Thursday, 16 March 2017

Book Club for Two (or Even One)

Members of The No-Pressure Book Club are forgiven for not reading their books, or forgetting to bring a book to a meeting, or not attending for months on end (life, you know). This gives some meetings a refreshing intimacy.

I belong to a book club. Ours is not one of those portals to revelry, where women end up drinking and dancing on tables to Belinda Carlisle and forget to talk books. No. The No-Pressure Book Club really is about literature, despite the fact that membership can be thin on the ground at times.

We set the bar low, in a good way. Launched about a decade ago by a psychologist friend of mine (I guess the title gives that away), it's a fluid, friendly association consisting of a few invited members. We meet approximately once a month at a member's home, all contributing a snack so as not to burden anyone with hostessing anxiety. We each take one book we recommend or have heard is a worthwhile read (a second-hand book is perfectly acceptable) and tell the others about it. We like literary fiction and well-written, stimulating non-fiction, and you can throw your used magazines into the ring too, along with your pride, as there's usually a taker for those. We're renowned for only reading the literary best-sellers once all the hype has died down, usually two to three years after publication.

At the No-Pressure Book Club, nobody takes offence if members don't have time to read a book. For six months. Or forget to bring a book. Or forget to attend a meeting because they're engrossed in an erotic romance, and I don't mean a novel. There have also been long stretches where members too distracted by, say, new love or a white-knuckle life crisis, announce, 'No books for me; I'm just taking a magazine this month'. It's all okay.

Book clubs are a phenomenon here in South Africa as books are expensive; a club allows members to share the cost of books. Typically, our club consists of a small group of women, but we once had as a member an American guy who was working in Cape Town for an NGO. The fact that he looked like Barack Obama's hot younger brother and gave intellectually rigorous analyses of the works of weighty US authors kept attendance high. It was reminiscent of The Jane Austen Book Club, though our man left after a year to take up a place at an opera school in New York. He sang arias at his last book club meeting.

We have had marriages, pregnancies, births, divorces, mid-life crises, illnesses – the best of times, the worst of times. Occasionally there are only two of us at a meeting, my psychologist friend and me. The Core, as we refer to ourselves, catch up on our lives over snacks and tea. As my friend pondered at one of those intimate gatherings, 'I sometimes wonder if book club would continue if there was just one of us.'
'Yes, I think so,' I said. 'We're committed.'
'I could do it,' she mused. 'I could make snacks and tea, as usual, and hold book club for one. Write down which titles I'd taken out in the little black book. Select some new ones from the stock.'
In these times of Kindles and short attention spans, one must be flexible.

For me as a writer, it's also interesting to note how diversely people read books. There are those members who doggedly read a book to the end ('The author spent all that time writing it; they must have had something important to say,' one member explained. Personally, I have no qualms about abandoning a book if I run out of mood or feel the plot is sagging, or dropping it on the second page if I suspect I made a selection error). And there are those who glance at the last page to see the ending – jokes! Nobody in our book club would ever do that.

What binds the members is that we like to read books and then discuss them, turning a solitary activity into a shared experience. I remember a member hovering over me as I surveyed the table of books at a meeting, urging in a fervid whisper, 'Oh please, please read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. I need someone to talk to about it. It got quite weird at the end and I need to debrief.'

Which explains why many women and some men across the country meet monthly in this way: because humans love to sit down and be told a story by a master storyteller, and in world where books are relocating from paper to pixel, that's something that will never change.

Catriona Ross is the author of several books, including the just-published ebook, Story Star: How to write your first novel and use the uncanny power of fiction to turn your wishes into reality

Monday, 31 October 2016

The strangest things happen when you read your own journals

Catriona Ross was merely hoping for a tidy shelf when she decided to catalogue her diaries – not a harvest of pearls 

When I moved into my new house last year, there were a few things I promised myself I'd do. Hang a mini gallery of photographs around my desk so I'd be surrounded by my favourite people while working. Install a bird bath so I could watch white eyes bathing from my desk. Er, finish writing my novel. And unpack and catalogue my journals.
The first two I did immediately, and after a three-and-a-half year writing journey, I finally completed my sci-fi mystery/romance, The Last Book on Earth. But the journal organising? Man, that was work. Having written in a journal for thirty years, often daily, I had boxes of books containing pages and pages of my thoughts, impressions and experiences. And they were just sitting there, dead weight.
Finally, I mustered the energy to get started. I bought a box of little sticky labels and cleared out two shelves in my workspace for the journals. I decided I wouldn't try to do it all at once; instead, I'd aim to catalogue five books a day until it was done. After dinner one night, I began. I sat with a glass of wine and wrote the label for my first journal, from the year I was age 12: '1/1986-12/1986.' Label stuck onto the spine, the book was placed in the shelf. After a couple of weeks, the job was done.
The sight of all my journals and notebooks arranged in chronological order from the past three decades of my life was unexpectedly satisfying. And the strange thing is how useful they've become. Now that these Books of Me are accessible and visible, I mine this database of wisdom and self-knowledge regularly.
Journalling is a way of staying connected to oneself, recording significant events and tracking one's progress. 'Writing may have healing powers you've never thought of,' wrote Sue de Groot in a piece entitled 'Keeping a journal could give you a happier life' while we were colleagues at Cosmopolitan. 'Writing down your thoughts is a way of releasing unconscious stresses. Writing about your life, your confusions and your desires can be therapeutic. It can help you to see yourself more clearly.' Besides tracking our emotional states, 'you could take the power out of whatever scares you by putting your fears into words. You could use it for goal-setting, writing down where you want to be and breaking that down into concrete steps that will get you to that place.'
Indeed. And now my collection of journals is a living, growing, ever-changing source of inspiration. Recently I opened a journal at random and discovered notes I'd made seven years ago from a Deepak Chopra book. Stirring stuff! It was exactly what I needed to read at that moment. The next day in a second-hand bookshop, I spotted a Chopra book I hadn't yet read, and bought it, and that turned out to be just what I needed to read at that moment...
Looking back can help you let go. I'm able to see how the me of today is wiser than my younger self. I've opened journals and had tears well up to see where I was seven years ago in relationships compared with where I am now. Sometimes the long way round is the only way round...
A certain challenge may come up, reminding me of something I experienced years ago. I can now look it up in the relevant journal and compare notes with myself. How did I handle it then? What will I do this time? It's awoken me to the fact that we always get opportunities do things differently – and reach a better outcome.
Yesterday I looked up entries from the time I left permanent employment in magazines 11 years ago in order to freelance and focus on writing novels. With The Last Book on Earth finally finished, I know that major step has been worthwhile.  
Reading my old journals has given me an appreciation of the difficult decisions I've made – leaving a career, leaving a marriage – and an appreciation of myself: I've opened journals and screamed with laughter over scurrilous tales and hilarious experiences I'd forgotten about.
If you don't write in a journal, consider buying yourself a beautiful blank book and a fine pen and starting. And if you do, it's worth spending time organising those journals and displaying them like treasured books, as a way of celebrating your life – because if you don't, who will? Being oneself, I think, is life's greatest and most underrated privilege.

Nominate The Last Book on Earth for a Kindle Scout publishing contract! Campaign ends 9 November.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

A freelancer's gotta hustle

Hustling is a life skill you need to learn if you're self-employed or writing on the side and hoping to get published. With savvy tactics and persuasion you'll rustle up opportunities when your inbox goes quiet. Sometimes gifts from the universe do drop into your lap – work offers, surprise tax rebates, awards – but for the most part you get out what you put in. As a freelancer it's up to you to create your own success, income, publicity and reputation. As Truman Capote famously remarked, 'a boy's got to hustle his book.' For most of us, this applies in some way.

1. Do something to promote yourself online every weekday. A daily practice is key. Even if you merely commit to one daily tweet in your field of interest, for example, it's a whole lot better than doing nothing. It's similar to the compounding effect of saving: within a few months of repeated small actions, you could have a substantial and growing following. Keep your message and offering consistent, and ensure it's of high quality. This requires discipline, but once you're in the habit these 10 minutes devoted to online marketing are just a normal part of your day.

2. Up your Google rankings. Use long-tail keywords in all your online text, from blogs to tweets, advised Paula Wynne, author of Pimp My Site: The DIY Guide to SEO, Search Marketing, Social Media and Online PR, during a talk at the Cape Town Book Fair. A few relevant, specific words strung together to form phrases that describe your work (such as 'online creative writing course, The Peacock Book Project') should be used whenever you write something on the internet. Do this, and your Google ranking will climb. Ensure these keywords feature in your website’s metadata – the description of your product or service that comes up under your website’s name during an internet search. Read more tips at

3. Keep producing new material. Short Sharp Stories Award convenor Joanne Hichens was gratified to see writers who'd entered the competition a few years in a row make it into the 2015 shortlist and Incredible Journey anthology – proof, she said, that as a writer 'you've just got to keep churning out new material'. Submit work to new competitions, offer new stories to both previous buyers and new buyers. If one short story doesn't get published, move on and write something new instead of getting hung up on one item you desperately want published. You'll feel more creative, productive and successful, and increase your chances of getting published.

4. Pitch new ideas when things go quiet. When there's no work flowing in, don't panic; use the time productively. Think about the sort of work you'd like to do next, then approach publications with outlines of your ideas. See step-by-step instructions on how to find article ideas and pitch then to publications in my book Writing for Magazines: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know.

5. Constantly build your network of contacts. Don't only use social media for personal purposes; make use of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to connect with others for work purposes. LinkedIn in particular is a worthwhile business tool, especially for keeping abreast of new freelance contracts around the world. Post a good photo of yourself and keep updating your profile with recent contracts, publications and achievements. Consciously grow your social media contacts: track down interesting people in your field you've met, heard interviewed, seen on TV or read about. When you need a case study, idea or answer for work, putting it out to your social media contacts is the fastest track to a solution.

Catriona Ross is a journalist, author, and creator of The Peacock Book Project: Write the novel of your dreams ( Her books are available in the Kindle Store: Little Diamond Eye, The Presence of Peacocks or How to Find Love and Write a Novel, The Love Book, Writing for Magazines: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know, and The Happy Life Handbook.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

10 ways to find a winning short story concept

The Book Lounge in Cape Town's Roeland Street was packed last night at the launch of Incredible Journey, the 2015 Short Sharp Stories Award anthology curated by Joanne Hichens. Joanne, cultivator of sharp literary talent, interviewed the authors and discovered how they came by their story ideas on the prescribed theme, 'journeys'.

Mix up a few explosive ingredients. Young men, alcohol, a fast car on a Friday night: as Andrew Prior said of his story 'Terraplane Journey', 'with the right ingredients, things are  going to happen.' He acknowledged Stephen King's On Writing for teaching him the how of constructing a short story.

Mine the emotions of your past. In 'Pyramid of Light', Sean Mayne explored the paradox of having nostalgia for his apartheid-era army days while knowing, as he does now, that he was 'fighting on the wrong side'.

Hook into current issues. 'I was noticing the problem of homophobia in our society,' said Tebello Mzamo, who in 'My Room' followed the personal journey of a young gay man who moves from sleepy Lesotho to the Mother City.

Launch from a landscape that touches you. In his story 'Red Dust', Stephen Symons wrote about lives that intersect, with the unifying red dust of Africa figuratively covering them all. 'We as South Africans are all intimately connected to landscape,' he explained.

Choose a key symbol that draws characters together. In Bridget Pitt's 'The Infant Odysseus', it's a baby. 'An infant offers the possibility of engagement for people in a divided society,' she said.

Embellish a shocking or unusual tale you've heard. Dudumalingani Mqombothi, author of 'Memories we Lost', grew up in a village in the former Transkei where a family member had a mental illness and a sangoma (healer) claimed he could cure such conditions by baking the sufferer...

If a poem or true story haunts you, use it. Bongani Kona recalled reading a six-line poem entitled 'Requiem' in a poetry journal from a second-hand shop. 'I loved the way the final line of that poem echoed,' he said. That, and a report he read about two brothers who hadn't spoken in 25 years, combined to spark his story, 'At Your Requiem'.

Mix mythology with the modern. In 'Lift Club', Jumani Clarke used a car lift club journey to explore the classic idea of the soul's descent into the underworld.

Make notes, then distil them. Story award winner Andrew Salomon, an archaeologist, related how he started making notes of characters and conversations during his daily train trips to and from work. 'So much stuff happens in a carriage in a 24-minute journey; truth really is stranger than fiction,' he said. As for plot, 'it's much easier to note it down than to think it up.' To concentrate many quirky happenings into one train trip for his story 'Train 124', Andrew created a protagonist with a neuro-developmental disorder that causes one to focus intently on one's surroundings.

Don't force it. 'When a story doesn't work, allow something else to pop out,' said Joanne. Sean Mayne began with 'a guy with a body on a train' but abandoned it for the new idea that had appeared, inspired by his army days.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Notes from the ghost of a Scottish writer

In a moment of synchronicity, a writer ancestor paid me an unexpected visit a few months ago.
My friend Alex Smith, author of Devilskein & Dearlove, phoned to say with amazement, 'I was looking through some of my grandfather Leonard's literary journals and found an article about your great-grandfather!' She immediately emailed me pages from The Bookman December 1931 issue about Scottish novelist and poet Neil Munro (1863-1930).
Leonard, 'a lover and buyer of rare books' according to Alex, had probably read the article on Munro, and may even have bought and read his novels. Fast-forward 84 years, and two of the literary men's grand-daughters meet up regularly, as they have all their adult lives, for tea and conversation about life and literature. In fact, when Alex found the article, she and I were living in the same road, just a few houses apart.
You've probably never heard of Neil Munro, unless you took a course in Scottish literature, but during his time he captured the imagination of the Scots with his historical novels offering commentary on the shifts in contemporary Scotland, his light-hearted Para Handy tales about a crafty boat skipper on the River Clyde, his poems and newspaper columns. Munro's younger son, Neil junior (also a journalist and writer of fiction), was my mother's father.
The Bookman article raises aspects of writing relevant to South African writers today. With our diversity of languages, many novelists and poets may write in second-language English – and thereby stand to benefit from the influence of their mother tongue. The article's author writes of Munro, 'Though expressing himself in the purest English, he kept a Scottish accent of mind.' And, 'He thought in Gaelic and wrote in English, and it was this bilingualism that lent such charm to his rich and allusive style – a style pregnant with the rhythmic cadences, suggestive turns of speech and poetic metaphors that come straight from the Gaelic.' (Read the article for more).
Secondly, Munro's love of the Scottish Highlands - an 'exquisite responsiveness to the moods and suggestions of nature' - infuses his work. My great-grandfather wrote about the places he and his fellow Highlanders loved, the places they yearned for when far from home. Writing powerfully about a place you know intimately is something you do not only for yourself and your current audience, but for posterity. As Cape Town author Henrietta Rose-Innes noted in a recent interview about her new novel, Green Lion, 'I want to write my patch of the world into existence, and trust that others around me are writing theirs. Otherwise, I fear these unique locales will vanish from our literary map.' (I recommend Helen Moffett's anthology Lovely Beyond Any Singing: Landscapes in South African Writing for a tour of local places through the eyes of our novelists, past and present.)
A portrait of easy-going, witty Neil Munro stands on my desk, gently reminding me to keep writing, to keep going - as does Alex, whom I've known since the age of five. If only Leonard were here to see the titles written by his granddaughter lined up on bookshop shelves...

The Neil Munro Society publishes a twice-yearly magazine. See

Monday, 6 July 2015

The 5 keys to collaborative writing

Want to write a book even though you're short on time? Co-authoring a book with another writer (or two) can be a satisfying experience, since it brings the benefit of another brain, imagination and pair of eyes, and halves the amount of writing you have to do. Here's how to make it work.

1. Plot out the whole story before you start writing. Collaborative writing   works best when everyone involved knows exactly what will happen in each chapter. When writing a novel on your own, you can get way with plotting as you go along, but in a collaborative effort it can be disastrous. List the events per chapter together and, importantly, agree on what the ending will be.

2. Crunch the numbers. Decide how long your book will be, and how many words each chapter should contain. If the entire book is to be an 80,000-word thriller composed of snappy 2000-word chapters, that makes 40 chapters, 20 per person.

3. Divide up the work fairly, upfront. It's best to be scrupulously even-handed, taking it in turns to write each consecutive chapter (unless you're two specialists writing a handbook together, in which case it's more sensible to write those chapters relating to your area of expertise). Assign chapters to each writer at the start.

4. Work to weekly deadlines. They're a great motivator. If you're part of a two-person writing team, you'll have one week on and one week off. One chapter a fortnight is doable, no?

5. Hold a weekly meeting to ensure the writing's on track, to egg each other on, and to discuss and resolve any issues that arise with plot, performance or, er, personalities. Good luck!

Catriona Ross is the creator of The Peacock Book Project: Write the novel of your dreams ( Her books are available in the Kindle Store: Little Diamond Eye, The Presence of Peacocks or How to Find Love and Write a Novel, The Love Book, Writing for Magazines: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know, and The Happy Life Handbook.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Your novel needs a sexy concept

Sure, a classic plot line may make a novel perfectly readable, but it won't necessarily be enough to make people pick (or click) it. (The seven main story plots in literature, as summarised in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker, are overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth). A bestseller needs a winning concept. Consider this:

Think of your book's sales blurb. Or what would be on the movie poster? Sarah Lotz signed a six-figure deal with UK publishers Hodder and Stoughton for her novel The Three and another book. The Three's tagline reads, 'Four simultaneous plane crashes. Three child survivors. A religious fanatic who insists the three are harbingers of the apocalypse. What if he's right?'

Daydream about a fascinating world. British author Sally Green signed up for a creative writing course a few years ago, and hit on a concept which led to a bidding war for her first novel, a supernatural young adult thriller about witches living in contemporary Britain. Twilight producers acquired the film rights to her trilogy. 'I became obsessed,' she told Woman and Home. 'I wrote and wrote, and spent 24 hours a day thinking about it: I was weeding, I was cooking but, in my head, I was living this story, which was about witches and set in the same witchy world that became the setting for my book Half Bad.'

Gather the ingredients. Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black (now a film, in which Daniel Ratcliffe starred after his stint as Harry Potter), told the UK press how she'd been reading ghost stories and wondering why there were so few full-length ones. 'I wanted to see if I could do it and began listing what seemed essential ingredients: a ghost, human, not monstrous; haunted places, especially a house; mists, a thin, moaning wind and, for me, ancient churches and graveyards which are traditional settings.' Characters appeared: 'I did not really have a plot at this stage, but one morning the woman in black arrived in my mind. Within six weeks, using pen and paper, The Woman in Black wrote itself, as if by magic'.

Look out for unusual objects. Jessie Burton's debut novel The Miniaturist is set in 17th century Amsterdam, in which a wealthy merchant who refuses to sleep with his young wife, Petronella Oortman, buys her a miniature version of their townhouse as a wedding gift. Soon, it becomes clear that the characters' lives are being influenced by the movements of their replicas within the cabinet. An actual cabinet in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, once owned by a Petronella Oortman, sparked the concept for the mystery novel.

Find the cocktail that excites you. Brainstorm a list of all the topics you like to think and write about, anything from chocolate to taxidermy. Keep a file or box into which you regularly throw magazine clippings and notes, such as that riveting story you overheard at the hairdresser and jotted down for its plot material potential. Then close the lid, put it away, and let it simmer.

Listen to your body. It'll signal you when The Concept arrives. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Joanne Rowling recalled the moment she hit on the Harry Potter concept: 'I wrote compulsively but I'd never really found the right thing. And then I was on a train – I was 25 – and it came: boy doesn't know he's a wizard, goes to wizarding school, bang, bang, bang! And that was it. I don't think I've ever felt so excited.'

Catriona Ross is the creator of The Peacock Book Project: write the novel of your dreams ( Her books are available in the Kindle Store: Little Diamond Eye, The Presence of Peacocks or How to Find Love and Write a Novel, The Love Book, Writing for Magazines: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know, and The Happy Life Handbook.