Hazel McHaffie

Waterstone’s

Calling all would-be crime writers

Anything that advocates books and reading gets my vote. And we writers are trained to look out for those anniversaries and special commemorative dates which might be useful hooks. Unsurprisingly, then, certain days this past week jumped out at me.

World Book Day was on 7 March, the day before International Women’s Day. Plenty of people and publications and organisations jumped on the bandwagon, with the usual plethora of articles and events. Quite rightly so. Universal appeal. Books open the mind … and transport … and educate … and improve the ability to empathise … and … but you know all that.

Did you know, though, how often The Big Issue extols the benefits of reading? Impressively often, actually. Over the years, as part of their mission to ‘dismantle poverty through creating opportunity‘, they’ve championed many causes: better literacy, keeping libraries open, tax freedoms for independent bookshops, reading lists, more book reviews, reading for pleasure for children, taking books into prisons … to name but a few. So, again unsurprisingly, this special edition devotes a large part of its pages to literary matters as its nod in the direction of the official World Book Day.

What’s more, this week they also launch a competition to find a new crime writer. Ambitious, huh? And no lightweight tokenism, either; there’s a two-book deal with HarperCollins for the winner – not to be sniffed at. They’re looking for ‘heart-stopping writing and nail-shredding suspense’. Any takers? Hats off to The Big Issue, I say. Most of us probably buy it to support their  efforts to drive social change, but it’s worth much more than a toss straight into the recycling box. As well as the competition details, for example, there’s a fascinating interview with Tim Waterstone who founded the biggest high street bookchain we know so well today. Now there’s a man who totally loves books! Even though he grew up in a 3-book household. Given his empire today he can afford to be generous, but nontheless, I like his healthy approach to the issue of bricks-and-mortar-shop versus online: ‘If you know what you want, you’re going to go to Amazon. I do it myself numerous times a year! But we all know online can’t replicate the same feeling of pleasure you get in a great bookshop.’ Well said, that man. And let’s support the independent bookstores in particular who don’t have all Waterstone’s advantages.

As for my own writing, well, I’m at the last-revisions-before proof-reading stage with Killing me Gently – when I’m not hurtling up and down the country, that is. Crazy month, chez nous. Must crack on …

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A canter round the journals

Time for another round up of snippets from the journals. All of them taken from the latest two editions of Mslexia.

How about this for a marketing strategy?

Bethan Jones of Harvill Secker ran the publicity campaign for Erin Morgenstein‘s debut novel, The Night Circus (which I blogged about a while ago). She gave herself nine months to promote it (wow! nine months!). Early proofs were sent out packaged in the trademark black and white of the night circus, with nothing but a circus calling card attached. A second copy followed with a bag of themed sweets. Pre-publication events included a circus tent at a Festival, circus acts outside bookshops, an online game created to appeal to young adults. Bethan Jones met with editors of glossy magazines, leading to features in Marie Claire and Vogue. She even stayed up one night sewing 50 red scarves (such as those worn by circus fans in the novel) for staff in Waterstones to wear on publication day. Booksellers elsewhere were encouraged to play on the circus theme and many did.

The Night Circus became the second bestselling fiction debut of 2011. What imagination and flair! Wouldn’t we all like someone like that on our side?

An encouraging word for women writers everywhere

Danuta Keane (Books Editor of Mslexia) writes:

Published or unpublished, every woman writer I know juggles her day-to-day responsibilities of job, house and family with writing. Their commitment to their craft is evidenced by the hours they keep; rising with the summer sun or staying up late to fill in the crack in their schedule with creative writing. Yet, rarely have I found one who would agree that she is a marvel. Instead we berate ourselves for not being ‘good enough’ mothers, partners, workers, writers… We seem unable to celebrate what we do. But we should! … So pour yourself a glass of wine and sit back and enjoy a well-earned moment to recharge your batteries ...’

Comforting, huh?

Unreliable narrators – should I? shouldn’t I?

Playwright and novelist Lesley Glaisters recommends considering a protagonist who can’t be relied upon to give a true perspective. She points to three brilliant examples – all taken from books that impressed me greatly when I read them.

Notes on a ScandalBarbara in Notes on a Scandal, presents herself as an unselfish, balanced colleague of schoolteacher Sheba who has had an affair with a male pupil, but is in reality a needy predator herself.

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverEva in We Need to Talk about Kevin is writing letters to her husband, Franklin, about their son, Kevin, who has committed acts of great brutality. In fact Franklin in dead.

Jack, in Room, is a five-year-old boy who has been incarcerated in a 11 foot square shed with his mother all his life. She teaches him that this bare and cramped room is the whole world, and Jack’s perspective is distorted by the reality she has created.

Three chillingly complex characters who give the reader pause for thought: all is clearly not as it seems to be, but the truth emerges subtly and cleverly.

I’m much taken with the idea of an unreliable narrator – but could I pull it off?

Get out in the garden to improve your writing

Scientists have discovered that bacteria in soil work in a similar way to antidepressants. Getting your hands dirty can be better than Prozac! So if your enthusiasm for writing has waned, try weeding!

Beat this!

A hotel in Cumbria has swapped Gideon Bibles for copies of EL James Fifty Shades of Grey. Cultural commentators and demographers have predicted a baby boom next spring after a summer of sexual fantasy!

So there we go. A few tasters for you. Something to ponder. But can you feel the pent up ire fizzing through this week’s blog?  At a critical moment the computer decided to throw a teenage tantrum and wiped out every single one of my electronic links and editorial changes. And I hadn’t provoked it in any way, honestly I hadn’t. I’d like to be able to report that I maintained gentle maternal calm, but it wouldn’t be true. I had my own little hissy fit. Then it was back to the drawing board for me.

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Quo Vadis?

Promotion of my most recent novel goes on. The ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum arranged a session in Waterstones bookshop on Tuesday this week, where I was in conversation with Dr Shawn Harmon, a lawyer and research fellow at Edinburgh University.

in conversationThe Forum’s Director said: “As life sciences develop, novel medical approaches to treating disease – including the role of so called ‘saviour siblings’ – are becoming increasingly viable. However, these potentially bring with them significant ethical issues, and also raise questions about how we regulate the practitioners applying such technologies.” Indeed. They are keen to facilitate discussion about these issues – just as I am – so they’ve been running a programme of ‘Social Sessions’ allowing the public to debate with writers. My event was the latest in this series.

We used my fictional characters to bring the topic alive, and to my relief, Shawn wasn’t nearly as intimidating as his weighty CV would suggest. Phew! Great venue, lively audience, good wine (strictly for after the event in my case!), and thought-provoking issues. But you’d need to ask the audience for a dispassionate opinion – the person quivering in the author’s chair has a decidedly one-sided perspective. And my reaction is always the same: I can think of a much cleverer and more coherent answer the following day! Somehow in the hot seat the grey cells aren’t quite as lively, nor the tongue as eloquent. Hey ho. There’s a video of the interview posted by the Forum on Youtube if you’re interested.

OK, so Saving Sebastian is safely out there, but whither next? At this precise moment I could do with a fairy godmother to wave a wand and show me the future. Or a clairvoyant to tell me the consequences of decisions at this stage.

Because ‘the world of books is undergoing its most dramatic change since Gutenberg printed his 42-line bible in Mainz in 1455,‘ as Andrew Franklin, founder and managing director of Profile Books, said in his inaugural address as visiting professor at City University. Book prices are falling, physical books sales are diminishing, globalisation and technological change make it increasingly difficult for non-celebrity authors to find a profitable niche. ‘The rich get richer and everyone else suffers.’

Now, money is not my driving force. I want to write; I still have things to say. I’ve now published seven novels with established publishers. So where do I go with novel number 8?

Self-publishing? Franklin’s take on this is: ‘For a tiny number of writers this works, but then for a tiny number of players the lottery works too.‘ Ouch.

Digital books? The Society of Authors has actively encouraged this route. But will it require shameless self-promotion (yuck!) and rock-bottom pricing to become visible in this huge mountain of unregulated publications, where spam, plagiarism and computer-generated books lurk amidst the results of honest toil and careful scholarship? Would my own little offering simply sink without trace?

Open Access? From this safe distance I can sincerely applaud the democratic principle of free-to-the-reader books. But nothing is really free. Who exactly is paying the price for this principle? Would it be me? Or worse, would I be harming other writers struggling to make ends meet whose books are in competition with the free ones? And anyway, is it simply vanity publishing cloaked in a respectable altruistic disguise?

Franklin’s conclusion is double-edged: ‘Sadly, the book world is becoming a free market winner-takes-all world where success is over-rewarded and there is only tough love for the rest. This is a time of change rather than the End of Days. The publishing industry constantly reinvents itself and we are on the cusp of one of those revolutions. On the barricades, some comrades may be lost – authorship as a profitable profession may not be recognisable in its present form of author, computer and desk. After all, the invention of the printing press ended the specialised, highly skilled and utterly beautiful art of manuscript illuminations.’

Question is, would I be one of those conrades lost on the barricades? Which is where my friendly neighbourhood fairy godmother and clairvoyant come in.

 

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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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