Hazel McHaffie

literary agents

The Crabbit Old Bat

I spent a lot of time during the Festival waiting in queues for events, or in the Square between sessions, and as you know, I’m not the most patient idler! So, on my first day there, off I beetled to the Book Tent and bought Nicola Morgan‘s book Write to be Published. It’s the sort of reading that’s best broken up into digestible bites, leaving time to mull over the advice, hence an ideal choice to tuck into my bag for all those ‘between’ hours.

Write to be PublishedEssentially it’s about how to get published.

I first met Nicola when she was Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland – the kind of dynamic and generous Chair who makes it her business to know every author by name, but who hobnobs regularly with the great and the good in order to effect change for ‘her’ members. She’s a delightfully no-nonsense and entertaining wordsmith – written and spoken variety – so I had high expectations.

Listen to the biography in Write to be Published: it’s so Nicola: Nicola Morgan was born in a boy’s boarding school and has recovered remarkably well, while retaining the ability to do press-ups. After a painful struggle, she grew up to be the author of around ninety books, including category bestsellers and award-winners. She has been Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, an English teacher, dyslexia specialist, entrepreneur, professional cook, pillow-case repairer and trainee turkey-plucker (failed). Thanks to her blog, Help! I need a publisher! she dominates the Google rankings for her phrase Crabbit Old Bat, a fact of which she is unappealingly proud. She lives in Edinburgh and on chocolate.

The book follows the content of her blog but it’s ‘neater, better organised, more coherent and you can curl up with it. You can throw it at the wall when the truth hurts too much … It’s more polite, well-behaved, and controlled. It’s still me, but it’s me in a gorgeous evening dress. And stunning shoes, naturally.’

And it’s packed with sound advice about how to get a publisher to say, Yes! It’s about how to write a book that captures what a particular category of readers want. It’s about accepting that some books don’t deserve to be published but are, just as some people don’t deserve to win lotteries or earn large salaries or be successful, but do and are. It’s about knowing that there’s no shame or ridicule in low earnings. It’s about creating the right book in the right way at the right time.

It’s full of humour … ‘Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer’s stock in trade. Yes, they roll off the tongue, but so does dribble.

Vivid prose … ‘Showing can be more powerful (than telling). For example, you might tell me that Fred is cruel; but if you show me Fred ripping the legs off spiders and making a collage with them for his sister’s birthday card, it’s much stronger and I know exactly what you mean by cruel.

Wry good sense … ‘Only if a book is glitteringly brilliant from start to finish can you afford mistakes at submission stage. (Unless you are a celebrity, in which case you can write a load of drivel and not only get away with it but be lauded for it and have the plastic bits of your body photographed in silly magazines.)

The obvious delivered kindly … ‘Follow (submission guidelines) closely, unless you really think that although they said they wanted the submission emailed, they really wanted it delivered on a white horse at dawn, with a trombone serenade and three bags of Werther’s Originals.

Style … ‘One trouble with synopses is that they reduce your beautiful words to something plainer. They are your glorious self undressed and made to stand in front of the cameras in a Victorian swimming-costume under bright lights with no make-up. Well, in that situation, you would make sure you looked as good as possible, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t slouch there, letting your abdominal muscles slide earthwards – you’d hold them in, put your shoulders back, chin up. You’d try to show that if you had clothes and make-up and corsetry on you’d look sensational. A synopsis, being your story undressed, needs to do this.’

It’s also immensely reassuring. Having got her readers raring to go on and publish, she issues a typical Morgan warning: ‘I feel duty-bound to warn you about what lies ahead if you succeed. If you think published writers sit around eating chocolate, occasionally speaking a few languid words into a voice recorder, watching their assistant demi-under-publicists order another bottle of champagne or saying mwah, darling to famous people, think again. Here’s why:

  • You will suffer insecurity. We all do. Or most of us. And we hate the secure ones. How wouldn’t we be insecure, when   people tell us we’re rubbish? And if anyone says nice things, they’re often a) paid to, b) our parents or c) deluded (which includes our parents).
  • Not only do we feel insecure, we are. Being published once means that dire sales figures can prevent book two being accepted.The secure author is incredibly rare and it certainly doesn’t include me.
  • People will ask you annoying questions and you won’t be able to explain why your face just twisted up. If your face twisted up and you don’t give a smiling response, they will call you arrogant.
  • The money is usually rubbish and the hours are long.
  • You will go into bookshops and not find your books there. Then you will have to listen to a friend say, “I went into the bookshop in Upper Auchtermuchty and your book wasn’t there. Why not?”
  • Your publisher will blame you for poor sales and dump you. This is like being made redundant but without the money. On the other hand, writing is often like working but without the money.
  • Your work will at some point be reviewed negatively and this will be on the internet for ever. People will go online and spout unpleasantness. The fact that these people should be asleep instead of spewing out their dislike of your book at three in the morning, and that they can’t spell, doesn’t make it hurt less.

This is why we eat chocolate.

(NB. If you aren’t smiling by now, consider a funny-bone-transplant.)

It’s her clever blend of practical commonsense, unvarnished truth, authority and humour that makes this book such a gem. She tackles all aspects of getting published with the same bracing candour – how to behave towards agents and publishers, what makes a book right, how to write (suspense, dialogue, pace, narrative thrust, voice, setting, the lot), how to submit your work, coping with rejection – it’s all there. Highly recommended whether you’re thinking you might try to get published or if you’ve already had some success but worry about future attempts.

I can only look on with admiration at Nicola’s energy, drive and success. She’s a voice worth listening to.




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Dramatis Personae

I spend time each month with people whose memories are not what they once were. And – dare I admit it? – I’m increasingly conscious that mine is more selective than it used to be. So my ears pricked when this week Baroness Joan Bakewell made a comment about her difficulty remembering characters in a book. Writing in The Telegraph she observed that it’s easier to turn back and check the plot and who’s who in a ‘real’ book than with a Kindle. I agree in part, although of course, in reality it’s perfectly easy to bookmark a page and search for keywords with the electronic version.

I’d also add that there are occasions when I can’t remember why I’m reading a particular book in the first place – a flick to the back cover of a paperback will tell me; it requires more effort on the Kindle.

Joan Bakewell’s comments generated a small flurry of responses, and one from Bedfordshire suggested that all books should list the characters with a brief note on each. I did once include a family tree in one of my own novels (Remember Remember – which incidentally is about dementia), although my editor didn’t think it was necessary. I’m devoutly wishing the novel I’m reading right now had just such a dramatis personae. I’m having to concentrate hard to make the connections in what is a subtle plot with lots of characters (too many beginning with ‘A’: Anselm, Augustine, Agnes, Arthur, Andrew, Aubret, Anton, Armstrong, Adolf), false trails, and a lot of zipping to and fro between theĀ  generations. And what’s more several people not who they say, or even think they are. I mean, is it any wonder I’m confused?

The Sixth Lamentation

Published by Abacus (Little Brown & Co)

It’s The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick which I bought on a strong recommendation from a friend who’s read it several times. Actually if I’m honest I don’t think my difficulty is as much to do with Brodick, as to do with my juggling too many balls at the moment, which means my attention is only partially on the story that I’m reading in odd snatched moments.

Domestic crises and extra responsibilities have been vying with professional demands lately. But this week I’ve made a concerted effort to methodically tick off deadlines. So what have I accomplished? I’ve sent off the usual synopsis and first three chapters for Over My Dead Body to a potential agent; Double Trouble has gone to a film production company who’ve expressed interest in making it into a feature film; I’ve had encouraging conversations with a possible funding body to enable this to happen; and all my various blogs are up to date. Phew. A week in the life of a lowly jobbing writer.

I’m realistic – nothing may come of any of these developments, but at least my report card will read ‘Hazel demonstrates dogged persistence and works hard‘.

Maybe in two weeks’ time when my current overload is a thing of the past (now there’s a triumph of hope over experience, if ever I heard one), I can return to The Sixth Lamentation with renewed enthusiasm and perhaps this time do it justice. See, that’s where that dramatis personae would be a real boon. I’d have a head start.

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