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.

Thursday 13 November 2008

WRITING: The Rewrite Reggae (Day 29 to 36)

DAY 29 (06/11/08):

Frustrated by technical glitches (what have I formatted into my document that has disabled a MSWord function I’ve used for the last 3 weeks?) So used that as an excuse to procrastinate and skip writing.I did watch plenty of post-election TV. How were those speeches?!? McCain is a true warrior: he fought to the end and accepted defeat graciously (but thank heavens the White House is safe from Sarah Palin for the moment!) Obama is just Obama! Poor man, what a tough job he’ll have to meet all the world’s expectations! There is so much our South African politicians can learn from this election. The most important lesson is that democracy exists without violence and intimidation. This has been an edifying experience. I don’t know when I’ll see anything half as electrifying on TV again!Tomorrow I’ll go back to writing. I promise.

DAY 30 (07/11/08)

Still frustrated by technical glitches but found a way to circumvent them. Managed to do 8 pages today (and remember these are single spaced A4 pages, so that translates to about 4000 words!).The high daily total was possibly because I’m no longer distracted by Moonrat’s haiku contest. And what a thrill it was to see two of my haikus on her blog. How can I believe myself when I say that I’m not in the biz to be published, but to be the best writer I can be. Ha! How easy it is to deceive ourselves. The sight of my name under two little haikus was orgasmic.I hope I can stop looking at Moonrat’s blog post long enough to do some work today.

DAY 31 (08/11/08)

Today was my favourite kind of day. Wet and deliciously rainy, the view from my studio window was enough to inspire even the most recalcitrant of writers! Not everyone likes the rain as much as I do, though. Author Kate Walker would swop her rain for sunny skies any day! Theodora and Josephine (the cats I am owned by!) agree with her. But I’m happiest in the rain.The rain made the whole day bloom with success. My husband got a sneak preview at his new monthly column “Tax Bites” in the print edition of the financial paper Business Day and I got to meet and speak with the leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition Morgan Tsvangirai. Here’s a haiku (written for Moonrat’s haiku contest) dedicated to this leader who has done so much, and suffered so much, to help his people overthrow the tyrant Mugabe:The Bread Basket (subtitled: A Haiku for Zimbabwe)Eyes of poverty.Huge. Hungry. Hoping for help.A country can starve.All that and, despite Friday’s usual hectic schedule, I still managed a mildly successful 2 ½ pages of re-writing. I am content.

DAY 32 (09/11/08):

Up at 04h00 to save Theodora my cat from a sneak attack by Lancelot (the neighbour’s Persian cat that bullies poor Theodora). Too much adrenalin pumping through my body after running around the rainy-wet garden in my jammies so decided to do some work on my book. Four pages of re-writing before the day started. Just as well, because the rest of the day went belly-up.

DAY 33 (10/11/08):

A productive day in more than one area. As well as completing my Dad’s income tax return and doing too many household chores to list here, I also worked through four pages of Z’s section.
One thing I’m noticing about doing revision after such a long break from the book is how much more objective and ruthless I am when it comes to assessing my own writing. There are words, sentences and paragraphs that I was previously very attached to that I’m having no compunction slicing out of the text now. Example: “...while I, I am shredded,” says Z. When I wrote it, I thought it was the most beautiful phrase ever written. Now, it's contrived, pretentious and simply makes no sense in the context of the paragraph. I’m also seeing gaps and leaps of logic that need to be fleshed out.
This leads to...Rewrite Reggae Rule Number 4: Be objective when revising. Be ruthless.
DAY 34 (11/11/08):
Nearly 7 pages completed today. I enjoyed writing this section the first time and I’m enjoying it now. What I find interesting, though, is that this time around Z’s section requires more work then the previous two sections. I wonder if this is because I relaxed into writing Z and just let the words flow, where with L & J, I struggled and angsted over each sentence. This rewrite reggae is an excellent learning curve. Now I’m not surprised at the emphasis that the book industry professionals place on revisions and rewrites.
Still pouring with rain. I LOVE the rain but am starting to feel like a duck.
Quack. Quack.
DAY 35 (12/11/08):
Still raining. Still rewriting. Need I say more?
Today's Helpful Hint "Quickly write your first draft yet understand it's only a starting point and that it isn't ready for submission" is appropriate, what with all the talk of my on-line critique group's next BIAMer (Book-in-a-month), planned for January 2009. By the time that starts on 19/01/09 I want to have put this ms to bed and be ready to just sit and write the new story I've been brooding on. I'm determined to use this BIAMer properly: no inner critic yelling at me; no internal editor picking at my grammar and slowing my writing down! I just want to unleash the muse and let her fly...but before I can do that I have to finish the revisions of the current ms.
And to do that I may need to remind myself of Rewrite Reggae Rule Number 3 (Avoid procrastination) and Rewrite Reggae Rule Number 2 (Focus. Focus. Focus.)
DAY 36 (13/11/08):
Phase 1 of the Rewrite Reggae is complete. My total word count is up by 2000 words. Is this a good thing or not? I suppose it depends on the quality of the new writing. I’m taking a four day break from the ms until after the weekend; then I’ll begin Phase 2 of the rewrite: reintegrating the different sections into one unit and then checking the structure of the story as a whole.
I'll use these four days to get back to reading that excellent, but dense, text “7 Basic Plots” which, if I ever finish it, I'll review here.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

WRITING: The Rewrite Reggae (Day 25 to 28)

DAY 25 (02/11/08):

8 pages on Day 25 . 8 pages of excruciating, agonising rewriting. Is it normal to HATE the ms at a certain point of the re-write? I disliked J’s section when I wrote the first draft – she’s just not a character I can relate to – and I now passionately hate her and anything to do with her because I find her boring and, I fear, a cardboard character. The quicker I get through this hump of rewriting the better.

DAY 26 (03/11/08):

4 miserable pages on Day 26 . Josephine (left) who, as always assists me at the computer, expresses my sentiments exactly. Am I ever going to reach the end of this section?

DAY 27 (04/11/08):

Today’s a CHOCOLATE day. After struggling through 5 ¼ pages I reached the end of J’s section. Double up the chocolate! Also managed to collate the J & L sections, and did some grammar work. Now I can start on Z’s section and as she’s my favourite character I’m hoping to get through it fairly quickly so I can start on phase 2 (some serious grammar and construction work).

DAY28 (05/11/08):

Did a little bit of tweaking: word substitutions for those pernickety favourite words that creep in a dozen times a page.

Mostly, I watched the US elections. The best thing I’ve watched in years! Except possibly for the formation of the new political party in South Africa formed this past weekend.


Viva Democracy Viva!

Saturday 1 November 2008

WRITING: The Rewrite Reggae (Days 23 and 24)

My inner critic is not happy. I only did a combined total of a ¼ of a page on Thursday (Day 23) and Friday (Day 24).

I silenced that damn whiny voice by reminding it that sometimes, no matter how committed one is to achieving one's goals, an occasion arises that takes precedence.

On Friday 31st October 2008, my beloved Dad turned 80. As far back as I can remember, he’s been my hero (see photo left, my Dad and me, circa 1961. Photo right, Dad with his Midlands, Rhodesia provincial baseball team circa 1960). The re-write reggae beat was drowned out in all the celebrations and I find I don’t have a single regret.

Today (Day 25) is important though. I must get back on the dance floor, focus on the music and do as many pages of the re-write as I can.