Sunday 27 December 2009

The Winners!

In the presence of this blog's personal legal advisor and auditor, and amidst much excitement this morning, all the names of those who entered the Christmas Contest were written on pieces of paper.

Beric left, suitably dressed in makarapa and vuvuzela.

To ensure a free and unbiased draw, the paper slips were of equal size. These were then folded into (equal sized) squares and thrown into Theodora's (clean) feeding bowl.

The tension mounted as we hit an unexpected snag...Theodora the Cat, otherwise occupied (see above), was completely uninterested in performing her duties as assistant drawer!

Luckily, yours truly stepped courageously into the breach. The draw finally proceeded. As I held the bowl containing all the (equal sized) slips with the names of the entrants Beric, with due ceremony and caution, drew five names out of the bowl. First name out the bowl won first prize, second name out the bowl won second prize and so on until all five prizes were allocated. And we are now able to announce the five lucky winners of the uniqe prizes from South Africa:

1st Prize: (Ndebele hand beaded salad servers) Nancy J Parra
2nd Prize: (Ndeble hand beaded tray net) Patti Lacy3rd Prize: (Fluffy Leo Key ring) Lady Glamis
4th Prize: (Ndebele Doll Key Ring) Anita Laydon-Miller5th Prize: (Zulu beaded pen) Robyn Campbell

Congratulations to all our winners. I'll be contacting you soon to get your mailing details so I can send your prizes to you. And a BIG thank you to all who entered; you're all winners in my eyes!

Sunday 20 December 2009

Merry Christmas 2009!

Wherever you are in the world,
whatever your religion and beliefs,
I wish you all a blessed Christmas season,
filled with joy and peace:
in your worlds, in your families and in your hearts.

Image source: A Kenya Christmas

Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika:
God Bless Africa,
Guide her leaders,
Guard her children,
And give her peace.

Friday 11 December 2009

Win a unique prize from South Africa!

To celebrate Christmas and more than 150 posts on my blog I'm holding a contest.

There's three easy steps to enter your name in the draw and stand a chance to win one of five unique prizes from South Africa:

(1) Twitter about, or link a blogpost, to the competition (on a voluntary basis only - as long as you complete steps 2 & 3, you'll still be entered in the draw),

(2) Browse through the "Blog Topics" in the sidebar to the right, and

(3) List your favourite individual post (not topic) in the comments section below (otherwise your name won't be entered in the draw).

The winners will be drawn on 27th December 2009 and their names posted on this blog on 31st December 2009. Please note that by entering the competition you're agreeing to provide me with your postal address (which will be kept confidential) so that I can mail the winners their prize. I'll contact the winners privately after their names are drawn, and list links to their blogs when the competition results are announced on 31st December 2009.

The draw will be conducted by my husband Beric, assisted by Theodora the Cat (see left, sitting on my desk). All names in the comments section as at 08h00 27/12/2009, South African time, will be thrown into Theodora's (clean) food bowl and randomly selected by Beric.

The prizes are:

First Prize: Viva Afrika beaded salad servers (right). The ethnic beadwork is crafted by the women of the Ndebele tribe of Mpumalanga province. All the handmade beadwork is unique in design and colour, and the servers are silver-plated.

Second Prize: Hand beaded tray net made by the rural Zulu tribe in Kwa-Zulu Natal (left).

Third Prize: An adorable fluffy Leo, King of the Jungle, key ring (right). (Theodora the Cat insisted on including this prize!)

Fourth Prize: A beaded doll key-ring crafted by the Ndebele tribe (left).

Fifth Prize: A ball point pen in a beaded cover crafted by the Zulu tribe (left).
The next blog post will be on 31st December 2009 to announce the competition winners and provide a schedule of upcoming blog posts for 2010.
Remember to link the competition to your blog and leave your comment to be entered into the prize draw.

Saturday 28 November 2009

The Metaphor

What makes one story stand out from the rest?

Stories are about painting pictures with words. Our canvas is the blank page and beautiful language is our paint. A painter will mix primary colours and experiment with tones and texture to produce his masterpiece. For writers, one way to lift the quality of our work is to enrich it with figurative language.

Shakespeare memorised over 200 different figures of speech which he used in his poems and plays.(1) But don’t panic yet! You’ll be surprised at how easily you can use figurative language in your writing. After all, we use it all the time when we speak. How often have you said, “I’m so mad I could chew nails?” That’s a figure of speech. A hyperbole to be exact: a figure of speech that deliberately exaggerates to emphasise a specific effect (in this case, the emotion of anger).

There are two main categories of figurative language(2): tropes and schemes.

A scheme(3) is when a writer changes the ordinary arrangement or structure of the words to create a special effect. A common example of a scheme is the climax, which arranges words in an order of increasing importance.

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three;
but the greatest of these is charity.”
1 Corinthians 13:13

For a list of the different schemes click here.

The second category of figurative language is a trope(4) . This differs from a scheme in that the writer brings about a conspicuous change in the literal, or standard, meaning of a word or phrase. Under this category we find the simile (as Robert Burns would say, “O my love is like a red, red rose”)(5), the oxymoron (as Milton would say “Yet from those flames/No light, but rather darkness visible”)(6) and the metaphor.

For more tropes, click here, because today we’re going to concentrate on the metaphor.

A metaphor is when a writer transfers a quality or attribute from one thing or idea to another in such a way as to imply some resemblance between the two things or ideas:

Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.(7)

In each metaphor, there is a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the subject that the metaphor is applied to (“life”) and the vehicle is the metaphorical term itself (“a walking shadow”; “a poor player”).

Some ancient metaphors have become so much part of every-day language usage, they’re called dead metaphors(8). How often have you heard someone say, “I’ve had a full life”? Here the quality of a container is transferred onto the concept of life. But where did the metaphor originate? Because it's been around for so long, it’s hard to trace its roots and is thus considered dead.

An inactive metaphor is a metaphor that is another well-used part of language, but its origin and metaphorical meaning are still identifiable. An active, or live, metaphor is one that is new to language and may not be immediately apparent. These are the metaphors we, as modern writers, invent. When inventing a new metaphor, be careful not to mix it up. Don’t start by calling something a rose, and end by calling it a bird.

Do you think you know all there is to know about the different types of metaphors? Not yet. Richard Nordquist identifies thirteen (yes, thirteen!) different types of metaphors. Click here to explore the difference between an absolute metaphor and a conventional metaphor, or between a mixed metaphor and a submerged metaphor. My favourite is the example Nordquist gives of a visual metaphor:






In this double metaphor e.e. cummings associates loneliness with the falling of a leaf, and also visualizes the experience by isolating letters as they fall down the page. Brilliant!

The e e cumings poem is just one special sample of showing(9) why figurative language is a vital tool that every writer should use and use well. When using figurative language, always remember that "less is more",(10) otherwise there's a possibility that our writing will move from colourful to flowery. And, instead of having a masterpiece, we'll have a cliche.______________________________________________
1. Figures of Speech by Richard Nordquist
A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams3. Schemes (linguistics)by Wikipedia
4. Tropes (linguistics) by Wikipedia

5. A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns
Paradise Lost Book 1 by John Milton
Macbeth, Act V, Scene V by William Shakespeare

9. Alliteration: a scheme, wherein the repetition of speech sounds in a sequence of nearby words produces a stylistic effect. Usually only applied to consonants such as the “s” sound in this phrase.
10. Oxymoron: apparent paradox achieved by the juxtaposition of words which seem to contradict one another.
A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams
The Critical Idiom: The Metaphor, Terence Hawkes
The Elements of Style, Strunk & White

Image Sources:

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Saturday 14 November 2009

Where am I?

The last few posts have been strictly business. Today I’m going to get personal and chat about where I am on my own writing journey. In addition to keeping to my blogging schedule (be sure to check the sidebar under "Coming Next"), I’m currently busy with three writing projects.

Project A:

This has been a long arduous process, beginning with registering for my Master's degree in November 2005, dancing through The Rewrite Reggae , and culminating in its current phase called The Query Quandary. The Double-Q has as its core the question: when is enough enough?

The rejections are pouring in, and not one of them has been more than a form letter. Does this mean my story is awful? Or does it mean I’ve simply targeted the wrong agents?

I’ve had two publishing professionals (one an editor, who earned my undying gratitude by comparing my revised novel to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”; one an MD of a publishing company) tell me I’m talented, so I suggest my story can’t be as bad as the 60 or so form rejections (with 15 replies still outstanding) imply.

The agents I targeted are those whom I felt would most likely “connect” with my story. Do I do more agent research? Or do I say enough is enough? If this novel was meant to be published, surely it would have happened by now? And, as nothing has happened beyond rejection after rejection, I believe it’s just not this story’s “time”. It may lie in a drawer forever, unwanted by others (but never unloved by me, its proud author). It may one day be dusted off, resubmitted and (gasp) published. But that time is not now. Enough is enough.

Buuut...there are two more possibilities before I finally, for the last time, definitely can say “enough is really enough”.

As I've only targeted agents, I am turning my gaze towards approaching publishers directly. There are four independent (and reputable) publishing housing which offer a glimmer of hope. One in the USA; two in the UK and one here in South Africa. I’ve sent a query off to the USA publisher. I just have to decide whether I wait for their response, or do I query the others while I wait?

The other option is self-publishing. While I admire authors who have enough confidence in their work to put up the money themselves, I'm unable to overcome my own prejudices (there, I’ve admitted it) about self-published novels. I have wrestled with these prejudices, but am quite unable to overcome them (or my fears) sufficiently to go ahead and self-publish.

When all other avenues have finally been closed to this sad, unwanted manuscript of mine, I would rather post it free on the internet. The risk here is plagiarism. When the time comes for me to make this decision I will weigh up that particular risk against the satisfaction of knowing at least one reader - out there in cyber space – may gain some enjoyment and entertainment from my novel. That, surely, is better than having it lie, lonely and unread, in the bottom of a drawer. What do you think?

Project B:

I swore off writing romances in 2004 after the second rejection of a romance that I’d rewritten to editorial revision requests. Never, I said, will I ever write another romance. The moral of this story is “never say never”. My crit partners (lovely ladies, one and all) have nagged me into entering the Harlequin Mills and Boon Modern/Presents 2009 competition. I tapped out the first chapter in four days, submitted my entry and have since been steadily writing away.

Set in Johannesburg, the New York of Africa, my hero is a sophisticated self-made mining magnate and my heroine the privileged, protected daughter of an old mining family. He thinks he’s too old for her. She thinks he only married her for her family’s connections. Can Nicolo overcome his jealousy and fear of losing her as he lost his mother at a young age? Will Desiree realise that Nicolo wouldn’t have cared if she’d come to him in rags? Can these two very different people learn to trust each other again? Only time will tell if Nicolo and Desiree will live happily ever after!

I am having such fun writing this story. And it’s an excellent training ground for my Muse to ready itself for …

Project C:
This is where my writing heart lies.

Different in tone and style to both project A and project B, project C also takes place in South Africa. My protagonist is a white, South African male who fought in the South African Border War in 1980/81. Often called South Africa’s Vietnam, the complex moral and political issues surrounding the Border War take little or no account of the ordinary man who – brought up on the warrior myth – fought in a war that history has condemned. These soldiers were winning the war on the battle fields, but were called to surrender when the political arena changed. What effect did this have on these brave men who only wanted to be heroes, but whom history has called the perpetrators of evil?

At the moment, I’m conducting war research. This includes a long reading list of historical books of the Border War, personal accounts of soldiers who fought there and some of the more recent novels from the South African genre “Grensliteratuur” (literally, “Border Literature”). With the help of an old school friend of my husband, Colonel Young of the SANDF, I’ve completed a questionnaire and have begun the process of sending that out to ex-Border soldiers. Plot and character ideas are coming thick and fast, and by the time I’ve finished my research (Target Date: 15 February 2010) I should be able to do my mind-map. And then it will be time to go back to basics and the ABC of writing (Apply Butt to Chair)!

Left: "At Thy Call We Did Not Falter" by Clive Holt. One of the research books I'm reading on the South African Border War, the title is a play on words from the English translation of the old national anthem "Die Stem". The original line reads "Ons sal antwoord op jou roepstem" ("At thy call we shall not falter"). This national anthem enjoyed equal status with the struggle hymn "N'kosi Sikelel i'Afrika" until 1997, when both were merged into a new, hybrid national anthem.

There is no doubt in my mind that this story will be politically incorrect. To the victors the spoils, and that includes writing history from a single perspective. But history – particularly South Africa's complex and often misunderstood history – should by no means be a single-faceted record. I hope that I can add some understanding, perhaps even some healing (one of the many important responsibilities of stories), to the personal sacrifices of the soldiers – white, black and san – who fought on the “wrong” side of the South African Border War.

And that, dear blog readers, is where I currently am in my writing journey. Where are you currently at in your personal writing journey?

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Evaluating your own work

Author and writing teacher Laraine Herring has posted an excellent hand-out that she gives to her advanced fiction students to help them evaluate their manuscripts. Click here to read it.

Sunday 1 November 2009

WRITING TIP: Examples of Types of Dialogue

In the comments section to my previous writing tip on DIALOGUE, some readers asked for examples of the different types of dialogue. Here they are, taken from the excellent book called “Writing Dialogue” by Tom Chiarella:

Directed Dialogue:

Excerpt from a conversation between a radio talk show host and a listener [Pg 23-26].

“Who’s next? Gil on the car phone. What’s shakin’, Gil?”
Dead air.
“Speak, Gil.”
“Is this…?”
“Go on.”
“You’re on the JOC.”
“Am I on?”
“Not for long, Gil, the way we’re going. This is supposed to be entertainment.”

As Chiarella points out, the radio show host is the active presence in the conversation. He directs the conversation to force the listener, Gil, into speaking.

Misdirected Dialogue:
Excerpt from three people in a restaurant [Pg 31-32].

1. I need a beer. Could I have a beer.
2. I saw Marnie today.
1. Beer, please.
3. Where did you see her?
1. You know. By the fire station.

3. No kidding.
1. Her hair has grown.
3. I would imagine. How do you know?
1. I’m not blind.
2. Are you eating?

The conversation meanders across several topics, with random comments being made by other speakers. This type of dialogue most closely resembles real conversation.

Interpolated Dialogue:
Excerpt from Anton Chekov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog” [Pg 27 – 29].

Already he was tormented by a strong desire to share his memories with someone. But, in his home it was impossible to talk of love, and he had no one to talk to outside;… And what was there to talk about? He hadn’t loved then, had he? Had there been anything beautiful, poetical, edifying or simply interesting in his relations with Anna Sergeyevna? …

One evening, coming out of the physician’s club with an official with whom he had been playing cards, he could not resist saying:
“If you only knew what a fascinating woman I became acquainted with at Yalta!”
The official got his sledge and was driving away, but turned suddenly and shouted:
“Dmitry Dmitrovich!”
“What is it?”
“You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit high.”

Those words, so commonplace, for some reason moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manner, what mugs! What stupid nights, what dull humdrum days! Frenzied gambling, gluttony, drunkenness, continual talk always about the same things! Futile pursuits and conversations always about the same topics take up the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life clipped and wingless, an absurd mess, and there is no escaping or getting away from it – just as though one were in a prison.

In this example, just as Dmitri is about to reveal the high passion in his heart, Chekov uses interpolated dialogue to create a moment of inner clarity. In the commonplace reality of the dialogue about an overripe fish dinner, Dmitri has an epiphany about the ordinariness of his life. In the narrative, Chekov strips Dmitri’s life to its dull essence and what remains unsaid is that this woman is merely his attempt to escape the boredom of a life he knows he cannot escape.

Modulated Dialogue:
Excerpt from a lunch between a young girl, her erstwhile boyfriend and his father [Pg 34-35].

“Holy smoke,” I said, to be polite. In truth, I thought that was a pretty good bargain. Suppose he botched a liposuction or misaligned an implant? If I were an insurance company I would not have insured [him] for any amount.

He went on to say that some fathers, himself and Ronald Reagan included had a lot at stake…“My heart aches for the President,” he said.

“Excuse me,” I said. I wanted seconds before they wheeled the roast beef away. It was already three o’clock, and the steamboat round was carved down the middle like a saddle. The waiter in charge of slicing meat was standing over by the aquarium with two other waiters. I waited politely by the meat, plate in hand, but they were engaged in an argument, and a partially melted seahorse made of ice stood between me and them. They didn’t notice me.

In this scene, dialogue is used to lead the reader into specific details in the restaurant, as observed by the protagonist, and helps create a setting that emphasises the father’s dialogue for the inflated egotism it is (the partially melted seahorse implies faded glory).

Each of these examples shows that, irrespective of the type used, expertly crafted dialogue can add an extra dimension to your story and your characters. Which dialogue type do you use most often in your writing?

Friday 30 October 2009


Paradoxically, in the art of writing, it’s the power of the spoken word that can make or break your novel. Properly crafted dialogue can be used to:

• convey background information about your characters
• control the pace of the story
• reveal the emotions of your characters
• tell the reader what is relevant to the current situation
• break up the narrative of story so that your reader does not get bored and
• help create conflict

But if you think writing good dialogue is a simple matter of a couple of quotation marks and a speech tag, think again.

There are four types of dialogue.

Directed Dialogue: where one character drives the conversation in a certain direction and is directly answered by another character. The author uses this type of dialogue to set up tensions and issues that will surface later. The movement of the dialogue is directly from character A to character B.

Misdirected Dialogue: the movement of the dialogue is random. It sounds more like a real conversation in that characters don’t answer direct questions, or the subject matter may change, or other characters may chip in with unrelated comments. Here the author is using the natural rhythms and cadences of the spoken word to create tension.

Interpolated Dialogue: narrative exposition interrupts the dialogue for the purpose of interpreting what is implicit. Interpolated dialogue thus gives the reader subtle insight into the character’s deepest motivations behind the simplest dialogue. Here, the dialogue moves the story into a deeper revelation of one particular character.

Modulated Dialogue: this dialogue becomes the springboard for other details. These details can be introduced in a key memory, or to complicate the present situation, or as a means of exploring the tensions more overtly. The movement can be from dialogue to speculation or observation or flashback. The emphasis will not be interpretation (as in interpolated dialogue) but must focus on seamlessly merging scene, setting, tension and background.

Effective dialogue should have a purpose. All dialogue must either further the plot or reveal something about the story or characters. But beware that you do not force the dialogue to suit your authorial purpose. The best dialogue appears perfectly natural. And that's because every syllable, every word, will have been reworked into a finely tuned rhythm that brings the characters in your novel to life.

You will find examples of the different types of dialogue in the next post

For an excellent work book on dialogue, consider "Writing Dialogue" by Tom Chiarella, which provided the research material for this article.

Monday 12 October 2009

BOOK REVIEW: “Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying your Authentic Voice” by Laraine Herring

If I had to describe this author’s approach to teaching writing in one word, that word would be “unique”. And fascinating. And unusual, practical and useful.

By combining oriental spiritual principles and western writing techniques, Laraine Herring has produced a writing book that finds the perfect balance between craft and creativity.

Perhaps because I do meditation (regularly) and yoga (desultorily), as I worked through this book, the meaning of my authentic voice became real for the first time. The author articulated all the difficulties I have with writer’s block (which some authors say don’t exist) and gave a sensible explanation for it: as writers, every time we write authentically, we brave the depths of our very souls [Pg 16]. Writer’s block is thus a fear-based pattern because, as we write, we don’t know what we’re going to find in our deepest psyche. Writer’s block is that discomfort arising when our writing takes us to places inside ourself that we’d rather avoid [Pg 154]. Too true!

Each of the three sections of the book deals with a critical part of writing. Part 1 describes the tools for growth; Part 2 explores the craft of writing and Part 3 shows us how we must let go our old work and move on to our next story if we are to progress as writers.

The chapters are short and easy to read. There are “Body Breaks” and “Touchstones” scattered at crucial intervals. The former are quick and simple yoga exercises, many of which can be done in the chair, and we are told how these exercises will benefit our writing process. The latter are writing exercises listed at the end of each chapter. But, as with everything in this book, these are not just ordinary writing exercises. They also challenge us to grow as both writers and as individuals.

If you hold onto the goal of publication as the hallmark of your success as a writer, you are giving away your power. [Pg 73]

The above quote is one of the many drops of wisdom the author offers her readers. She also guides us to various sources of writing: the earth, our ancestors and our body. Her advice to listen to voices of our ancestors particularly resonated with me for I, too, hear the call of the ancestral spirits crying down the ages.

Ms Herring’s successful blend of Western writing technique and Eastern philosophy is both innovative and appealing. I can’t help but feel that it has positively transformed both my approach to writing and my view of myself as a writer. This book is a gem well worth adding to your writer’s reference shelf.

If you will enjoy this writing book, you may find my writing tip “The Way of the Warrior” of interest.

Author Laraine Herring’s blog can be found by clicking here.

Buy “Writing Begins with the Breath” at Amazon or Shambhala

Wednesday 30 September 2009

WRITING TIP: In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 4)

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 1) we asked how could we, as authors, pursue excellence?

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 2) we explored how we pursue excellence in our writing by preparing the mind.

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 3) we began building towards excellence.

And, in today's post - the last in the series - we will learn how to realise excellence.


Consistency: Write with consciousness, not habitually. It’s important – particularly in the editing process - to be aware of how our writing habits affect the level of consistent excellence in our work. Inconsistent writing means that there are parts of our story that are less than excellent and we need to root out those parts and rewrite to a consistently high level.

Balance: The pursuit of excellence is not free of its own dangers. We can become so hooked on checking this word and on searching how to improve that paragraph, that we expect perfection before we dare let others see our work. Keeping a balanced view is essential or else we can use our search for excellence as an excuse to procrastinate. Strive for excellence, but always remember that there comes a point where, on our own, we can do no better than what lies before us on our page. There comes a time we need to accept that we’ve done the best we can for now. And that’s when we must send our work out into the world, to stand alone and face the test of the unknown reader.

Resilience: If our manuscript comes back to us with the dreaded word “Rejected” on it, we need to be able to bounce back and start again. And again. And again.

Life isn’t about how hard you can hit;

it’s about how hard you can be hit...and still get up.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone)
Team Spirit: In South Africa, we are sporting mad. Rugby, soccer, cricket. We love them all. Currently, our rugby team is riding high. Our Springbok captain, John Smit, having led the team through record-breaking international victories starting with the World Cup Championship in 2007, led his team to an unprecedented victory in the 2009 Tri-Nations competition. Two cups were up for grabs.

At the awards presentation, Smit went up to collect the lesser valued Freedom Cup. Then, unexpectedly, he called his vice-captain, the bearded giant Victor Matfield, up to the podium and indicated that he must have the honour of lifting the more coveted Tri-Nations trophy aloft. In doing so, Smit proved he is a leader of excellence: confident, yet humble, he leads by example and knows that the victory is not his alone to savour.

Every writer who pursues excellence in the writing craft must realise that, on the day our debut novel is birthed, the triumph is not ours alone. Ours may be the name on the cover but, surprisingly, writing is a team effort. In the same way that John Smit acknowledged the help of his team in winning the trophy, we should acknowledge that we need the help of crit partners, blog friends, agents, editors, marketers (and even the publisher's tea lady) to get our stories into the hands of our readers. All that can be truly ours in the writing process is the continued pursuit of personal excellence in our craft.

Without a doubt, technology has made our lives as writers easier. It also, however, tempts us into forgetting that every book, every word we write, demands the very best of what we can do.

When a flower blooms deep in a forest, its fragrance unnoticed, is it any less beautiful? So to our manuscripts. Even if we are the only ones who ever read our stories, remember this: the writer who constantly pursues personal excellence in every aspect of his writing craft is the writer who has the best chance of eventually being published. And he may even become the Ernest Hemingway of this generation.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

WRITING TIP: In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 3)

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 1) we asked how could we, as authors, pursue excellence?

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 2) we explored how we pursue excellence in our writing by preparing the mind.

There are still two steps needed before we can call ourselves excellent writers. We need to:

• Build towards excellence

Realise excellence

Today we will explore how we can build the foundations of excellent writing.


Goals: Set realistic writing goals, which allow you to produce the maximum result with the minimum of effort. Have a clear vision of your goal and focus on that. I have a photo of Margaret Atwood at a book signing. I cut out her face (sorry, Ms Atwood) and in its place I stuck a photo of my face. I look at that photo every night before I go to bed. It reminds me of my ultimate goals: to be both an excellent writer and a published author. Have the courage to hold to that vision of your goal even if others don’t see it.

Commitment: Excellence requires commitment. Whether we make a commitment to ourselves (write x-number of words a day) or to others (Mr Editor, you’ll have the revised manuscript next week), keep that commitment. Because if we don’t meet the commitments we make, how can we build writing excellence?

Expect much of yourself and little of others, thus you will be spared much vexation. (Chinese proverb)

The Challenges: Pay attention to details. Be persistent. Persevere. Never give up. Never. And don’t settle for lesser quality in your writing because you’re exhausted or have to go to work or you’re dispirited because (in the dank, dark cellars of your mind) you’re beginning to think you’ll never be published. Accept nothing less than excellence from yourself. All the time - every time.

Take Action: Strive for your personal best at all times. Cultivate the intention of doing better than you did last time. Strive for impeccable writing and, if later you find you made a mistake, or didn’t do your best, learn to accept that you win some, you lose some. Failure is not to be feared, but rather something to be embraced as just another experience. Move on to the next project. As a writer you always have another chance of achieving excellence, for the next sentence you write may be the best yet.

Any foundation must be sturdy and strong. The foundation of writing excellence is no different. Take the time to ensure your writing foundation is well-built and excellence will become an inherent characteristic of your writing.

Monday 28 September 2009

WRITING TIP: In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 2)

In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 1) we asked how could we, as authors, pursue excellence?

We pursue excellence in our writing by:

• Preparing the mind
Building towards excellence
Realising excellence

Today we will explore how to prepare our minds for excellence.


Self-examination: As authors, we need a strong ego to survive the rigorous journey towards publication. But, as far as our writing goes, we need to put those same egos aside. We must put the needs of the story and the reader above our ego desires. That means when an editor, a critic, or a reader tells us something we don’t want to hear, we need to develop the ability to examine our inner self, as well as our novel, objectively.

Perhaps the results of this self-examination will be that you disagree entirely with the critic. But unless that decision is based on a healthy self-belief rather than a distorted ego, the chances are you won’t be able to accept constructive criticism that can help improve your story’s excellence. The irony of a writer’s self-examination process is that we need strong egos to be able to transcend the emotions engendered by criticism, but we also need enough humility to accept and use any valid criticism.

Distraction Control: How many times are we distracted from our writing goals by Facebook, blogging, our work, our families, and even by life itself? We need to find ways to discipline our inquisitive writer’s mind so that its focus can be on the writing. There will always be outside distractions that have us cutting corners and hurrying through a set of revisions so that we can fetch the kids or finish that big work project.

Distraction control requires enough good old fashioned discipline to allow us to meet our personal writing goals despite the vagaries of life. Who knows when the next goal we strive to meet will be a deadline for a publisher? Part of excellence in writing is having the ability to meet goals and deadlines. No excuses, and no distractions, allowed.

Can you think of any other ways in which we, as writers, can prepare our minds for excellence? If you can, share them with us in the comments section and tomorrow we will look at how to build towards writing excellence.

Image Source

Tuesday 22 September 2009

WRITING TIP: In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 1)

Ernest Hemingway may have had to struggle through his revisions in laborious longhand, but today’s technology has many advantages for a writer.

With the plethora of technical tools available – from supersonic computers to software programmes that offer help with plotting and characterisation - it’s easier than ever before to write that novel we’ve always wanted to. But there is one insidious disadvantage of writing in a technologically advanced era. It is simply too easy to become a lazy writer rather than striving to be an excellent writer.

Two of the many causes behind a lack of excellence in writing today are:

• Comparative competitiveness
• A publish-at-any-cost attitude

Comparative competitiveness is a death-knell to personal excellence. We can become so hooked on comparing our own writing with that of others we forget the only worthwhile comparison is to what we have written before. Ask not: is this novel better than that published novel? Rather ask: is this novel better than my last one? How can I improve this page, this sentence, this one word?

Excellent writing makes a unique contribution to the world. It can be funny or tragic; be genre or literary fiction; offer light-hearted entertainment or profound wisdom, but it is unique. Any imitative writing is naturally going to suffer from a comparison to the original. If comparative competitiveness is striving to do better than others do, then excellence is striving to do better than we did before.

Writers who pursue excellence should pay close attention to what makes others successful writers or not. But we should still write our own stories with a sense of pride and passion that constantly drives us to improve on all we have written before. And it is only then that we will begin to exceed our own expectations of personal excellence.

"There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and, because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly... to keep the channel open." Martha Graham, dancer

Along the Eastern Bypass highway into Johannesburg, there was a recent billboard advertisement for the latest “Survivor” TV reality show. ‘Cheating isn’t allowed,’ it blared. ‘It’s positively encouraged.’ When did winning become more important than playing the game with honour and integrity and personal excellence? When did being published-at-any-cost become more important than writing the best story we know how to write?

As a driving motivation for writing, the dream of publishing fame and fortune is, per se, not a deterrent to excellence. But it can become a problem if one forgets to look on every book we write as a service we’re offering our readers.

We should write every story, not only because we want to be A Published Author, but also because we want to give our readers the best value for money that we can. Whatever the demographics of our targeted readers, we owe it to them to produce the best work we possibly can. Anything less is cheating. And, unless we constantly strive to improve the quality of our writing ‘service’, we are cheating ourselves as much as we are cheating our readers.

So, as authors, how do we pursue excellence? You can explore different ways of pursuing writing excellence by clicking on these links:

Prepare the mind
Build towards excellence
Realise excellence

Tuesday 15 September 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Storyteller by Ruth Sawyer

Although Ruth Sawyer’s quaint “The Way of the Storyteller” is more a book about verbal storytelling than it is about written storytelling, there is still much wisdom to be found in its pages.

Sawyer’s passion for stories shines through the pages and her rich experiences in interpreting the written word provide some useful guidance for authors. She explores the ancient roots of storytelling and shows how today’s stories are inseparable from the patterns of the past.

Sawyer talks of four invariables in story telling:

The Building of Background
The Power of the Creative Imagination
A Gift for Selection

Experience is what gives a story teller the ability to make the difficulties of her art seem simple; experience comes with writing and writing and writing until the techniques of the art are so ingrained they become invisible.

The building of background is what enriches a story; the opportunity to gather a wide and varied background lies anywhere one looks.

When an artist brings his creative imagination to bear on his material and – from something abstract, from something without form or meaning – transforms it into a real work of inspiration for others to enjoy, this then is the power of the creative imagination.

Sawyer talks of a storyteller knowing which stories to select before entertaining her listeners. There must be an acceptance that some stories are not yours to tell, but belong to another who can tell them better. This gift of selection, too, can apply to writers: what suits one writer’s voice may not suit another. And the gift lies in knowing which story suits your own writer’s voice.

Written in 1942, revised in 1962, what I found most poignant about Sawyer’s recounting of the art of storytelling was her concern that novels – stories told in written form – have become marketable commodities and, as such, have become commonplace. On completing this book one cannot help but wonder if the current woes besetting the publishing industry have their roots in the fact that, for both author and publisher, profit is now placed above the ancient art of storytelling. If the novel is good enough, it will naturally sell as many copies as any author or publisher could ever want.

The one thing I've taken away from this book is that - to be a true teller of stories worthy of all the story tellers who have come before us, from Homer to JK Rowling - the story itself is what matters most. What happens within its boundaries must be inevitable: every story must have an inner integrity and, to have a chance of being read and enjoyed many times over, it must leave the reader completely satisfied by a tale well-written.

Books are man’s rational protest against the irrational, man’s pitiful protest against the implacable, man’s ideal against the word’s real,… man’s revelation of the God within him…if the first Prometheus brought fire from heaven in a fennel-stalk, the last will take it back – in a book.”

John Cowper Powys “The Enjoyment of Literature” as quoted by Ruth Sawyer in "The Way of The Storyteller”

Thursday 27 August 2009

WRITING TIP: Use on-line time wisely

What can an author do to use his/her limited on-line time wisely?

He/she can adopt an on-line strategy based on three questions:

(a) Who do you want to connect with?
(b) What do you want your audience for ?
(c) Where is the best place to connect with them?

Before you commit any time to a social network in an effort to connect with an audience, first make sure the people you want to reach are there.

Click here for the full article by Eoin Purcell on the Writers and Artists website.

About Eoin: Eoin Purcell has worked as a commissioning editor for Mercier Press and Nonsuch Ireland. He contributes columns to The Bookseller magazine and writes a blog at

Thursday 13 August 2009

WRITING TIP: What is a Character Arc?

We're often told that the characters in our novels must grow and change. But how do we plan that growth when we're outlining our story? The easiest way is to design a character arc for each major character.

A basic character arc will look something like this:

1. Emotional Wound: Question: what has damaged the character? Answer: His father abandoned him as a child and he doesn't know how to love anyone.

2. Inner Goal: Question: What unconsciously motivates the hero? Answer: His inner need to be loved; the growth he must undergo through the story is that he must learn how to love someone else before he can believe that he is loved.

3. Character Flaw: Question: What stops the character from reaching his inner goal? Answer: He is unable to trust that someone else will love him enough to stay.

4. Turning Point: Question: What happens to make the hero begin to change? Answer: He meets a woman and falls in love.

5. Black Moment: Question: What makes him believe all is lost? Answer: He sees the woman kiss another man and climb into a car with him and thinks she is abandoning him.

6: Climax: Question: How does the hero take action based on his inner changes (refer point 4). Answer: He decides to ask her for an explanation, where before he would have never spoken to her again.

7. Resolution: Question: How is the conflict resolved in such a way that the character's inner changes have become permanent? Answer: He drives to her flat to speak to her about what he saw. She invites him in to meet her long-lost brother who is the man she was kissing. The hero - relieved that he had not just walked away - shakes the brother's hand and asks her to marry him. They live happily ever after.

For more complicated stories, the character arc becomes more complex. For example, in a tragedy the hero would not experience a "black moment", when everything seems lost but then turns out fine (because of his inner growth has changed his behaviour). Rather, he would experience a moment when everything seems as if it will turn out fine but, in the climax that follows, his fatal flaws (those that he has not been able to overcome) will bring about a tragic resolution.

Drawing up a character arc will help you create more compelling characters who grow and change as your story progresses along the twists and turns of your plot.

You can read more about character arcs here and here and here.

Thursday 6 August 2009


Oops. July has passed with nary a blogpost. I'll blame it on the exceptionally cold winter we've had which, as a warm-blooded South African, I've found intolerable. In fact, the cold filled me with hebetude*. But spring is busy springing if the bird activity and unfurling blossoms are anything to go by. Summer is on its way and hopefully normality will return to my life.

As this is supposed to be my writing blog, let's look at writing news. My husband's two books are well into production. His first publisher's deadline (the co-authored book on tax administration) is 31 August and, despite currently travelling around the country presenting a workshop, he's happy that he'll meet it. His own book (on taxpayer's rights in South Africa) is also jogging along nicely and that should be out early next year. So at least one writer in the family will soon have a book on the shelf.

My own writing has taken a back seat to the many family needs this year. Ah well. Que sera sera. I've had a few more rejections and have decided that I need to revamp my query letter and my synopsis. So, that - now life is warming up and settling down - is my immediate writing goal. Afterwards, it'll be time to leap into the abyss of the blank page and start the mindmap of the new novel which I wanted to begin way back in June. Rather late than never!

Blogging will, sadly, have to remain a fairly low priority, but I will try to be slightly more active than the past few months.

Happy writing all and I hope you've all had a great summer (the Northerner's) and a bearable winter (the Southerner's)!

* hebetude: new word for the day

Friday 26 June 2009

Farewell to a Faithful Friend - Josephina (1995 to 2009)

"A beating heart and an angel's soul, covered in fur." (Lexie Saige)
Some souls enrich our lives with their very presence. Josephina, (right) my furry companion for so many years, was one such being. After a long illness, yesterday she was set free to roam the heavens as she roamed my heart. She filled our lives with her little body and her big spirit and this blog post is a celebration of her time with us: a memorial of photos which speak more clearly than I can of the delightful character she was.

"This mouse is a TOY?"

(Below centre) "Aaaaah! Sweet relaxation!"

Helping Mommy (1) wrap a present (2) work on the computer (3) pack her suitcase

Curious Cat:

Sleeping in Secret (she thinks):

(Left) "Put me down Dad...or I'll bite!"

(Below Right:) "Mommy, I'm getting annoyed with you moving when I want to sleep in your arms!"

Tuesday 23 June 2009

SOCIAL: Glug, Glug, Glug

That's the sound of me drowning in life's current experiences. Just when one thinks it's safe to go back in the water (cue for Jaw's music), something else happens.

So, until further notice, I'm putting blogging on hold. Let's hope I survive the cold turkey withdrawal of my blogging addiction.

Saturday 30 May 2009

BOOK REVIEW : “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

When I read Ishiguro’s “Pale View of the Hills” for editor Moon Rat’s book club, I was so irritated by the gaps in the story that I missed the subtleties and swore I’d never read another book by this author. Luckily, Moon Rat’s February book club discussion raised the veil for me. I thought I’d give Ishiguro another try. And I’m very glad I did!

In “Never Let Me Go” Ishiguro is intense, intriguing and impeccable. From the deceptively child-like narrative style to the precise choice of a single word (donors don’t die, they “complete”), Ishiguro’s mastery is unquestionable. This novel was, quite simply, gripping.

On the surface, the story meanders through the memories of a young woman – Kathy H – who is on the brink of leaving one career for another. From being a “carer” she will soon become a “donor” and, through a series of ordinary reminiscences, a dark, sinister and compelling world is created.

This unsettling novel raises some vital questions about the nature of our world and our humanity. I’ll concentrate on two.

Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and the other “students” live in a protected and privileged environment. Yet it is clear from the start that their future is bleak and inevitable. In the same way that other “students”, who have been brought up in less privileged communities, are doomed to donate vital organs to save the “normals”, so too are the Hailsham graduates.

But, while the manner of dying for all clones is similarly predestined, it is very different to the “normals” for whom their lives are sacrificed. The “normals” have a better chance at living longer, more healthy lives, because of the “completions” of the donors and yet, despite this sacrifice, the students like Kathy and her friends are alienated from, and feared by, the “normals”. Because of their differences, because their existence is perceived as soley to serve the “normals”, their lives are seen as somehow less worthy.

What does this say about humanity and the way our current world can find no compassion, no understanding of those who are so very different to what has been decided is the "norm"? Or for a world in which animals - like humans, also sentient beings - are bred solely to feed/serve humans? To me, Ishiguro suggests a chilling answer: no matter how scientifically evolved we may be, we are still uncivilised enough to be capable of cruel and calculated behaviour towards other sentient beings, whether human or animal.

But are Kathy and her friends sentient beings? The great poignancy of the novel lies in the way in which, despite their regulated environment which estranged them from all that is considered normal, these children attempt to create their own sense of family and love and worth. Despite a cold and hostile world that would prefer them to be invisible, these children awkwardly struggle with relationships in all their aspects, which would suggest that they are capable of feeling and thus, like “normals”, have souls.

Would a clone have a soul? If we clone human beings, will we get two beings who are both physically and psychologically identical? Or will we get robot-like creatures who, lacking a soul, are human in everything but their capacity to love and be loved; unable to create art as “proof” of the existence of their souls?

The episode of Ruth’s search for her “possible” is the most obvious exploration of this issue, as is Tommy’s struggle to be “artistic” and his blind fury when he is mocked for not trying hard enough.

But, in fact, it is through his characterisations throughout the novel that Ishiguro explores the question of whether clones will have souls. For me, there was always something slightly off-kilter; slightly false and forced about the emotions and reactions of the Hailsham students and their fellows. The “veterans” at the Cottages took their cue on how to act as a couple “in love” from TV shows. There were the endless discussions at Hailsham on the relationships between the seniors and how they should or shouldn’t act. Throughout Kathy’s narration there was the sense of a calculated, ruthlessly controlled something that dominated her existence, almost as if she knew how she should be feeling, but couldn’t quite feel it in reality.

Even at the inevitable, tragic ending there is this hint of robotic distance from any real emotion. “The fantasy never got beyond that – I didn’t let it – and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control, I just walked a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be,” Kathy says.

But is this the reaction of an intelligent deeply emotional woman who, through environmental conditioning, has never really been allowed to get in touch with her deepest self, or is it the reaction of a woman who, while intellectually and rationally knowing how she should feel, can only act out emotions she does not, cannot, really feel?

This is but one example of the mastery Ishiguro displays in this novel. There are so many layers, and so many possible answers to the questions he raises, that “Never Let Me Go” is one of those stories that linger in the mind. This is a novel that has not yet let me go and probably won't, until the pages of my copy are shabby from constant reading and re-reading!

Friday 22 May 2009

WRITING TIPS: Seven Basic Plots

Seven is an important number.

In my blog post Writing: The Way of The Warrior I correlated the seven underlying principles of bushido with writing.

The number “seven” again takes on importance in Christopher Booker’s “The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories”.

Part One reviews the seven classical plot types. Here are the seven basic plots:

1. Overcoming the Monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
5. Comedy
6. Tragedy
7. Rebirth

In turn, each plot takes the Hero through five progressive stages:

1. The Call Stage
2. The Dream Stage
3. The Frustration Stage
4. The Nightmare Stage
5. The Resolution Stage

Booker’ s detail is precise and his insight into what makes a story work is invaluable, as are his many practical examples drawn from movies and novels. In this way, Booker brings a clear sense of what plot types work and why. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is serious about their writing.

I was interested to note that I have a tendency to favour “voyage and return” or “rebirth” plots. What do you think your favourite plot type is?

AWARD: A double joy!

Marty at Dark Star Discovery and Lady Glamis at The Innocent Flower both awarded me with this beautiful blog award:

Thank you, Marty and Michelle. I’m honoured to receive a blog award (in Latin too!) Here's the explanation that goes with it:

"These blogs invest and believe in proximity - nearness in space, time and relationships. They are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find, and be, friends. They are not interested in prizes or self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers! Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this clever-written text into the body of their award.”

I had such a hard time choosing 8 other bloggers to award it to that I decided this award is one I’m just going to enjoy by myself. :)

Know that all the blogs I follow (and that includes you…and you…and you…) enrich me in one or another way and, for that, I thank you!

Happy Blogging!