Hazel McHaffie

Lionel Shriver

Encouraging facts for struggling writers

Mslexia‘Tis the day before Christmas, when all through the house … hmm, yes, creatures are stirring, but hopefully not a mouse … all presents are safely delivered or under the tree, wine is mulling, carols playing, lights twinkling, larder and fridge full … Pause for thought …

Top of the list those who are grieving or weighed down with life’s troubles. I surround you with huge sympathy and concern. May you find courage and strength to go on; may you in time find peace. For now please forgive my moving on to matters of far less moment, but this is a blog about writers and writing.

Next on my list then, all those of you who have ever doubted yourselves, or known deep despair. Those who have struggled to get published, who have felt hopeless and diminished. Those who have burned/shredded/drowned a manuscript following a rejection slip or an ominous silence from a prospective agent. Those whose hearts are failing them for fear of another year of knock-backs. Yes, you, my fellow writers. I’d like to send you a seasonal gift: some heartening statistics culled from the latest Mslexia magazine. In short, hope.

Man Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, was rejected 78 times before his first novel was accepted for publication. I bet you haven’t amassed 78 yet.

Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having even one accepted. OK, you don’t write or even like poetry. I get it.

It took Malorie Blackman two years, submitting eight/nine different books, and 82 rejection letters before she was published. Now that’s what I call determination and awe-inspiring self belief.

The HelpKathryn Stockett‘s bestseller The Help was rejected by 60 agents. What does that tell you about agents? Flick your nose at that one you selected – who’s heard of her anyway?

Elmear McBride‘s multi-award winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing made the rounds to agents and publishers for nine years before someone recognised its potential. OK, it has had poor reviews from the public but at least it’s risen above the radar.

Zen and the Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the most rejected bestseller. It was rejected 121 times before going on to sell five million copies. 121! And you thought you were in the wrong job?

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverBestselling We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver was rejected by her own agent (who rated it so poorly she made Shriver pay the bill for photocopying) and 30 publishers. NB. Shriver went on to marry said agent’s husband! Phew. Some revenge, huh?! Hey, I never said those were the kind of tactics to adopt.

Author of twenty novels Anne Tyler has disavowed her first four because she now shudders at the lack of redrafting and character development. If you’re still within your own first four … or eight … or more … come on! What are you – a mouse?

A recent survey of 2254 women writers by Mslexia revealed that one in three submit less than a fifth of their finished work. Why? Because they fear rejection. Hmmm. Chin up folks! Re-read the above facts … And again … Perseverance and sheer cussed determination – that’s the name of the game. So, enough of doubt and timidity! Gird your loins and get that manuscript out there in 2016. It certainly won’t get noticed languishing in the drawer marked Failures.

And all blessings of the season whatever it means to you to all readers of my blog, struggling or not, writers or not. Thank you for your support.Christmas gift

 

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Checking, authenticating, correcting

As you know, my current novel is out for review and expert critique. And as comments come in I’m revising the text. With confidence.

I’m not a great fan of books which rely heavily on local dialect and idioms – they can be jolly hard work. But a touch of linguistic colour here and there, used judiciously, can be a happy substitute for wordy description. So, I’m indebted to my expert in Scots for the correct use of words like ‘wursel’ and ‘baws’ and ‘faither’, and the knowledge that kids from an area of multiple deprivation wouldn’t say their mother had ‘scarpered’, she’d have ‘skidaddled’.

scarper Brit. sl. run away, escape [prob. f. It, scappare escape, infl. by rhyming sl. Scapa Flow = go]

An Irish friend tells me that ‘slutty’, ‘ponsy’ and ‘poxy’ aren’t authentic currency even amongst the coarser element of the emerald isle – although I confess I’m too craven to use some of the more startling alternatives.

My contact in the police force has given me invaluable insights into the work of Family Liaison Officers and the protocol at the scene of a car crash, saving me from a significant faux pas.

All tremendously helpful advice, and in my judgement, a very necessary part of the editorial process.

It grieves me when I spend good money on  a book that hasn’t even nodded in the direction of a sound edit. I don’t want to embarrass a well-intentioned novice so I won’t name and shame the author of a particularly bad example I read this month, but one does wonder what possesses some publishers to send out real garbage, whilst others pass over masterly writing. Seems like a cross between whim and lottery. And there seems to be a growing trend towards fads and ‘copy-cat’ publishing of mediocre or downright substandard books, rather than supporting originality and exciting trend-setting.

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverDid you know that Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was rejected by 30 publishers! If you’re in the mood for a bit of light relief click here for some of the misguided and rather rude comments made to 30 other authors whose work then went on to be acclaimed and lauded. Yesss!! As Frank Sinatra once said: The best revenge is massive success. Indeedy.

The Casual Vacancy

Published by Little Brown & Co

Am I being too precious? What are your thoughts on the quality of what you read? Do you look for authenticity and accuracy? That’s the question queen of blogging Dovegreyreader asks in her review of JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy. A health care professional herself, she was shocked by the implausibility of certain sections of the story. As a writer I suspect my own personal approach borders on the obsessive, but do you, the readers, really care?

 

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To write or not to write? that is the question

As I indicated last week, it’s an ongoing preoccupation with me – will readers want to immerse themselves in dark, melancholic tales? The issues I tackle all have this side to them, and each time I have to work hard at achieving a healthy balance; each time I worry: have I got it right?

Take Right to Die. Right to DieFor those of you who haven’t read it, it tells the story of a young man, Adam, who develops Motor Neurone Disease when he’s only 38. He knows he will die within a couple of years or so. Yep, plenty of scope for low spirits there, and I confess I still can’t read it without weeping myself. But then, I know Adam intimately. I lived with him for several years, and his spirit lingers with me. It’s personal.

the bookclub ladiesSo it was tremendously warming last Thursday to be invited to put in a guest appearance at a book club, and hear that, though they feared the worst, the members didn’t find the book at all depressing. They were so generous about it, and we had a wonderfully uplifting evening analysing why not, and teasing out the components of a book that ensure a good read. Yes, we did discuss the pros and cons of assisted dying along the way, but also what made Adam warm to the colourful Jamaican physio Lydia, but not the texbook perfect Veronique. Do exemplary GPs like Hugo Curtis really exist? Why did the cat have to die? What was really going on in that closed room between the GP and his patient? Do we smell romance between two of the principle characters? Very confirming. And such fun. I salute you, ladies! (Apologies for the poor quality photo – it doesn’t do you justice.)

This got me thinking about other books of a similar complexion. You know the kind of thing: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin;  Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes; Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones et al. And no, those novels didn’t depress me either. Why not? Because the macabre subjects (teenage massacres, rape and murder) were handled so skilfully, the stories so well told. I was challenged but not crushed.

Which brings me to Jeffrey Eugenides. MiddlesexI read and loved his wonderful book on hermaphroditism, Middlesex, ages ago. So when I saw his earlier novel, The Virgin Suicides, I snapped it up. This week it rose to the top of my pile and I devoured it in two sittings.

It’s not in the same league as Middlesex, but still worth reading. Basically it tells the story of the five adolescent Lisbon sisters who all commit suicide. Dark material? Positively ink black. The girls grow up in an eccentric and isolated environment. They’ve become an object of fascination to the local boys who watch them from various vantage points, and even on one memorable occasion, entice four of them out a joint date – the only one they were ever allowed. The narrator is one of these lads who, now grown up, looks back at the unfolding saga as if he’s compiling evidence for what happened, and searching for a plausible explanation.

Hmm. Teenage suicide, self harming – definitely not cheery bedtime reading, I think we’d all agree, so why is it so entertaining? Well, the tone, the style of writing, the irony, the humour of each situation, bring a light touch that seems to take the sting out of the essential tragedy, diverting attention and setting a broader canvas against which the lives of these doomed girls are played. Hard to describe so I’ll try to illustrate what I mean.

We aren’t worrying all the time about terrible happenings jumping out at us just as we start to get attached to the characters. Come to think of it, I didn’t form an attachment to any of them. We know from the outset that they will all die as you can see from the opening sentence.

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.

And we also know early on that we are in sure hands. From Eugenides’ account of the girls’ intentions:

And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note … ‘Obviously, Doctor,’ she said, ‘you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.’

… and even of the deed itself:

Through a side window we could see Mr Lisbon standing in the shrubbery. When we came out the front door we saw that he was holding Cecilia, one hand under her neck and the other under her knees. He was trying to lift her off the spike that had punctured her left breast, traveled through her inexplicable heart, separated two vertebrae without shattering either, and come out her back, ripping the dress and finding air again. The spike had gone through so fast there was no blood on it. It was perfectly clean and Cecilia merely seemed balanced on the pole like a gymnast. The fluttering wedding dress added to this circusy effect. Mr Lisbon kept trying to lift her off, gently, but even in our ignorance we knew it was hopeless and that despite Cecilia’s open eyes and the way her mouth kept contracting like that of a fish on a stringer it was just nerves and she had succeeded, on the second try, in hurling herself out of the world.

… and the funeral:

Only the family filed past the coffin. First the girls walked past, each dazed and expressionless, and, later, people said we should have known by their faces. ‘It was like they were giving her a wink,’ Mrs Carruthers said. ‘They should have been bawling, but what did they do? Up to the coffin, peek in, and away. Why didn’t we see it?’ Curt Van Osdol, the only kid at the Funeral Home, said he would have copped a last feel, right there in front of the priest and everybody, if only we had been there to appreciate it. After the girls passed by, Mrs Lisbon, on her husband’s arm, took ten stricken steps to dangle her weak head over Cecilia’s face, rouged for the first and last time ever. ‘Look at her nails,’ Mr Burton thought he heard her say. ‘Couldn’t they do something about her nails?’ And then Mr Lisbon replied: ‘They’ll grow on. Fingernails keep growing. She can’t bite them now, dear.’

This concentration on seemingly unconnected and disproportionately trivial points fits with the narrator’s original naive understanding of what was really happening. The tragedy of five teenage suicides in one family, of the subsequent disintegration, is subsumed under a welter of information about swarms of fish flies, and cats yowling, and unearthly smells, and protests about tree felling, and boys trying to glimpse girls in various states of undress – the preoccupations of adolescent youths. In this case a very clever tactic for counter balancing the horror of the Lisbon tragedies. The more adult understanding that comes from later interviews with neighbours, teachers, parents; the piecing together of exhibits which make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible, is titrated in as necessary in order to create a cohesive picture of what was really going on.

Reading this, analysing it, was like a mini master class for me. Would that I had this kind of skill. It also made me see that dark topics need not be off limits.

 

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