Hazel McHaffie

The Author

Writerly round-up

Time for my occasional round-up of the titbits about writing/writers that have appealed to me over the months of trawling through literary journals.

Did you know …

Psychologists have found that access to creative ideas will be enhanced if you have ongoing exposure to the actual smell of what you’re writing about – cigars, lemons, fish etc.
(Creativity Research Journal Vol 31)

Nearly 200,000 new titles are published every year!! No wonder getting your book noticed is such a difficult task for all except major celebrities and world famous writers. But at its heart has to be an online presence, advertising, and good professional advice. Oh, and a high quality product! Making your book the best it can be is the starting point for every marketing campaign. (Mslexia Vol  84)

Well-known authors and creative writing tutors and researchers all acclaim mindfulness and meditation as offering a range of benefits – alleviating depression, lowering blood pressure, managing stress, improving focus and creativity.  (Mslexia Vol 88)

Good advice for writing, and indeed for living, is: dwell whole-heartedly and unselfconsciously in that moment of vulnerability. And we’ve all felt rather vulnerable of late. It’s the first step towards recovering our confidence and sense of hopefulness. (The Author Vol 132.1)

Novel-writing easily tips from being absorbing to obsessive, and that takes its toll mentally. (Monica Ali 2021)

A good dose of self-doubt is essential for a writer, but a total loss of confidence is disastrous. (Monica Ali 2021)

Interaction increases engagement. (The Author, vol 132.1)

Probably the weirdest word in the top ten most used in 2020 according to Collins Dictionary is mukbang. It’s a South Korean word meaning ‘a host who broadcasts videos of themselves eating large quantities of food’.  (The Author vol 132.1)

If that doesn’t leave you smiling I fear you are having a bad day! Sorry.

 

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Sweets or brussels sprouts?

 We … read fiction to learn about what we don’t know and to recognise what we do.
To feel less alone. And we share fiction, in online and physical book clubs, sometimes to find a way to discuss those issues we are struggling with in our everyday lives – and at other times to get as far away from them as possible.

Discuss!

No, this wasn’t really on an exam paper, but in the official journal of the Society of Authors: The Author.

It’s a complete joy to read these productions, every article beautifully written and relevant and helpful, but this particular quote made me pause and reflect on the hundreds and hundreds of books on my shelves and why I a) chose them and b) read/will read them. I’ve given away more of my personal library this year than ever before, partly because the pandemic has meant more time for folk to read books so I’ve shared mine, and partly because many found their way onto the bookcase we put out during lockdown.

It’s terrific news that the nation has turned so wholeheartedly to reading. Apparently online sales of books surged fourfold with an estimated 41% of the population in the UK –  both more in number and almost doubling time spent devouring them. Wahey!! And the notes we received from users of our bookcase showed how vitally important books are to mental health.

I loved the observation made by Waterstone’s Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell: every single primary school needs a well-stocked library, where the stories are ‘modern and exciting and relevant to children’s lives, like sweets, not brussels sprouts‘!

For adults, of course, we need a very mixed diet. Sometimes it does us good to have a sour taste left in our mouths; sometimes our teeth need to be set on edge; sometimes we need to persevere to educate our palate. Writing about difficult issues – mental illness or suicide or sexual abuse or body dysphoria or death or whatever – can hardly be described as sugar candy, and I’m all too conscious that many of my own novels are not mugs of decadent hot chocolate for bedtime. Indeed, I select with great care when I send any of them to people with vulnerabilities. But opening up healthy dialogue about subjects currently shrouded in myth and taboo and isolation and misunderstanding, is wholly desirable. And sometimes fiction can reach the parts and the consumers better than more formal texts … provided care is taken. I was much impressed to hear that the Society of Authors has been working in close collaboration with the Samaritans and recently issued a set of guidelines for authors writing about suicide or self harm. Brilliant. It would be so so easy to get it wrong.

So, let’s hope the habit of reading acquired in this difficult year of Covid-19, becomes a bonus that continues way beyond the pandemic.

 

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Quotable quotes from the writing journals

When the news is dominated by politics, and right royal revelations, we could probably all do with something to make us smile, so I thought I’d brighten your day with assorted wise or amusing quotes.  It’s a long time since I shared entertaining snippets from the literary journals, but, as 2019 draws to its end, it’s probably timely to give you a resume of my favourites, all taken from the Society of Authors’ official magazine: The Author, throughout 2018/19. Names in brackets are the people who submitted these gems.

A definition of stories
‘…  wonderful made-up people whose tangled stories are tattooed on woodpulp’   (Richard Smyth)

Wry humour
A Wilde Wit competition asked for original quotes that sound like something Oscar Wilde might have said. The winner came up with the two top entries:
‘I’m frequently misquoted – often accurately.’
‘An insult from the right person can be as agreeable as any compliment.’   (Andrew Taylor)

Dubious advantage
Ian McEwan‘s youngest son was obliged to read his father’s 1997 novel, Enduring Love, for his A-level course. As part of his studies he had to submit an essay on the book. The author gave him a little private tutorial on it and told him the main points to consider. Unfortunately his English teacher disagreed fundamentally and the lad got nothing more than a C! Just goes to show how subjective reading is, huh?   (Andrew Taylor)

Reporting on research into older people writing
‘… to forget self in a worthwhile project is like a tonic. Being completely immersed in what you are doing, having the mind fully engaged, having a purpose in life, waking up with something to look forward to, and knowing you are still doing something useful to, and valued by, society – these things contribute massively to a happy, healthy and fulfilled old age.’  (Robin Lloyd-Jones)

Occupational hazards
There’s currently a move to encourage authors to abandon their too comfortable writing chair, but did you know the idea has an august pedigree?
Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov and Soren Kierekegaard all worked standing up.   (Alice Jolly)

Unsung wives
Leo Tolstoy‘s wife Sonya made eight fair copies of different versions of War and Peace, bore 13 children, and even worked on the manuscript in bed while recovering from puerperal fever, the childbirth infection that killed many women.  Yet, how many folk laud her efforts? (Karen Christensen)

The place of books in our lives
‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’   (Philip Pullman)

Reader appeal
Waterstones in Swansea tweeted a message in 2018 that went viral:
‘Doors closed 15 minutes ago. As we do every evening, we’ve turned all the books upside down so the words don’t fall out overnight. It may seem like a silly waste of time, but ask yourself this: when did you last see piles of words on a Waterstones’ carpet? That’s right – NEVER.’   (Andrew Taylor)

It’s a joy to read a publication written by people who really know how to write!

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Collective nouns and other pithy sayings

One of my favourite moments in the writing process is seeing the finished cover. That’s when all the hard work crystallises into a tangible reality. This week I’ve been poring over possible designs for Listen, and I believe we’re a whisker away from the final choice. Wahey!

Alongside that, lots of reading, plotting and jotting going on, none of which would interest you, so I’m going to share another line of thought with you. The cleverness of words.

Do you, like me, love a pithy saying?

I was in a cavernous building full of antiques just after socialite and model, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson died last week, and her editor/ghostwriter was speaking on the radio. Tara, she said, had ‘a casual relationship with deadlines‘ – so much so that she, the editor, ended up ghost writing much of the material that went out in Tara’s name. ‘A casual relationship with deadlines’ – wish I’d coined that phrase myself! Reminded me of the more famous Douglas Adams quote: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’

A few other wise adages or pertinent thoughts that have resonated with me this week:

Living with him made his eccentricities curdle into pathologies.Matthew Thomas

No-one knows what is going to sell. Not really. So you might as well write the book you want to write, not the book the publishers think the market will want in two years’ time.Francesca Simon

The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.’
Robert Benchley

The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt.Sylvia Plath

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.Harper Lee

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.’ Virginia Woolf

We’ve been hearing a lot this month about flocks of starlings and their spectacular aerial displays – collective noun: a murmuration. Others that resonate with me and seem particularly apt are

a shrewdness of apes

a sleuth of bears

a bask of crocodiles

a flamboyance of flamingoes

an exhaltation of larks

a pandemonium of parrots

an ostentation of peacocks.

The editor of the writerly journal, The Author, obviously enjoys such clever expression:

What’s the best collective noun for authors? A diversity? An advance? A recalcitrance?James McConnachie

OK, break over; back to the reading …

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Now you see me … now you don’t

Well, I bet you never expected to see a post about sport on my blog, did you? Me neither. But here I am about to dip a toe into this rather alien world.

Marcus Willis

Click on the picture for the winning moment

Actually, to be fair, Wimbledon does hold some appeal every year; tennis being one of the few games I have any interest in. And here it is in full swing once more.

You’ve probably all heard that this week’s sensation was Britain’s Marcus Willis ranked 772 in the world, who beat Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis (ranked 54th) in straight sets in the first round on Monday with some spectacular play. Well, it so happens that I’ve known Marcus’ family all my life; his great-grandfather was one of the loveliest men I ever met and my childhood hero. So, of course, I’ve been absolutely thrilled by the Willis-sensation and all the coverage he’s received.

His own story reads like a fairytale – complete with the beautiful princess who believes in him and rescues him from himself! But what struck me most is how unequal the effort and the recognition are. This young man has been struggling below the radar for years and years, pursuing his dream, earning peanuts, unknown, unsung. He’s on the verge of throwing in the towel … he’s persuaded to give it one more shot. A series of improbable chances propels him into the first round of Wimbledon. He excels. And lo and behold, here he is, suddenly shooting out of obscurity into the blinding flash of publicity; his name, his face, his story, everywhere! Front page headlines. And what’s more, achieving something that will go down in tennis history. Fantastic. A mere two days later he’s on Centre Court playing against no less a person than Roger Federer, ranked third in the world and winner of 17 grand slams, before a crowd of 15,000 spectators, and I am watching the cameras home in on his family in the players’ box. Not surprisingly he was beaten this time. We all felt his disappointment, but he can hold his head high. And no one can take away that phenomenal experience.

I could also see certain parallels with writing – although the literary stage tends to be much less high profile than the sporting one. A whole lot of solitary slog, unseen and unsung. Massive self-discipline. Plenty of self-doubt. Lots of criticism. Constant pressure to do better. Uncertain rewards. Occasional appearances performing to others. And for a tiny elite, accolades.

As the Editor of The Author says in the latest edition: ‘…we endure long periods of solitude punctuated by episodes of startling exposure. Like shy children obliged to sing in assembly, we are thrust forward for sudden public judgement – and it is not just our professional personalities that are up there on the podium but our innermost intellectual and emotional selves. Our everyday creative existence, meanwhile, is dependent on piercing self-criticism and inflated self-belief – not a stable combination … Success can seem arbitrary. Rewards are rarely anticipated. Our control of our professional futures, by and large, is scanty.’

How true. I’ve come out of ‘isolation’ recently to do public events about Inside of Me. After all those months behind closed doors, researching, thinking, creating, plotting, writing, doubting, editing, refining, suddenly it’s time to blink in the headlights. Sign books. Hold an audience. Be challenged to explain, reveal, unravel – there’s no hiding when you’re the only person in the firing line. And suddenly all that careful preparation makes sense.

Sadly justice is not always served in this life. There are countless sportspeople and writers and others who never receive the acclaim they deserve.  But here’s to all those decent, kind, caring people who slog away unseen, without reward, but who make this world a better place to live in by their efforts. Marcus’ smile and good humour will live on alongside his score.

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Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the writer’s besetting sin. Every book is flawed or even failed copy of the ideal book that existed in your mind before you began. And every book is, at some level, a correction of the one that went before.‘ So goes the editorial in the Spring edition of The Author.

How true. I used to have a sticker on my computer that said, ‘Perfection is always one more draft away‘, but I took it down in the end because … well, you know me!  Mrs An-inch-away-from-obsessive. I’d have been putting off publication date ad infinitum. In the end ‘good enough’ has to do, or the jolly old title will never see the light of day.

Over my Dead BodyBut I think it’s this abiding awareness of imperfection that’s partly what makes it such a joy to go out to meet real live folk who’ve read the books and love them, to listen to their comments and generous commendation. They come to the stories without all my baggage and yet they enter into the lives of the characters and talk about them as if they too know them personally. All very confirming.

I’ve been doing quite a lot of author appearances since Over my Dead Body came out, and people are so kind. So thank you, librarians, event organisers, audiences, readers – keep up the good work. We writers need you, just as you need us. And never underestimate the value of your feedback. If for any reason you can’t get to an event to speak to us face to face, pop a comment on our websites, or post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. We love to hear from you.

OK, my mind might have been wandering down the track of never being quite good enough, but that’s made me more aware of other kinds of perfection in our amazing world:SwanPoppySpider's webWe can’t go out and photograph the human brain but how amazingly crafted it is to be capable of conjuring up fictitious scenes and people so vividly that other brains can picture them and feel their emotions merely through black squiggles on white paper. Imagine that! I am lost in wonder.

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An atypical day

Hmmm. Tuesday was such an atypical day I think I’ll tell you about it – the highlights anyway, not the humdrum bits.

5am. Awake soon after 5 (habitual these days).

7am. Still dark as I plough through the streets on my pre-breakfast power-walk, making it all the more surprising to be hailed from across the road by a man walking a beautiful white dog resembling a ghostly wolf. We’ll call him (the man, not the hound), Mr A, since I didn’t get his permission to mention him. Over my Dead BodyApparently he’d attended a talk I’d given before Christmas in the local library, with his friend, K, and they’d both since then read Over My Dead Body and given copies to friends as gifts. Mr A gives me an update on K’s progress since his second kidney transplant; not too encouraging sadly.

It’s so good to get feedback from real people like this who are living through the experiences I write about in my fiction: knowing they endorse my work means a lot. I’m frozen by the time we stop chatting, but move on with a positive spring in my step.

9am onwards throughout the working day. Catch up on writerly reading – back copies of The Author principally, revelling in the realistic opinions of my colleagues who see beyond superficial excitement of a published book to the daily challenges and struggles and disappointments. Such shared experiences are immensely reassuring. 

11.30 am. Receive bouquet of flowers for forthcoming evening from my publisher. Wow! Totally unexpected but much appreciated.Flowers

1pm. Send off a card to William in Northern Ireland who’s been staying in touch and vigorously promoting my book over there. His mum contacted me a few days ago to say he’s finally had a kidney transplant after waiting 16 years. I’ve never met him but I’m sharing the excitement. Get well soon, William.

5.45pm. Off to Blackwell’s Bookshop in the city centre for a 6.30pm author event. Window sign at Blackwell's

Events coordinator, Ann Landmann, has everything ready in good time and sets a lovely relaxed tone. As does the chairperson, Dr Patricia Jackson, who is very professional and enthusiastic.

The bookish setting

 

The audience are fully engaged and ask good questions. Plenty of buzz around the books and wine afterwards and I’m not stranded at the signing table! Plus I get several invitations/suggestions for future events.Books and wine

This day reminds me why I do what I do on all the unsung solitary days.

 

Better yet, the following day I receive several calls and emails from folk saying the event and book have made them think again about donation. Now, that’s what I call a result!

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Assorted tips from writers’ lives

Time for a  Blue Peter moment methinks. Another round-up of literary titbits (mostly from Mslexia, The Author and the Telegraph) that have resonated with me, and will hopefully give you glimpses into the lives and thoughts of writers and what they’re up against in today’s climate. Saving you the slog of trawling through several publications yourself – always supposing you had any appetite for doing so! And OK, I’ll come clean … these quotes are a tad past their sell-by date and have been sitting waiting to be posted for several weeks. Indeed two more editions of the journals are at this moment glaring at me from my toppling tbr pile, but that’s another story. Here goes then.

The Author journalsOn being a writer …

New pet hate is people saying ‘I might go freelance.You seem to manage …’ I NEVER GO TO SLEEP, THAT’S WHY.  (A writer-subscriber to Twitter)

On the writing process …

You never, if you write fiction, talk about your work in progress. You learn quite early that, once the steam is let out of a story through talk, it can never be recovered. When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it. (Terence Blacker)

The real danger is when a character is not a character but a mouthpiece for a particular ‘ism’. (Amanda Craig)

Pages peppered with punctuation mistakes and obvious typos are the literary equivalent of leaving the loo with one’s skirt caught in one’s knickers. (Alice Slater)

By dramatising points of view or social evils, by making us care about purely invented beings, a novelist can change how we see real people in a real world. But the trick is to take the reader with them – not bash them over the head with its arguments. (Amanda Craig)

On the consequences of being a writer …

Depression is thought to affect writers at a rate of eight to ten times higher than people in the general population. (Faridah Newman)

… one is always likely to be more conscious of where one has failed than of any successes one may apparently have had. The awareness of failure is more enduring, and for a writer more constant. One’s books are never as good as they were going to be. (Alan Massie)

But in the end this is [Dan Brown‘s] worst book, and for a sad, even noble, reason – his ambition here wildly exceeds his ability. (Jake Kerridge)

Mslexia journalsOn the competition …

With over 150,000 new books published each year and only a handful of reputable journals, papers and websites which review them, it’s another huge challenge to get noticed amongst all the boxes of books delivered to reviewers weekly.’ (Rosalind Kerven)

On earning a living …

In the absence of a global crackdown, the number of ebooks being read that have not been paid for will increase alarmingly. (Andrew Rosenheim)

On reaching the public …

If a novel doesn’t arouse your curiosity at some level, it’s dead in your hands. (Ian McEwan)

 Plenty to think about as I peg away all alone in my garret.

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Sock it to me

I’m sending this week’s post a day early because I’m off down south (near London) to lead workshops in medical ethics. A whole day of challenging people to think about my favourite subjects. Wahey!

And a welcome break, because I have to confess, I’ve been feeling rather discombobulated and chagrined this week. Why? Because the time is fast approaching for me to resolve the matter of how I publish Over My Dead Body, and the decision certainly wasn’t made any clearer when I delved into the whole business of trying to get one’s book noticed amongst the welter of volumes coming off the press every month. Which led me to marketing, publicity campaigns, reviews and networking … yawn, yawn.

Literary journals like The Author are packed with useful advice but they’re also brutally honest too, showing up pitfalls and problems – writers telling it just like it is for other writers. So it wasn’t long before I had to face some unpleasant truths. OK, most of us recognise that the odds are stacked against our wee book. We know all about the scramble for a share of the market, and that the winners are the ‘ones with the sharpest elbows‘, as Graham Joyce puts it.

But do we have to resort to dubious practices? I’m thinking of things likeconfused

– sock puppeteering (assuming a false online identity for the purpose of publishing superlative reviews on one’s own work);

– disparaging rival authors’ work under a pseudonym;

– rewarding bloggers in return for a favourable review;

– paying cash for a ‘book-of-the-month’ accolade.

to name but a few.

Surely one’s own personal integrity has to count for something – I for one want to sleep easy in my bed.

But for all us, squeaky clean though we may personally be, any attempt by even a few to distort the picture by the use of these unpleasant or unworthy or downright dishonest tactics devalues the very currency of reviews. Who will ever believe in us?

London here I come. Hopefully I shall come back a calmer person and the old subconscious will have sifted and sorted the pros and cons for me.

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Retirement? What retirement?

Not much time for literary reflections this week, I’ve been fully occupied helping my daughter turn almost 90 metres of fabric into curtains for a city centre flat with massive windows. Gorgeous rich material, thick thermal linings, and the finished articles so heavy it takes two of us to lift each one.curtain fabric

The thinking, planning and cutting require full concentration, but once the lengths are cut and the patterns matched, pinning, tacking, sewing 3 meter long seams gets a bit repetitive, and the old mind is free to wander. At one stage it wandered into the issue of retirement.

Plenty of folk (most I suspect) think I’ve retired. They don’t see writing as any kind of work. I’ve got used to that, and nowadays I rarely challenge them. Given the general sense that an awful lot of folk think they could write a book if they only had the time and weren’t busy doing more important things, it’s an pretty abortive mission.

Besides which, retirement’s a rather slippery concept, isn’t it? This week Olympic swimming medallist, Rebecca Adlington, announced her retirement – aged 23! She has recognised the demands of competitive swimming – a young person’s sport, as she says. She knows firsthand what it takes to reach the very top, and she acknowledges that her body cannot do that any more. She will move into something else. But she and the press call it retirement.

So, what does retirement from being an author look like? At the moment I love what I do; I’m bereft when I can’t sit scribbling. Ideas still flood in. Plots still emerge. Characters still come alive. I’ve started to get feedback on my latest novel, Over My Dead Body, and two of the critics say this book is my best yet. Others may not think so, but such endorsement is enough to make me feel I’m not ready to write that final ‘The End‘ just yet.

But … will I know when it is the right time? As Terence Blacker writing the Endpaper in Autumn 2012 of The Author says to writers:

‘There is no silver clock to be handed to you by the managing director, no pats on the back, no speeches.There are not even colleagues around to tell you that your time is up. Thousands of authors, all over the world, are working away right now without having noticed that they retired several years ago.’

Succinctly put. I shall hold that thought.

 

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