Rahla and Paige – Guest Authors for The Suitcase Under the Bed Seminar

Bookings are now open for our The Suitcase Under the Bed seminar, being held in Kalk Bay, Cape Town, on the 8th of June – click HERE for the details of this really informative day for aspirant writers.

Our two guest authors, who will each share their publishing journeys with you, are Rahla Xenopoulos and Paige Nick.

Rahla Xenopoulos started writing in 2002, and has had short stories published in Women Flashing, Twist and Just Keep Breathing. She has also published short stories in Glamour and O Magazine. Her story Child, Hold My Hand was chosen as one of O Magazine’s top 10 stories of 2008. In 2009 Zebra Press published A Memoir of Love and Madness, her personal account of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And in 2012 Penguin Books published her debut novel, Bubbles.

Visit www.rahlaxenopoulos.co.za

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-you-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.

Visit www.amillionmilesfromnormal.com




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    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.



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      The Pitch …

      There’s a succinct little phrase that’s spilled over into publishing, I suspect from the movie industry – the elevator pitch – and I rather like it. If you found yourself in an elevator with Steven Spielberg in the Four Seasons Hotel in LA and this was your one opportunity to pitch your movie idea to him, how would you do it? You have maybe twelve floors before those doors are going to open and the chances of your ever getting an audience with him again are about nil. Three minutes tops, and he has his eyes fixed on the changing numbers above the door (he’s heard about the elevator pitch too), so what’s going to grab his attention? Certainly not ‘People keep telling me my life’s been so interesting it would make a great movie …’ He’ll have pressed the button for the next floor in a heartbeat and you won’t see him for carpet mites.

      To attract the attention and interest of a publisher or agent, these days you could do worse than buff up an elevator pitch to go with your fuller synopsis, covering letter and first three chapters. Publishers hear the ‘people keep telling me my life’s been so interesting it would make a great book’ speech fairly regularly and I can promise you it doesn’t make their hearts race a little faster.

      Whether you plan to approach an agent in the hope of being taken on as a client and finding your way to a publisher this way, or whether you are going direct to a publisher, the pitch and presentation for these two routes will be roughly the same.

      By now you will have done your research thoroughly, and you will have targeted an agency or publishing house which looks like they take on authors who are writing your kind of book. You will have checked their requirements and complied with these. You will have polished up your first three chapters until they’re shining like diamonds, and have your synopsis succinct and not over long. The synopsis will be headed by your elevator pitch, five intriguing lines that will make an agent take notice and read on.

      For your synopsis, longer than three or four pages is probably too long, but one paragraph may be under cooking it. It’s OK to reveal the plot in the synopsis – it’s not the same as the back cover blurb – but not in intense detail.

      The writer Douglas Kennedy once told me that when he’s working on a new novel, he keeps a piece of paper stuck above his desk with the word KISS on it: Keep it simple, stupid. It’s good advice for your synopsis … not that I’d dream of calling you stupid.

      Don’t forget to include a brief biographical piece in your covering material. This needn’t list your hobbies or record the fact that you won an English prize in 1978. It’s your glittering prose now, in 2013, in your debut novel that needs to captivate. If you’re writing non-fiction, however, particularly in an area of specialisation or competition, do list your credentials. For example, if your book is about post-traumatic stress disorder in conflict areas of Africa, it would be important to know how come you’re qualified to write about this. The publisher should immediately understand why your view and your book in this field might be a valuable contribution.

      Do write a covering letter or email, but don’t include your full synopsis or your biographical piece in it. Try not to waffle. Also try to resist claiming that your book is way better than Wilbur Smith or any of the rubbish that’s out there on the shelves or that you absolutely know this is going to be a bestseller. Steer clear of suggesting who might play your main character in the movie (this is especially a no go area if you’re in the elevator with Spielberg). Some of the ‘rubbish’ that’s out there on the shelves has probably been agented or published by the same publisher you’re bragging to and that’s not a good start to a relationship. All this is doing is telling the publisher that at best you are insecure, have delusions, and don’t know very much about publishing or bookselling; at worst that you are arrogant, dismissive and disrespectful of other authors who have worked just as hard, if not harder, than you have to get where they are. And it’s disrespectful of the publishing process, too, which you’re asking to be part of.

      Before you write that covering letter, remind yourself of these four fundamental questions you need to know the answers to: Why am I writing? Who is my audience? What are my hopes for my writing? What are my expectations? 

      Articulate these answers, more particularly the last three, in your covering letter. Do this again if you get a ‘call back’, ie if the publisher or agent asks to see more material, or if you go into the office to meet with the commissioning editor. It’s important that everyone – writer, agent, editor, publisher – understands expectations at the outset of a publishing relationship. A disconnect here can often lead to disappointment later on. Your own expectations will be optimistic, even confident; the publisher’s might appear conservative in your eyes. The closer you can draw the two together will make for a stronger working relationship going forward.


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        Franschhoek Literary Festival – Session

        Are you an aspiring author and attending the Franschhoek Literary Festival?  Do you need some practical advice about publishing?  Then you need to attend THE SUITCASE UNDER THE BED session at the festival where Alison Lowry and Tracey McDonald will give you invaluable insight on how best to go about this.

        This is a double session (Friday, the 17th of May – starts at 14h30 and finishes at 17h00). To book, click HERE – the session is No. 28, being held in the Library.


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          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.



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            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.



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              The role of the editor

              I think it was TS Eliot who said: ‘An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.’

              At which stage of your writing process do you need an editor? Should this happen first, before you send the manuscript off to a publisher or agent, if this is the route you are choosing to go? Do you need an editor at all?

              To my mind this depends on what you understand by editing. When I put this question to aspiring authors I always get a variety of answers. None of the answers is wrong, however. Every writer’s needs are different at different stages of the writing process, and where one manuscript might benefit from a certain kind of editing at what might feel like the end of the journey to the author, another could need something else entirely. Different editors have different skills, too, and some specialise in working on fiction or non-fiction so my advice would be to have a good sense of what you believe you need before you engage one.

              If you know that spelling isn’t your strongest talent and you have never been all that good at grammar and you’re not all that accurate on the keyboard either, then what you are probably looking for is a copy editor. This is someone who is good at those things you’re not brilliant at and will go through the manuscript and fix them.

              Will it improve your chances of getting your book picked up by a publisher or being noticed by a sharp literary agent? A little, maybe, but to be honest, not really.

              If, however, the intricately clever plot of your contemporary thriller or the inspiration in your heartfelt memoir makes for an unputdownable story but you suspect that your writing is rougher than you’d like, and that the manuscript is going to be extra challenging to read because of it, then yes, do have a copy editor work through it. You don’t want the publisher to give up the chase for that reason when the story may actually be very good and the characters compelling. But if you’re confident in your seven drafts and you just want the manuscript to be tidied up and for someone to check you on the technical stuff, then by all means get a copy editor to run through it.

              This is step one to presenting a clean manuscript. But do find a professional freelancer, someone who copy edits for a living, not the smug and annoying friend who rings typos in library books and is doing you a favour in his spare time.

              Most manuscripts have mistakes in them of the punctuation and grammar kind. And most publishers jump right over them at this point. They’re not fussed about your over-use of adverbs, too many paragraphs in italics, or cute use of symbols to differentiate sections of text. This isn’t what the publisher/editor/agent is reading for. They are looking through to the core of the book, what it’s saying and whether it’s doing it well. Is there something original here, a gripping narrative or a literary read that takes your breath away? That’s what they’re looking for, that elusive spark of originality or an angle on a topic that is fresh and intriguing.

              Mistakes are expected. A handful of typos isn’t going to swing a yes or no decision. Sloppiness, however, can cost you. It says volumes about your seriousness about writing.

              All respectable publishers will need the specialised skills of a copy editor at a specific point in the production process once they take a book on; they will either have in-house copy editors or they will outsource this function to a freelancer.

              Should you engage an editor (as opposed to a copy editor) to work on your book with or for you before you submit it to an agent or publisher, or before you self-publish or go the vanity press route? The answer, at least in my opinion, is definitely Yes, if you’re thinking of going it alone, and Possibly, if you’re looking at the traditional commercial publishing route.

              When you tell a commercial publisher that your book has already been edited by a friend, this mostly doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to them. In fact, it can even cause a frisson of alarm. What is this author telling you – that it’s ready to go to print and that there’s no need for the publisher to bother with wasting time on editing? Or that you’re in a real hurry to see your book in print and have already planned the launch function?

              Publishers shouldn’t ever let a book hasten through the production system without an editorial stage, whether they use their own in-house editors or a freelancer they trust. Publishers have a reputation, too, and they will also want the book to be the best it can be once it goes out on the shelves. If it’s been sloppily edited or proofread, this reflects on the publisher, not the author, and reviewers are sometimes quick to say so and to dismiss the book in the same breath.

              A commercial publisher will assign an editor to a specific book, and should try to match you with an editor who will be compatible with you personally, or who either specialises in fiction, if you’ve written a novel, or in lifestyle publishing if yours is a book on interior decorating, for example.

              So unless your editing friend does this for a living, rather secure professional help in this preparation period. A good freelancer who is established and already has a good reputation in the business, can be a significant plus. The chances are that the editor is someone the publisher will already know and may routinely use. There are freelancers who only take commissions from publishers and not direct from individual authors, so check this out, too, when you’re doing your research. You might have to be a little patient. The local industry doesn’t have a very big pool of editors and the good ones are always kept busy. The publishers know who they are. And the good freelance editors, like the professional readers and copy editors, want to work on books where they see potential. Frankly, it’s more interesting and rewarding for them and it’s also good for their CVs and professional reputations to be able to say “I worked with Bess T Selling on all her crime novels,” for example, but less useful for them to record working with unknown authors whose books were never going to have a hope of seeing the light of day with a St Martin’s Press logo on the spine. Good freelance editors want to keep working and mostly they don’t want to work on books that might never be very good, despite their own skills being brought to bear on the manuscript.

              There are also some poor or downright bad editors out there, who may do you more of a disservice than help your book be the best it can be. It’s very easy these days to set up a website and offer an ‘editorial service’. Always look for testimonials or ask them what books they’ve worked on before. Have a look at the books and contact their authors. No editor worth their salt will decline to allow you to talk to their clients. Referrals are how they work. The better ones rely on word of mouth and personal endorsements. A good idea is to filter your search through an organisation like PEG (Professional Editors’ Group).

              If you are going to self-publish, pay a vanity publisher, or go the online ebook route, I would strongly suggest you employ a least a copy editor before you put your work out there, even if this is just for a bit of light dusting. You will want the book to be the best it can possibly be, surely, free of clumsy sentences and recurring habit phrases, and spelling of typographical errors. There’s nothing less appealing than a book that looks unprofessionally published, on whatever platform it’s showcased, and most readers are alienated by this and by typos as they trip over them. It’s disrespectful to your reader, if nothing else.

              It’s astounding what you the writer can miss in your own manuscript, despite having read it through probably a hundred times – did you spot the deliberate typo in this posting, I wonder? Whatever you decide, in the end I think it just helps to have a fresh pair of eyes, and sometimes that’s all you need.


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                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.





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                  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.



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                    Beginning the editing process

                    One of the most nerve-wracking moments in the process of writing a book – and this applies across every genre, to fiction and non-fiction, and to novice writers as well as the most seasoned published author – is that moment of self-doubt when you ask yourself what on earth possessed you ever to put finger to keyboard in the first place. Some writers experience self-doubt all the way through, while others are assailed at regularly unwelcome intervals by that dull nagging feeling that what started out as a brilliant idea might not, ultimately, be as crisp and original and fascinating as they first supposed. It can be especially debilitating and bewildering when self-doubt sets in when you think you’re done. You have drafted and redrafted and scoured and examined your cunning plot line, and dealt with the characters who felt undeveloped, but still … is it actually any good? Will anyone want to read it? Will an agent’s pulse quicken when he reads the opening chapter? Will a publisher believe she has a bestseller in front of her?

                    Whether creeping self-doubt doesn’t apply to you and you have read and re-read your manuscript and you feel satisfied and confident that it’s the best it’s going to be, still you should welcome a last dispassionate, objective read before you send it off from someone who will offer you encouragement, wisdom, sound advice and support at this stage in your writing journey. Even if, as a result of their reading, it’s back to the drawing board for you.

                    Who should you trust with your manuscript and what can you expect from a good reader?

                    It may be stating the obvious, but while you may value and trust the opinions of your immediate family or friends, these people are seldom the best readers for your book just before you plan to submit it to an agent or publisher. Family and friends generally love you and want you to succeed (or maybe they don’t love you and meanly want you to crash and burn), but frankly, no one cares if your mother loves your romantic saga and your pilates teacher thinks it’s “very good”. These people have different roles to play in your life. The friend who was fabulous at English at school and always picks up spelling mistakes in books may not be the critical, dispassionate, intelligent eye that will be helpful to you now either.

                    Friends are also often and mystifyingly tempted all of a sudden to become writers themselves, and want to “help” you rewrite your book and question your use of commas. This can have the effect of throwing you back into serious self-doubt or endlessly obsessing over your grasp of punctuation and redrafting five more times. Here’s a tip: don’t worry about the commas. Copy editors are paid to do that.

                    Is it just a reader you want at this point, or an editor? Probably, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a combination of both in one person. In any event try to pick someone you believe can be objective and honest and will give you a frank opinion. If you don’t have anyone you know who fits this bill, an option is to engage a good professional reader to do this for you for a fee. There are a number of professional readers who offer this service to writers and to publishers, just as there are a number of freelance editors who will give you different kinds of editorial help. This kind of expert reader/editor, especially an experienced one, is worth their weight in gold. They can be the difference between getting noticed and published or getting passed over.

                    A professional reader could save you from, for example, a fatal timeline flaw in your plot that you simply missed – it’s hard to believe but this happens quite often. Or he will pick up a glaring error or something that is just plain factually wrong, something you’ve unforgivably overlooked even though your research has been meticulous. At the very least these things can jar and, at worst, jeopardise your authority as the writer and call into question the integrity of the whole book.

                    Professional readers/editors aren’t invested in your book or in you personally and have no interest in pleasing you by saying the right thing. They will give you a written report and a considered, professional opinion because that’s what you’re paying them to do. But do choose your readers carefully. Ask them which authors they have worked with before. Talk to those authors. Phone up publishers and ask them to recommend a good professional reader. Mostly, publishers will be helpful – it’s in their interest as much as yours to find that gem glinting brightly in the slush pile.


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