Hazel McHaffie

Listen

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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The spice of life

Well, life chez nous is certainly not dull …

… what with letters from high places (well, I think palaces and kings-in-waiting are designated high, aren’t they?) plopping through the letter box …

… a  draft novel from a debut writer (587 pages, 230,100 words! – guaranteed to keep me out of mischief for a few days, huh? ) arriving bang on cue …

… snow closing roads on Tuesday; warm enough to sit outside for meals four days later …

… running workshops in London one weekend; helping family move house in the Scottish Borders the next …

… a steady stream of readers signing up for my new novel … then suddenly and inexplicably (to me) a glitch in the system, making it temporarily inaccessible and generating cries for help from out there in the real world (soon rectified by my much more savvy tecchy team thankfully) …

Cover of "Listen"

Yep, no time for boredom. But in spite of competing demands, I have this inner compulsion to keep up the work of writing myself, so in fleeting moments of peace I’m back in my favourite leather chair lost in a world as real to me as all of the above distractions.

And tucked in my bag for those times when I’m waiting for a bus or for someone I’m meeting in town, a book of some description. This week that was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. A nice slim lightweight volume, then. Maybe some of that Booker prize magic will leak out by a process of osmosis … or not. Of which more anon.

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‘A time to rejoice …’

Hey … time methinks for a completely undemanding, totally positive, uncomplicated post. I’ve given you some pretty heavy duty stuff lately, I know.

But … give your brain a rest, and let’s just celebrate this week. My latest book is now PUBLISHED!!

Here’s what it looks like:

Here’s what it’s about:
Professor Jocelyn Grammaticus is travelling on the 8.20 CrossCountry train from Aberdeen to Penzance. (If you’ve never tried it, think twice before you do! – it takes almost thirteen and a half hours.) But for Jocelyn it’s more than a long sit – she’s facing the hardest ethical dilemma of her life when she arrives in Cornwall. To distract herself, she sets about writing a keynote speech due for a conference the following week, and all unwittingly the assorted passengers who flit in and out of Coach C give her food for thought. But four hours before she arrives a phonecall stops her in her tracks. Will she be in time? Will she have the moral courage to fulfil her promise?

Loads of people have asked me about the underlying theme, so if that aspect intrigues you too, it’s about informed consent. But don’t let that put you off if you’re just looking for a diverting read. Listen out for the manager who joins the train from Newcastle to York; I’d love him to accompany me! Listen to the chatter … listen to your own heart and conscience …

Oh and I should warn those of you who are familiar with my work, this book is different from my previous ones:
– it’s much shorter – classifies as a novella really.
– it’s only available in electronic form.
– we’re offering it as a FREE download. Just click here to start the process.

Do let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you – no flannel, only honest feedback, please.

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Why do we do it?

Wahey! and Yippee! Roll of drums, if you please, maestro. My tenth novel is finished! Just awaiting a few more fancy frills and computing complexities from the technical team and then we should have blast off. Feels fantastic. But also makes me realise how much angst goes on behind the scenes that readers are completely unaware of. These moments of sheer exhilaration are few and far between.

Once upon a time I had a real classifiable career. Nurse. Midwife. University researcher. Tick-box choices. Job descriptions, targets, performance indicators. Bona fide qualifications, tangible credentials. Now I’m a writer, and boy, let me tell you, this is no easy option. Goalposts? What goalposts? Documented procedures, organisational structure, monthly pay packet, career pathway … hello?

A few examples will suffice.

Pitiful pay
A study conducted at the University of London a couple of years ago found that a typical professional writer earns just £11,000 annually; less than the minimum wage. Worse – 17% of all writers earn next to nothing even in that honeymoon period shortly after having their work published.
A few weeks ago a writer who’d won a major Costa award went public on his reality: even being publicly acclaimed – in the papers even! – and having a big publisher on his side, he can’t earn enough to pay his mortgage. He has to go back to a paid job outside the literary world.

Sitting targets for vitriol
In most jobs if someone doesn’t like what you do, negative comments are confined to your place of work, and relatively private. Not so for us. Our work is out there for any Tom, Dick or Harriet – with or without literary credentials – to see. And even though reading is a subjective experience, they can slate our writing publicly. And believe me, critics can be brutal! The most recent example I’ve seen is Dominic Cavendish‘s condemnation of a certain play, Sex with Strangers, as ‘two tedious hours and punctuated by excruciating simulated raunch. It’s fit only for theatrical masochists. I’d settle for a cup of tea and watching Question Time any day‘. Ouch. And there’s nothing the poor playwright can do to erase that comment.

Crippling self doubt
In most jobs, once you’re trained and experienced, you have confidence that you can perform the tasks your post requires of you. Writing’s different. There are no A + B + C  formulae, no tried and tested procedures, to be followed slavishly towards guaranteed success. No set shift hours, no line management, none of the usual structure governing paid employment. No resting on your laurels. Every book is uniquely different, presenting new challenges, new unknowns, new misgivings. Small wonder then that self-doubt is a recognised hazard even for established authors. As best-selling horror and suspense writer Steven King says: ‘Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.’

Health risks
It’s a sedentary, solitary occupation. Eye strain, tension headaches, backache, weight gain, repetitive strain injury … to name but a few of the risks. Depression, isolation and identity crises … And no occupational health department to bail us out. No watchful boss to ease the load in a crisis. No sick pay. No occupational Bupa subscription.

I could go on – the stress of living parallel lives (real and fictional), the burden of being deep inside the skin of troubled characters, the humiliation of finding an audience of two at a library event … But I won’t!

So why on earth do we do it? Compulsion, that’s why. An irresistible drive. I personally feel quite bereft if I’m unable to write for any reason.

And such is my desire to reach out and touch lives that, in spite of all the risks and negatives, I’m actually going to be giving away my tenth novel, Listen, as a FREE download. It feels wonderfully liberating. No need for any humphs and galumphs and caveats about the price. Or anxious scanning of the sales figures. Or worries about accessibility. Or … anything! It’s yours – anybody’s – for nothing.

This one has been the most fun to write of any of my books, the quickest, the least personally demanding. I’ve had some super feedback from my cohort of critical readers too. What a thrill it is to hear … I couldn’t put it down … It really made me think … It made me get back in touch with my Mum … It made me cry … I know [one of the characters] … Not many jobs bring that kind of reward now, do they?

Oh yes, there may be many negative aspects to my chosen occupation, but I’m already plotting my eleventh novel!

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Collective nouns and other pithy sayings

One of my favourite moments in the writing process is seeing the finished cover. That’s when all the hard work crystallises into a tangible reality. This week I’ve been poring over possible designs for Listen, and I believe we’re a whisker away from the final choice. Wahey!

Alongside that, lots of reading, plotting and jotting going on, none of which would interest you, so I’m going to share another line of thought with you. The cleverness of words.

Do you, like me, love a pithy saying?

I was in a cavernous building full of antiques just after socialite and model, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson died last week, and her editor/ghostwriter was speaking on the radio. Tara, she said, had ‘a casual relationship with deadlines‘ – so much so that she, the editor, ended up ghost writing much of the material that went out in Tara’s name. ‘A casual relationship with deadlines’ – wish I’d coined that phrase myself! Reminded me of the more famous Douglas Adams quote: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’

A few other wise adages or pertinent thoughts that have resonated with me this week:

Living with him made his eccentricities curdle into pathologies.Matthew Thomas

No-one knows what is going to sell. Not really. So you might as well write the book you want to write, not the book the publishers think the market will want in two years’ time.Francesca Simon

The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.’
Robert Benchley

The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt.Sylvia Plath

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.Harper Lee

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.’ Virginia Woolf

We’ve been hearing a lot this month about flocks of starlings and their spectacular aerial displays – collective noun: a murmuration. Others that resonate with me and seem particularly apt are

a shrewdness of apes

a sleuth of bears

a bask of crocodiles

a flamboyance of flamingoes

an exhaltation of larks

a pandemonium of parrots

an ostentation of peacocks.

The editor of the writerly journal, The Author, obviously enjoys such clever expression:

What’s the best collective noun for authors? A diversity? An advance? A recalcitrance?James McConnachie

OK, break over; back to the reading …

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A Place Called Winter

All except one of my trusted readers/critics have now given me their feedback on my latest book, Listen. Exciting times. But before I sit down for a serious edit, I’m immersing myself in some exquisite writing, beautiful language from the pen of a master, that will be a incentive to me to raise my own game – I hope!

The author? Patrick Gale. The book? A Place Called Winter. A sad, tender, compelling tale of Harry Cane’s battle with his own demons, the taboos of his day, and the wild wastelands of a new country. It’s an intensely personal novel inspired by a true story from Gale’s own family history: one gay man reaching out with sympathy and deep feeling to another (his mother’s grandfather) across a century of social change.

Harry Cane is born into privilege, raised to ‘believe that what mattered was to be unmistakably a gentleman’. He rides horses; others muck out their stables. His soft hands remain idle while callouses build up on the palms of his social inferiors. But his childhood is emotionally impoverished, with his mother dead and his father absent, schooldays punctuated by all the trials upper class boys can inflict on those they see as weaker prettier mortals. Consequently his life is centred on his younger brother Jack. It’s Jack who drags his shy insecure brother into society after their father’s death and introduces him to Winifred Wells, his future wife. Theirs is a gentle undemanding relationship which reluctantly produces one daughter before it settles into platonic coexistence.

The time is the early 1900s; apartheid is unchallenged; class distinctions rule; abortion and homosexuality are unlawful, the latter punishable by hard labour and utter disgrace; ‘treatment’ for psychiatric illness and ‘deviance’ is draconian. When his brother-in-law discovers Harry’s guilty secret, Harry – now an exiled ‘unmentionable‘ – signs up for a new start in a new country, Canada, one of 511 passengers on a ship sailing to the unknown.

The vast impossible prairies are simply waiting to be tamed, and after serving his year-and-a-day apprenticeship to a Danish farmer, Harry commits himself to converting 160 acres of wild wasteland into a self-sufficient thriving homestead within three years. Setting out with simply the map coordinates SW 23-43-25-W3, and directions to a place called Winter scribbled on the brown paper the cheese was wrapped in. An English innocent in a harsh unbroken landscape where there is ‘not much call for cash‘, and ‘neighbour is a relative term‘.

His closest neighbours are a brother and sister, Paul and Petra Slaymaker, whose lives become intimately entwined with his own. Beautiful relationships are established which are tested in the cauldron of  gossip, violence, war and illness. But their peace is threatened much more by the reappearance of a common enemy whose actions and knowledge cast a long shadow over their lives.

Gale’s writing is superb. His characters are beautifully realised, their emotions are captured with tenderness and palpable truth, and the abiding fear of loss, disgrace and exile haunts every hour of reading. Much as I revelled in the writing, though, I had a powerful feeling of desolation at times. Harry’s apologetic personality, his sad acceptance of the degrading things that happen to him, his gentle resilience, his innate decency even in the face of extreme provocation, stand in sharp contrast to the militance and ferocity of modern day campaigners for individual and collective rights. I wanted to reach out to him with compassion, understanding and reassurance.

But it’s a novel. I must instead give you a flavour of the lyrical prose:

… hot breakfast rolls as soft and pale as infancy.

… torn rags of sentences.

… they gave the impression of having emerged, fully formed, from eggs, as brittle as the waxy shells they had discarded.

There’s the heir and the spare and the heiress-beware.

A horse is ‘like a sofa with hooves‘.

‘Vaccinated by this cruel loss of his first daughter, he approached fatherhood the second time round with a certain reserve. He did not consciously harden his heart, but he loved with hands metaphorically behind his back.’

… war was declared in August, when harvest preparations were at their height. The news was sown swiftly, shaken from pulpits and scattered by posters and threshing gangs.’

I rarely give a book 5*s – this novel reminds me why. It wholeheartedly merits them. Highly recommended.

*****

 

 

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Cooking on gas!

Hmmm, this is all mightily inconvenient. There are monsters to create, gifts to wrap, cards to write, garments to make … but the new novella (working title, Listen) has taken over my brain, lock, stock and barrel! No more uninterrupted nights for me. No peaceful journeys. No relaxing with hobbies or other people’s novels.

The main protagonist has got her passport; found her birth certificate; she’s travelling! I’m trying to keep pace. She’s on a rail journey from Aberdeen to Penzance knowing a major crisis awaits her at the other end. Diversions along the way take her – and me – off at a tangent, but the train thunders relentlessly towards that endpoint. Tweakings, refinements, reorderings, present themselves at all hours at nobody’s convenience. That’s the writing life.

But of course, at this time of year, concerts and charity sales and visitors wait for no man. I dart between kitchen and study, exchange wooden spoon for keyboard … ahhh, yes, an analogy in the making. At this stage the story’s a bit like a main meal almost ready to serve; all the component parts present, but every time you taste it, there’s something not quite perfect …

Cooked meal

Seasoning

 

 

A little more seasoning, maybe?

 

 

 

Glass of wine

 

 

 

Something to give it a lift?

 

 

 

 

 

Something sweet

 

 

A sweeter ending perhaps?

 

 

 

 

 

No time to linger here, I’m afraid. Can’t let it all go cold!

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