Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Turning Up

If you have 60 minutes to spare, here’s an amazing video on creativity and the brain with neurologist Oliver Sachs and artists Chuck Close and Richard Serra: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11264

About halfway in, Chuck Close says something that electrified me. Charlie Rose asks him about inspiration and how that figures in his art and Close says, to great general amusement, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just turn up for work.”

This week I turned in draft 13 of Balthasar’s Gift, the draft that, if they are happy about it, my agent and her co-agents are going to start shopping around. Thirteen drafts and three-and-a-half years of writing. If I was still relying on inspiration, I’d have given up years ago.

Close’s off-the-cuff comment also made me realise why it took me so long to commit to being a writer. I was waiting for the inspiration. Now I know it’s mostly about the work.


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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.


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Five Lessons from a Rock Band

My favourite South African rock band, The Parlotones, are on tour again and, happily for me, will be playing in Karlsruhe in the spring. I went to their Stuttgart show and it was fabulous. In South Africa, The Parlotones usually play in football stadiums to crowds of 40,000, but because they are a little less well-known in Europe and the USA they tend to play in clubs where the audiences seldom veer over 300. This means fans like me can get up close and personal with the band.

It dawned on me from observing them closely that there are five  things The Parlotones do incredibly well that writers can learn from. 

1. They have great sound. They write and play big anthemic sing-along tunes. It’s bounce on the balls of your feet and punch the air music, rather than flick on your cigarette lighter and sway music. Best of all, their live sound is identical to their recorded sound. If you’ve learnt to love certain songs by listening to a CD over and over again, it’s gratifying when you splash out the money to hear that band live, that they sound good.

Lesson for writers: Know your craft and use it to the very, very best of your ability.

2. They write great lyrics. You wouldn’t identify the Parlotones as South African on first listen as they have a big rocky sound similar to Radiohead and Coldplay. They don’t use any South African slang or any other South African languages (of which we have many) in their lyrics. However, when you have time to listen, you find that their preoccupations are deeply South African: a bleeding city, people escaping from reality through ‘happy pills’ and partying, a  ‘messiah from the Transkei, born to inspire’, living on ‘the brighter side of hell’. It’s not obvious, but it’s there.

Lesson for writers: be authentic. Write about your preoccupations and your passions.

3. They give a great show. The Parlotones crossed my radar for the first time when they played the concert at Soccer City that opened the 2010 World Cup. They only played one song – the utterly fabulous Push Me to the Floor – but they were gripping. Lead singer Kahn Morbee’s glam-rock styling, combined with his powerful, melancholy voice, and the band’s big, stadium-filling sound makes for an entrancing show. Live, they are ten times better.

Lesson for writers: Don’t be mediocre. Be fabulous. Be extreme. Push your creativity to its limits.

4. They turn up later, wearing smiles. After the show, the band members clustered around their merchandise stand, posing for photographs with fans, signing autographs and chatting. They were relaxed and friendly, if a bit sweaty. This wasn’t just a once-off for Stuttgart: Germany’s Top Husband had seen them in Seattle a few weeks before where they did just the same.

Lesson for writers: Be professional. Reward your audience by turning up in person and not being a creep.

5. Doing the other stuff. The Parlotones are on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube. They have  released a red wine called ‘Giant Mistake’ and a white wine called ‘Push Me to the Floor’. They have embraced the work of publicity. Their Wikipedia page quotes Kahn as saying, ‘We’ve always had the attitude to just do anything, because everything counts. We’ve done it all; from having kids throwing water bombs at us, to waxing each other’s legs on national television and eating tripe in Soweto. And it really does all count; soon the whole country knows who you are. (Well not ‘soon’, rather ‘eventually.’)’.

Lesson for writers: Maximise your brand. Do the social networking. Embrace your tribe. Be open to opportunities.

Here are our heroes giving Johannesburg a dose of  ‘Should We Fight Back?’, a song inspired by the struggle against apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom:


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The De Lacy Inheritance, Book Review and Author Interview

After a brief blast of sunshine this weekend, German weather has returned to form: cold, wet, Novemberish. With the last few autumn leaves lashing the windows, this is perfect snuggle under the covers and read weather, and luckily I have a piles of lovely books to do just that.

One book I have just finished is Elizabeth Ashworth’s debut novel The De Lacy Inheritance. Set in 1192, the year Richard the Lionheart was captured in Austria, its central character is Richard FitzEustace, an aristocractic soldier who has returned to Lancashire from the Crusades with a damning disease – leprosy. His family cast him out, but at the same time, place him under obligation to seek out their relation, Sir Robert de Lacy, rumoured to be near his deathbed, and press the family’s claim to his estate.

Roger, his headstrong bully of a younger brother, is now head of the family and is determined to marry off their sister Joanna to a wealthy and unattractive old landowner. Joanna takes matters into her own hands and follows Richard on his quest, where, to complicate things, she falls in love with Geoffrey whose father, the arrogant Dean of Wallei, is the other claimant to the De Lacy Inheritance.

Richard is a fascinating character, who, despite his leprosy and the fact that he has been cast aside by society, still manages to secure his family’s future without wanting the rewards for himself. It is quite odd to read a book where the main male protagonist is a hermit and outcast, but Ashworth makes him appealing by recalling his lost love in the Holy Land and showing his deep warmth towards his younger sister. At the end he is offered a chance to rehabilitate himself, to claim his land and his birth-right, but he chooses a spiritual path. He is an unlikely hero, but all the more admirable in contrast to the venial Roger and Dean of Wallei.

The De Lacy Inheritance is a delicious, complex web which Elizabeth Ashworth deftly weaves for our reading pleasure. As a historian with a special focus on Lancashire, her writing is lit from within by the acuteness of her historical detail and her love for the county and its history makes the novel all the more vivid. This is definitely one for the Christmas list.

Elizabeth kindly agreed to answer some questions about The De Lacy Inheritance and her writing process. Many thanks, Elizabeth!

Charlotte: The De Lacy Inheritance is your fourth book, but your first novel. After writing three history books, how different did you find the novel-writing process?

Elizabeth: I think the important word that’s missing there is first ‘published’ novel.  It isn’t the first one I’ve written.  When I was a child I used to churn them out relentlessly, and a few years ago I wrote a modern day novel but never pursued publication because it was too personal in content.  I’ve always been a story-teller, though my fiction work has been mostly short stories.  I used to think that a novel would be much harder than a short story, but surprisingly I found it easier.  I find that I can swap from non-fiction to fiction fairly easily because my non-fiction work does tend to have a narrative style and the historical fiction does include facts – so the books overlap rather than being distinctly different.

C: Part of The De Lacy Inheritance is based on fact. How did that come about and how did you weave fact and fiction together?

E: It began when I was writing Tales of Old Lancashire.  I discovered a legend about a Holy Hermit who lived in a cave under the castle at Clitheroe and the legend says that he was a member of the de Lacy family who was a leper.  I was fascinated by the idea and went off to dig deeper into the factual history.  After writing a short account for the book I kept thinking about this man who was a leper and who could have inherited a fortune except for his disease.  I felt compelled to tell his story.  So, using the facts as a backbone, I began to add detail which was fictional.  I found that I liked having a ready-made story to build on although it was also a challenge because I had to write within those facts rather than letting my imagination take over completely.

 C: Although TDLI is set in 1192, I thought it had a modern sensibility, espoused by the main female character Johanna FitzEustace. Could you talk about how Johanna’s feistiness and refusal to kow-tow to family pressure is essential to the novel?

E: I don’t think Johanna was the only girl in 1192 to refuse to give in to family pressure.  In medieval literature there are girls just like her.  One named Christina, for example, who was determined to become a nun and refused to marry no matter how much her parents tried to persuade her.  I don’t think Johanna was typical, but I hope that she is believable and although she is ‘modern’ in some ways I tried to keep her contemporary to the times in which she lived.  How essential she is to the storyline is an interesting question because for me this was always Richard’s story and Johanna wasn’t in the original version.  It was only when I realised that the novel was far too short, and that I probably needed a female character and some romance if I was to interest a publisher, that I threaded her story around Richard’s.  It’s reassuring that the join doesn’t show and that she is seen to play an important part in the eventual outcome.

C: Your central male character, Richard FitzEustace, is a leper who is condemned to live alone for the rest of his life. He is, however, a very appealing character. How did you manage to strike that balance?

E: I don’t think of Richard as a leper.  To me, he is the handsome and attractive man that people saw before he contracted the disease.  As a leper he is viewed differently because of his outward appearance, but that does not change who he is – only how he is perceived and how people treat him.

 C: You are now writing your fourth novel. Can you tell us anything about it? What is the status of novels two and three?

E:  I’m currently wrestling with a novel about a later member of the family, Alice de Lacy.  The factual history that surrounds it is very complex with barons and earls changing allegiances more often than their underlinen – and it’s proving challenging to explain the necessary facts without becoming boring.  It’s very much a work in progress at the moment and I’m enjoying stretching myself but some days I cross out more than I add to it.

Novels two and three are currently with my publisher and I’m hoping to share some news about one or both of them quite soon.  One is based on another Lancashire story about Sir William and Lady Mabel de Haigh.  The other centres around a little known fact about Richard III and identifies a possible identity for the mother of his two illegitimate children.  Perhaps I should have people vote on which one they want next, though I hope that both will make it into print eventually!

 C: What is your writing process? Do you have any particular routines or methods that help you write?

E: I’m not sure I have a writing process.  I have scenes that run in my mind like a film and when I’ve imagined them for a while I try to write them down, though what I write often has no resemblance to what I was thinking.  It’s rather like going into a trance and it all comes tumbling out.  I try to sit down to write whenever I can find the time.  It can be hard to begin, but it’s even harder to finish and if I can’t write I become very frustrated.

 C: As a much-published author, do you have any tips for apprentice novelists? Any pitfalls that we might avoid in our writing, or in our approach to agents and publishers?

E: Persevere: lots of people give up after a few rejections.

Write: the more you write the better you will become.

Read: you can learn a lot from seeing how other people do it.

Be lucky: try to be in the right place at the right time.  It helps.

Make your own luck:  seek the opportunities that will ensure you are in the right place at the right time.   

C: You have been writing since you were 11, when you had your first article published in Diana magazine. What are the aspects of storytelling that particularly appeal to you?

E: I enjoy making a connection with readers.  I want them to come and share my fictional world and enjoy themselves there.  I want them to meet my characters and get to know them, and I like to send them away with something new to think about.

 C: Are you a keen reader? Do you have any favourite authors? What is the best book you’ve read this year? 

E: Do you want to see my groaning bookshelves?  Yes, I love to read.  I read fiction and non-fiction.  I’ll try anything and I like to challenge myself by reading books that wouldn’t always be my natural choice.  Best book this year?  It’s hard to pick one, so I’m going to pick two that complement each other:  Agincourt by Juliet Barker (non-fiction) and Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell (the fiction version).

C: When you are not reading and writing, what do you do?

E: If I’m not either reading or writing I’m often in a state of frustration wanting to do either one or the other.  The only things that distract me are old castles and bookshops – though I do quite like eating as well.


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Muse – Litopia’s New E-zine

Readers and writers alert! Or as my borrowed countryfolk would say, Achtung! Litopia – the very lovely, friendly, creative writers’ colony where I hang out – has just published the first edition of its online literary magazine Muse. It’s sharp, it’s sexy and you want to read it.

Here’s a link to the pdf. Here’s another link, if that doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back soon with an actual post. With content. That is, words written in order, by me, with a point to them. And that’s a promise!


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Five Writing Strengths

This is the first time I’ve been scared by a meme. Nova tagged me, and as she said in her introduction, it’s very easy as a writer to name your own weaknesses, but far harder to pinpoint, face up to or admit your strengths.

I think this is a great exercise. It took a little courage, but here are what I believe to be my five writing strengths:

1. I am a writer. I wanted to be a writer from as far back as I can remember, and I have earned my living as a writer since I graduated from university in 1992. I know that I can write anything, given a good brief, a cup of coffee and a deadline. However, it was only last year during a visit to the dentist (The Cool White Room of Peace), that I realised that just because I haven’t yet published My Novel that doesn’t make me not a writer. I write daily, I write constantly, it is part of my being and who I am. I get published. I have by-lines. I write anonymously. I ghost-write. I write online. I blog. I am a writer. It’s my passion. As Nova said, “there is no Plan B.”

2. I have a natural voice. Right now, I’ve finished plotting the narrative arc of my novel and I am making some decisions about voice. Having written professionally for 15 years in my own voice, it’s proving quite difficult to step out of that and use someone else’s – someone weak, someone unreliable, someone I probably wouldn’t want to be friends with. I have to find a way to inflect this character’s voice with some of the natural ease of my own, while still maintaining the jars, prickles and brittleness that will make her unique.

3. I write instinctively. This is probably allied with the point above, but I think the way I write creatively flows from a place that is not of the intellect. Writers talk about being in “the zone” and I get there easily. Words flow. It’s just a matter of allowing myself the time and space to let it happen. I got some good tips from a seasoned author recently about consciously carving out the time for my creative writing. Now I need to implement them.

4. I make good pictures. My images come with smell; they are three-dimensional and lively. I’m good at place, at evoking physicality. My characters don’t float in a dreamscape – they are strongly bound to places that trap them, that free them, that scare them.

5. I am endlessly fascinated by people. Sit me down with someone for an evening, and by the end of it I’ll know about their granny’s double mastectomy and breast reconstruction (C-cup), their brother’s predilection for bulk-shopping toilet rolls (a decade’s supply in the garage), their uncle’s fling with right-wing politics and their friend who was so charged with adrenaline when an intruder broke into her flat on the second storey of an apartment block that she picked him up and threw him out of the window. People tell me stuff. I don’t make notes (that would be rude) but I file everything away. People are far weirder, far odder and far more fascinating than fiction. And I LOVE fiction.

On that note, I’m dying to know how others might respond to this challenge. I tag:

Helen of A Was Alarmed
The Hobgoblin of Little Minds
Paul from Access all Areas
YogaMum from Yoga Gumbo
Simonne of Cliterary Fiction
Lia from the Yum Yum Cafe
BlogLily
Courtney of Everything In Between
Emily of Telecommuter Talk
Rae of Journey Mama
Amity of Noble Savage
Smithereens
Litlove
Ash of Stitched in Holland
Letters Home to You

I know a lot of writers! I am so lucky. And if I left you out, please don’t be cross and please do join in.