Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


First Draft Emotions

Writing novels is not as hard as coal-mining or refuse collection or washing the windows of skyscrapers, but it does cause a roller coaster of emotions.

As I sit down to write my 1,000 words every morning, here’s a collection of things I feel and think:

  • Get off Facebook, right here, right now
  • Just do it
  • That scene is crap
  • Why the hell is she doing that?
  • Is it a problem that I still don’t know who the murderer is?
  • Just do it
  • Everyone is going to hate this because it’s a piss-poor pile of crap
  • Nooooo! No to Facebook
  • Fighting again, Maggie? Please act like a grown-up
  • I hate that character and I still can’t explain why the story needs him
  • Abject terror! I have no idea what the next scene is
  • Just do it

Which is why when I read this quote from Jane Smiley: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist” I felt calm again. I am going to write it in CAPITALS and stick it up in my writing corner.

All it needs is to exist. It will be the perfect first draft.



Writer on Tour

I have been out and about, dear readers.

In March, I went to the Leipzig Book Fair:


I was feeling pretty nervous (hiding nerves under brave smile):


Because first up was an interview with the press:

neues deutschland

But, being socialists, they were very nice to me:


Then I went on stage to do a reading (one guy fell asleep):


After, that I went to the Institute of African Studies to do another reading. This time, I had Madiba with me for company. I felt much more relaxed:


I read:


I signed:


Then I drank some wine:


Last night, I did a reading in Langenbruecken, near Bad Schornborn, organised by the darling proprietors of the ars legendi bookshop. They arranged wonderful wine, Italian delicacies and some fabulous jazz. My husband and friends were there and I felt less nervous.

Starting to get the hang of this reading in German thing:


Next up is Berlin in May, and then in June I hit South Africa to promote the English version of the book and do readings in Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Cape Town and Joburg.

In between all this promotion work, I am trying to write book two. It is not easy, but I have come up with a plan. It involves sparrows, dawn and daggers drawn against the inner editor.

And perhaps a little wine.



My Writing Process Is Not Like Skiing (anymore)

One of my first blog posts ever was about skiing. Another post compared my fear of skiing with my fear of writing. I come to you, fresh off the slopes, where I did not ski, but where I let my family members throw themselves up and down mountains while I ensconced myself safely in coffee shops to write. Wordage! I achieved it. I am happy. But not complacent … never that.


Non-writers doing stuff on mountains

On my return, I find that my friend Kate Kelly author of Red Rock (a cli-fi thriller for age 10+) has tagged me for a post on my writing process. I am very happy to oblige, and indeed, very relieved that she asks no questions about skiing.

So, onward!

1. What am I working on?

I am working on my second novel. It is crime fiction, and part two in a series starring Maggie Cloete, crime reporter at The Gazette, Pietermaritzburg’s only daily newspaper.

2. How does my work differ from others?

I think it’s the only crime fiction about a crime reporter working on a newspaper in Pietermaritzburg.

3. Why do I write what I do?

It’s what I know. I used to be a crime reporter on a newspaper in Pietermaritzburg.

4. How does my writing process work?

I write in clumps – big bursts in short periods of time. It is not ideal and I believe that writers need a daily writing practice but that does not work for me since I work full time and I have a houseful of humans who need me. I wrote my first novel, Balthasar’s Gift (published in Germany in  2013 and due out in South Africa this year) over a period of five years. Since I had no idea what the book was going to be about, I had to write my way into the story. Plus I also had to learn how to write a novel, and this took time and many, many  drafts.

This time, now that I know the book and I know that it is crime fiction about crime reporter on a daily in Pietermaritzburg and I have a two-page plot plan, the process is quicker and more efficient.

Having said that, it still requires a similar amount of day-dreaming, of percolating and composting, of going for walks and wrestling with plot angles in my head, or sitting in coffee shops and staring out the window. That will never change. The process is as it will be.

Writers, please tag yourselves!


Cool Things from WriteCon Zurich

Living on a small English island in the sea of Germany means I don’t often get to hang out in person with other English writers. So when WriteCon Zurich organiser Jill Prewett pinged me to say there was a space free and would I like to come, I was all like get me to the station right now, James, and don’t spare those horses goddamnit.

I am now heading home after a deliciously writerly weekend, but I wanted to summarise the highlights before real life kicks in again and I am too tired to think:

  • Being amongst writers. Writers care. This is a lovely and wonderful thing. I made a whole heap of new friends.
  • Emma Darwin’s fiction masterclass. I finally understand psychic distance and – this is a big and – how this relates to telling and showing. I plugged the result of some exercises from the class into chapter one of Karkloof Blue and it is now rocking.
  • The enthusiasm and drive of independent author Joanna Penn, who blogs here and writes here. I learnt for the first time how self-publishing can be a very good thing. Thanks, Jo, for explaining the hybrid model to me.
  • Vegetarian restaurant Hiltl. The best food. I went there twice.
  • Snow.
  • Finding my favourite hat and gloves again after losing them.
  • The fact that being amongst writers and talking and thinking about writing has had an immediate effect on getting me writing again. I am re-inspired and re-energised, and that is the best thing of all.

Now I have a four-hour train journey back to Heidelberg and more than enough time to a write a minimum of 2,000 words.

Crack the whip, James!


Where Am I?

I keep opening Bloglines and feeling disappointed that my post isn’t live yet. Then I realise that it’s because I haven’t posted. On the way back from Berlin, driving through steady rain while my family slept or gently bickered with each other, a brand-new narrator with a voice all of her own, popped into my head. She arrived, fully formed, and ready to rock the story.

Today, I sat down and wrote a rollicking new first chapter, with this new narrator pulling all the pieces together like a very clever seamstress. I’m quite in love with her. If I wasn’t me, I’d want to be her.

So where I am at the moment is neither Crete nor Berlin. I’m in the cellar, in my office, at my laptop, writing like a dervish. And having fun. See you when I next emerge!


Look! It’s Friday!

And a week since I last posted. I said that I was looking forward to getting the scalpel out and applying it to the first draft, but actually the process has been quite painful. I have excised chunks of back story that no longer seem relevant, and have said farewell to parts that, although I think are well-written, no longer serve the story. I may find a way to weave them back in, but only if they play a clear role. However, this process of making space opens up new realms, so new ideas are coming, some of which I hope will strengthen the story.

This week, I have been working on my plot planner, with each scene inscribed on a different colour Post-It; green for character development, pink for plot development, yellow for thematic significance and orange for political/social relevance. It’s colourful, but it’s taking a looong time and makes me feel very critical of what I have already written. I’m facing up to the gaps and that’s not comfortable.

I would like to put it on the record now that the next time I write a novel, I will plot it first. Starting with the characters and weaving a story around them has turned this into a moveable feast that is still changing. I like where it’s got to, but the quantum leap from where I started to where I am now has to be seen to be believed.

Also on the record: I will finish this plotting process before I leave for Greece (family wedding on Crete – how lucky am I?) next Friday, so that when I return I can start rewriting. I am getting excited for word and paragraph level, ready to leave the macro and dive down into the miniscule. By the time I go, I need my architect’s plan in place so that I can start brick-building. I’m looking forward to that!


First Draft Audit

It’s Friday, so I guess I’m fessing. Anyone going to join me in the booth?

Here is the recently-completed audit of the first draft of my novel:

Potential titles: 8

Main characters: 1

Secondary characters: 4

Tertiary characters: 76

Scenes: 119

Word count: 86, 281

Research books read: 9

Time it took to get from 0 to here: 15 months

I am immensely proud that I have got this far. This is the first time ever that I have completed a draft, that I have committed to a character and stuck with it to the end. I have a story, from start to finish, and that alone is an achievement for me, especially given that I do not have huge chunks of time to devote to writing. I have fitted it in the cracks and corners of my life, in between cooking lunches, taking people to dance classes and indulging in my own new exercise regime.

So now that I have a story, I have to admit it is far from perfect. Some parts are looking decidedly unattractive. And it’s about to undergo some radical plastic surgery.

In December, I followed Martha, the Plot Whisperer, as she led writers through a month-long plot planning exercise and promised myself that when I was finished, I would do her course and apply what I had learnt to my plot. I printed it out and am now working steadily through it. It’s both inspiring and practical. My next challenge is to decide which of my multiple scenes to cut, where I need to add scenes and then to arrange them on all Post-Its along a plot line. When that is complete, I can start on the second draft.

I am really looking forward to digging the scalpel in.


Seeking a Character Flaw

I’m back at my novel, after having had a break, and I am deeply into a plotting exercise that I have to complete before I start the second draft. I’ve been trying to get inside the skin of my main protagonist, Lindiwe Dlamini, for over a year now. I know her fairly well, but it’s an ongoing process of discovery. Let me tell you a little about Lindiwe:

She’s in her late fifties, and, having started her career as a teacher, now heads up a Swiss-funded AIDS organisation. Lindiwe’s husband Andile was a community organiser who died in police detention in the Eighties. He was the love of her life and she has never – despite taking part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – had any closure on how he died or who was responsible. Her oldest son Peter died of AIDS in his mid-twenties. Her second child, Bongani, manages a small business and is happily married with two children. Her daughter, Mbali, is a fashion journalist in Joburg and shows no signs of settling down, though she has a handsome boyfriend who spoils her. Neither child approves of their mother’s work in AIDS: they think she has worked too hard all her life and that she should retire and enjoy her grandchildren.

However Lindiwe is committed to doing her best for her community. Shaped by apartheid and their religious beliefs, it’s how she and Andile tried to live their lives. Turning away now would be a betrayal of their shared goals. So she keeps working, helping those less fortunate than herself. During the course of the story, a series of events will challenge Lindiwe’s belief in community, and she will have to decide whether to choose a small group of individuals over the collective.

Here’s my problem: isn’t Lindiwe a bit too perfect? I’ve said before that I have a tendency to write lead characters who are too damn nice. As chief protagonist, Lindiwe needs to be relatively likeable, otherwise we might lose sympathy with her. I do feel though that she needs a flaw – apart from her sugar vice – that makes her a little more complex and nuanced.

You have more emotional distance from Lindiwe than I have. Please, suggest a flaw. She needs one.


Friday Fessing on Saturday

This is the problem with being a pantser rather than a planner: I’m 70,000 words into my novel and I’ve just realised that I may have to cancel one of my three main characters. Egad! I’ve got tons of material on her, details and background and about 25,000 V-specific words, but it’s just dawned on me that this story is a duet and not a trio.

I’ve had intuitive hints for a while – a sense that there was an imbalance, a feeling of unreality when writing about V but a sense of being in the sweet spot when writing about L and S. Logistically, it is not a problem to excise her, since the structure thus far is three separate strands and I can just unwind her and her lay gently to the side. I also know that the material is not wasted: there’s a place for her in Novel #2.

Right now, though, it’s about L and S, and although this is a body-blow in terms of lost time, I’m suddenly enlightened. There’s a clarity in the story of L and S to which V only added fog.

On a practical note, Germany’s Top Husband and I have come to a time-sharing agreement which will allow me a couple of mornings off a week to write. This means as soon as I wake, I’ll head directly to my garret, and he will do the morning routine and school run. This will open a huge chunk of time to write, so that I can forge ahead and finish this first draft. In return, he’s going to be putting in a couple of extra evenings in the office while I do the night-time routine. Occasionally, we may even see each other.

In the meantime I’m retiring V, with the proviso that if I receive a blast of intuition that the narrative needs her again, I can re-insert her.

V, you’re on ice, baby. Me, on the other hand, I’m hot to trot.


A Writing Challenge

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.