Author Corner – Shubnum Khan

Shubnum Khan is an author, freelance journalist, university lecturer and artist. In 2011 her first book, Onion Tears, was published by Penguin Books – a novel about three generations of Indian Muslim South African women. It is a tale of love, loss and life.

The manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Prize for African Writing and then published by Penguin Books. It was selected for the 2011 Exclusive Books Homebru Campaign, long-listed for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg’s Debut Fiction Prize.

Currently she lives by the sea in Durban, teaching Media Studies, freelancing articles, drawing cartoons, completing her second novel, Paper Flowers, and watching as many different series as possible.

1.       From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do? 

An incredible amount – the majority of the writing took one year but it took just over another year to edit the manuscript. There’s a saying that writing is rewriting. You can always make your writing more concise, sharper and stronger. I used to teach creative writing and it surprised me that so many people thought their first work was their best work. The editing changes the whole shape of a book – even the plot and character can change. So I’m not exactly sure how much editing I did, except that it felt like I was editing all the time, from beginning to finish and even after publication. I look at the text and think I could have changed more to make it better. It’s partly why I try not to look at my published book anymore. The thing is, unless you’re some kind of genius, there is always room for improvement and editing shows you that.

2.       What research do you do for your book? 

My first novel had to do with a community I am intimately familiar with – Indian Muslim women. I have 3 older sisters and my mother has 6 older sisters so I was already in a space that was rich with information – so technically content-wise all I had to do was observe my surroundings. In terms of my style and learning how to describe a story I read many different types of novels from Arundhati Roy‘s detailed God of Small Things to Cormac McCarthy‘s stark The Road. Learning about different forms of writing is a crucial but underemphasised part of research. For my second novel I’ve had to do research about Durban in the 1920s and that has been quite interesting because I’ve lived in Durban all my life but I’m only beginning to understand it now that I understand something of its past. I feel the same applies to people too.

3.       How many words do you write, on average, per day? 

When I was writing at my most productive I was averaging about 1 500 – 2000 words five days a week. Those moments come in dips and peaks though and it is always changing – at the moment it is very slow. My ideal would be about 2000 – 3000 words everyday but it really depends on many variable factors (which part of the story you’re in, the mood you’re in and so on).

4.       Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you? 

It’s a bit of both but the main thing is that I don’t have the details. I have a vague outline of beginning and end which grows every day in my head and as I write I fill in the details, so a lot of the time the character or plot can take me to places I never planned – but as long as I’m within my (vague) outline then I let the story take me where it wants to.

5.       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it? 

Well, the fact that I don’t plan my work so much does mean I get stuck often figuring out what should happen next – and this is why sometimes, I do think I need to plot my work out more. But that seems, for me, to go against the grain of what creativity is – although some types of writing with rich plots have to obviously be tightly planned to work. There are numerous problems faced when writing but my most current one is to just sit and be able to make the time for writing. Like most art – it takes a lot of time and effort to see real results and so a lot of the process of writing is about cultivating patience which is frustrating, but also one of the most rewarding parts of the writing process.

6.       What do you do when you have writer’s block? 

I watch a lot of series and have a good cry at the kitchen sink. Jokes. Well about the crying at the kitchen sink part, not the series. The important part of writing is to implement a system, so write at a certain time every day. Even if you have nothing to write, you must sit at your desk at the time. I found that as long as I did that, eventually I would write something – it was just about forming a habit and maintaining it.

7.       What advice can you give aspirant writers? 

I sometimes feel people expect too much too quickly and one of the worst things is the crippling disappointment that entering this field can leave you with. You have to be prepared to work hard – to put in a lot of work which means writing and rewriting, reading a lot, doing research, getting friends to read your work and comment and being able to deal with the criticism that will definitely come. If you can put in the work, real hard work, and believe in your ability then you can definitely succeed.

You can follow Shubnum’s tweets on Twitter @ShubnumKhan and click HERE to visit her website.

 

 

 

 

Author Corner – Rosemund J Handler

Rosemund J Handler lives in Cape Town. She climbs the mountains of her city every weekend and delights in exploring the vast open spaces of Southern Africa.  Us and Them, her fourth and latest novel, was published in 2012.  Madlands, her first novel, was published in 2006, followed by Katy’s Kid in 2007. Tsamma Season, published in 2009, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa region) in 2010.

 

 

 

1.       From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

I do a lot. I rethink quite often and I’ve been lucky enough to have a patient and nurturing editor in the wonderful Pam Thornley, who has watched me dig myself out of a few thorny patches over the years!  Editing takes up so much time.  Sometimes I’d love to just steam ahead and finish the damn thing, but that’s not how it works with me.  I’m constantly checking back and rewriting, and I’ve learned to accept that that is my process.

2.       What research do you do for your book?

I’ve written a fair amount about family relationships and mental illness, and the research this has demanded has been substantial and time-consuming, but invaluable.  I’ve learned an immense amount and I’ve found out that vast numbers of people, some celebrities, but many people you’d pass in the street without a second thought, struggle hugely with their imagined demons.

3.       How many words do you write, on average, per day?

It can vary from 200 to 1000 words.  On a good day a bit more.

4.       Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?

I have an idea and I usually let it take me with it.  My so-called outlines are notes all over the place, though lately I’ve tried to confine them to a single pad.  (A messy one.)

5.       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

I think being creative is not something you can force and it has to emerge in its own time to do its work.  As useful as a writing course can be, such as an MA in creative writing, it’s about having something you want very much to say and then the discipline to put in the long hours to write it.  All with absolutely no guarantee that anyone will want to read it, let alone publish it.  It’s a lonely business, writing; especially fiction.

6.       What do you do when you have writer’s block?

I don’t often have writer’s block, but on the other hand I have days when I’m unconvinced about my writing, when I have an overwhelming sense that I’m doing it wrong.  I usually take a break in the hope that this will enable new insights and a fresh perspective.  The natural world is a very significant resource for me.  Climbing a mountain is a good way to get rid of cobwebs.

7.       When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?

An outline of the story, I think, and the characters.  Why I wrote the manuscript, sometimes.  What I hoped to achieve with it.

8.       What advice can you give aspirant writers?

Being passionate about writing is one thing, discipline quite another.  The best advice I have for aspirant writers is to persevere, to make writing an indispensable part of your life.  Not to give up.  To be strong in the face of criticism and rejection: there will always be those who will shoot you down at the drop of a hat, but there are also people out there who will support and encourage you and, best of all, love what you write!

A writer’s credo:

‘Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you.’William Arthur Ward, college administrator, writer (1921-1994)

Click HERE to read Rosemund’s blog.

 

Author Corner – Emma van der Vliet

Emma van der VlietEmma van der Vliet was born in Grahamstown and spent most of her childhood there. After graduating from UCT and Rhodes, she accidentally spent ten years working in film production. She later returned to UCT, where she taught film and media, got her MA in creative writing, her PhD in Film and Media Studies, and produced several children. She lives in Observatory with her family and other animals.

Her first novel, Past Imperfect, was published by Penguin in 2007.  And earlier this year Emma’s second novel, Thirty Second World, was published.

Past Imperfect - Emma van der VlietThirty Second World Emma van der Vliet

1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

I hadn’t realised this until quite recently, but I actually work quite slowly, editing myself as I go along. This means that I take a really long time to write something, but it’s often more finished than a first draft written by someone who likes to throw it all out onto the page and then start to work with it from there. It may just be because I’m a lazy self-editor, but I think it’s also a question of one’s working style. I think things through in my head a lot before I actually get around to putting them down on the page, and once they’re down I’m not that keen on constant reworking.

2. What research do you do for your book?

Well it depends on the book. For Past Imperfect I researched Paris, French and the French (among other things), and for Thirty Second World I researched game capture and swingers’ clubs! It depends on where your story takes you. That’s one of the great joys of writing fiction – an excuse to “research” things you might otherwise never get to know about, and the excuse to call sitting nursing a cup of hot chocolate on a Parisian pavement “work”.

3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?

When I was in full flight with Thirty Second World I was aiming for 1000 a day. I tended to find that on days that I knew I wasn’t going to get much done – if there was a school outing or another work obligation, for example – and my day was going to be eaten up and bitty, I would rather look over other sections or write up notes from the little piles of scrappy paper on the backs of shopping lists or envelopes or restaurant serviettes. I need to get into the flow to be able to get any decent chunk of writing done, so if that wasn’t going to happen I did bits of “maintenance” instead.

4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?

I do a bit of both. For Past Imperfect I started with the second chapter, which was a kind of mini version of the book as a whole, a story within a story or what the French call a “mise en abyme”, because it was all about a homecoming and so was the whole novel itself. I then backtracked to the lead-up to that initial homecoming, and then let the characters lead me from there. With Thirty Second World, I had the skeleton of the film shoot itself – eventually I split the book into three sections, pre-production, production and post-production, after the phases of a film job – and the characters, starting with Beth and Alison, were already strongly present in my mind. Another of my favourite things about writing is when the characters come to life and take over, and I hear voices and conversations between them in my head. I think that’s the part I love the most – that (mostly benign) possession.

5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

Mostly it’s just finding the time to write. And my own lack of confidence. It can be an extremely lonesome task, and while I relish my time alone, I do sometimes start to question whether what I’m writing is any good and what on earth the point is of locking myself away and spending hours staring at a screen. It’s such an undertaking, and novels are so damn long!

6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?

Push through and keep writing if I possibly can, preferably on a section which is fairly “mechanical”. Or I get one of the zillion other things on my plate done. Or if I feel I deserve it I’ll go for a walk or phone a friend or read something for the pleasure of it, and to remind me of why I’m trying to write in the first place. Writing time, where there are enough hours in a row really to get into the flow, is so precious that writer’s block is not really an option!

7. When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?

For Past Imperfect I had the unheard of good fortune of having an extract from the novel “discovered” by a commissioning editor at Penguin who just happened to be reading the obscure literary journal I’d published the piece in. So she then approached me and asked whether I’d written anything else, and I could then produce the rest of the manuscript. With Thirty Second World, I approached Penguin, again, with a sort of descriptive “tagline” – the equivalent of what you see on a movie poster but a little less telegraphic! – and a brief story synopsis. But since they’d published my first one that made things a lot easier. I think the norm would be to provide a very brief story synopsis, perhaps an idea of what kind of target market the book would be aimed at, and a first chapter.

8. What advice can you give aspirant writers?

Firstly, I’d ask whether they were sure they wanted to write, and why. Not everyone is cut out for hours and hours of solitary work with little, if any, feedback. But if that doesn’t put them off, then congratulations and commiserations to them! They should go out and live life and observe other people living their lives, and try to put themselves into those people’s shoes. And take notes all the while. Eavesdropping is one of my favourite pass-times. Listen to people’s dialogues, think about what makes them tick. And just imagine.

Join Emma’s Facebook AUTHOR page – click HERE

 

Author Corner – Susan Newham-Blake

Susan Newham-Blake is a writer based in Cape Town. For the past fourteen years she has worked as a magazine journalist and editor, editing a number of customer magazines including the Clicks ClubCard magazine.

Susan has been published in a variety of women’s magazines including Marie Claire, Femina and Women’s Health. She has also been published in the anthology Just Keep Breathing (Jacana), a collection of short stories.

In 2013 Penguin Books published Susan’s first book, Making Finn.

Making FinnAbout Making Finn – Susan’s childhood dream of becoming a mother has not diminished with the revelation, alarming both to herself and her bewildered family, that she does, in fact, ‘bat for the other team’. Having made peace with her identity and having finally found a beloved partner, she is now faced with a daunting problem: with no penis around, how the hell do you make babies?

Time is of the essence: at 34 years old, Susan cannot afford to waste another moment. And so begins an unconventional journey to parenthood with some agonising decisions along the way. Should she accept help from a close and willing friend or go the anonymous sperm donor route? What are the legal and psychological implications of her options? How will her child be affected?

Told with disarming honesty, Making Finn is a warm, witty and moving first-person account of two women’s quest to create a family.

Click HERE to visit Susan Newham-Blake’s website.

1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

While I was writing Making Finn I would start the day by reading through what I’d written the day before and give it a quick polish before proceeding. After the manuscript was finished I went through the first draft again. I did not do a huge amount of editing, but did elaborate on certain elements I felt were a bit thin, or delete any repetition. Once I was done I gave the manuscript to a trusted acquaintance who also gave me pointers on how she experienced the book. For instance, she felt I hadn’t included enough description of a particular character. I incorporated some of her suggestions before sending it off to Penguin. There were no editing requests from Penguin.

2. What research did you do for your book?

Because Making Finn is largely a memoir there was not a whole lot of research to do. However, I did refer back to emails, documents I’d kept as well as to my personal diary to check facts and order of events. I did a bit of research on the medical aspects of the book – the process of the actual fertility treatment. I also had a clinic sister check that my medical information was accurate.

3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?

When I am in the writing phase of a book I set myself a goal of at least 500 words a day. I can write this amount of words in about an hour so the goal feels manageable. If I write more than this it’s a bonus. I do on occasion write up to 2 000 words in a day but this is not usual for me given the time constraints of my full-time job and young children. I would say that on average I write about 5 000 words a week.

4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and then compile the chapters, or do you just start writing from Chapter 1 and let the story lead you?

I usually start writing from the beginning and let the story lead me. While I write, I make notes on characters, which I’ll refer to later on in the book to make sure I’ve got the character’s details correct. I also get loads of ideas on plot development, so I’ll make a note of this too. Sometimes I change my mind about including the idea but at least I’ve kept it. Once the story is written down I go back and I might need to change details depending on how the story has ultimately turned out.

5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

My two biggest challenges to writing are time and self-doubt. I am not able to financially afford to make writing my career (it is unfortunately not well paid) so I really battle to create the time to sit down and write. But I also know that when I am really motivated to write or believe in what I’m writing I find it easier to create the time. So it’s got a lot to do with overcoming self-doubt. While writing Making Finn, I often had the thought: Who the hell would want to read this? And of course this is not conducive to keep writing. So I told myself I was writing the book for my sons which gave me a diversion from the worry that nobody would want to read it.

6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?

When I have writer’s block I find myself on social media platforms following Twitter and Facebook like my life depends on it. Sometimes I write blogs. This makes me feel like I am at least writing, which helps. I’m like those exercise junkies. If I don’t write anything for a while I start feeling grumpy and miserable. But ultimately I really believe that you have to just keep writing. Whether you think what you are writing is good or not, it’s in the discipline of consistently putting words onto a page that keeps the story going to the end.

7. When you submitted your manuscript to a publisher, what information did you include in your proposal?

When Making Finn was finally finished I emailed a one-page proposal letter, a three-page synopsis and the first three chapters of the book to a publisher. I had gotten tips on how to write these online. Penguin replied quite quickly requesting to see the full manuscript.

8. What advice can you give aspirant writers?

In Stephen King‘s book, On Writing, he says: “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.” The trick is to quieten the doubt and keep writing. Write, not to get published, but because it’s a thrill – you love it and it makes you happier than doing any other kind of work. I also write quickly and get that first draft down before I have time to give into the doubt.

Click HERE to like Susan on Facebook, and you can follow her on Twitter – @bbugged

 

Author Corner – Paige Nick

Paige Nick is an author, a Sunday Times columnist and an advertising copywriter. Her debut novel, A Million Miles From Normal, was released in April 2010, and in May 2011 her second book, This Way Up, was published (both by Penguin Books).

In July 2013, Paige’s choose-your-own-adventure erotic novel, A Girl Walks into a Bar, will be released under the pseudonym Helena S Paige.  This book is co-written with Helen Moffett and Sarah Lotz.

1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

I do zero editing when I’m writing the first draft of anything. In fact I try to read back as little as possible. There’s that thing where you hear your own recorded voice played back to you, and it sounds awful and you hate it. Well I have the same feeling when I read back something I’ve just written. The trick with a first draft is to get the story out of my head and down onto the page as fast as possible, and then I spend ages crafting and rewriting and editing at a later stage.

2. What research do you do for your books?

That depends entirely on the book. Some bits will need tons of research, and others will pop straight out of my head fully formed. I recently wrote a scene set in a photographic dark room, and since I’d never actually developed photographs myself, I had to do a ton of research on the process to get it right and make it sound authentic. But then the next scene was set in a bar, and it turns out I have already done a fair amount of research on that.

3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?

Every day is different. It’s incredibly hard to put a number to it. It also depends where I’m at in the process. If I’m in a manic writing phase of a manuscript, I’ll get down anything from 2 000 words to an absolute maximum of 10 000 on a monstrous, killer day. But then my brain will be porridge after that. If however I’m in an editing phase, then it’s less about the writing of words and more about the unpicking and reknitting of previously written words.

4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?

I’m not one of those writers who can let the story and characters lead me. I like to have a plot and an outline very well prepared before I start writing the actual draft.

5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

The naming of body parts and actions in sex scenes is a continual challenge. One of the authors I’m writing this new series of Choose-your-own-adventure erotic novels with, suggested we need a sexual Thesaurus. It’s a great idea. There are only so many things you can call the groin area, without sounding uncouth, pornographic, repetitive, or just plain silly.

6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?

If I’m struggling with a tricky plot point, or a line of dialogue that doesn’t want to come, a walk or a run will usually knock it out of my brain. Or watching mindless TV, baking, or having a sleep often works for me too. Either that or I simply keep going and write absolute crap until the good stuff comes.

7. What advice can you give aspirant writers?

It’s the most boring advice in the world. But in my experience, all you can do is keep writing every day. Write books and blog posts, and doodles and scrawls and pitches and ideas and nonsense and poetry and prose.

And then in between all that, read.

Click HERE to visit Paige’s website.

 

 

 

Author Corner – Casey B Dolan

The autobiography of Casey B Dolan – actress, television presenter, entertainer, DJ, entrepreneur and singer – is freshly unpacked on the shelves of all good book stores.  Titled An Appetitie for Peas, this no-holds-barred autobiography unveils just what it is like to be that woman, the one on every magazine cover.  It is a quirky, honest appraisal of life on the other side of the lens and why being the woman nearly every man wants doesn’t necessarily get you what you want, especially when it comes to relationships.

“I have done some really brave things in my life. I, too, have done some really stupid ones. The line between these is precariously thin and I have far too often crossed it . . .”

1.       From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

A whole bunch. Every time I review the text I change something. In fact, I deleted the first 60 pages of my book and started again after my editor told me it was rocky…only because I agreed! I eventually, after say five full length reads, stop looking at it and hand it over to the editor for good: like a bad relationship; you have to know when to leave it alone and move on!

2.       What research did you do for your book?

Well in my case, being an autobiography I didn’t have to do much research at all. The beauty about writing about your own experiences when you are still fairly young is that you recall most of what you need and they are entirely phenomenological.

3.       How many words do you write, on average, per day?

I have a four-year-old son. Need I say more?! Writing is erratic and the process is very frustrating, I aim for an hour and half in the morning and the same at night, but it’s a bit like ‘knit-one-pearl-one’, some days I manage more some less, but if I can get say between two and three pages down in the morning and the same at night I feel satisfied. I would say I average 2000 – 3000 words.

4.       Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and then compile the chapters, or do you just start writing from Chapter 1 and let the story lead you?

For my autobiography I just wrote what I felt was pertinent and interesting and followed a thread. So in this case I allowed the story to lead me. I am currently 70 000 words into writing my first novel and it’s a mind-blowing process – what I term a boxing match every time I start to type. Just when I think I have a plan the story heads in a different direction and I feel like I am playing an exciting and frustrating game of catch up without any rules. I love it but I certainly wouldn’t call it a process, I would call it a game of chase.

5.       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

There is no aspect of the writing process that I don’t find challenging. But I am equally compelled to pen my thoughts, ideas and stories. The discipline of writing when you would much rather put your feet up and read someone else’s brilliant work, the desperate feeling that you could never be the creator of such brilliance and the knowledge that you will never stop trying…this is all very challenging. But as for ideas and the relief of giving life to an idea that may touch other people in some way, well that’s what creativity is all about and it’s entirely addictive to say the least. I have always loved challenge.

6.       What do you do when you have writer’s block?

I go for a long walk in the forest, clear my mind and go home and write. Write, write, write…it’s the only way to unblock a block.

7.       When you submitted your manuscript to a publisher, what information did you include in your proposal?

A brief synopsis, why I felt it needed to be published i.e. What made it different, appealing and my details.

8.       What advice can you give aspirant writers?

Don’t judge what you write, there are many, many people to do that for you, your judgement develops internal fear and fear is the antithesis of creativity. Write, everyone has a story, writing is thinking put in focus and a gateway to your wildest dreams.

Click HERE to visit Casey’s website.

 

 

Author Corner – Alistair Morgan

Photograph of writer Alistair MorganAlistair Morgan was born in Johannesburg and he currently lives and works in Cape Town. He has previously published two short stories: Icebergs and Departure and both appeared in the Paris Review – issues 183 (Winter, 2007) and 185 (Summer, 2008) respectively.  In 2009 he also became the first non-American to win the Plimpton Prize.

Sleeper’s Wake was Alistair’s debut novel, and the much acclaimed film adaptation of this book screened in South African cinemas, in March 2013.  His second novel, The Land Within, was published in 2012.

1.       From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do? 

For me the editing process never stops. Whenever I see published copies of my books I open them up and find things I’d like to change. It’s a living hell. But I do tend to do a lot of structural changes during the early drafts. The later drafts are more about the finessing and polishing of sentences, words and punctuation.

2.       What research do you do for your book? 

It really depends on the book. Sometimes if you’re struggling to get a book going it’s simply because you don’t know enough about your subject or characters. As soon as you have a sufficient understanding of the subject matter you’ll find the words come more easily. Once I’ve finished a draft I will ask someone who knows a lot about a particular subject to check for any errors or inaccuracies.

3.       How many words do you write, on average, per day? 

I never go by word count. To me it’s pointless to write a thousand words a day if those words aren’t worth keeping. So sometimes it’s fifty and sometimes it’s five hundred. But never more. Philip Roth said that fluency is usually a sign that something is wrong. I prefer feeling that something is wrong because that way I’m more cautious about the words I put down. Basically, if it’s not hurting you’re not doing it right.

4.       Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you? 

I’m still trying to work that out myself. It might be a bit of both. You think you have an idea mapped out, but then you start writing and you realise that what you’re writing feels better than what you had mapped out, so you end up just trusting the process and working it out as you go along. But it does obviously help to have a vague aim or goal, especially with regards to themes. The important thing is to have a sense of a character or situation that really grabs you, that doesn’t go away with time. Then you know you have something that will draw you to your desk every day for the next two or three years.

5.       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it? 

Starting something new is really difficult. And you always forget how difficult it is. It feels like you’ve never done it before. It usually takes me three or four months to write the first chapter, even if it’s only a few pages long. It speeds up a little after that, thank God, but it’s so important to get the tone and balance of things working right from the start. The only way to overcome it is to tell yourself that it’s always like this and that with perseverance and patience things will get better.

6.       What do you do when you have writer’s block? 

I weep. And then I try reading something by a favourite author that I know will inspire me. Or else I read a little more about my subject or just think things through carefully. But it’s actually a good thing to get blocked from time to time. It’s your mind’s way of telling you to stop and have an objective look at what you’re doing. The best cure is a long walk followed by a bottle of red wine.

7.       When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal? 

For my first novel I sent my agent a synopsis with the manuscript. But the second time round he said he didn’t need a synopsis, which was great because they’re harder to write than novels. So I think it depends on your agent or publisher. They will tell you what they need, or else their website will often have information on their submission requirements.

8.       What advice can you give aspirant writers? 

Don’t have children.

 

 

Author Corner – Toni Strasburg

Toni Strasburg was born in South Africa, the daughter of Rusty Bernstein (Rivonia trialist) and Hilda Bernstein (writer, artists and activist), and was exiled to Britain in 1965. She studied at London University and worked in various jobs before becoming a filmmaker. She has documented apartheid-era wars in southern Africa, concentrating largely on the effects on women and children. Her award-winning films include Chain of Tears and its sequel, Chain of Hope, The Other Bomb, An Act of Faith and A South African Love Story.

Her memoir, Fractured Lives, has just been released (published by Modjaji Books) – it tells of Toni’s experiences as a documentary filmmaker covering the wars in southern Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. Interweaving autobiography, history and social commentary with frontline reporting, the memoir offers a personal female perspective on a traditionally male subject.

Says ANTJIE KROG, author of Begging to be Black and Country of My Skull on Fractured Lives: ‘An eye opener! Not much is known about what transpired on the ground in our neighbouring countries during apartheid. This memoir tears into your comfort zone by means of the crackling story behind fluent documentaries on these places and times. Some of the details make your hair stand on end!’

1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

I started by writing some of the chapters as a draft for a novel and gradually saw it as a memoir of the years I was covering wars on film. These became a series of anecdotes that didn’t hang together.

A friend suggested that I enrol for the Creative Writing MA at UCT as I was moving to Cape Town, and my supervisor told me to just start at the beginning and write to the end. After that there were many, many edits before it got near to being finished.

2. What research did you do for your book?

As it’s memoir it is my recollection of what happened. However the first rule in making documentaries is to do your research and do it well so I had a lot of background in the events I was writing about.  I did do a lot of re-reading to write the historical background. I also used the journals that I kept on every film that I made for reference. Of course I also had the films.

3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?

That varied – I tried to write at least 500 a day once I was in the main part of the writing. Often it would be much more, especially when I ‘got into’ parts of it and it took over all my sleeping and waking life.  However writing is not the only thing that I do, and I have many other calls on my life as a woman and as a filmmaker.

4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and then compile the chapters, or do you just start writing from Chapter 1 and let the story lead you?

This book is a memoir so there are certain confines to the story. Usually I start with ideas and short pieces and then if I want to take it further I will write an outline.

5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

I find writing a very lonely occupation especially as one of the things that I love about film-making is working with a team and having other creative people as part of the process. At times I find it extremely hard to discipline myself to shutting myself into a quiet space and getting on with it when I could be doing so many other things.  However once I get going there is something compelling about how the writing process takes over my thoughts and even dreams.

6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?

Two things – I try to put down a short sketch of where I’m trying to go with the book and to just write something – anything to get back into the process. But sometimes the only thing to do is distance myself, go outside, do something physical, and maybe just put things aside for a period.

7. When you submitted your manuscript to a publisher, what information did you include in your proposal?

Just the manuscript – or first three chapters – whichever was required by publisher, a synopsis, and a brief cv.  It is important to read the publishers requirements carefully and submit what they ask for and not what you would like to send.  In the UK it is necessary to have an agent, you cannot submit directly to a publisher.

8. What advice can you give aspirant writers?

If you are serious about writing you have to make an effort to write something every single day. You have to live inside your book and work at it. Writing is a job not a past time and like all work it’s sometimes very hard and needs effort. Also when you think you are finished you are not. Leave it to rest and settle then go back with a fresh eye and look at it again, a lot of editing and re writing is needed.

To read more about Toni, and her memoir Fractured Lives, visit her website on www.tonistrasburg.com.

 

 

Author Corner – Christa Kuljian

Photo of Christa KuljianChrista Kuljian is the author of the recently released Sanctuary – How an Inner-city Church Spilled onto the Sidewalk, published by Jacana.  This narrative non-fiction book is based on how the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg and its controversial Bishop Paul Verryn came to offer refuge to people who had nowhere else to turn.

Christa takes readers on a historic journey of how Central Methodist became a visible reminder of so many of the challenges facing Johannesburg and South Africa – poverty, migration, xenophobia, policing, inner-city housing and shelter, the vulnerable position of women and children, and the gap between rich and poor.

1.            From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

Book jacket for Christa Kuljian's SanctuaryMy experience with writing and editing Sanctuary, is that the editing took as long as, if not longer than, the writing. The seeds of Sanctuary were sown when I wrote a long article about Central Methodist Church in August 2010 for the Ruth First Memorial Lecture. It was in February 2011 that I decided, for certain, that I would expand the lecture into a book and my writing began right away.  My editing happened in several different phases.  At first, from February 2011 to February 2012, after I wrote a chapter or a scene, I would go back the next day to edit it.  At times, I might ask someone to read an individual chapter and give me feedback.  Then I would edit some more.  Once I put all of the chapters together in February 2012, I did extensive editing of the manuscript as a whole for about five months through July 2012.  Then in September through December 2012, I worked with an editor and we did further editing together.  I was editing throughout the entire writing process, but most intensely for the last year before publication.

2.            What research did you do for the book?

I began my research in April 2010 and finished my research in December 2012.  What that means is that even after I finished writing the first draft of Sanctuary, I still continued my research to fill in certain gaps.  There were some people who initially didn’t return my calls or emails, so I kept after them until the last minute and then I worked their responses into the text.  My research involved reading newspaper articles and research papers, online searches, face to face interviews, phone interviews, attending meetings and workshops, and spending time at Central Methodist just hanging around and talking to people.  I filled eleven moleskin notebooks.

3.            How many words do you write, on average, per day?

During my most intensive writing phase, which ran from May 2011 through April 2012, I set myself a target of writing 1,000 words each morning.  I set a goal for myself of hitting 50,000 words by the end of July 2011 and 100,000 by the end of September 2011.  Those self-imposed deadlines slipped but they motivated me.  At one point, I found that I was so busy with other things during the week, that my best writing happened on the weekend and I would have a burst of writing on a Saturday.

4.            Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and then compile the chapters, or do you just start writing from Chapter 1 and let the story lead you?

At first, I wasn’t sure where the book would begin.  I had chapters that covered current events, as well as chapters that covered historic events.  When I wrote the historic chapters, I wrote them chronologically from 1886 (the year of the founding of Johannesburg and the founding of Central Methodist Church) through to the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  Then I wrote the chapters about events in 2008, 2009, and 2010 in chronological order as well.  I put together several different outlines over time.  In late February 2012, I spent some time storyboarding on my wall, with blocks of coloured paper representing each chapter.  I set things out into Parts One, Two and Three in the order I thought they would work.  I started in the present, went back in time to the historic chapters and then worked my way back to the present again.  I ended up making some changes (moving things around on the wall) but much of that February 2012 structure did remain.  It was only in late February 2012 that I put all the chapters together in one document.  It was soon after that I realised that I had written the entire book in the present tense and I had to change it to the past tense.

Also, I kept a process diary throughout the entire writing and editing process.  I made notes about what I had accomplished and challenges I was grappling with at every stage.  On 14 June 2011, I wrote “I have so much more writing to do.  How can I do all the writing if I don’t have all the research?  How can I get all the research done soon?  I feel a bit panicked.  Will I have enough for a book?  Will it hang together?  I guess, as with climbing a mountain, you start as prepared as possible and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  I feel like I’m a quarter of the way up and I’ve forgotten some supplies.

5.            Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

In the case of Sanctuary, I really wanted to know the structure of the book from the beginning so that I could be guided as I wrote.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way.  I kept writing different chapters, not knowing exactly how they would fit together.  I just had to keep working on it, knowing that a solution would eventually emerge.  One thing I learned in writing this book is that there is no solution without a problem first.  I started to look at a problem as a positive thing, because I knew I would eventually find a solution.  I also ran into writing fatigue at times.  Sometimes I would write in bursts.  I’d have a great run and make good progress.  Then I would have a long time when I wasn’t writing as much and I wondered how I would get back into a groove.  Eventually I would hit my stride again.  Another analogy that helped me was knitting a large quilt.  Keep on knitting, knitting, knitting.  Eventually your work will cover the entire bed.

6.            What do you do when you have writer’s block?

On this book, when I hit a period of writer’s block, I would let things continue to percolate.  I would continue my interviews, continue to write in my process diary, and make lists of things that I wanted to do and accomplish.  Eventually, I would start another writing session again.

7.            When you submitted your manuscript to a publisher, what information did you include in your proposal?

I was very fortunate that Bridget Impey and Maggie Davey from Jacana Media were in the audience when I delivered the Ruth First Memorial Lecture on Central Methodist Church in August 2010.  Several months later, Maggie asked if I had considered expanding the lecture into a book.  I responded with a resounding, “Yes!”  That was the motivation I needed.  I wrote the book, knowing that if I did a decent job, Jacana would publish it.  Looking back at the proposal that I wrote for the Ruth First Committee, I can remember that I included a scene that I wrote about Central Methodist that illustrated my interest in narrative nonfiction.  I convinced the Committee that my style of writing would be exciting and appropriate for the topic.  I suppose that my Ruth First Lecture was a proposal of sorts.  It was a lively, well structured, compelling piece of writing that convinced Jacana that the story was worthy of a book.

8.            What advice can you give aspirant writers?

Write about topics that interest you.  Do as much research as you can about your topic.  Write in scenes.  Keep a writing journal to gather ideas for future stories.  That’s how I first recorded the idea to write about Central Methodist.  Without the initial idea, nothing else would have followed.

Visit Christa’s website to read more about Sanctuary at www.sanctuary-book.co.za.

 

 

 

 

Author Corner – Maren Bodenstein

Photo of Maren BodensteinMaren Bodenstein is the author of Shooting Snakes, a novel published in 2013 by Modjaji Books.

Says Beverley Naidoo, on Shooting Snakes, ‘This poignant, poetic novel interweaves a 1940s German mission childhood in the Venda heartland with the stark present for an ailing father and his troubled daughter. The evocative images and provocative questions persist long after the final page.’

1.       From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do? 

Mark Twain said that a writer spends 20% of their time creating and 80% editing – that feels about right to me.

2.       What research do you do for your book?  

For Shooting Snakes I actually went twice to the old mission station high up in the Soutpansberg. I took pictures, spoke to old people and got some young girls to show me their dances. I like to get a feel for a location. Also, I read a lot of mission reports to get a feeling for what drove the missionaries to live in remote places with their families.

3.       How many words do you write, on average, per day? 

I generally write in spurts – novels need concentrated time. When I retreat into writing I produce three to four pages of new writing a day, which is about the length of my chapters. I can do up to twelve pages of editing a day. Outside these intense periods of writing I try to do my three A4 morning pages a day – (a la Julia Cameron‘s Artist’s Way). This is more like a journaling exercise but it does keep pulling me to the stories I am busy with.

4.       Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you? 

Initially I have a sense of what is going to happen in the story. I plot things a bit like a film script with climax, tipping point, antagonist, protagonist, etc. I try to draw the shape of my plot, look at whether I am dealing with a journey or a siege plot and then try to strengthen that. But at a certain point it is important to let go of all this and to allow the characters and story to guide me and surprise me and take me where they will.

5.       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it? 

A big challenge is to find time. I try to dedicate at least three weeks a year completely to writing. Also, I belong to a writing group, forcing me to have something ready once a month.

Then of course there is the constant anxiety around whether the writing is any good, whether I should be a writer or not, whether I should find more time or just give up on this lot, etc. This of course also leads to hyper sensitivity around criticism. I suppose the hardest thing has been to develop a kind of resilience and belief in what I am doing. That has come with time.

6.       What do you do when you have writer’s block? 

I have identified different types of writer’s block in myself. The hardest one is if somehow I have internalised a critical voice that is not well meaning at all and constantly undermines my confidence. This can be brought on by a particularly harsh rejection letter or an unconsciously malicious reader. What I do in this case is spend time getting to know the voice, drawing it, letting it dialogue with me, turning it into a character. Exposing it helps to make it lose its power.

The other kind of block is just plain resistance. I have an electronic egg timer on my desk and when this type of block comes I will time myself for say fifteen minutes and just write about the resistance. Otherwise I break my writing time up into one hour chunks and promise myself a treat when the timer has gone off – anything from a walk, a cup of tea, an hour working in the garden, etc.

7.       When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal? 

A synopsis, something about what makes this story unique and interesting, a paragraph about myself as a writer.

8.       What advice can you give aspirant writers?

A few years ago I used to hold writing workshops and I believed that everyone has a book in them and they just need to follow that dream hard enough. Today I really like Rilke‘s advice to a young poet – don’t write unless you absolutely have to. It’s hard and exhilarating. The neurosis around whether one’s writing is any good and the struggle to get published are all part of the struggle for clarity, of shaping and discovering yourself as a writer – honour that.