Monday 29 December 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich

How does one even begin to review the writing of Louise Erdrich? Her words resonate with ancient mysteries and intricate complexities which draw me into her characters' lives time and time again. This novel is no exception.

In The Painted Drum we follow the story through the eyes of different people.

Faye Travers risks her moral rectitude and her career as an Estates agent by stealing an incredible Native American drum. It called to her with a single beat and she was overwhelmed by its mystical powers. Her grandmother was an Ojibwe and Faye takes the drum to return it to her tribe, its rightful owners. But before she hands it over, the drum works its magic on her. In a final healing catharsis, she is drawn to talking with her mother Elsie about the childhood death of her sister Netta. The novel concludes with Faye making life changing decisions.

There is also Bernard Shaawano, the grandson of the Ojibwe maker of the drum. He narrates the history of the drum, and we learn about the tragic life of Bernard's ancestor. He made the drum by following the instructions he received from his young daughter who sacrificed herself to save her mother, Anaquot. She came to her father in visions, and Erdrich’s masterful use of language and rhythm take us into the heart of a man’s grief for a daughter he loved so much he could not love the son who still lived.

The final section of the story relates the story of Ira and her three children. I won’t say more as this is the most powerful section of the book and I don’t want to spoil it. But here the drum comes full circle and, back in its rightful place, it throbs with life and hope.

Erdrich has a way of taking a reader deep into the mysteries that surround us: the soul of wolves; the breath of the trees; and the dead who live on in our dreams. Each word, each sentence, has layers of meaning. No matter how mundane the topic - a man mowing a lawn for his lover – everything is intricately linked and woven together, in much the same way that our individual lives are all part of the same fabric of existence. We are one with each other, Erdrich says, and we are one with all of life.

In The Painted Drum, her characters are flawed, but Erdrich does not judge them. Rather she shows them with unsentimental clarity and a deep understanding for the forces which drive people to do what they do. Erdrich's compassion is coupled with her skill and her wonderful imagination. Once again, she has written another masterpiece.

Monday 22 December 2008

To Worship Mammon or Apollo?

“But, B.B., I think we should never be too pessimistic about what we know we have done well, because we should have some reward, and the only reward is that which is within us...publishing, admiration, adulation...are all worthless”.[1]

The words of Ernest Hemingway in his 1954 letter to Bernard Berenson are echoed by the Zen Master Osho. Creativity is the inner attribute of working with joy. In whatever one does, Osho continues, one must be uncaring of whether history, or even other people, take account of what one has done. Fame, and the desire for fame or reward, should not be a consideration if one wants to be truly creative. The fulfilment one finds in what one is doing lies in the task itself: any act of creation must be completed for the simple joy of having done it.[2]

My business training has made me firmly goal oriented. One of the most difficult transitions I’ve had to make from accountant to author has been to stop emphasising the financial and other rewards of writing and to allow my unique creative voice – or Muse – to flow freely through me.

A while ago, I was faced with a difficult choice. I had been concentrating on genre fiction as a (relatively) easy route to getting published. My creative thought processes were part of a logical strategy: 1. learn how to write genre fiction; 2. get published as genre author; 3. earn money; 4. continue to earn money from genre writing while writing what I really wanted to write on the side.

After writing five full novels, I came very close to being published in genre fiction. I worked with an editor at a large publishing house in the United Kingdom on completely rewriting two of these five manuscripts; both rewrites were ultimately rejected. The second rejection was a turning point for me as it raised many doubts in my mind. Did I continue to write genre fiction? Was my voice really suited to genre writing? And, if I did continue with genre writing, when was I ever going to get to the point of earning enough money to be able to write what I really wanted to write?

According to John Gardner, this mercenary drive probably had its roots in the guilt and shame at being financially dependent on my spouse while trying to establish myself in an artistic field in which the financial rewards are notoriously elusive. However, Gardner continues, for the unpublished author to reach her full creative potential she should remove the added pressure of dependency by learning to accept that financial dependence on a generous spouse-as-patron is not only God’s bounty, but also an excellent survival tactic. It then becomes the author’s responsibility to honour this bounty, this gift from her spouse, by doing everything in her power to write to the best of her artistic ability.[3]

Paul R. Givens, in his article “Identifying and Encouraging Creative Processes”,[4] states that it’s imperative that creative people do not continually find themselves in ambivalent situations, caught between the call of multiple goals. To foster creativity, a choice must be made. And so, at this critical point in my writing life, I was faced with difficult questions.

Did I continue to write genre fiction? By writing for the joint rewards of fame and fortune as a genre writer, was I honouring the generosity of my husband-as-patron? Did I put behind me all the experience I’d gained in writing genre fiction and start again as a beginner? In my journey towards becoming An Author, which god was I to worship: Mammon or Apollo?

I chose Apollo. And my writing is now my joy.

References:[1] Phillips, Larry W.(Editor). 1986. Ernst Hemingway on Writing. Grafton Books. London, United Kingdom. Pp. 104.[2] Osho. 1999. Creativity: Unleashing the Forces Within. St Martins Press. New York, United States of America. Paragraph summarised from Pp. 91-107.[3] Gardner, John. 1983. On Becoming a Novelist. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. New York, United States of America. Pp. 117-118.[4] The Journal of Higher Education Vol XXXIII No 6 June, 1962, Pp. 295-301.

Thursday 18 December 2008

BOOK REVIEW: A Mercy by Toni Morrison

In preparation for Moon Rat's January 1st, 2009 Book Club, I've just finished reading "A Mercy" by Toni Morrison.

This is the first Toni Morrison book I’ve read and, loaded with the emotional baggage of white South African guilt, I approached it with some trepidation.

The story is told from numerous viewpoints, predominantly that of three women. Rebekka (a white woman), Lina (her Native American slave) and Florens (her young teenage black slave) have a complex relationship. The fragility of this relationship is highlighted in the brief glimpses we have of life in the America of the 1680’s seen through the eyes of other characters, such as Jacob Vaark (Rebekka’s husband), Sorrow (another slave), Scully (neither slave nor free) and finally, in a moving introspection, Florens’s unnamed mother (also a slave).

Characterisations were superb, although at first I found the choppy voice of Florens difficult to follow. But the last section, the only time we hear from her mother, brought all the threads of the story together in a heart-stopping moment of poignancy. With unerring accuracy, Morrison shows how the pain of loss can forever change a human soul.

The grandeur of her writing shows in her superb ability to paint a picture of a slavery that extends far beyond that of white domination over black. She makes the point that many of the original slaves who found their way to colonial America from Africa were enslaved by other Africans: “… insults had been moving back and forth to and fro for many seasons between the king of we families and the king of others…everything heats up and finally the men of their families burn we houses and collect those they cannot kill or find for trade. Bound with vine…the men guarding we and selling we are black.” Domination, Morrison makes clear, takes many shapes but the only time it is truly evil is when we ourselves give our freedom away.

Morrison also shows that slavery for women is cross-cultural. Ultimately, though, what Morrison does in her beautifully sparse and yet lyrical text is show that the enslavement of the human soul is where the most damage is done. ‘Own yourself, woman, and leave us be,’ the free blacksmith says to Florens and in the end the only way that any of the women can “own” themselves is in hatred, bitterness and loss. Their one chance of redemption comes through motherhood, as poor, mad Sorrow finds after she has given birth to her daughter.

Even that is tempered by the pathos of the final chapter. The difficult choices that Sorrow, as both slave and mother, will have to make at some time in her daughter’s future is foreshadowed in the glimpse we have of the harrowing choice that Florens’s mother had to make.

It's in this implicit threat to the brief happiness that Sorrow has found as a mother that I find my one disappointment with A Mercy lies. It’s not that I want or expect a “quick and happy ending” to any novel I read or movie I see. Rather, I’m concerned by the unremitting darkness, the lack of hope, that so many profound books offer as their raison d’être. If life was so unremittingly bleak; if, no matter how good or decent a person is, the suffering they endure always turns them into the angry and violent person Florens becomes, or the pious and bitter and evil person Rebekka becomes, how has humankind survived? Is there never any other option for the pitiful human condition but to escape into the madness of Sorrow?

Robert Orben (1927-), American magician and comedy writer, once said, “We have enough people who tell it like it is. Now we need a few who tell it like it can be.” In A Mercy, Toni Morrison’s brilliant and compassionate prose tells it like it was, but I would have enjoyed the novel more if she had also told it like it could be. If, in some small way she had shown that, despite the suffering that life, and others, impose on us, we can, and do, have the choice - even if circumscribed by the context of our lives - of unshackling the chains that bind us to a painful past.

The Way of the Writing Warrior

On her blog Editorial Ass: I lost the paperback conversation, the lovely Moon Rat spoke about an editorial decision in which she (he?) was overruled because the less risky path was chosen. Moon Rat’s experience is another example of the publishing industry as a business and, for a moment, I was disheartened. Then I remembered my long-ago (and almost forgotten) days of karate lessons. What, you may ask, has writing got to do with martial arts?

Well, think about it. Writing requires certain character traits. In their highest potential, these traits remind me of the way of the Samurai warrior.

In his book The Zen Way of Martial Arts: A Japanese Master Reveals the Secrets of the Samurai”, Taisen Deshimaru talks of the seven underlying principles of bushido, or the way of the warrior. He lists these as:

1. Gi: the right decision, rectitude.
2. Yu: bravery tinged with heroism.
3. Jin: universal love, benevolence toward mankind; compassion.
4. Rei: right action - a most essential quality, courtesy.
5. Makoto: utter sincerity; truthfulness.
ó. Melyo: honour and glory without ego.
7. Chugo: devotion, loyalty.

Let’s correlate these to writing.

1. Gi: For a writer, Gi is the ability to write without thought or regret for what will happen to her story once it has left her desk. It is the acceptance that when we must be published, we will be published. This detachment from the need to be published frees the writer’s judgement. She can autonomously reach a well-reasoned decision about her novel and stick to it. In some cases these “well-reasoned” decisions come more from the heart than from the head and it is these which give a novel that extra spark which raises it above the current trends into a class of its own.

2. Yu: Can a writer, published or unpublished, ever afford to take the “less risky path”? As the Samurai warrior did not hesitate to rush onto the point of his sword if it would accomplish the greatest good, so too must the writer warrior make his decisions about his novel without regard to the consequences of that action if it is for the greatest good of the novel.

Yu works hand-in-hand with Gi, for courage without correct judgement is recklessness, and rectitude without courage is impotence. The first will destroy whatever good the writer has hoped to achieve for his novel and the second will paralyse him into taking no action at all.

3. Jin: A writer without compassion is like a sailor without a boat. How can she do her characters justice if she cannot empathize with the feelings of others? Jin extends further than the ability to create universal characters in her novel. It also applies to professional writing behaviour. It is having the ability to be benevolent and understanding when others do something silly or inappropriate or irritating.

4. Rei: The right action for a professional writer requires certain etiquette and the preservation of courtesy. For a writer it means disciplining himself to respect the industry procedures that show an equivalent respect for others. For example, most literary agents have submission guidelines. These guidelines are there not only for the agent’s benefit, but for the benefit of all the writers who have submitted work to that agent as well. The only right action for a professional writer is to respect the procedures and deal courteously with agents and fellow writers.

5. Makoto: Veracity for the writing warrior means an absolute commitment to honesty. A writer’s integrity is the only honourable way of being. It applies to the integrity of her writing (she must write what she loves; anything less is untruthful) and to her professional behaviour (if she runs a competition for her readers, she must honour any promises she made).

Politeness (Rei) without Veracity (Makoto)or Benevolence (Jin) is artifice. Veracity or Benevolence without Politeness, however, indicates a rampant writer’s ego typified by a desire to show superiority to others.

6. Melyo: honour and glory. To the writer who wishes to gain honour and glory at any cost will mean violating any one, or all, of the Bushido principles. Honour to the writer warrior means doing nothing that will bring shame on his name. It is about not disparaging another’s name or writing. It is about respecting the right of a reader to dislike his work. Melyo is about gaining writing glory with humility and holding onto the honours of writing success with a generosity of spirit.

7. Chugo: Loyalty is the adherence to the hierarchy of governance. Decisions should be made in accordance with a predictable, society-wide understanding of loyalties.

There can be no honour (Melyo) if loyalty (Chugo) is not respected, nor can loyalty be true if implemented dishonourably. This does not mean that the writer must sell his soul if his conscience dictates otherwise.

Gi (right decision) demands that the writer must decide for himself what is the honourable action, even if ordinarily that simply means following an editor’s requests for revisions. However, if the revisions will destroy the integrity of his work or violate his conscience, then the writer can – using the principles of politeness, veracity and benevolence - try to dissuade his editor from the problematic course of action.

Unlike the Samurai who had no honourable option but to commit ritual suicide if he could not, in good conscience, follow what he saw as an erroneous decision of his Lord, the writer warrior (thankfully) does not have to fall on his pen to prove his honour every time the publishing industry makes what he perceives as an error of judgement. The writer can, instead, choose to follow the way of the warrior in his attitude and go forward in his career with equanimity and a pure heart. And he will then become the change he wants to see in the publishing industry.

References:Deshimaru, T. 1992. “The Zen Way of Martial Arts: A Japanese Master Reveals the Secrets of the Samurai” Penguin. Pg 13.
Macro-Bushido: A Geoethical Consciousness for an Info-Cultural Age by Martine Rothblatt, Ph.D. from
The Terasem Journals Online. Volume 1, Issue 33rd Quarter, 2006.
The Seven Principles of Leadership (19/02/ 2008) at

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Five Steps to Writing a Novel

Despite my romantic view of the creative process, I’m pragmatic enough to realise that writing a novel requires far more than just flashes of inspiration and a knack with words. If you’ve always dreamed of writing a novel, either for your own enjoyment or with aim of becoming a published author, there are five simple steps to making this dream come true. They are:

1. Vision
2. Goals
3. Discipline
4. Think Positive
5. Action

Before you can start, you need to have VISION. How is your novel going to take shape? Do you have characters, setting and dialogue in your head? Do you know what your characters are going to do: will they fall in love, be murdered or go on a long voyage?

You also need to have the vision of yourself as A Writer. If you’re simply writing for your own happiness, can you imagine yourself writing those two magic words “The End”? If you’re aiming to be published, are you able to visualize yourself holding your first novel in your hands? Can you feel the weight of it? Smell that new-book scent of printing? Do you dream of the day when you will sit in your local bookstore, a pile of your books next to you and a line of readers waiting for you to sign your name? These are the carrots that keep you writing during the tough times.

Dreams are never enough. You also have to have GOALS.

You need to break your vision down into bite-sized chunks of carrot by setting goals. For example, set yourself long-term goals, medium-term goals and short-term goals. A long-term goal could be something like “Submit final copy of novel to agents within twelve months”. A medium term-goal could be “Finish first draft within four months”, while short-term goals could be “Write a thousand words a day” and "Finish research on the Namib desert as setting".

Goals are only effective when you reach them. If you find you’re constantly missing your targets, take the time to reassess your goals. Are they unrealistic? In what way are they unrealistic? Have you set a goal of five thousand words a day when you have small children to care for or a full-time job? If you still think your goals are achievable, ask yourself why aren’t you meeting them? Are you allowing yourself to be distracted from your writing? As award-winning mystery author Jeff Abbott asks in his comments, do you keep your writing time sacred? Or are you a slower writer than you think you are? Are you avoiding the next phase of your writing, and why? Or do you just lack the discipline to focus on your writing goals?

DISCIPLINE is a harsh word. But it’s a word any aspiring author needs to make friends with. Without the discipline to keep focused on your goals, you won’t meet them. Without the discipline to write when you’d rather go to bed, your story will never get finished. Without the discipline to re-write again and again, your story will not shine.

Discipline is not the same as self-criticism. But it can help with the next step to getting your novel written, which is THINK POSITIVE. You need discipline, and self-belief, to keep yourself optimistic. Optimism doesn’t just happen: it’s a choice. Writers are emotional human beings and, at times, you may find yourself doubting yourself, your writing and even your vision. So how do you overcome that doubt? You can choose to think positively. By being optimistic about your writing, you encourage yourself, and others, to believe in what you’re writing.

As long as you are writing. Nothing can get the novel written unless you TAKE ACTION. Dreaming about your writing vision and planning your writing goals are important, as are discipline and optimism. But these alone cannot result in a completed novel. You have to sit down and actually write the words that will bring your vision into reality. After all, that’s what you’re in it for, isn’t it? To tell a story?

When you’ve finished writing the story, when you write those delicious words “The End”, it’s then that you know you’ve climbed the five steps to writing success. And, finally, you are A Writer.

Friday 12 December 2008

WRITING TIPS: Daily Routine - How I write

Author Jeff Abbott posted this excellent link to a site called Daily Routines.

Reading the different routines of famous authors made me wonder what routine and rituals I have.

Toni Morrison writes with a pencil and requires a transition period from her daily life to her writing life.

This struck a chord with me. My best writing has come from those times I’ve written directly onto an examination pad with a soft lead pencil.

My transition period consists of two things. I start my writing day by typing up what I wrote the previous day. I do some editing. I have a short break and make a cup of chamomile tea. Then it’s back to writing and my second ritual. I sharpen all my pencils; then I line them up one by one, from the shortest to the longest. My writing time has begun.

I’ve discovered I’m a slow starter, both in my daily writing quota and in writing the whole novel. I cough and choke and limp my way along until I hit “the zone” and then I’m away. It’s as if my creative brain needs lubrication to get into the right gear.

The one thing I constantly struggle with is time management. I’m at my best in the morning, but sometimes life gets in the way and I’ve had to learn to be flexible. Instead of saying to myself, “You will write from 05h00 to 06h30. Every day!” I set a looser target. What works for me is to commit to writing an hour a day or four (handwritten) pages a day or more. That way I can cope with the demands of everyday living and still write.

The key is to write something every day! If I miss even one day, I lag behind. But when I’ve written every day for a few weeks, I hit my stride and my pencils get shorter and shorter…

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Facebook, the Time Thief

Technology astounds me. There’s iPods and iPhones and Xboxes to play with. There’s Blogger and Skype and MSN messenger to keep in touch .

Then there’s Facebook.

It is the modern world’s equivalent of the back fence in a garden. One logs in instead of leaning over, but the experience is the same. Exchanging tips and quips with people who before have only been names on book covers or little faces on a blog post is all part of moving in to a new community. When you've finished chatting, you feel like you belong. You are An Author.

But the danger is that, before you know it, an hour or two or three has slipped away. Most days, those few hours are the only spare time you have for writing so, ultimately, any time spent on Facebook is time stolen from your writing.
Unknown source. Please contact me if you are the owner of this image.
There are advantages, of course. It’s a convenient way to belong to a writing community and, as writing is essentially a lonely occupation, the sense of linking up to like-minded people can be exhilarating and rewarding. Marketing will never be the same again: there are gadgets, widgets, and links galore to advertise your work.

So how do you take advantage of Facebook without allowing it to rob you of precious writing time?

The key lies in time management. Decide on how much time you can comfortably afford to spend on Facebook. Then stick to it: a natural extension of the discipline necessary for writing.

There may be friends you cannot reply to; or photo albums you are unable to view. But learn to differentiate between what is urgent and what’s important. You can answer the rest another day, knowing that your Facebook friends are undergoing the same dilemma and will understand your need to prioritize.

In the end, what will always be urgent and important is that your focus remains firmly on the only thing that matters: your writing. Technology is a writing tool and must remain as such, or else your Facebook will become a time thief.

Sunday 7 December 2008

The Road to Timbuktu

Timbuktu. A far and distant city. An exotic people. Myths and legends and strange, dangerous customs.

It’s all that and much more. Last weekend, I was privileged to attend an exhibition of the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu. Some of these manuscripts were from the 12th century and covered subjects as diverse as astrology and family law, astronomy and optics.

My favourite was Manuscript 776 (see photo). Written in the 16th century by the famed scholar Ahmed Baba, this work contains the lines that on the Day of Judgement the ink of scholars will be measured against the blood of the martyrs and will be found to be weightier.

I found this encouraging and I left the exhibition with a sense of calm and a renewed belief in the continuum of human existence: we live, we die and the words we write in between – no matter how mundane - carry so much responsibility. What is a mere list of possessions today can become the future’s only glimpse into our daily lives. What we think is a clichéd tradition can become the legend of tomorrow’s world.

For a writer, what can be more inspiring than this?

Monday 1 December 2008

What is Creativity? Part Four: Creativity as Divine Inspiration

As a writer, what is your biggest challenge? Is it finding the time to write? Is it being disciplined enough to do your daily quota of words? Do you struggle to come up with new ideas or snappy dialogue or believable characters? Are you an expert on the first three chapters but can never finish a novel?

Or are all of these simply excuses to hide a deeper resistance?

Perhaps your conscious challenges in your writing process mask a deeper resistance such as fear of failure in that you’ll never be published or the fear that, once published, you will be fated to remain an obscure and neglected author.

In the creative process there is, says Michelle James,[1] a natural resistance to the transforming force of creativity. Creativity, by its very nature, births into the world something new. Such a potential is bound to meet a deep-seated resistance to any internal personality change (for example, I will have to become more organised) and external life style change (if I am actually published, how will the status quo of my life change?) that results from the creative process.

James points out that, as the hard eggshell protects the unborn chick, this resistance is the psyche’s way of protecting what is. And, in the same way that the resistance of the eggshell to the chick is hardest in the moment before hatching, so too is the psyche’s resistance to change strongest at the moment immediately prior to the transformation of the identity through the creative process.

Every time I sit down to write, the biggest challenge I have to overcome as a writer is the fear of letting go of all intellectual control during the process of creative writing. In surrendering completely to my Muse, I allow some unknown force to work through me. In that surrender there is too great a potential that - in undertaking the creative, and therefore transforming, journey of creative writing - I will lose touch with the world of my “real” existence.

Margaret Atwood[2] in her book 'Negotiating with the Dead' describes the creative process of writing as being a compulsion to enter into a dark underworld; to seek to illuminate this darkness and to, perhaps, bring something back into the light. In the darkness, a writer has to ‘negotiate with the dead’: and the dead do not always let the writer return to the safety of the upper world. There are the suicides: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ingrid Jonker. The addicts : Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ernest Hemingway. And the mental illnesses of Plath, Woolf and Hemingway, to name but a few.

But it is this very darkness, this journey into the unknown realms of the creative psyche, that lifts a writer beyond the virtue of being a skilled author and, as Plato says, makes of him “a light thing, and winged, and holy”.[3]

In Ion, Plato describes the difference between an inspired author and one whose art is a product of his technique.[4] It is when a Divine Madness grips a writer that he becomes inspired. Untouched by the madness of the Divine Muse, believing that technique alone will inspire him, the author’s creative composition does not soar into the realms of brilliance.[5]

A great author, Plato states, becomes by Divine dispensation an interpreter of the messages of the gods.[6] It is only a writer or poet capable of surrendering his reason to the Divine forces which move within him who can create work which is like a god‘s. And Plato distinguishes these works from the writer who merely creates art as a product of his mind and his technique. “It’s a much finer thing,” says Plato's Ion, “to be thought Divine.”[7]

Thus, the author gripped by Divine Madness finds – as John Keats did – that the journey into the psychological or spiritual terra incognita of his creative intuition is not so much a loss of his primitive, or lower, state of awareness, easily disturbed and thus distressing, as it is a journey into an intuitive awareness of some higher knowledge which is beyond the horizon of his consciousness.[8]

My initial image of a creative genius has come full circle. I have found that true creativity requires an artist to learn the techniques of his craft, connect with his creative intuition, and practice until he is prepared. And then, as a final sacrifice to his Muse, he[9] must surrender all rational thought and leap into the abyss of ‘creative madness’ to write and write and write until he can write no more.

[1] Article Source :
[2] Atwood, Margaret. 2003. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Virago Press. United Kingdom. Chap 6 and Pp. xxii.
[3] Saunders, Trevor J. (Editor). Plato: Early Socratic Dialogues. Penguin Classics. London, United Kingdom. “Ion”, Pp. 55.
[4] Goldberg, M.A. 1969. The Poetics of Romanticism: towards a reading of John Keats. The Antioch Press Ltd. Ohio, United States of America. Pp. 28-38.
[5] Radice, Betty. (Editor). 1973. Plato: Phaedrus & Letters VII and VIII. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth, United Kingdom. 1981 Reprint. Pp. 48.
[6] Op cit., Saunders. “Ion”. Pp. 55-56.
[7] Op cit., Saunders. “Ion”. Pp. 65.
[8] Gradman, Barry. 1980. Metamorphosis in Keats. The Harvester Press. Brighton, United Kingdom. Pp. xiii to xviii and Pp. 135.
[9] For ease of reading, the artist is referred to in the male gender. This reference does, of course, mean either the male or female gender.

Sunday 30 November 2008

SOCIAL: National Listening Day - Listening to My Dad

Editorial Assistant Moonrat has unilaterally turned National Listening Day into National Listening Weekend. I’ve extended this into International Listening Weekend.

I’ve spent the past few days listening to stories about my Dad, Isaac, who recently turned eighty
Photo left: My Dad, in full mining gear, underground at Shabani Asbestos Mine in Rhodesia, ca 1965

Here are a few vignettes of his life I collected from the people who know him and love him.

My own favourite story about my Dad comes from the early 1970’s, when the darkness of apartheid still overshadowed the soul of South Africa. My Dad worked as a Mine Captain on a gold mine in the conservative (and right-wing) Free State goldfields. Although it may appear strange in today's world, at that time he was considered a liberal because he liked to help his men. Most of his 1000+ workforce were migrant workers, far from home and far from their traditional leaders and community support. My Father became their i'nkosi, their chief or king, and the one they turned to in times of need...

As I stumble sleepily from my bed, I first notice the blood on the kitchen floor. Then the noise – male and female voices raised in anger and anxiety, a mixture of Shangaan, Fanikalo and English.

It’s not the first time, nor is it to be the last, that Jãoa wakes us up in the middle of the night. The Mozambican is one of the team leaders who refuse to work for any other mine captain: if there is a rockfall that needs clearing, or a man to rescue, Jãoa and his comrades will not begin work until my Father arrives. He is their inhlanhla enhle, their good luck, for he works beside them in the choking dust and stale air and he has had many miraculous escapes from unexpected rock falls and explosions.

This visit to our home is more interesting than most. Jãoa's naked girlfriend is with him; he, too, is naked and bleeding. Just outside the kitchen door, my father is grappling with the girlfriend’s panga-wielding husband who, having sliced into Jãoa’s handsome black face, wants more retribution.

‘Do you need any help, Ma?’ my sister and I ask.

‘Come and hold the bowl, Ona,’ my mother says. Apprehension sharpens her voice as she turns to me. ‘Go and get some clothes for Jãoa and his friend.’

I’m relieved. I don’t like the thought of having to hold the bowl with the water pinkened by the blood that pours from the deep gash on Jãoa’s face. I disappear quickly, my heart thudding with a dark foreboding as, to my teenage ears, the sounds of the struggle outside the door approach a frightening climax. What if – I can barely frame the thought – the angry man gets inside? What will we do? What will we do?

When I return with an armful of clothes, there is only the murmur of voices outside and the soft sobbing of the woman as my mother tries to calm her down with sugar-rich tea.

With his usual combination of physical strength, unwavering courage and quiet diplomacy, my father has disarmed the irate husband. All the two antagonists still need to do – with my father as mediator – is to resolve the issue.

The excitement over, we yawn and ask, ‘Can we go back to bed, Ma?’

My Mom hustles us back into our bedroom. It’s only the next morning we discover they stayed up all night – my father with the two men and my mother with the woman – soothing wounded male prides and arranging mutually satisfactory compensation according to complex tribal laws.

Jãoa has breakfast with us.

‘Why are you so stupid? Why mess with another man’s wife?’ my father asks angrily.

‘Sorry, iNkosi,’ Jãoa replies. He gives a fatalistic shrug. ‘The ladies just like me.’ His knowing grin says that he sees through my father’s harsh lecture. As with all the times before, and those yet to come, he knows that, as a foreigner in a strange land, far from his Tribal Chief and his village, it is to this white, Afrikaans man - my Father and his - that he can turn for help and for safety.

My Dad's sister: "I remember as a young girl, when my Dad – your grandfather – came home mean and drunk. Our Mom would hide us kids behind the cupboard to keep us safe, but sometimes he’d still find us. But it stopped when Isaac turned thirteen. He was big and strong for his age, and he came out from behind the cupboard so fast our Dad was on the floor before he knew it. The old man never hit any of us again."
My Dad's cousin: "Isaac is ten years older than I am and he was always like James Dean to me. Once, I remember waiting for him to come home from the asbestos mines in Rhodesia. He roared up to our house on his Triumph motorbike, his black leather jacket filthy from the 700 kilometer journey he'd done overnight. He had a wooden box strapped to his chest that made us all curious. It was a gift of real silver and bone-handle cutlery which Aunty Betty [my Dad’s Mom] had always longed for but could never afford to buy. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she opened the box." [Note: I still use some of that cutlery set today!]

My Mother: "Ouma used to tell the story about when she urgently needed to get from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg [a distance of some four hundred kilometres, roughly 250 miles] As usual, your Granddad wasn’t quite, er, sober. Isaac was only nine years old, but he told his mother he’d make a plan. So he tied blocks of wood to the pedals of the car so his feet could reach them. He sat on a box so that he could see over the steering wheel...and many nerve wracking hours later they arrived in Jo’burg: his Mom somewhat shaken - not stirred! - and miraculously still alive."
My Sister: "I remember when Dad played bowls at the Leeukop Prison Club. He’d come home every Monday with his car washed and brilliantly polished by one of the prisoners.

‘What did he do to end up in jail, Dad?’ I asked, ever curious.

‘Ona,’ he said, ‘it’s not respectful to ask a man what crime he committed. It might make him feel small. Besides,’ Dad added, ‘I looked into his eyes.'


Dad shrugged. 'And he seemed a decent fellow.’

They struck up an unlikely friendship. Every Monday Dad would buy a carton of cigarettes on the way to bowls and, in return, he’d accept from the prisoner a bunch of roses to take home to Mom (Uh, these roses were “borrowed” from the prison warden’s garden!)"

Listening to these stories has made me remember why my Dad is my hero. He is old now, and frail, but he hasn’t changed a bit. Even though his lungs are riddled with the miner's disease asbestosis, his spirit is as mischievous, and as indomitable, as it ever was. But that's a whole new story...!

With thanks to Moonrat for reminding me that sometimes it's good to just sit and listen.

Saturday 29 November 2008

What is Creativity? Part Three: Creativity as Preparation

So far, we’ve come to realise that creativity harnesses an innate trait with learned technical skills. To achieve the best union of these two, a writer also needs to be prepared. How can a writer be published if he[1] doesn’t buy a ticket in the lottery of publishing?

Pasteur’s famous dictum “Chance favours the prepared mind”[2] was aimed more specifically at scientific creativity. But in terms of creativity as a combination of learned technique and the awakening of an innate trait, it could equally apply to artistic creativity.

There is no guarantee to creativity. Although, in writing a novel, one often experiences a “Eureka!” moment, these moments do not come from nowhere. Finding exactly the right word that changes a sentence from bland to brilliant comes from mastering the necessary writing skills and uniting them with the unconscious creative intuition. This increases the probability that the mind can original and creative by preparing it to be so.

And the mind that has been actively prepared to be creative has a greater chance of producing a novel that is original, valuable and needed.

Original in terms of a novel is not necessarily that which has never been done before. This type of originality refers more to the expression of the author’s unique ‘voice’, although it also encompasses an unusual hook or premise for the novel.

A valuable novel is one that adds a new dimension to the world. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are valuable in that they approached the generic themes of, inter alia, adolescence, death and the battle between good and evil in an original way. Rowling’s work has received both critical acclaim and commercial success: the ultimate value for any novel.

For a novel to be needed it must fill a gap in the collective psyche. The heated debates that raged around Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code are an indication of just how much the novel tapped into the collective angst about religion and brought to the surface of the collective psyche deeply buried issues surrounding organized religion.

Successful novels such as the Harry Potter series and The Da Vinci Code arise from a combination of conscious skill, creative intuition and a great deal of preparation. But there is still one final key to fully understanding just what creativity is: inspiration.

Continued in the next blog post.

[1] For ease of reading, the artist is referred to in the male gender. This reference does, of course, mean either the male or female gender.
[2] Harnad, Stevan. Creativity: Method or Magic? Cognitive Sciences Centre Department of Psychology, University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton, SO17 1BJ UNITED KINGDOM.

Thursday 27 November 2008

What is Creativity? Part Two: Creativity as an Innate Trait

Yesterday I blogged about creativity as a learned skill. Yes, there are certain skills that can be learnt as one must learn the skills of any craft. But a student of creative writing, says John Gardner,[1] must learn to guard against the perception that technical skill is sufficient to write a good novel. There is more to writing any novel than the simple mechanics of writing.

In 1934, Dorothea Brande[2] identified creativity as having a dual function: “The unconscious must flow freely and richly, bringing on demand all the treasures of memory ... and the conscious mind must control, combine and discriminate between these materials.”

Although the skills of creativity can be learned by the conscious mind, there appears to be a preconscious knowledge, unique to each individual author, which is also required for creativity. It is from deep within this source that each author finds his [3] distinctive writing ‘voice’.

This preconscious knowledge or, as Professor Jacques Maritain[4] names it, creative intuition, is natural to mankind; it cannot be learned. Lying latent in the individual’s unconscious, and containing everything that is already given, creative intuition is an innate trait which will, when needed, emerge into the conscious mind in an imperceptible and imperative manner, compelling the personality to the creative act. An author creating a new novel will be ‘driven’ to write by some inner demand that he may not even be aware of.

Creative intuition is connected to the totality of the individual and, through the power of a learned technique, can be given direction during the creative process.[5] As an innate trait, this creative intuition is distinct from the Platonic Muse. Hidden in the domain of the individual’s unconscious mind, it is a combination of the knowledge we are born with [a priori]and the knowledge we gain through our experiences[a posteriori].[6]

The product of this preconscious activity is not the need for mere self-expression without artistic form; it presents the drive to a logical formulation and representation of the sentient, responsive life that is the artist’s vision of reality. The creative writer wants to shape and craft his idea into a good story.

The artist, in the process of creating, must objectively draw on his “inner material”, innate in his being and, using learned technical skill, transmute it into a work of art.[7] He must also be a person who never forgets the sensory impressions which he has experienced and, in the process of making his creation, he must be able to recreate them with all the originality of his innate creativity.[8] John Keats, in a letter to Richard Woodhouse in 1818, says that the “poetical character” must “have no self; it must be every thing and nothing”[9] as it draws from all around it and becomes that which it experiences.

Creativity appears to require not only a strongly functioning ego (or conscious mind) that is capable of judgement, persistence and control (the ability to learn skills), but must also have ready access to the realm of the psyche (the unconscious mind with its latent and innate creative intuition as well as its absorbed sensory experiences).[10]

So, you ask, if an author is technically skilled and able to think creatively, his novels must be destined for publication, right? Wrong. There is still more to what creativity is, but that will be tomorrow’s blog.

[1] Gardner, John. 1983. On Becoming a Novelist. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. New York, United States of America Pp. 81.
[2] As quoted in Geraghty, Margret. 1995. The Novelist’s Guide. Piatkis Publishers Ltd. London, United Kingdom. 1997 Edition. Pp. 17.
[3] For ease of reading, the artist is referred to in the male gender. This reference does, of course, mean either the male or female gender.
[4]Maritain, Jacques. 1953. Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. Meridan Books, The World Publishing Company. Ohio, United States of America. 1966 Reprint.

[5] Op Cit, Maritain, Pp. 98-99.
[6] Ibid, Pp. 66-67.
[7] Storr, Anthony. 1972. The Dynamics of Creation. Penguin Books Ltd. Harmondsworth, United Kingdom. Pp. 182-184.
[8] Vernon, P.E. (Editor). 1970. Creativity. Penguin Books Ltd. Harmondsworth, United Kingdom. 1980 Reprint.“The making of a poem” Stephen Spender. Pp. 70.

[9] Barnard, John. 1973. John Keats: The Complete Poems. Penguin Classics. London, United Kingdom. 1988, Third Edition. Pp. 547-548.
[10] Op cit., Storr. Pp. 266.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

What is Creativity? Part One: Creativity as a Learned Skill

My view of creativity used to be synonymous with the Romantic image of a mad genius, hunched over his desk, waiting for that flash of Divine Inspiration which, when it descends, effortlessly results in a Mozartian symphony, a Wordsworthian ode or a Shakespearian play. Each work of art perfectly composed (in an instant!) and immortalised in the annals of humankind’s history.

When I started writing, I began to analyse this notion and found that the image didn’t sit comfortably in my business-trained mind. And how could it? My training as a business woman taught me that self-discipline, mental orderliness and logical pragmatism was the route to achievement.

If, therefore, I didn’t fit into this role of “mad genius” as creator, how could I learn to tell the stories that were inside me? Could I somehow train myself to be creative?

In seeking the answers to these questions, I needed to understand exactly what creativity is [1]. Is creativity:

a. a skill that can be learned
b. an innate personality trait
c. a process that can be perfected or

d. a flash of Divine Inspiration?

For the next few days, I will be sharing what I found on my blog. Let’s start with creativity as a learned skill.

The plethora of “How-To-Be-Creative” books loading the bookshop shelves suggests that creativity – or at least the creativity necessary to write a novel - is a learnable skill. Stephen King[2] in his memoir “On Writing” talks of an author’s “toolbox”, containing such “tools” as vocabulary and grammatical skills. He proceeds, like many authors of similar books, to advise the reader on the basic aspects of storytelling: technical skill in description, dialogue and character development, and he talks about his “re-write formula”.

King and many other authors of self-help books for writing describe a mechanical process – a methodology – of creativity that places the role of author as secondary to a pre-defined set of requirements for writing a novel that will generally satisfy a large and uniform book-buying public: the mass market.

Janice Radway[3] traces the beginning of this phenomenon to the early years of the nineteenth century. During these years, she states, the traditional view of writing a book and publishing it as a particular and individual process of creativity was challenged by an alternative view that saw the book-buying public reduced to a large, undifferentiated mass. Books become “commodities”, rather than “art”, and can be “manufactured” by relying on repetitive and popular formulas.

Genre literature – such a horror (Stephen King); detective (Ed McBain); westerns (Louis Lamour); adventure (Ian Fleming); and romance (Barbara Cartland) – do, arguably, rely on a formulaic approach in which the underlying ingredients of the novel don’t change. For example, adventure stories would feature a common theme of a lone hero saving the world, while romances would have a hero and heroine falling in love against the odds. Even if the actual form of the novel mutated into a newer, more contemporary style, this essential formula would still be core to each genre type.

jay Dixon[4] suggests that a formulaic approach to writing a novel is less important than the way in which an individual author creatively works within the boundaries of the formula of his or her category. Radway, too, credits the success of the mass market novel to the important differences perceived by the readers of category novels, despite their overtly formulaic structure. These differences within the formula are usually to do with an individual author’s “creative voice”.

However, the readers, Radway states, want certain elements to remain the same. They have certain expectations of their genre of choice, irrespective of its repetitious or formulaic quality. If these conventions – such as a happy ending - are not met, the readers become dissatisfied[5].

Creativity might appear to be no more than the ability to learn the correct method of writing a story. It is also far more than that.

Take the romance genre, for example. There is, as Dixon[6] admitted, a characteristic theme in the romances: love conquers all. But there are important differences. Each romance author has a distinct style, or 'voice'. A book can either have that spark that has the reader turning each page as fast as they can or a dullness that leaves the reader uninterested in even finishing the novel. And what one reader finds exciting may equate to total boredom in another reader, even if both books have been written with the utmost attention to technical perfection.

This implies that, even within the constraints of a creativity based on a learned methodology, there is an added factor needed to make one novel more powerful than another. Learning the formula, or kitting out a writer’s “toolbox”, is not all there is to creativity. It’s an admittedly important part of the craft of becoming a writer, but it is not the only factor in becoming a published author.

Today I looked at creativity as a skill that can be learned. Over the next few days I'll look at whether creativity is an innate personality trait or a process that can be perfected or
a flash of Divine Inspiration. I hope you'll join me!

[1] Harnad, Stevan. Creativity: Method or Magic? Cognitive Sciences Centre Department of Psychology, University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton, SO17 1BJ UNITED KINGDOM.
[2] King, Stephen. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir. Hodder and Stoughton. United Kingdom. Pp. 81–105.
[3] Radway, Janice A. 1984. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. University of North Carolina Press. United States of America. 1991 Edition. Pp. 21-24.
[4] Dixon, jay. 1999. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990’s. UCL Press Limited. London, United Kingdom.Pp. 2.
[5] Op cit., Radway. Pp. 49–65.
[6] Op cit., Dixon. Pp. 2.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

How to format your Email Query

A really useful blog post from agent Colleen Lindsay on how to format email queries

Monday 24 November 2008

Do Publishers Only Want Celebrity Stories?

I have to admit to feeling discouraged when I read about the book deals offered to Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin. Is the only way one can get published today to become a celebrity of sorts? Even a default celebrity like Joe the Plumber appears to have more chance of getting a book deal - and a speedy deal too! - than an unknown author.

But perhaps it's not all the publisher's fault. Publishers, editors and agents are, after all business people. So they will offer book deals to authors who write what the reading public buys. So, really, we - as readers as well as authors - have only ourselves to blame if we rush to buy these "celebrity books" rather than the books which tell well-written and imaginative stories.

A more positive spin on Joe the Plumber's book deal is what I call the Destiny Factor. Joe the Plumber was in the right place at the right time and good luck to him. Call it Fate. Karma. Divine Intervention. Damn Good Luck. Call it what I will, there is a point beyond which I, as a writer, cannot go. I can do everything right. I can be the most talented author on earth. My novel can be the next Big Thing. My voice can be unique and my prose enchanting. But I cannot control all of those x-factors making up the path to having the right story land on the right agent/ editor/ publisher's desk at the right time.

Does this mean that, instead of groaning and clutching my hair as I wrestle with finding just the right word, I should put down my pencils, switch off my laptop and give up writing as I wait for the Destiny Factor to pick me as a winner in the lottery of life? Absolutely not! Let me tell you about Koos van der Merwe...

Koos was a very good, but very poor, fellow. For years and years he went to church twice on a Sunday and once on a Wednesday. Eventually, he got tired of walking because he couldn't afford the petrol. So he decided to ask God for help.

'God,' he said, 'I know that I should be grateful for all I've got but...can't you help me a bit? Just a little bit?'

As Koos was about to stand up, he was shocked to hear a deep voice come from above. 'Koos,' the voice said. 'I am God. I have heard your prayers. You have been a good, faithful child of mine for all your life and so I will answer your prayer. Soon, you will win the Lottery and be rich beyond your wildest dreams.'

Koos was ecstatic! Week after week after week he would rush to the TV to watch as the lottery winners were announced. Nothing. Nada. Niks. This went on for months until, one day, he couldn't stand it any more. He went to church and said, 'God, I don't like to rush you because there must be a good reason for the delay...but when am I going to win the lottery like you promised?'

There was a clap of thunder, followed by a long-suffering sigh. 'Please, Koos,' God's voice boomed down. 'Just work with me on this. You can't win the lottery unless you go and buy a lottery ticket!'

Being a writer is much like being a lottery winner. I won't win unless I buy a ticket. The Destiny Factor is what drew Joe the Plumber's name out of the barrel of voters milling around Barack Obama. The Destiny Factor may pull my name out of the barrel of unknown authors whose manuscripts form the great heaps of slush piles in the publishing industry. If that happens I want to have "bought" my lottery ticket by having my manuscript ready and waiting.

Despite the fact that I'm not a celebrity, not even by default, I will continue to write and dream. And I will still tell the stories of my heart.

Sunday 23 November 2008


Left: Boabab Hill near Pafuri, Limpopo Province in South Africa, home of the Rain Queen.

From Saskatchewan, Canada to Benoni, South Africa (famous as the birthplace of Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron) the weather gods have gone mad! Hot when it should be cold. Cold when it should be hot. To use that classic quote: “Wazzup, weather gods?!” (Moonrat: 2008)

Here in South Africa the reason may lie in the fact that the four-hundred-year-old hereditary throne of the Rain Queen is empty. The Modjadji, then twenty-seven, died in 2005 leaving a young son and daughter. As this dynasty is matrilineal, only the Modjadji’s eldest daughter can inherit the throne. But, as this young girl's father is a commoner, she has yet to be accepted by the Royal councillors of the Balobedu tribe as the new Modjadji.

The Rain Queens have given blessings to South African leaders for centuries. The great warrior king of the Zulu tribe, Shaka, and world icon Nelson Mandela have been recipients of the Modjadji’s influence. Her special powers include mystical rain making abilities and the protection of her people in times of trouble. In a country where water is usually a scarce resource and where violence is too easy, the Rain Queen's gifts are held in high esteem.

But how safe are the sacred cycad forests and the giant boababs that surround Ga-Modjadji? With no Rain Queen currently on the throne, our local weather patterns have become warped and our shiny new political ideology has become corrupted.
The (weather) gods must be crazy.

Saturday 22 November 2008

WRITING TIPS: Why do I Blog?

Thanks to literary agent Janet Reid for her excellent links. Janet's latest link is this article on the value of blogging.

The greatest benefit I get from my blog is that the excitement and energy of writing on the blog is feeding my writing.

When I sit down to work on my novel I'm like one of those old cars. Do you remember those grand old ladies who had to be cranked and cranked before they could chug along at a steady pace? Well, I'm like that when I write: a sloooooow start and then off I chug. With blogging, by the time I get to work on my manuscript each day, my creative mind is smooth and oiled and ready to roll.

Of course blogging steals some of my writing time. But the benefits far outweigh the cost and my blog is now a permanent part of my writing process.

Thursday 20 November 2008

To be or not to be: Literary Hack or Elitist Snob?

On his blog literary agent Nathan Bransford started a lively discussion called You Tell Me: Literary Acclaim or Big Money?

The comments appeared to fall into three main categories. The majority of writers wanted (1)money or (2) acclaim and, to a lesser extent, (3) both money and acclaim.

What I found interesting about this discussion was how polarised many of the comments were, and how that polarisation expressed itself. Some writers favouring “big money” referred to wanting literary acclaim as some variation of the term “elitist snob”, while still others – when admitting to wanting the money – called themselves “hacks”.

This either/or attitude surprised me. As a writer, I fall into the category of wanting both. Why can’t we have acclaim and big money?

As Margaret Atwood says, the view that art without a purpose cannot be called art is an outdated intellectual mythology.[*] There is nothing wrong, she states, with writing books for entertaining a mass audience and making money at the same time rather than writing a Great Novel. However, Atwood continues, the inherent value of any novel, whether commercial or literary, lies in the realm of the author’s unique artistic “gift”.[**]

Atwood has made a brilliant point, which is relevant to Nathan’s original discussion. Do we as writers really have a choice about whether our work is commercial hackery or literary genius? And why should either one be seen as somehow “better” or “worse” than the other?

Let me answer the latter question first. Whether one is a writer with a great gift for commercial writing or a writer whose talent lies in classic prose that wins prestigious prizes, both branches of writing still require a special combination of personality traits: a love of words, discipline, courage, perseverance and all the other necessary "gifts" required by an author.

Why do we as writers feel obliged to revile that which we are not or defend that which we are? Call me naïve or idealistic, but why can’t both commercial and literary writers be universally honoured for their artistic commonalities rather than their artistic differences?

Successful commercial writing is HARD: I know. I have more unpublished romances in my bottom drawer than I can count. But literary writing is equally difficult: I know. I spent two years doing a Masters degree that comprised a literary novel and a theoretical interpretation of it.

My experience of both writing as a commercial writer and writing as a literary writer taught me two important lessons.

The first was that fiction writing – any kind of fiction writing – is a challenge. The specifics of the challenge may differ, but the road to being an author is long and difficult irrespective of whether one is a “literary hack” or an “elitist snob.”

The second lesson answers the first question I asked earlier: do we as writers really have a choice about whether our work is commercial hackery or literary genius? I’ve learnt that one does not get to choose which category ones writing voice falls into. A writer’s voice just is.

For more years than I can remember, I read romances and wanted to be a romance writer. It took me eight years and seven rejections (two of my romances went all the way to full revisions and rewrites with an editor at a large romance publisher) to realise that I do not have the voice for romance. It took me two years at my Masters degree to accept that I do not have a literary voice. I just have MY writing voice and it's different to everyone else's writing voice.

The legendary Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk were on opposing sides of South African politics. Through mutual respect of each other’s gifts and acceptance of each other’s differences, they turned South Africa into a rainbow nation, where different colours and cultures are - on the whole - no longer polarised. The marvellous Barack Obama, with his rainbow life and high ideals, has shown how important bridging superficial differences is in reaching for a dream.

Following these great examples, I would like to see writers – whether writing for the money or the fame – leap across the polarising divides that categorise writing as either commercial or literary, (or traditional or self-published.) Every writer – literary hack or elitist snob, traditionally or self-published, published or unpublished – deserves his or her fellow authors’ respect and kindness. 

For at heart, we walk the same path of hope. At heart, there is no difference between us. We are all reaching for the same dream; the dream of sharing our unique vision with the world through the stories we tell. We are neither hacks nor snobs. We are simply writers.

[* ] Atwood, Margaret. 2003. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Virago Press. United Kingdom. Pp. 59-60.
[**] Ibid, Pp. 60-61.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

WRITING TIPS: More on Revisions

Moonrat mentions in her blog that Toni Morrison angsts about revising seventeen words. Now I'm angsting. Does a major rewrite of basically everything BUT seventeen words mean the novel lies dead on the page?

In his memoir "On Writing"* Stephen King tells a story about the great Henry James that goes like this:

A friend came to visit Joyce one day and found the great author sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of absolute despair.
"James, what's wrong?" the friend asked. "Is it the work?"
Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn't it always?
"How many words did you get today?" the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): "Seven."
"Seven? But James...that's good, at least for you!"
"Yes," said Joyce, finally looking up. "I suppose it is...but I don't know what order they go in!"

In the same way that Toni Morrison considers changing seventeen words a catastrophic rewrite, the Henry James anecdote illustrates an important aspect of writing: every single word counts. The revision process can be a critical component in the journey from idea to draft to completed novel. And so I'll continue to angst as I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite this novel...

*King, Stephen. "On Writing". 2000. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0 340 76997 1. Page 117-118.

Monday 17 November 2008

Setting Writing Goals

Goals are good to have: they keep me focused, they keep me hungry.

However, what's been a hard psychological adjustment for me to make as I've worked at my writing is that any writing goals I set must be linked to my personal satisfaction. Goals that are based on external factors lead to frustration and self-doubt.

When I started writing I had one goal and one goal only: to get published (which, of course, in my mind led inexorably to goals 2 and 3: make a fortune and become an award-winning, famous author.) Evolving as a writer, goals 1, 2 and 3 shifted to a kind of "wish list for writers". My writing goals have become smaller, practical and more personal.

A list of my top three goals as a writer would now look like this:

1. Finish unfinished business. Continue to re-write my current manuscript until I know that any more work on it will be wrong for the ms. Don't ask me to tell you how I'll know when to stop working; I'll just go on the inner sense of "knowing".

2. Complete the first draft of the new novel I've been brooding on. Too many authors never write another book beyond their first. While I know I can write more than one complete manuscript (I have seven unpublished catagory romances under my belt) I need to prove to myself that I can write more than one novel in this voice and style. Why that's so important is because the novel I'm working on now is the first in a completely different genre (book club fiction). I've finally found my unique writing voice and it's vital that I continue to test it.

3. Write something creative everyday. A blog entry. A haiku. A paragraph. It is a discipline or a habit, but it keeps me focused on my goal of being a writer as well as keeping the creative juices running.

This re-shuffling of how I perceive my goals as a writer has lead to a new goal that is, to a certain degree, semi-reliant on external factors. I need to find an agent. I've come to realise that an agent is a must. I want to write. I don't want to deal with the sordid world when I can lose myself in a manuscript. I like to play nice and I'll happily pay any agent's fee when I know that agent has a gift I lack: objectivity about my book combined with the ability of a pit-bull (with or without lipstick) to fight for my book to the bitter end. In return, the agent will have my loyalty, my hard work, my commitment to professionalism and whatever else they need from me. Except my cats and my husband. Those I keep.

The top three items on my "Writer's Wish List" remain the same. But, in truth, I'd be happy with only item #1: becoming a Published Author. The others would be very nice to have, but would hold value only as an indication of how my stories touch the hearts of my readers.