lent him, a brilliant medical thriller about a serial murderer who developed aplastic anaemia. I’d been impressed by the twist in the tale, and thought Curtis might appreciate its medical cleverness. The killer went on to have a bone marrow transplant from his sister. Result: when he was a suspect years later the forensic people said he couldn’t be the killer because his DNA didn’t match the samples from the crime scene. Naturally, the hotshot detective got hold of some distant relative and winkled out the story of the transplant and hey ho, the villain’s clapped up in jail and they’ve thrown away the key.

The crime story was entirely fictitious, but of course I was chuffed to find someone wanted to read it. And more delighted still that my correspondent wrote to me subsequently to say she was a nurse who works with people with MND, and how true Right to Die rang with her experience. That kind of endorsement from experts is special. Very confirming.

In a couple of weeks time I’m due to attend a bookclub where the members are going to be discussing Right to Die, so I’m hoping they’ll be as enthusiastic as Trish. I know there’s at least one doctor in the group, so I’m not expecting an easy ride. But the challenge is stimulating, and there’s a particular thrill in hearing other people talk about my characters as if they’re real people. To me they are; I know them intimately.

Trish’s endorsement made me feel so chirpy I abandoned research into auto-immune hepatitis (for my current novel) and went off to try out a new recipe for a raspberry and amaretti gateau. Nicely used up the last of the raspberries from the garden.

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IVF – a luxury or a right?

It’s odd how when your mind is steeped in a particular subject you see related things everywhere, isn’t it?

As part of preparing for the publication of Saving Sebastian I’ve been thinking a lot about fertility treatments, the rights and wrongs, benefits and risks, should we-shouldn’t we? Because as well as working on the book itself, I’ve had to bend my mind to the assorted peripheral tasks that dog any writer – publicity and marketing, updating my website, events, that sort of thing. Not nearly as much fun as the creative writing but just as necessary, I’m afraid. Anyway, I was deep into drafting questions for bookclubs, and challenges for teachers and students of related subjects, when lo and behold, two articles jumped out at me.

One was a news item saying that a Brazilian fertility expert – the very one who helped the famous footballer, Pelé, become the father of twins – is suspected of having deceived patients at his Sao Paulo clinic into raising children who were not biologically their own by implanting other couples’ embryos to boost his success rates. Wow!

And why did this leap out and sock me between the eyes? Because in Saving Sebastian, a Nigerian couple have twins through IVF – one black, the other coffee coloured – and there’s a big old stooshie going on in the fertility centre to establish just what went wrong. Was it deliberate? Was it a genuine mistake? Is there something else lurking in the undergrowth? Too bad real life beat me to it, eh? If my publisher had stuck to the original publication date of 1 May my novel would have been out a fortnight before this Brazilian story broke. Heigh-ho.

The other sucker-punch was by Daily Telegraph columnist, Dr Max Pemberton (16 May). He starts by saying he thought long and hard before writing this particular article because he knew he’d attract condemnation. OK, I’m listening, Doc. The gist of his argument – please note his not necessarily mine (I want to keep my powder dry meantime!) is
– the NHS is strapped for cash
– hard decisions have to be made about how to use limited resources
– there is now an expectation that the NHS will provide fertility treatment on demand and the belief that everyone has a right to be a parent
– childlessness is not a disease but a grief based on people being unable to have what they want
– in these straightened times life-threatening and debilitating diseases should take precedence
– therefore, he concludes,  ‘IVF is a luxury the NHS just cannot afford‘.

And the relevance of this piece? Well, in Saving Sebstian, Yasmeen and Karim Zair are fighting to have a baby by IVF who is the same tissue type as their son, Sebastian. The little lad has a rare blood disorder from which he will die if he doesn’t get stem cells from a saviour sibling. And already he’s having punishing treatment to keep him alive. At four years of age … imagine! Should they be allowed to have this treatment? There are plenty of people opposing them. What do you think?

Maybe reading the book will help to crystallise your own thinking so you can agree or disagree with Max Pemberton more logically. But in the meantime please do have your say on my blog if your dander is up, steam is exploding out of your ears, and you feel like adding to the debate right now! You can always publish an addendum or a retraction later. Remember …

The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind (William Blake).

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