Hazel McHaffie



I’ve shared amusing reviews with you before, but today I want to capture one which appeared in The Times on January 22 that’s so excoriating I had to read it twice to believe it. The book is A Previous Life by American writer Edmund White (which I’ve never read, by the way, so can have no personal opinion on it). If you go to the publisher’s blurb about it, it’s ‘a daring, category-confounding and ruthlessly funny novel … exploring polyamory and bisexuality, ageing and love’, but The Times reviewer, John Phipps, is perplexed as to how ‘this cliche-ridden mess’ ever reached publication. I can see why his verdict did though!

He begins with ‘Nothing good follows this sentence.’ Well, that grabs the attention at least!

Though he concedes that Edmund White’s previous books ‘hold the status of modern classics’, he considers A Previous Life to be ‘… one of those outright catastrophes you can hardly believe made it off the editor’s desk. At once artless and affected, it rambles with mind-boggling carelessness between metafictional conceits and contradictory time-schemes before petering out altogether.’

Apparently paragraphs are ‘aimlessly picaresque’, facts are ‘ham-fistedly contrived’ and include ‘insulting detail’. The dialogue is ‘bad’, the writing ‘joyless’, the time frame ‘implausible’, the text ‘riddled with grammatical errors’. The storyline is littered with ‘absurdities’, ‘blunt inconsistencies’, fluctuating tenses. The author ‘seems to have lost all relish for language’.

Which is certainly not true of this reviewer, whose writing certainly captured my attention. He concludes with a flourish: ‘A Previous Life is a mess, and it badly needed an editor, but what it needed most of all was a writer.’ Ouch!

Perhaps I ought to stick with reporting things like the increase in people selling their organs in the harsh conditions in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over.

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Frozen in time

I’ve been to a very dark place – psychologically as well as physically – for the sake of my art this week. Mostly readers never know the agony and ecstasy behind a book, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse into what’s going on behind the scenes with Killing me Gently.

Come with me and let your imagination take over.

Imagine a distraught young woman careering along an unlit muddy path beside a fast-flowing river at 3am on a freezing February morning.

It’s inky black everywhere. Unseen branches reach out and tangle with her hair; ivy and exposed roots lie in wait at her feet. She slips and slides in the mud. Each heaving breath tears at her throat and lungs.

After a while the roar of the water cascading over rocks lures her closer, blocking out the echo of the relentless screaming that drove her to run away. She climbs onto the low stone wall and leans over, oblivion beckoning seductively. Will she …. won’t she …?

Now imagine an elderly woman scrambling through that same path, twilight enfolding her, sensation ebbing from her toes and fingers.

Her mind too is seething, watching the power of that relentless water … imagining the force … feeling the despair in that young woman’s heart. Picturing the growing horror of being disorientated, alone, lost … knowing not a single soul knows where she is.

That’s where you’d have found me on Tuesday evening this week. Consolidating the opening chapter of my current novel. Immersing myself in the horror. Feeling it killing me gently!

This is easily the scene’s tenth version, but I think …. I hope … I believe … it’s now almost there. Immediate. Setting a scene. Capturing key elements. Hinting sufficiently to draw the reader in. Making them ask … How desperate is this young woman? What is she running from? What has driven her beyond endurance? Will she slide into that abyss? Who has she left behind?

I’m not alone in revising and revisiting and re-editing my introduction endlessly. We all know the importance of the beginning of a story; no one more than an author who has to pitch to an agent/publisher! But once again the trick lies in deciding when it’s good enough. Going to the river, experiencing its reality, feeling spooked, has helped me towards that decision.

And for me, there’s a purpose as well as a limit to the psychological damage!

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Words words words

Cartoonists, journalists, feminists, politicians, the world and his wife, are pitching in to the incident on the tennis courts this week, where Serena Williams took exception to her treatment by the umpire in the women’s final of the US Open Tennis tournament. She smashed an expensive racket in public in her frustration, and accused the umpire of being a thief. She was heavily penalised. The rights and wrongs of her tirade, the whole issue of gender equality, are not the topics I want to home in on here; what has got me thinking in all the fallout from this, though, is the power of words and the baggage that comes with them. Serena clearly read much more about discrimination into what happened than I saw.

Also this week the media spotlight has also been on death by one’s own hand: National Suicide Prevention Week 2018. The importance of taking care with the words used has been highlighted – not saying ‘commit’ suicide, for example; not ignoring subtle cries for help. Such deaths are a tragedy whichever way you look at them, but understood with much more sympathy today than they were in the past. When I was growing up, we were told to ignore taunts and bullying. ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me‘ was the response to childish angst. But of course, we now know this is patently not true. Words DO hurt. Far more deeply that a swift slap or punch. They can seriously, sometimes irrevocably, damage your health. Mental stress can be every bit as debilitating as physical ailments, perhaps even more so. Certainly my own scars from psychological onslaught are much deeper and recurrently painful than those from any bodily trauma.

So words are powerful beasts. As the Biblical writer James says in a poetic description on control and careful speech: ‘… no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison,’ and he concedes, no one has completely mastered his own tongue. And that adage IS still true. Who hasn’t regretted something they’ve said; and felt the burden of not being able to recall or erase those words? Salutary lessons all.

Which brings me to the written word. Authors do at least know the importance of the right word in the right place. I have a row of lexicons on my desk, as well as everything the internet has to offer, to help me choose wisely. Like Oscar Wilde and his famous busy day taking out and putting back a comma, I can sometimes agonise for ages about a word or phrase, take it out, put it back, tweak it, change it, before I can move on. But who can factor in the inferences and prejudices of the reader for whom those very same words can be laden with meanings and accusations and slurs and judgements unseen by me? To minimise the danger of being inadvertently (sometimes it’s deliberate, of course!) misunderstood or causing offence, I draft in a range of experts and readers to examine the text for inaccuracies or infelicities which have escaped me. Invaluable allies.

But hey, I must get back to my serious editing – I’m working to a tight deadline this week. Third draft and a further 13,000 words to lose, so a way to go yet. I find a specific target helps to concentrate the mind, making me focus on every word to see if it’s pulling its weight; actually hunting for as many as possible that are just coming along for the ride. Which again highlights the issue I started with. Words count.

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Reflections on a golden summer

It certainly was quite a summer, wasn’t it? Wall to wall sunshine for weeks on end – no craving a Mediterranean break this year! And it seemed to fly by, often leaving little time for reflection. But September has brought a brief lull in my diary and inevitably I’m looking back and wondering what I’ve learned from the experiences; after all it’s the job of a writer ‘to see what everyone else sees and think what no one else thinks’ – or so they tell me!

Our beautiful city is currently in the process of dismantling the trappings of the biggest arts festival in the world; it looks rather forlorn, much as packing away Christmas feels. But the memories of a feast for the senses are bright and lasting. I’d like to share two reflections which are relevant to the blog and impinge on my decisions as a novelist.

When I first decided to fictionalise medical ethical dilemmas it was because I was increasingly aware of how story-telling can bring an issue to life and touch us more deeply than any textbook or lecture or internet search. This reality was reinforced during the Festival. I understand the life and times and motivation of Martin Luther the Protestant reformer,

and of Dr Josef Mengele the German SS officer and medical experimenter,

far better than I knew before, having watched superb dramatisations from their perspective.

I have greater empathy with the children of Dresden (another beautiful city) since seeing it through the eyes of a young Eleanor (performed by her real-life granddaughter) hiding from the bombs unleashed by ‘our’ side, picking her way through the rubble of flattened streets, cobbling together a life from the ruins of war.

And the second reflection? There’s a huge wealth of talent out there! I witnessed only a miniscule fraction of it. In total there were some 317 venues across the city; 3,548 different shows were staged; 2,838,839 tickets were issued. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And the standard was high. Only two of the many shows I saw disappointed in any way, and even they were professionally executed (the content was simply not to my taste). And most had a serious message behind them.

So I’ve returned to my own novel with renewed energy. I too can contribute, albeit in a small way, to this wonderful resource. And autumn seems like the perfect time to knuckle down to it. The crops are almost ready for harvesting. The nights are lengthening. The weeds are slowing their pace. Visitors have returned home. I have space to prioritise work; poring over every word, every comma; ruthless in my editing. I already have two pages of questions to take to the experts to ensure every aspect is authenticated. Ahhhh, yes, authentication. I’m struck by how often truth is stranger than fiction; if I’d written such-and-such real-life story reviewers would have condemned it as ‘far-fetched’, ‘not credible’, ‘hyperbolic’.

A case in point: this weekend I read a summary of a serious case review published by Wigan Safeguarding Children Board, which featured a 10-week old baby who died after being strapped in a car seat in a hotel room for 15 hours. Tragic in itself. But, more alarming still, 3 of the parents’ children have died in the space of two years. Indeed, of the 7 children the mother has given birth to since June 2015, only 4 have survived longer than 16 months.The authorities were aware of the history: alcohol abuse, neglect, domestic violence, frequent referrals to child social care, mental health challenges. The review reported ‘The commitment of the services that supported the child and family in the years preceding the child’s death was unquestionable, and the reviewers have identified many examples of good practice by professionals in providing information and support.
What’s more, all 4 surviving children remain with their parents. Would you have believed this in a work of fiction? ‘Far-fetched’, ‘not credible’, ‘hyperbolic’, come to mind!

Notwithstanding, I’m making every effort to make my own tale, Killing me Gently, ring true. And much as I love the buzz of summer, it feels like coming home myself to be back in the study, lost in my writing. And who knows, maybe one day this story will be dramatised! Screenwriters, film directors, out there, if you’re listening ….

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Well, here it is – the most exciting development of the week: my new book cover, designed by Tom Bee. Many many thanks, Tom. I love it.Over-my-Dead-BodyI wanted to end this week’s blog right there, but then thought you might feel mildly short-changed, as Over My Dead Body‘s cover won’t thrill you in the same way it does me. Which led me to think about the whole notion of brevity.

As writers we’re always encouraged to be succinct. My editor’s catchphrase was, ‘I want you to lose X thousand words’. So we spend weeks, months, years even, revising, paring, editing our precious manuscripts, looking at each phrase and sentence to see if it’s earning its keep.

A few literary journals actually invite readers to submit flash fiction; a brief passage which tells a whole story. Some indeed stick in the mind. One I read years ago touched a cord for me: For Sale: Baby bootees. Never worn.

And I heard recently of a Scottish woman in Peterhead, a Mrs Reid, who was newly widowed. She went in to put a short obituary in the local paper and was rather scandalised to find it cost £5 a word. There and then she made her decision: Reid. Deid. Peterheid. ‘That’ll be £35,’ she was told. She remonstrated: ‘You said £5 a word.’ ‘Ah, but there’s a minimum charge of £35.’ Back she went to the drawing board and soon emerged with her revised obituary: Reid. Deid. Peterheid. Volvo for Sale.

Have a fun week. I have great things planned, of which more next time.

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Checking, authenticating, correcting

As you know, my current novel is out for review and expert critique. And as comments come in I’m revising the text. With confidence.

I’m not a great fan of books which rely heavily on local dialect and idioms – they can be jolly hard work. But a touch of linguistic colour here and there, used judiciously, can be a happy substitute for wordy description. So, I’m indebted to my expert in Scots for the correct use of words like ‘wursel’ and ‘baws’ and ‘faither’, and the knowledge that kids from an area of multiple deprivation wouldn’t say their mother had ‘scarpered’, she’d have ‘skidaddled’.

scarper Brit. sl. run away, escape [prob. f. It, scappare escape, infl. by rhyming sl. Scapa Flow = go]

An Irish friend tells me that ‘slutty’, ‘ponsy’ and ‘poxy’ aren’t authentic currency even amongst the coarser element of the emerald isle – although I confess I’m too craven to use some of the more startling alternatives.

My contact in the police force has given me invaluable insights into the work of Family Liaison Officers and the protocol at the scene of a car crash, saving me from a significant faux pas.

All tremendously helpful advice, and in my judgement, a very necessary part of the editorial process.

It grieves me when I spend good money on  a book that hasn’t even nodded in the direction of a sound edit. I don’t want to embarrass a well-intentioned novice so I won’t name and shame the author of a particularly bad example I read this month, but one does wonder what possesses some publishers to send out real garbage, whilst others pass over masterly writing. Seems like a cross between whim and lottery. And there seems to be a growing trend towards fads and ‘copy-cat’ publishing of mediocre or downright substandard books, rather than supporting originality and exciting trend-setting.

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverDid you know that Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was rejected by 30 publishers! If you’re in the mood for a bit of light relief click here for some of the misguided and rather rude comments made to 30 other authors whose work then went on to be acclaimed and lauded. Yesss!! As Frank Sinatra once said: The best revenge is massive success. Indeedy.

The Casual Vacancy

Published by Little Brown & Co

Am I being too precious? What are your thoughts on the quality of what you read? Do you look for authenticity and accuracy? That’s the question queen of blogging Dovegreyreader asks in her review of JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy. A health care professional herself, she was shocked by the implausibility of certain sections of the story. As a writer I suspect my own personal approach borders on the obsessive, but do you, the readers, really care?


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Aversions to adverbs

Phew! Another serious edit completed. I feel the need for some fortfication!

Somebody asked me this week if I read other people’s work while editing my own, and if so, did I feel an urge to correct their writing too? The answer is yes; and yes, indeedy!

This kind of close attention to every word and punctuation mark requires total concentration, and the story mustn’t suck you along or you lose focus, so I find it useful to take periodic breaks, coming back to the job with a clearer eye and harder heart. Reading other authors qualifies.

I’d been cutting adverbs and adjectives to the bone in Saving Sebastian for a few hours, when I took time out with Gabriel García Márquez’s, Love in the Time of CholeraLove in the Time of Cholera, and came across this. Dr Juvenal Urbino and his virgin bride are getting to know each other on their honeymoon cruise:
‘Then he knew that they had rounded the cape of good hope, and he took her large, soft hand again and covered it with forlorn little kisses, first the hard metacarpus, the long, discerning fingers, the diaphanous nails, and then the hieroglyphics of her destiny on her perspiring palm.’

My editor would have a fit! There’d be a red line gouged through the whole paragraph, not just the offending adjectives – three or four slashes, I shouldn’t wonder. This is just one example; I won’t bore you with others. But I seriously wondered what I was doing pfaffing about with far less offensive over-writing.

And yet … this book is famous, positively weighed down with accolades. And it was selected for World Book Night: one of just 25 titles chosen (although I confess, it wouldn’t have been my choice). 40,000 copies of it were distributed, created specially not to be bought or sold, but to be given and shared. DJ was given this one. He passed it to me. I’m passing it on.

Furthermore Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, three years before Cholera was published.

Eh dear. What does that say about excessive adjectives?! Sigh, that’s what I mean about goalposts. Who sets them? Do they even exist? It’s all so subjective.

Oh, but to be positive, I also came across:
‘A man should have two wives: one to love and one to sew on his buttons.’
‘Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability’
And all was forgiven – well, almost!

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Recovering fast

Phew! As you know I’ve just done a very big editing job on the forthcoming book about saviour siblings. I took out about 17,500 words in the end. That’s some edit!

One major advantage of all that reading and re-reading was that I noticed repetitive words and phrases. ‘Flounced‘ and ‘shuddered‘ loomed larger than life. Descriptive passages demanded cuts. However, the chief culprit by a long way was the word ‘just’ – scattered throughout with gay abandon. How could I not have noticed before? But that’s the advantage of putting the work on one side for a while and coming back to it with fresher eyes. This time around my red pen went crazy.

I’m now recovering from the trauma of consigning all that hard-won text to oblivion by reading other people’s work – and critically appraising that instead. Marilynne Robinson was recommended to me so I’ve been reading a couple of her books (Gilead and Home). Gentle, reflective, sad stories. And I can’t help feeling that, for all their cluster of awards, my own editor would say, ‘Cut them by at least a half.’ ‘Remove the repetitive phrases.’ ‘Look at some of the peripheral characters: are they really needed?’ Oh yes, she’d call for a radical edit for sure!

So there was I, cruising along with Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead, thinking these heretical thoughts, when this passage jumped out at me. (The narrator is an elderly pastor writing a letter to his son, conceived in his late sixties, whom he will not see reach adulthood.)

I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word ‘just.’ I almost wish that I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed – when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by that word ‘just’ that proper language won’t acknowledge. It’s a little like the German ge–. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story.

I warmed to the old gentleman. And I was sorely tempted to reinstate my own murdered ‘just’s! They do serve a function. They really do! Well, OK, they just do.

Then another phrase resonated:

This habit of writing is so deep in me…

Well, indeedy. I know exactly how he feels. It won’t be denied. Even at 4 in the morning. In the Reverend’s case he has fifty years worth of sermons in his attic as well as the book-length letter to his son.

Ahah! Speaking of sermons … the Reverend Ames has an unusual angle on several points relating to matters religious, too. This one appealed to me:

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things…
So my advice is this – don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

He has a heart problem and knows he hasn’t long to live. But as he becomes increasingly frail, he resents people rushing to his aid.

I’d rather drop dead doing for myself than add a day to my life by acting helpless.

Oh yes! I see and hear this attitude again and again amongst my elderly friends. If only ‘health and safety’ would allow them to. Sigh.

With all this reassurance and empathy I’m recovering rapidly. I reckon I’ll be getting stuck back into my new novel on organ transplantation any day soon.

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Please do not disturb

People often ask how I manage to work from home, and what does my week look like? So a few hints and tips from the McHaffie DIY Manual on Writing by way of a change, this week.

Working from home
I guess it comes down to three things: discipline, persistence and obsession. My second names. One of my obsessions is that I need peace in order to write, mental peace as well as physical. So first I have to tidy up my mind as well as my environment.

This week that clearing process included finishing the book I was reading, Whatever you Love by Louise Doughty. A disappointing read, sadly. I rather enjoyed the author’s weekly column A Novel in a Year, so I had high hopes. And WYL began well. But it failed to live up to its early promise. Too slow paced and altogether too improbable. I can deal with not liking the main characters, but really! Would a newly bereaved mother deliberately entice the man who killed her little girl to her home to have sex with him? Would you marry a man who held you over a cliff edge to terrify you? No, it wasn’t for me.

Once that and all the other extraneous tasks are dealt with, I’m free mentally to get on with the creative writing.

I love working from home – not sitting in traffic, not being jostled by tired commuters, not having to brave the elements, not tiptoeing around moody colleagues. In fact, there’s only one downside I can think of: getting other people to respect my working hours. I’m too available.

What my week looks like
Every week is different. Depends on which bit of the work I’m preoccupied with.

If I’m dreaming up a plot I might be cleaning windows, or driving through the country, or whipping up a feast. All with notebook and pen at the ready, of course.

If I’m in full creative flow with a new book I’m locked in the study working all hours of the day and night, disengaged from real life. PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB; DISTURBED ALREADY the placard on my door.

This particular week has been dominated – day and night – by editing. Shorter sharper bursts of activity so that I’m not lulled by the narrative into missing those extraneous phrases and repetitive sounds. I have to be slightly detached from the characters for this phase but they still haunt me wherever I am.

Saving Sebastian is due out in July and my editor wants two changes. A shorter book, and less distinctive accents. Oh, and lose a few adverbs!

I have a number of supporting characters with regional or foreign accents in the story – Arthur (a florist’s delivery man), Aurora (a Nigerian grandmother), Desiree (a Glaswegian girl who’s having IVF) – and I’m trying to convey qualities about them by their speech patterns. It’s a fine judgement deciding how authentic to be in written form. Jennie felt in places their dialogue was holding up the flow, so I’ve been smoothing it out.

I’ve managed to lose about 10,000 words so far. Sobering thought, eh? Labouring over the creation of 10,000 words, only to take them all out again. It’s a crazy life! Oh, and in all this detailed scrutiny I’ve noticed that I use the word ‘just’ far too liberally, so I’ve been searching for each occurrence and stamping on it as often as possible. I wonder if I use it to excess in my everyday speech.

Most of the week, then, I’ve been closeted in the study, staring at the computer, going over and over the text, tightening it up. But I did sneak out for my eldest granddaughter’s birthday, and to visit elderly friends. I’m not a complete troglodyte. Although I must confess, it felt like truanting, and I worked most of Saturday to compensate. Like I said, obsession is my middle name.


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Aiming for perfection

Well, what an amazing beginning to the year 2010!

Temperatures up here have sunk to minus thirteen – minus sixteen a bit further north. It’s snowed every day except one for three weeks now. We’ve slipped and slithered to a few events – the ones that weren’t cancelled – but the roads have been deadly.

But it’s stunningly beautiful. I keep reaching for the camera …

… with due care, of course. Don’t want to fall and break that expensive lens … or both my arms … and end up totally helpless … like someone in the advanced stages of dementia … like my character, Doris Mannering, in Remember Remember … Fanciful? Yes. But then aren’t all creative writers? Imagining yourself into a person or place is what it’s all about.

And I’ve been doing a lot of imagining this week. It’s the big edit. ‘Be severe,’ said my editor. And ‘kill the baby’ (which in common parlance means, erase the bits you love best). I’ve been severe all right! Twenty-eight thousand words have been cut. That’s more words than many a dissertation. And every one of those twenty-eight thousand words has been thought up, written down, read several times and now deleted. For ever. Weird way of filling your time, huh? But fortunately for me I’m sufficiently distant from the original draft for it not to be too painful. There’s something to be said for publishers’ delays after all!

I finished this mammoth stint at 10.30 last night and sent it off to my editor. But then, in the night … you know about my subconscious mind … I had an idea … As the saying on my old computer had it: Perfection is always one more draft away. And because we’re never satisfied, we go on … and write another novel … and another … always hoping … this time …

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