Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Radical Acts of Empathy

I’m attending the 18th Time of the Writer festival in Durban, SA. The theme of the festival is writing for your life, and at the opening night, each writer gave a short address on what this means for them. Here’s mine:

I work at a computer company, where a lot of very clever people spend their days writing code for software applications. The code they write now is in various programming languages, all of which are based on binary code which is made up of nothing but zeroes and ones.

One of my theories about the trouble we’re in right now as a human race is the fact that we tend to think in binary: male versus female, black versus white, old versus young, gay versus straight, Muslim versus Christian, atheist versus believer, northerner versus southerner, local versus foreign, poor versus wealthy, rural versus urban, fat versus thin, abled versus disabled.

Binary ways of thinking make us feel safe. They define who we are – and who we aren’t. But they are also extremely lazy.

For me, binary is a spectrum. On the mild end of that spectrum, we get stereotypes. What stereotypes do, is allow us to assign a certain set of characteristics to a person whom we believe falls into a certain group. If you ever hear someone saying ‘they’ about a group of people and then making a reductive assumption about the characteristics of those people, then you know they are stereotyping. As writers we have to fight the urge to indulge in stereotypes, no matter how convenient they may be. To do so, we have to address our unconscious biases.

The other end of the spectrum from stereotyping is othering.

Othering means defining others by their difference to us and deciding that that difference means they have less value than us. In South Africa, we have intimate experience of the dangers of othering. Our previous government ran a huge, state-sanctioned, legally enscribed othering project called Apartheid. Germany, where I now live, ran a military-industrial othering project called the Holocaust.

Stereotyping is lazy; othering is lethal. And it is born out of fear.

What both reading and writing offer us is the insight to break this lethal cycle and see the humanity of others – in those of different faiths, in those with different skin hues, in those from other lands, in those who are female and not actually less human, in those who are citizens of countries our governments might choose to be at war with, in those whose circumstances are different from our own.

We all think and breathe and love and cry and sweat and bleed. We all dream and hope and pray for the well-being of our children. We have so much more in common than we allow ourselves to believe.

Writing forces us to reflect on the rich inner lives of others, even if they are unpalatable. Reading opens us to a world where people who seem vastly, almost unrecognizably different from us, are just as human on the inside as we are.

Reading and writing are both radical acts of empathy, that enable us to break the shackles of binary thinking and not other people out of our own fear of difference. They teach us that each individual life is rich and complex and nuanced, just as our own lives are rich and complex and nuanced.

When we read and write, we engage in radical acts of empathy that crack open our hearts. We stop saying ‘they’ and start saying ‘us’.


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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.

 


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Moving On

So my little book is out in the world, and is doing a good job of gathering some reviews. The best reviews, however, are the emails and Facebook messages I get from readers, telling me they love the book and that they love Maggie. Maggie is a difficult character as she is obstreperous and bull-headed. However, she has a much-hidden and well-covered soft centre, and this becomes evident during the course of the story.

I am not moving on from Maggie.

I am moving on from marketing Balthasar’s Gift as my main literary activity. My new literary activity is writing book two – the next in the Maggie series. It is called Karkloof Blue, after a rare and threatened butterfly, and it is an eco-conspiracy. What has changed since I wrote the (many) early drafts of BG is that I now work full-time and squeezing writing into the cracks between my job, my family and the friends I can’t resist seeing is hard.

However, hard doesn’t get books written.

So, since July 1, I’ve been getting up at dawn to write for two hours. Actually it’s pre-dawn. 4.30 am. The skies are still dark and only the bravest bird has started mentioning breakfast. By the time I finish, and head downstairs to wake my family at 6.30am, the skies have lightened and a cacophony of birds are discussing their first meal.

I try to write 1,000 words every morning. It doesn’t always work, but we’re getting there, Maggie and I.


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And … To Print We Go

Balthasar’s Gift in English is about to become a real thing. I have been working on this baby since 2008, had the joy of seeing it go to print in German last year, and now in June 2014, it becomes an English novel, with my name on it, that can be bought in shops.

I feel hysterical. And giddy. And grateful. And quite weepy.

I have so many thank yous. There are people who have encouraged me to write since I held a stub of pencil in my chubby fist. I think of my grandmother Elise Cooper, who bought me my first copy of The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook when I was nine, and to whom I dedicate Balthasar’s Gift. My mother, Toni Jubber, who named me in honour of two famous writers, because she believed the baby in her belly would be one too. A couple of teachers, Cheryl Stobie and Colleen Irvine, who gave me stars and asked for more. My school friends, Dani Cohen and Kerry Hancock, who read my words, even the crappy teenage dirge stuff, and told me to carry on. Thank you to all of you.

balthasar cover_lowresThen there were the wilderness years. The only writing that I did was university essays, journals and journalism. Even though I didn’t write creatively, I always gravitated to storytellers and book freaks (among these, one Isa-Lee Jacobson and one Georgia Dunning Morris). I managed to find jobs that involved writing, so that I could still call myself a writer. However, I put in my ten thousand hours, and am grateful to all the teachers who helped me learn to write leaner and cleaner. Thank you to you.

When I took the plunge in 2008, and started writing again for real, the teachers flocked in. A whole flood of amazing people off the Internet presented themselves as guides and mentors. Their feedback was rough, sometimes brutal, and I had to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, but it toughened me up. This was a necessary lesson, because getting published is freaking hard and there is no room for delicate flowers. I still talk to these people on a forum and though I have not met one single soul in real life, they are all as real to me as if they were standing here next to me. For talking tough and teaching me everything, I thank all of you.

I thank those of you who have supported my blog since 2006 and shared your words of wisdom and encouragement with me. Thanks to Lia Hadley, who jumped out of the Internet and became a real life friend, and a real life midwife to Balthasar’s Gift. Thank you for the hours you dedicated to reading, your ideas and your very firm adherence to timelines and facts. I also need to thank Rebecca Servadio, who told me to get the book the hell out of the first person. (Glad I listened to her.)

In the acknowledgements to Balthasar’s Gift, I thank three people in the publishing industry who saw a spark in Maggie and decided to take a risk on her and me. Thank you to Michaela Roell, Else Laudan and Colleen Higgs – and the amazing teams that stand behind you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

A very special thanks to my dear friend Angela Briggs, whose beautiful painting forms the cover of the novel. Thank you to you.

I have a ton of cheerleaders; friends, colleagues and family whose job it is to say ‘Just keep going! You can do it!’. The leader of this motley crew is my husband, Thomas Otter, ably supported by my children, all of whom provide huge draughts of enthusiasm about what I do. How lucky I am to have each and every one of you. Thank you.

I am also grateful to Maggie and Balthasar and Lindiwe and Mbali and Sanet and Spike and Ed and Zacharius and Aslan and Cora and Nkosazana. You take your own journey now, independent of me. Thank you for filling my head with your conversations and obsessions and craziness for all these years. I release you to inflict these on the world. Goodbye and good luck!

 


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Writer on Tour

I have been out and about, dear readers.

In March, I went to the Leipzig Book Fair:

leipzig

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

nervous

Because first up was an interview with the press:

neues deutschland

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

press

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

Buhne

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:

madiba

I read:

flow

I signed:

signing

Then I drank some wine:

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:

blue

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.

 


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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.

ski

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!


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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.