Charlotte's Web

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A Writing Challenge

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A few months ago, the lovely Literate Kitten started the Friday ‘Fess-Up, in which anyone who was writing and reading about writing confessed how their writing week had gone. It was a great way for me to record my progress with my novel, but then the summer holidays arrived and things fell apart. I have been neither writing nor recording. Now, the equally lovely Courtney has issued a challenge that I can’t resist. It goes like this:

So, the challenge is to post one paragraph from your current work in progress you feel particularly happy with, and one you aren’t pleased with, and then to discuss the writing process, to the best of your recollection, behind each.

I am very grateful to Courtney, because this process has sent me back to my novel. I’ve read all the chapters, and can feel the characters calling me. Poor Sanet is sitting at her dinner-party, poised for the fall-out that is going to change her life, and I really need to finish that process so that she can move on. I’ve had a lovely time setting up the crises that characters face, but I’m lacking the courage to take them through to the end. Emotional honesty, even when it’s made-up, is difficult.

I don’t know if I’m a huge egotist, but I’ve struggled to find a paragraph that I really don’t like. Instead I’ve found three in a row that I believe start well and then get weaker. Take a look, and I’ll discuss afterwards:

This afternoon, however, Seb has a meeting he cannot miss, and she has come to the hospital alone. Seb had wanted to hail her a taxi, but Sanet decided to walk. Accustomed to being outdoors and to walking long distances daily with her dogs, she is unfazed by the five-kilometre walk from Richmond, through St Margaret’s to the hospital in Isleworth. As she crosses Richmond Bridge in a steady patter of English rain, she turns back to look at the suburb that her son has begun to call home. Solid and stately, it covers Richmond Hill with the confident brickwork of generations. The Thames washes beneath her, a carpet of longing.

Sanet walks briskly in the rain along a suburban street that arches in the direction of Isleworth. She has driven this way with Seb a few times already and knows its landmarks well. Having spent her adult life on a farm, this is a habit: noting, marking and attending to her surroundings. If she were walking up the koppie at home now, she would be doing the same, noting trees, birds and animal droppings. On the way home, she thinks she will try the tow-path along the river. She passes the cluster of small shops and pubs around St Margaret’s station, hears a train thunder below the bridge. The words are strange to her ears: “greengrocer’s”, “off-license”, even “pub”. Of course she’s heard of English pubs before, but now that she’s seeing them, they are like dreams of pubs, hallucinations of extreme Englishness. They swagger their allegiances, to brands of beer, to football clubs, to chalked-up quiz nites and fish and chips.

She takes a pedestrian path over a busy roadway that roars out of London. Seb has told her that it goes past the rugby stadium. Sanet’s family at home, Lourens, Christabel and her new husband Jan, are all obsessed with rugby. Christabel sits comfortably with the men on the sofa, matching them beer for beer and commenting knowledgeably on the state of play. Rugby has been the background to Sanet’s life. Her teenage years were spent flicking her hair and giggling around rugby pitches, where later she compared babies and cake recipes. It had been a dagger blow for Lourens when South Africa was banned from international sport. The only reason he accepts the immiment change of government is his hopes for the country’s rugby side. Lourens has three filters: the sport, his farm and God. Everything else, even his family, is less alive for him. So it is clever, Sanet concedes, of Christabel to take an interest in rugby and to have married a farmer. She has insured her role as Pa’s girl for life. The rest of them are second tier to Lourens – Claudine has disappeared to Durban to pursue her impractical artist dreams, Sanet is the ghost in the garden and as for Balthasar, he gave up on him years ago.

The last paragraph makes Sanet sound much more confident than she is. When I redraft I will remove the giggling and the hair-flicking because she would never have done that. She would have been too shy as a teenager. I need to show just how alienated she is from rugby and that superbly confident daughter who has taken her place on the sofa with the men. I also think the last sentence is glib, and I need to show more clearly, rather than tell, how Claudine, Sanet and Balthasar are of less importance to Lourens because they don’t share his interests. I need to show that although Sanet longs for Africa and feels alien in London, when she is home, she is just as alienated. What is becoming clear to me is that if you are alienated from yourself, you are alienated from everything, and that will become the core of Sanet’s crisis: she will be offered the opportunity to be true to herself. The question is, will she take it up?

Enough of context. Courtney asked for process. All I really remember, is that the first paragraphs came easily and that I wrote about ten versions of the third one. Writing about alienation, about being exiled, about the strangeness of another land, came easily to me. The part I found difficult was getting to the core of what is wrong with this family. Perhaps I don’t need to achieve that in one paragraph. Light-bulb! Perhaps all I need to do is put Sanet on that sofa for a couple of sentences and show that, even when she is trying to fit in, she doesn’t, that even while sitting on the sofa with her husband, daughter and son-in-law, she is in another country.

I really need to finish this draft so that I can get on with the redraft. I can’t wait to polish and shine and neaten, and get everything in its place.

Thanks, Courtney. I owe you.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

10 thoughts on “A Writing Challenge

  1. Glad you are writing again!

  2. Oh, I just love this, particularly the way you describe England – so vivid! I know what you mean, too – it was hard for me to find language I really hated OR really loved. In re-reading I am both better and worse than I think…thanks for participating!

  3. cool!

    I liked reading your work, but I agree that there is too much in the last paragraph. What you wanted to convey didn’t come across clearly there – although there is a hint of it, and I wonder if that is all you wished to give the reader at that point. You have some delicious themes to unpack though! Enjoy!

  4. Oh Sailplane, you are writing. You have made my day. I hear you about finishing the draft. Do complete it, even with flaws. If you saw some of my firsts, I would snatch them away from you in embarrassment. (Spelt it correctly this time.) Rewrites are fun. And when one gets into stride, they go fast.

    If I mess about as I am now, you’ll publish before me. Won’t that be fun?

  5. I love your phrase ‘Sannet is the ghost in the garden”. It makes me ask why she is, how she is, why the garden, what happened? Lovely, lovely writing – I could see London again in your words.
    The problem with the third is you’re right, you have to show Louren saying they are second tier to him, or something along how often he’s said it, so that it is his words that have created that impression for Sannet – or what has made that impression on her. Maybe it’s just because he only relates to what is with him, and anyone who moves away becomes less important…..I don’t know, I do know that i like your writing and the story in those paragraphs. Keep writing!!!

  6. The problem is you write so well about everything that you don’t know when to call a halt. You need limitations, Charlotte, then you’d have to rein it in and be concise from time to time like the rest of us!

  7. You capture England so well. I felt a lot like that when I moved there from Australia. My move to Seattle has been less jarring, maybe because I am doing it in steps.

    I do understand that feeling of displacement. About two years ago that feeling defined me. Then I got out, saw parts of the world I had never seen, met new people (including Ben), and when I came back to my life, I shed all that was inauthentic, including people.

    What will be her catalyst I wonder? I am sure that you have thought of it, and probably even written it, but I am excited to know. She is well-drawn in only three paragraphs – a credit to you.

  8. What a treat to read a few paragraphs out of your novel!

    “Solid and stately, it covers Richmond Hill with the confident brickwork of generations. The Thames washes beneath her, a carpet of longing.”

    “They swagger their allegiances, to brands of beer, to football clubs, to chalked-up quiz nites and fish and chips.”

    Two of my favourite lines! Fabulous!

    I know you mentioned that you felt that maybe the last sentence was glib – I however would be sad if you omitted it. In reading the last paragraph I understand that Lourens is a hard man, who is maybe a farmer, and loves rugby. This type of man would not support any form of artistic dreams like those of Claudine. ” …, Sanet is the ghost in the garden,..” gives me the impression that he is aware of her existance in the backround of his life. Balthasar has obviously not been a son Lourens can be proud of. The way you wrote, “…. he gave up on him years ago.” gives me the impression that Balthasar is not following in his fathers footsteps, sharing his fathers interests and is therefore a huge dissapointment. Christabel has taken the place where a son would normally sit with his father on the couch, drinking beer and watching rugby. Louren’s has washed his hands of Claudine and Balthasar as they don’t share his interests and have pursued lives that he does not approve of. Sanet has not evoked any emotion in Lourens as she has not done anything that he doesn’t approve or dissaprove of, which is why she is the “ghost in the garden”. Out of the four children Sanet is the most alienated.

    It is a gift to write and take your readers on a journey. Keep writing!!!

  9. I can’t wait to read the completed work. Hurry up and finish!

  10. Your paragraph is so great already that I feel awkward doing the same challenge. Keep on with it, it’s so very promising!

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