Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thoughts from the other side

When Colleen Higgs asked me to compile the stories for Modjaji Books’ short story anthology on the theme of bed, I jumped at the chance. Mostly I love the idea of Modjaji Books and wanted to be part of it any way I could, but I also liked the thought of seeing the world from the other side. As a writer, I’ve not been immune from seeing the people receiving my own submissions as fanged and prone to carrying pitch forks. The process has been enlightening for me as a writer and I thought it might be of interest to others to see what I’ve learned.

I love deadlines. As a writer I always submit ages before the deadline. I hear stories like Henrietta Rose-Innes’ about submitting ‘Poison’ to SA/PEN hours before the closing time, and I shiver. I’ve assumed that she and my writing partner, who waits until the last day to submit, were anomalies. I realise now they are not- I am.

Once the bed anthology was announced submissions trickled in about one a day, one every couple days, and I was getting very worried. Would we even have enough submissions for a book? But then in the last two days before the deadline we received over 250 entries! I was shocked! Writers are procrastinators of the first order!

Though it seems that I am, in fact, the odd one out, I still think waiting until the last minute is a dodgy modis operandi. Things go wrong. With bed, many attachments couldn’t be opened, critical information was missing, or submissions did not fall between our word count. Now what? The time is finished. My advice to writers- submit early.

When reading the submissions, I looked for a story that pulled me in, characters that made me want to know them; most of all I wanted interesting stories. I also didn’t want that interesting story to only begin after a page and a half. Get into it straight away.

One thing many people did wrong was to go with their first idea and, unfortunately, most people’s first ideas involved a grandmother, a feather bed, and/ or a hospital. I’m sure everyone loves their grandmother, but that’s just it- everybody loves their grandmother. Unless your grandmother and her feather bed dashed through the air fighting aliens on a quest to save planet earth, it is unlikely she will interest most people.

There were quite a few stories about infidelity; some interesting, some not. A lot of sex which was nice for the reader- me. There were a few “The Beds of my Life” sorts, on the most part not compelling. There were garden type beds which sometimes pulled me in. Bed rock was rare and interesting. To be honest, I discovered as I read that when given a theme such as this, writers should not tackle it straight on. Sideswipe it a bit. Let the scent of it waft through your story. This is where the writer will find a place that is hers alone; these were often the stories I liked best.

Another interesting revelation to me was the bios. Since we are writers, one would have expected writerly bios, but surprisingly that was often not the case. This is my own point of view, but writing about your religious quest is not a good idea, some people, not myself, take such things quite seriously and may be offended if you are of a different view. People sometimes were pleading in their bios- “this is my first story ever and I hope you will be merciful…” kind of thing. Again not advisable. Some went off on wild tangents about their passage through life up until now- though interesting to me personally - to the real editor types it might shout unprofessional. In bios, stick to publishing history, and minimal personal stuff.

I was surprised at the number of people who put nothing identifiable on their story. No name, no email. Don’t do this unless you are asked to, for example in a blind contest. It is a huge hassle. HUGE.

The other thing that shouts unprofessional is constant questions about the status of the submission. Give people a chance. If by six months, you’ve heard nothing, then send a polite reminder. Sending emails after a week, insinuating that the publisher is being very rude by not communicating, is likely not a good idea.

Over all I liked the process. I learned a lot. It was difficult to send rejections because I know how some people are affected by such things, but all published writers I’ve met have the skin of elephants, the only way to survive; developing it sooner would be advisable. I think there were more excellent submissions than Modjaji will be able to use, and that was nice. It said something quite positive about the status of women writers in Southern Africa. The process has made me a better writer and I thank Modjaji Books for that.

Can’t wait to see the book-watch this space!


Anonymous said...

I guess in the quest to get a piece published most of us never think about the other side of the process. It's great that you've had a chance to experience it.

Lauri said...

It really has been very educational, Vic.

Liesl said...

If I had my way, Lauri, every single writer would have a compulsory week long experience of opening, reading and responding to submissions.

It has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life and really has helped me refine my thinking about writing, my approach to the tasks related to submission and to the writing itself.

It has not, regrettably, made me submit any earlier... I'm still one of the last minuters in this department!

Dutiful daughter said...

Lauri - such a useful blog, I agree with Liesl, writers should have to experience dealing with submissions, you immediately get a sense of why it is important to do certain things, in fact it makes you politer, and aware of audience. Not sure which is more important.

Lauri said...

Liesel- Please change your late ways! :) I unfortunately suffer from vicarious worrying, I'll soon have to add you to my list of writers to worry about. Keep in mind at all times a picture of HRI's life had she missed the deadline with Poison. No SA/PEN win. No Caine Prize. Makes my blood run cold.

Colleen- Thanks again for the opportunity. Also thanks from your kind words about the blog.

Dutiful daughter said...

Oh and Lauri, thanks so much for doing such a brilliant, patient, professional job in compiling the stories. You are fabulous to work with!

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