Hazel McHaffie

Nicola Morgan

Final changes and additions

I’m at the stage with Inside of Me where we’re waiting for reviews and final comments to come in before the whole package can be put together. It would be all too easy to champ at the bit but I’m using the time to catch up with a hotch-potch of jobs. One of those is checking out ‘the competition’ – aka reading other novels that fall into the ‘medical ethical’ bracket.

Two books overlap very directly with my own.

Dear ThingDear Thing by Julie Cohen is about surrogate pregnancy – like my Double Trouble Double Troublepublished six years earlier; although I hasten to add I’m not suggesting Cohen plagiarised my ideas! Indeed, her book became a Summer Book Club choice with Richard and Judy in 2014.

In a nutshell: Romily is a scientist and single Mum with a precociously clever daughter. Ben and Claire are her best friends but they’re unable to have a child of their own, so Romily offers to carry a baby for them and they arrange the logistics of this transaction privately between them. But no one has bargained on the unravelling of relationships and emotions. Hmmm. Very similar plot line to mine then.

Elizabeth is MissingElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey was recommended to me by someone who’d also read my Remember Remember. Again it came out long after mine – seven years this time. Costa Book Award And again it won a prestigious prize – the Costa First Novel Award 2014.

In a nutshell: Maud is struggling with dementia and searching for her friend Elizabeth. She is haunted by unresolved issues from her past. The bewilderment and confusion of the dementing mind are beautifully captured, and important truths are dotted into the account of Maud’s thinking and stumbling through life. Remember RememberFor example, she loves being teased; it makes her ‘feel human’; the other person is assuming she’s ‘intelligent enough to get a joke.’ Worth remembering.

I’ve now finished both. Verdict? Enjoyable reads, although neither achieved a 5 star rating for me. The overlaps with my books are noteworthy, so I’m glad I wrote mine first. It’s an abiding concern with me that another publication will come out ahead of mine that makes it look as if I stole someone else’s ideas! Partly fuelled of course by a heightened awareness of a topic which means you see it everywhere. On the other hand, I’m delighted to find such thought-provoking books are receiving real recognition.

Nicola MorganAll this reading feels like a great indulgence, so it was heartening to hear prolific author, Nicola Morgan, (at a Blackwells Bookshop author-event last week) describe reading novels as an essential part of stress reduction, and not the luxury or guilty pleasure it’s sometimes portrayed as – she calls it ‘readaxation’! And she should know: she’s an expert on the brain and coping with stress. I shall sink back into my upholstered chair and allow the healthy hormones to do their work as I turn the pages …

Oh, and by the way, click here for an interesting clip about the value of reading aside from relaxation.



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The Crabbit Old Bat

I spent a lot of time during the Festival waiting in queues for events, or in the Square between sessions, and as you know, I’m not the most patient idler! So, on my first day there, off I beetled to the Book Tent and bought Nicola Morgan‘s book Write to be Published. It’s the sort of reading that’s best broken up into digestible bites, leaving time to mull over the advice, hence an ideal choice to tuck into my bag for all those ‘between’ hours.

Write to be PublishedEssentially it’s about how to get published.

I first met Nicola when she was Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland – the kind of dynamic and generous Chair who makes it her business to know every author by name, but who hobnobs regularly with the great and the good in order to effect change for ‘her’ members. She’s a delightfully no-nonsense and entertaining wordsmith – written and spoken variety – so I had high expectations.

Listen to the biography in Write to be Published: it’s so Nicola: Nicola Morgan was born in a boy’s boarding school and has recovered remarkably well, while retaining the ability to do press-ups. After a painful struggle, she grew up to be the author of around ninety books, including category bestsellers and award-winners. She has been Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, an English teacher, dyslexia specialist, entrepreneur, professional cook, pillow-case repairer and trainee turkey-plucker (failed). Thanks to her blog, Help! I need a publisher! she dominates the Google rankings for her phrase Crabbit Old Bat, a fact of which she is unappealingly proud. She lives in Edinburgh and on chocolate.

The book follows the content of her blog but it’s ‘neater, better organised, more coherent and you can curl up with it. You can throw it at the wall when the truth hurts too much … It’s more polite, well-behaved, and controlled. It’s still me, but it’s me in a gorgeous evening dress. And stunning shoes, naturally.’

And it’s packed with sound advice about how to get a publisher to say, Yes! It’s about how to write a book that captures what a particular category of readers want. It’s about accepting that some books don’t deserve to be published but are, just as some people don’t deserve to win lotteries or earn large salaries or be successful, but do and are. It’s about knowing that there’s no shame or ridicule in low earnings. It’s about creating the right book in the right way at the right time.

It’s full of humour … ‘Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer’s stock in trade. Yes, they roll off the tongue, but so does dribble.

Vivid prose … ‘Showing can be more powerful (than telling). For example, you might tell me that Fred is cruel; but if you show me Fred ripping the legs off spiders and making a collage with them for his sister’s birthday card, it’s much stronger and I know exactly what you mean by cruel.

Wry good sense … ‘Only if a book is glitteringly brilliant from start to finish can you afford mistakes at submission stage. (Unless you are a celebrity, in which case you can write a load of drivel and not only get away with it but be lauded for it and have the plastic bits of your body photographed in silly magazines.)

The obvious delivered kindly … ‘Follow (submission guidelines) closely, unless you really think that although they said they wanted the submission emailed, they really wanted it delivered on a white horse at dawn, with a trombone serenade and three bags of Werther’s Originals.

Style … ‘One trouble with synopses is that they reduce your beautiful words to something plainer. They are your glorious self undressed and made to stand in front of the cameras in a Victorian swimming-costume under bright lights with no make-up. Well, in that situation, you would make sure you looked as good as possible, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t slouch there, letting your abdominal muscles slide earthwards – you’d hold them in, put your shoulders back, chin up. You’d try to show that if you had clothes and make-up and corsetry on you’d look sensational. A synopsis, being your story undressed, needs to do this.’

It’s also immensely reassuring. Having got her readers raring to go on and publish, she issues a typical Morgan warning: ‘I feel duty-bound to warn you about what lies ahead if you succeed. If you think published writers sit around eating chocolate, occasionally speaking a few languid words into a voice recorder, watching their assistant demi-under-publicists order another bottle of champagne or saying mwah, darling to famous people, think again. Here’s why:

  • You will suffer insecurity. We all do. Or most of us. And we hate the secure ones. How wouldn’t we be insecure, when   people tell us we’re rubbish? And if anyone says nice things, they’re often a) paid to, b) our parents or c) deluded (which includes our parents).
  • Not only do we feel insecure, we are. Being published once means that dire sales figures can prevent book two being accepted.The secure author is incredibly rare and it certainly doesn’t include me.
  • People will ask you annoying questions and you won’t be able to explain why your face just twisted up. If your face twisted up and you don’t give a smiling response, they will call you arrogant.
  • The money is usually rubbish and the hours are long.
  • You will go into bookshops and not find your books there. Then you will have to listen to a friend say, “I went into the bookshop in Upper Auchtermuchty and your book wasn’t there. Why not?”
  • Your publisher will blame you for poor sales and dump you. This is like being made redundant but without the money. On the other hand, writing is often like working but without the money.
  • Your work will at some point be reviewed negatively and this will be on the internet for ever. People will go online and spout unpleasantness. The fact that these people should be asleep instead of spewing out their dislike of your book at three in the morning, and that they can’t spell, doesn’t make it hurt less.

This is why we eat chocolate.

(NB. If you aren’t smiling by now, consider a funny-bone-transplant.)

It’s her clever blend of practical commonsense, unvarnished truth, authority and humour that makes this book such a gem. She tackles all aspects of getting published with the same bracing candour – how to behave towards agents and publishers, what makes a book right, how to write (suspense, dialogue, pace, narrative thrust, voice, setting, the lot), how to submit your work, coping with rejection – it’s all there. Highly recommended whether you’re thinking you might try to get published or if you’ve already had some success but worry about future attempts.

I can only look on with admiration at Nicola’s energy, drive and success. She’s a voice worth listening to.




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Society of Authors

The Bookseller reports that 120,772 new titles were published in the UK last year. Imagine your book – the one you’ve invested years of your life in; the one your very reputation hangs on; the one that is supposed to save you from starvation in a garret – falling into a pile with 120,771 others. What are the chances of it coming out on top? That’s what authors are up against. Unless, that is, you are already famous as a footballer, model, senior royal or TV personality.

I’ve just been told that my next novel, Remember Remember, is due to be published early next year. Wahey! At last! But given that I don’t fall into any of the above categories the statistics suddenly acquire horrifying dimensions. Ho hum.

Some publishers invest money in marketing; some books develop a momentum of their own; some courageous authors devote vast amounts of time to promoting their own work. But for sheer energy and drive you’d go a long way to beat Edinburgh author, Nicola Morgan. Just reading about her schedule leaves you breathless. And she writes a brilliant blog too – well, two actually! One, ghostlygalleon tracks her own activities in a racy style; the other, need2bpublished is designed to help would-be or real-live authors. She seems to have invented a forty-eight hour day!

She’s just completing her term of office as chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland so I thought I’d pay my own tribute to her. She’s a brilliant chair of meetings, speaker and general holder-of-things-together. Thanks, Nicola!

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