Hazel McHaffie

Harper Lee

Collective nouns and other pithy sayings

One of my favourite moments in the writing process is seeing the finished cover. That’s when all the hard work crystallises into a tangible reality. This week I’ve been poring over possible designs for Listen, and I believe we’re a whisker away from the final choice. Wahey!

Alongside that, lots of reading, plotting and jotting going on, none of which would interest you, so I’m going to share another line of thought with you. The cleverness of words.

Do you, like me, love a pithy saying?

I was in a cavernous building full of antiques just after socialite and model, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson died last week, and her editor/ghostwriter was speaking on the radio. Tara, she said, had ‘a casual relationship with deadlines‘ – so much so that she, the editor, ended up ghost writing much of the material that went out in Tara’s name. ‘A casual relationship with deadlines’ – wish I’d coined that phrase myself! Reminded me of the more famous Douglas Adams quote: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’

A few other wise adages or pertinent thoughts that have resonated with me this week:

Living with him made his eccentricities curdle into pathologies.Matthew Thomas

No-one knows what is going to sell. Not really. So you might as well write the book you want to write, not the book the publishers think the market will want in two years’ time.Francesca Simon

The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.’
Robert Benchley

The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt.Sylvia Plath

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.Harper Lee

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.’ Virginia Woolf

We’ve been hearing a lot this month about flocks of starlings and their spectacular aerial displays – collective noun: a murmuration. Others that resonate with me and seem particularly apt are

a shrewdness of apes

a sleuth of bears

a bask of crocodiles

a flamboyance of flamingoes

an exhaltation of larks

a pandemonium of parrots

an ostentation of peacocks.

The editor of the writerly journal, The Author, obviously enjoys such clever expression:

What’s the best collective noun for authors? A diversity? An advance? A recalcitrance?James McConnachie

OK, break over; back to the reading …

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Editing editing editing … and more editing

To Kill a MockingbirdIn all the recent hype about Harper Lee‘s second (or was it actually her first?) novel, Go Set a Watchman, one issue keeps recurring: who was really the inspiration behind the bestselling To Kill a Mocking Bird? Was its success down to her editor? Or was it in fact her own genius?

I’m particularly sensitive to the influences which shape novels at the moment. Comments from my own raft of experts are flooding back to me about my own latest story and the book is changing daily as a result – plot strands are being recreated, dialogue changing subtly, language and emphasis reflecting new thinking, characters adopting new habits and voices. Is it any less my baby? I don’t think so. Other people shine a light on areas which don’t quite work for them; the author decides how to respond to those comments.

I ask everyone to be brutally honest at this stage; that after all is the whole point of the exercise. And believe me, it can be daunting – even traumatic – to have masses of red pen highlighting potential flaws, but I’m hugely grateful for all this input. Yes, it represents a lot of extra work now, but the end result should be a richer, tighter, more authentic and plausible story. I take comfort from the comment by Ian Rankin recently that even after decades writing and countless bestsellers under his belt, his editor sent back a draft requiring him to go back to the drawing board and re-write it. Which he did.

Hey, enough of this reflection … head down. Every character must be revisited, every narrative thread tugged tight and re-tied, every page of dialogue re-analysed. Right now I’m inside the head of a teenager with an eating disorder who’s searching for her lost father. Not a comfortable place to be. It takes me a while each day to re-enter the real world so approach with caution if you try to speak to me during writing hours. Writing hours? That’s pretty much any hour these days!

Harper Lee maintained a dignified silence in the face of huge public criticism; she has remained an intriguing enigma. Sounds like a good idea to me!

 

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Literary pearls

This week’s dramatic announcement that Harper Lee’s second novel is about to be published more than 50 years after her runaway success,To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird, has given me renewed hope. It really really doesn’t matter that my own timetable has been derailed by illness. I should simply relax and enjoy this ‘sabbatical’ (four months so far and counting).

One notable bonus is that it has given me space to read a more than usually wide range of books – when the physical body is reduced to sleeping/resting for a considerable portion of the day, it helps psychologically to let the mind soar free. And I’ve been struck by the sheer magnificence of other writers’ writing. I mean, who wouldn’t stand in awe of Harper Lee’s delicious child’s-eye view of the eccentric and prejudiced Deep South of the 60s? And listen to her description of the heat in the tired old town of Maycomb:

‘… bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.’

Or the narrator’s formidable aunt:

‘To all parties present and participating in the life of the country, Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn. She would never let a chance escape her to point out the shortcomings of other tribal groups to the greater glory of her own …’

So this week I thought I’d share some other pearls discovered in my mental travels. In no particular order …

A pithy but graphic summary of an illness:

‘Thinness remains the god of glamour, the god of control, popularity and success. Thinness trips along on her finest stilettos with her bone hips exposed through layers of fabric, waving her stick arms and calling like the Pied Piper for new children to follow. Sadly they do. But this is a false god. This is a god that draws to the grave. Thinness laughs as her new charges refuse their food, spit out, vomit in secret and spin in front of mirrors to look at backs where a bony spine chatters, still exclaiming that they are so fat.’  (Ruth Joseph in Remembering Judith)

Books on my Shelves-2A vivid metaphor:

‘Mamie’s old people’s home is something else. I wonder how much it costs a month, a luxury home like this? Mamie’s room is big and light, with lovely furniture and lovely curtains, a little adjoining living room and a bathroom with a marble bathtub, as if Mamie could care less that her tub is marble when her fingers are concrete … Besides, marble is ugly.’   (Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

A useful perspective for a writer:

‘To relax my mind I remember the following:

First, I am not the centre of the universe. What a load that takes off!

Two, I do not need to write the piece that ends all pieces. It does not exist.

Three, life is meant to be enjoyed.’

(Dahlia Fraser in ‘How I Keep Going’ for Mslexia Winter 2014/15)

Books on my Shelves 3A wonderfully evocative report of a real life event:

‘It is now five and a quarter years since Sir John Chilcot began his inquiry into the Iraq war. Yesterday I spent what felt like five and a quarter years listening to him talk about it. On and on his answers – for want of a better word – drifted. You could practically hear the seasons changing outside …

Into the committee room he shuffled, wearing the patient, slow-blinking frown of an elderly tortoise …

I don’t wish to suggest that Sir John is inarticulate. He is, if anything, too articulate. Ask him a question that demands a simple yes or no and you will receive, in their stead, a grand unfurling of impeccably constructed verbiage. He speaks funnily enough, in the language of an official report: clauses as long as sentences, sentences as long as paragraphs, paragraphs as long as pages, now and then slipping seamlessly into a footnote and then seamlessly out again.’    (Michael Duncan writing in ‘Seven minutes to say hello’ for the Telegraph, 5 February 2015 )

A  wise but humorous observation:

‘Unpunctuality is the impoliteness of policemen.’  (Ruth Rendell in Not in the Flesh)

An unusual description:

‘… one of those houses – or its living room was – which are furnished with most of the necessaries of life, things to sit on and sit at, things to look at and listen to, to supply warmth or keep out cold, insulate the walls and cover the floors, but with nothing to refresh the spirit or gladden the heart, compel the eye or turn the soul’s eye towards the light. The predominant colour was beige. There was a calendar (Industry in Twenty-First Century UK) but no pictures on the walls, no books, not even a magazine, a small pale blue cactus in a beige pot but no flowers or other plants, no cushions on the bleak wooden-armed chairs and settee, a beige carpet but no rugs. The only clock was the digital kind with large, very bright green, quivering figures.’    (Ruth Rendell in Not in the Flesh)

Books on my Shelves-1What a fabulous thing the human mind is that it can conjure such eloquence out of a mere 26 letters. And how fortunate am I to have a roomful of books stacked floor to ceiling to keep me engrossed no matter how long I have to spend indisposed. Who knows, maybe by the time my heart is functioning normally again my bookshelves will be empty! Although I must confess I struggle to send books I’ve loved and admired to the charity shop.

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