Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Seven Stages of Receiving Critiques

I’m at the stage with my novel where I’m leaking chapters to a few trusted readers. Some are real-life friends and others are friends from my online forum. The forum has a rule that the only correct response to a critique is ‘thank you’. This is absolutely true. Another rule is that as writers we have to grow a hide as thick as a rhino’s because after the beta readers (if we hit the next stage), we will have to face critiques from agents and publishers. The idea is: get used to it!

Having kept this novel to myself for the past two years, it has been a swift growing-up process for me learning to put it out there in front of others. At times it’s felt like placing a baby in front of sharp-shooters and saying, ‘Duck, my darling.’ Baby grows a thick skin fast.

Even if the only correct response to a critique is thank you, and even if the critiquer is absolutely right, facing criticism is very much like the seven stages of grief:

1. Shock/Disbelief

How can he say that? That’s my carefully crafted sentence/paragraph/chapter! How can he just rip it apart like that?

2. Denial

Never heard such crap in my life. Deleting my adjective build-up? This person clearly has no idea.

3. Anger

Does he think he can write? Try spending 24 months slaving over one manuscript, fighting off children, the laundry pile, dinner dates and and, visits to the hairdresser! in order to do this. What does that writer do? Probably stay indoors and write for 12 hours a day, stopping only to order flat food that delivery boys slide under the door. I have a life! And I wrote this, and I won’t have it fixed.

Anger can go on for quite a long time. This is the moment where the writer should avoid pinging back an email by return post.

4. Bargaining

Email to the critiquer: I know you said xyz, but I really need to keep it there because of abc, you see. It’s crucial to the narrative. I know you think it should come later, but you’ll see, really you will, that this is the place for it.

5. Guilt

I’m wasting their time. I’m boring them. I’ve presumed to ask them to be my beta reader and now they’re propping open their eyelids with matchsticks trying to get through my turgid prose.

6. Depression

I am awful. I am crap. I’m nothing.

I am so freaking bad that when I finally approach an agent all I’m going to hear is the sound of roaring laughter across the English Channel, through Belgium and down into south-western Germany. People will be looking at me saying, ‘She’s the one who caused the laughter.’ The whole of the Burg will be looking at me and laughing, and I’ll be … naked.

7. Acceptance and Hope

I think I just might move xyz. That will make the chapter stronger and more resonant. I am so lucky to have such great beta readers. My manuscript is improving. One day maybe, maybe an agent will read this and think, hmmm, not bad.

This is the point where the writer should ping her beta readers and say those two little words: thank you.

Thank you to my beta readers, near and far, present and future. Thank you for your time and patience. Thank you for helping me grow up and for making my manuscript into a much better read.


Channelling Mrs Prothero

I am not one for fits of rage. If I am angry with you and you are not one of my children, I indulge in a little judicious slamming, some quiet muttering and a style of loud walking that I inherited from my mother and which has earned her the nickname of “Captain Footsteps”. At my angriest, I might give vent to cutting words. The same goes for my depressions. When I am down, I am not extreme. There is no breast-beating, I don’t go off my food or stop sleeping. I have very gentle declines, so mild as to be hardly noticeable.

Which is why it took me three days to realise I was having one this week. Vital clues to a decline are: engrossed reading (2000 pages in 2009), slightly increased chocolate intake, heightened need for sleep and an inability to leave the couch. So far, so enjoyable. What awoke me to the fact that I was having a decline was one afternoon, while the children were having a post-prandial game of Wii tennis, when my husband called up the stairs, “Where is the Queen? In her parlour, having another little lie-down?”. I thought God, I have been lying down for a week. Just like a Victorian lady, having a fit of the vapours.

I’ve just finished reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group (487 pages) and in it Mrs Prothero has to cancel everything on discovering that she once entertained a man to dinner who has since had a night in jail:

“A jailbird!” she repeated indignantly, with a wobble of her receding chin, so loud that Yvonne, coming down the stairs, could hear her. Clutching her wrapper around her and holding Yvonne’s arm, she retired upstairs to her bedroom and canceled the car, which was to take her to the hairdressers at eleven.

Clearly I have been channelling Mrs Prothero. Needing to lie down and cancel the car. On reflection, I think it is because December looked like this:


In a few short weeks, we had a 40th birthday party, a seventh birthday party, Christmas to plan, prepare and shop for, a New Year’s lunch for 12, multiple social engagements, adorable house-guests who were sleeping in our bed necessitating us to sleep in the cellar, parties and end-of-year engagements for the children to attend and a slew of disgusting ailments, including the flu (all four grown-ups, one child) and a stomach flu (all three children) that required frequent wiping of puke and poo. Apart from the illness bit, I love it all and throw myself into the planning, preparation and jollity that makes the season fun.

Then January came and I was tired. So I lay down and cancelled the car.

I’m glad to say I can feel my energy creeping back. I got off the sofa and took the kids to see Madagascar Two a couple of days ago, and yesterday we went toboganning. My creative juices are churning and I am looking forward to school starting on Monday so that I can attack the last quarter of my novel. I want to get back to my healthy eating and get back on the treadmill. I am thinking of ways to generate new editing work. I am full of resolve.

Mrs Prothero is no more.


Friday Already?

Here be my confession:

This week I have been addressing the sponginess of Chapter Six and trying to give it some backbone. I realised that I have been inadvertently giving the character to whom this chapter belongs watered-down reactions. She was being fuzzy, not true to herself, and far too reasonable. So I spent a bit of time writing about her in my notebook. I find that writing with pen and paper helps me to be more intuitive and free. Writing on the computer is good for shaping and arranging, but most of my best creative ideas come with pen in hand. (A chai latte helps too.) I wrote in the first person, trying to find the lies that she tells herself. That helped me rescue the first two-thirds of the chapter, but I am going to have to do it again in order to raise the level of crisis in the last third.

Why do I want my characters to be likeable? Two of my three main characters have been deliberately chosen because they are struggling with ego, and that means that they can be selfish, thoughtless, cruel and hurt people around them. This character is being too damn nice. I need to free-write again tonight, find the hooks and barbs in her personality, her limitations and boundaries. I also need to flesh out one of the secondary characters, who is being a bit bland. His nuances need to shine.

Next week, I leave for my six-day writing retreat in Berlin. It is now booked into the family calendar, and my unofficial writing cheerleader, my husband, has signed on for duty. He will have secondary back-up in the form of Grand-dad. I hope the five of them will have fun while I am gone.

The current word count stands at 40,601 and I plan to be able to tell you in two weeks time, when I confess again, that that number has increased significantly. I’m hoping that six days dedicated to writing, with no Internet access, will mean great chunks of writing.

Good luck with your writing, Friday ‘Fessors, and other writers out there. I hope the next two weeks bring you inspiration, energy and above all, time to write.


Note to Self – the Friday ‘Fess-Up

OK, ’twas bad. I only wrote about 500 words of my novel this week (but I exercised a lot). What I wrote was okay, but made me realise that I need to go back and tweak something in Chapter Three. I am constitutionally against going back and tweaking – forward, ho! being the motto – so this post stands as a note to self. 

I had the first five chapters up on Authonomy, but have taken them down again. Authonomy is an experiment by Harper Collins where unpublished writers can showcase their work with the hope of attracting agents and publishers. The site is in beta at the moment, and is mostly being used by writers with works in progress to get tips and advice from other writers. After a week there, and one or two useful tips (thanks, Litlove), I decided that I am not ready to have unfinished work in the public eye. I would rather put something up when I am satisfied that it is complete, or follow the standard route of finding an agent.

I am planning my writing retreat in two weeks’ time. A dear friend has offered me the use of her flat in Kreuzberg, Berlin, and I think I am going to take her up on it for a long weekend towards the end of the month. Just the amount of time I will have free for writing on the train alone makes me shiver, let alone mornings, afternoons and evenings with nothing to do but feed my body with food and my soul with writing. The thrill is almost too much to bear, dear readers.

I was very moved this week seeing a group of farm workers (probably strawberry pickers), clearly shipped in from somewhere east of here, spending their hard-earned euros in Aldi on cheap chocolate and coffee to take home as presents. The chapter I’m working on deals partly with someone hoiked out of her culture and thrust into another, and the alienating effect that has. I was touched by the pleasure and the excitement that these gifts brought the gift bearers, and amused by one guy being unable to wait till he got home to taste the Aldi Amaretto (I like it myself: an interesting combination of almonds and petrol) and having a big schluck right there in the parking-lot. So many societies depend on people from other cultures arriving to do their dirty work, much like the way white South Africans used to depend on black domestic workers to do their dirty work (and still do) – a topic also raised in the novel.

I am still stunned by the grind of novel-writing, and today stared at my bookshelf at the names of authors ranged along the spines of books. Every single one of them, I thought, from Joseph Heller to Margaret Atwood to Jane Austen, went through what I am going through right now: creating the strong architecture of a novel on which can rest characters, situations, themes, emotions, conflicts, resolutions, inspiration, all of which need to be brought together in a coherent and satisfying whole. I feel simultaneously exhausted and thrilled.

Let’s hope this next week will be a better one in my writing world. Good luck to all the other writers out there. I also hope your week is inspiring and productive.


Things To Do Instead of Writing

You can spend time with friends, with old friends, who because you haven’t seen them for so long, seem like new friends, and with new friends, who because you feel so strangely at one with them, seem like old friends. You can drink wine with them in the afternoon, share your kids with them, wander new streets with them, and make extravagant promises to babysit their kids, once they have some.

You can spend an entire afternoon in Berlin looking for the perfect dress. You can look for something whimsical and floaty, with tea roses and cleavage, that looks like Jane Austen wore it to a party where there was croquet and Indian tea, but finally buy a twenty-first century dress, a little edgy, a little sharp, but with its curves in the right places. Also with cleavage.

You can drive long distances, to places you never dreamt of visiting, take trains where your children press their noses against the windows, ride bikes around the city of your dreams, bump into pedestrians and mutter sorry in two languages. You can float down a river, or down a leafy path in the Tiergarten and hear the white wolves howl at the daylight in the Zoo.

You can read A Quiet Flame and imagine the encroaching horror of Nazism in Thirties’ Berlin, and then read No one belongs here more than you and be swept away into an imagination and a sensibility that leaves you shell-shocked, war-wounded, but glad to be alive.

You can eat the best ice-cream outside of Elba in a glass palace of shops and elegance, merguez sausages and couscous in a leafy beer-garden, white asparagus with hollandaise sauce in an achingly hip urban square and the best rhubarb cake you can imagine in the courtyard of an Italian restaurant where you are introduced to the chef and the hostess by name.

You can climb with your children to the top of the Siegesauele, admire them hanging upside down and learning to swing and slide by themselves in playgrounds, watch them falling in love with your friends and weeping when they part, and see them take part in their lives with such spirit and joy that you want to shed tears of your own.

Instead of weeping, you shout, “Who loves Berlin?” and hear them yelling back, “Me Mummy! I love Berlin! I love it! I do!”


Confessions of a Slacker

722 words. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

I’ve also been slacking on the blogging front. This is probably the first time – apart from holidays – that I haven’t blogged for a whole week.

Instead of writing and blogging, I have been doing some living. In the style of the lovely Ms Make Tea, here are some random items of life that have got in the way:

  • A morning at Daisy’s kindergarten, making her Schultüte with her. The Schultüte is a cone-shaped object, decorated according to the child’s fancy, that is filled with goodies and presents, which the child takes to their Einschulungsfest. This is a special day to celebrate starting school. It involves a church service, a walk to school carrying both Tüte and spanking new backpack (the Rantzen), a ceremony of welcome and a visit to their classroom with their new teacher. Then they go home, have coffee and cake with the family, and unpack the Tüte. Daisy’s is beautiful: a winter ice-skating scene with sparkling ice and mountains, all in white, blue and silver. She is clearly moving out of the pink princess phase, which is a relief.
  • A visit to the Auslaenderamt to renew my Aufenthaltserlaubnis. Yes, that is as stressful as it sounds – German officials are very officious and I always tend to arrive minus the one vital piece of paper that would ensure having my residence permit renewed on the spot. However, the guy in charge of surnames N to P, which encompasses us, is the most relaxed official in Germany, and the whole thing was achieved in five minutes. Afterwards, we sat in the sun in Heidelberg cafe and breakfasted. Lovely!
  • Three jogs and a yoga class with my very lovely yoga teacher (I have to say this because she now reads my blog and doesn’t want to be cast as one of the nasty Germans in the drama that is Life in the Burg – and she is very lovely). All my runs have been outdoors and I have loved the sunshine, the green hills and the swift wide Neckar river.
  • Going through the children’s clothes, putting outside the old and outgrown ones for charity (and placed these on the street for removal today) and replacing winter clothes with summer ones. It is lovely to see everyone running around in sandals, short sleeves and sunhats.
  • Planning and booking our family’s visit to Berlin and Luebeck next week. We are staying in holiday apartments rather than hotels, which, I discovered on my last visit to the Hauptstad, is the way to go. I am dreaming of Berlin.
  • Watching DVDs! I laffed my way through the first season of Flight of the Conchords, which is a hilarious programme about two New Zealand musicians trying to make it in New York, with the help of their abjectly useless band manager, Murray. I also watched Babel, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, which is an excellent and sobering film.
  • Discovering the Love Food Not Waste website, which I am plundering for tips on how not to waste food, in light of Emily’s EcoJustice Challenge. Broccoli stalk soup anyone?

And now I’m off to lie in the hammock.


Not Sure How to Take This

I went to a fitness class today and the instructor … called me something. He was smiling as he said it, and after I said “Danke schön” in a slightly offended tone, he quickly said he really, really likes the thing he called me. In my time, I have liked them too, but I grew tired of them because they are:

  • Bouncy (excessively)
  • Cute (tiresomely)
  • Colourful (eye-achingly)
  • Round (disconcertingly)
  • Entertaining (but only if you are under three)

Now if I were thinner-skinned than I am, this statement would be the death-knell on my gym attendance. I would imagine that everyone was looking at me, thinking, or worse still (and since this is Germany, Land of the Frank Statement), SAYING ALOUD, “There goes the …”. I would not be able to put my round, bouncy, cute and colourful foot back inside the place.

Instead, I am going back. Damn, I am. I’m going right back there, possibly even tomorrow. I’m not letting a Germanic mind-burp stop me.

Do want to know what my fitness instructor called me? My buff, handsome, and usually very kind fitness instructor said to me in the middle of class while I was bouncing away happily doing “step, together, Arme hoch”?

You do, don’t you?

You want me to say it, even though it hurts me and strips away my dignity?

I thought so.

He called me … deep breath … A TELETUBBY!

All I can say is thank God he was not using a microphone.


I Shout at Inanimate Objects

I realised today as I loudly cursed the box of medicines that had just cascaded its contents down upon my head, while my children looked on amazed as their heretofore peaceful and aimiable mother was transformed into a shrieking harridan, that I have become my father. I shout at inanimate objects. Or at objects that should be inanimate but that have surprised me by falling on my head.

I will also use my children’s language as cues to burst into brief, two-line, atonal bursts of song. So if someone says “summer”, I immediately sing:

“Summer lovin’, had me a blaaaast”

This confuses children. They have not heard of Grease and they are not sure why their conversation about why summer is better than winter, or whether summer comes before or after autumn, has suddenly turned their mother into Showgirl. I hated it when my father did this to us, and now look at me. I also whistle tunelessly when happy, just like he does, and as my grandfather did too.

The other day, I found myself on the verge of air putting. Air putting, or air swinging, is the same as air guitar, but for golf. Whenever my father is standing still with nothing in his hands, he practises his putting or sets up his golf swing. He will also grab any nearby golf-club shaped object and swipe an imaginary ball with it. When I had my first golf lessons at the age of 25, the pro was astonished. She thought I was a natural talent. What she didn’t know was the only time I ever saw my father was when he was about to hit either a real or a fictive golf-ball; and since he is a very good golfer I had subconsciously adopted his stance, style and swing.

There I was in hospital with Lily this week, as she had concussed herself, and the air-putting urge came upon me in her hospital room. We were alone, having some one-to-one time, which is pretty unusual and special for us – though unfortunate that it took concussion for it to happen – and all the while I was quelling the desire to stand up and putt invisible balls. Instead, I grabbed paper and we did some drawing together. The urge to putt left me.

But I am also becoming my mother. I mutter to myself, especially when in engaged in household tasks that I despise. I also groan just like she does when I bend down to sweep or retrieve peas tossed to the floor by boldly gesticulating eaters. Note that I do not groan when doing yoga. Groaning is reserved for tiring chores only; pleasant activities that involve bending are groan-free.

I tend to talk to people when they are in different rooms from me. This works for the sharp-eared but for the very slightly deaf, like my dear husband, it is intensely irritating. When stressed, I also walk increasingly louder and faster until I am practically stomping. It is for this trait that my stepfather, who has a way with nicknames, calls my mother “Short Steps”, as in, “Don’t go into the kitchen right now. Short Steps is on the rampage.”

How is it that I have inherited the most irritating and ridiculous of my parents’ habits? I would rather have had her neatness, his attention to detail; or her memory for stories and his for jokes. I see the future – tuneless singing, aimless putting, talking to people who aren’t there, shouting at boxes – and I worry for my children.


YogaMum’s Confessions of a Blogger

This was invented by YogaMum, who posted it as Confessions of a Blogger, and taken up by (un)relaxeddad, who turned it into a meme. It’s the perfect thing to post right now, while seventy-three five children tear up my happy home. All I can say is, “It’s only three hours till I can leave for writing group. Roll on 6pm!”

1. Do you promote your blog?

No I don’t, except to occasionally mention it to people. I say, “Oh and I write a blog” and if they get excited, I give them the URL, but if they come over all glazed, then we move swiftly on. I tried joining BlogHer last year but was a little intimidated by the very American, very Mummyblogger focus. It’s not the right place for me, and maybe I don’t need a place. Maybe Charlotte’s Web is becoming a tiny little place all of its own, a little oasis along the information superhighway (remember when we used to call the Web that? back in about 1995?).

2. How often do you check hits?

Embarrassingly frequently. A few times a day. I’m not obsessed though, really I’m not. It’s just that I have a slight competition going with my blogging husband.

3. Do you stick to one topic?

No. It’s my blog and I write what I like. Sometimes it’s books, sometimes it’s parenting, sometimes it’s silly posts about my shoes.

4. Who knows that you have a blog?

Lots of people, but not my neighbours.

5. How many blogs do you read?

I subscribe to 107 and read them daily. They are divided roughly into three groups: friends’ blogs, where we have built up a relationship and comment on each other’s posts, blogs where I am merely a fan not a friend (Dooce, Confessions of a Pioneer Woman and I Can Make You Rich) and writing/publishing blogs where I read for information and occasionally comment.

6. Are you a fast reader?


7. Do you customise your blog or do anything technical?

Err, no. I’m still struggling to put up my Rocking Girl Blogger and Thinking Blogger thingies. (Kate, thanks for the step-by-step tips – I worked through it once, failed miserably and must try again.) I can upload a mean photo, though.

8. Do you blog anonymously?

No, but I wish I had thought about doing so when I started. Since most people know I blog, I can’t really rant or mine other people’s lives for stories. The flipside of this is that I have to keep my blog friendly, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It suits me that this blog is generally a happy place to be.

9. To what extent do you censor yourself?

I do self-censor and keep things private. I also don’t publish any photos of my children. Part of me would love to since they are so damn adorable, but having identified myself, I feel it’s my responsibility to allow them their privacy.

10. The best thing about blogging?

Always connecting. I’ve made friends, have a new and surprising support network. I’m inspired daily – to write, to read new books, to think. I love the window that blogging gives me into other people’s worlds. It has turned my relationship with the print media upside down – I no longer need it. And when I do read a magazine or newspaper, I find it thin, empty and dissatisfying. Give me someone’s own story in their own words any day.

I tag anyone who wants to reveal their blogging confessions … Come on, you want to. You know you do.