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.