Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How NOT to Talk to a Writer

All writers know this scenario.

Random Person: So what do you do?
Writer: I'm a writer.
RP: "Really? Should I know you?"
W: ?
RP: I always thought I had a book in me.
W: ?
RP: So what do you do to earn money?
W: ?

I've had this conversation so many times I've started answering the first question with-"I'm self employed." I once got shouted at by a police officer who said I was being uncooperative because I insisted that I was a writer.

The last time I got stopped by police at a speed trap there were two police officers.

Police Officer 1: What do you do?
Me: I'm a writer.
Police Officer 1 to Police Officer 2: Ga a bereke (She doesn't work)
Me: I work!
PO 2: What do you write?
Me: Books.
PO2 to PO 1: Ga a bereke.
Me: :(

It's tough this writing business even when it shouldn't be, that's why I found this article hilarious- "If Strangers Talked to Everybody Like they Do to Writers". Here's a few from the article:


“Huh. A chef. Do people still eat food?”

 "Gastroenterologist? My aunt tried to be a gastroenterologist. Hard to make a living doing that! Hahaha!”

Read the rest HERE. It'll make you feel a bit better and remind you that you're not crazy to be annoyed by those comments.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Our Education System is Killing Creativity



I remember when our daughter was at senior school, we went for parents’ day to collect her report and the English teacher was concerned. He sat us down and told us that our daughter was struggling because (wait for it...) – she thought too much. I was gobsmacked. For him, she needed to chill with the brain cells if she ever had a chance of passing. I think now, if I had to do the raising of kids all over again, I’d home school my children. The mental boxing that takes place on a daily basis in our schools is nearly criminal. I don’t think I could allow it now, now that I know better.
     Why do I say that? Because from day one our educational system does everything it can to stop a child from being creative. From standard one the process begins, the process of panel beating a creative being into uniformity. Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” Only the strongest can withstand the barrage.
     Every child is creative. They are explorers. They want to take chances. They daydream. They are desperate to learn everything, to understand why things are the way they are. They follow their hearts. They experiment - sometimes they fail and sometimes they succeed, and each path teaches them something more. Learning is a magical, creative, exciting place when you’re a kid.
     But then you go to school. In school there’s a right way for everything. There is always a right answer. No grey areas. Even a short story (something that should be allowed some freedom at the very least) is prescribed. Learning is what the teacher says is learning, not where your interests take you, not on some path of discovery decided by your own questions. Learning is what the syllabus says, what the textbook tells you. Wrong is bad- always. Failure is much, much worse. Avoiding failure is paramount, and the best way to avoid failure is to do the same thing over and over, to never ever get out on that exciting edge where exploration occurs, where risks must be taken, where failure is a perfectly acceptable option. For creativity to thrive, failure must be acceptable. In our schools it isn’t.
     In the world we live in this is exactly what is not needed. What is the use of memorising a bunch of ”correct” facts to regurgitate on an exam? The only reason is to create a legion of obeying robots that can be quantified in some way so as to see who can go further in the creativity-crushing educational system we have.
     But in real life the ONLY thing that matters is creativity. Facts you can look up on Google, they mean nothing when it comes to intelligence. Memorising is the lowest level of understanding on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Memorising for an exam means almost nothing, and yet we value it above all else. Rote learning is so 19th century. It’s madness to continue on a path that is no longer viable and yet we keep on doing it. Over and over again without thought.
     In our competitive world, a good business person is a person who can come up with creative solutions to problems, a person who can see an opportunity where no one else can.  Critical thinking and a questioning mind are mandatory to navigate the life we now live. I doubt a career can be found where improvisation is not an asset. A good problem solver in an organisation is more valuable than diamonds. Effective leaders see failure as a learning opportunity, as a welcome step on the way to a solid success. Brainstorming and daydreaming are essential for real success in life.
     And yet in our school system we are beating that out of our children.  
     I recently ran a creative writing workshop and I must say I was disappointed by the stories that came from it. The fear of being wrong reeked off every page. Even when I begged the kids to think widely, to be crazy, to let their minds roam everywhere, that no place was off limits- they couldn’t do it. Or wouldn’t- which is the same thing really, or maybe a bit worse. They were so scared of being wrong they would not take a step into unknown territory.
How are these kids going to make it in the real world out there?  It’s a shame what we’re doing to our children.  We’re setting them up for failure when they come to school with such promise, and that’s just wrong.
 (This first appeared at my column, It's All Write in The Voice newspaper)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My Formative Reading Experience-Short Story Day Africa

June is the month to celebrate short stories in Africa, Short Story day Africa is 21 June, the shortest day of the year.  Short Story Day Africa is asking writers to blog about our early memories of reading and what it meant to us. Here is my contribution.



What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

Like many people I grew up in a chaotic home where getting adults (busy with their own drama) to read to me was rare. But from a very young age I was interested in books. I remember sitting and looking at the pictures and the black squiggly marks at the bottom of the page, and thinking about how once I could decipher what those marks were all about I would have the keys to the universe.

 It ended up being nearly the case. 

 

As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

 I remember going to first grade and being so excited because finally I was going to learn to read. My life would change after that, I was sure of it.

The teacher brought out the reading books and we started learning- "Look. See Dick run. Run Dick run". It may have been one of the most soul crushing experiences of my life. This is what I'd been waiting for? This was the magical wisdom locked in those squiggly black marks? I was devastated.

But then we had our library day and I stumbled upon The Cat in the Hat. If ever there was a book absolutely suited to me this was it. A naughty cat leading kids astray when the parents were gone and in such fun, playful language. It was fantastic. And then I got it. The classroom was for the boring stuff- but the library was where they hid the exciting books. I've been hooked ever since.

Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?
 
 I grew up in Wisconsin in the United States in the country on a farm. My favourite time was when I'd be dropped in town at the public library. It was a great library with a very big kids' section.  I remember you could only check out two books at a time. I would spend forever trying to find the exact two right books to checkout. It was a wonderful torture. 

  As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

I remember when our kids were very young, both of them adored books with babies in which I found so interesting. We had two; one with photos and one beautiful book with illustrations of babies. I read those books over and over to them and they loved to sit and look at the pictures any chance they could get. I remember the photo book was so loved I had to cover the pages with transparent plastic to extend its life.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Perfectionism, the Enemy



I hate reading my writing after it’s been published. Nearly every time I find things I want to change. If I’m forced to read from something of mine that’s been published, nearly always I’ll have been at it with a red pen before I read, and what I read will be slightly different from what was published. 

I have a writing friend who is a far better writer than me, and yet she’s had nothing (at least fiction-wise) published. Her stories are never finished and she can’t allow herself to submit them until they are. The problem is she’s looking for perfection and she’s never going to find it. We have to accept our stories will never be perfect, never be finished. 

I once read about a writer who wrote a sentence until it was perfect and then went on to the next one. This was how he wrote his books. Then when he was finished with his first draft, it was also his final. No editing needed. I read that but didn’t believe a word of it, or if it was true, I accepted that person never finished a single story. 

I’m reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing by Anne Lamott at the moment. It’s a book about writing and being a writer- more clearly it is about surviving being a writer. She says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” She’s a big fan of writing a shitty first draft. I am too. Your first draft of any writing should be free and crazy, you should let your mind wander everywhere because in those corners of your mind are little gems, forgotten memories that can often end up being the central core of your story. Only on your edits, the many rounds of edits, do you cut away and find the real story under all of the shitty first draft. But you must have the shitty first draft, and trying to be perfect stops you from achieving that. If you’re trying to be perfect then you’re stopping yourself from making mistakes, you’re stopping yourself from being free. 

Besides perfectionism curtailing your ability to reach into your subconscious and let everything flow onto the page, either good or bad, and perfectionism stopping you from finishing, perfectionism can also keep you from writing at all. 

Most writers come to writing after being fanatic readers. They love stories and books and they want to be a more integral part of them. But sometimes good writing can scare you. In your mind there is always this voice that says- “You could never write like her. You could never write that well.” 

I once had an obsession with Jeffrey Eugenides. I wanted to write just like him. I wished one day I could write a book exactly like Middlesex, the book that brought on my Jeffrey Eugenides obsession. I tried a few things and I failed and I thought – I’m crap and should find something else to do because I can never be a writer like Jeffrey Eugenides. But then a writer friend said to me- “Yes, you cannot write like Jeffrey Eugenides, you can only write like Lauri Kubuitsile.” That was so profound for me, it turned my mind completely. I’d never be a perfect Jeffrey Eugenides, in fact I’d never be a perfect Lauri Kubuitsile either, but I have an obligation to write my Lauri Kubuitsile stories because I’m the only one who can. I need to ignore the Perfectionism Devil whispering in my ear and get on with it. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try our best; we shouldn’t work hard at our writing and improve every day- we should. What I’m saying is nobody’s perfect. Perfect is one of the many things offered up by our screwed up society that sets us up for failure, it stops us from making all the beautiful mistakes that make us eventually find success, that lead us to the life we were meant to live. We’re told there is the perfect face, the perfect marriage, the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect body. It’s all a lie, a terrible lie that brings so much sadness to our already sad world. 

I have a quote in my office which says-“You’re only willing to succeed to the same degree you’re willing to fail” (Wendell Mayes). I believe this because that’s the only way to reach for those stars so high up in the heavens, the only way to achieve our most daring dreams. We really shouldn’t be striving for perfection; we should instead be forever pushing ourselves to the furthest limits where failure and success live side by side and where either one is okay because at least we know we’re growing and trying and daring. 

(This was one of my columns at It's All Write, my weekly column in The Voice newspaper)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Lorato and her Wire Car- The Play!


 Lorato and her Wire Car is a story of mine that won a prize in the junior category of The Golden Baobab Prize, the only Pan-African prize for children's writing. The story was published as a picture book by Vivlia Publishers in South Africa. I've now adapted it into a play for the very wonderful Australian School Magazine. Below are images of the pages and the cover of the magazine which features the play with fabulous illustrations by Peter Sheehan. I think it is beautiful!







Monday, June 2, 2014

Not Him- a story about rape

This week I have my story about rape up at FunDza Literacy Trust's Mobi website. It's called Not Him. The thing that's great about FunDza is that you get immediate feedback so you can tell if the readers are engaging with the story. I think this is quite important with this story in particular. It's about a young woman who out of the blue get a date with the golden boy of their township, Bonolo, but things go wrong on the date and her life is very nearly destroyed.

Chapters go out each day and at the end of each chapter the writer asks a question. I purposefully asked questions to find out how the readers feel about some of the issues around rape. The FunDza readers do not hide what they feel- at all as you can see if you check their comments. I was happy to find that despite the fact that the media gives the impression that,  for example, people believe that women wearing miniskirts provoke men to rape them, it appears the readers at FunDza don't buy that line at all.The story goes for seven chapters and I'm curious to see how the readers will respond at the end.

I think, too, FunDza stories show that you needn't be moralistic in your tone when writing fiction, to get kids to engage and come to decisions about what they feel on a controversial topic.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Department of Arts and Culture is No More



As of 1 April 2014, the Department of Arts and Culture no longer exists. According to the Public Relations Officer (PRO) in the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture, Mr Kristian Mmusi, the Ministry has been re-organised to improve efficiency and “to improve delivery of services, particularly to the outlying areas of the country”. But have no fear, according to the PRO, “The Ministry will continue to run programmes such as the President’s Day Competitions, Constituency Art Competitions, Exhibitions and the Arts and Culture Grant”. The only one on that list that makes any difference to writers is the arts and culture grant. And how will these proposals be dealt with now? 

“Arts project proposals will be dealt with appropriately by the Financial Requests Assessment Committee and the Grants Assessment Committees in line with MYSC priorities for development of the arts. Specific offices have been assigned to look after this function just like other functions of the Ministry mandate.”
And to top off the entire exercise with a pretty rotten cherry, the PRO added- “In any case MYSC programmes mostly centre around the young person and therefore staff should be able to deal with issues.” I’m an artist, a professional writer, but I’m 50, so how do I fit in? In their world there is nothing like an artist over 30, right? We’re invisible, not important. 

Right there, actually, is where the government’s approach to the arts goes wrong. The fact that the arts are thrown in with the youth and sports shows that the government believes arts to be a hobby, something to keep the youth busy until they move on to more serious things. They give lip service to the fact that the arts can diversify the economy, but they don’t mean it. They have no policy to implement that. They pour money into the President’s Day Competitions -but are they making any real impact? Do the winners move forward? Do they develop and become sustainable? Are they professionalising? What actually is the point of the Competitions except to throw a bit of money around? You see the groups on President’s Day, they compete, they win, they get their money, and go back home until the next year. 

I find nothing wrong with people doing art as a hobby, that’s fine, but I don’t think the government should aim their policies toward that objective. If the government believes the arts are meant to be a hobby, as their recent actions suggest, then be honest about that. Say it. Don’t talk about the arts diversifying the economy when everyone can see that it is only lip service and that their actions say something else. 

The Department of Arts and Culture was not perfect, but at least it was a step in the correct direction. The PRO says that the former structure in the Ministry was hierarchical and top heavy, he says there was duplication of efforts. I can’t comment on that. I’ll accept that was true, but couldn’t that problem have been addressed without scrapping the Department of Arts and Culture completely? 

And though he says that the new Programme Officers will have enough knowledge to cover the issues that will arrive from sports, the youth, and the arts sector, I find that hard to accept. Even when the officers were only responsible for the arts, the field was just too wide. They needed to know the intricacies of the publishing industry, the writing world, the music industry, the world of dance and painting and sculpture and acting… only to mention a few. That was more than enough, and as I’ve said in the past in this column, I had hoped that the move would be toward having more specialised arts officers: experts in each of the disciplines. People who knew what was happening with writers in Botswana, in Southern Africa, and the world, so as to help our writers find their way to professionalism and actually earning a living through their art. Now, as far as I’m concerned, that hope is gone, never to be seen again. We have taken a huge step backwards in my opinion. 

In my perfect world, Arts and Culture would have its own ministry headed by a person who truly cared and understood the arts and knew that the arts are the practical expression of culture, the place where culture is stored. They would understand that artists need training, and schools, and programmes need to be set up in our institutions. They need professional advice. They need to get grants to travel to residencies and festivals to see how others do things. If our arts were truly supported and developed, it would bring people to our country, it would sell our country outside its border. It would feed our souls and our economy at the same time. 

But it’s not supported. It’s all just a Wizard of Oz type scenario, pull back the curtain, and despite our wishes, there’s nothing there. 

(This appeared in my column It's All Write for 23 May 2014 in The Voice Newspaper) 

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Truth About Amazon



I self-published three ebooks at Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) on the 28th May, 2012. The three books are from my Kate Gomolemo Detective Series: Anything for Money, Murder for Profit, and Claws of a Killer. There is a lot of hype around the money people are earning with their books on Amazon. I think it’s time to get some honesty out there so that people enter with their eyes wide open.

First, there are some issues that work against writers from Botswana (actually all African countries) publishing at KDP.

1. Amazon will keep 30% of all of your royalties for United States tax.
2. No matter what price you set your book at, Amazon will add $2 to it. The reason apparently is that it costs more for them to do business in Botswana.
3. Even if you have chosen the 70% royalty option, this only applies when the customer buying your book is living in a country on Amazon’s list. Botswana is not on the Amazon list, no African country is. Therefore, even if you chose to get 70% royalties and you set your price in the prescribed price range ($2.99-$9.99) you will only get 35% royalties on books bought by readers in Botswana, and any country not on the Amazon list and that is most countries.
4. Amazon pays writers in Botswana with foreign cheques, which is a huge hassle.

Here is my experience so far.
1. I have sold 817 copies of Murder for Profit, 690 copies of Anything for Money and 760 copies of Claws of a Killer.
2. Because a lot of those books were sold during promotional periods during the first few months when I attempted to do some marketing, they were sold at no charge. You can set you price at zero to try and get people to download and read in the hope of generating some hype.
3. All the books were priced at $2.99 so I could get the 70% royalty rate but still keep the price low enough to encourage people to buy. Amazon sold them at $4.99 which included their arbitrary $2 charge on each book. So Amazon got the $2 plus their share of the royalties, this is not negotiable.
4. If my ebook was sold in a country where the 70% royalty was working, I made $2.07 on each book sold at $2.99. That’s quite a good royalty actually. This didn’t happen often though.
5. The total money my three books have earned at Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing is $81.16 (USD), 10.24 British Pounds, and 13.62 Euros. I have received nothing. Before any money is released, you must reach a certain threshold. The threshold is $100 (USD) and 100 British Pounds or Euros.
6. I was quite keen to do marketing for the first few weeks, but since then I’ve done nothing. So I guess my bad sales are partly to due to that.
7. I think it might be a good idea to sell series like I did in this case. I found in a month if only three books were sold, it was usually one of each title. This led me to believe that one person bought all three ebooks. This may be wrong, but it happened so often I think it might be the case.

From my experience, it seems difficult to make money with KDP especially if you are publishing from Botswana. Yes, perhaps you could make money selling your books this way, but you’d need to really understand book marketing and devote a good amount of time to it.

I think it may be better to put your ebooks at multiple platforms; meaning put them at Amazon, but also put them at Smashwords, Apple Store, and Barnes and Noble for example. Some of these other places offer better deals and in any case, KDP is only for the Kindle readers, so if you only put your ebooks there you’re missing out on other types of e-readers

I do believe self-publishing ebooks can work for people with the will and the right set of skills and, of course, a good book. But, like most everything, it is not an easy way to publish your book, as some people may have made it seem. Yes, putting the book up is not that difficult, but that is only the beginning of the job.

(This first appeared at my column in The Voice newspaper, It's All Write, here)