Hazel McHaffie

Donna Tartt

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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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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