Hazel McHaffie

independent publishers

A lamb to the slaughter

At the end of last year I was invited to a preview of paintings by local amateur artists. As I wandered along the corridors studying the exhibits, my heart went out to the creators of these works, also eavesdropping incognito not only on the compliments,  but also the ‘hmmms’, and sudden silences, and occasional unflattering comments. They’d laboured long and hard over those canvases, pouring something of themselves into their art. Irrespective of the appeal of any given painting, I had to admire their courage hanging their work for public scrutiny.

chosen paintingI personally liked a number of the exhibits, and indeed bought this one, which I’m delighted with.

So, given the hazards of parading one’s creativity, you might well ask, what on earth possessed me to put myself in the firing line quite deliberately, by asking a group of very excellent and discerning women readers to tear my current novel to pieces in front of me. Hello? I’ve long been conscious of the fine dividing line between normality and insanity, and my own teetering vulnerability. But this time my lapse was calculated.

To begin with I have a healthy respect for this group of professionals. Last year they invited me to go along to one of their bookclub meetings where they were discussing Right to Die, and I was impressed by the quality of their discussion. They engaged fully with the issues relating to assisted death as well as with the actual story and the art of writing.

And as far as my current writing goes, now is the time to hear constructive criticism, not when it’s between covers. Hitherto all my novels have been published by independent publishers, and the journey to the bookshops by this route includes stages of critique and editing. This might not happen if I do decide to self-publish Over My Dead Body, so I’m going to considerable lengths to get it polished as much as possible by other means. Approaching the bookgroup seemed like a splendid next step.

I made sure they all knew the terms of engagement from the outset: the book is in draft form and I’m looking for rigorous and honest analysis and comment. Flannel and flattery would render the process useless.

the bookclub ladiesSo I duly rolled up on Monday evening prepared to be slaughtered in the name of my art. (Can you smell the adrenalin already?!) In the event it turned out to be a really enjoyable and interesting experience. Initially they were concerned for me, being on the receiving end of their criticism, but I can honestly say I was not in the least bothered by it. There was a constructive point to it; it wasn’t malicious or personal. Indeed I’d invited it. It’s always a real thrill to have people talking about my characters as if they know them, and as one of the women said at the end, to have a roomful of people discussing a book in such an animated and engaged way said something about its overall appeal.

So what did I learn? The subject of organ donation is fascinating; all of them agreed on that. They actually wanted more fleshing out of the transplant bits (that really surprised me). Indeed, some found the subplots I had included as hooks, ‘distracting’ and ‘too emotionally draining’. Curiouser and curiouser! (Does this say something about my own over-exposure to the subject?)

The other surprise was that a child character I struggled with most, they all loved. I’ve several times been on the point of removing her sections; now, thanks to their input, I have the confidence not to do so.

So, what next?  I have to weigh up each of their comments and consider how much any changes would disturb the overall balance of the book. Taking out a child crime and/or a missing woman and/or a psychotic father and/or a severed limb and/or a wrecked marriage and/or a drug smuggling would inevitably alter the weightings. And might result in a total collapse of the infrastructure of the story … HELP! Adding more descriptive detail might alienate people who want fast action and variety.

I’ve been scribbling furiously ever since, but trying not to rush into too many radical revisions. After all, as the familiar adage has it: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. And I’m the one who has to stand by the finished product.

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Hints and tips on writing

I must confess I find it hard to make space for reading how-to journals. So many other things take precedence.

But two publications break through this natural resistance because I subscribe to them – and after over four decades of living in Scotland, not to mention being married to a thoroughbred Scot, having paid the subscription, I feel compelled to get my money’s worth!

Mslexia’s one of them – a journal by and for women writers. And the edition that plopped – no thudded – through my letterbox this month demonstrates it’s worth persevering. I’ll share a few gems.

On being a woman writer:
‘It is a world [the post-Richard & Judy world] in which women writers … are far better equipped thanks to a plethora of creative writing courses, agencies and social networking sites offering help and alternative means of building new audiences.
And I’d just that very day dragged myself out of my cave and joined Facebook!

On being interviewed:
… be as rude, difficult, vain, self-obsessed as you like, but please, please don’t be boring.’
Hmmmm. That will take some practice.

On designing the cover of your book:
A cover is a signal to everyone around you as to what you like and enjoy. If you doubt that a cover is as much a style statement as a handbag or shoes, think about how you feel about being seen reading a book draped in pastel (chick lit), adorned with a near-naked fighting Amazon (fantasy) or underwear (erotica).
OK, I’m still happy with my new cover (see my 1 Oct blog).

On marketing:
In the 21st Century, limiting book campaigns to cover, press and a few posters is not an option; digital media is key.’
Indeedy. I’m learning that the hard way. Latest discovery: internet reviews.

On using autobiographical experience in your writing:
… imagine your characters intimately, and as separate from yourself and other people in your life, then mix in understanding and emotional acuity and use real-life experiences in a thoughtful, relevant way to breathe life into the clay. Only then will they be ready to walk and talk on their own.’
My experience exactly. So please don’t ask me which character I am in my books. As I’ve said before, I write about what I know about people, not people I know.

On small independent publishers:
Each book we publish is very special; it has to be; because we publish so few of them. Larger publishers may be able to take a punt on a new author and not expect the book to sell, but we can’t afford that risk. We put all our effort into selling as many copies as we can.’
I like the sound of ‘special’.

On getting work accepted:
I receive over 20,000 submissions across all categories a year and might take on 0.1 per cent. At a guess I receive about 1,200 memoir submissions, and might take on three annually.
Needle in a haystack comes to mind.

Lots of gems between the covers of one issue of one journal. Thanks, Mslexia. I must keep finding the time.

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