Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Learning To Relax

By Christelle Du Toit

In all the years that I’ve known Damaria, I know that when she gets stressed I need to chase her to the garden and/or outside for a walk. It calms her down and she’ll come back saying damn, why didn’t I think of that?

Me? I’m not so good at relaxing, even when she tries to get me to. I stress and then stress about stressing. So when I had an opportunity to go to Cape Town for an unplanned long weekend, staying in the Protea hotel Seapoint, I jumped at it!

Myself and my friend Ilva, who had been dealing with tons of stress and drama, shared a room.

Upon arrival, we were greeted warmly by hotel staff and booking was fast and efficient. The lobby is beautifully decorated, and contains a 9m long work table, fitted with iPads for the guests to use - with 500MB of free wifi daily! The lounge area, complete with wide-screen TV and bar, provides a relaxed atmosphere for guests to relax and socialise.

The room we stayed in was very tastefully and artfully decorated, mostly in black and white, with splashes of bold colour. The bathroom was modern and clean, with a big shower. A small balcony, with a view of the ocean, added to the serenity of the hotel stay.

Room rates are great value, and start at just under R1000 per day- with an early-bird discount of 20% if you book a month or more in advance.

The hotel offers dinners and breakfasts and, of course, a delightful room service menu. Guests can also choose to order from the adjoining Spur restaurant, which shares an outdoor terrace with the hotel.

Breakfasts are lavish and offer great variety - from fruit and yoghurt, to pastries, to your typical farmhouse breakfast options.

What sets this hotel apart is it’s suitability for corporate travellers and holidaying families alike. Some added facilities include a plunge pool and a fitness centre (complete with cycles, weights and treadmills).

Now Damaria might still have considered the exercise options for de-stressing. Me? Not so much. I’m just going to punch pennies and dream of my next break-away!

P.S. from Damaria: Christelle is the friend I co-wrote How to get quoted in the media with. She reads a lot of my writings in their raw form, and we rarely seem to agree on the first run on whether the writing works or not. But that's healthy, I think. It pushes me to do better.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Taking A Long-Term View Of Your Writing Career

Today I was emailing back and forth with someone and they laughed a bit, commenting that I seem to be "taking a long-term view on things," meaning my writing career.

At first I was startled because it was so natural for me to consider the fate of my work once I'm dead. I wasn't being morbid. It's just that for me, when we talk about the rights that we authors grant publishers, my mind automatically skips to 3 things:
  • Benefits now - advances if any, royalty structure, frequency of payments, additional monetisation opportunities if possible
  • Benefits over the span of the contract - the potential offered by royalty payments over time, what other rights I can sell and where
  • Long-term benefits - My heir's rights to existing royalties or opportunities for them to sell more rights
I think it's the last part that startled my friend, but having seen how some authors' works continue to be used  and produced long after their deaths, and a lot more rights sold as new platforms emerge, it seemed very natural for me to always consider long-term implications for my work.

Another factor that drives me is that  I started out writing back in the day when it took around two years for a publisher to go from accepting a manuscript to get a book into print.

Nothing seemed to be rushed then, and once your story was accepted, you didn't expect to see royalties for at least 3 years (2 years for the publication process to happen; 1 year for the publisher to sell the books and reconcile statements and then pay you your share). Of  course there were exceptions to those practices, but for a newbie like me then, I had to fit into a schedule determined well in advance. Now the publishing process happens so fast, especially when it's digital platforms that I feel like I'm telling a fairytale when I talk about publishing lead times. What in heaven's name were the publishers and editors doing all that time?

There is also the fact that, as an avid gardener,  I'm used to planning seasons ahead to ensure a good supply of certain vegetables and herbs when I want them. For example, if I plan to have an adequate supply of potatoes starting the winter of 2015, best I plant all my potato seeds by the end of November this year.

Failure to plant the seeds by now means no potatoes from the garden when winter starts. I could and would still be able to buy them from the store, but then, what would be the point of having a food garden if I'm not planting in time to work with the seasons?

One unexpected benefit for me to learning to take the long-term view on my writing career is that I'm learning to plan my life more, which means less panicking. For exampe, instead of looking for writing work I need to do this week to pay bills at the end of December, I'm looking for work to do in February/March 2015.

I'm also learning to be more patient. If I want to make something happen, I can keep pushing and working it.. and because I don't expect immediate results, I'm less likely to be discouraged by delays and dead-ends. I can also outstubborn most of the obstacles along the way.

Finally, there is a nice sense of security that comes from knowing I survived a lot of other writing fads over time (anyone remember Themestream?)

 I've learnt that if I just keep writing and publishing and taking a long-term view of things, I have a better chance to still be a working writer long after most writing/publishing sensations have enjoyed their five seconds of fame and faded back into obscurity.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Sometimes Being A Writer Involves A Million Little Tasks That Add Up To Something Great

A flattering view my food garden this week
It's been a productive couple of days. I submitted a children's story I wrote to a mainstream publisher. I really really hope they like it. I'm making the distinction (in italics) because I also submitted 6 children's stories written by someone else to an indie publisher.

I hope admitting to forwarding someone else's manuscript is not going to come back to bite me on the butt sooner rather than later, because honestly, trully, sending your manuscript to another writer in the hope that they can help you to reach publishers is not a viable way to publication. You're better off doing your market research and sending your manuscript to the appropriate editor at the right publishing house.

This person sent me her stories mid-2012, wanting to publish them through my small company, and at the time, I was completely absorbed in care-giver duties and was not ( and I'm still not) accepting manuscripts by other authors.

I liked the stories, even if I couldn't do anything about them, so I didn't delete the email. Just in case. So, I was "chatting" by email with another indie publisher who does accept works by other authors, and he asked me if I know local children's writers he could solicit manuscripts from for a project. He doesn't want to do a general submission call because he doesn't have the capacity to deal with hundreds of manuscripts.

I gave him a very short list. So, if you do write for children and you know I know you do and he hasn't been in touch with you, sorry I didn't think to include you. Email me and we'll chat about it.

I also took a chance and offered to send him Whatshername's manuscripts, as I thought her stories would suit him. He loved the stories and will get in touch with her. As for me, I felt like Supergirl. Or maybe a king-maker.

I also worked with a graphic designer to develop an organisational logo for a client. We're doing the whole branding thing.

The designer, Robert Heppner, is based around 35km from Phokeng and he's very talented. More than that, he's a pleasure to work with, even as the client and I do our best to drive him nuts. Thank you Robert, for your hard work and patience.

All this means I didn't spend as much time as I would have liked in the garden. So today was also about catching up with that. There was a lot of weeding involved, which stretched my back in ways I needed after sitting on a chair for hours and days on end.

I also harvested a lot of stuff - Swiss chard, kale, spinach, squash, onions, carrots, beetroot, basil, thyme and chives. Some of it I used or will use, some I gave away to family or neighbours.

Oh, and we also found out that the fix that I paid for to get the mobile phone didn't stick [the screen keeps hanging and then I end up having to re-initialise the phone.] So SIL is giving me my money back and then I'm adding to it to buy another smartphone.

I'm not going to be difficult and insist on reverting to my old Nokia 3500 phone, even though it has worked for many years without any problem whatsoever, and it could still chug along for years, thank you very much.

Tomorrow I'm working on another children's story and that's all I want to do with regard to writing. Then I'll download two client audios and hopefully, put a big dent in the translation job.

Monday, November 17, 2014

On Editorial Guidelines, Implementation Plans, Spreadsheets & The Craft Of Writing For Children

One of the toughest things I've tried to articulate to my non-writer friends about the writing process is the craft required to ensure that a children's story meets editorial guidelines.

Or maybe they just don't get it because it doesn't sound very creative.. it sounds like a trade... maybe like laying the story out brick by brick, or panelbeating what's already there? LOL!

I think the "romantic" view we have of the writing process is that the writer creates character profiles, researches the topic, plots the story and writes. Some writers plan their characters in great detail, others fly by the seat of their pants, but that's a post for another day.

Anyhoo, I am fortunate enough to sometimes write to order... to be asked by clients/publishers to submit stories for consideration and generally, there are very specific requirements I must meet. And my work still gets rejected. Too frequently for my liking:)

The requests usually come with editorial/submission requirements which include the target group, the type of story they want, maybe even the theme (s) they'd like to cover, the number of words for the whole story, the number of pages for the book and the number of words per page.

I'm also expected to provide a detailed artwork brief (image by image), so that the illustrator can visualise the kind of artwork I was thinking of to go with the story. And oh yes, the proportion of text to images in the children's story is pre-determined by the publisher too. The publisher is generally guided by the target group's reading need, series requirements, among other criteria.

There goes our romantic image of the story flowing from the creative writer's imagination to the page, right?

Not quite. When I write a story, I do start with that free-flowing process where I research a topic/theme, develop the characters, plot the story and then just put the words down as they come. That's the inspired portion of my writing process and at this stage I'm not too worried about the pacing of the story (i.e. whether I talk too much in one page and too scanty in detail in another page). That comes later.

Once the story is written and edited until it reads coherently, I sit down with a copy of the manuscript and the editorial guidelines from my editor (s) and  panel-beat the story, with specfic focus to the page by page pacing and to fit the publisher's requirements.

THAT, to me, is one of the most challenging aspects of the craft of writing for children. It's where your skill as a writing professional shines. It takes you beyond talent, to paying attention to the finer details of your story.

And lest you be tempted to think your  story can shine on the merits of its plot, characterisation and storytelling technique only, let me point out that some editors/publishers have no patience with writers who can't/won't follow instruction and if you want this editor/publisher to give you more work AND tell other editors about you, best you present yourself as a writer who combines talent, skill and craftsmanship and respect of guidelines and the editor's time.

I also found out, on reading up on the subject, that many famous writers didn't achieve their success  through sheer talent only - some of them took planning to incredible levels. And it paid off for them. I expect the level of their planning depended on the complexity of their stories (stories for very young children require less detail than adult novels) and author preferences.

Anyhoo, today my worktable is cluttered with draft manuscripts and reams of editorial guidelines. The objective is to panelbeat one or two children's stories to meet specific guidelines, so I can send them out for consideration.

It's hard work to cut a story in one page and add more text in another page without losing the original flow of the story or padding a paragraph with meaningless words!

However, I also find the process of working with guidelines comforting. Maybe it's the old journo in me, familiar with writing to order?

The guidelines also tell me what the publisher wants and how they want the information to be presented. There is no need for guesswork on my part. It's all nice and clear.

Seeking clarity

Speaking of clarity, today I also developed a project implementation plan for a client and I also found that process comforting.

My client and I were wandering into "slippery scope territory," and writing up the plan, with its milestones, deliverables and deadlines sort of clarified things that were mine to worry about and those that were the sole province of the client.

Those activities may impact on my part of the project, even my ability to do my job, but in the final analysis, they're not part of my job. The business owner in me asked,"is this an additional assignment for me? Do you have a budget for these tasks."

Because really, I wouldn't mind getting paid for them too, as they fit very well with what I'm already doing. So yeah... implementation plans and editorial guidelines and spreadsheets? They're becoming new best friends.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Do One Main Task Each Day

That has been my mantra for the past couple of days. On Tuesday I focussed on writing a children's story (early reader). It's finished and I sent it to a writer friend to read through and comment. She likes it.

Yesterday was the day of completing a concept proposal for a possible funder for a project. We've already met and they suggested the proposal, so I had some guidance on what their Key Performance Indicators are, though that's not a guarantee they'll go for it. Done, doner and sent:)

Today I spent the morning at Leseding Community Development Project, a client based in Ledig, around 30km from Phokeng and around 7km from Sun City. My time mostly involved attending meetings and watching people talk.

Briefing 4 aspiring film-makers who'll attend intenstive wkshops to result in a short film

It was a very productive session, but I find meetings to be harder work than digging hard clay soil in my garden, or sitting for hours at my computer, transcribing a conversation or writing a story or editing. It competes right up there with marketing; work that usually leaves me drained.

I was knackered by the time I made it home at lunch and took a very long nap. But I also collected enough material to write several blog posts for them and I'm pleased about that.

The end of an era

Another big thing today is that the deed for my Johannesburg house was finally registered in the new owner's name. The sale is done. Yaaay! What a relief!

I love that little house and wouldn't have moved unless forced to, but once I was here, I needed to consolidate my life. It was exhausting dealingwith two households, and I needed to focus on just one thing at a time.

The end of an era. Bye bye, sweet little house!
They're keeping my tenant, who is also a close friend, on a minimum 12 month lease, and the house is fully furnished with most of my furniture and she's going to keep using most of it.

It's a relief for me not to have to worry about moving a houseful of furniture more than 150km to Phokeng, or to worry about what to do with it once it gets here. I have 12 months to ponder the problem :)

The new arrangement is the best of both worlds for me - someone to worry about the property maintenance, another to pay the rent and I still have a desk, bed and garden in the city for when I'm there. Nice scam if you can get away with it, yes?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Connecting To The World

For the past three years, I've been using this old Nokia 3500 to keep in touch with my family and a handful of friends. Assuming I remembered to charge it and was carrying it at the time of the call.

I know, I know. It's a disgrace for a former telecoms journo to be using this old clunker, right? Thing is, it really suited me. I could make and receive calls and texts. And most days, I wasn't even interested in doing THAT. 

I'm not a Luddite. In fact, I love tech and am constantly experimenting with software, mostly productivity hacks or games (recent game obsession is Criminal Case. Before it was Surbubia). I love having a new machines, especially laptop and tablets. And I do like being online, even belong to several online forums (I'm a moderator for one).

But, I didn't like the 24/7 connectivity that a mobile phone offers. The constant barrage of messages from friends, colleagues and family, some of whom expected an immediate response, is very overwhelming for me under normal circumstances, but more so the past couple of years. So I just checked out. If I didn't have a smartphone to receive the message, they could wait until I had time to sit at my computer and to answer emails. Sort of passive-aggressive, I suspect, but that's them breaks when you're overwhelmed.

Last week my younger SIL finally dragged me out of the dark ages. For the price of a minor repair/lunch, I could keep her Sony Xperia.

I like my Xperia more than I expected
To bypass further resistance from me, SIL loaded my SIM card, transferred data, linked the phone to my main gmail and social media accounts and downloaded all the apps I use or she reckons I should use (e.g Whatsupp, which I've been very resistant to) 

So today I spent the whole day in Johannesburg, attending a business meeting (it went well. I can't tell you more about it due to an NDA, but fiction-writing is involved) and then hung out with one of my closest friends, who turned 66 yesterday. The phone made staying connected, readings docs effortless. Who knows? I might do better with this being connected deal this time.

P.S. This is NOT a sponsored post

Why You Should Write All Those Stories Cluttering Your Head

For years I've written some stories just so the noise the characters made would stop. I didn't have a potential market for them. I even planned to self-publish some of them.

So, the other day when an indie publisher got in touch with me about some work I might end up doing for them, my first thought was, "do I even have the time to look at the work?"

I'm still trying to establish a new rhythm for my life; have started writing more, but I didn't want to take on too much and then become overwhelmed.

Home office this past Saturday. Big desk out; table, footstool and cat in :)

"You have a stash of stories, don't you?" one of my friends asked when I expressed my concern about time restraints.

Oh yes, I do! So... we'll see how this works out, but if they like some of my moth-eaten drafts, I may not have to start the project from scratch. That would be nice.

As a writer heavily reliant on my work for income,  I know all about investing time in projects that are either commissioned or that you know can easily find a market. But sometimes, you just have to write that story, even though there is a good possibility it will never be published.

Who knows? A potential publisher might eventually find you. Maybe. 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Ideal Writing Moment

I found it today.

Location: my home office, at my desk.
Time of day: after 8pm, when supper was done.
The device: my laptop
In the background: Blitzen Trapper, playing Furr, followed by The Lumineers (the whole album).
On my desk:  a big mug of cold coffee, a notebook and pen, a buge mess of  files, receipts, a glass, two more mugs (empty), a hard copy of a draft manuscript, sleeping pills, diary and a wallet.

What is your ideal writing moment? It doesn't have to be repeatable; just that moment when you're writing, the words are flowing and you think,"This is why I became a writer. To do this."

Monday, October 27, 2014

Getting Used To The New Normal

In the past couple of years, I've fallen in love with Mondays because no matter how wrong things may go in any given week, Monday will come around again and psychologically, it means a new opportunity to try again. It's like having a reset button, but you get to keep the benefits of the last go-round. Mostly.

I didn't sleep well at all on Thursday and Friday nights and spent a lot of Saturday trying to catch up with my sleep. But it wasn't easy because I was alone on the property for the first time  ever and it felt weird/lonely? I lived alone for years, but that was in the city where you are surrounded

I've taken sleeping pills before, but I'm wary of becoming too dependent on them. Thankfully, Kitchen Herbwife , who is a huge resource for me all things herbal, offered me recipes for a series of herbal remedies that I'm going to try. Thank you, S. Much appreciated:)

Today was a promising start to the week:

  • I had a meeting with a potential client;  a small business owner who needs a website for a newly  registered company
  • I did a rough edit of the artwork brief for a children's story. I'm submitting  the story to a traditional publisher on their request. I really hope they like the story
  • I picked a very big harvest of globe artichokes, red Swiss chard and some yellow squash. I have to have to somehow turn that into dinner and maybe lunch tomorrow.
  • I transplanted more than a 100 beetroot seedlings into a new bed and pulled out and started drying a borage bush. There are many more growing in the garden, so I didn't need to replace this one with a new seed.
  • I wrote quite a bit. Most of my focus moving forward will be creative writing.
  • I blogged. Such a relief to actually have something to say.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


More than two weeks after Mma has passed away, I'm slowly pulling the threads of my new life together. Traditionally in Phokeng, we pack up the deceased's stuff (clothing, shoes, linen, personal knicknacks etc) immediately after they pass away, even before the funeral. So all Mma's personal things are in storage to later go to the relevant people and the house, which is very big, feels even bigger. There's an almost emptiness to it, reflecting our lives, I suppose.

As for me, I'm planning to stay on in Phokeng for the forseeable future, though I'll probably go into Johannesburg more often. I've mentioned previously that I was selling my Joburg house? A number of friends have offered their own homes as a city base for me. So I should be able to come in as often as I like, knowing my housing is secure.

I'm also resuming my writing career. Thankfully, there is  a lot of work to do - personal projects I abandoned, commissioned work and new projects from local publishers that I want to be involved with. I also did a lot of writing when I was taking care of Mma and I'm now trying to make sense of it. Some things might be publishable in there.   So my days are starting to fall into a new routine, though it's still very rough at this stage.

To keep me going, I think there is a "conspiracy" going on in the village. Every morning I have two or three separate groups  of people popping come visit me.  Someone usually arrives early enough to wake me up (around 7am?) and we have a morning cuppa, and another person arrives soon after.

By 9am, they are all gone and so is any inclination I might have had to sleep in. I'm guessing their aim is to make sure I'm up and about, as a big chunk of what I did everyday(caring for Mma) is gone. It's very comforting.

My rough plan for this blog is to resume my regular posting, chatting about whatever projects I'm working on, as well as giving you a brief glimpse of my life here. We'll see how things progress.

I hope that you are all doing well in your own lives, careers and blogs.