Not a week passes by that I don’t get a phone call, an SMS or an email from someone who says- “I want to be a writer, how do I start?” or “I have a manuscript for a book can you tell me where to get it published?”. This goes to show that Batswana are writing or have the inclination to be writers but don’t know where to start. It’s inefficient for me to give such advice one by one so I thought I’d give it here to everyone at once. Keeping in mind I’m still on my own writing journey, this is what I know so far:
Rules for getting started
1. Do your research. Know your business.
2. Write, leave it to sit, and then edit, edit and edit.
4. Make groups with other writers who are about where you are in the process
Know Your Business
You need to know your business and you need to find that information on your own. Buy The Writers’ Handbook – there’s a new one very year with publishers’ and agents’ contact details and what they publish. There are also usually some good articles about writing and publishing. Read them. You can also find answers to almost every imaginable writing question on the internet. Have enough passion for your writing to do the research and find the answers that you need.
Leave it to Sit
I’ve spoken here before about how important it is to leave a bit of writing to sit. I finished the rough draft for a novel in May. I put it aside and only came back for edits at the beginning of November. Now when I look at it again I have that distance so it’s easier for me to see what works and what doesn’t, easier for me to see errors.
Never send out unedited work. Never. Give it, at the bare minimum, three go-throughs, hopefully with some time in between each one.
When writing you often feel as if you’re writing into the darkness, you’re not sure you’re on the right road and you want someone somewhere to tell you that you are. This could be what motivates the messages I receive each week. The best way to know if you’re on the right path is to submit- not to me, though- please. Submit to contests, submit to publishers, and submit to literary magazines. If you have success, you must be doing something right.
When I started out the most useful thing for me was to connect with other writers who were also beginning. At the time I was living in Lecheng and writers were scarce so I found the writers I needed on the internet. There are many writers’ forums around the internet. Places where new writers can ask questions about the writing process and the writing business. I joined such a forum and became friends with many of the other forum members. After some time a few of us created a writing group of our own. We would set ourselves tasks, and then we would write and submit to each other for critiquing. Though I’d never met these people (one lived in America, the other in Australia) I trusted them and I trusted their comments. They helped me to be a better writer. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where there are many writers, then face to face writers’ groups are the best way to go, but if not the internet is a fabulous tool.
I recently read the fantastic poetry book, Difficult to Explain edited by Finuala Dowling. She speaks at the beginning about how she runs her poetry writing classes and her own thoughts on poetry and writing in general. She says that good writers must have the right mix of ego and humility. You need enough ego to know what your writing is important, important enough to be published and read by others. About humility she says this- “Humility tells you that you don’t write well enough. You go in search of informed encouragement. You feel that you have something to learn. Humility reminds you that you need to read more. I’m quite stern about urging my students to read contemporary poetry. First of all, it’s good manners. If you want to be a published poet, you must read other published poets or where do you think your audience will come from?”
Humility is what keeps us learning, keeps us reading other people’s work. I’ve never met a successful writer who did not read. It seems crazy to me and as Ms Dowling points out- it is just bad manners.
Writing is not magic. There’s no easy route. You must put in the time and effort and if you have some talent, success will follow.
(This article appeared 3 December, 2010 in my column in The Voice newspaper, It's All Write)