Hazel McHaffie

Stephen King

The King’s genius

I’ve had the legendary ‘King of Horror’, American writer Stephen King, in my sights for yonks but only just got around to reading one of his books: Under the Dome. It’s a mammoth 896 pages long but its antecedents intrigued me.

King first tried to write it in 1976 but gave up after two weeks. He began the same story again thirty-one years later, passionate about exploring the ecological and meteorological concerns his plotline presented, but this time the technical problems overwhelmed him. However, the ideas kept niggling, and he eventually co-opted a trusted researcher to thoroughly investigate all the highly technical aspects of his story, and Under the Dome finally materialised, his 58th novel. That’s persistence and commitment, huh?

I’m not going to review it – you can find good analyses on line if you’re interested, but horror and sci fi, brutal murder and gang rape for fun, crudity and graphic violence, really aren’t my thing. I guess I’m in the minority – no, I don’t guess, I know I am! The evidence is there. King has published 59 novels and sold over 350 million copies. His shelves are overloaded with awards and trophies. He’s in my age bracket and still going strong. That’s what success and popularity look like. He just doesn’t happen to be my cup of tea.

Essentially the story is about ‘liberal morality’ and a ‘moderate green sensibility’ versus ‘greed, corruption and fundamentalism’. The first 5% of this brute of a book is devoted to unmitigated death and destruction, recounted in graphic detail as one by one vehicles and people and animals collide with an invisible barrier which has come down and encased a small town in Maine like one of those giant glass domes designed to protect food from dust and insects. Only this one isn’t protective; anything but. By 90% of the way through – I read it on my Kindle – a population of 2000+ residents has been reduced to 32 people; by 97% there are just two dozen left. That’s some death toll! And King was determined to keep his ‘pedal consistently to the metal’ throughout. Only in the last few pages does resolution come, leaving deep philosophical questions about this somewhat allegorical sci-fi tale in its wake.

OK, maybe maybe aliens from outer space aren’t my bag, but hey, no experience is ever wasted on a writer. And one of the things I do seriously envy is his ability to convey so much with such an economy of words. So I thought I’d share a few examples with you.

‘he walked with cartoon caution’
‘shock and denial masquerading as calm control’
‘she never finished the thought, only closed the door on it’
‘sarcasm is her response to fear’
a smile is ‘not turned up to maximum chill
he spoke ‘softly as if to a child in a tantrum’
‘A lackadaisical little breeze cat’s-pawed their cheeks’
‘the family that slays together stays together’
[why was she bullied?] ‘… it was everything, right down to the way my skirts and blouses and even my hair ribbons matched. They wore clothes, I had outfits.’
‘… sixteen months of border warfare between the country of Controlling Parents and the smaller but well-fortified principality of Determined Teenager.’

As for me, persisting, reading every last word of this door-stopper, has encouraged me to return to my own far more pedestrian prose and up the ante! Has to be a good thing if as a consequence readers can lift a few choice phrases from my writing and linger a moment over the philosophical implications. A tough masterclass though!

 

, , ,

Comments

Hazards aplenty

As they say, no experiences are wasted for a writer. Not even negative ones.

It’s that time again – the annual giant Christian Aid Sale held in the splendid premises of St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in the centre of Edinburgh. Selling thousands upon thousands of books, art works, ephemera, music, their aspirations are as high as their steeple: it’s always mobbed, and I, as any writer would, rejoice each year that physical books are still so very much alive.

Each year I go at least twice – once to deliver copies of my own books (as requested) before it opens, once to buy – and every time I’m staggered at the number of helpers involved, cheerful kindly people who don’t bat an eyelid when someone asks for a specific title or six, or hands them a large note expecting lots of small change. Such calm under pressure is a joy to behold. This time my second trip was about an hour after the doors opened. First impressions were fantastic – bright sunshine, happy fresh assistants, orderly boxes of books, hundreds of avid readers milling everywhere. The gangways between the trellis tables are narrow so you don’t need to be squeamish about bodily contact, and you are expected to take responsibility for your own health and safety – unmarked steps, dips underfoot, minor obstacles aplenty. But the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, and there’s plenty of give and take.

So black marks to the folk who parked empty wheelchairs and buggies right across pathways, who thought it expedient to gather right beside the tables to natter, who spread their possessions over the boxes while they browsed denying others access, or who left their long-suffering husbands on corners necessitating inconvenient detours down steps and onto the road. And a special penalty to the two who trundled enormous hard suitcases right through the masses with sublime disregard for ankles and shins – yep, I was one of the victims. But I escaped with no lasting damage and a modest collection of purchases, and I raise a salute to the wonderful people who give their time and energies so tirelessly to this excellent cause and come up smiling.

Rather stupidly I went with two specific authors in mind – Stephen King and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – and before you ask, no, I certainly didn’t ask any of the volunteers for them!  There was no evidence of either, but I was thinking about King as the bus trundled me home. He has a neat way of expressing what I’m thinking about. Take this thought:
I’ve always wondered who I am when I write because once I’m doing it, I’m not in the room with myself.
It takes me a while to find myself again after an intense period of writing, and it certainly did the following night when I was deep in a psychological discussion with my characters.  Only vaguely did I become aware of a rumpus outside … raised voices … smoke …  hello? DJ had managed to set the garden shed alight and the air was alive with the sound of helpful neighbours sounding warnings and thick acrid smoke! By the time I’d re-entered the real world, DJ had the garden hose on full-tilt, damping down the smouldering structure, someone had called the fire brigade, and a crisis had been narrowly averted. I was left with no role other than redundant spectator. As the reassuring operations commander said, surveying the canisters of gas, tins of paint and fuel, and sundry other inflammables, laid out on the path afterwards: it could have been a whole lot worse. So, again, not much significant damage mercifully, but a few revisions to the to-do list and some changed priorities.

I might be dealing with mounting horror in my fictional world but it’s still a safer place than the here-and-now it seems!

, , , , , , ,

Comments

Time to read …

If you don’t have time to read you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that,’ says Stephen King.

So I felt totally vindicated taking a whole day off from writing and to lose myself in a gripping book. What a tonic! Just the inspiration I needed to help me sharpen up my own current scribblings.

It’s vintage Coben. All the trademark ingredients are there: clever dialogue, legal shenanigans, sinister happenings, flawed characters, convoluted plots, switchback thrills, a smattering of homespun psychology, and of course, a thought-provoking moral in the tale. Brilliant.

The book? Caught by Harlan Coben.

This one includes a missing teenager; discredited cops; an entrapment; vigilantes bent on revenge; scandals and sackings; broken marriages; tragic histories; conspiracies; trumped up charges and ruinous accusations. And it keeps you guessing till the very end. The usual vast cast includes a high percentage of damaged people with colourful back-stories and fascinating peccadilloes. Enough brilliance to make us lesser mortals decide to give up the unequal struggle!

And of course, Coben’s mastery of engaging dialogue and deft outlines make it a joy to read. Who else would capture the essence of characters, the feel of a moment, with such joyous economy, originality and humour?

How about this for a lawyer?

Flair Hickory, celebrity counsel for the defense … wore his customary gray suit with thick pink stripes, pink shirt, pink tie. He crossed the room in a way that might be modestly described as ‘theatrical,’ but it was more like something Liberace might have done if Liberace had the courage to be really flamboyant …
He strolled across the courtroom as though it were a catwalk in Milan …
His voice not only dripped sarcasm but seemed to have spent days marinated in it …
He took flamboyant and brought it to a whole new level. But now, on the other side of these questions, she could truly see how flamboyance could be close bedfellows with ruthlessness.

He’s only in the frame for a few pages but his larger than life presence lingers in the imagination, his peacock posturing, razor tongue, mocking innuendos and penetrating cross-questioning. We’re as much in awe of him as the cringing witness.

Or what about this for a teenager’s room?

Her room, like Ryan’s, looked as if someone had strategically placed a stick of dynamite in the drawers, blowing them open; some clothes sprawled dead on the floor, others lay wounded midway, clinging to the armoire like the fallen on a barricade before the French Revolution.

Resonates with us all, doesn’t it?

‘Uniquely portable magic,’ to quote Stephen King again. Enjoyed the more for coinciding with the advent of summer after a long hard winter – 5C to 21C almost overnight! I read half of Caught in the garden and felt doubly invigorated for that.

 

, , , , , ,

Comments

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!

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Portable magic!

Famous American author, Stephen King, has described books as ‘a uniquely portable magic’ – and he wasn’t referring to the news this week that inmates are smuggling books into prison laced with hallucinogenic drugs! No, books have a unique potential and power to open up worlds and horizons and opportunities. They can transport us into another dimension altogether. They can influence our mental wellbeing, our opinions, our relationships, our empathy with others. British novelist and journalist, Matt Haig, goes further: he maintains that books saved his life, rescuing him from severe depression.

With that in mind, I look up at my own shelves and suddenly the feeling of you-should-tidy-these becomes enough-to-keep-me-sane-for-decades.

One wall of my libraryYes, OK, I know I should tidy and sort them, but somehow reading them always seems so much more attractive and urgent. And I am doing a kind of sort – transferring the to-be-read to the now-read sections.

As part of my mental tidy up I decided to return to a familiar author and complete her set of novels. They fall into the same kind of genre as Jodi Picoult: family relationships, moral quandaries, suspense, secrets – on the face of it a similar vein to my own kind of writing. And as you know I like to keep up with ‘the competition’.

Diane Chamberlain is the lady in question. With a background in social work and psychotherapy, she certainly understands how people tick and I like her light touch; she doesn’t labour the psychology or force information upon the reader. But what I didn’t know until now is that she goes a stage further than most writers: she sometimes puts herself into a light trance to get inside the heads and hearts of her characters … Wow! Risky stuff, but a unique take on living inside one’s characters! And perhaps it’s that awareness and sensitivity that come through in her novels.

Before the StormBefore the Storm tells the story of the Lockwood family struggling to deal with postnatal depression, tragic deaths, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and betrayals. Because of the damage to his brain caused by his mother’s drinking, 15-year-old Andy’s take on the world is simple and black-and-white. Then one day he gets trapped in a serious fire in a building full of teenagers. Somehow he manages to use his initiative and guide other children to safety through a window in the men’s toilets, and to his naive delight he’s hailed as a hero.  But it’s not all happy ever after. Several people die in the fire, some are terribly damaged, whole families are wrecked. What’s more, adulation turns to suspicion and hatred when Andy is suspected of setting the fire himself. The Lockwood family regroup, Andy’s sister, mother and uncle join forces to keep him out of prison, but rescue comes in the end from a most challenging source. Guilt and grief abound. Told through the voice of all four main protagonists it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read.  Just how far would I go to protect my children? How well do I really know them?

Chamberlain novelsSecrets She Left Behind is a sequel to Before the Storm, but fear not, I won’t reveal any spoilers to the earlier novel. In Secrets Chamberlain cleverly unravels other dimensions in the lives of the characters at the heart of the story about the devastating fire. Central to the plot is Sara Weston, whose son Keith was terribly burned in the blaze, whose best friend Laurel has every reason to shun her, and whose poverty stands in sharp contrast to the wealth and privilege of the Lockwoods. Now Sara has mysteriously vanished leaving a raft of secrets behind her. There’s a huge over-weighting of deceit in this sequel, with a rather improbable number of people leading secret lives; relationships and dynamics distorted by the cycle of revelations; and individual members struggling to come to terms with the past and create new futures – all in the claustrophobic confines of a tiny island community. Boundaries between good and bad, perpetrator and victim, become blurred. And again the reader is left questioning: Just how far would I go to forgive those who ruined my life? How would I react to betrayal and rejection?

I must confess I was expecting a very different denouement in Secrets She Left Behind. That, however, would have been a different book. Nevertheless imagining the ending I would have given it gave my writing-brain a healthy work out.

The Shadow WifeThe Shadow Wife tells the story of Joelle D’Angelo aka Shanti Joy Angel. Divorced and childless, Joelle is grieving for her dearest friend, Mara, who has suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage after giving birth. Shocked to her core, Joelle turns to the only other person who understands her pain, Mara’s husband, Liam, for comfort. But gradually their relationship changes and after one illicit night, Joelle finds herself pregnant. Determined not to compound her mistake, Joelle decides she must leave her home and job as a social worker and begin a new life elsewhere, but before she goes she makes one last ditch effort to help Mara recover. She turns to Carlynn Kling, a lady with mysterious powers of healing who saved Joelle’s own life when she was a baby. The interweaving of two timelines in this book is cleverly handled and the unravelling of the past sits perfectly with the present. A good read and a tender tale of love and loss and loyalty. Could I live with the choices these characters faced? How would I react if my parent rejected me? Or if I fell in love with my best friend’s husband? Or if a tiny lie could transform my future immeasurably? I don’t know. But this book has challenged me to think about my own moral code and my boundaries.

There, that’s the Diane Chamberlain section complete and re-filed.

 

 

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

A serious distraction or a perfect gift?

When Christine Lucas wakes up in a strange bed next to a middle-aged man wearing a wedding ring she starts to panic. But in the bathroom she finds photographs which seem to say this is her home and the man is her husband. And the man himself confirms this. Over and over again.

Dr Nash, a neuropsychologist who is seeing her secretly, tells her she has a very unusual form of amnesia following an accident, which has obliterated her long-term memories and made her unable to retain short-term happenings long enough to create new ones. Sleep obliterates everything. Each day Chris is starting with a clean slate.

‘Today is all I have.’

‘… tonight, as I sleep, my mind will erase everything I know today. Everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I am still a child. Thinking I still have a whole lifetime of choices ahead of me.’

Imagine facing such a nightmare every single morning. Every day shocked to find the face and body in the mirror are decades older than you think you are. Every day having to ask who you are, if you have children, what happened to you. Every day experiencing fresh grief over things that happened years ago.

But Christine is faced with more than simply forgetting. Her world is full of perplexity and confusion. And threat. Her husband Ben seems to be nothing but patient and loving, but in the front of her journal, beneath her name, she has written: DON’T TRUST BEN.

Why is he not allowed to see her journal as it instructs? Is the scrapbook of a past life he has prepared for her different from her own account which she can’t remember writing? Why does he lie to her about their family life, her career, the accident, her best friend? Why does he hide old photographs? Simply reading about her distorted world muddles the brain and makes you doubt your own sanity so clever is  SJ Watson‘s writing in Before I Go to Sleep.

But with Dr Nash’s support (he phones her everyday to remind her about the existence of the diary and to tell her to write in it.) Christine’s journal fills up. She uses it to recreate a narrative of her life and identity, and gradually pieces of the jigsaw slot into place. Reading it gives her a launching pad for the day. Her written account is augmented by vivid flashbacks. But are they real memories? Imagination and truth remain blurred, and even her doctor doubts the veracity of some of her story. To her confused mind no one is completely trustworthy. But how much of their response is protective and how much malign?

Then, just when you start to relax your guard, when you think you’ve sussed what’s happening, wham! In comes a greater terror than anything Christine has experienced before.

It’s a long time since I read any book as compelling as this, never mind a debut novel. Because Watson is new on the literary circuit this year. He’s an NHS audiologist who wrote Before I Go to Sleep in his spare time as part of a writing course. And it’s been a runaway success. Deservedly so. It combines  the authenticity of Deborah Wearing’s true account of her husband, Clive’s, amnesia in Forever Today – A Memoir of Love and Amnesia, with the tension of a Stephen King thriller. I had to keep reading!

Highly recommended if you can spare the time to be hypnotised by a book this close to Christmas. Or maybe it’s the ideal gift.

, , , , , , ,

Comments

Interviews and irritations

Every so often I allow ‘Catch-up with the writerly journals’ to creep to the top of my to-do list. Funny how there always seem to be more important (or more appealing) things to read. But almost every time I succumb, I end up finding pearls of wisdom that brighten my day and sharpen my focus.

This week two tips for authors resonated especially; both in Mslexia, (‘The journal for women who write‘).

1. The story belongs in front. So says Stephen King. Not the research, not the facts. The story. Getting the balance right is an ongoing preoccupation of mine. Medicine is evolving all the time and throwing up new challenges, and to some degree readers need to understand the dilemmas that result in order to appreciate the difficulties for my characters of choosing this or that course of action. I do know that the story must predominate, but thanks to King, I am resolved all over again to be extra super vigilant.

2. Characters should earn the right to occupy the main roles.  Apparently Kazuo Ishiguro interviews all his characters to see who should get the job of narrator. I’ve never done this consciously but I might in future! I do, of course, give characters a chance to prove themselves, I tinker with voices and tenses and settings until the right one slots into place. But the idea of a job interview sounds much more structured. And fun.

Oh, and it’s not always the most attractive character who succeeds. Right now my ear is tuned into the sound of people who specialise in saccharine approximations of what they think the client wants to hear, regardless of the truth.

For six months now – six months! – ever since our wall was demolished in the car accident in January, we’ve been dealing Ruined railingswith insurers and loss adjusters. Everybody we speak to is the kind of person you’d happily take home to meet your mum – polite and supportive to a fault. Do they spend an obligatory three months in charm school, I wonder? And they always promise you ‘… within 48 hours’, ‘hopefully in the next x days’, where x is a comfortingly small number. But somehow that vital piece of promised information never seems to materialise.

Then finally a promising contact appears in person, measures everything in sight with unimpeachable solemnity and gravitas, and murmurs sympathetically, whilst quizzing us on the number of inches of floor space we actually own, and how many bathrooms two people actually use, and outlining the scams other people perpetrate. Single-handedly he restores our confidence. Morale soars. At last! But then … this bright and shining saver of our sanity is found mysteriously to have ‘left the company‘ – before his report reaches us what’s more! Someone else is now in charge of our case. But ‘unfortunately he’s in Guilford today’ … no Bristol … no Stoke… no Guildford … We are given numbers. We get through to every one. Eventually. But he who has now ‘taken over the file’ is nowhere to be found. His eventual email tells us he too has been trained in the same School of Procrastination with Style. Cue sigh of resignation. The crumbled heap of ancient stone and iron remains undisturbed.

Then, a few weeks ago, my daughter and I booked for a workshop in flower arranging. We looked forward with excitement to a full day of fun and instruction – making corsages, hand-ties, pedestal arrangements, etc. Six hours with a professional tutor. Fabulous venue. Excellent.

The happy anticipation lasted until the afternoon before the event. From that moment on we were bombarded with sugared lies, by delightful people who felt they must coax us through each calamity and bungled arrangement and miscommunication. And all this as we watched in disbelief our promised six hours reduce inexorably to barely two.

Why did they fabricate this tissue of inexactitudes? Do we look like timid insecure creatures who will dissolve at the merest hint of vicissitude? No. We are both professional, educated women who would take bald truth squarely on the chin. Furthermore we are busy people who would welcome a succinct and honest: ‘We have made a monumental cock-up here.’ As it happened, because we shared the farce, we laughed our way through the whole sorry experience, and took our floral masterpieces (?!) home with pride, but it’s their attempts to shield us from the truth that pain us more than their overwhelming incompetence.

Surely it would be poetic justice to write them into a book? No interview required.

 

, , , , , ,

Comments