Hazel McHaffie

The Author

Collective nouns and other pithy sayings

One of my favourite moments in the writing process is seeing the finished cover. That’s when all the hard work crystallises into a tangible reality. This week I’ve been poring over possible designs for Listen, and I believe we’re a whisker away from the final choice. Wahey!

Alongside that, lots of reading, plotting and jotting going on, none of which would interest you, so I’m going to share another line of thought with you. The cleverness of words.

Do you, like me, love a pithy saying?

I was in a cavernous building full of antiques just after socialite and model, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson died last week, and her editor/ghostwriter was speaking on the radio. Tara, she said, had ‘a casual relationship with deadlines‘ – so much so that she, the editor, ended up ghost writing much of the material that went out in Tara’s name. ‘A casual relationship with deadlines’ – wish I’d coined that phrase myself! Reminded me of the more famous Douglas Adams quote: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’

A few other wise adages or pertinent thoughts that have resonated with me this week:

Living with him made his eccentricities curdle into pathologies.Matthew Thomas

No-one knows what is going to sell. Not really. So you might as well write the book you want to write, not the book the publishers think the market will want in two years’ time.Francesca Simon

The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.’
Robert Benchley

The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt.Sylvia Plath

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.Harper Lee

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.’ Virginia Woolf

We’ve been hearing a lot this month about flocks of starlings and their spectacular aerial displays – collective noun: a murmuration. Others that resonate with me and seem particularly apt are

a shrewdness of apes

a sleuth of bears

a bask of crocodiles

a flamboyance of flamingoes

an exhaltation of larks

a pandemonium of parrots

an ostentation of peacocks.

The editor of the writerly journal, The Author, obviously enjoys such clever expression:

What’s the best collective noun for authors? A diversity? An advance? A recalcitrance?James McConnachie

OK, break over; back to the reading …

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Now you see me … now you don’t

Well, I bet you never expected to see a post about sport on my blog, did you? Me neither. But here I am about to dip a toe into this rather alien world.

Marcus Willis

Click on the picture for the winning moment

Actually, to be fair, Wimbledon does hold some appeal every year; tennis being one of the few games I have any interest in. And here it is in full swing once more.

You’ve probably all heard that this week’s sensation was Britain’s Marcus Willis ranked 772 in the world, who beat Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis (ranked 54th) in straight sets in the first round on Monday with some spectacular play. Well, it so happens that I’ve known Marcus’ family all my life; his great-grandfather was one of the loveliest men I ever met and my childhood hero. So, of course, I’ve been absolutely thrilled by the Willis-sensation and all the coverage he’s received.

His own story reads like a fairytale – complete with the beautiful princess who believes in him and rescues him from himself! But what struck me most is how unequal the effort and the recognition are. This young man has been struggling below the radar for years and years, pursuing his dream, earning peanuts, unknown, unsung. He’s on the verge of throwing in the towel … he’s persuaded to give it one more shot. A series of improbable chances propels him into the first round of Wimbledon. He excels. And lo and behold, here he is, suddenly shooting out of obscurity into the blinding flash of publicity; his name, his face, his story, everywhere! Front page headlines. And what’s more, achieving something that will go down in tennis history. Fantastic. A mere two days later he’s on Centre Court playing against no less a person than Roger Federer, ranked third in the world and winner of 17 grand slams, before a crowd of 15,000 spectators, and I am watching the cameras home in on his family in the players’ box. Not surprisingly he was beaten this time. We all felt his disappointment, but he can hold his head high. And no one can take away that phenomenal experience.

I could also see certain parallels with writing – although the literary stage tends to be much less high profile than the sporting one. A whole lot of solitary slog, unseen and unsung. Massive self-discipline. Plenty of self-doubt. Lots of criticism. Constant pressure to do better. Uncertain rewards. Occasional appearances performing to others. And for a tiny elite, accolades.

As the Editor of The Author says in the latest edition: ‘…we endure long periods of solitude punctuated by episodes of startling exposure. Like shy children obliged to sing in assembly, we are thrust forward for sudden public judgement – and it is not just our professional personalities that are up there on the podium but our innermost intellectual and emotional selves. Our everyday creative existence, meanwhile, is dependent on piercing self-criticism and inflated self-belief – not a stable combination … Success can seem arbitrary. Rewards are rarely anticipated. Our control of our professional futures, by and large, is scanty.’

How true. I’ve come out of ‘isolation’ recently to do public events about Inside of Me. After all those months behind closed doors, researching, thinking, creating, plotting, writing, doubting, editing, refining, suddenly it’s time to blink in the headlights. Sign books. Hold an audience. Be challenged to explain, reveal, unravel – there’s no hiding when you’re the only person in the firing line. And suddenly all that careful preparation makes sense.

Sadly justice is not always served in this life. There are countless sportspeople and writers and others who never receive the acclaim they deserve.  But here’s to all those decent, kind, caring people who slog away unseen, without reward, but who make this world a better place to live in by their efforts. Marcus’ smile and good humour will live on alongside his score.

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Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the writer’s besetting sin. Every book is flawed or even failed copy of the ideal book that existed in your mind before you began. And every book is, at some level, a correction of the one that went before.‘ So goes the editorial in the Spring edition of The Author.

How true. I used to have a sticker on my computer that said, ‘Perfection is always one more draft away‘, but I took it down in the end because … well, you know me!  Mrs An-inch-away-from-obsessive. I’d have been putting off publication date ad infinitum. In the end ‘good enough’ has to do, or the jolly old title will never see the light of day.

Over my Dead BodyBut I think it’s this abiding awareness of imperfection that’s partly what makes it such a joy to go out to meet real live folk who’ve read the books and love them, to listen to their comments and generous commendation. They come to the stories without all my baggage and yet they enter into the lives of the characters and talk about them as if they too know them personally. All very confirming.

I’ve been doing quite a lot of author appearances since Over my Dead Body came out, and people are so kind. So thank you, librarians, event organisers, audiences, readers – keep up the good work. We writers need you, just as you need us. And never underestimate the value of your feedback. If for any reason you can’t get to an event to speak to us face to face, pop a comment on our websites, or post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. We love to hear from you.

OK, my mind might have been wandering down the track of never being quite good enough, but that’s made me more aware of other kinds of perfection in our amazing world:SwanPoppySpider's webWe can’t go out and photograph the human brain but how amazingly crafted it is to be capable of conjuring up fictitious scenes and people so vividly that other brains can picture them and feel their emotions merely through black squiggles on white paper. Imagine that! I am lost in wonder.

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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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Assorted tips from writers’ lives

Time for a  Blue Peter moment methinks. Another round-up of literary titbits (mostly from Mslexia, The Author and the Telegraph) that have resonated with me, and will hopefully give you glimpses into the lives and thoughts of writers and what they’re up against in today’s climate. Saving you the slog of trawling through several publications yourself – always supposing you had any appetite for doing so! And OK, I’ll come clean … these quotes are a tad past their sell-by date and have been sitting waiting to be posted for several weeks. Indeed two more editions of the journals are at this moment glaring at me from my toppling tbr pile, but that’s another story. Here goes then.

The Author journalsOn being a writer …

New pet hate is people saying ‘I might go freelance.You seem to manage …’ I NEVER GO TO SLEEP, THAT’S WHY.  (A writer-subscriber to Twitter)

On the writing process …

You never, if you write fiction, talk about your work in progress. You learn quite early that, once the steam is let out of a story through talk, it can never be recovered. When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it. (Terence Blacker)

The real danger is when a character is not a character but a mouthpiece for a particular ‘ism’. (Amanda Craig)

Pages peppered with punctuation mistakes and obvious typos are the literary equivalent of leaving the loo with one’s skirt caught in one’s knickers. (Alice Slater)

By dramatising points of view or social evils, by making us care about purely invented beings, a novelist can change how we see real people in a real world. But the trick is to take the reader with them – not bash them over the head with its arguments. (Amanda Craig)

On the consequences of being a writer …

Depression is thought to affect writers at a rate of eight to ten times higher than people in the general population. (Faridah Newman)

… one is always likely to be more conscious of where one has failed than of any successes one may apparently have had. The awareness of failure is more enduring, and for a writer more constant. One’s books are never as good as they were going to be. (Alan Massie)

But in the end this is [Dan Brown‘s] worst book, and for a sad, even noble, reason – his ambition here wildly exceeds his ability. (Jake Kerridge)

Mslexia journalsOn the competition …

With over 150,000 new books published each year and only a handful of reputable journals, papers and websites which review them, it’s another huge challenge to get noticed amongst all the boxes of books delivered to reviewers weekly.’ (Rosalind Kerven)

On earning a living …

In the absence of a global crackdown, the number of ebooks being read that have not been paid for will increase alarmingly. (Andrew Rosenheim)

On reaching the public …

If a novel doesn’t arouse your curiosity at some level, it’s dead in your hands. (Ian McEwan)

 Plenty to think about as I peg away all alone in my garret.

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Sock it to me

I’m sending this week’s post a day early because I’m off down south (near London) to lead workshops in medical ethics. A whole day of challenging people to think about my favourite subjects. Wahey!

And a welcome break, because I have to confess, I’ve been feeling rather discombobulated and chagrined this week. Why? Because the time is fast approaching for me to resolve the matter of how I publish Over My Dead Body, and the decision certainly wasn’t made any clearer when I delved into the whole business of trying to get one’s book noticed amongst the welter of volumes coming off the press every month. Which led me to marketing, publicity campaigns, reviews and networking … yawn, yawn.

Literary journals like The Author are packed with useful advice but they’re also brutally honest too, showing up pitfalls and problems – writers telling it just like it is for other writers. So it wasn’t long before I had to face some unpleasant truths. OK, most of us recognise that the odds are stacked against our wee book. We know all about the scramble for a share of the market, and that the winners are the ‘ones with the sharpest elbows‘, as Graham Joyce puts it.

But do we have to resort to dubious practices? I’m thinking of things likeconfused

– sock puppeteering (assuming a false online identity for the purpose of publishing superlative reviews on one’s own work);

– disparaging rival authors’ work under a pseudonym;

– rewarding bloggers in return for a favourable review;

– paying cash for a ‘book-of-the-month’ accolade.

to name but a few.

Surely one’s own personal integrity has to count for something – I for one want to sleep easy in my bed.

But for all us, squeaky clean though we may personally be, any attempt by even a few to distort the picture by the use of these unpleasant or unworthy or downright dishonest tactics devalues the very currency of reviews. Who will ever believe in us?

London here I come. Hopefully I shall come back a calmer person and the old subconscious will have sifted and sorted the pros and cons for me.

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Retirement? What retirement?

Not much time for literary reflections this week, I’ve been fully occupied helping my daughter turn almost 90 metres of fabric into curtains for a city centre flat with massive windows. Gorgeous rich material, thick thermal linings, and the finished articles so heavy it takes two of us to lift each one.curtain fabric

The thinking, planning and cutting require full concentration, but once the lengths are cut and the patterns matched, pinning, tacking, sewing 3 meter long seams gets a bit repetitive, and the old mind is free to wander. At one stage it wandered into the issue of retirement.

Plenty of folk (most I suspect) think I’ve retired. They don’t see writing as any kind of work. I’ve got used to that, and nowadays I rarely challenge them. Given the general sense that an awful lot of folk think they could write a book if they only had the time and weren’t busy doing more important things, it’s an pretty abortive mission.

Besides which, retirement’s a rather slippery concept, isn’t it? This week Olympic swimming medallist, Rebecca Adlington, announced her retirement – aged 23! She has recognised the demands of competitive swimming – a young person’s sport, as she says. She knows firsthand what it takes to reach the very top, and she acknowledges that her body cannot do that any more. She will move into something else. But she and the press call it retirement.

So, what does retirement from being an author look like? At the moment I love what I do; I’m bereft when I can’t sit scribbling. Ideas still flood in. Plots still emerge. Characters still come alive. I’ve started to get feedback on my latest novel, Over My Dead Body, and two of the critics say this book is my best yet. Others may not think so, but such endorsement is enough to make me feel I’m not ready to write that final ‘The End‘ just yet.

But … will I know when it is the right time? As Terence Blacker writing the Endpaper in Autumn 2012 of The Author says to writers:

‘There is no silver clock to be handed to you by the managing director, no pats on the back, no speeches.There are not even colleagues around to tell you that your time is up. Thousands of authors, all over the world, are working away right now without having noticed that they retired several years ago.’

Succinctly put. I shall hold that thought.

 

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More gems on writers and writing

I’m deep into my next novel at the moment so my mind is rather preoccupied. I’ve been experimenting with several different narrative voices, but the current one seems to hit the spot. The prose is flowing more smoothly; indeed I’m having to get up in the night to commit the torrent of thoughts and words to the computer. It’s a good feeling.

But the better the fictional life goes the harder it is to psyche myself back into the real world. A good time perhaps to share a few more assorted gems gleaned from my catch-up of literary journals during the winter months. Today’s snippets come from Mslexia (‘a journal for women who write’) and The Author (the official publication of The Society of Authors). In no particular order …

On writing and living

Katherine McMahon, novelist:  ‘When I was talking to biographer Hilary Spurling about writing, she said unequivocally: “If someone asks me whether they should become a writer, I always say: not if you can do anything else.” After all writers are by their very nature outsiders, watchers, not only of others but of themselves. There’s a touch of dysjuncture between living and writing … To be a writer is to contemplate one’s humanity in all shades from brilliance to murk. Living and writing: a dangerous, exciting, compelling combination.

Me: And satisfying and disturbing, and grounding and exhilarating, and zapping and invigorating.

On the definition of a writer?

Robert Hull, children’s poet:   ‘The question pops up each time The Author arrives. To be able to say “I published a book last week” or “I’ve a collection/novel coming out next month,” would be a good answer: “Yes, of course you’re an author.” Whereas (to anticipate) to say in 2016 that “I published a book in 2011” wouldn’t persuade anyone. In that five years my claim to authordom will have faded. …

But perhaps, if I’ve not published anything for a while, and am not likely to, I can still be a ‘writer’. After all many, many people are ‘writers’. They emerge from Creative Writing degree courses in their hundreds …

Evidently the noun is a problem. The verb makes less of a claim. “I’m a writer” says that existentially that’s what I “am”. But “I write” is both more modest and more accurate. Writing is one of the things I do. I also ride a bike, go to Greece when possible, do a bit in the garden, cook occasionally. I’m not thereby a biker or a gardener or a traveller or a cook. The verb fits, but the noun surrounds one with a kind of aura, intimating that the activity is all-consuming; it defines one. Which it can do legitimately only if it is all-consuming.

It is in a sense all-consuming to have to earn one’s living by an activity. “I’m a bus-driver,” sounds right; it can hardly mean that I occasionally drive a bus, when I’m in the mood or can afford it. Nor can I be a nuclear physicist at weekends. Not without making the neighbours nervous.

I do not need to be “a writer”. I can focus on the verb, on writing. I can make a psychological retreat from clinging to authordom to finding satisfaction in writing … ‘ 

Me: A comforting answer to a perennial question.

On the benefits of writing

Linda Kelsey, confessional writer:   ‘Sometimes I feel I don’t know my true feelings about anything until I write it all down. Only in the process of writing, it seems, do I get to the emotional core.

Me: That’s been one of the unexpected benefits for me of writing a blog. Helps me analyse issues and marshall my thoughts more carefully and succinctly than I otherwise would.

On the process of writing fiction

Susan Hill, journalist, broadcaster, publisher, author:   ‘Fiction is about putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and walking around to see how they feel.’

Me: Indeedy. Reminds me of the Indian proverb: Judge no man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.

On the reason for writing  fiction

Gillian Slovo, author, journalist, playwright:   ‘… fiction can go places that nonfiction cannot go, because it can inhabit the field in a full-hearted way.’

Me: My sentiments exactly. I’m currently totally inhabiting the world of a family torn in two by a terrible car crash. Steer well clear!

On fictional characters

William Nicholson, screenwriter,playwright, novelist:   ‘I want to read about and write about people the author loves. For me, the greatness of the novel form is about going into the hearts and minds of people.

Me: Mmhm. Me too. If the author doesn’t engage with them, why should I?

On excellent literary blogs

Amanda Craig, novelist, journalist and broadcaster:   ‘I’d recommend … Cornflower for intelligent, non-metropolitan fiction reviews (cornflower.typepad.com) – and best of all, Lynne Hatwell for thoughtful, knowledgeable, kindly reviews and musings on Devon life (dovegreyreader.typepad.com): a model to which I think all blogs should aspire.’

Me: Hear, hear. Two of my favourites, too.

On promoting one’s books

Joan Smith, novelist, essayist, columnist and campaigner for human rights:   ‘The entry of showbiz values into the business of authorship means that some publishers are looking for “personalities”, larger-than-life characters they know how to promote, as much as writers with original talent … Increasingly, novelists need to be able to sell themselves as well as their books, a demand that works against anyone who is reticent by nature.’

Me: Tough on those who’ve been breastfed on modesty and humility too.

On connecting with the reader

Andrew Taylor, novelist:   ‘… despite all the evidence we provide to the contrary, the myth persists that authors rather than their books are somehow strangely fascinating and even touched with a sort of moral authority … through our books, authors have an indefinable but undeniable connection with the minds of their readers that gives us a curious status in our culture.

Me: I once gave a lift to a woman who, in the course of our journey, asked what I did. When I told her, she stared at me in open-mouthed wonder and murmured, ‘I’ve never sat next to someone who wrote books before.’  Nothing I could say would diminish her awe.

On meeting a favourite author

Margaret Atwood, poet, novelist, essayist, literary critic: ‘If you like paté, don’t bother meeting the duck.’

Me: I used that quote at my book launch a couple of weeks ago. And I hope it leaves you smiling today.

 

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A laugh a minute

Lots of varied commitments this week, chopping up my days, so I’ve been dipping in and out of author-related reading – reducing the pile of journals, newspaper cuttings, etc. which tend to accumulate when I’m lost in writing during more creative phases.

I’m quite sure you wouldn’t be interested in most of it – gloomy news about declining advances, abuses related to electronic publishing, tax anomalies, and such like woeful developments guaranteed to send any mid-list-or-below career writer into a deep depression. Yawn, yawn. But you might just be amused by a few gems discovered in amongst the serious stuff, so here goes.

Recently the Society of Authors did a survey of its members asking about author appearances – at literary festivals, signing events, schools and conferences, that kind of thing. The report made interesting reading, but my favourite bit was the postscript:
‘There’s always someone in the audience who knows more than you, even when you’re talking about yourself.’
Just the thing to tattoo somewhere on the mind as reassurance for that nasty moment when someone flummoxes you with a totally unanswerable question.

Then there was Simon Blackburn writing in The Author. He quoted the late Bernard Williams’ lament that much philosophical prose seems to aspire
to resemble scientific reports badly translated from the Martian.
I know exactly what he means.

In a different edition of The Author I found an article commiserating with authors who get one star ratings on Amazon. Mercifully I haven’t suffered from that affliction thus far (says she, tempting fate very unwisely) but it must surely be demoralising. Not necessarily, says Nigel Wilcockson of Random House. Sometimes it’s a case of personal jealousy/vindictiveness against a writer. And that’s been the case from as early as the 19th century. Blake received this:
an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.
And Dickens got:
he can scarcely attract the attention of the more intelligent classes of the community.’
So lift up your hearts and sing, all you vilified writers; at least you’re in good company!

Even frankly abusive comments can be well-expressed. How about this invective against Croker from his rival Macaulay in 1831:
the merits of Mr Croker’s performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton on which Dr Johnson dined, while travelling from London to Oxford, and which he, with characteristic energy, pronounced to be “as bad as bad could be – ill fed, ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed”.
Ouch!

Or much more recently, Steven Fry’s dismissal of Baron Christian de Massy’s memoir as
that marriage of style and content we look for in all great writing. A shatteringly vulgar and worthless life captured in shatteringly vulgar and worthless prose.
Wonderful – as long as you aren’t on the receiving end.

One of my personal favourites came from the Letters Desk of the Daily Telegraph in response to a piece about school reports:
When the workers of the world unite it would be presumptuous of Dewhurst to include himself among their number.

Have a fun week!

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Lost in the avalanche

A fair chunk of this week could be labelled as ‘stock-taking’. The sixth novel just out … the next one finished … the eighth well on its way … where next? I blame the dawn chorus – it seems to reach an astonishing crescendo at 4am and acts as an most reliable alarm clock. Thereafter I lie in bed reflecting … and counting questionmarks … and somehow idle thoughts have a habit of turning into heavy duty contemplation.

Stats don’t help. Did you know that over 130,000 new titles were published last year in the UK alone? Hard to picture that number, isn’t it? Of course, set against calamities like the current serious repercussions from the budget, and more deaths in Afghanistan, and England’s comprehensive trouncing by the Germans, this news is small fry, but for a writer it’s a significant statistic. How is anyone going to notice my little books in that avalanche?

Remember RememberSo it was especially gratifying to learn that Waterstone’s in Princes Street made a bit of a feature of Remember Remember on one of their internal displays – of their own volition, I might add; no financial incentive from the publisher. I didn’t actually see it but someone in the book business told me about it. I’m not too proud to have sneaked in specially to stand and stare, (and taken a snapshot for you,) had I known, but by the time my spies reported, the store had moved on to their next feature.

It’s a funny old career, mine. And as Andrew Rosenbeim, Editor of The Author (the official journal of The Society of Authors) says: ‘Trying to make a living by writing … requires a skill set that isn’t gifted on birth, a persistence that would deter most, and a commitment which, oddly (considering that writing is about communication) is almost impossible to convey.’

The advice generally handed out for nothing: Don’t give up the day job! Having already given mine up a few years ago, I need to periodically review progress and weigh up options. Hence this week’s naval gazing.

Oh, I nearly forgot … I learned this week (from Amanda Ross writing in The Sunday Telegraph) that some publishers and editors pay to get their books onto lists – yes, as in greasing palms with real filthy lucre. And there was I taking the statistics re bestsellers on trust! I’m sure there’s a moral lurking there somewhere.

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