Hazel McHaffie

Mslexia

Finishing touches

Writing in Mslexia (the magazine for women who write), author Meg Clothier says ‘books finish themselves in their own bittersweet time.‘ Yes, indeed. And to rush the process is to sacrifice security and satisfaction with the end result. I’ve just completed yet another (you may well groan!) revision of my current novel Killing me Gently, and I believe/think/hope it’s almost complete. But even once it’s prepared for publication, I’ll be checking it one more time – for anomalies that may be introduced by the person formatting it, as well as infelicities that show up at this point in the process.

Even at this stage, though, once the actual text of the story has been submitted, my work is far from over. There’s the small matter of strap line/pithy saying for the front cover, blurb for the back cover, relevant information for the cover designer, questions for bookclubs, acknowledgements, reviews/endorsements … each piece of the jigsaw has to be slotted in seamlessly.

Which brings me to a matter that’s been exercising my mind rather a lot this week. I’ve been reading surveys and articles and opinion columns about women writers, and it’s clear the odds are stacked against us. We are under-represented at most levels and in most areas. It’s notoriously difficult for us to find the time and emotional energy to write, and to prioritise our writing, when our lives are already split between day job and caring responsibilities. It took me years to accept that my writing was important enough to be allocated dedicated uninterrupted time, to respect it as a real job, not something that would always play second fiddle to the demands of others. Thankfully I’m at an age and stage now when it’s much more do-able. The older generation within our family have died; the younger ones are standing on their own two feet; my responsibilities for other people are more circumscribed. I’m also fortunate enough to have a partner who shoulders his share of the domestic tasks and supports me in my career (well, most of the time anyway!). But my heart goes out to all those talented people who’re weighed down by the burdens of life, and who feel they have no choice but to let their talents and dreams fall off the edge of their days. If you know any, please do your best to cherish and support and encourage them.

Oh, and by the way, while we’re talking home truths, writing as a career is not the dream job, the leisurely activity, the doddle, many people seem to think it is. The potential health hazards lying in weight for the serious writer are legion: stress, depression, weight gain, anxiety, sleep problems, eye strain, back strain, repetitive strain injury, digestive problems, back troubles, headaches, loneliness, insecurity, disappointment, despair, self-doubt  … to name but a few. So how come I’m still obsessed with doing it long after normal retirement age? Because I feel bereft when I’m not writing, that’s why!

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Creating a bestseller

I think I’m pretty realistic about my own potential as a novelist but it doesn’t stop me exploring the reasons for other writers’ phenomenal success. So I was intrigued by an article by Debbie Taylor, founder and editorial director of the women writers’ journal Mslexia, in the June/July/August edition. What is it about certain books that appeals to so many people that they become runaway bestsellers, she wanted to know? Ears pricked. Eyes wide open. Brain in gear. Is there any hope …?

Well, apparently researchers have textually analysed 20,000 published novels using a bank of 1000 computers (mind spins into boggle-mode) and come up with some answers. And such is the accuracy of their findings that editors and agents all over the world are apparently sitting up and taking notice. Well, you would, wouldn’t you, when ‘of the 55,000 new novels published in the US each year … just 200 reach the New York Times bestseller lists (0.3 percent) and only four will stay there long enough to sell a million copies (0.007 per cent)‘. An algorithm to improve on the odds? What’s not to like?

Ahhh, well … of course, there’s bound to be a strong cohort of discerning professionals in the real book world who’re understandably sniffy about an inanimate piece of kit being a better judge of literary merit than their finely honed, expertly trained, clever human brains. But Debbie T has stirred the pot and tipped in findings from a number of research teams and spread out a number of conclusions for us to taste and test.

OK, so what does make a runaway success? Four main characteristics to start with it transpires:

  1. One signature topic per author
  2. One of the additional topics should be in conflict with the central theme
  3. A recognisably realistic setting/characters
  4. Emotional closeness between the main protagonists.

Hmmm. Nothing revolutionary there, I’d say. Moving on … What about the plot? A variety of aspects can be compelling, it seems:

  1. Emotional roller-coasters for the characters and readers
  2. Plenty of peaks and troughs to maintain suspense
  3. A protagonist with conflicting impulses
  4. Larger than life characters
  5. A central dramatic quest
  6. High life-and-death stakes
  7. Several intimate viewpoints
  8. An interesting setting
  9. A high-concept what-if premise

In short, authors need ‘to think about what readers want‘.

  1. Stimulation.
  2. Entertainment.
  3. Emotional engagement.
  4. Hooks and cliff-hangers. The kind of breathless ups and downs that films and TV series are made of.

And if that isn’t all too depressingly obvious, you don’t even need to be able to string a sentence together elegantly. Staccato sentences, limited vocabulary, predictable plots, can make it to the mega-bestseller list because … and here’s the nub … if it’s to sell in its millions a book has to be read by people who don’t read much as well as by confirmed bookworms. Intellectual readers might sniff at the poor structure and lack of literary brio but as long as they’re addicted they’ll all want more of the same.

It’s a cruel unjust world out there, guys!!

Elsewhere in the same journal, novelist and short-story judge, Deborah Levy gives her personal take on why one writer’s work is more compelling than another: ‘In the end, it is about the mystery of that thing called Voice … it’s about the particularity of the writer’s attention: how she is looking and listening.‘ Yes, indeedy. A slippery something but we like to think we’ll know it when we see it.

Oh, and I must remember to drop a few hints in appropriate quarters … according to this same edition of my literary magazine,  Kate Summerscale‘s publisher sent her ‘an extraordinary profusion of flowers‘ to congratulate her on a new book deal! Hello? VelvetEthics Press are you listening?

Chance would be a fine thing!!

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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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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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Literary pearls

This week’s dramatic announcement that Harper Lee’s second novel is about to be published more than 50 years after her runaway success,To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird, has given me renewed hope. It really really doesn’t matter that my own timetable has been derailed by illness. I should simply relax and enjoy this ‘sabbatical’ (four months so far and counting).

One notable bonus is that it has given me space to read a more than usually wide range of books – when the physical body is reduced to sleeping/resting for a considerable portion of the day, it helps psychologically to let the mind soar free. And I’ve been struck by the sheer magnificence of other writers’ writing. I mean, who wouldn’t stand in awe of Harper Lee’s delicious child’s-eye view of the eccentric and prejudiced Deep South of the 60s? And listen to her description of the heat in the tired old town of Maycomb:

‘… bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.’

Or the narrator’s formidable aunt:

‘To all parties present and participating in the life of the country, Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn. She would never let a chance escape her to point out the shortcomings of other tribal groups to the greater glory of her own …’

So this week I thought I’d share some other pearls discovered in my mental travels. In no particular order …

A pithy but graphic summary of an illness:

‘Thinness remains the god of glamour, the god of control, popularity and success. Thinness trips along on her finest stilettos with her bone hips exposed through layers of fabric, waving her stick arms and calling like the Pied Piper for new children to follow. Sadly they do. But this is a false god. This is a god that draws to the grave. Thinness laughs as her new charges refuse their food, spit out, vomit in secret and spin in front of mirrors to look at backs where a bony spine chatters, still exclaiming that they are so fat.’  (Ruth Joseph in Remembering Judith)

Books on my Shelves-2A vivid metaphor:

‘Mamie’s old people’s home is something else. I wonder how much it costs a month, a luxury home like this? Mamie’s room is big and light, with lovely furniture and lovely curtains, a little adjoining living room and a bathroom with a marble bathtub, as if Mamie could care less that her tub is marble when her fingers are concrete … Besides, marble is ugly.’   (Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

A useful perspective for a writer:

‘To relax my mind I remember the following:

First, I am not the centre of the universe. What a load that takes off!

Two, I do not need to write the piece that ends all pieces. It does not exist.

Three, life is meant to be enjoyed.’

(Dahlia Fraser in ‘How I Keep Going’ for Mslexia Winter 2014/15)

Books on my Shelves 3A wonderfully evocative report of a real life event:

‘It is now five and a quarter years since Sir John Chilcot began his inquiry into the Iraq war. Yesterday I spent what felt like five and a quarter years listening to him talk about it. On and on his answers – for want of a better word – drifted. You could practically hear the seasons changing outside …

Into the committee room he shuffled, wearing the patient, slow-blinking frown of an elderly tortoise …

I don’t wish to suggest that Sir John is inarticulate. He is, if anything, too articulate. Ask him a question that demands a simple yes or no and you will receive, in their stead, a grand unfurling of impeccably constructed verbiage. He speaks funnily enough, in the language of an official report: clauses as long as sentences, sentences as long as paragraphs, paragraphs as long as pages, now and then slipping seamlessly into a footnote and then seamlessly out again.’    (Michael Duncan writing in ‘Seven minutes to say hello’ for the Telegraph, 5 February 2015 )

A  wise but humorous observation:

‘Unpunctuality is the impoliteness of policemen.’  (Ruth Rendell in Not in the Flesh)

An unusual description:

‘… one of those houses – or its living room was – which are furnished with most of the necessaries of life, things to sit on and sit at, things to look at and listen to, to supply warmth or keep out cold, insulate the walls and cover the floors, but with nothing to refresh the spirit or gladden the heart, compel the eye or turn the soul’s eye towards the light. The predominant colour was beige. There was a calendar (Industry in Twenty-First Century UK) but no pictures on the walls, no books, not even a magazine, a small pale blue cactus in a beige pot but no flowers or other plants, no cushions on the bleak wooden-armed chairs and settee, a beige carpet but no rugs. The only clock was the digital kind with large, very bright green, quivering figures.’    (Ruth Rendell in Not in the Flesh)

Books on my Shelves-1What a fabulous thing the human mind is that it can conjure such eloquence out of a mere 26 letters. And how fortunate am I to have a roomful of books stacked floor to ceiling to keep me engrossed no matter how long I have to spend indisposed. Who knows, maybe by the time my heart is functioning normally again my bookshelves will be empty! Although I must confess I struggle to send books I’ve loved and admired to the charity shop.

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A diminishing art

Hmm. The latest edition of the women’s writing journal Mslexia has come down in favour of writing books by hand. HandwritingAuthor and workshop leader Jackee Holder reckons that the act of writing with pen/pencil and paper unleashes an extra layer of creativity. The slowness and concentration help you to focus and connect to what you’re writing. D’you think she’s right? Is that your experience?

Queen of chick lit, Jill Mansell, says she hand writes her novels … whilst sitting on a sofa with daytime TV blaring! Goodness, gracious! Queen of nothing me, I much prefer typing my stories – so much faster and easier to tweak and rearrange and cut and paste and find my way round – in perfect peace and quiet, squirrelled away in my study.

But maybe these other authors are more single-minded, not using their hands/time for all the multitude of tasks mine are grappling with. They’re certainly unlikely to be painting interminable iron railings! It has taken more-hours-than-I-care-to-tot-up of painstaking work for ours to go from pink primer to grey undercoat to black top coat (multiply the surface area you see by 2). Unbelievably fiddly and time consuming and weather dependent. We’re planning to christen them our ‘Independence Gates’ because we were working on them in the run up to, and during, Scotland’s vote on the referendum question.

Iron railings

Of course, I’m still writing and reading and thinking alongside the painting. Indeed tedious tasks like this offer very useful thinking/plotting time. I’d love to share my recent reading with you – it’s unexpected and challenging and uncomfortable – but I can’t  because it would spoil the denouement of my current novel if you knew in advance where I’m going. Suffice it to say that some of my acquaintances will draw in their breath sharply – at the very least!

I’m also mentally preparing for a number of looming author appearance – if you’re in the Edinburgh area and interested, I’m at the Portobello Book Festival on Saturday 4 October  (talking about dementia and Remember Remember), and the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge on Tuesday 21st October (focusing on organ transplantation and Over My Dead Body). If you come, do make yourself known to me. Incidentally, though they’re ticketed events, both are FREE! With these forthcoming appearances in mind the horrific experience of Kate Long, successful author of seven novels, resonated with me this week. Fairly early on in her career, she attended a bookclub session where members were discussing one of her novels. Turns out no one but the group organiser had liked it at all and they roundly condemned it – in her presence. What made it worse was that Kate had spent £100 and travelled 200 miles to attend the event! And she didn’t like to ask for reimbursement because the group were part of a charity. Insult to injury comes to mind. However, on reflection, since she felt nothing could ever be that bad again, the encounter actually gave her confidence. She now knew she had the inner strength to survive and acquit herself with dignity, whatever was thrown at her. Give that woman a medal for sharing her humiliation with the rest of us. That takes courage. Oh, and subsequent undisputed success, maybe, too.

To date I’ve been lucky; I’ve never encountered that sort of negativity. But maybe I should prepare myself. I’m not at all sure I should bob back as healthily as Kate.

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On a roll

I’m buzzing!

Nine hours stuck on a train to London and back on Monday … could have been tedious. In fact it reaped rich rewards. On the way down it was four hours’ reading time. On the way back though, my mind went into overdrive and I got totally stuck into mapping out my next novel. Yep, the whole thing! The catering team plied me with drinks and food and smiles, my fellow passengers respected the rules of the Quiet Coach, and by 11.30pm my notebook was full.

Since then the old brain has been in sixth gear (or whatever it is that facilitates speed and efficiency), and a great big bit of me wants to escape to a remote island and just write. Life though, in all its humdrum-ness, can’t be shelved that easily, so I’m contenting myself with thinking and jotting whenever and wherever I can, empowered by that clear framework.

Rather than leave you high and dry though, I’m simply going to share some pearls gleaned from the latest Mslexia which appealed to the pedant in me. We all quote famous phrases at times, don’t we, but how often do we misquote, I wonder?

Which of these sayings do you think is accurate?

1. ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (Sherlock Holmes speaking)

2. ‘Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble’ (the 3 witches)

3. ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’ (Hamlet’s mother)

4. ‘Theirs but to do or die’ (The Light Brigade)

5. ‘A rose by any other name smells just as sweet’ (Juliet)

6. ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ (Congreve)

7. ‘Please, sir, can I have some more?’ (Oliver)

How many did you rate as accurate? Below this picture of a beautiful tree currently blooming in our Japanese garden, are the results, so don’t look yet if you haven’t finished the exercise.

Spring blossomIn reality, every one of these is a misquote. Yes, really!  The correct versions are:

1. It doesn’t appear in any of Conan Doyle’s writings!

2. ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’

3. ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’

4. ‘Theirs but to do and die’

5. ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’

6. ‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/ Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’

7. ‘Please, sir, I want some more’

How did you fare?

 

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Assorted tips from writers’ lives

Time for a  Blue Peter moment methinks. Another round-up of literary titbits (mostly from Mslexia, The Author and the Telegraph) that have resonated with me, and will hopefully give you glimpses into the lives and thoughts of writers and what they’re up against in today’s climate. Saving you the slog of trawling through several publications yourself – always supposing you had any appetite for doing so! And OK, I’ll come clean … these quotes are a tad past their sell-by date and have been sitting waiting to be posted for several weeks. Indeed two more editions of the journals are at this moment glaring at me from my toppling tbr pile, but that’s another story. Here goes then.

The Author journalsOn being a writer …

New pet hate is people saying ‘I might go freelance.You seem to manage …’ I NEVER GO TO SLEEP, THAT’S WHY.  (A writer-subscriber to Twitter)

On the writing process …

You never, if you write fiction, talk about your work in progress. You learn quite early that, once the steam is let out of a story through talk, it can never be recovered. When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it. (Terence Blacker)

The real danger is when a character is not a character but a mouthpiece for a particular ‘ism’. (Amanda Craig)

Pages peppered with punctuation mistakes and obvious typos are the literary equivalent of leaving the loo with one’s skirt caught in one’s knickers. (Alice Slater)

By dramatising points of view or social evils, by making us care about purely invented beings, a novelist can change how we see real people in a real world. But the trick is to take the reader with them – not bash them over the head with its arguments. (Amanda Craig)

On the consequences of being a writer …

Depression is thought to affect writers at a rate of eight to ten times higher than people in the general population. (Faridah Newman)

… one is always likely to be more conscious of where one has failed than of any successes one may apparently have had. The awareness of failure is more enduring, and for a writer more constant. One’s books are never as good as they were going to be. (Alan Massie)

But in the end this is [Dan Brown‘s] worst book, and for a sad, even noble, reason – his ambition here wildly exceeds his ability. (Jake Kerridge)

Mslexia journalsOn the competition …

With over 150,000 new books published each year and only a handful of reputable journals, papers and websites which review them, it’s another huge challenge to get noticed amongst all the boxes of books delivered to reviewers weekly.’ (Rosalind Kerven)

On earning a living …

In the absence of a global crackdown, the number of ebooks being read that have not been paid for will increase alarmingly. (Andrew Rosenheim)

On reaching the public …

If a novel doesn’t arouse your curiosity at some level, it’s dead in your hands. (Ian McEwan)

 Plenty to think about as I peg away all alone in my garret.

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A canter round the journals

Time for another round up of snippets from the journals. All of them taken from the latest two editions of Mslexia.

How about this for a marketing strategy?

Bethan Jones of Harvill Secker ran the publicity campaign for Erin Morgenstein‘s debut novel, The Night Circus (which I blogged about a while ago). She gave herself nine months to promote it (wow! nine months!). Early proofs were sent out packaged in the trademark black and white of the night circus, with nothing but a circus calling card attached. A second copy followed with a bag of themed sweets. Pre-publication events included a circus tent at a Festival, circus acts outside bookshops, an online game created to appeal to young adults. Bethan Jones met with editors of glossy magazines, leading to features in Marie Claire and Vogue. She even stayed up one night sewing 50 red scarves (such as those worn by circus fans in the novel) for staff in Waterstones to wear on publication day. Booksellers elsewhere were encouraged to play on the circus theme and many did.

The Night Circus became the second bestselling fiction debut of 2011. What imagination and flair! Wouldn’t we all like someone like that on our side?

An encouraging word for women writers everywhere

Danuta Keane (Books Editor of Mslexia) writes:

Published or unpublished, every woman writer I know juggles her day-to-day responsibilities of job, house and family with writing. Their commitment to their craft is evidenced by the hours they keep; rising with the summer sun or staying up late to fill in the crack in their schedule with creative writing. Yet, rarely have I found one who would agree that she is a marvel. Instead we berate ourselves for not being ‘good enough’ mothers, partners, workers, writers… We seem unable to celebrate what we do. But we should! … So pour yourself a glass of wine and sit back and enjoy a well-earned moment to recharge your batteries ...’

Comforting, huh?

Unreliable narrators – should I? shouldn’t I?

Playwright and novelist Lesley Glaisters recommends considering a protagonist who can’t be relied upon to give a true perspective. She points to three brilliant examples – all taken from books that impressed me greatly when I read them.

Notes on a ScandalBarbara in Notes on a Scandal, presents herself as an unselfish, balanced colleague of schoolteacher Sheba who has had an affair with a male pupil, but is in reality a needy predator herself.

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverEva in We Need to Talk about Kevin is writing letters to her husband, Franklin, about their son, Kevin, who has committed acts of great brutality. In fact Franklin in dead.

Jack, in Room, is a five-year-old boy who has been incarcerated in a 11 foot square shed with his mother all his life. She teaches him that this bare and cramped room is the whole world, and Jack’s perspective is distorted by the reality she has created.

Three chillingly complex characters who give the reader pause for thought: all is clearly not as it seems to be, but the truth emerges subtly and cleverly.

I’m much taken with the idea of an unreliable narrator – but could I pull it off?

Get out in the garden to improve your writing

Scientists have discovered that bacteria in soil work in a similar way to antidepressants. Getting your hands dirty can be better than Prozac! So if your enthusiasm for writing has waned, try weeding!

Beat this!

A hotel in Cumbria has swapped Gideon Bibles for copies of EL James Fifty Shades of Grey. Cultural commentators and demographers have predicted a baby boom next spring after a summer of sexual fantasy!

So there we go. A few tasters for you. Something to ponder. But can you feel the pent up ire fizzing through this week’s blog?  At a critical moment the computer decided to throw a teenage tantrum and wiped out every single one of my electronic links and editorial changes. And I hadn’t provoked it in any way, honestly I hadn’t. I’d like to be able to report that I maintained gentle maternal calm, but it wouldn’t be true. I had my own little hissy fit. Then it was back to the drawing board for me.

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More gems on writers and writing

I’m deep into my next novel at the moment so my mind is rather preoccupied. I’ve been experimenting with several different narrative voices, but the current one seems to hit the spot. The prose is flowing more smoothly; indeed I’m having to get up in the night to commit the torrent of thoughts and words to the computer. It’s a good feeling.

But the better the fictional life goes the harder it is to psyche myself back into the real world. A good time perhaps to share a few more assorted gems gleaned from my catch-up of literary journals during the winter months. Today’s snippets come from Mslexia (‘a journal for women who write’) and The Author (the official publication of The Society of Authors). In no particular order …

On writing and living

Katherine McMahon, novelist:  ‘When I was talking to biographer Hilary Spurling about writing, she said unequivocally: “If someone asks me whether they should become a writer, I always say: not if you can do anything else.” After all writers are by their very nature outsiders, watchers, not only of others but of themselves. There’s a touch of dysjuncture between living and writing … To be a writer is to contemplate one’s humanity in all shades from brilliance to murk. Living and writing: a dangerous, exciting, compelling combination.

Me: And satisfying and disturbing, and grounding and exhilarating, and zapping and invigorating.

On the definition of a writer?

Robert Hull, children’s poet:   ‘The question pops up each time The Author arrives. To be able to say “I published a book last week” or “I’ve a collection/novel coming out next month,” would be a good answer: “Yes, of course you’re an author.” Whereas (to anticipate) to say in 2016 that “I published a book in 2011” wouldn’t persuade anyone. In that five years my claim to authordom will have faded. …

But perhaps, if I’ve not published anything for a while, and am not likely to, I can still be a ‘writer’. After all many, many people are ‘writers’. They emerge from Creative Writing degree courses in their hundreds …

Evidently the noun is a problem. The verb makes less of a claim. “I’m a writer” says that existentially that’s what I “am”. But “I write” is both more modest and more accurate. Writing is one of the things I do. I also ride a bike, go to Greece when possible, do a bit in the garden, cook occasionally. I’m not thereby a biker or a gardener or a traveller or a cook. The verb fits, but the noun surrounds one with a kind of aura, intimating that the activity is all-consuming; it defines one. Which it can do legitimately only if it is all-consuming.

It is in a sense all-consuming to have to earn one’s living by an activity. “I’m a bus-driver,” sounds right; it can hardly mean that I occasionally drive a bus, when I’m in the mood or can afford it. Nor can I be a nuclear physicist at weekends. Not without making the neighbours nervous.

I do not need to be “a writer”. I can focus on the verb, on writing. I can make a psychological retreat from clinging to authordom to finding satisfaction in writing … ‘ 

Me: A comforting answer to a perennial question.

On the benefits of writing

Linda Kelsey, confessional writer:   ‘Sometimes I feel I don’t know my true feelings about anything until I write it all down. Only in the process of writing, it seems, do I get to the emotional core.

Me: That’s been one of the unexpected benefits for me of writing a blog. Helps me analyse issues and marshall my thoughts more carefully and succinctly than I otherwise would.

On the process of writing fiction

Susan Hill, journalist, broadcaster, publisher, author:   ‘Fiction is about putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and walking around to see how they feel.’

Me: Indeedy. Reminds me of the Indian proverb: Judge no man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.

On the reason for writing  fiction

Gillian Slovo, author, journalist, playwright:   ‘… fiction can go places that nonfiction cannot go, because it can inhabit the field in a full-hearted way.’

Me: My sentiments exactly. I’m currently totally inhabiting the world of a family torn in two by a terrible car crash. Steer well clear!

On fictional characters

William Nicholson, screenwriter,playwright, novelist:   ‘I want to read about and write about people the author loves. For me, the greatness of the novel form is about going into the hearts and minds of people.

Me: Mmhm. Me too. If the author doesn’t engage with them, why should I?

On excellent literary blogs

Amanda Craig, novelist, journalist and broadcaster:   ‘I’d recommend … Cornflower for intelligent, non-metropolitan fiction reviews (cornflower.typepad.com) – and best of all, Lynne Hatwell for thoughtful, knowledgeable, kindly reviews and musings on Devon life (dovegreyreader.typepad.com): a model to which I think all blogs should aspire.’

Me: Hear, hear. Two of my favourites, too.

On promoting one’s books

Joan Smith, novelist, essayist, columnist and campaigner for human rights:   ‘The entry of showbiz values into the business of authorship means that some publishers are looking for “personalities”, larger-than-life characters they know how to promote, as much as writers with original talent … Increasingly, novelists need to be able to sell themselves as well as their books, a demand that works against anyone who is reticent by nature.’

Me: Tough on those who’ve been breastfed on modesty and humility too.

On connecting with the reader

Andrew Taylor, novelist:   ‘… despite all the evidence we provide to the contrary, the myth persists that authors rather than their books are somehow strangely fascinating and even touched with a sort of moral authority … through our books, authors have an indefinable but undeniable connection with the minds of their readers that gives us a curious status in our culture.

Me: I once gave a lift to a woman who, in the course of our journey, asked what I did. When I told her, she stared at me in open-mouthed wonder and murmured, ‘I’ve never sat next to someone who wrote books before.’  Nothing I could say would diminish her awe.

On meeting a favourite author

Margaret Atwood, poet, novelist, essayist, literary critic: ‘If you like paté, don’t bother meeting the duck.’

Me: I used that quote at my book launch a couple of weeks ago. And I hope it leaves you smiling today.

 

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