Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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When I Was 35

In 2007, I wrote a blog post called When I Was 25. I had forgotten all about it, until the lovely Amanda visited and left this comment:

I’m so happy I came across this, now several years after you wrote it. I turned 25 eight days ago and I’m kind of doing research on the disenchantment and restlessness one feels around this age. I’ve certainly gained some insight in a different way than I expected from your post as well as all the comments.

I reread the post and realised that making an effort to remember a time long ago brings its own lessons, ones that are worth contemplating. It is now seven years since I turned 35 and since I believe in the seven-year cycle and the spirit of learning more, I give you When I was 35:

When I was 35, I thought my family was complete with two darling little girls. Then I fell pregnant again and our son was born. I learnt that being a parent of three children is significantly different from being the parent of two. A wise friend said, ‘Embrace the chaos,’ and once I did, life became much easier. But much more than that, my heart just expanded to include him and what a feeling that is.

When I was 35, I had never heard of blogging. Now I have a whole alternative, Internet-fuelled life and I love it. I have even met some people off the Internet and came home intact.

When I was 35, the idea of writing a book, finishing it, rewriting it multiple times, joining an online writing community, getting beta readers,  submitting to and signing with a literary agent was only a dream. I made it reality.

When I was 35, I grew tired of buying expensive (though delicious) cakes at the  bakery and taught myself to bake. This happened.

When I was 35, I thought that donning sports shoes and propelling my body in a forward motion was closer to hell than I thought it was ever necessary to go. As an asthmatic kid and an adult with couch-potato tendencies, jogging never entered my personal vocabulary. This year, I’m running in the MLP Marathon relay event.

When I was 35, I was still buried deep in the intense phase of parenting: nappies, bad nights, tantrums. Now that my three spend large chunks of the day in other places being taken care of and taught by others, I have had the luxury to do things like write, run and earn money.

When I was 35, I had never had a migraine. Now, I have worked out my cure: no alcohol for two weeks of the month. It’s radical, but it works.

When I was 35, I had just moved to the Burg from Surrey, England, and was suffering culture shock. I settled down, made lovely friends and a home for my family. The Burg grew too small, so for a while, I considered Berlin, the German city that holds my heart and where I still hope to live one day. Now I live in Heidelberg and love my new life.

When I was 35, I still highlighted my hair blonde. Then I went grey for Obama and it turns out I was leading a major trend. Just call me a rock ‘n roll fairy princess.

When I was 35, I had been married for 10 years and believed that I was in it for the duration. I still do *waves to darling*.

When I was 35, I had no idea what my future held. I trusted that things would work out, that I would be gainfully employed, that my family would be happy and well. Since then I have read hundreds of books, held dozens of dinner-parties, cooked hundreds of meals, written hundreds of thousands of words, written dozens of articles, run a few dozen kilometres, met my girlfriends for book club dozens of times. On the bad days, I have sighed and taken stock and picked myself up and carried on. While I now have an inkling of what my future may hold, I still cannot say for sure that it will turn out the way I have it in my mind. But I won’t stop hoping. Or cooking, baking, reading, wiping faces, loving, writing words, occasionally running, dreaming, sighing and imagining a world where my family is happy and well.

What was life like for you when you were 35?

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Carving and Chiselling

You’d think by draft seven, my novel would have reached a place of repose. You’d think after two and a half years of writing, I could wipe my hands and say, ‘This is finished.’ You’d think that by now, every plot connection would be in place, every character would justify her presence in the narrative and the beginning and the end would be singing hymns to each other.

You’d be wrong.

This process of learning how to write a novel by writing a novel has not ended. It has been a long and trying test of my patience, but it has also been a time to learn the craft. And the learning is not over yet.

I’m at the place in a manuscript where I know what happens to whom and why. I know my protagonist and her antagonists very well. I have a narrative arc, a beginning, a middle, a crisis, a climax and an end. I have a setting. I may even have a voice.

Now I’m at the point where every part of the story has to work for its place. I’m threading the connections together, trying to make them clear. It may be a mystery but nothing can be murky. At every juncture, I’m asking myself, ‘Why?’ Why does he say that? Why does she do that? Does this character move the story forward? Is that character just a nice piece of furniture or does she have a role? What makes the protagonist suddenly decide to do that?

Last night, I met my agent for the first time. She’s in Frankfurt for the Book Fair and I drove up to have dinner with her. She said writing a novel is like carving a statue. You start with a block of stone. You take a chisel and make a shape. When you have a shape, you stand back and look at it. Then you start again. Then you stand back and look. Then you start again. Each time you carve, you make an area clearer. Sometimes you have to go away and rest. After that, you come back with a new vision of how it should be and you start carving again. But it’s still not finished.

You keep chiselling until the planes are clear and crisp, until the piece of stone in front of you matches the vision in your head.

That’s where I am. Chiselling. Making sure the planes are crisp. So that one day I can sit back and say, ‘That was what I was trying to do.’


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Weighing and Balancing

I’m busy trying to select a high school for my ten-year-old and believe me, that is not a typo. German kids start secondary school at the ripe old age of ten. Not only that, they are streamed at ten according to their academic results into the three different types of high school: Gymnasium for those who’ll go on to university, Realschule and Hauptschule for those who won’t. So a Maths test L did last week will help to decide whether she goes to university or not.

Unable to do anything about the bizarre system, I am breaking the mould by not sending my kid to the nearest school as a matter of course. We are looking at a range of schools, state and private, in the Heidelberg area. For me, it’s a huge decision: she’s my first child and the first person in our whole family to be heading for high school in the German system. The decision we make has to be a good one: she’ll be there for eight long years, and it should be a school that suits our other two. We want a school that has a good mix of Germans and foreigners, and where there is emphasis on languages. Nothing too homogenous.

The first of our six school visits took place last night. We went to the local high school – a vast place with more than 1000 pupils that educates kids from the Burg and all the surrounding villages. It’s the monopoly gymnasium. There are no other options nearby. We were impressed by what they had to offer, but I fear it’s going to be too homogenous for us. Plus it keeps us in the Burg for ever.

Tomorrow’s visit is to a private school. Private schools have a weird  reputation in Germany – they are seen as places where rich people send their thick or difficult children in order to drag them through Abitur. They are also considered elitist and someone said to me in all seriousness, ‘Are you sure you want your child to have an elitist school on their CV?’

So we are weighing and balancing, taking some things we see and hear to heart, ignoring other things.

I’m in the same process with my novel. Right now, I’m weighing the plot, what works and what doesn’t and throwing out the latter. I have a whole file called ‘extra stuff’ full of back-story that I’ve chucked out. Now and again, I find a use for a sentence or two and I thread them back in.

The next iteration will be on the language level. One of the readers from my writers’ forum pointed out that my characters nod and shrug a lot. She’s right, of course. I’ll be working through it line by line, strengthening the verbs, improving the body language, working on stimulus and response. The plot might be colourful and vibrant, but the language needs to be too.

So that’s where I am, dear readers, weighing and balancing. Trying to make good decisions that will stand my family and my novel in good stead. Trusting my instincts. Moving forward.


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Women Writing

I finished the second draft of my novel on Monday night. This was a complete rewrite of the first draft, and took six months to complete. (The first draft took 15 months.) When I finished, I felt scattered, unsure, anxious. I was prepared to dive in and start a third draft in the voice of yet another character – the feeling of being scattered also pertains to the novel, where I can’t seem to commit to a protagonist. It’s the same story, over and over again, with different narrators.

I went to my new writers’ hangout, Litopia, where I received some sage advice: put the manuscript in a drawer and take a rest from it. Look at it again in six or eight weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, carry around a notebook and note down any novel-related epiphanies. Write other things. Just don’t look at the manuscript.

After a day’s grief (this is my baby; we’ve been together for 21 months), I decided to follow the advice. My emotional reaction to the words of wisdom was indication enough that I absolutely needed to pause, reflect and gain some distance from the words in which I’ve been entangled for nearly two years. I am in no place right now to edit; I’m too tied up to be objective, and I strongly feel it is too early to bring in my readers.

One of the books I read this year was A Room of One’s Own, which made me think about my own writing process, about interruption and about having to live life as well as write about it. Then I read Rachel Cusk’s superb article on women writers in today’s Guardian. Here she talks about the woman writer:

What compromises women – babies, domesticity, mediocrity – compromises writing even more. She is on the right side of that compromise – just. Her own life is one of freedom and entitlement, though her mother’s was probably not. Yet she herself is not a man. She is a woman: it is history that has brought about this difference between herself and her mother. She can look around her and see that while women’s lives have altered in some respects, in others they have remained much the same. She can look at her own body: if a woman’s body signifies anything, it is that repetition is more powerful than change. But change is more wondrous, more enjoyable. It is pleasanter to write the book of change than the book of repetition. In the book of change one is free to consider absolutely anything, except that which is eternal and unvarying. “Women’s writing” might be another name for the book of repetition.

Cusk talks about how both Woolf’s book and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex shaped the discourse of 20th century women’s writing, a discourse that is about property. She says, “A woman needs a room of her own to be able to write; thus her silence has been the silence of dispossession.”

How funny then, that as I put down the manuscript, I immediately began writing a story about a group of women who get themselves a room. Some like the version of themselves they find there, some learn something and take it back to their real lives, others are inspired to recreate themselves and still others run in terror back to their own lives, hating their new reflection. What happens to us when we are graced with space and time? Why is it so scary? Why is it so much easier to be in the flow of everyday life and not think too hard? Not challenge ourselves?

My family have made sacrifices over the last 21 months for me to get my novel written – my children have had a mother constantly at the laptop, they’ve probably watched too much TV (though they have done some stunning independent crafting too – my son turns out to be a dab hand at basteln), I’ve earned less in the last two years than I have previously, and I’ve been grumpy and distracted. On the other hand, they have a mother who has a passionate interest, and all three of them have written their own books this year, not necessarily completed, but the thought counts.

My writing life will continue to be a juggle, probably forever. But what I love is that as I’ve gained confidence, I’ve taken more time for myself, moved from writing sneakily or when people are sleeping, to openly spending large chunks of time writing. I’ve made the space in my life for my writing. I have given myself that gift, terrifying though it seemed at first to even suggest I deserved it.

Since I stopped writing my manuscript, I’ve written one short story, revived two old ones and started a fourth. Twenty-one months of writing means I have momentum, ideas and energy. I’m getting the novel-related epiphanies, as well as amazing support from online and real life friends. And my family are there, being sweet to me and greeting me with smiles when I deign to arise from the cellar.

I have given myself a room, I have allowed myself the time. All I have to do is keep writing.


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Not At All Like a Husky

If it’s Friday, then it’s time to confess. Thus: this week I wrote 3,000 words, bringing the total achingly close to 60,000. I imagine the final total of this first draft will be somewhere between 80,000 and 90,000 words. I am without doubt in the last third of the story.

I am reading Anne Lamott’s superb Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. One of her chapters is entitled Shitty First Drafts, and here she says:

Very few writers know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies in the snow … We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid.

Well said, Anne. This week, my writing didn’t bound like a husky; it plodded like a tortoise.

Another useful thing I found in this chapter, is this:

Almost all writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

A third tip in the chapter is about quelling the voices. I’ve been doing that, shutting out the “How can you presume?” and the “This is shit” and the “Who wants to read that?”. I’ve been ignoring them and plodding onwards.

My goal for this week is to finish Chapter Nine – whatever it takes, husky or tortoise.

Addendum: Two important birthdays today – my stepbrother M, and Madiba. Happy birthday to both of you! M, you don’t appear in my novel, but Madiba you do. Thank you for being an inspiration to millions – you are definitely a husky.

Photo from AFP


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Writing Tips from Le Guin

My reading has changed this year. Right now, I don’t want to read luscious contemporary fiction. It might me jealous or want to give up writing or feel like a fraud. So instead I’m reading non-fiction (Diamonds, Gold and War: the Making of South Africa by Martin Meredith) and historical fiction (March by Geraldine Brooks). Last night, while holding up a door that my husband was trying to refit to a cupboard, my mind strayed from the job at hand to the nearest bookshelf and there I chanced upon an old favourite: Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula le Guin.

Later, once the cupboard had its door again, I read it. I thought I’d share some gems that I discovered.

Last week, literary agent Nathan Bransford wrote about similes, saying that while some writers do them well and should be allowed to keep their similes, most writers should stick to one or two similes per book. “One or two!” was my startled reaction. In the long and amusing discussion that followed his post, there was another suggestion: adverbs – avoid them. Having chewed on these two shocking suggestions all week, I was interested to find that Le Guin more-or-less agrees:

Adjectives and adverbs are good and rich and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.

When the quality that the adverb indicates can be put into the verb itself (they ran quickly = they raced) or the quality the adjective indicates can be put into the noun itself (a growling voice = a growl), the prose will be cleaner, more intense, more vivid.

Then a little later, after warning against the lazy use of words that have become meaningless through literary overuse (“great”, “suddenly”, “somehow” – Le Guin really hates “somehow” and says it should be banned), she says this:

I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.

There are excellent, detailed sections on point of view, voice and plot. Le Guin says that while there may be a limited number of plots, there is no limit to the amount of stories. This in particular made me jump for joy:

I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. It that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories … All you meed may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling. I like my image of “steering the craft”, but in fact the story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way wherever it’s going.

Right now, I know where my craft is going, but I’m not sure how we’re going to get there. I have a place, a multiplicity of characters, a situation, a trajectory, many conversations, but I don’t have a cut and dried plan. All I have to do – as another favourite writing guide of mine, Julia Cameron, likes to say – is turn up at the page.

You’ll forgive me if I turn up less here. I’m going to be busy turning up there, steering my boat towards the end of its journey.


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Things Left Unsaid

I’m shamelessly lifting this idea from Ms Bleeding Espresso (she lives in Italy and bleeds coffee!). It is a list of 15 things I haven’t said over the years to various people, for fear of hurting them or making them angry, but also out of embarrassment, shame or shyness.

Here is my list of things – thus far – left unsaid:

1. You were a shining light of talent and beauty; it still breaks my heart that drugs took you.

2. Of all the people I know in the world, no-one deserves a loving relationship more than you.

3. I wish you would stop yo-yo dieting – accept your beautiful body and get on with it.

4. You were a lovely, funny, delightful friend and I wish you weren’t lost to us. Oh, and I still have your book.

5. I am sorry for the situation you are in, but it is of your own making: if you try to control people, they run away.

6. You are a boring narcissist – go away and come back only when you are prepared to show genuine interest in other people.

7. Being infantile is not attractive in an adult: grow up. Also, you are not as wise as you like to think you are.

8. You need to show love in your actions – mild protestations are not enough. Right now, I’m not sure I believe you.

9. Taking anti-depressants will never remove your pain completely – you need to ask my forgiveness for the hurt you caused and then you might start to feel a little better.

10. Thanks for giving me the experience of loving a jerk early in life – it helped me learn what to avoid.

11. I think you have forgiven me, but I am still sorry for that bad thing I did to you long, long ago – it was cruel, under-hand and selfish of me.

12. Living with you is the great joy of my life.

13. Stop living in fear! Have the courage to be your authentic self, and make the demands that you require.

14. Please stop babbling at me in dialect. I don’t understand you and I don’t want to.

15. Being engaged is not the same as being married. Get married already.

That was cathartic! I can recommend it. If you decide to lighten your own emotional load, please let me know in the comments.