Hazel McHaffie

John Grisham

Acknowledgements

By the time you’ve written ‘THE END’, gone through dozens of edits, and proof read the final draft of your precious novel till you’re cross eyed, the very idea of writing another word can seem like a labour too far. But hey, what about all those folk who helped to bring this baby to birth?

Some writers content themselves with a dutiful list of agents, publishers, editors (all exemplary of course ) who’ve seen the value of the story and steered it through choppy waters to publication. Most thank friends and family (all stalwarts of course). The page can be simply ‘Thank you …’ followed by a list of names, or it can extend to several pages and include Great Aunt Gertrude who provided scotch broth on cold school days and became an unwitting template for Aunt Sally in the current magnum opus. Hey, been there, done that, myself; I’m not knocking it. I’m fascinated too by those that tell us people actually paid substantial sums of money (to charity of course) in exchange for immortality in the said book.

But best of all are the ones that manage to inject a sense of fun into this potentially dry catalogue. And I love the self-deprecating ones and those that manage to twist a fact to put an unusual slant on it. So I thought I’d share a few of my favourites with you this week.

This is indeed a work of fiction, and more so than usual. Almost nothing in the previous 340-odd pages is based on reality. Research, hardly a priority, was rarely called upon. Accuracy was not deemed crucial. There was no federal camp at Frostburg, no uranium lawsuit (yet), no dead judge to inspire me, and no acquaintance in prison scheming to get out, at least not to my knowledge.
Inevitably, though, even the laziest of writers need some foundation for their creations, and I was occasionally at a loss. As always, I relied on others. Thanks to …

John Grisham (The Racketeer)

This book took an embarrassingly long time to write, also my short-term memory isn’t what it was – apparently this is what happens when you’re perimenopausal (not menopausal, I should stress; that’s still decades away, and by the time it happens I’ll be grand again and back winning Mastermind) – so there’s a very good chance that someone may have given me invaluable help at an early stage in the book and that I’ve now completely forgotten. If you are that person, I am truly sorry.

Marian Keyes (This Charming Man)

Last year I lost two friends, each of great spirit and heart. Whenever Alex Cooper (lead in story) goes to the ballet – as she does herewith Natalie Moody – she will be watching the dancers at American Ballet Theatre and honoring Howard Gilan, an extraordinary man whose spirit lives on in all those – man and beast – whom he embraced.
And my young protegee, Maxine Pfeffer, who lost her valiant struggle with cancer, will always be Coop’s paralegal, Max. Thinking of her will forever bring a smile to my face.
Some of my Vassar classmates asked me to create a character in memory of one of our dear friends, the actress Marilyn Swartz Seven, who also died too young. She is here as a woman of mystery – a role I hope she would have enjoyed performing.

Linda Fairstein (Cold Hit)

In these dog days when lawyers rule the universe, I have to persist with these disclaimers, which happen to be perfectly true. With one exception nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world … so with luck I shall not be spending the rest of my life in the law courts or worse, though nowadays you can never be sure. But I can tell you this. As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.


John Le Carré (The Constant Gardener)

I hope that my patients and colleagues will forgive me for writing this book.

Henry Marsh (Do No Harm)

 

Oh and, strictly speaking a preface but to leave you smiling:

[This} is the only book of mine which I tried to produce without sitting down at the typewriter and getting a crick in the back.
Not that I ever thought of dictating it to a stenographer. How anyone can compose a story by word of mouth, face to face with a bored looking secretary with a notebook is more than I can imagine. Yet many authors think nothing of saying “Ready, Miss Spelvin? Take dictation. Quote No comma Lord Jasper Murgatroyd comma close quote said no better make it hissed Evangeline comma quote I would not marry you if you were the last man on earth close quote period Quote Well comma, I’m not the last man on earth comma so the point does not arise comma close quote replied Lord Jasper comma twirling his moustache cynically period And so the long day wore on”
If I started to do that sort of ting I should be feeling all the time the girl was saying to herself as she took it down, “Well comma this beats me period How comma with homes for the feeble-minded touting for customers on every side comma has a fathead like this Wodehouse succeeded in remaining at large all these years mark of interrogation”
But I did get one of those machines where you talk into a mouthpiece and have your observations recorded on wax, and I started Thank You, Jeeves, on it. And after the first few paragraphs I thought I would turn back and play the stuff over to hear how it sounded.
It sounded too awful for human consumption.

You can’t think out plots like mine without getting a suspicion from time to time that something has gone seriously wrong with the brain’s two hemispheres and the broad band of transversely running fibres known as the corpus collosum.

P G Wodehouse (Thank you, Jeeves)

Thanks, guys. I am resolved to take a leaf out of your books and make my own next acknowledgements more appealing in future.

 

 

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Writing by numbers?!

Why do some books instantly capture the imagination of millions, fly off the shelves, become the talking point of after-dinner conversation and train travel, feature largely on chat shows and book festivals? Is it even possible to analyse and quantify the magic that makes them so appealing? To predict which manuscripts will go on to become mega-bestsellers?

Well, Archer and Jockers claim to have done exactly that. Archer and Jockers? Me neither.

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

They’re the authors of a new book out this week: The Bestseller Code. (Sounds vaguely Dan Brownish, doesn’t it?) Their bestseller-ometer was fine-tuned on over 20,000 contemporary novels, analyzing themes, plot, character, setting, and style; using an algorithm alleged to be right about 80% of the time. OK, I’m listening. So what are the secret ingredients of success? Become a journalist before you write your first book; focus on just two or three issues, no more; include at least one close human relationship; maintain a roller-coaster of emotions; use very active verbs … Sounding familiar?

But a predictor of success? Really?

Hang on a minute, though, isn’t this exactly what any writer wants? A winning recipe, a DIY measuring kit, a ticket to stardom. Or … well … no … on reflection … isn’t it want any publisher wants? A commercial shortcut to selection.

Before you start getting excited about the possibilities, though, it has to be said that reviews to date have been lukewarm to say the least. A ‘fascinating but ultimately futile use of multi-variate analysis‘ about sums it up.

Well, I guess it depends what you’re trying to do. And in fairness the authors don’t claim this tool identifies good books, just popular ones. Big difference. If your sole aim is to be another Danielle Steel or John Grisham or Gillian Flynn, then maybe there’s mileage in studying the list of factors that send those peaks soaring on the graph of readers’ engagement. But thankfully, lots of authors have higher aims. And good literature is based on more than commercial success. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey consistently featured in the analysis of Archers and Jockers as exemplars, but neither of these books is generally rated as a good book in the literary sense. Nor does either make the world a better place. Nor encourage quiet reflective thinking and empathy with people struggling with life’s big dilemmas.

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

As a writer myself, I’d be lying if I said I had no ambition to sell more of my own books – don’t we all? – but not at the expense of my principles; my reason for writing them in the first place. I just have to accept that my preferred subject areas and modus operandi are most unlikely not going to appeal to the masses. And try to be glad for those writers who do make the big time with or without the bestseller-ometer.

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Literary Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides book, Middlesex, is one of my top twenty favourites, so I naturally pounced on his third novel, The Marriage Plot, when I saw it in a bargain book shop for ¬£1. But … oh dear … it was only my Mastermind rule, (‘I’ve started so I’ll finish‘), that kept me reading. It’s very long (406 pages of tiny type), very dense, and for me not very satisfying. I try to be positive in recognition of the colossal amount of work that goes into writing a book, but this time I’m afraid I have to share more disappointment than praise.

Eugenides bookEssentially the story is of a love triangle set in Brown University in the 1980s with three idealistic young people in love with books and ideas. Leonard Bankhead is a clever scientist and charismatic loner. Madeleine Hanna is intensely attracted to him. But her old friend, theology student Mitchell Grammaticus is convinced Madeleine is destined to be with him. So far so standard. But this is no classic Victorian romance, and the book is literary rather than commercial fiction; I knew that, so why was I less than thrilled?

Eugenides is without doubt an accomplished author – he’s won prestigious prizes too – and he set the bar extremely high with his first novel, Middlesex. In The Marriage Plot his inclusion of wide-ranging and erudite detail – of place, literature, mental health, science, psychology, politics, history – is impressive. There was even an aspect of the story that was of particular interest to me: the unravelling of an illness, bipolar disorder, or as it was back then, manic depression, which he handles with enviable authenticity and sensitivity. I’ve seen the devastation this illness can cause, and Eugenides has captured its modus operandi without allowing it to override the central narrative thrust … goodness, I’ve adopted ponderous language myself now! Sorry.

There’s plenty of humour in the book too. At one point an eccentric elderly female scientist is interviewed following the announcement that she’s just won the Nobel prize:

‘Dr MacGregor, where were you when you heard the news?’

‘I was asleep. Just like I am right now.’

‘Could you tell us what your scientific work is all about?’

‘I could. But then you’d be asleep.’

‘What do you plan to do with the money?’

‘Spend it.’

And plenty of clever throw-away lines:

‘ … he didn’t so much run the class as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality.’

‘… moving in her hovercraft way owing to the long hem of her robe …’

‘Chaouen was painted light blue to blend in with the sky. Even the flies couldn’t find it.’

But as I ploughed laboriously through it I could identify increasingly with the heroine’s sentiments. Early on she attends a Semiotics class and gets bogged down in the abstruse use of language. She goes to the library to grab an ordinary comprehensible nineteenth century novel ‘to restore herself to sanity’. Ah, here was a story she could understand without effort, with people in it, something happening to them in a place resembling the world as she knew it. ‘How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!’

At times with Eugenides’ book I felt myself drowning in the complexity of the allusions and profound thoughts. It just felt like too much hard work with too little reward. And I found it hard to care about the three central characters. Yes, I too wanted to escape into wickedly enjoyable narrative. How very low brow of me! But hey, come on, I did persevere to the bitter end. And the knitting for good causes grew apace.

As a reward to myself I bought a stack of more promising reading from another charity sale (it’s been a very busy week with special events for three charities I’m involved with). Goddard, Grisham and Coben are tried and tested favourite authors. Baldacci I’ve yet to sample. Joys in store … mmm.

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