Hazel McHaffie

Reviews

Why do we do it?

Writing’s a strange occupation. Like no other.

I’ve been catching up on the literary magazines, prompting various ruminations-from-the-recovery-couch this week which I thought I’d share with you, but, please, don’t read this as a disgruntled gripe. It’s a calm reflective autumnal sharing from one who’s in the privileged position of not seeking fame, not needing to pay the bills from royalties, not under outside pressure to produce the goods. I’m a compulsive writer, I thrive on simple feedback from satisfied readers, sharing an evening with a group of avid readers over wine and one of my novels, debating serious issues with those challenged by one of my opinion pieces. However, I am acutely mindful of others trying to carve a career in the perilous world of words; I care about the impact of anomalies and injustices on them. So here goes – a few reflections on the occupation of writing fiction.

There are no real goal posts, precious few rules, and even those committed to textbooks/how-to-books are rather unofficial and fluid and subject to modification, changing depending on the hands wielding the red pen or waving the chequebook. An indefinable mysterious ‘something’ separates out the brilliant from the excellent, the good from the mediocre. Style? Brio? Panache? Whatever. Every single new effort launches itself into this unknown abyss in hope, but with no guarantees – not even for the well established household-name author. And with thousands upon thousands of books being published every year the chances of standing out in a crowd are diminishingly rare.

And yet, despite this reality, the world and his live-in-lover and long-lost great-uncle’s mother-in-law seem to think they can be authoritative about a piece of work that someone else has slaved over for years. With no qualifications, no pedigree, no authority whatever, they think nothing of assigning one or two stars, printing a scathing review, and generally rubbishing a carefully-constructed work of fiction, merely on the grounds that it doesn’t appeal to them. And the author is usually frowned on if he/she goes on the defensive.

We writers all have our peccadillos and habits, and outside scrutiny can help to eliminate the most annoying ones. For example, editors will helpfully point out words that an author is rather too fond of, and I’ve done the same thing myself for serious scribblers who’ve asked me to critique their raw work. But should I have done so? Ben Blatt, an American journalist, has subjected a wide range of published fiction to some seriously ruthless data-crunching and he reckons that this is common; every writer uses one or more relatively rare words disproportionately often.
A few illustrations from published works:
Jane Austencivility
Zadie Smithevil eye
Dan Brownfull circle
Donna Tartttoo good to be true
It’s a bit like a fingerprint. Hmmm, I might need to re-think this one.

I confess I sigh heavily when I see celebrity after celebrity adding ‘writer’ to their list of occupations. Yeah, right! Knowing as I do the skill, hard slog and endless work that goes into even a modest-sized work of fiction, and cringing as I do at the ungrammatical prose of many a famous name at interview, I seriously doubt the authenticity of many of these claims. And I fear it simply feeds into a common perception that ‘anyone’ can write a book. I still have to grit my teeth when ordinary average people tell me they would be writers too if they weren’t busy saving the planet in some other more worthy and important way.

And yet celebrities command top positions with their publishers, landing lucrative contracts, often ousting the real best-selling writers, bagging the front seats in bookshop displays, the key position on the TV couch. How frustrating for master craftsmen to be overtaken by far less competent and deserving competition, to see their own publicity/marketing budgets (hello? do they still exist for ordinary mortals?) diverted to feather the downy nests of the rich and famous. Plenty of well-known established authors have gone public about this injustice/disloyalty, even jumping ship to continue in other more faithful publishing vessels.

Then there’s the whole business of valuing books – and those who create them. Readers want to pay the lowest price possible (mea culpa!). Ninety-nine pence for a work that should cost £8.99? – that’ll do nicely thank you. Absolutely nothing goes to the author who has no salary, no security, no say. Will you come and speak at my bookgroup/ library/evening salon/literary festival? Of course! And after the event … payment? Hello? Nothing/a bunch of flowers/a bottle of wine/a hasty meal/not even expenses. Commonplace.

And yet. And yet. And yet. We continue to write. Because we must. Because we are compelled to do so by some internal driving force. Because there is nothing to beat the exhilaration of stepping into the shoes and minds of protagonists of our own creation, realising our imaginings, hearing readers talk about our characters as if they are real people in their lives – a reward (in my opinion and circumstances) worth so much more than mere pounds and pence.

I love what I do! And as long as other people enjoy my writing, I’m more than happy to share the product of those months of isolation and hard work.

 

 

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Why do we do it?

Wahey! and Yippee! Roll of drums, if you please, maestro. My tenth novel is finished! Just awaiting a few more fancy frills and computing complexities from the technical team and then we should have blast off. Feels fantastic. But also makes me realise how much angst goes on behind the scenes that readers are completely unaware of. These moments of sheer exhilaration are few and far between.

Once upon a time I had a real classifiable career. Nurse. Midwife. University researcher. Tick-box choices. Job descriptions, targets, performance indicators. Bona fide qualifications, tangible credentials. Now I’m a writer, and boy, let me tell you, this is no easy option. Goalposts? What goalposts? Documented procedures, organisational structure, monthly pay packet, career pathway … hello?

A few examples will suffice.

Pitiful pay
A study conducted at the University of London a couple of years ago found that a typical professional writer earns just £11,000 annually; less than the minimum wage. Worse – 17% of all writers earn next to nothing even in that honeymoon period shortly after having their work published.
A few weeks ago a writer who’d won a major Costa award went public on his reality: even being publicly acclaimed – in the papers even! – and having a big publisher on his side, he can’t earn enough to pay his mortgage. He has to go back to a paid job outside the literary world.

Sitting targets for vitriol
In most jobs if someone doesn’t like what you do, negative comments are confined to your place of work, and relatively private. Not so for us. Our work is out there for any Tom, Dick or Harriet – with or without literary credentials – to see. And even though reading is a subjective experience, they can slate our writing publicly. And believe me, critics can be brutal! The most recent example I’ve seen is Dominic Cavendish‘s condemnation of a certain play, Sex with Strangers, as ‘two tedious hours and punctuated by excruciating simulated raunch. It’s fit only for theatrical masochists. I’d settle for a cup of tea and watching Question Time any day‘. Ouch. And there’s nothing the poor playwright can do to erase that comment.

Crippling self doubt
In most jobs, once you’re trained and experienced, you have confidence that you can perform the tasks your post requires of you. Writing’s different. There are no A + B + C  formulae, no tried and tested procedures, to be followed slavishly towards guaranteed success. No set shift hours, no line management, none of the usual structure governing paid employment. No resting on your laurels. Every book is uniquely different, presenting new challenges, new unknowns, new misgivings. Small wonder then that self-doubt is a recognised hazard even for established authors. As best-selling horror and suspense writer Steven King says: ‘Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.’

Health risks
It’s a sedentary, solitary occupation. Eye strain, tension headaches, backache, weight gain, repetitive strain injury … to name but a few of the risks. Depression, isolation and identity crises … And no occupational health department to bail us out. No watchful boss to ease the load in a crisis. No sick pay. No occupational Bupa subscription.

I could go on – the stress of living parallel lives (real and fictional), the burden of being deep inside the skin of troubled characters, the humiliation of finding an audience of two at a library event … But I won’t!

So why on earth do we do it? Compulsion, that’s why. An irresistible drive. I personally feel quite bereft if I’m unable to write for any reason.

And such is my desire to reach out and touch lives that, in spite of all the risks and negatives, I’m actually going to be giving away my tenth novel, Listen, as a FREE download. It feels wonderfully liberating. No need for any humphs and galumphs and caveats about the price. Or anxious scanning of the sales figures. Or worries about accessibility. Or … anything! It’s yours – anybody’s – for nothing.

This one has been the most fun to write of any of my books, the quickest, the least personally demanding. I’ve had some super feedback from my cohort of critical readers too. What a thrill it is to hear … I couldn’t put it down … It really made me think … It made me get back in touch with my Mum … It made me cry … I know [one of the characters] … Not many jobs bring that kind of reward now, do they?

Oh yes, there may be many negative aspects to my chosen occupation, but I’m already plotting my eleventh novel!

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Juggling balls

Reviews for my adult novel, Inside of Me, are slowly trickling in, and it is, as ever, extremely gratifying to get such wonderful endorsements from people whose opinions I value: ‘well researched’, ‘full of empathy’, ‘a gripping story, full of unexpected and emotional twists and turns’, ‘absorbing’, ‘complex psychological issues, handled with a light touch’, ‘raises challenging questions without simplifying the issues or offering any easy answers’. Wow! Thanks, folks!

It would be all too easy to get impatient waiting for the rest of these busy reviewers to respond. After all the delays caused by my illness, I just want to get this book out there. But frustration would be a serious waste of energy, so I’ve turned my mind and pen to a totally different kind of writing: the story/play I write for my grandchildren every year for Christmas. (The eldest is now almost sixteen so the level of sophistication rises exponentially year by year; getting closer and closer to adult fiction.) And guess what: it’s been positively therapeutic! A delightfully refreshing change from looking deep into my soul, and worrying about my own body image and identity.

Costumes in the makingI can’t share anything of the theme or substance of this year’s production with you, lest I bring down the wrath of the entire family on my head – it has to remain a closely guarded secret (ie. known only to me) until the actual day. But what I can say is that it’s currently 16,000+ words long, involves the making/assembling of nineteen different costumes, and the collection of a whole variety of props. And it will require a complete makeover of parts of our house closer to the event. Enough to keep me well out of mischief from now till Christmas. By the way, if anyone has a spare mortar board or a shaggy grey wig and beard do please get in touch!

In between I package gifts and write letters for the most ordinary humdrum aspects of the season. Keeps my feet firmly on the ground. Oh, and of course, watch eagerly for any correspondence from the said critics.

Christmas gifts

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Rating and reviewing

It’s commonly said that a bad review is better than no review, but I can’t imagine any author enjoys getting slated by readers or receiving poor star ratings. Indeed some writers deliberately never look at the reviews lest they are derailed by them. But what a subjective thing it all is anyway. Your meat, my poison, and all that.

The Kindest ThingLet me illustrate. Last week I read The Kindest Thing by Cath Staincliffe. It was recommended to me as ‘your kind of book’, and the Kindle version was a mere 99p, so of course I snapped it up. And indeed it is my sort of book. It’s accessible fiction dealing with a thorny on-going medical ethical issue in a challenging way, leaving me asking, What would I do in these circumstances? Familiar? In fact it’s the closest thing to my own novel about assisted dying (Right to Die) I’ve seen thus far.

Basically it tells the story of 50-year-old Deborah who is on trial for helping her husband Neil to die rather than continue life with Motor Neurone Disease. Her own daughter reports her to the police. Her son’s precarious mental health is threatened. Prison gives her too much time to reflect on the repercussions of what she agreed to. Yep, my kind of thing definitely. And I enjoyed it.

As did many others. Most reviews I’ve seen are strongly approving: ‘beautifully written’, ‘pitch perfect’, ‘page turning stuff’, ‘sensitive’, ‘powerful’, ‘courageous’. The main protagonist is both likeable and believable, they said.

But a few folk, reading the same book, about the same characters, have slated it: ‘shallow’, ‘depressing’, ‘tedious’, ‘predictable’, ‘unlikeable cardboard characters’, ‘offensive and narrow-minded’, ‘cheesy’.

Oh dear. If someone said such things of my work, I’m pretty sure I’d succumb to a horrible sinking feeling. Possibly even go into a temporary decline. But why? One step removed, viewing these comments dispassionately, I can see quite clearly it’s a subjective opinion. The readers are free to express it. They might (or might not) even be having a bad day, or going through a rough patch themselves, or they may have a hidden agenda, or feel threatened by the author in some way.

In any event, it’s a known and accepted fact that we all like different kinds of writing. If you’ve ever belonged to a bookclub, even one made up of like-minded people, you’ll have experienced that reality. And haven’t you ever read a bestselling book that’s had rave reviews, and wondered what all the fuss was about? Be honest now, how many Booker prizewinners have you really enjoyed?

Me, I don’t care if everyone else loves a book, if I don’t, I don’t. End of story. OK, I might analyse the pros and cons more carefully if I’m decidedly out of step with respected opinion, but I’m not tempted to trot meekly along in the wake of the majority just to conform. Because there can be a myriad reasons in my life and belief system and experience and preferences why I personally feel as I do about that particular book. I am perfectly entitled to my subjective opinion.

So, what am I saying? Well, criticism feels very different when you’re on the receiving end.  But perhaps we authors are unrealistic from the outset. We shouldn’t expect to achieve unqualified 100% five-star ratings. Remember those famous lines from the poet John Lydgate, later adapted by President Lincoln:

‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’

Cath Staincliffe’s ratings have given me new heart. From henceforth I shall not even attempt to appeal to all tastes. I shall concentrate on being true to myself. And if and when a poor review pings in, I shall pick myself up, dust myself off, and get right back on that writing horse. God willing. Oh, and if that fails, re-read this post!

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