Hazel McHaffie


Behind the scenes

As you know this week has been devoted to reading and critiquing a debut novel. All 587 pages, 230,100 words of it. A morning-noon-and-night job. And it has made me realise more acutely than usual how much goes into producing a book and how much we ought to value each one that survives the rigours of the writing process and is eventually published.

This author had the first germ of an idea for his magnum opus years and years ago. He’s already a published author of non-fiction, an expert in his professional world, but this is his first foray into the world of fiction. He’s studied technique, tried emulating a number of authors, adopted various tactics, abandoned most. And once having chosen the method that works for him, he’s been slaving away for month after month after month to reach this first draft stage. He’s been sorely tempted to give up at times, he’s hidden himself away, fled the country even! Experimented, scrapped whole efforts, rewritten, agonised, despaired. Picked himself up, dusted himself down, got back into the saddle.

And now … sacrilege! I’ve scribbled all over his precious baby – yes, with the proverbial literal red pen! Ahh, yes, of course with his permission. He requested my honest appraisal.

I’m handing it over today on the very morning he returns from three weeks abroad. (I’m devoutly hoping he’s totally refreshed and invigorated by the break! Suitably fortified against such an assault.) Then it’s over to him. To go through the whole thing word by word, line by line, deciding whether or not to take my advice or do his own thing. His choice, his responsibility.

It’s a beautiful story, cleverly plotted, meticulously planned, but parts of it I’m sure he will jettison – thousands upon thousands of sentences, words, letters he’s sweated blood over. Most of it he’ll edit and even re-write, darting back and forth, checking and rechecking that he’s being consistent, keeping his chronology right, being true to his characters. They too will subtly change as he firms up their foibles, rounds out their personalities, tinkers with their distinctive voices, authenticates their accents. Maybe even the thread of his plot will be subtly tweaked in places.

And day after day after day – nights too in all probability – everything will need to be checked again … and again … and again. Until the second draft is ready for critiquing!

Only when it’s as good as it can be will he be ready to offer it to a publisher or an agent. After which he’s into a whole new game. Weighing options. Waiting. Worrying. Delays. Disappointments. Rejections. Criticism. Harsh reviews. Probably all of the above.

Next time you think £7.99/£9.99 is a lot to fork out for a paperback, spare a thought for the bruised and battered guy who poured his soul into the story, who plucked the entire thing out of his own imagination, who worked for a pittance, who persevered against all the odds, to bring you that magnificent tale that made you laugh and weep and stay up long after your bedtime because you absolutely couldn’t put it down. All for the price of a single starter in a restaurant, or a ball of wool, or a small plant for the garden.

Here’s to writers everywhere!

PS. Downside for me: Now I’m so much in editorial mode, I’m desperately wanting to correct the Stella Rimington novel, I’m currently reading for recreation!

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Critical input

Edinburgh floral clockSo, we’re into the last few days of the Festival here in Edinburgh. Next week, after a grand finale firework spectacular on the evening of the 31st, this seething, happening, nothing-surprises place will metamorphose back into our quiet and dignified capital.

Levitating figureBook Festival placard








Since I wrote my last post I’ve been to an opera, several more dramas, and a couple of book events – including one where Marion Coutts was speaking (I reviewed her book, The Iceberg, about the death of art critic Tom Lubbock a couple of posts ago) alongside award winning Belgian, Erwin Mortier, whose book, Stammered Songbook, recounts his mother’s descent into dementia. My workaday kind of topics. However, I must admit the most valuable thing I brought away from this session was what not to do on the platform!

Edinburgh Book Festiival 2015But hey, what of my own writing, you may well be thinking? Well, good news! It took another giant stride forward this week.

As you know, I’ve had really helpful feedback from experts on limited sections of the novel, but that only takes me so far; I also need critique from people looking at the whole story and from a general readers’ perspective. So six very insightful and well-read ladies belonging to a bookclub already known to me, have been reading the first full draft of Inside of Me, and on Tuesday I went along to hear their verdict. They were tremendously positive and encouraging but I picked up some very useful pointers for improvements.

Now my task is to think through the wealth of suggestions from all quarters and decide what to revise, what to delete, what to leave alone. And I’m confident the end result will be a better, stronger book than that first draft.

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A lamb to the slaughter

At the end of last year I was invited to a preview of paintings by local amateur artists. As I wandered along the corridors studying the exhibits, my heart went out to the creators of these works, also eavesdropping incognito not only on the compliments,  but also the ‘hmmms’, and sudden silences, and occasional unflattering comments. They’d laboured long and hard over those canvases, pouring something of themselves into their art. Irrespective of the appeal of any given painting, I had to admire their courage hanging their work for public scrutiny.

chosen paintingI personally liked a number of the exhibits, and indeed bought this one, which I’m delighted with.

So, given the hazards of parading one’s creativity, you might well ask, what on earth possessed me to put myself in the firing line quite deliberately, by asking a group of very excellent and discerning women readers to tear my current novel to pieces in front of me. Hello? I’ve long been conscious of the fine dividing line between normality and insanity, and my own teetering vulnerability. But this time my lapse was calculated.

To begin with I have a healthy respect for this group of professionals. Last year they invited me to go along to one of their bookclub meetings where they were discussing Right to Die, and I was impressed by the quality of their discussion. They engaged fully with the issues relating to assisted death as well as with the actual story and the art of writing.

And as far as my current writing goes, now is the time to hear constructive criticism, not when it’s between covers. Hitherto all my novels have been published by independent publishers, and the journey to the bookshops by this route includes stages of critique and editing. This might not happen if I do decide to self-publish Over My Dead Body, so I’m going to considerable lengths to get it polished as much as possible by other means. Approaching the bookgroup seemed like a splendid next step.

I made sure they all knew the terms of engagement from the outset: the book is in draft form and I’m looking for rigorous and honest analysis and comment. Flannel and flattery would render the process useless.

the bookclub ladiesSo I duly rolled up on Monday evening prepared to be slaughtered in the name of my art. (Can you smell the adrenalin already?!) In the event it turned out to be a really enjoyable and interesting experience. Initially they were concerned for me, being on the receiving end of their criticism, but I can honestly say I was not in the least bothered by it. There was a constructive point to it; it wasn’t malicious or personal. Indeed I’d invited it. It’s always a real thrill to have people talking about my characters as if they know them, and as one of the women said at the end, to have a roomful of people discussing a book in such an animated and engaged way said something about its overall appeal.

So what did I learn? The subject of organ donation is fascinating; all of them agreed on that. They actually wanted more fleshing out of the transplant bits (that really surprised me). Indeed, some found the subplots I had included as hooks, ‘distracting’ and ‘too emotionally draining’. Curiouser and curiouser! (Does this say something about my own over-exposure to the subject?)

The other surprise was that a child character I struggled with most, they all loved. I’ve several times been on the point of removing her sections; now, thanks to their input, I have the confidence not to do so.

So, what next?  I have to weigh up each of their comments and consider how much any changes would disturb the overall balance of the book. Taking out a child crime and/or a missing woman and/or a psychotic father and/or a severed limb and/or a wrecked marriage and/or a drug smuggling would inevitably alter the weightings. And might result in a total collapse of the infrastructure of the story … HELP! Adding more descriptive detail might alienate people who want fast action and variety.

I’ve been scribbling furiously ever since, but trying not to rush into too many radical revisions. After all, as the familiar adage has it: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. And I’m the one who has to stand by the finished product.

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