Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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My Word for 2013 is …

… clarity.

2012 was a good year in many ways – I signed a publishing contract, started working full time again, read lots of great books, attended my first writers’ conference, had a fabulous three-week holiday back home in South Africa and a delicious 10 days in France and watched my family grow and develop in many delightful ways.

However, it was also scattered. I have no idea how many, or even which, books I read, work dominated my life, I had to prioritise down to the nth degree in order to get stuff done, my exercise routine dropped and shattered into a million dusty little pieces, I sacrificed eating healthily to the expedience of eating quickly, everything that wasn’t vital to everyday survival dropped off my to-do list, I saw my friends infrequently and I distracted myself from the things that are important to me.

I feel as if, in my haste, I forgot to breathe. Everything was a breathless, hasty, fuzzy rush to get the main thing done.

This year, I will aim for calm and clarity, for knowing why I am doing things and heading there step-by-step.

In the interests of achieving this, here are some of my goals for 2013:

  • Sign an English-language publishing deal for Balthasar’s Gift
  • Write daily, with the goal of providing a first draft of Karkloof Blue to my agent by July
  • Exercise and eat for health
  • Tick stuff off my to-do list
  • Attend to people before tasks
  • Remember that even if I love the job, the job doesn’t love me back*

And if I struggle to remember to do all of these things all of the time, I hope it won’t be too hard to remember just one small word.

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Clarity

* Quote from The Wire, Season 2

* Photo courtesy of Ellenm1


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My Writing Corner

I write in my bedroom, which is not ideal, but thanks to Germany’s Top Husband, who put up the shelves, my writing corner is now pretty (essential to me) and looks like this:

Here it is from a slightly different angle:

I love the white shelves, the flower pictures and the photos of my family. It makes me a very happy writer.

Yours sincerely,
Charlotte in the Corner


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The State of the Blog

Do you remember the days when blogging was new and you’d breathlessly check your stats every half an hour to see if they’d crept up to 22 views? Or that shaky feeling when you pressed “publish” and sent your thoughts out into the world? Or the tingling joy when your new post got its first comment?

No?

Maybe it was just me, then.

I miss the days when blogging was the most exciting thing I’d ever done, when it seemed like a radical act. I miss the effort I used to put into posts, the conversations they would start and the thrill of finding a new blogger whose ideas seemed to resonate with mine. Blogging was a form of connection that my life on an English island in the middle of Germany sometimes lacked.

My goal for my blog was to write posts of which I could be proud. My rules were:

1. Never blog about the laundry

2. Never moan about being sick

3. Don’t apologise for not posting

In other words, I didn’t want to be boring. A brief ruffle through some old posts shows that I wasn’t. Here are links to a couple of posts that, while they didn’t get the most hits, I most enjoyed writing and putting out into the world:

An anecdote about someone taking a phone-call during a yoga class: Zen and the Art of Switching off Your Phone

My guide to bores: People Who Explain too Much

Something on post-wedding depression: Bridezilla, moi?

My early incarnation was as a bit of a Mommyblogger, but I came to the decision that using my children as blog fodder before they were old enough to read what I was writing about them and tell me to shut up was a bit unfair. So I stopped mining that rich vein. Instead, I got rather a lot of leverage out of teasing the Germans.

I tried my hand at writing book reviews, but I found the effort I put into writing them well difficult to sustain. Instead, I wrote reading round-ups, which were a bit of a cop-out.

One thing this blog has done well has been to document my progress in writing a novel, from finishing the first draft to snagging an agent.

In numbers, this is where Charlotte’s Web stands today:

350, 768 views

576 views on its busiest day

565 posts

8,033 comments

Since we’re auditing, here are my top commenters: LitloveDoctor DiDad Who WritesLilian Nattel and Kit. Thanks for your loyalty – I hope I’ve been as frequent a visitor to your blogs as you have been to mine.

And the post that get the most hits – 17,776 as we speak – is still this one: 10 Things I Find Weird About Germany. If you have five minutes to spare, go and take a look at the comments. I have archived a couple of adorable little trolls there, a small museum to the eccentrics of the Internet.

So, five-and-a-half years into blogging, I no longer get the tight-throated thrill of a new post. However, I have maintained friendships, made new ones and even met some lovely people who started as commenters here and are now real-life friends. I still enjoy crafting a good post, when I have the time, the energy and inspiration. The question is, where to now?

Obviously, I hope to one day make an exciting announcement about Balthasar’s Gift right here, but having seen so many writers’ blogs turn into overt and crass marketing tools, I want to avoid that. My question is, what would you like to see from Charlotte’s Web – more of the same, a bold new direction, the usual mix? Please let me know in the comments. And, if you don’t want to talk about me (I can cope), then let me know how your blogging journey has gone. How far down the line is your blog? How have you coped when your blogging energy flags?

I would love to feel the blogging thrill again. Over to you for ideas.


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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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Resistance

After working my creative writing students hard for most of the weekend, I let them sit back and listen while I read them Holly Lisle’s words of wisdom on how to find your writer’s voice. If you want to appreciate her words in full, here’s the link. This section particularly resonated with me:

Your job in this exercise [Challenge your Preconceptions] is to become, although only temporarily, the thing that most frightens, angers, or bewilders you. To do it right, you have to allow your enemy to convince you of his rightness — you cannot allow yourself to convince him. For example, the strongly Christian writer cannot have the character he is writing experience a conversion to Christianity or see the error of his ways — he must, instead, have the agnostic prove to himself that he is right in his choice to be agnostic.

I’ll tell you right now that this is some of the toughest writing that you’ll ever do. Don’t try it when you’re tired or cranky or when you have a headache — you’ll probably get one from this particular exercise even if you felt great beforehand. But do take the leap and do this. It is the absolute best way (if you play fairly) that I’ve ever found to start developing characters that aren’t either transparent versions of yourself or pathetically weak straw men that you can triumph over as villains.

I’ve been struggling with my latest set of novel revisions and this is why. Michaela’s sub-agents in London want the novel to have more psychological darkness and they would like to see the killer become less one-note. In other words: I have to get into the head of a psychopath. Never a pleasant place to be.

I’ve been remembering Kristi’s recent post about empathy in fiction and I realised that I have been struggling to add more light and shade to the character because I don’t want to empathise with him. I don’t want to understand what makes him kill. I don’t want to know how the heart of a killer beats.

When I try to do so, I get a headache, feel unbearably tired or in sudden need of a brisk walk. I do everything possible NOT to find out what makes him tick. I am resisting.

However, thanks a brilliant talk with my number one cheerleader and writing midwife today, I am ready to dive in.

So if you find me wandering the streets of Heidelberg looking disgruntled, send me home.

There’s a murderer waiting for me.


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May Madness

May is turning out to be quite the month chez moi, which means my presence here at Charlotte’s Web will continue to be vague, scattered and somewhat erratic. Here, in order of importance, are three of the many things happening to me:

1. Complete novel revisions. It turns out that my main revisions are plot-related and plotting is my weakness, which is something I’m going to have to address if I plan to be a professional crime writer. That aside, I’m done with cogitating and have committed to completing and handing them in by the end of the month. I’ve said it! Feel free to stop me in the street and question me in depth about my progress, even if I look evasive and try to distract you with cheesecake.

2. Give creative writing workshop. At the end of the month, I’m giving a weekend workshop to undergrads at Heidelberg University. I’m looking forward to it very much. I visited them last week and asked what they want from their workshop and now have a clear idea how to structure it.

3. Run marathon. For an ex-asthmatic and renowned non-sportler this is the most intimidating, though I am slightly exaggerating the extent of the run. It’s a team event and four of us run a marathon as a relay. My leg is just over eight kilometres: short for some, very long and daunting for me.

I’m also attending to an admin list as long as my arm, one that includes passport refreshing for certain members of my family and other unspeakable horrors. If I’m ever rich/successful/clever enough to have an admin assistant, it is this kind of thing I will gladly hand over. Ticking boxes and filling out forms is not my forte. Give me character motivations and new plot strands any day.

However, I’m finding comfort in reading and have read some excellent books, which I will detail in another post. Right now, Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men is glowing all buttercup-yellow and tempting next to my bed.

And in other news, today is the last day for voting for Expatica Germany’s best blog 2010/2011, so if you feel moved to support me, here’s the link.


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Cafe Society

One of the most appealing things about Germany is its cafe society; places where you can nurse a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by. You are never hassled to move on, they serve breakfast all day long and usually have an array of freshed baked cakes. German cafes tend to have a handy stash of magazines and newspapers, so if you happen to leave your book at home, there’s always something to read.

Writing at home is fraught with booby-traps: the laundry, the phone, members of my family, so I have spent large chunks of the last three years writing in Heidelberg cafes where I have no alternative but to knuckle down. I thought that over the next few weeks, I’d introduce you to some of my favourites.

The first candidate is my newest find, the Literature Cafe. On arriving in Heidelberg, the first thing we did was join the library, a lovely glass building overlooking a small park in the centre of town. It is light-filled, groaning with books and scattered with cushions for readers to lounge on. My family and I felt immediately at home.

Attached to the library is the Literature Cafe and yesterday, without my small attendants and in need of a quiet hour to face my novel revisions, I went there. The cafe is glass-walled, like the library, so even on a gloomy, rain-bespattered day, it was light. There is a terrace that will come into its own in a couple of months time.

The cafe has a small menu of hot and cold drinks, breakfast items, sandwiches and cakes, which are apparently baked by the owner herself. There is a short daily specials menu, and since I was there at lunch-time, I ordered the spicy vegetable coconut soup, which was delicious and an extremely reasonable €3.50. Along with a large Milchkaffee and a mineral water, my bill came in at €7.50. The service was polite and efficient, and in the German manner to which I have grown happily accustomed, not over-friendly. On Sunday, the Literature Cafe does a brunch for €6.50 per person, which is a bargain. There is a selection of 50 newspapers from around the world, which customers are welcome to pick up and read with their coffee.

For me, the Literature Cafe’s biggest selling point is its proximity to  the library. You can get your books and head straight for the cafe to start reading. The clientele yesterday were mainly people on their own, either reading or writing. Those in couples or groups spoke quietly, as if in deference to the library next door, and the only person who broke the quiet was a four-year-old who had a spectacular melt-down but was quickly removed by his mother. I could still hear his screams of  ‘Mean Mummy! Mean Mummy!’ going down the road as I smugly returned to my personal oasis of coffee and words.

Heidelberg’s Literature Cafe can be found at Poststrasse 15. It is open Tuesday to Friday from 10am till 8pm, Saturdays from 10am till 5pm and Sundays from 10am till 3pm.


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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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Happiness and Revisions

I’m still unpacking boxes but am gloriously happy in my new home. Living without a kitchen is interesting, but since I was the one who sold the concept to my family as a big adventure, I’m not allowed to complain. Let’s just say that once the cooking on camping plates and the washing up in the bath comes to an end, I’ll be even happier than I am now. Fit to burst happy. Disgustingly, floating on air happy.

I had more happy news about Balthasar’s Gift. My agent M works with a fabulous London literary agency who sell her books in the British market, and she sells theirs in the German market. A couple of agents read BG over Christmas and reportedly ‘loved it.’ They have asked for some revisions and after a call with them next week, I will be getting to it.

This is the third set of agent revisions I will have done since August last year. The road to publication is not easy! And ’tis filled with revisions!

However, I can see BG getting stronger and stronger and that makes me – you guessed it – happy.