Hazel McHaffie

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The joy – and therapy – of reading

Sitting on the bus … walking along the street … in coffee shops … at the meal table … in hospital … during conversations … watching TV … wherever, eyes seem to be glued … no, not to a rivetting book, to a small screen. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, websites, Snapchat, Messenger, whatever, seem to demand constant checking. It’s become a national obsession; a veritable addiction.

We’ve all heard about the risks to mental as well as physical health, but it’s also been officially acknowledged that online lives are interfering with reading for pleasure. Even amongst serious writers! How sad. Because reading is known to broaden the mind, add to knowledge, improve mental health, increase empathy, aid relaxation and sleep. There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a well-written story.

Which all led me to think about solutions to this kind of addiction … and thence to the discovery of various ventures started up to give people the right conditions to remedy this malady. I was familiar with retreats and opportunities for writers, but not those for readers. Try Googling the words reading retreat, and you’ll see there are a number, but a couple of illustrations will suffice today.

One is called Reading Retreat, a bespoke service that arranges short breaks for busy people who’d like to escape from all the distractions of modern living and read in peace. It was the brainchild of a literary consultant from Cambridgeshire, Cressida Downing by name, who recognised that ‘social media damages your attention span, 100 per cent‘ with its constant clamour for attention and pressure not to miss anything. With deluxe catering laid on (mmmh-mhmmmmm!) and assorted creature comforts (oh joy!), this service is described as a literary pampering delight. (Sounds good to me.)

Another venture offers the solemnity, grandeur and peace of the great monasteries of old. (Ahaaaaa.) It’s The Life House, a three bedroom property in a quiet Welsh valley, which comes complete with a library of books on self-knowledge, relationships and emotional intelligence. (Yesss!) A weekend visit there is the equivalent of visiting a religious sanctum to regain personal peace and ponder the meaning of life, but without the bleak cell or meagre rations. (Bring it on.)

Well, I haven’t personally sampled any of these facilities, but my recent lengthy recuperation after surgery has given me the same kind of benefits … without the expense, or the need to travel, or any worries about fitting in with other people! Safely ensconced on a sofa, embedded in cushions, feet elevated at the required angle, a personal chef at my beck and call, I’ve been consuming books at a hitherto unheard of rate. Thinking. Reflecting. Making notes. And loving it. Hour upon uninterrupted hour, fully immersed in books of my own choosing – a veritable library awaiting me in an adjoining room.

And peace. No more-pressing demands on my time. So, no need to retrace my steps to check up on forgotten names or plot lines. No skimming. No dipping in and out. Just settling down to read right through from beginning to end, and losing myself in the whole experience. Brilliant therapy. And I’ve learned so much for my own writing in the process.

What’s not to like?

 

 

I must confess I’m one of those annoying people who gets fidgety doing only one thing at a time, so since childhood I’ve always knitted and read simultaneously. Squirrelled away in a room on my own these past weeks there’s been no one to be irritated by the clicking needles, or hurt by my complete absorption in a fictional world. So I also have a stack of garments finished for various good causes.

Sheer indulgence. And firsthand evidence of the value of reading. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone but there’s been a definite silver lining to my experience so far.

 

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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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Autumnal reflections

Cue weary sigh. Why, on such a beautiful autumnal day?Early autumn gloryMy computer has been throwing serious hissy fits this week, that’s why, and I’ve been alternately bereft and frustrated and stressed, and hugely resentful of the time wasted trying to get it sorted out. Yesterday it died – terminal in both senses. So I’ve been acutely aware of the immense benefits of modern technology I normally take for granted.

Which brings me nicely to a current big debate. Are agents and publishers right to expect their authors to have a significant online presence? Writer Jonathan Frantzen has stirred the self-promotion pot again this week with his claim on Radio 4’s Today programme that agents are refusing to even look at a manuscript from new young scribblers unless they have at least 250 followers on Twitter.  Frantzen reckons that they should be concentrating on developing their authorial voice not messing about shouting about themselves. Is he right?

On one level maybe. And I for one would hate to crush creative ability just because someone is seriously allergic to technology. But hey, competition out there is tough. How do you get your book or yourself noticed if you turn your back on all the advantages of 21st century communication?

Personally, being a Luddite at heart, I prefer the line taken by most literary advisers: use the networking which feel most comfortable to you – website, blog, Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter – whatever. Tweeting happens to be one avenue I’ve avoided to date but I have every reason to be grateful to others who use it. Why, only last week an organisation who generously reviewed Over My Dead Body, tweeted the comments to over 17,000 followers. Thanks hugely, folks at The Bookbag. I couldn’t have reached that audience.

Another relatively recent development is that many agents and publishers simply say to would-be clients, If you don’t hear back from us within X months you can assume we are not in a position to represent you. Hmm. Off goes your precious manuscript into a great black hole. X months pass. X +1. X + 2. OK, they warned you. But you have no idea why it wasn’t accepted. Of course, it saves them valuable time, but it also denies you the opportunity of learning from the experience. Or framing their scathing comments and hanging them in your loo when you sell your first million copies of the said work.

In days of yore publishers did comment, and plenty of big names have shared their rejection with the world, evidence of serious errors of judgement which can be hugely entertaining for the rest of us. And incidentally engender renewed respect for authors who persevered in spite of the damning criticism.

You’ve probably heard lots of them. If not, click here or here or here for some salutary examples to make you chortle. I’ll share just one quote to put you in the mood. A publisher sending John le Carré’s first novel to a colleague: You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.

As Frank Sinatra famously said: The best revenge is massive success.

 

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Reflections and resolutions

A very happy New Year to you if that’s possible. But if you’re struggling or sad at this time, I wish you a measure of peace, and better things to come.

So, here we are at 2013. No more procrastinating. Those of you who follow my blog will know that I’m now about to face some really big questions about my future direction. Do I go independent with my next book? Should I rely on Amazon, given their questionable moral leanings? How far am I prepared to go to promote and market myself? What about an agent? Do I join the ranks of Twitterers or do I not? That kind of thing.

Now, I have to admit, I’m in the top league when it comes to self-criticism. I always think I could and should have done better – with pretty much everything I do. And all the stories of Olympic success this past year seemed to highlight my own mediocrity, so towards the end of 2012 I confess I was feeling rather underwhelmed by my prowess in the literary stakes. But then I gave myself a severe talking to, and decided I should leave dubious emotional response on one side, and apply cold clear logic to the task of analysing where I’m at, before thinking about where I want to be, and a possible route there.

And that’s how I came to be looking back over 2012 at the opportunities that came my way, and I was actually surprised by the number of invitations that arrived on my doormat (or desktop) that recognised the niche I’m trying to fill. Guest blogging. Sitting on panels. Chairing debates. Leading workshops. Visiting reading groups or society meetings. Speaking to students. Challenging, stimulating, and rewarding experiences all. Oh, and fun.

However, an agent I approached in the summer (in a kind of last ditch approach) didn’t respond (their way of saying no). Spirits plummetted. Ahah! Emotional response again. Dispassionate logic though reminds me that JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury bought it. (How sick must they be?) Did JKR, I wonder, get a sinking feeling?

The HelpKathryn Stockett’s bestselling The Help was rejected 60 times before it was taken up by agent Susan Ramer. Instantly my mood is brighter and a glimmer of hope vibrates in the air.

Moral of the tale? Don’t give up. Think positive. Look forward. New year: new opportunities. There’s a horrible tendency with most of us to home in on the negative – massacres, wars, murders, abuses, rejections, failures. But in truth there’s lots to be cheerful about. As The Spectator put it in its leader a couple of weeks ago, viewed objectively, 2012 was the best year ever to be a human being! Here’s hoping that 2013 is even better for you all.

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