Hazel McHaffie

Paulo Coelho

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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Guest blog

I am currently travelling back from Switzerland, so decided it would be a good week for a guest blog. I’ve invited my son, Jonathan, who is himself an avid reader and critic of books, to talk to you this time. Over to him.

I have an amazing inability to remember some things because I refuse to write them down.  However, I do know that at some point in the last year or two, I was reading something in which the question of belief came up, and the answer given was “I believe in books”.  That part stuck in my head, even if the person saying it didn’t.  So what is it about books?  Let me go off on a tangent for a minute, I’ll get back to the question unless I forget that as well.

The imminent arrival of the Edinburgh Book Festival programme is an eagerly awaited day in our family.  We actually have the day marked on the calendar.  For some reason, I get two copies, which is entirely a good thing because there is now one copy for the adults to read and one for the two girls to take away and mark up.  Their approach is to highlight anything by an author they think they’ve heard of, a title that sounds fun or a picture that appeals to them.  We then sift out the events that are for 5 year olds, much older teens and those where they can’t actually remember why they were interested in the first place.  That tends to take care of ninety percent.  My approach to the programme has evolved over the years.  I now go through it very very slowly so I don’t miss anything.  And then do the same again, backwards, and find all the things I missed.  I then forget to book and in a blind panic try to find the programme some days after the booking opened and hope for the best.  Over the course of the next few weeks, I find other people at work asking me if I’m going to so-and-so because it’s something they know I’ll be interested in…and I discover I’ve missed that as well.  It really is pathetic.

One event particularly resonated with me this year (actually, it was three, one of which I didn’t even see until someone else checked that I was going…and I wasn’t… but I’ll stick with the one for now).  Michael Rosen, the only poet we all read together at home because we tend to end up crying with laughter after a few of his poems.  It turns out he also wrote Going on a Bear Hunt.  It also turns out I’m not very good at putting authors’ names with books as I didn’t know those two belonged together until the girls were, well let’s just say it was a good ten years after they had last read the book.  My summary of what I was expecting him to talk about is why books are the most important thing on the planet.  I might be exaggerating a little, and he was in fact somewhat more measured than that, but the power of books can be remarkable (this is me getting back to the question, by the way, I didn’t forget).  A lot of the books I read are just good stories, an insight into someone else’s life, mind or experiences.  Some of course are non-fiction.  And then there are the ones you can’t forget, the ones that help you to see something you knew was there but didn’t want to recognise or acknowledge.

I’ve had a book on my shelf for a good number of years now, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Cried by Paulo Coelho.  Now, to me he is definitely not the best writer in terms of style or even storytelling.  But sometimes he understands something and tells his stories in a way that can change lives.  The story in this particular book is nothing special really and you could argue that it meanders around sometimes later on.  It’s the story of a man and woman who knew each other when they were younger and then meet up again years later when they have both lived very different lives, even though they are still fairly young.  So far, so nothing special.  But the book – for me – is really all about not giving up on something which is in our hearts, not allowing ourselves to be so rational that we forget that we once had dreams and still do.  Because out there there are enough people telling us what’s sensible, what we should do.  This particular book was one that I knew I would come back to, but only when I was ready to make a change in my life.  I knew that re-reading this one book would be the trigger for making that change, and that there would be no going back.  As Coelho writes,

“You have to take risks, he said.  We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.”

And here’s the beauty of words, of stories, of books.  That sentence (and a lot of others in that book) really hit me.  Maybe nobody else will ever have even a similar feeling reading that, but in each book, we find something that we didn’t know or didn’t recognise before.  And the same is true of the person writing the story.  I’m experiencing that at the moment as I work on writing my first novel (let me tell you, it looks easier than it is!).  I find characters saying or doing something that surprises me.  It turns out you can’t control it any more than you can control a conversation with another person because you cannot know what they’re going to say and each word changes how the conversation will develop.

So although I knew that Michael Rosen would probably say nothing that I was expecting him to (despite the fact that I had already imagined the whole event in my imagination), I knew that something special would happen just because there was be a conversation between him and an audience and we were all changed by it.

So I believe in books too.

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