Hazel McHaffie

ebooks

Assorted tips from writers’ lives

Time for a  Blue Peter moment methinks. Another round-up of literary titbits (mostly from Mslexia, The Author and the Telegraph) that have resonated with me, and will hopefully give you glimpses into the lives and thoughts of writers and what they’re up against in today’s climate. Saving you the slog of trawling through several publications yourself – always supposing you had any appetite for doing so! And OK, I’ll come clean … these quotes are a tad past their sell-by date and have been sitting waiting to be posted for several weeks. Indeed two more editions of the journals are at this moment glaring at me from my toppling tbr pile, but that’s another story. Here goes then.

The Author journalsOn being a writer …

New pet hate is people saying ‘I might go freelance.You seem to manage …’ I NEVER GO TO SLEEP, THAT’S WHY.  (A writer-subscriber to Twitter)

On the writing process …

You never, if you write fiction, talk about your work in progress. You learn quite early that, once the steam is let out of a story through talk, it can never be recovered. When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it. (Terence Blacker)

The real danger is when a character is not a character but a mouthpiece for a particular ‘ism’. (Amanda Craig)

Pages peppered with punctuation mistakes and obvious typos are the literary equivalent of leaving the loo with one’s skirt caught in one’s knickers. (Alice Slater)

By dramatising points of view or social evils, by making us care about purely invented beings, a novelist can change how we see real people in a real world. But the trick is to take the reader with them – not bash them over the head with its arguments. (Amanda Craig)

On the consequences of being a writer …

Depression is thought to affect writers at a rate of eight to ten times higher than people in the general population. (Faridah Newman)

… one is always likely to be more conscious of where one has failed than of any successes one may apparently have had. The awareness of failure is more enduring, and for a writer more constant. One’s books are never as good as they were going to be. (Alan Massie)

But in the end this is [Dan Brown‘s] worst book, and for a sad, even noble, reason – his ambition here wildly exceeds his ability. (Jake Kerridge)

Mslexia journalsOn the competition …

With over 150,000 new books published each year and only a handful of reputable journals, papers and websites which review them, it’s another huge challenge to get noticed amongst all the boxes of books delivered to reviewers weekly.’ (Rosalind Kerven)

On earning a living …

In the absence of a global crackdown, the number of ebooks being read that have not been paid for will increase alarmingly. (Andrew Rosenheim)

On reaching the public …

If a novel doesn’t arouse your curiosity at some level, it’s dead in your hands. (Ian McEwan)

 Plenty to think about as I peg away all alone in my garret.

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Jodi Picoult as ebook

As you know I have an ambivalent relationship with Jodi Picoult‘s books. House RulesBut I confess I had a bit of a revival of interest when I read House Rules (reviewed on this blog back in February). Super book about autism.

So, when I was deciding which books to sample on the Kindle – just to check whether I really really did want to leap into the twenty-first century – one of the first on my list was Sing you Home. I read it ages ago but it’s taken me till now to get around to posting my comments. Which probably says a lot about my rating of the book.

Sing you HomeThe story revolves around Zoe and Max Baxter whose marriage is on the rocks after a number of failed attempts to have a baby. (Yeah, yeah, I know. I do bang on about these issues.) Anyway, Zoe finds comfort in Vanessa whose work as a school counsellor overlaps with her own music therapy. They go on to ‘marry’ and decide they want children.

Zoe already has frozen embryos left over from her IVF with Max. Using them seems like a no-brainer. But Max is now a born-again religious zealot, vigorously opposed to same sex unions, and he fights Zoe’s claims through the courts.

OK, some of the issues are my territory but that doesn’t mean I’m bound to like books on these subjects. Indeed, I can be super critical of the way authors deal with medicine and ethics. So, what was my verdict on Sing you Home? Hmm.

It’s the usual Picoult formula:
Major social issues
Multiple voices speaking in the first person.
Lots of amateur psychology.
Big social issues.
A courtroom drama

It has one unique feature:
Accompanying songs, the lyrics of which were composed by Picoult herself. An interesting ‘gimmick’, entirely fitting with the story line about a music therapist who reaches troubled people through songs.

A few amusing/thoughtful quotes to make you smile/wonder:
Max on the effect of infertility on their marriage
‘Our sex life had become like Thanksgiving dinner with a dysfunctional family – something you have to show up for, even though you’re not really having a good time … want had become need and then obsession … There was no room in my marriage for me anymore, except as genetic material.’

Vanessa on society’s attitude to homosexuality
‘I remember my mother telling me that, when she was a little girl in Catholic school, the nuns used to hit her left hand every time she wrote with it. Nowadays, if a teacher did that, she’d probably be arrested for child abuse. The optimist in me wants to believe sexuality will eventually become like handwriting: there’s no right way and wrong way to do it. We’re all just wired differently.
It’s also worth noting that, when you meet someone, you never bother to ask if he’s right- or left-handed.
After all: Does it really matter to anyone other than the person holding the pen?’

Zoe’s on school canteen
‘It looks like every other school cafeteria I’ve ever seen – a life-size petri dish breeding social discontent, students sorting themselves into individual genuses: the Popular Kids, the Geeks, the Jocks, The Emos.’

Vanessa’s on court protocol
‘The clerk scrambles forward to make his announcement as Judge O’Neill strides off the bench, so that we all rise, too, like some magnetic after-effect of his anger.’

I liked:
The insights into what music therapy can achieve with the depressed, the dying, the dementing.
The sympathetic and empathetic principal female characters.

I disliked:
The stereotypical portrayal of bigoted right-wing Christianity.
The pseudo-psychology everybody seems to indulge in.
The occasional misuse of medical terms (or maybe it’s simply American shorthand).
The anomalies in the formatting that crept in during conversion.

So, a mixed bag. Not a patch on House Rules.

Oh, just before I go, if you’re weighed down by the stress of Christmas preparations, or feeling jaded by lack of daylight hours, or in anyway down in the dumps, I recommend you go to dovegreyreader‘s post for Saturday December 10. It’s called Security knitting alert …start casting on everyone and it’s sure to bring a smile to your face.

 

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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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Creating ebooks

When I first mooted the idea of writing a regular blog, a couple of my potential readers told me they’d like to hear about the experiences of a writer. How I get out of blocks; why I make the choices I do; how I know when the book is finished. That kind of thing.

So it’s in this spirit that I thought I’d tell you about my main preoccupation this week. Converting my back-list into ebooks.

I’m indebted to the Society of Authors, and to Lin Anderson, for giving me the courage to tackle this task myself. You can pay other people to do it for you, but I’d be back to the old tension of accommodating other people’s timetables and standards then. The very things I’m trying to get away from.  OK, so there’s a downside: I’ll only have myself to blame if it goes pear-shaped. But until experience proves me wrong, I think that’s the lesser evil.

First step then: check my contracts. Carefully. Do I have the right to go ahead on my own? I can see no problem with four of the books; a possible question mark over three. And the Society of Authors confirms my assessment. So I start with three that are definitely in my control: the ones published in 2005 by Radcliffe Press.

I have the files for these, so the raw material is in my hands. But, since they were written, I’ve come a long way in learning the art of writing. Thanks to my editor, Jennie Renton, I can see instantly how to tighten up the text, and improve the books. I’m appalled at the number of times I used the words ‘just‘, and ‘well.’ And how did I not notice the litter of ellipses? So my first task is to edit – enough to make them better without changing them out of all recognition. Seven years on it’s much easier to see their faults, and much less painful to chop them.

Next I have to remove all the formatting. Once the text is clean I can then apply instructions to convert them into ebook formatting. I want the books to be compatible with different e-readers so I bear that in mind with the choice of fonts and layouts. But it’s not like using Word; you can’t just click on the toolbars. Things like chapter numbers, special layouts, and first lines all need their own set of instructions. Reminds me of the olden days with mainframe computers. Chug, chug, chug. But I’m soon creating customised styles with gay abandon. And surprise, surprise, really enjoying myself. Much, much less stressful than relying on others to do it instead. When they can find time. If.

So far so good. On to the rather more tedious but necessary end-pages stuff. Because I still want to acknowledge the lovely people who made it all possible in the first place. And I do want folk to use the material on my website to augment the books. And to know what else I’ve written.

Ahhahh! An unexpected bonus. I now have a chance to change those unattractive covers. I decide for the purposes of continuity, though, to stick with the picture part in the first editions, and simply clean up the text. Lots of the titles on my Kindle don’t have covers at all, but they do feel rather like books that’ve been mangled by some literary philistine.

Book covers

And here I had a special moment because I saw all six books lined up side by side for the very first time. Sad I know, but it gave me quite a thrill.

So, are we ready to roll? With DJ’s help I go to Smashwords and … hmm, much of this next bit of the process remains a mystery to me but thanks to his know-how and patience we have together created my very first ebook! Vacant Possession. The other two should follow in the next couple of days. And all be available to anyone next week.

I’m feeling quite shell shocked. It actually worked. I am a new age author!

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Super Thursday

Have you heard of Super Thursday? Nor me. A least I hadn’t until this week.

This year Super Thursday fell on September 29th. And on that day a raft of books were launched onto a unsuspecting public, books that the publishers (and authors) hope will become Christmas bestsellers. Titles by folk like Robert Harris, Joanna Lumley, Alan Sugar, Lee Child. Hmm. Three months early. But apparently these contenders need to build up a head of steam, and be seen in bookshops, on coffee tables, on trains and planes, etc. ‘Seep into the public consciousness.’ Seep, not zoom, because if they fly off the shelves too quickly the book’s in danger of dying prematurely. Riiight.

Anyway on Super Thursday this year, more than 225 books were published. And more big names are on the way in the next few weeks, to stagger the impact. Again a fair smattering of famous faces from the small screen rather than literary giants.  Jeremy Paxman, Rob Brydon alongside Claire Tomalin. You can find the whole list at the link above. What does that say about people and Christmas, eh? Hey ho.

No prizes for guessing that my new novel is not among them. But then McHaffie is not a household name – in case it had slipped your busy notice. I do not appear in quiz games or political rallies. I do not grace the front pages of the glossies or make a double page splurge in Saga magazine. Yet.

However, Saving Sebastian is scheduled for January, when I hope lots of people have Christmas-gift vouchers and money to splurge out on lesser known authors. Hey, come on! A girl can dream, can’t she?

But I’m not just dreaming. I’m actually being diligently proactive at the moment. What am I up to? I’m converting my back-list into ebooks. Yep, really, truly, I am. And having a lot of pleasure in the process. It feels good. At last I’m taking back some kind of control over my novels. But I’m anxious to get them right – I hate muddled formatting and missing capitals and all the other errors that creep in when conversion isn’t done efficiently. So there’s a lot of browsing through how-to texts and consulting experts and editing and generally pfaffing about going on. It’s almost as compulsive as writing the books in the first place.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Kindle conversion

I feel like a kid at Christmas-time!

OK, I know. I admit it. I’ve been living in the dark ages as far as electronic books are concerned.  Positively antediluvian, in fact.

Shocking to think that it’s 30 years since Michael Hart dreamed up Project Gutenberg, at the time a seemingly eccentric and idealistic scheme to copy the texts of tens of thousands of books into electronic form and distribute them freely. A scheme which spearheaded the ebook revolution. And I’m only now catching on to it. OK, I’m hanging my head in shame.

But since Hart died this month perhaps this blog can serve as a tribute as well as a confession. My very resistance to ‘his’ technology means I  owe him space and respect today at the very least.

It all started in 1971 – before Microsoft, before PCs. Indeed, when Hart had a vision of a world ‘where you can walk into a public library and get 90 percent of the information you need copied on a disk that you don’t have to return’, computers were vast machines with huge tapes attended by men in white lab coats. I remember them well! My first university post required me to use those cumbersome appliances.

This was in the days prior to scanning machines too. Hart spent twenty years in obscurity laboriously typing away by hand. He copied 313 books (vast tomes like the works of Shakespeare, the Bible, the American Constitution included). He met with both ridicule and scepticism. But as all things electronic changed, his scheme gathered momentum and credibility, others latched onto his coat-tails, and this year Project Gutenberg boasts more than 36,000 items in its collection, written in 60 different languages, with an average of 50 new ebooks being added each week. Mind blowing, eh?My bookshelvesSo who was I to be so sceptical? Oh but I do so love ‘real’ books – the ones you hold in your hand, and recognise from their covers, and collect on your shelves. Their smell, their heft, their feel. The way they change with use and loving. Everything about them really.

And my prejudice has been stoked by the twin threats of diminishing royalties and piracy which hover over writers and publishers who venture down the electronic route. Not to mention the ongoing challenge of ever-changing technology.

But I do try not to be a troglodyte. Honestly, I do. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, I’ve come to grudgingly recognise the inducements of ebook publishing. Indeed I’m seriously considering it for myself. Hang it, I even went to an all-day conference on the subject run by the Society of Authors in Scotland on Saturday! And I’ve just discovered Lin Anderson’s blog devoted to it. Wahey! Positively steaming into the 21st century!

And of course, I do see the potential advantages of dozens of books accompanying me on my travels without risking a huge airport baggage charge or a complete spinal breakdown.

Anyway, back to my story … one day at a family gathering recently, I rashly admitted that I was thinking of investing in a Kindle … maybe … some day … soonish perhaps. Ears pricked. Eyes brightened. Number One Son (who’s a big fan) grabbed the iron while it was about 90 degrees and said he’d buy me one for my birthday and Christmas gift.

Wowwa. Steady on. I need to be sure … It’d be a waste of good money if …

Quick as a flash he boomerangs back: Borrow mine to see how you get on.

My aging brain couldn’t think of a single reason why not … unless … surely, he’d be bereft without it?

A KindleNext thing I know I’m sitting here with a Kindle in my hands. And I’m shamefacedly clawing back all my reservations and provisos and caveats. Absolutely loving the experience.

Fair does, my son did give the experiment a sporting chance – he downloaded two books high on my wish-list into the machine: Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult which is about surrogate pregnancy, and Annabel by Kathleen Winter which centres around a kiddie with ambiguous gender issues. Very much my bag. But even so. I expected a less than enjoyable experience. Instead I’ve been forced to eat a giant slice of humble pie and furthermore, I’ve become an actively zealous new convert.

I love that the text is so clear. I love the way that the page is always totally flat, no twisting to see the inside margins or fearing breaking the spine. And the compactness that slips in a bag or pocket so easily. And the automatic switch off if you’re inactive for any length of time. No worries about weight or damage or … well, anything.

Just so that I don’t forget my first impressions, however, I should note a couple of minor quibbles. It’s not so easy to check where the next break in text comes, just to see if I’ve got time to finish this section before my bus is due; you can’t just stick a finger in and flick real pages. There’s no back cover to give you a hook into the story, either. Or lovely appealing covers like these hard copy versions. And I’m not sure how you’d go about referencing a quote when the page numbers aren’t shown. But, like I say, small fry stuff in the big scheme of things.

So I’m a reformed character. Secretly I’m chanting, Roll on my birthday next month! And my next holiday in the sun. Let me see, just how many books will I take?

Yes, I salute you, Michael Hart.

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