Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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!


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.


Friday Fessing – Because Someone Has To

I started Chapter 10 this week. I started Chapter 10 this week. I started Chapter 10 this week.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

However, I did manage to have two very useful conversations about the writing process. One with Courtney who very kindly listened to my moans and complaints and self-doubt and said many useful things along the lines of “Get on with it”, and the other with my main cheerleader who listened carefully and made sensible suggestions as I talked through where the story is going and my characters’ motivations. Thank you both! You made me feel a little less lonely and scared.

I think thinking about writing is harder than doing it. When I’m thinking about it, I’m in imperative mode. I should, I should, I should. But when I’m actually writing, I am usually in a happy place of flow. It’s a bit like the difference between thinking about doing yoga (Oh, I really should) and doing it (God, this feels good).

On the topic of writing feeling good, here’s an excerpt from Susan O’Doherty’s post today:

Writing can be arduous, terrifying work, even when it goes well. The submission process can be intimidating and even humiliating, and publication itself is often a minefield. Yet we keep going, and not because we’re masochists.

This week, two writer clients articulated the benefits they derive from the act of writing. The first, a gifted nonfiction writer who grapples with clinical depression, reported that she had recently completed two long blog posts after an extended period of being unable to focus. “I feel better when I’m writing,” she said, “even physically. It’s as good as swimming laps at the Y.”

The second is struggling to find the time to revise her brilliant novel. She is pressed by tight deadlines as well as by a number of family and business crises that drain her time and energy. Yet she reports feeling nourished, rather than stressed, by her rushed writing sessions: “Writing, I’m my best self,” she said. “I like the person I am when I’m working well.”

These are hard times for nearly everyone I know. Amid all of the anxiety and despair, it may be helpful to reflect on how fortunate we are that, unlike, say, alcoholics or gamblers, the thing we are driven to do may also be the best thing for us.

Writing is the best thing for me. As my friend JP said in one of his posts this week, it’s not about the outcome but about the journey. I also like who I am when I’m writing.

So my goal for this coming week is to take Courtney’s advice and try getting up early to write instead of leaving till night when I’m exhausted, and to make some notable progress on Chapter 10.

And to enjoy the full endorphin rush of it.


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


I Confess

Last night, I watched eight episodes of Sex and the City back-to-back, ending at Charlotte’s marriage to Harry. I also ate three packets of chilli rice cakes, one packet of chocolate rice cakes and a helping of choc chip ice-cream.

Sorry, wrong kind of confession.

I wrote the first 1000 words of Chapter Nine this week, as well as a whole lot of free-writing trying to get into the head of the narrator whose chapter this is. Last night in the haze of telly and food-that-comes-from-packets, I decided that the scene with which I began Chapter Nine is not far enough down the action timeline and will have to parked in the “Extra Stuff” file for use at a later date (how did writers manage before word processors?). I am heading into the last third of the novel now and am looking for big, dramatic, climatic scenes that beg for resolution.

Part of the problem is that I don’t have a story outline, so each chapter has evolved rather than been written from plan. I am starting to realise that this first draft is the outline, albeit one that has taken six months to write. When I start the second draft, I will be in a much stronger place, ready to polish, intensify and clarify. I am looking forward to that.

Other things I have done this week:

1. Made a shortlist of agents to approach once I have finished

2. Had a blogger date with the lovely Ms Martini

3. Almost managed a free-standing headstand in yoga

4. Made basil and lavender ice-cream, which was oddly good

5. Ran three kilometres in 20 minutes (my goal is 10kms in an hour)

6. Imagined myself tottering around Manhattan delivering bon mots when I visit New York in November. “I am a lady!”

My goals for the coming week:

1. Establish the appropriate action for Chapter Nine, and write it!

2. Exercise, exercise, exercise

And that’s all, folks.



Being back in the riches of my family life has meant my writing output has slowed down again. Having a monster migraine didn’t help either (have scheduled visit to Frauenarzt to talk about the headaches because, frankly, they are getting old). This week has not been so successful in terms of writing, but what I have managed is this:

1. I plugged the gap in Chapter 8, using some material I wrote three years ago. This new scene contains a character who might not make the second draft, because she’s kind of light and funny, but I like how her lightness contrasts with all the Sturm und Drang that the other characters are suffering. This character makes me think I should be writing chick lit, or farces, because her throwaway lines came easily to me.

2. I have acted on my idea for my second novel, which is going to be a historical novel set in Kimberley, South Africa, during the diamond rush, and wrote to some people about how to go about researching it. Both my contacts came back with brilliant ideas and I am suffused with energy for this second project. One of them suggested rereading The Story of An African Farm by Olive Schreiner, just to get a feel for the period, and this weekend I am going to brave the Keller (which is undergoing a renovation project, turning two storage rooms into two offices, one for me and one for my husband) and seek it out.

So my writing goals for this week are:

a. Get seriously stuck into Chapter 9.

b. Source and read the Olive Schreiner.

c. Do more sport! Sport = energy = creativity = words on the page. This week I ran 8kms for the first time. It took 65 minutes. As a non-sporty person who had asthma as a child and couldn’t run 300 metres without wheezing, this was a huge achievement for me. Any accolades you feel like sharing will be warmly welcomed, since my husband is getting tired of telling me how wonderful I am. My goal is to run 10kms in an hour so that I can participate in a local fun-run in October.

What are your writing goals for the week? (Feel free to share any exercise goals you may have too – I’m keen on those!)


Friday ‘Fessing

I went on a writing retreat and wrote 12,000 words.

But you already know that.

Instead of reflecting this Friday, I am going to state my goals for the coming week. These are:

1. Plug the gap in Chapter 8 and send it to the cheerleaders

2. Start Chapter 9

3. Refrain from indulging in negative thinking

4. Keep exercising

Simple isn’t it?

So while I don’t have anything more to say about the writing process, I do have something to say about reading. Writing fulltime (or as fulltime as a mother-of-three with freelance writing gigs and a gym habit can be) has turned me into a Very Intolerant Reader. A book that I would usually persevere with gets tossed aside if it doesn’t hit buttons in the first few paragraphs.

The books that have hit buttons this week:

1. The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg

A poetically-told tale of two sisters growing up on a Rhodesian farm at the height of the bush war. Funny observations of adults by children. Ends with a dark twist. Beautiful.

2. The Chameleon’s Shadow by Minette Walters

A return to form from this writer of superb psychological thrillers. A soldier disfigured by a bomb in Iraq returns to London and is under suspicion for a number of violent rage-filled crimes.

3. The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy by Fiona Neill

Reading popcorn that provoked the question, am I a slummy mummy? Are any of my friends? And if so, do we care?

Books that have failed to push buttons:

1. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

This has been given to me twice by people whose reading tastes coincide with mine, and both times I couldn’t get beyond the first paragraph. For another day, no doubt.

2. Personality by Andrew O’Hagan

The story of a little Scottish girl with a big voice who goes on the talent circuit and finds fame. The premise doesn’t really interest me, but I picked it up at book-club and am persevering with it out of literary interest. O’Hagan uses a variety of perspectives to tell his story: first person, third person, letters, screenplay-style dialogue. It has not caught me emotionally and if the person I borrowed it from wanted it back tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel deprived, but I am studying his shifting perspectives to see if the novel works as a whole.

3. Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

I lasted about 40 pages. This is another exercise in ego from McCourt – his third book All About Himself, with frequent faux-modest references to his own fame. If you’d like to read the “Irish yokel done good in NYC thanks to naked talent” story all over again, then read this book. If you want insights into the teaching process and sensitive remarks on the making of teenage minds, then don’t.

Good luck with your writing week, dear writer friends. I will be trolling past, via the lovely Literate Kitten, to see how you have been doing.