Hazel McHaffie

Over My Dead Body

An atypical day

Hmmm. Tuesday was such an atypical day I think I’ll tell you about it – the highlights anyway, not the humdrum bits.

5am. Awake soon after 5 (habitual these days).

7am. Still dark as I plough through the streets on my pre-breakfast power-walk, making it all the more surprising to be hailed from across the road by a man walking a beautiful white dog resembling a ghostly wolf. We’ll call him (the man, not the hound), Mr A, since I didn’t get his permission to mention him. Over my Dead BodyApparently he’d attended a talk I’d given before Christmas in the local library, with his friend, K, and they’d both since then read Over My Dead Body and given copies to friends as gifts. Mr A gives me an update on K’s progress since his second kidney transplant; not too encouraging sadly.

It’s so good to get feedback from real people like this who are living through the experiences I write about in my fiction: knowing they endorse my work means a lot. I’m frozen by the time we stop chatting, but move on with a positive spring in my step.

9am onwards throughout the working day. Catch up on writerly reading – back copies of The Author principally, revelling in the realistic opinions of my colleagues who see beyond superficial excitement of a published book to the daily challenges and struggles and disappointments. Such shared experiences are immensely reassuring. 

11.30 am. Receive bouquet of flowers for forthcoming evening from my publisher. Wow! Totally unexpected but much appreciated.Flowers

1pm. Send off a card to William in Northern Ireland who’s been staying in touch and vigorously promoting my book over there. His mum contacted me a few days ago to say he’s finally had a kidney transplant after waiting 16 years. I’ve never met him but I’m sharing the excitement. Get well soon, William.

5.45pm. Off to Blackwell’s Bookshop in the city centre for a 6.30pm author event. Window sign at Blackwell's

Events coordinator, Ann Landmann, has everything ready in good time and sets a lovely relaxed tone. As does the chairperson, Dr Patricia Jackson, who is very professional and enthusiastic.

The bookish setting

 

The audience are fully engaged and ask good questions. Plenty of buzz around the books and wine afterwards and I’m not stranded at the signing table! Plus I get several invitations/suggestions for future events.Books and wine

This day reminds me why I do what I do on all the unsung solitary days.

 

Better yet, the following day I receive several calls and emails from folk saying the event and book have made them think again about donation. Now, that’s what I call a result!

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Book Week Scotland

Well, that’s Book Week Scotland over for another year, and my own part in it was great fun.

Poster in the libraryThe library was looking very colourful with rainbow posters and plenty of displays and the librarian somehow managed to offer everyone who came a hot drink as they arrived – a lovely touch on a cold dark November evening. I was talking about Over My Dead Body and organ donation, and the audience were brilliant – very engaged with the practical and moral issues as well as the literary ones. I threw out a few challenges during my introductory talk and the responses came thick and fast in the open session. It always gives me a real buzz having folk talking about the topics in my books. – in this case, about the difficulty of giving eyes … about the difference between donating one’s own organs compared with those of your child … about cellular memory (where people believe characteristics of the donor are passed on through the tissues) … about who should or should not get organs …

I learned afterwards that there were several nurses in the audience but they kept a very low profile. However, one man who’d had an organ transplant himself, bravely shared some of his thinking and experience in open debate. Fantastic. And one-to-one discussion continued over the book signings which always pleases me. It’s lovely to actually meet the people who read my books.Signing booksThanks everyone.

As I post this blog there’s a ferocious storm raging across Scotland so stay safe out there.

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Girl Under Pressure

Priority at the moment has to be the promotion of Over my Dead Body, so research on the next book has been relegated to a back seat. Sad but true. However, that doesn’t stop the ideas simmering.

Anorexic booksRemember this row of books about anorexia? Well, so far I’ve read only 7, but already I’ve come to a definite decision: weight loss mustn’t drive my story. Frankly I’m bored out of my skull with it already! Admittedly most of the books have been teen fiction and not really my kind of reading in the first place, but they’ve served a useful function in that they’ve shown me clearly what to rule out of my own writing.

It was Girl under Pressure, an ebook by Michele Corriveau, that clinched it. The only one to date with anything approaching a gripping storyline, which has held my interest, and had no sense of being a cautionary tale. It’s also sufficiently whacky to make me admire the author’s courage in tackling such disturbing themes.

The story begins with the abduction and death of a little girl, Jessie. Not an easy topic but it came as a breath of fresh air after the previous six books, and I was struck by the literary possibilities it offered. The horror for the two main families of discovering Jessie has been snatched offers a potentially powerful hook to create tension and emotional engagement from the outset. I say ‘potentially’ because sadly the author doesn’t fully capitalise on her good idea. The incident is dealt with too quickly and too coldly – a source of considerable frustration for me as a reader; but at least I could appreciate what might have been.

NB. If you’re considering reading this book, I should warn you the rest of this post contains spoilers.

 As a child, the main protagonist, Maggie, uses food to bargain with God to stop bad things happening to those she loves – it’s called magical thinking. But then food becomes an obsession. As the years go on, her OCD escalates and she progresses to stealing in an effort to stop the pressure mounting inside her. She can’t think straight until she’s stopped the voices that demand she carries out this act. Once she’s done it, she can calmly go on living her life. Stealing then gives way to a compulsion to seek out strangers for sex.

 She gets beaten up and raped more than once by the men she goes with and the reader starts to get a real sense of the power of the OCD that has her in its grip. These horrific experiences aren’t enough to stop her continuing to put herself at risk. Maggie’s husband, Alex, becomes increasingly anxious and bewildered by her behaviour; she either conjures up improbable stories, or simply refuses to talk about what’s happened. Then one day, things come to a head. She meets a man on a park bench and accompanies him to his home for sex. He thinks she’s a child because she is so tiny and looks immature, and when he’s unable to dominate her as he wants/needs, he becomes extremely violent. When she sees his face on TV as a man wanted for questioning in relation to the abduction of little Jessie, the only daughter of her friends, Maggie is appalled. He can’t be guilty; at the time in question he was with her.

In spite of her dread of exposing her own sordid behaviour, and the effect of such a revelation on her beloved husband, Maggie’s conscience drives her to go to the police to clear this man’s name. Alex is utterly appalled when he learns the truth. He leaves her, taking the children with him. But in fact her alibi is false because one of her children had changed the clock in the car. This man hadn’t been with her at the critical time. He had killed Jessie just before he picked up Maggie in the park. So she’d risked and lost everything for a murderer and paedophile.

I found the plotting intriguing and the storyline very different, but it was spoiled for me by the litter of typographical errors and the muddled point of view in places. I wanted to give it a good edit and send it out into the world spruced up.

 But, thanks to Corriveau, I’ve been able to turn a negative into a positive and learn a valuable lesson about what not to do in my own writing.

 

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A little bit of this, a little bit of that

It’s been a funny old week. Muddly and dotty with lots of different balls in the air. All totally eclipsed by the devastation in the Philippines, of course, but life here has to go on, so a quick resume for those who asked me to give glimpses into the life of a writer.

Biggest achievement? Finishing writing the annual Christmas story/play for the grandchildren (which they act out as I narrate). I can’t divulge any details or give you any sneaky peeks lest I incur the wrath of my family who like it to be a complete surprise on the day. But I’ve had a load of fun assembling/ordering the props, and the various costumes it requires are cut out ready for a bonanza whirl with the sewing machine. One bedroom is now strictly off limits to all.

Our local libraryBiggest effort? It’s Book Week Scotland at the end of the month – a week long celebration of reading; and I’ve been invited to put in an appearance (and speak!) at our local library on 28th as part of that. So we’ve done a concentrated blast of publicity for BWS and for Over My Dead Body in our area. The last time I spoke in a public library there were less than ten people there, so any advance on that has to be good.

Most warming? Contact from a lovely man in Northern Ireland, William, who’s been waiting years for a kidney transplant. He’s just read OMDB and now he’s promoting it – with such energy and enthusiasm too. It’s a particular thrill to get endorsements like this from someone who really understands the dilemmas. William’s a bit of a campaigner by all accounts, and hopefully we can work together to raise awareness of the importance of having that ‘after-my-death’ conversation. As you know, I don’t see my role as coming down on one side or the other; just encouraging people to think for themselves. If OMDB does that, it’s fulfilled its aim. Thanks, William, for your encouragement.

Most routine? Sorting and filing a stack of articles about medical ethics for possible future books. Yawn, yawn. Has to be done, though. No fairies in this establishment … or are there? Well … My lips are sealed.

But the biggest preoccupation is undoubtedly Asia and our responsibility to our fellow man. Hard to get those pictures out of your mind, isn’t it? The more we see, the greater the horror. Indescribable.

 

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Autumnal reflections

Cue weary sigh. Why, on such a beautiful autumnal day?Early autumn gloryMy computer has been throwing serious hissy fits this week, that’s why, and I’ve been alternately bereft and frustrated and stressed, and hugely resentful of the time wasted trying to get it sorted out. Yesterday it died – terminal in both senses. So I’ve been acutely aware of the immense benefits of modern technology I normally take for granted.

Which brings me nicely to a current big debate. Are agents and publishers right to expect their authors to have a significant online presence? Writer Jonathan Frantzen has stirred the self-promotion pot again this week with his claim on Radio 4’s Today programme that agents are refusing to even look at a manuscript from new young scribblers unless they have at least 250 followers on Twitter.  Frantzen reckons that they should be concentrating on developing their authorial voice not messing about shouting about themselves. Is he right?

On one level maybe. And I for one would hate to crush creative ability just because someone is seriously allergic to technology. But hey, competition out there is tough. How do you get your book or yourself noticed if you turn your back on all the advantages of 21st century communication?

Personally, being a Luddite at heart, I prefer the line taken by most literary advisers: use the networking which feel most comfortable to you – website, blog, Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter – whatever. Tweeting happens to be one avenue I’ve avoided to date but I have every reason to be grateful to others who use it. Why, only last week an organisation who generously reviewed Over My Dead Body, tweeted the comments to over 17,000 followers. Thanks hugely, folks at The Bookbag. I couldn’t have reached that audience.

Another relatively recent development is that many agents and publishers simply say to would-be clients, If you don’t hear back from us within X months you can assume we are not in a position to represent you. Hmm. Off goes your precious manuscript into a great black hole. X months pass. X +1. X + 2. OK, they warned you. But you have no idea why it wasn’t accepted. Of course, it saves them valuable time, but it also denies you the opportunity of learning from the experience. Or framing their scathing comments and hanging them in your loo when you sell your first million copies of the said work.

In days of yore publishers did comment, and plenty of big names have shared their rejection with the world, evidence of serious errors of judgement which can be hugely entertaining for the rest of us. And incidentally engender renewed respect for authors who persevered in spite of the damning criticism.

You’ve probably heard lots of them. If not, click here or here or here for some salutary examples to make you chortle. I’ll share just one quote to put you in the mood. A publisher sending John le Carré’s first novel to a colleague: You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.

As Frank Sinatra famously said: The best revenge is massive success.

 

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Slim pickings!

Well, the stack of books about eating disorders I ordered by way of research for my next novel (working title: Skin and Bone) is growing steadily. Here’s the first haul awaiting my attention – I’ve managed to read a measly two so far.Novels about anorexiaAnd here are some of the Kindle titles also waiting for that glorious time when I can lie back with a clear conscious and wallow in one of my favourite pastimes. Ebooks about anorexia

But marketing Over My Dead Body takes precedence right now. Much as I should love to have a team of elves scurrying around in the background doing all the work, and agents and demi-agents and assistant demi-agents all cracking whips, the sad truth is they are a mere figment of my fevered imagination. In my rational world, I’m making myself allocate time most days to it. Reviews are pending; I’ve had several invitations to speak at events; word is filtering out; so behind the scenes we are moving in a forwardly direction.

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Away from it all

KinlochlevenI’ve just spent four days in the Highlands of Scotland, walking boots on my feet, camera in hand, no intention of working in my head. A complete break after all the frenzy around publishing the latest book.

I absolutely love this stunning scenery; the majesty, the mystery, the rawness, the sheer peace of it all, so indulge me while I give you a glimpse of its beauty.GlenfinnanView from top of Aonach MorGlenfinnanBut in spite of my best intentions, medical ethics (as portrayed by newspapers) did winkle its way into that bolthole. My eye and brain homed in on two issues close to my heart at the moment. Individual rights: triggered by the discussion on veiling the face in court or in school. Abortion: the question of whether there’s any meaning at all in the Abortion Laws of this country if doctors are not prosecuted when they’re caught authorising the abortion of fetuses because they happen to be the ‘wrong’ gender. But my resolve held! I merely saved the relevant articles, and refrained from scribbling a single word into my notebook.

Now I’m back in harness, refreshed and raring to go. The work of promoting Over My Dead Body goes on, and invitations to speak about it are coming in, but I’m ready to get thoroughly immersed in a new topic too. I’ve just downloaded 14 e-books and ordered 21 paperbacks on the issue of eating disorders which should hopefully get me started.

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Publication day!

Well, here it is folks! Over My Dead Body – the finished article.

New books! The printer, Bell & Bain in Glasgow has done us proud, delivering the books on time and looking splendid, don’t you think?

Bell & Bain vanAll those of you who’ve followed/shared my agonising through this first experience of self publishing can now relax. It’s all come together. The experts we’ve consulted or bought in have been terrific, and we’ve forged some healthy bonds along the way. So far, no regrets.

There is now the small matter of promotion and marketing. And that’s where you can join in. If you read the book, do post a comment on Amazon or Goodreads – no need for flannel; honesty counts. But if you didn’t like something, please explain why. The more comments the better.

But most importantly, enjoy the book yourself. (Click here for details. Or order it through your library, of course.)

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To be or not to be: anorexia? or abortion?

With Over my Dead Body about to go to the printer, my mind keeps straying to the next novel. I’m simply itching to get going again. If you’re a follower of my blog you’ll know I keep a pile of folders with ideas and plots and topics for the future, and this time I’ve whittled the choice down to two: one about abortion or one involving anorexia. No shortage of material for either.

So you’ll understand why my eye honed in on two articles in Friday’s news. First up: Women who have nine abortions. Nine? Wow.

pregnant womanIn a former life, as a healthcare professional, I very occasionally cared for women who were having abortions. Actually, I’m old enough to have witnessed the effect of backstreet and DIY abortions in the years before the Abortion Act was passed in 1967, coming into effect in clinical practice in 1968. None of us would want to go back to that horror, I’m sure. Women died and were horribly mutilated. Health care staff were traumatised.

After the procedure became legal in the UK, I personally elected not to be active in the termination process, or to wish to know why the women had chosen this path, but I had no reason not to look after them as patients. Most were distressed and chastened by the experience, and I’ve known some who went on to develop mental health problems as a consequence. Only rarely did I encounter women who were using abortion as a form of birth control. But even with this background, the week’s statistics have still shocked me.

A Department of Health report shows that a total of 185,122 terminations of pregnancy were carried out in England and Wales last year. Of those, more than 66,000 were repeat procedures. Over 4,500 had had at least four abortions, 1,334 were up to at least their fifth termination, and 33 women had had nine or more. Just pause for a moment and think about that – the loss of life … and the effect on these thousands of women … and on society. Is this an acceptable set of statistics? Is this what the Bill was all about?

The second news item featured the other end of the scale: the Irish abortion Bill, otherwise known as The Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. Back in ‘my time’ I was aware that women secretly came over to Britain from Ireland to seek the help they wanted because there was an absolute ban on terminations over there. They still do apparently (about 4,000 last year according to Irish Department of Health figures) – the sheer scale of today’s abortion-tourism was a revelation to me.

Twenty years ago their Supreme Court ruled that women in Ireland were legally entitled to a termination if it was necessary to save the mother’s life, but six successive governments since have failed to introduce legislation to enforce this. Until now. This week. July 2013. 46 years after the UK allowed legal terminations.

It was the much-publicised death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar from septic shock last autumn after being denied an abortion, which precipitated this latest attempt to make the procedure legal in certain circumstances: where there is risk to life or the woman is suicidal. And please note, we’re not talking about frivolous reasons or social convenience here; we talking about life-or-death decisions. Nevertheless, the debate has been and remains a hotly contentious issue, involving nasty things like open aggression and death threats and letters written in blood. Even Mrs Halappanavar’s grieving husband has been sent hate mail by anti-abortion activists.

This is groundbreaking stuff in Ireland. Parliament has been in an uproar, with resignations and expulsions and threats of excommunication from the church. Lobbying groups are threatening to bring court cases to challenge this new law. Even though, as it stands, this Bill only helps a very limited number of women. Those who are pregnant as a result of rape, those with fatal fetal anomalies, those who simply can’t face the prospect of another child, are not included in this legal entitlement. What would you say to that?

So yes, the subject remains an ongoing hot potato. Lots of ethical issues to grapple with. Many indeed that might get me into big trouble too were I to write about them! Only question is, will this be my ninth novel? Or will I take on anorexia? I’m still swithering.

I confess at the moment I’m really tempted by the eating disorder and all its ramifications, only that didn’t hit the headlines this week. And I have a title for that book already!

 

 

 

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Summer holidays

Holiday time is here again for Scottish schools, and my calendar has several weeks blocked out in indelible ink for the grandchildren who come to stay every summer. A lovely excuse to forget work and get out and about exploring this beautiful and historic land. We’ve made for the sea several times just to escape the intense heat!

EI Book Festival programmeeAlso written in capital letters in the diary are assorted slots for the Edinburgh International Book Festival – always a highlight in the year. As usual some sessions were sold out before tickets even went on sale to the public (grrrr! Why do they do that?), but by dint of buying them on the first available day, I have seats for events about topics as diverse as fleeing a religious cult; a journey into dementia; a history of the Dukes of Devonshire; the neuroscience of memory; the death of Dr David Kelly; the ethics of dying; one woman’s experience of acute encephalitis; and the role of storytelling in maintaining sanity. Sounds pretty good to me.

I’ve also had invitations from elsewhere to attend a debate on assisted dying and to showcase my work in an arts and ethics symposium, both in August, so lots of excitement ahead.

Over my Dead Body coverOn the Over my Dead Body book front things are moving steadily.  Lots of double checking needed to be sure every step is taken on sure foundations, but this week the final final details are going off to the cover designer, and as soon as he’s worked his magic, the whole thing goes to the printer. Too late then for any more tweaking … Help! Hard to believe we’re in the home straight.

 

 

 

 

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