Charlotte's Web

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Tis Christmas and the Season for …

… single writer binges.

I have just emerged from a six-book Liane Moriarty feeding frenzy. Why had I never heard of her before? Anyway, I hadn’t and then serendipitously, she turned up in both my real life and my online book clubs – in the same week. Moriarty is an Australian writer whose novel Big Little Lies (I read it) just debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. And I can tell you why: her novels are strongly crafted, but not too artsy; her characters are warm and witty and full of foibles that make you want to be friends with them; her plots are intriguing without being full of red herrings and obvious tropes. My only criticism, and it is a mild one, is that they are the most middle-class books I have ever read. Joanna Trollope has been ousted from the pillar of middle-classery. There is nary a poor person, nor a homeless one, nor one of colour in any of the novels. It’s a world of yummy mummies, intrigue at the school gates and shenanigans in the Sydney suburbs. However, and this is what rescues the novels and I’m sure what has shot Moriarty to the top of the bestseller lists, she writes with such teasing wit that her characters laugh at themselves being middle-class at the gates of Sydney schools – and you laugh with them. Comfort reading at its absolute best.

So having sadly finished Moriarty’s entire oeuvre, I wrote to an Australian friend asking if she knew her. She didn’t but she did recommend the next writer into whose work I am now diving – Elena Ferrantes. An Italian whose work was first translated into English in 2012, Ferrantes has become a writing sensation. Described as an angry Jane Austen (you had me at that), Ferrantes has caught the public’s imagination as she refuses to do any publicity or put a face to her name (and she writes superbly). According to Wikipedia, she has admitted that she is a mother, which means she probably is female. I am reading the first of her Neapolitan novels My Brilliant Friend, and have the second and third ready to go on my e-reader. Things are dark and dreary in Ferrante’s work, there is relentless poverty but there are souls that shine out of the darkness. There will be a binge, I can predict it.

Since it is Christmas and things come in trios (wise men, etc), I have a third writer in mind. Both my mother and brother have devoured the Patrick O’ Brian novels, and he has named his Lab puppy Jack Aubrey. In honour of the less famous Jack, I plan to read these next.

Do you have any writers upon whose work you binge?


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Conversations with Writers: Talking to Susie Nott-Bower

Susie Nott-Bower is the author of The Making of Her, published by Linen Press in 2012 and described on their website as “a blackly funny novel about women who feel unwanted and irrelevant when they reach fifty.” When Susie and I were on the same online writers’ forum, I watched Susie’s progress to publication with interest and marked The Making of Her in my mental TBR pile. After the forum caved, I lost contact with Susie, but when I finished reading the novel, I tweeted Susie to tell her how much I had loved it. She graciously agreed to an interview.JPEG OF FINAL TMOH COVER ONLY

Here’s our chat:

Susie, I have just finished reading The Making of Her, which I thought was superb. I suspect there is a germ of autobiography in there. Could you talk about how aspects of your life sparked the premise of the book?

Susie Nott-Bower: So glad you enjoyed it, Charlotte.  And yes, there’s more than a germ of autobiography there! The Making of Her is the story of three middle-aged people (and I’m definitely middle-aged) whose lives are transformed during the production of a tawdry television makeover show.  I worked as a director/producer for the BBC and Channel 4 for many years, and have written just about all my life.  The two women – Clara, a driven, impatient television producer – and Jo, a sensitive, introverted writer – are two sides of myself.  Clara, a feminist, has lost her femininity along the way, and Jo is increasingly losing her spirit, married as she is to the dreadful Iain.  Pete, the reclusive rock star, has barricaded himself into a too-small life.  All these are tendencies of mine, under pressure.  While many of the events in The Making of Her are not autobiographical – I’ve never had plastic surgery, for instance – the themes definitely are.

What I loved about TMOH, is that although the themes of love, loss, self-esteem and relationships are chick-littish, for want of a better word, your style is quiet and literary. This really surprised me, as I expected a Bridget Jones of a book. How did you reconcile your theme and your style? Which came first?

The Making of Her was rejected by one agent on these very grounds – that the tone seemed at odds with the content of the novel.  My style has always been quiet and reflective, and I went on a How To Write A Novel course at University College, Falmouth clutching the beginning of a ‘literary’ novel.  The course leader – who wrote historical romance – advised us to put aside anything we’d brought and start from scratch.  I wrote my first ever step sheet that evening, which turned out to be The Making of Her.  The course – which was excellent – basically focused on how to tell a good story.  I’ve since realised that both accessibility and depth are important to me:  I want readers to be involved, and also for there to be levels of depth and resonance.  After all, The Making of Her is about superficiality in the worlds of television and plastic surgery – yet beneath that surface lie questions about culture, the feminine, and individuality.

So, let’s talk about your writing process. How did you move from a step sheet to a fully fledged novel? Are you a planner, a pantser or something in between? 

The Making of Her was planned and I was quite regimented about it:  I set myself a target of just 2,000 words a week and worked from my step sheet.  It was comforting to have a structure, a map of the terrain.  And 2,000 words a week was doable, and meant I’d have a first draft in 9 months or so.  But these days I am a planter – something between planner and pantser, with gardening allusions.   I start with the seed of an idea, plant it on paper and watch it grow into … whatever it becomes.  How successful this is remains to be seen!

Love the idea of being a planter! I think having pantsed my first book, that’s what I’m probably doing now. So, let’s talk about working with a small indie press. How is that working for you?

Linen Press has been built over seven years by Lynn Michell, who is passionate about what she does.  She brings out two to three books a year, which means that as a writer you receive a great deal of personal attention – a fabulous gift, since Lynn is a superb editor. Pre-publication is a collaborative process and as well as working through The Making of Her chapter by chapter with Lynn, I was involved in every aspect of the book, including  choosing the cover design.  Linen Press is rightly proud of its books as beautiful objects as well as thoughtful and page-turning stories.  The down side of this is that, because the print-run is relatively small, costs tend to be high.  The Making of Her is now available as an e-book, which means it can compete.

What have you done for The Making of Her in terms of publicity?

Publicity and distribution for small indie presses are a challenge.  Writers have to be willing and able to put in a lot of time and effort on their books’ behalf.  I wrote to every women’s magazine and newspaper – in some cases twice over – and most never replied.  Book bloggers have been fabulous.  And Cheltenham Waterstones gave me a day’s signing – although I understand they no longer do so.  But the Linen Press’s reputation is growing and hopefully this will help.  They’ve just published Maureen Freely’s latest novel, Sailing Through Byzantium, which has been chosen as one of the Sunday Times’ Books of the Year.

What are you working on now?

Urgh.  The question I dread!  Because I’m not working on anything – I’m in a long-drawn-out fallow/barren period.  Wasteland.  Waiting for spring are three projects – an almost-completed first draft of a non-fiction book about creativity and personal development; 30,000 words of a novel; and the seeds of a new one – a few scenes, a few ideas, some backstory…

What were your top three reads in 2013?

I have regressed to comfort reading, and spent last year reading and re-reading Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions and Isabel Dalhousie novels, together with some Mavis Cheek and quite a bit of chicklit.  There are three novels waiting on my ‘to read’ shelf – Rosy Thornton’s Ninepins, Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist and Barbara Trapido’s Sex and Stravinsky. 

You can find The Making of Her on the Linen Press website.


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Conversations with Writers – Talking to Patricia Dusenbury

perfect victimPatricia Dusenbury is my publication day sister. Our debut crime novels launched on the same day – mine in German and in print, hers in ebook form to the world. Pat’s novel, A Perfect Victim, is an elegant crime thriller that tells the story of Claire Marshall, a professional house restorer who is caught in a web of deceit, lies and fear when one of her clients dies. Still coping with the untimely and tragic death of her husband in a house fire, Claire is emotionally bereft and struggles to cope with daily life, let alone becoming prime suspect in a murder case. Set in the suburbs of New Orleans, A Perfect Victim is spare and evocative. It is also the first in a trilogy featuring Claire Marshall.

I asked Pat some questions about her writing process and the route to publication.

1. Pat, thanks for joining me at Charlotte’s Web. Uncial Press just published A Perfect Victim. Is this your first novel or do you have a couple of manuscripts under the bed?

APV is my first novel and I have about one and a half more written.  Together they are a trilogy, following Claire Marshall, my protagonist as she recovers from the shock of her husband’s sudden death and builds a full life for herself.  Each book is also a murder mystery, and the last two include elements of romance.

2. How long did APV take you to write? And are you a planner or a pantser?

I wrote APV  on and off for ages and as a total pantser with no idea what I was doing. About five years ago, I finished it, wrote off to lots of agents, and started writing a sequel.  I went back and forth with an agent for almost a year, meanwhile working on book #2.  The agent eventually lost interest, but by that time I had two books and parts of the third.

By then, I’d learned a bit; for example, you probably should put your first novel in a drawer and leave it there. It’s a learning experience.  But I didn’t want to put two and a half books in a drawer, so I went back and totally rewrote APV. This version was accepted for publication by Uncial Press. APV has changed a lot since that first version. My approach to writing also has changed, and now I’m more of a planner.

3. What is your relationship with writing? It is something you came to late, or have you always loved it?

I enjoy writing, and have always written something. Over the years, work required me to write lots of reports, analyses, even an occasional political speech. After completing an especially dry document, I would joke about owing the world a poem, but when the time came I decided to write a mystery because I’ve always read mysteries. This turned out to be  a lot harder than expected. The difficulty plus the vast room for improvement keeps me engaged.

4. Writers tend to be avid readers. Which are your top five books?

My all time favorite book is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Other favorites change over time. Today the next four would be Bel Canto, To Kill a Mockingbird,  A Prayer for Owen Meany, and In the Lake of the Woods. My favorite genre is mysteries, and I’m a huge fan of Donna Leon, Dennis Lehane, Michael Dibdin, John LeCarre and Kate Atkinson to name my current favorites.

5. I love Kate Atkinson too! You talk about many rewrites with APV. Where do you find the energy, the resource inside yourself to keep going?

I have a head like a rock, perhaps from beating it against brick walls until the walls crack. My husband assures me this can be very annoying. However, it kept me going through the multiple rewrites.

6. What are your top tips to aspiring writers?

I would advise aspiring writers, myself included because I aspire to get better, to listen to what people you respect say about your writing and think about the best way to use their advice.

Find out more about Pat and her books on her blog:  patriciadusenbury.com. As an economist, she was responsible for writing numerous dry reports and is now trying to atone for that by writing novels that amuse and engage the reader.  She has been married to the same man for about a million years and lives with him and two Alaskan Malamutes in Atlanta, Georgia. They met on a blind date. Pat is not on Twitter, as she is busy hoping it is a passing fad.


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The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by my new friend, writer JJ Marsh, to do this meme.

The idea of this is that a writer puts up a post on his or her own blog answering ten questions about his/her work in progress, and then “tags” three writers to do the same. Then, the writer posts a link to his/her “tagger” and to the people he/she is “tagging” so that readers who are interested can visit those pages and perhaps discover some new authors whose work they’d like to read.

I’ve chosen to focus on my completed – and soon to be debut – novel Balthasar’s Gift, rather than my work-in-progress, because the latter is still in bits and nowhere near being a coherent, pleasing whole of which I can speak in sensible sentences. It’s still at the stage of being a feeling, a synopsis and a few thousand words on my laptop. However, when I do think about it, I feel little short shards of joy that are painful and pleasing at the same time – but it’s too close to talk about.

So, herewith, I give you The Next Big Thing meme:

What is the working title of your book?

Balthasar’s Gift. It was always so. My German publisher has indicated that it will need a different title in German, which is probably sensible as Balthasars Geschenk doesn’t have much of a ring.

Where did the idea come from for this book?

Two places. First, a huge feeling of rage that Thabo Mbeki’s government were denying that HIV caused AIDS and thus killing people with their lack of action. Second, an image of a juggler. I put the two together.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s crime. The first draft was literary fiction, but luckily I woke up to the fact that this story needed to be told in a very specific way, and by a very specific character who I needed to create specifically for the purpose.

Which actors do you have in mind to play in the movie of your book?

I wrote this role for Charlize Theron. But if she turns it down, my other choice is Jodie Foster, circa The Accused. As for the love interest, Spike, I spotted him on the street in Heidelberg a few weeks ago but I’m not sure if acting’s his gig.

What’s the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Oh bloody howl. This is so difficult. Here’s a little something I wrote last night but it’s by no means the final version:

Journalist Maggie Cloete has no idea what she’s in for when she investigates the murder of Balthasar Meiring, an AIDS activist, and discovers that the family of AIDS orphans he’s taken in are being targeted by a dubious local politician and a posse of vengeful gangsters.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have an agent, who has sold the German rights to a publisher in Hamburg. We are still looking to nail down the English rights. However, if we don’t succeed in selling BG into the English market, I have not discounted self-publishing. It’s a lot more respectable nowadays, especially if authors are happy to be both professional and entrepreneurial.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the novel?

Fifteen long months. This baby has been slow in the making: four years, in fact. However, I think by writing a novel I have learned how to write a novel and with better planning, Karkloof Blue will take less than half that time.

Which other books in this genre would you compare to your novel?

It’s Nadime Gordimer (South Africa, politics, pain, race, redemption) meets Janet Evanovich (gritty, acerbic, tart).

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Inequality – the unfair deal some people get and the privilege others get just by dint of birth – and how people challenge their birth-right to make a new world for themselves.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

It’s feminist crime fiction. I believe in turning over stereotypes – men as warriors, women as victims – and giving power to the disempowered. Writing that was a lot of fun, but it was also a challenge to me, as I had to keep to keep questioning my own filters and biases and trying to break through those. Whether I’ve succeeded fully still remains to be seen.

Who to tag?

Well this meme has been around some, but how about these favourite writer friends of mine?

Melissa Romo

Christine Lee Zilke

Nicole Doherty

Nova Ren Suma

Liz Fenwick

If I haven’t tagged you, please feel free to play!


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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!


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More on Voice

While reading to the creative writing students about voice this weekend, I found myself getting a little choked up. It’s embarrassing at the best of times to cry in public, but to well up and start snuffling while teaching is a bit much.

It was these words of Holly’s about fear that did it:

If your heart is beating fast and your palms are sweating and your mouth is dry, you’re writing from the part of yourself that has something to say that will be worth hearing. Persevere. I’ve never written anything that I’ve really loved that didn’t have me, during many portions of the manuscript, on the edge of my seat from nerves, certain that I couldn’t carry off what I was trying to do, certain that if I did I would so embarrass myself that I’d never be able to show my face in public again — and I kept writing anyway.

At the heart of everything that you’ve ever read that moved you, touched you, changed your life, there was a writer’s fear. And a writer’s determination to say what he had to say in spite of that fear.

So be afraid. Be very afraid. And then thank your fear for telling you that what you’re doing, you’re doing right.

Voice is born from a lot of words and a lot of work — but not just any words or any work will do. You have to bleed a little. You have to shiver a little. You have to love a lot — love your writing, love your failures, love your courage in going on in spite of them, love every small triumph that points toward eventual success. You already have a voice. It’s beautiful, it’s unique, it’s the voice of a best-seller. Your job is to lead it from the darkest of the dark places and the deepest of the deep waters into the light of day.

I know that fear. Only too well. When I first started blogging, I used to shake. When I first started writing, it was as terrifying for me as it is for a novice skier pushing off down a black slope. It was scary because I was putting myself on the line, because I was saying the things I’d always wanted to say, because I was finally self-identifying as a “writer”.

And I credit blogging with getting me there. All the posts I’ve written here, all the playing around with memes and lists and making friends and writing about writing, have helped me develop confidence  as a writer and a voice. It’s been my playground.

What I so wanted to impress on the creative writers at the weekend workshop is that our voices – the part that makes us all unique – are already right there. Voice is not something to fight or search for. It’s a matter of being oneself. There was an amazing moment during the workshop when the individual voices really shone out. We did an exercise on point of view and they had to rewrite Cinderella in third person from the point of view of one of the Ugly Sisters, or Snow White from the POV of one of the dwarves. Plot was a given. The outline was already there. The characters were fully formed. All the writers had to do was give them a voice. And they did it brilliantly. Even though nine of them chose to write Grumpy’s story, each Grumpy was fabulous and unique.

As Holly says, it’s just a matter of harnessing that voice and leading it out into the light of day.

No matter how damn scary that can be.

P.S. Although I’m deep in revisions, I’m joining my friend Melissa from The Book or Bust in her Month of Making Things Up. Let us know if you want to play.