Hazel McHaffie

Society of Authors in Scotland

The Crabbit Old Bat

I spent a lot of time during the Festival waiting in queues for events, or in the Square between sessions, and as you know, I’m not the most patient idler! So, on my first day there, off I beetled to the Book Tent and bought Nicola Morgan‘s book Write to be Published. It’s the sort of reading that’s best broken up into digestible bites, leaving time to mull over the advice, hence an ideal choice to tuck into my bag for all those ‘between’ hours.

Write to be PublishedEssentially it’s about how to get published.

I first met Nicola when she was Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland – the kind of dynamic and generous Chair who makes it her business to know every author by name, but who hobnobs regularly with the great and the good in order to effect change for ‘her’ members. She’s a delightfully no-nonsense and entertaining wordsmith – written and spoken variety – so I had high expectations.

Listen to the biography in Write to be Published: it’s so Nicola: Nicola Morgan was born in a boy’s boarding school and has recovered remarkably well, while retaining the ability to do press-ups. After a painful struggle, she grew up to be the author of around ninety books, including category bestsellers and award-winners. She has been Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, an English teacher, dyslexia specialist, entrepreneur, professional cook, pillow-case repairer and trainee turkey-plucker (failed). Thanks to her blog, Help! I need a publisher! she dominates the Google rankings for her phrase Crabbit Old Bat, a fact of which she is unappealingly proud. She lives in Edinburgh and on chocolate.

The book follows the content of her blog but it’s ‘neater, better organised, more coherent and you can curl up with it. You can throw it at the wall when the truth hurts too much … It’s more polite, well-behaved, and controlled. It’s still me, but it’s me in a gorgeous evening dress. And stunning shoes, naturally.’

And it’s packed with sound advice about how to get a publisher to say, Yes! It’s about how to write a book that captures what a particular category of readers want. It’s about accepting that some books don’t deserve to be published but are, just as some people don’t deserve to win lotteries or earn large salaries or be successful, but do and are. It’s about knowing that there’s no shame or ridicule in low earnings. It’s about creating the right book in the right way at the right time.

It’s full of humour … ‘Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer’s stock in trade. Yes, they roll off the tongue, but so does dribble.

Vivid prose … ‘Showing can be more powerful (than telling). For example, you might tell me that Fred is cruel; but if you show me Fred ripping the legs off spiders and making a collage with them for his sister’s birthday card, it’s much stronger and I know exactly what you mean by cruel.

Wry good sense … ‘Only if a book is glitteringly brilliant from start to finish can you afford mistakes at submission stage. (Unless you are a celebrity, in which case you can write a load of drivel and not only get away with it but be lauded for it and have the plastic bits of your body photographed in silly magazines.)

The obvious delivered kindly … ‘Follow (submission guidelines) closely, unless you really think that although they said they wanted the submission emailed, they really wanted it delivered on a white horse at dawn, with a trombone serenade and three bags of Werther’s Originals.

Style … ‘One trouble with synopses is that they reduce your beautiful words to something plainer. They are your glorious self undressed and made to stand in front of the cameras in a Victorian swimming-costume under bright lights with no make-up. Well, in that situation, you would make sure you looked as good as possible, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t slouch there, letting your abdominal muscles slide earthwards – you’d hold them in, put your shoulders back, chin up. You’d try to show that if you had clothes and make-up and corsetry on you’d look sensational. A synopsis, being your story undressed, needs to do this.’

It’s also immensely reassuring. Having got her readers raring to go on and publish, she issues a typical Morgan warning: ‘I feel duty-bound to warn you about what lies ahead if you succeed. If you think published writers sit around eating chocolate, occasionally speaking a few languid words into a voice recorder, watching their assistant demi-under-publicists order another bottle of champagne or saying mwah, darling to famous people, think again. Here’s why:

  • You will suffer insecurity. We all do. Or most of us. And we hate the secure ones. How wouldn’t we be insecure, when   people tell us we’re rubbish? And if anyone says nice things, they’re often a) paid to, b) our parents or c) deluded (which includes our parents).
  • Not only do we feel insecure, we are. Being published once means that dire sales figures can prevent book two being accepted.The secure author is incredibly rare and it certainly doesn’t include me.
  • People will ask you annoying questions and you won’t be able to explain why your face just twisted up. If your face twisted up and you don’t give a smiling response, they will call you arrogant.
  • The money is usually rubbish and the hours are long.
  • You will go into bookshops and not find your books there. Then you will have to listen to a friend say, “I went into the bookshop in Upper Auchtermuchty and your book wasn’t there. Why not?”
  • Your publisher will blame you for poor sales and dump you. This is like being made redundant but without the money. On the other hand, writing is often like working but without the money.
  • Your work will at some point be reviewed negatively and this will be on the internet for ever. People will go online and spout unpleasantness. The fact that these people should be asleep instead of spewing out their dislike of your book at three in the morning, and that they can’t spell, doesn’t make it hurt less.

This is why we eat chocolate.

(NB. If you aren’t smiling by now, consider a funny-bone-transplant.)

It’s her clever blend of practical commonsense, unvarnished truth, authority and humour that makes this book such a gem. She tackles all aspects of getting published with the same bracing candour – how to behave towards agents and publishers, what makes a book right, how to write (suspense, dialogue, pace, narrative thrust, voice, setting, the lot), how to submit your work, coping with rejection – it’s all there. Highly recommended whether you’re thinking you might try to get published or if you’ve already had some success but worry about future attempts.

I can only look on with admiration at Nicola’s energy, drive and success. She’s a voice worth listening to.




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Kindle conversion

I feel like a kid at Christmas-time!

OK, I know. I admit it. I’ve been living in the dark ages as far as electronic books are concerned.  Positively antediluvian, in fact.

Shocking to think that it’s 30 years since Michael Hart dreamed up Project Gutenberg, at the time a seemingly eccentric and idealistic scheme to copy the texts of tens of thousands of books into electronic form and distribute them freely. A scheme which spearheaded the ebook revolution. And I’m only now catching on to it. OK, I’m hanging my head in shame.

But since Hart died this month perhaps this blog can serve as a tribute as well as a confession. My very resistance to ‘his’ technology means I  owe him space and respect today at the very least.

It all started in 1971 – before Microsoft, before PCs. Indeed, when Hart had a vision of a world ‘where you can walk into a public library and get 90 percent of the information you need copied on a disk that you don’t have to return’, computers were vast machines with huge tapes attended by men in white lab coats. I remember them well! My first university post required me to use those cumbersome appliances.

This was in the days prior to scanning machines too. Hart spent twenty years in obscurity laboriously typing away by hand. He copied 313 books (vast tomes like the works of Shakespeare, the Bible, the American Constitution included). He met with both ridicule and scepticism. But as all things electronic changed, his scheme gathered momentum and credibility, others latched onto his coat-tails, and this year Project Gutenberg boasts more than 36,000 items in its collection, written in 60 different languages, with an average of 50 new ebooks being added each week. Mind blowing, eh?My bookshelvesSo who was I to be so sceptical? Oh but I do so love ‘real’ books – the ones you hold in your hand, and recognise from their covers, and collect on your shelves. Their smell, their heft, their feel. The way they change with use and loving. Everything about them really.

And my prejudice has been stoked by the twin threats of diminishing royalties and piracy which hover over writers and publishers who venture down the electronic route. Not to mention the ongoing challenge of ever-changing technology.

But I do try not to be a troglodyte. Honestly, I do. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, I’ve come to grudgingly recognise the inducements of ebook publishing. Indeed I’m seriously considering it for myself. Hang it, I even went to an all-day conference on the subject run by the Society of Authors in Scotland on Saturday! And I’ve just discovered Lin Anderson’s blog devoted to it. Wahey! Positively steaming into the 21st century!

And of course, I do see the potential advantages of dozens of books accompanying me on my travels without risking a huge airport baggage charge or a complete spinal breakdown.

Anyway, back to my story … one day at a family gathering recently, I rashly admitted that I was thinking of investing in a Kindle … maybe … some day … soonish perhaps. Ears pricked. Eyes brightened. Number One Son (who’s a big fan) grabbed the iron while it was about 90 degrees and said he’d buy me one for my birthday and Christmas gift.

Wowwa. Steady on. I need to be sure … It’d be a waste of good money if …

Quick as a flash he boomerangs back: Borrow mine to see how you get on.

My aging brain couldn’t think of a single reason why not … unless … surely, he’d be bereft without it?

A KindleNext thing I know I’m sitting here with a Kindle in my hands. And I’m shamefacedly clawing back all my reservations and provisos and caveats. Absolutely loving the experience.

Fair does, my son did give the experiment a sporting chance – he downloaded two books high on my wish-list into the machine: Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult which is about surrogate pregnancy, and Annabel by Kathleen Winter which centres around a kiddie with ambiguous gender issues. Very much my bag. But even so. I expected a less than enjoyable experience. Instead I’ve been forced to eat a giant slice of humble pie and furthermore, I’ve become an actively zealous new convert.

I love that the text is so clear. I love the way that the page is always totally flat, no twisting to see the inside margins or fearing breaking the spine. And the compactness that slips in a bag or pocket so easily. And the automatic switch off if you’re inactive for any length of time. No worries about weight or damage or … well, anything.

Just so that I don’t forget my first impressions, however, I should note a couple of minor quibbles. It’s not so easy to check where the next break in text comes, just to see if I’ve got time to finish this section before my bus is due; you can’t just stick a finger in and flick real pages. There’s no back cover to give you a hook into the story, either. Or lovely appealing covers like these hard copy versions. And I’m not sure how you’d go about referencing a quote when the page numbers aren’t shown. But, like I say, small fry stuff in the big scheme of things.

So I’m a reformed character. Secretly I’m chanting, Roll on my birthday next month! And my next holiday in the sun. Let me see, just how many books will I take?

Yes, I salute you, Michael Hart.

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Festival City

The world’s largest public celebration of the written word, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is in full swing, and it’s right here, slap bang on my doorstep. Lucky me! It’s the one annual event I book tickets for, the day the programme comes out. Reminds me of the olden days, people queuing from dawn for the summer sales!

For those of you who don’t know, the EIBF takes place in Charlotte Square in the heart of Edinburgh, which is full of marquees for the occasion. It hosts 17 days of events – hundreds of them, and lots of famous names. And it always rains! But nobody cares about the puddles and drips, or the sound of each thunderous deluge on canvas. Or even ploughing through the maze of roadworks caused by the coming of trams to our fair city at some future date – which incidentally keeps receding like the pot of gold at the foot of a springtime rainbow. No, the rewards for coming far outweigh any minor inconveniences like that.

Every year I’m utterly staggered by the thousands of people who turn up to listen to authors – both the famous and the unknown, and the calibre of questions they ask. This time I’m not presenting, so I haven’t got to quiver and quake in the authors’ yurt in anticipation of a barrage aimed directly at me, but I’ve just had the pleasure of helping to host the Society of Authors in Scotland party in the Party Pavilion Tent. What a venue! At the very core of this major festival of words; a celebration within a celebration. A fantastic chance to meet so many interesting people – authors, publishers, agents, festival directors – over wine and dips.

I’m awash with news, wine, business cards, advice, goodies from sponsors, enthusiasm. And even renewed resolve to tackle the bits of publishing I’m allergic to. (I’ve just spent an hour doing exactly that before sneaking back into my comfort zone with this blog.) Hearing from fellow-writers about mutual struggles is empowering as well as energising.

And what’s more, I’ve still got a fistful of tickets to take me through the snarled-up traffic, over the sodden grass, past the uniquely helpful EIBF staff (they must be hand-picked), and into all my chosen events over the next glorious fortnight. Can this be called ‘work’?



Society of Authors

The Bookseller reports that 120,772 new titles were published in the UK last year. Imagine your book – the one you’ve invested years of your life in; the one your very reputation hangs on; the one that is supposed to save you from starvation in a garret – falling into a pile with 120,771 others. What are the chances of it coming out on top? That’s what authors are up against. Unless, that is, you are already famous as a footballer, model, senior royal or TV personality.

I’ve just been told that my next novel, Remember Remember, is due to be published early next year. Wahey! At last! But given that I don’t fall into any of the above categories the statistics suddenly acquire horrifying dimensions. Ho hum.

Some publishers invest money in marketing; some books develop a momentum of their own; some courageous authors devote vast amounts of time to promoting their own work. But for sheer energy and drive you’d go a long way to beat Edinburgh author, Nicola Morgan. Just reading about her schedule leaves you breathless. And she writes a brilliant blog too – well, two actually! One, ghostlygalleon tracks her own activities in a racy style; the other, need2bpublished is designed to help would-be or real-live authors. She seems to have invented a forty-eight hour day!

She’s just completing her term of office as chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland so I thought I’d pay my own tribute to her. She’s a brilliant chair of meetings, speaker and general holder-of-things-together. Thanks, Nicola!

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The Society of Authors in Scotland regularly arranges behind-the-scenes visits – to police stations, high courts, theatres, anywhere we writers might need to have a feel for when we’re setting a scene. I confess I’m a coward at heart, none too keen on committing a crime or fluffing my acting lines or having a heart transplant in order to get up close and personal with authenticity. I like this safe way of experiencing reality.

In my own writing I go to considerable lengths to try to make the novels believable – extensive research, checking with experts, asking, revising … If there was a degree in obsession I’d have it. With a distinction. Even writing my mother’s memoirs just for the family (ninety years of astonishing experiences), well, we’ve reached the 25,000-word stage now and we’re still filling in gaps, still editing and correcting the detail. Because authenticity matters to me. And that’s probably why I struggle with the blatantly implausible in some books.

Our bookclub decided to try a Richard and Judy recommendation this month: Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? Because I had several long train journeys imminent I decided to use the time to read four of Atkinson’s books to get a sense of her style. She’s impressive. Well, when you win the Whitbread prize with your debut novel you would be, wouldn’t you? She manages to convey so much about each character in a few well-crafted sentences. And her dramatis personae – well, my little grey cells struggle to even remember who they all are, never mind grappling with the task of weaving the various strands together. But plausible she is not. The sheer weight of murders, suicides, train and car crashes, betrayals and sundry other tragedies that litter the lives of almost every character defies belief.

But then … haven’t we all had our credulity stretched to breaking point by the truths revealed in the MPs’ expenses scandal over the past couple of weeks? I mean … duck islands? Hello? Cleaning moats? Claiming for non-existent mortgages? Utterly implausible, you’d scoff if I wrote it into a novel.

So perhaps it’s a matter of confidence. I’m still sufficiently in awe of critics and reviewers not to want to hand them ammunition on a plate. I want them to continue to read my books, identify with my characters, believe in me. Maybe when I’m all grown up …

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