Hazel McHaffie

Goodreads

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the writer’s besetting sin. Every book is flawed or even failed copy of the ideal book that existed in your mind before you began. And every book is, at some level, a correction of the one that went before.‘ So goes the editorial in the Spring edition of The Author.

How true. I used to have a sticker on my computer that said, ‘Perfection is always one more draft away‘, but I took it down in the end because … well, you know me!  Mrs An-inch-away-from-obsessive. I’d have been putting off publication date ad infinitum. In the end ‘good enough’ has to do, or the jolly old title will never see the light of day.

Over my Dead BodyBut I think it’s this abiding awareness of imperfection that’s partly what makes it such a joy to go out to meet real live folk who’ve read the books and love them, to listen to their comments and generous commendation. They come to the stories without all my baggage and yet they enter into the lives of the characters and talk about them as if they too know them personally. All very confirming.

I’ve been doing quite a lot of author appearances since Over my Dead Body came out, and people are so kind. So thank you, librarians, event organisers, audiences, readers – keep up the good work. We writers need you, just as you need us. And never underestimate the value of your feedback. If for any reason you can’t get to an event to speak to us face to face, pop a comment on our websites, or post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. We love to hear from you.

OK, my mind might have been wandering down the track of never being quite good enough, but that’s made me more aware of other kinds of perfection in our amazing world:SwanPoppySpider's webWe can’t go out and photograph the human brain but how amazingly crafted it is to be capable of conjuring up fictitious scenes and people so vividly that other brains can picture them and feel their emotions merely through black squiggles on white paper. Imagine that! I am lost in wonder.

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Publication day!

Well, here it is folks! Over My Dead Body – the finished article.

New books! The printer, Bell & Bain in Glasgow has done us proud, delivering the books on time and looking splendid, don’t you think?

Bell & Bain vanAll those of you who’ve followed/shared my agonising through this first experience of self publishing can now relax. It’s all come together. The experts we’ve consulted or bought in have been terrific, and we’ve forged some healthy bonds along the way. So far, no regrets.

There is now the small matter of promotion and marketing. And that’s where you can join in. If you read the book, do post a comment on Amazon or Goodreads – no need for flannel; honesty counts. But if you didn’t like something, please explain why. The more comments the better.

But most importantly, enjoy the book yourself. (Click here for details. Or order it through your library, of course.)

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A few statistics to conjure with

Out and about with the granddaughters this week, we’ve learned a lot of fascinating statistics about owls, debunking a fair few urban myths along the way. (Did you know that The Scottish Owl Centre houses one of the largest collection of owls in the world? Yep – fact not fantasy. Everything from the huge Siberian Eagle Owl to the dinkiest Scops Owl – 40 species, 100 birds.) Anyway, contrary to popular conception, owls are not wise, which makes them a fitting symbol for what I want to say in this blog.OwlLast week the following email appeared in my Inbox: ‘On behalf of the Goodreads team, I want to say thank you. You’re in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads! Your many thoughtful book reviews help make us a vibrant place for book lovers.’

Wow! Goodreads is ‘the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations!’ – by it’s own description anyway, so I indulged in a little warm glow. Top 1%, huh? Not to be sniffed at. But then I discovered that they’ve just announced that they ‘now have 20 million members, up from 10 million members just eleven months ago.

OK, do the maths, and I’m one of 200,000 top reviewers. Hmmm. Not that impressive, eh? Especially not since reading is part of my job. But I find their site really useful for keeping tabs on what I’ve read, when, and what I thought of each book. So thanks, Goodreads, for a very useful facility.

You might remember I was toying with two topics for my next book: anorexia or abortion. Well, I decided the next step might be to see how many other novelists have written in this area – suss out the competition. Assess where the biggest gap is.

Type ‘novels including anorexia‘ into Google and up come 52 titles through just Goodreads and Amazon. With a footnote saying ‘218 best eating disorder books’ which presumably means non-fiction. Do the same thing for abortion, and 27 come up. Hmm. Not what I was expecting. Of course, it could all be to do with shelving, the blurb available, keywords, that kind of thing. I’m sure more will surface once I start reading. And I quickly discovered that a large proportion of the eating disorder ones are teen fiction.

By reading synopses and reviews of them all, I’ve whittled it down to a dozen must-reads on abortion and probably 29 on anorexia. Looks like I’m in for the long haul, anyway. Watch out for an onslaught of reviews, Goodreads!

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The plot thickens

Did you see the news a couple of weeks ago (11 April) about a three-year-old boy who has successfully survived a heart transplant after being kept alive artificially on a Berlin heart machine for 251 days – longer than any other child in Britain? Shortly after he was born, Joe Skerratt was diagnosed with cardiac myopathy – an enlarged and weakened heart. Initially he was treated with medication but when he deteriorated he needed the machine to take over the work of his failing heart. Amazing stuff.

These days my ears prick up as soon as I hear the words ‘transplant’ or ‘organ donation’. And as you know I’m ploughing through a stack of novels that include the subject in some guise or other. Time perhaps to bring you up to date with where I’m at with them, lest you start to suspect this blog is a smokescreen and I’m actually idling on some Caribbean beach. But first a caveat: some of the titles I’m going to mention I really really don’t recommend. I ploughed through them because I need to suss out the potential competition, but you can be more discriminating. (For a sense of my personal assessment shoot across to my Goodreads ratings and reviews.)

I’ve read all except four now and they seem to fall into three categories.

1. There are those that focus on families grappling with tragic circumstances and the impact of organ donation. (eg. Somewhere between Life and Death; One Perfect Day; In a Heartbeat; Stealing Kevin’s Heart; While my Sister Sleeps; Breath; The Household Guide to Dying.) Additional angles are used to provide a narrative thread – the recipients taking on the characteristics of the donor (cellular memory), or families searching for the donor’s identity for various reasons, or unexpected links between the two families. A number of these are geared towards young adults and tend to rather labour the importance of organ donation. And there’s a heavy religious agenda in some of the American ones.

2. Then there are the sci-fi novels, the futuristic and satirical takes on the issue. (eg. Never Let me Go; Heart Seizure; Little Boy Pig; The Samaritan; My Body, My Ashes.) The creation of ‘monsters’ comes into this group. The way-out and highly improbable. Unscrupulous scientists and doctors pushing the boundaries beyond what is ethical. Or mad chases against time and the odds.

3. And thirdly there are the mysteries and thrillers. (eg. Damaged; Blood Work; Coma; Dead Tomorrow; The Midwife’s Confession; Change of Heart.) Individuals and teams conspiring to obtain tissue or organs or indeed whole bodies for personal gain. Apparently this is a live issue in the USA.

I confess I got rather bored with so many books about a single subject. There isn’t much new to excite me in the facts and issues themselves. So the yawn-factor could well be distorting my perspective and judgement. However, analysing the stories is helping me to hone my own novel on this subject.

The first draft of (working title) Over my Dead Body consists of a plausible story centred around a relatively commonplace road traffic accident. But my reading has confirmed a hunch that it needs a second more compelling thread to keep the pages turning. So where do I go from here?

Introduce an element of sci-fi? Nope. Not my bag. Sci-fi can be technically fascinating, and I can admire the brains that project themselves into futuristic possibilities and challenge their readers to ask: Is this a world I would want to see or be part of? I too want to provoke thought and debate, but my personal preference is for the scenarios to be based more on today’s reality.

OK. A thriller then? Well, of all the books I’m most enjoying the medical thrillers with believable insights into the emotions and driving forces of those people caught up in the business of saving lives using transplanted organs. But I’m not sure I have what it takes to sustain this kind of pace, nor whether it would fit with my objectives.

Conclusion? I’m experimenting with an element of mystery and intrigue; weaving in a second more taut storyline of a dark secret that unravels gradually. I’m cautiously optimistic right at this moment but it could all change. It might not work. Or perhaps those last four books will revolutionise my thinking! Watch this space.

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A Lifetime Burning

January was a cracker of a month as far as books were concerned for me this year. And in their different ways they’ve contributed greatly to my own writing (a novel about organ donation) which has taken off again now that other deadlines have been met. The one I want to tell you about this week has given me the courage to take risks. It breaks all sorts of ‘rules’ about writing but nonetheless – or is it as a result? – garners praise.

It’s thanks to bloggers Stuck-in-a-Book and Cornflower that I heard about  A Lifetime BurningA Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard in the first place. Then the blurb about it took me hotfoot to Amazon to buy it.

‘Flora Dunbar is dead. But it isn’t over.

The spectre at Flora’s funeral is Flora herself, unobserved by her grieving family and the four men who loved her. Looking back over a turbulent lifetime, Flora recalls an eccentric childhood lived in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a handsome clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brought her Theo, the son she couldn’t love; middle age, when she finally found brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin…’

The Kindle version was only 88p! Positively scandalous for a novel as good as this one.

The prologue is narrated by Flora, a tortured soul, reflecting on her life after her death. There’s no carefully paced introduction of each new character to avoid confusion; the entire cast are there in one fell swoop – at Flora’s funeral.  And the author even gives away key elements of the coming plot right at the outset. You are left in no doubt: this is going to be an uncomfortable read.

‘Theodora Dunbar, matriarch, known always as Dora, is ninety-three. Only my mother could manage to look commanding in a wheelchair … Dora’s wheelchair is manoeuvred by one of her grandsons, Colin. My ex-lover. My nephew. My brother Rory’s son – like Rory, but much darker …

Theo. My son. At thirty-four, a few months older than Colin, taller, fairer, finer-featured and always said to favour me. Everyone agreed Theo’s Apollonian good looks owed little to Hugh. Theo is a Dunbar through and through …

My niece Charlotte is not present. She is on the other side of the globe, the distance she thought necessary to put between herself and my son …

Grace hated me. I can’t say I blamed her. She had good reason. Several, in fact. But if you asked my gracious sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, relieved him of the burden of his virginity, chewed him up and spat him out on the admittedly sizeable scrap-heap marked ‘Flora’s ex-lovers’. That’s what Grace would say. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory.’

But far from stealing the coming thunder prematurely, this tantalising glimpse into a complex family structure where nothing is as it seems, and where powerful emotions and talents lead to complicated and unlawful liaisons, serves as an irresistible promise of the haunting and disturbing story to come. And the book certainly lives up to that promise.

It’s well written as well as cleverly constructed. Flora’s posthumous revelations interwoven with third person narrative keep the story spinning along. The setting spans six decades – from the 1940s to 2000, and the story dots backwards and forwards in time. Initially I found this disconcerting. You’re just getting involved with the twins as children when the fifty-eight year old Flora interrupts. You’re sympathising with Dora’s struggles with her toddler twins when the scene flashes forwards a generation to her daughter’s confused feelings for her son. But once you get to know the characters, you start to appreciate how effectively and subtly the author is steering you towards an understanding of the ‘why’, as well as the ‘how’, of the Dunbar family shenanigans. This has to be a fiendishly difficult kind of writing to pull off successfully; in the case of A Lifetime Burning it’s a brilliant accomplishment.

The Dunbar characters are fully rounded, fallible, and utterly believable. They’re often objectionable and their behaviour leaves you torn between all sorts of emotions – incredulity, acceptance, revulsion, pity, sympathy, dismay, admiration, disgust. At once gripping and disturbing. And the title is perfect (shame it’s been used by several other authors though).

Gillard weaves apparently effortlessly between a wide range of subjects too – music, literature, Shakespeare, gardening, acting, horticulture, wildlife. A master of each.

To date the book’s got 28 comments on Amazon all with a 5 star rating! I too am lost in admiration of this writer’s skill. I’ve downloaded two more of her novels but am loathe to start reading them just yet in case they don’t reach this incredibly high standard. Could they?

And there’s a wee postscript … I reviewed this book on Goodreads this week and to my delight the author herself saw it and contacted me, so we’ve now established several links and I was able to tell her that this post was coming. An unexpected bonus. I should post more reviews obviously.

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Current writing

I’m using this time waiting for the next two manuscripts to metamorphose into books to catch up on reading and to plot my next novel on organ/tissue donation and retention. Lots of thorny issues there.

It’s been a good week for reading this week; I’ve had two whole days travelling. Eighteen uninterrupted hours. In the Quiet Zone of the train – where else? Not so much as a squeak from a mobile phone. If you’re interested in what I’m reading why not join the loyal band of ‘friends’ who exchange reviews and chat about what they’re reading on the goodreads website.

Plotting, now that’s a more sensitive activity and details of what I’m thinking about my new characters remain a secret known only to me at the moment. As Ted Hughes once said, ‘If I talk about anything I’m writing, that’s the end. I can’t write any more … All the steam goes out of it.’ It occurred to me today as the train hurtled northwards and I read about the experiences of families facing organ donation that in the event of a major train crash my ideas might die with me but my organs live on. Hmmm.

I don’t always share the experiences of famous authors but I was gratified to read a quote by Alexander McCall Smith a few weeks ago in The Daily Telegraph. He said that any fiction-writer will tell you that an author doesn’t need to tell his characters what to do or say. Not the view of Mann-Booker winner, John Banville, who I heard scoff at this ‘amateurish’ idea at the Edinburgh Book Festival the year he won the big prize and thought he was unassailable. But it’s my experience. When I just take dictation, that’s when I know the characters are real. They’ve got their birth certificates; they’re telling their own story. I’m not at that stage yet with the next book, but watch this space.

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