How I discovered the power of words

 People ask me why I teach people how to write novels.

When I was six, I found heaven. It was in a book by a man with a strange name – Roald Dahl. I wondered if he made that up. I used to wonder a lot. About almost everything. I had more questions than the world had atoms. ‘Thank goodness you like to read,’ my mother said. ‘Or you’d drive us crazy.’

My mother applied for special permission for me to go to the school library. Grade 1s weren’t supposed to have a library card. She couldn’t keep up with my appetite for magical stories. I loved The Magic Faraway Tree, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. I would have bought every book in the CNA if I could. ‘It’s highly irregular, Mrs Patterson,’ said the principal. But my mother was firm, and he relented, handing her the card.

And I did like to read. I fell in love with books when I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I loved every letter, every word and every sentence on the page. When I finished, I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to write a book. I wanted someone to read my books. I wanted to make someone feel the way I felt when I read the perfect story.

I read the long hot summer afternoons of my African childhood away. My sister and I would swim, ride horses across the veld, catch frogs and then retire to shady spots of our garden with our books. We shared our chocolates. I would arrange the Nestle coins on the edge of the pool until they melted in their shiny gold wrappers. We waited until they were mushy and licked the foil clean, noses buried in the mystery of the pages. I was always careful not to get chocolate on the books. I hid the novels under my towel when I became too hot, and jumped into the blue of our pool. I grew up in a world without the internet, television and cellular phones. Books fed my imagination, and filled my soul. I was never bored.

I read and wrote my way through a privileged, blessed childhood. I had parents who adored me, and the ability to apply everything I learned. ‘Your daughter must become a writer,’ said English teacher after English teacher. But life has a funny way of sending us on a detour on the way to our dreams. I was 16 when I matriculated and writing a book seemed slightly ambitious at the time. In High School, I decided that I would become a translator. It seemed glamorous. Until I sat in the tutorials at University and realised that there was nothing exciting about translating the parts of an automotive engine from French into English. At least, not for me.

 Falling in love

And I fell in love. Deeply, madly in love. My first husband became my dream, and I married him before I graduated. He was drafted into the army and I had to resort to my writing to keep him close. I still have the letters, written in the cold Johannesburg winter on the steps of the Great Hall at Wits. The desire, the whispers, the longing burned into the paper from the cool Highveld to the bitterly cold barracks that housed him in Kimberley. His words, drafted in reply, in hope, in love, in tears of frustration, soothed me, made me real. Words have never left me wanting.

Marriage, business and a baby boy kept the urge to write at bay. And being pregnant gave me so much time to read. I lost myself in books. About babies, of course, but also about love, and war, and mystery. I had E is for Evidence by Sue Grafton in my hands the first time I felt Christopher kick to show me I wasn’t imagining my pregnancy. Matilda by Roald Dahl, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho were there too.

After my husband died, life became scrambled. Four people who completed my world died within the space of five years. I carried on with businesses that meant nothing to me. I owned three children’s clothing boutiques, importing labels for the rich and fussy. Don’t even ask how I ended up there. I don’t even like children much.

Then my widowed sister became ill and almost died. I decided that life was sending me a serious message. I had to follow my dreams or risk regret. I didn’t want that. I had seen life carelessly seep out of those I loved. I knew how fragile it was. It was obviously time to write. I closed the shops, and decided that I wanted to become an author. I wrote a book and sent it to a publisher with all the arrogance of a beginner writer. I would write a bestseller, my budding genius would be recognised in the manuscript - based, of course, on my life story. I was the perfect clichéd unpublished writer. I had a unique story. Publishers would want it on that basis alone. Surely?

I was deservedly rejected. When I look at those slips now, I marvel at how polite the publishers were. The manuscript was awful. I cringe when I read the first draft of what is now preserved in paper as my lesson in how not to write. I am grateful for their good sense. And for the kindness in their letters. I took a long hard look at myself, and my writing. I decided I needed help. I looked for a course, for someone to show me how to write a publishable book. But I couldn’t find an interactive creative writing course that produced results. Institutions offered degrees in Journalism, English Literature and English. I already had one of those. I think my degree is wonderful, but it does not offer useful advice, suggest techniques and answer my questions on how to become published.

 Where was the help?

Somewhat taken aback at the nothingness of courses around me, I decided to go back to the beginning. I have always found answers to my problems in books. Books nursed me through childhood, through adolescence and most definitely through grief. I decided that they could show me how to write one of them. I bought every reference book on writing. It seems simple now but Exclusive Books only kept dictionaries in 1999. 

They say that timing is everything. Impeccable, the crawling Internet stood up at the right time, and walked. Amazon became my friend. Soon, I had 50 books on how to write for my project. I would read until I understood how I could get it right. I wanted my research to show me how to make my writing as publishable as possible in popular fiction.

I explored the concept of plot, theme and storyline. I dissected viewpoint until I understood every one of the seven I discovered. Do you know what enigmatic third person simple past tense is? I constructed and deconstructed the four characters needed to tell a story. I engineered dialogue for people I would never meet, never hear and never see. I researched the rhythm of pace, the subtle art of making a reader turn the page. I completed exercise after exercise until I made sense of the theory. Most importantly, I learned how to show and not tell.

 I See The Moon

I didn’t even realise I was creating a writing formula. I rewrote my manuscripts and I finally had an offer to publish in my hands. I was elated, determined and terrified. Writing popular fiction wasn’t really the ‘done thing’ in South Africa. Academics treated Wilbur Smith’s novels the same way their followers treat Mills & Boon. With disdain. Thankfully, these critics’ sell-by-date is approaching. Quickly.
Everyone wanted to know how I did it. I couldn’t answer everyone individually. ‘I’ll show you,’ I said. I decided to run a once off course on Tuesday & Thursday mornings with a friend.
Before I started the first session, the second was already booked out. What was I doing? Doubly terrified, I trawled through the books again, checking for information and inspiration. But it was too late to back out. I decided to embrace the process. I would encourage authors just like me to write about ordinary characters faced with extraordinary challenges.

I started my teaching life in a state of anxious terror, laced with uncertain euphoria. And I’ve never had so much fun. I ran the course from temporary venues – The Fourways Gardens Clubhouse, an obscure British university, The Vega School of Advertising. Before I realised what was happening, I had gathered students, and guest speakers, and laughter, around me. I became a well-read gypsy, peddling my writing skills. I wondered when it would end. Surely, there was a limit. But why would there be one? Books create endless worlds inside them and around them. It made perfect sense to carry on. The research I turned into a course manual was showing people how to make their writing dreams come true.

I had written a perfect course on how to write a book. I just hadn’t thought of doing it before. In September 2003, I said, ‘Character is setting. Setting is character.’ I was struck by the truth of this statement as I drove home after the class. Amanda Patterson had become a character based on her experience and defined by her setting. I was a Northern Suburbs girl from Johannesburg with a university degree who married well, and - unlike Janis Ian’s song - didn’t retire.

 Rewrite your future

I carried on teaching, discouraging politically charged books. Politics never disappears, but I tried to show that it should exist as background rather than a focal point. It does this in all great novels. I hoped that South Africa would understand this. Political stories about apartheid, and the angst it engendered, had been rehashed, repackaged, and written to death. Two Nobel laureates from one country is a wonderful achievement. Why, I would say, can’t we leave it at that? I wanted writers to sell more than the 2000 books considered a bestseller in fiction writing in South Africa. I didn’t have to be a genius to understand successful International publishing trends.

I realised that South African readers wanted to laugh, smile, reflect, cry, and then laugh some more. We needed to read about characters living in the South Africa we know today. If we did this, South Africa could become a writing destination, exporting wonderful stories that a reader in New York or Sydney or London would read.

As I taught, graduates started to email or call to give me their publishing news. ‘Thank you for putting the pen in my hand,’ said Alex Harris, my first published graduate. I was shocked. This really did work. I wasn’t sure who was more surprised - my students or me. I have learned from the writers I have taught. They have all shown me how to be a better writer, and reader. I have had the privilege of teaching gifted storytellers, and their words will always have a place in my storytelling world.

Teaching people to form words into stories has taken me into the real lives of policemen and paupers, stockbrokers and strippers. I have supplied the contact numbers of a Nobel prize-winner to a president. The common denominator? Books. As Dr Seuss says, ‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.’ He must be right.

 With Marina Lewycka

I have met almost every author I’ve admired. My first guest speaker was my favourite crime-writer, Ian Rankin. I can’t remember much of the night. Just that he was as amazing as his writing. I was grateful simply to meet him, and vaguely stunned that so many people had accepted my invitation. And that is how my book club was born. I have interviewed and hosted over 100 authors since then, but they say you’ll never forget the first time. They’re right. Black & Blue is still settled in first place on my shelves of autographed books.

I continue to believe in good entertaining writing and in the South Africans who write it. I support and encourage authors to write and to reach out to an audience desperate for a good read. The Internet is also showing us how to do this. Traditional South African publishers may become redundant if they do not meet the needs of the changing market. It would be sad to see them archived along with the writing they continue to embrace.

And Amanda?

The little girl who read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has become a writer. I love the power of words. I have found my truth in the books, and courses, I create. I teach other writers to dream their stories into a book. I watch as they breathe life into a page with a pen. I have learned more from them than they will ever know. 97 of my students are published and it’s worth everything to see it happen. Sometimes they do it against all odds.
Mostly they do it because someone believed they could.

By Amanda Patterson


 Amanda & Anton Behr

Amanda Patterson is married to Anton Behr. She is the CEO of Writers Write and the author of The Plain Language Programme. She has created 19 writing courses, written two romances, a crime novel, a memoir and a writer’s diary.
She was nominated for The South African Woman of the Year in 2006 and 2010, and was a semi-finalist in SA’s Most Influential Women in Business and in Government 2010. Amanda has developed training courses for Corporations, Political Parties and Media Companies.
Since creating Writers Write, 97 of her graduates have become published authors. When one of Oprah’s Dream Winners wanted to write a book, Amanda Patterson taught her to write. Amanda's Book Club has 15 000 subscribers. Amanda has a combined following of over 20 000 fans on Facebook and Twitter. 100 authors have featured as guests through interviews or public appearances.
Amanda’s Charity, The Write Foundation, is a trust dedicated to literacy.


Amanda is married to architect, Anton Behr, the original Creative Native. She wrote her article which appeared in O and Fair Lady, I'm Cappuccino, He's Chai Tea, for him. They live with their two children, one dog and three cats in Sandton

Post note
Anton Behr died tragically on 9 March 2011. Amanda has since added a postnote in her letter to her son, Christopher in Dear Chris

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