Hazel McHaffie

Inside of Me

It’s all relative …

Phew! It’s been quite a week.

My mind has been split too many ways for its own good, juggling preparation for a number of forthcoming speaking appointments all on different subjects, as well as finalising the text and cover of Inside of Me, plus a variety of other demands outside of my writing life. I confess I’ve felt unusually cross-eyed, and tense, and generally discombobulated.

I won’t bore you with the detail, except to share the most exciting development: the cover of Inside of Me is now chosen! Yeah! It’s been unusually tricky getting it right this time, but thanks to a very patient designer, Tom Bee, who provided lots of choice and properly listened to my quibbles, we have a striking end result that feels good. I’ll share it with you as soon as it’s finalised.

The Dean's DiariesSo, in the midst of all this angst, it was something of a welcome escape to go to a book launch for Professor David Purdie‘s latest offering: The Dean’s Diaries, held in all the magnificence of the Royal College of Physicians’ premises in the centre of Edinburgh. I found myself in august company. Purdie himself is a well-known and brilliant raconteur and was both witty and amusing on this occasion, offering, like Peter Ustinov, ‘all the various accents for his superb mimicry; and the rare combination of brevity of language with breadth of expression‘. Enviable skills.

His latest slim volume is a compilation of observations and anecdotes by the Dean of Edinburgh’s fictitious St Andrew’s College, ‘renowned for its academic oddity, interdepartmental warfare and explosive disasters‘. A happy blend of fact and fiction. I defy anyone to read it without laughing aloud. Clever, heretical, irreverent, stunningly good writing. A real tonic. Guaranteed to lift the spirits and banish tension. Just what I needed. Oh, and the Dean reckons that ‘Disparate activities, especially if novel, are apparently useful in staving off the onset of dementia … and … keeping the old frontal cortex ticking over‘, so perhaps I should be embracing more challenges not seeking less.

Alexander McCall Smith (who appears in the book as himself) was to have chaired the evening, but in the event he was in India … ahhh … therein lies a salutary and timely reminder. His life puts my present little alarms and excursions firmly into perspective. Sandy is probably the most prolific author I know personally, his daily word output is phenomenal, he’s constantly in demand as speaker/reviewer, juggles innumerable interests, and travels the world on a regular basis. And still finds time for friends and colleagues. Does he ever sleep?

OK, McHaffie. Take a big breath. Break down the tasks on your puny little list into manageable pieces. Tackle each one systematically. Tick them off; reduce the pressure.

There you go. Calm restored. Thanks to two professors and a hefty dose of laughter.

 

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Keep writing

Deckchair in Charlotte SquareI’m away this week giving some talks in the Midlands about subjects unrelated to my medical ethics writing, so I’ll content myself with sharing some useful advice about persistence for writers in general. And it can be a lonely, demoralising occupation at times. Too easy to navel-gaze and feel crushed by one’s own pathetic output/apparent lack of achievement, or other people’s rejection.

Thanks to the Writer’s Circle for the basis of this chirpy little reckoning which I’ve adapted to fit my purpose:

  1. Write 50 words: That’s a paragraph
  2. Write 400 words: That a page
  3. Write 300 pages: That’s a manuscript
  4. Write every day: That’s a habit
  5. Edit and re-write: That’s how you get better
  6. Spread your writing for people to comment: That’s how you gain perspective
  7. Don’t worry about rejection or publication: That’s about being a real writer
  8. When not writing read. Read from the works of writers better than you. That’s how you raise your own game. Hey, I for one am only too glad to get the seal of approval to read!

Meanwhile, my faithful book cover designer is currently working on the cover of Inside of Me; reviews are in; final proof reading is underway. Publication is in sight!

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Juggling balls

Reviews for my adult novel, Inside of Me, are slowly trickling in, and it is, as ever, extremely gratifying to get such wonderful endorsements from people whose opinions I value: ‘well researched’, ‘full of empathy’, ‘a gripping story, full of unexpected and emotional twists and turns’, ‘absorbing’, ‘complex psychological issues, handled with a light touch’, ‘raises challenging questions without simplifying the issues or offering any easy answers’. Wow! Thanks, folks!

It would be all too easy to get impatient waiting for the rest of these busy reviewers to respond. After all the delays caused by my illness, I just want to get this book out there. But frustration would be a serious waste of energy, so I’ve turned my mind and pen to a totally different kind of writing: the story/play I write for my grandchildren every year for Christmas. (The eldest is now almost sixteen so the level of sophistication rises exponentially year by year; getting closer and closer to adult fiction.) And guess what: it’s been positively therapeutic! A delightfully refreshing change from looking deep into my soul, and worrying about my own body image and identity.

Costumes in the makingI can’t share anything of the theme or substance of this year’s production with you, lest I bring down the wrath of the entire family on my head – it has to remain a closely guarded secret (ie. known only to me) until the actual day. But what I can say is that it’s currently 16,000+ words long, involves the making/assembling of nineteen different costumes, and the collection of a whole variety of props. And it will require a complete makeover of parts of our house closer to the event. Enough to keep me well out of mischief from now till Christmas. By the way, if anyone has a spare mortar board or a shaggy grey wig and beard do please get in touch!

In between I package gifts and write letters for the most ordinary humdrum aspects of the season. Keeps my feet firmly on the ground. Oh, and of course, watch eagerly for any correspondence from the said critics.

Christmas gifts

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Fact and fiction

MslexiaDid you know that some 184,000 books are published in the UK every year, the vast majority appearing without fanfare and sinking without trace? And yet writing a book involves a massive investment of time, energy, emotion, heartache and money.

We low-ranking authors can easily feel overlooked and undervalued, but news in the publishing world put things into a healthier perspective for me at a time when I needed a boost of confidence (courtesy of my writerly journals: Mslexia and The Author.

1. ‘Publishers are tending more and more to concentrate on safe choices and celebrity brands, sometimes at the expense of supporting backlist and midlist authors who sell steadily but more slowly,’ says the CEO of the Society of Authors. And many pretty big names have demonstrated that even they feel disenchanted. A whole raft of them have recently switched to new publishing houses in a search for fresh enthusiasm and better sales figures: Kate Mosse, Harlan Coben, Paulo Coelho, Patricia Cornwell, Michelle Paver, Val McDermid to name but a few.

Take-home message: Great success is no passport to contentment.

2. Nor is rejection reserved for the few. It’s well known that even world famous authors have received crushing letters from publishers and agents. Latest offerings to add to the list: Louisa M Alcott was advised to ‘stick to teaching.’ Anne Frank’s Diary got ‘The girl doesn’t have a special perception which would lift the book above the curiosity level.CS Lewis was turned down 800 times before he published anything! Egg on faces comes to mind.

Take-home message: Don’t be cast down by rejection.

The Author journals3. According to ALCS research, the median sum earned by professional authors in 2013 was a beggarly £4,000. £4,000!! (Aspiration point: The top 5% earn in excess of £100,000; the top 1% more than £450,000 a year.) No wonder then that the number of full-time authors relying solely on earnings from writing has gone down from 40% in 2007 to 11.5%. Ouch! But in actual fact, there are many writers who feel they write best when they keep their feet firmly in the real, everyday world of work. Tick!

Take-home message: Real life activities can help keep you grounded.

4. I’m sure all authors adopt several methods for capturing ideas and brainwaves before they slip away – from having a simple pencil and notebook beside the bath tub to fancy electronic apps and fads in every pocket. Remembering is crucial … or is it? Novelist cum musician cum Latin teacher William Sutton argues that slavish notes can result in slavish writing. Sometimes ‘the capricious alchemy of the unreliable memory’ and healthy distance can transmute leaden prose into something much more volatile, airy and appealing. Phew! That’s all right then!

Take-home message: No need to get paranoid about recording every idea.

5. I guess we all worry about the structure of our books. Is it balanced? Does it sag in the middle or fizzle lamely at the end? Will it grip a reader? Well, an established literary consultant, Helen Bryant, maintains that a novel’s structure should sit within a classic three act graph: Act 1 centres on the inciting incident and core problem; Act 2 should include at least three rising tension peaks; Act 3 brings the main plot lines to a climax and resolves them. So, with some trepidation I plotted my latest novel, Inside of Me, on a similar graph, and what d’you know, it complies with this framework! Tick!

Take-home message: Keep reading the literary journals!

6. More than 50% of both primary school children and over-65s read every day! Wahey. Time to tap into that market in a more deliberate way. Let’s start with the U3A

Take-home message: Target the right audiences.

7. In June this year The Reading Agency published a review on The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. Its key findings included the following: reading is closely linked to understanding of our own identity; it can impact on our relationships with others; it increases empathy; helps with relaxation; helps develop knowledge; helps mental health. Yes!

Take-home message: Never undervalue the wide ranging benefits of reading.

Sanguine again

There we go; spirits lifted immeasurably. Onwards and upwards.

 

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Final changes and additions

I’m at the stage with Inside of Me where we’re waiting for reviews and final comments to come in before the whole package can be put together. It would be all too easy to champ at the bit but I’m using the time to catch up with a hotch-potch of jobs. One of those is checking out ‘the competition’ – aka reading other novels that fall into the ‘medical ethical’ bracket.

Two books overlap very directly with my own.

Dear ThingDear Thing by Julie Cohen is about surrogate pregnancy – like my Double Trouble Double Troublepublished six years earlier; although I hasten to add I’m not suggesting Cohen plagiarised my ideas! Indeed, her book became a Summer Book Club choice with Richard and Judy in 2014.

In a nutshell: Romily is a scientist and single Mum with a precociously clever daughter. Ben and Claire are her best friends but they’re unable to have a child of their own, so Romily offers to carry a baby for them and they arrange the logistics of this transaction privately between them. But no one has bargained on the unravelling of relationships and emotions. Hmmm. Very similar plot line to mine then.

Elizabeth is MissingElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey was recommended to me by someone who’d also read my Remember Remember. Again it came out long after mine – seven years this time. Costa Book Award And again it won a prestigious prize – the Costa First Novel Award 2014.

In a nutshell: Maud is struggling with dementia and searching for her friend Elizabeth. She is haunted by unresolved issues from her past. The bewilderment and confusion of the dementing mind are beautifully captured, and important truths are dotted into the account of Maud’s thinking and stumbling through life. Remember RememberFor example, she loves being teased; it makes her ‘feel human’; the other person is assuming she’s ‘intelligent enough to get a joke.’ Worth remembering.

I’ve now finished both. Verdict? Enjoyable reads, although neither achieved a 5 star rating for me. The overlaps with my books are noteworthy, so I’m glad I wrote mine first. It’s an abiding concern with me that another publication will come out ahead of mine that makes it look as if I stole someone else’s ideas! Partly fuelled of course by a heightened awareness of a topic which means you see it everywhere. On the other hand, I’m delighted to find such thought-provoking books are receiving real recognition.

Nicola MorganAll this reading feels like a great indulgence, so it was heartening to hear prolific author, Nicola Morgan, (at a Blackwells Bookshop author-event last week) describe reading novels as an essential part of stress reduction, and not the luxury or guilty pleasure it’s sometimes portrayed as – she calls it ‘readaxation’! And she should know: she’s an expert on the brain and coping with stress. I shall sink back into my upholstered chair and allow the healthy hormones to do their work as I turn the pages …

Oh, and by the way, click here for an interesting clip about the value of reading aside from relaxation.

 

 

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Mental health

The Orchard gardenI’ve always been conscious how borderline I am psychologically-speaking. I didn’t dare dabble in psychiatry during my training; the dividing lines between health and pathology seemed far too fragile and close to home!

So being immersed in a novel about mental health issues, living inside the skin of characters with self image problems, has been a somewhat precarious occupation for me. It was imperative that I should burrow deep inside their minds in order to understand how they would speak, act, react; I frequently got the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God feeling. So when I saw the Doors Open programme for this weekend, the Redhall Walled Garden in Edinburgh’s Colinton Dell jumped out at me and topped my list of paces to visit.

The garden itself dates back to the 18th Century but for the last 27 years it’s been operating as a Scottish Association for Mental Health facility. Trainees (as they are called) attend for at least three days a week building up to five, and they work in gardening, IT, administration and health awareness. In their own words SAMH ‘provides conditions for growth and positive mental well-being and works to create a safe place when people are experiencing distress.’

And indeed it was a remarkably peaceful place to wander around. I lingered particularly in the secluded seating areas, absorbing the atmosphere, picturing my characters huddled there, hiding there.

The Summer houseThe Sunken GardenThe RoundhouseI too felt safe and calm.

I rather wish I’d known about this little haven before I started probing my own depths for Inside of Me!

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Critical input

Edinburgh floral clockSo, we’re into the last few days of the Festival here in Edinburgh. Next week, after a grand finale firework spectacular on the evening of the 31st, this seething, happening, nothing-surprises place will metamorphose back into our quiet and dignified capital.

Levitating figureBook Festival placard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since I wrote my last post I’ve been to an opera, several more dramas, and a couple of book events – including one where Marion Coutts was speaking (I reviewed her book, The Iceberg, about the death of art critic Tom Lubbock a couple of posts ago) alongside award winning Belgian, Erwin Mortier, whose book, Stammered Songbook, recounts his mother’s descent into dementia. My workaday kind of topics. However, I must admit the most valuable thing I brought away from this session was what not to do on the platform!

Edinburgh Book Festiival 2015But hey, what of my own writing, you may well be thinking? Well, good news! It took another giant stride forward this week.

As you know, I’ve had really helpful feedback from experts on limited sections of the novel, but that only takes me so far; I also need critique from people looking at the whole story and from a general readers’ perspective. So six very insightful and well-read ladies belonging to a bookclub already known to me, have been reading the first full draft of Inside of Me, and on Tuesday I went along to hear their verdict. They were tremendously positive and encouraging but I picked up some very useful pointers for improvements.

Now my task is to think through the wealth of suggestions from all quarters and decide what to revise, what to delete, what to leave alone. And I’m confident the end result will be a better, stronger book than that first draft.

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Under construction

Almost completed houseWhen I sent off my draft novel for expert critique a few weeks ago, in my mind it was rather like this house – pretty much ready apart from some fine tweaking. (I’ve watched this estate being built as I pounded past it each morning on my daily constitutional.) Not quite turf-laid-and-curtains-at-the-windows ready, but basically sound.

 

 

 

Scaffolding and reconstruction of house

This week, though, it looks more like this.

 

Scaffolding back, new supplies coming in, clear signs of restructuring. From inside, the sound of drilling, plumbing, wiring, painting, glazing. Yep, I’ve been hard at work revising and editing: taking passages out, putting new chapters in: tightening some sections up, allowing others to breathe: tweaking semi-colons and parentheses; erasing adverbs and adjectives.

Heavy diggersThere’s even been some basic digging to strengthen the foundations. A new introduction for one of the key narrators, a different pathway for the plot resolution. I’m even contemplating adding a prologue!

To the runner passing by it might well feel like several steps backwards, but the architect and chief builder can envisage the distinct improvements being added: porch, conservatory, double garage, pond …

 

 

For Inside of Me this is all good news. The end result will be a more appealing, readable and desirable commodity … I hope! And that’s the whole point of this exercise at this stage. I’m hugely indebted to the ‘surveyors’ who kindly drew my attention to potential flaws and then left me to do what I think necessary. Thanks, folks – you know who you are!

NB: Before readers of this blog deluge me with comments about the flaws in this little analogy, I know, I know, I know! Of course the architects should get it right first time around, and no construction company worth their salt would operate in this slovenly fashion, but they’re building houses to tried and tested rules and plans. Estates like this are mushrooming everywhere. Creative writing, fiction, has no blueprint and every novel is unique and must stand alone amidst thousands upon thousands of other books. None of you will post a review about the house; many of you might post one about my novel! By then it’s too late to revise the text to gain that extra star. And once it’s published there is no second chance to sneak in and correct the faulty wiring or double glazing.

 

 

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Masterclass

OK, as you now know, my latest book, Inside of Me, includes three missing teenagers and a middle aged man who vanishes without trace, so when I picked up Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell and read the back cover, I thought, ahah! this is about several missing persons, I’ll see how she handles it. She died just a few weeks ago, so it seems fitting to linger a while on her writing.

Rendell was, of course, a queen of crime writing, massively decorated and feted; a household name indeed. And her policemen, Reg Wexford and Mike Burden, and the admirable Dora Wexford, are widely known and loved from the TV adaptations. George Baker IS the chief inspector! But that potential for distortion notwithstanding, several interesting facets jumped out at me as I read.

First, an author of Rendell’s standing can get away with a whole lot more than I ever could. For example, she introduces a huge cast of characters in quick succession – almost 40 within the first 30 pages! We lesser mortals are advised to go very cautiously allowing time for characters to embed themselves in the mind of the reader.Master crimewriter

Then there’s the difference between a stand alone book and a series featuring the same characters. Wexford has all the advantages of being an old friend, a rounded person, reliable and constant. We know instantly if his behaviours are consistent, his comments his own. He really would say, A body illicitly interred is a body unlawfully killed. In my stand alone books there’s much more work to be done to establish a three dimensional believable person in a shorter time frame.

Years ago, when I was in search of an agent, one wrote back to me ‘You need to forget your formidable academic background‘. I was reminded of this each time I encountered erudite references in Not in the Flesh. But of course, Rendell uses them judiciously. A brain-box character can drop in a comment about the word ‘lady‘ coming from the Anglo-Saxon ‘lafdig’ meaning ‘she who makes bread’, leaving an ardent feminist policewoman to register strong objections to the use of this title – and it’s perfectly plausible and appropriate to include. It’s not what you know, it’s how you use that knowledge that matters. And clearly I didn’t get this right when I sent out my early work.

It gave me a lovely warm feeling to find an unusual shared moment in Rendell’s work and my own writing. She uses a quote (often attributed to King Louis XVII) which I used a few weeks ago in my story for the grandchildren from the mouth of a Duke who was always quoting other people to make his own points: Punctuality is the politeness of kings. Strange coincidence. Only in Rendell’s case she deliberately misquotes it: Unpunctuality is the impoliteness of policemen. I simply Googled ‘quotes about punctuality’ and up it came. I wonder if she did too.

Happily, as a result of my little masterclass with Baroness Rendell of Barberg, I don’t feel the need to change or add anything to Inside of Me. But that will all change I’m sure when my expert critics come back to me with their comments.

While I await their feedback I’m running down this interesting checklist: Writers' checklist

Hmmm!

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Inside of Me: a sneak preview

It occurred to me during the week that many of you are people who’ve read some or all of my novels to date. I should therefore do you the courtesy of giving you a priority glimpse into the latest offering, Inside of Me, currently being critiqued by my first raft of advisors.

Inside of Me manuscriptFor your exclusive scrutiny (!) then, an outline of the theme and the plot – never before seen!

The theme: Body image. Several of the characters in Inside of Me struggle to find their own ways of dealing with or escaping from problems related to their perceptions of themselves, sometimes with devastating consequences for their families and friends. Now, I might as well come clean and tell you that I personally have long-standing issues with this topic, so it’s been quite a troubling experience immersing myself in its various manifestations. What’s more, my recent illness (which incapacitated me for six months) added yet another dimension when I realised how much of my own perceived identity is wrapped up in what I do and what I achieve – for part of this time NOTHING!

The plot: Two teenage girls vanish. One is found dead, the other is still missing without trace. Then a Scottish nurse, Victor Grayson, 36, vanishes leaving behind a neat pile of his clothes on the beach, a wife and an 8 year old daughter. The police presume he took his own life; his wife, Tonya, secretly fears he may have been involved in the disappearance of the teenagers; his daughter, India, hangs on ferociously to her picture of her dad as her best friend through the haze of faulty memories and half truths.

Roll forward seven years, and India, now 15, thinks she hears his voice 500 miles away, on King’s Cross station. At the same time a third teenager vanishes. Events – both in the Grayson family and the police department – develop new momentum. India has anorexia and her mother believes she’s hallucinating from hunger. But India’s best friend takes up the case, and when the third missing teenager is seen at the cinema with an unknown person the race is on to find her before anything bad happens to her.

Exactly what is the connection between the missing schoolgirls, a Scottish nurse, a London florist, and two youngsters with eating disorders?

Concentration chez moi is on the next stages of the publishing process but this lovely weather is tempting me out and about as well. How fabulous Scotland is – hard to believe crimes can be committed amidst such beauty; and individuals be swallowed up by their own distorted perceptions.

Glendoick GardensPoppy

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