Hazel McHaffie

Stella Rimington

Odious comparisons

For the most part I don’t like to compare different authors. They aren’t in competition; they each have their own tale to tell, in their own way, for their own audiences. But this week in the course of reducing the number of books on my tbr bookshelves (ready for an anticipated influx next month!) I’ve been struck by the power of celebrity.

Stella Rimington? Yes, of course, we’ve all heard of her. Director General of MI5 in her professional life. High profile. Known name. But did I like her fiction? I did not. I chose At Risk – written when she’d got into her stride as a novelist. MI5 officer Liz Carlyle investigates a possible terrorist threat to a high security counter-terrorism meeting at Gleneagles. Looked promising given the author’s credentials. But … Style? No thanks. Plot? No thanks. Overall merit? No thanks. OK, this clever lady (Rimington, I mean), writing in her own area of expertise, may have successfully brought out 9 novels with bona fide publishers, but I have a sneaking suspicion her position had something to do with that. And I won’t personally be searching for more of her works.

Iain Banks? Yeah, we probably all remember his famous proposal to his girlfriend when he was terminally ill: would she do him the honour of becoming his widow. I hesitate to speak ill of the works of the dead but I’m afraid, for me, Banks has slithered into the same camp as Rimington:  Canal Dreams had little to commend it for me. A famous Japanese cellist with a fear of flying gets caught up in civil unrest in the Panama Canal aboard the tanker on which she’s a passenger. Alongside the horrors of being help captive by lawless violent men, she has a series of dark inexplicable dreams and flashbacks to various traumas in her life. Hmmm. End thought: what was there to commend this book? And yet, this guy has written and successfully published 24 novels. He is and will remain, famous. Happily he doesn’t need the endorsement of a nonentity like me.

So, my point thus far? Reading is subjective. I am not swayed by fame or fortune. I shall not like something simply because I’m told I should by others no matter how high they rank in the literary echelons. These writers don’t appeal to me. Simple as that. I did do them both the courtesy of finishing their books to give them a sporting chance (well, it’s a basic tenet of mine, not to say obsession, as you know) but that’s it.

On the other hand …

Marcelle Bernstein? Ever heard of her? Her name doesn’t crop up in quizzes, she doesn’t get major reviews, so probably not. Sacred and Profane has only one review on Amazon and yet it’s one of my top twenty favourite books. A nun collapses at prayer, crying out in agony. Thousands of miles away, a female prisoner wakes panic stricken at exactly the same moment. What links these two women? I was utterly gripped. Oh, and just so you know, Bernstein has in fact won awards as well as having many other strings to her bow.

And then there’s Jaishree Misra …? Me neither. But her book was on my shelf and I discovered this lady is high profile in India; and she’s published by mainstream publishers. Not my usual kind of reading, but I took a big breath and got stuck into Secrets and Sins by way of illustration for this blog. Riva Singh and Aman Khan meet briefly at college and have a short liaison. Now she’s a bestselling novelist and he a Bollywood heartthrob, both married to other people, when they meet again at the Cannes Film Festival. Will they follow their hearts or their heads? It wouldn’t feature on my top one hundred, I wouldn’t rush to find it’s sequel, but, viewed dispassionately, I found it easier to read that either of the celebrated works above.

However, best of all was my as-yet-unknown debut author of last week’s blog – remember him? I enjoyed his writing enormously even in its first draft form. Plot? Yes. Message? Yes. Overall merit? Yes indeedy. I guess I ought to put my mark against the day when he too is famous. You heard of him here first! He’s currently hard at work editing. Bring it on!

 

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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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