Hazel McHaffie

Ian Rankin

A lifelong apprenticeship

Wow! I’ve had quite a jolt.

Picture if you will …

… the Canary Islands: brilliant sunshine, millions of years of volcanic activity, vibrant flora, a whistling language, an excellent health service but serious economic struggles …

Fascinating and a real get-away-from-it-all break. But, in the back of my mind, lurks the thought that I have an author appearance shortly after I get back to the UK. Hmm. Best tactic? Jot down a few ideas in idle moments, on the train/plane/ferry, let the topic (‘Well-being’) simmer on the old back burner, but concentrate on the Canarian experience.

Overall strategy? Take the audience up to the bedside of some of my characters, let them listen to the conversations, enter into the minds, of people who are facing challenging, even tragic, choices. Give them a chance to consider the different options themselves. Maybe ruffle their sense of well-being a tiny tad …?

Saving SebastianHow would you feel having a four-year-old dying in front of you, I wonder? Would you agree to create another baby specifically to try to save his life, knowing that many perfectly healthy embryos will probably be destroyed in the process, that this new child might have the same fatal blood disorder too, that it might all be in vain?

How would you react to being told you have a terrible degenerative disease which will certainly destroy your body inch by inch, killing you before you reach your 42nd birthday, your brain fully aware of every ghastly step?

You get the idea.

It’s a long time since I wrote – or indeed read – my earliest books, so I quickly realise I need a crash course on McHaffie’s medical ethical novels. Happily I have several on my Kindle, so I immediately start to update myself. And that’s when I make a sobering discovery. I want to edit them! Hey, why did I write this that way?! But of course, I can’t change it; not now they’re published. Any more than I could change the experience I had of Tenerife, or La Palma, or La Gomera, once the ferry drew away from each in turn.

Why should that surprise me?  It shouldn’t. I’ve moved on, honed certain skills, developed my craft, progressed – hopefully! As Ian Rankin once said; the reason we keep writing is, we’re always trying to improve, to write the perfect story. It’s a lifetime’s apprenticeship.

And each time I embark on a new book, the older ones recede in my mind, much as the islands become hazy and less defined as the ferry powers off across the Atlantic.

New horizons beckon. I’m already scanning the ocean for new excitement, noticing the changes in colour and swell, watching the other passengers, wondering about their lives … scavenging new ideas, creating new connections, forging a new pathway in this fathomless deep that is our world/imagination.

So, it’s been a salutary experience, re-visiting my own earlier novels. I’ve had to forgive myself for the failures and infelicities of the past, cling on to the better aspects, and extract useful messages that might provoke discussion and pique interest when I’m in that other life, in that Scottish library, talking to an audience about ‘Well-being’ and the writing life.

OK, next step? Inject some humour! Don’t want them leaving in tears, never wanting to go to a library again, do we?! And there’s planty to amuse in my books … a fabulous train conductor on the Aberdeen-Penzance Cross-Country run; a minister with holey/holy socks and an all-embracing love; a lab technician who quotes Oscar Wilde to excellent effect … I’m sure they’ll come to my aid. But first, let’s savour every experience these amazing islands have to offer. No need for regret on that score.

 

 

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First lines

What is it that makes us pick up a book and then buy/borrow it? The author’s name? Title? Cover? Back cover blurb? A combination, maybe?

What makes us open the book and having started, keep reading? First line? First page? First chapter?

Books 1Well, last week I told you about Ian Rankin releasing the first line of his new novel. I doubt very much if that will ever become an oft-quoted introduction, but it led me to thinking about famous first lines and what it is that makes them memorable. Ones that spring instantly to mind are …

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, 1984)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)

Marley was dead, to begin with. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

But I rather think that some of these have acquired legendary status, not just for their literary merit, but because they evoke fond memories of classic favourites.

There are other first lines, less well known, that instantly grabbed my attention and made me want to read on to see what the book was all about. If this author could write a few words this well, I’d be happy to commit a day or two/a week or two to finding out what he/she has to tell me.Books 2

It was the day my grandmother exploded. (Iain M Banks, The Crow Road)
Not an everyday occurrence, grandmothers exploding, so intriguing. How? Why? Where? When? What happened next?

The scent of slaughter, some believe, can linger in a place for years. (Nicholas Evans, The Loop)
Who’s been slaughtered? Who’s smelling their deaths today? Is it true?

I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story. (John Grisham, The Racketeer)
A story I want to hear. Why? What’s he done? How will he be treated? Is he guilty?

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this is a second conception. (James Bradley, The Resurrectionist)
Makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it? Who are these people condemned to such a death?

Books 3When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. (Harlan Coben, No Second Chance)
Was there a second one? Who was shooting him? Why was it his daughter who sprang to mind?

The clothes of the dead won’t wear long. (Barbara Vine, The Brimstone Wedding)
There is so much wrapped up in this thought that transcends this one story, but I want to know what happened to make it an apposite statement.

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. (Sarah Waters, Fingersmith)
So, why has it changed? What happened when she was Susan Trinder? What has transpired since?

I’m now thinking hard about my own first line. To date I’ve tended to concentrate more on getting the first page gripping. That introductory bit is so important; if you haven’t hooked your reader from the outset, he/she’s probably not going to bother to read on. I’ve actually often written the beginning last, spent ages refining it, for that very reason. I’ve sometimes even added a prologue to bring all the key intriguing elements to the fore and make the reader want to know how everything was resolved.

But first line? That’s a different level of demand. Fascinating to ponder.

 

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Sleeplessness and productivity

Moving mighty wardrobes …Wardrobes

… craning the neck to mitre corners on ceilings …Mitred corners

… up and down stairs with forty years worth of accumulated detritus possessions … none of these things are kind to muscles and joints already suffering wear and tear and the ravages of arthritis. So small wonder that sleep has been rather elusive during the latest stages of big renovations chez nous.

But hey ho! the old brain is safely protected in its rigid bony cage, and it’s been busily plotting the next book (well, two actually if you count the children’s annual Christmas production) in the darkness of long nights of wakefulness.

The scenes are vivid: a young woman wandering up and down the aisles of the chemists shop, reading labels and safety warnings … back at home titrating doses … cradling baby as he gulps down the milk … watching him sink deeper and deeper into unconsciousness … removing all traces …

Lying there with the video scrolling in my head, it’s so real and the sense of dread so acute, aches and pains simply vanish. And as soon as it’s a decent hour, I’m up committing the scenarios to the computer. OK, I may be knackered by the evening but I’m fired up on the adrenaline – progress with the house AND the books! Silver linings and all that jazz.

But hang on a minute …

Lying in bed: constructs perfect plot

Standing in shower: constructs perfect characters

Hanging out washing: constructs perfect setting

Sitting in front of screen: where did perfection go?!

Hey ho! Perfection is dozens of drafts away.

I’ve been toying with the idea of releasing some tempting little titbits closer to publication to whet the appetite. So I was intrigued to learn that Ian Rankin (or his publisher more likely) has just revealed the first line of his new Rebus novel – his 21st publication – Rather be the Devil, due out on 3rd November.

Rebus placed his knife and fork on the empty plate, then leaned back in his chair, studying the other diners in the restaurant.
‘Someone was murdered here, you know,’ he announced.

Would this tempt you to buy the book?

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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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Stocktaking

As one year ends and an unknown year opens up in front of us, it’s a good time to take stock, isn’t it? But it’s all too easy to get things out of perspective.

SadNow, you (probably) and I (definitely) both know that self doubt and angst are a recognised occupational hazard for writers – well, accumulated humiliations and rejections of various kinds, and multiple petty blows to the ego, don’t exactly put one in the party spirit, do they? So it maybe won’t come as any surprise to you when I confess that I was feeling rather despondent recently about the constant struggle to achieve sales targets and get the latest book noticed.

Bucked upBut then I found Melissa Benn‘s article: Survival of the fittest, in Mslexia. What a tonic. She knows personally all about the agonies of tiny queues for signings, poor reviews, miniscule audiences, patronising jibes, totally negative feedback, being ignored by the marketing department, the demise of the mid-list author, diminishment … her list is pretty exhaustive. Merely seeing these negative experiences acknowledged as commonplace takes some of the sting out of them. And her encouraging tips on how to survive were balm to my soul. As she says: ‘the most significant difference between a writer and a would-be-writer is simple bloody-minded persistence.’ Persistence? Yep, that I can do.

ChastenedI was also chastened. I haven’t actually suffered any public abuse or vitriol such as some of the authors she quotes have endured (not yet at any rate!) so I’m instantly berating myself for allowing lesser things to bring my spirits low. I have no right or cause to wallow in self pity. Shoulders back, head high, woman!

And then there was an interview with crimewriter, Ian Rankin. He’s in his early 50s, lives in Edinburgh, and has sold over 20 million books. He’s a success. He’s a rich man. Readers queue twice around the block to hear him speak or get his signature. Our paths cross occasionally but he’s in a completely different league from me. He certainly wouldn’t recognise me if we met in the street, I’m sure. However, it took him a good 14 years before ‘money became a happy factor‘ in his writing career. And behind his present fame and fortune lies private tragedy. He says he’d give all the money he has so that his second son, Kit, didn’t have the severe disability he has (Angelman Syndrome).

HopefulThis little story puts my anxieties about book-related issues into a much healthier context. Do sales figures really matter in the bigger scheme of things?  Does anyone suffer because I overlooked a typo? Who benefits if I lose sleep anticipating possible criticism or a vanishing audience? I recall Alison Baverstock saying, think in terms of gaining one reader at a time and appreciate each book sold, rather than feeling crushed by grandiose expectations. By now my mental shake is having an effect.

Sanguine againAnd then some lovely people booked me for various author appearances. Thank you, guys! Flagging morale significantly boosted. See, it doesn’t take much to reverse the trend.

Besides, it being a new year, I’ve resolved not to try not to get myself ridiculously overloaded with busyness, anyway. As Ruby Wax (who, don’t you know, holds an MA in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford and knows a thing or two about mental health) said in an end of December interview for the Telegraph on the secret to a happy new year: ‘happiness is not a shiny 2014 diary already clogged with meetings, phone catch-ups and must-do errands‘: we’re happier when we’re calmer and taking life steadier. That’s a pretty good idea to hang onto as we launch into a new year, I reckon. Me more than most.

So here’s to 2014 … and more peace and giving and understanding and loving in the world. I hope it’s a terrific year for you: healthy, happy, productive and contented.

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Enterprise writ large

I’m always intrigued by initiatives that create unusual opportunities. And impressed by people who have the vision to see the opportunities in the first place. Two experiences this week warmed the cockles of my heart – whatever cockles are …?

On Saturday I was visiting the Pitlochry area – spectacularly beautiful scenery, as you can see. (SORRY the images in this post were mistakenly deleted and I don’t now have the originals.) And it was there that a secondhand book shop caught my fancy – on the railway station! How cunning is that for an idea? A lovely warm haven from the snell winds that whistle through these open stations. And what an Aladdin’s cave it proved to be with the books all carefully and methodically shelved, and a welcoming cosiness that just enveloped you from the outset. You really wouldn’t care how late the train was here – indeed you’d more likely be so absorbed you’d miss it! On this occasion I had the advantage of visiting in the car, so no problem lugging away my purchases, because of course, I had to support such a brilliant enterprise generously, didn’t I? Anyone got a shoehorn to lever this latest batch of books into my book shelves?

The second notable experience started on Monday with a request for a book review. It came from an author who’s gritty determination to succeed drives her beyond all the obstacles that life throws at her. Lesser mortals might indulge in a spot of lying in a darkened room, bemoaning their lot, leaving all non-essential activity for another year. Not Linda Gillard. She’s already battled mental illness, but this year she’s been through all the mental and physical anguish of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer (documented on her author Facebook pages.) And yet she’s somehow found the energy to promote her own ebooks, House of Silenceso successfully indeed that her latest one, House of Silence, has been selected by Amazon UK for their Top 10 “Best of 2011” in the Indy Author category. Impressive or what? I’m so thrilled for her. This kind of exceptional grit and determination deserves reward. And I’ll certainly be reviewing her book in due course. I’ve read and commented on three of her earlier ones already, so I have high hopes of a great read.

She makes me feel lazy! So what have I been doing this week? Nothing as spectacular as Linda that’s for sure – mainly beavering away at a children’s story and a couple of life-histories; and filling rucksacks for  the charity Mary’s Meals; and making costumes for the annual Christmas play for my grandchildren. And no, before you ask, I haven’t given up on my current novel, Over My Dead Body. The first full draft is completed, but I know it needs two things: added depth with stronger subplots; and tightening up of the writing. I recognise that, but I can’t correct it at the moment. I need to distance myself a bit from it; I’m still too close to the action. It takes a ruthless detachment to home in on the faults, weed out the indulgent phrases, the grammatical anomalies, and the inconsistencies. Which reminds me …

Did you watch the programme about Ian Rankin this week? I was amazed to hear that his editor still does major hatchet jobs on his final drafts. Not just picking up on minor typos but suggesting radical changes to plots and characters. Hello? Somehow I expected a writer of his stature to have learned every trick in the book, and to be his own harshest critic. What do I know?

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What price success?

With the launch of my latest novel in Edinburgh imminent (next Tuesday), my thinking has been tuned to all things literary. And I’ve just been interviewed by a lovely lady from The Evening News whose questions have made me remember all over again why I do what I do.

When your mind is in this groove it’s amazing how often stories about books crop up. Especially success stories.

In the news this week, for example, self-published crime-writer Kerry Wilkinson actually got a mention in The Telegraph. He’s just become the most popular e-book author on the Kindle Store, selling over 150,000 copies of his debut novel (NB. not the 250,000 the newspaper reported). No agent, no publicist either. That’s going some! He’s a sports journalist by background and he wrote Locked In as a challenge to himself apparently. He sold it for 98p and used online media to promote it. OK, I’m listening!

By contrast Sarah Winman had a massive publicity drive to kick-start her debut novel: When God was a Rabbit. When God was a RabbitThousands upon thousands of free copies were reportedly given away pre-publication (I can’t find the exact number now I want it) and that novel has gone on to win awards and accolades aplenty. Not my personal favourite read though, I must confess, but acclaimed by authors/reviewers whose opinion I respect.

Then there was Eva Rice, Sir Tim Rice‘s daughter, who’s currently writing her fourth novel. A report this week said she regretted publishing her first one at the age of 23, because it isn’t up to the standard of her later books. Nothing earth-shattering there. But I sympathise; I’ve disowned my first one too. And Ian Rankin once said that it’s because no book is ever perfect, that authors feel compelled to keep writing, striving for that goal.

And you’ve probably heard that 24 year-old Amanda Knox, imprisoned and tried for, and then acquitted of the brutal murder of her flatmate, Meredith Kercher, in 2007 in Perugia, has just signed a book deal with HarperCollins, allegedly worth £2.5 million. And she won’t even write it! (I daren’t even tell you the size of my advance, but you can be sure it’s nothing like that.)

Given that I’m seriously considering the best way forward for me now I’ve fulfilled my contracts with Luath Press, these stories all contribute to the decision making process. I think I’ve almost formulated a plan but I’m still open to persuasion.

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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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