Hazel McHaffie

Oscar Wilde

Quotable quotes from the writing journals

When the news is dominated by politics, and right royal revelations, we could probably all do with something to make us smile, so I thought I’d brighten your day with assorted wise or amusing quotes.  It’s a long time since I shared entertaining snippets from the literary journals, but, as 2019 draws to its end, it’s probably timely to give you a resume of my favourites, all taken from the Society of Authors’ official magazine: The Author, throughout 2018/19. Names in brackets are the people who submitted these gems.

A definition of stories
‘…  wonderful made-up people whose tangled stories are tattooed on woodpulp’   (Richard Smyth)

Wry humour
A Wilde Wit competition asked for original quotes that sound like something Oscar Wilde might have said. The winner came up with the two top entries:
‘I’m frequently misquoted – often accurately.’
‘An insult from the right person can be as agreeable as any compliment.’   (Andrew Taylor)

Dubious advantage
Ian McEwan‘s youngest son was obliged to read his father’s 1997 novel, Enduring Love, for his A-level course. As part of his studies he had to submit an essay on the book. The author gave him a little private tutorial on it and told him the main points to consider. Unfortunately his English teacher disagreed fundamentally and the lad got nothing more than a C! Just goes to show how subjective reading is, huh?   (Andrew Taylor)

Reporting on research into older people writing
‘… to forget self in a worthwhile project is like a tonic. Being completely immersed in what you are doing, having the mind fully engaged, having a purpose in life, waking up with something to look forward to, and knowing you are still doing something useful to, and valued by, society – these things contribute massively to a happy, healthy and fulfilled old age.’  (Robin Lloyd-Jones)

Occupational hazards
There’s currently a move to encourage authors to abandon their too comfortable writing chair, but did you know the idea has an august pedigree?
Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov and Soren Kierekegaard all worked standing up.   (Alice Jolly)

Unsung wives
Leo Tolstoy‘s wife Sonya made eight fair copies of different versions of War and Peace, bore 13 children, and even worked on the manuscript in bed while recovering from puerperal fever, the childbirth infection that killed many women.  Yet, how many folk laud her efforts? (Karen Christensen)

The place of books in our lives
‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’   (Philip Pullman)

Reader appeal
Waterstones in Swansea tweeted a message in 2018 that went viral:
‘Doors closed 15 minutes ago. As we do every evening, we’ve turned all the books upside down so the words don’t fall out overnight. It may seem like a silly waste of time, but ask yourself this: when did you last see piles of words on a Waterstones’ carpet? That’s right – NEVER.’   (Andrew Taylor)

It’s a joy to read a publication written by people who really know how to write!

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Words words words

Cartoonists, journalists, feminists, politicians, the world and his wife, are pitching in to the incident on the tennis courts this week, where Serena Williams took exception to her treatment by the umpire in the women’s final of the US Open Tennis tournament. She smashed an expensive racket in public in her frustration, and accused the umpire of being a thief. She was heavily penalised. The rights and wrongs of her tirade, the whole issue of gender equality, are not the topics I want to home in on here; what has got me thinking in all the fallout from this, though, is the power of words and the baggage that comes with them. Serena clearly read much more about discrimination into what happened than I saw.

Also this week the media spotlight has also been on death by one’s own hand: National Suicide Prevention Week 2018. The importance of taking care with the words used has been highlighted – not saying ‘commit’ suicide, for example; not ignoring subtle cries for help. Such deaths are a tragedy whichever way you look at them, but understood with much more sympathy today than they were in the past. When I was growing up, we were told to ignore taunts and bullying. ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me‘ was the response to childish angst. But of course, we now know this is patently not true. Words DO hurt. Far more deeply that a swift slap or punch. They can seriously, sometimes irrevocably, damage your health. Mental stress can be every bit as debilitating as physical ailments, perhaps even more so. Certainly my own scars from psychological onslaught are much deeper and recurrently painful than those from any bodily trauma.

So words are powerful beasts. As the Biblical writer James says in a poetic description on control and careful speech: ‘… no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison,’ and he concedes, no one has completely mastered his own tongue. And that adage IS still true. Who hasn’t regretted something they’ve said; and felt the burden of not being able to recall or erase those words? Salutary lessons all.

Which brings me to the written word. Authors do at least know the importance of the right word in the right place. I have a row of lexicons on my desk, as well as everything the internet has to offer, to help me choose wisely. Like Oscar Wilde and his famous busy day taking out and putting back a comma, I can sometimes agonise for ages about a word or phrase, take it out, put it back, tweak it, change it, before I can move on. But who can factor in the inferences and prejudices of the reader for whom those very same words can be laden with meanings and accusations and slurs and judgements unseen by me? To minimise the danger of being inadvertently (sometimes it’s deliberate, of course!) misunderstood or causing offence, I draft in a range of experts and readers to examine the text for inaccuracies or infelicities which have escaped me. Invaluable allies.

But hey, I must get back to my serious editing – I’m working to a tight deadline this week. Third draft and a further 13,000 words to lose, so a way to go yet. I find a specific target helps to concentrate the mind, making me focus on every word to see if it’s pulling its weight; actually hunting for as many as possible that are just coming along for the ride. Which again highlights the issue I started with. Words count.

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The price of everything … the value of nothing

So, that’s the Festival over for another year. Phew! Time now to settle down to the day job. But also to pause for a moment and reflect. All the talent, creativity, determination I’ve seen in these many and varied performances and exhibitions make me question: where do I fit in the bigger scale of things? How can I as a writer do better?

It took a cashier to rapidly reduce me to my proper size.

Me (enter stage left into local post office, carrying one of own books for sending to a reviewer.)

Cashier (without looking up; tone bored): ‘Where’s it going?’

Me: ‘To England.’

Cashier: ‘What’s in it?’

Me: ‘A book.’

Cashier (dismissively):  ‘So nothing of any value.’

Me (tentatively): ‘Well, the book’s priced at £7.99 …’

Cashier (fingers impatiently hovering over till): ‘First or Second Class?’

Beneath his plimsoll line evidently.

Reminded me of Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde‘s play, Lady Windemere’s Fan, who quipped that a cynic was ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing‘. Typical of Wilde, not just a memorable turn of phrase, but also touching on a problem at the heart of society. (Hey, did you know Wilde’s full name was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde? Now there’s an aside to conjure with.)

It also got me thinking. What would you get for £7.99 nowadays?

A budget quickie lunch in town?

A concession ticket to an Edinburgh Fringe Festival show?

A month of flexible prime membership with Amazon?

A modest hanging basket?

A pack of men’s socks?

Hey ho.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, could teach that postal worker a thing or two:

As the world goes digital, we also have to empower our artists and creators and protect their works. Artists and creators are our crown jewels. The creation of content is not a hobby. It is a profession. And it is part of our European culture.

YES!!

Enthusiasm rekindled. Onwards and upwards. Starting with a quick revision of the basics courtesy of literary agent Evan Marshall‘s book, Novel Writing, to get me back in the zone … well, it does say ‘16 Steps to Success’ in the subtitle!

And hey, before I’ve reached the end of the first ten pages I’m already feeling more relaxed. Be realistic, Marshall cautions, set achievable goals … factor in your own resources, responsibilities and limitations … have the self-confidence and self possession and self esteem to define for yourself what your personal definition of success should be; what will bring fulfillment and satisfaction and serenity. Wise words. So it’s all down to me then to decide what success means to me.

 

 

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‘All morning putting in a comma …’

Well, that’s the general election over for another time and what an event it was! I confess I was not one of the enthusiasts who stayed up all night watching, but I did pop in and out on Friday morning to listen to the sound of big names crashing, big egos admitting defeat, big promises being dissected, history being made.

Molly Malone

Dublin’s Molly Malone

In between I revised all the dialogue in my current novel spoken by a minor character, one Mrs Kaetlyn O’Leary who hails from Ireland. At the beginning of the week I immersed myself in a lot of stuff about just how to capture the lilt and idioms of that musical tongue; then I went through the prose meticulously introducing the telltale patterns every time she spoke: ‘he went away, so he did’, ‘sure, and you’ll be after doing it yerself’, ‘it’s meself that’ll be doing that’ and so on. Then in the middle of the week I read a whole lot more bumpf about how folk are put off by thick accents, how hard it is to get it right, and I went completely off the idea again. So out it all came on Friday. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde who famously said, ‘I’m exhausted. I spent all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out again.’ Thing is, I’m not at all sure Kaetlyn O’Leary’s voice is her own even yet, but I’ve put it to one side for the time being.

I’m getting close to the end of the book now – only about 2 or 3 chapters to go – which means that any changes I make have wide ranging consequences. Very soon I’ll have to spend my working days reading … re-reading … re-re-reading … ad nauseam, checking the authenticity and consistency of each voice, weighing up the value of each sentence, losing favourite phrases and paragraphs. Kaetlyn will probably go through several more metamorphoses – she might not even remain Irish! Fortunately for me I really love the editing phase.

Christian Aid book sale - queue on first dayAlso this week I boosted my spirits by attending the first hour of the first day of the renowned annual book sale in St Andrew’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh, featuring over 100,000 books – the biggest Christian Aid fundraising event in the UK; largest charity book sale event in the world in fact. It’s such an encouraging experience for an author. I joined this queue three-deep that, by 10am when the doors opened, stretched all the way to the end of the pavement in George Street.

Christian Aid booksale -  inside churchThe boxes of books are lined up on rows of tables inside the church on two levels, sorted into every conceivable subject areas – a labour of love in itself. (Thanks to my son who provided this photo – much better colour balance than mine.)  Standing up in the balcony I couldn’t help but marvel at the energy and commitment of the folk behind the scenes masterminding this extraordinary event year after year – it has taken place annually since 1974!

Christian Aid book sale - outside stallsOutside in the courtyard all around the building are thousands more books. A crush of keen bookworms jostle for space as they determinedly scan the spines for something new and exciting, some even on their knees under tables seeking specific treasures. Yes, indeed, the book as we know it is very far from dead. Long live the book!

 

 

I came away with warmth in my heart and My bargain booksfour books I’ve been wanting to read in my bag. I limited myself this year – well, my tbr pile is already toppling over, and my shelves are threatening to sag under the sheer weight of novels lined two deep all along them. The sale finishes tomorrow so that’s it over for me – but spare a thought for the army of book-lovers who will toil away on Saturday to remove everything left behind and prepare the church for morning worship. There’s dedication and commitment for you.

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In Dublin’s fair city

Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Dean Jonathan Swift, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett … yes, all famous writers. And all sons of Ireland.

Molly MaloneI’ve just returned from Dublin’s fair city, ‘where the girls are so pretty’ – home of everything from the tragic heroine Molly Malone herself, to the famous Book Of Kells and the amazing library of Trinity College – greatly encouraged. Because writing and storytelling are very much at the heart of things.

Whether you follow a City Tour, or visit the Writers Museum in Parnell Square, or chat to the Irish in their natural habitats, you’ll hear tales of homegrown literary giants; tales moreover told in wonderfully lyrical Irish accents which are poetry in themselves. Some of the detail may be embellished (as one guide said, ‘Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?’), but the essence is the same: Dubliners are proud of their literary heritage. Even ordinary people tell of at least trying to get to grips with Ulysses – the story of the experiences which beset a Dubliner, Lionel Bloom, on 16 June 1904 when his voluptuous wife Molly commits adultery – which is more than can be said of most Joe Bloggs elsewhere, isn’t it?Writers Museum

I suspect the majority of us could get no further than the occasional famous quote from this particular classic: ‘history … is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, maybe, or ‘God is a shout in the street’, or ‘Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance’, or possibly, ‘To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.’ And indeed, even if we’re familiar with the sayings, how many of us knew they’re from the hand of James Joyce?

If ever I decide to seriously tackle this epic with all its density and complexity and impenetrable prose, I think I stand the best chance of persevering if I’m in Dublin itself, surrounded by people who admire and revere its author. People who don’t closet their acclaimed writers away in an esoteric museum. No. Rather they erect statues of them; they call buildings, bridges, roads after them; they speak of them on the buses, in the pubs and cafés. A nation that is proud of her men of letters. Brilliant.

 

 

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Publication day is here!

It’s a bit like buses. After waiting ages for a book to come out, two come out in one week! Yes, Saving Sebastian is actually in my hand. Looking beautiful too. A rousing cheer for Tom Bee the cover designer.

Saving SebastianDr Justin Blaydon-Green has his hands full. Three teenage daughters at home, one of whom is mixing in some dubious circles. A brilliant colleague at work antagonising the staff in his lab and dabbling in dangerous experiments. A cheery technician in the lab constantly quoting Oscar Wilde. A Nigerian couple, treated for infertility nine months ago, who’ve just given birth to twins, one of whom can’t possibly be their biological child. And now a beautiful young woman appealing for help to save her four year old son dying from a rare blood disorder. Just how far is Justin prepared to go before his world disintegrates?

Read all about it!

My publisher decided to give this book a sticker saying If you like Jodi Picoult you’ll love Hazel McHaffie. (Hmmm.)  And a challenging strapline: How far would you go to save the life of your child? I’ve just finished reading two other books from the States which adopt a similar tactic (more of that in a later blog), so my mind has been toying with the implications. But I’d love feedback from you as to whether it helps or hinders in my case. You know about my personal ambivalence when it comes to Picoult.

The second book is an extremely limited print run: Professor Devine’s Emporium.Professor Devine's Emporium

No Amazon links for this one! Thanks to DJ burning many candles into the night, the children’s story was ready for our self-imposed deadline, the first family birthday of 2012 – today! Happy Birthday, Lauren!

It runs to 119 pages and includes 151 pictures, so it’s a totally different production from the 355 pages with no pictures of Saving Sebastian. But I’m just as delighted to see it completed. And I know this one will be well received by every single person who gets a copy!

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