Monday, August 31, 2009

John Prine- The Writer's Singer

I was watching this odd little show on BTV the other night. BTV like most government departments is cash strapped. My thought is that somewhere, I'm not sure where, there is a pool of free programmes for television stations to use as they like to fill in gaps in the programming schedule. BTV is dipping into the pool so often their arms are perpetually wet. They're usually born again Christian things or profiles about rich people and all the crap they've managed to pile up. Lately there's been this funny little show about guitar players. Not people you really know just people who adore music made by guitars, people who know every single possible thing a person could know about guitars. I'm always fascinated by people with such tunnel-visioned passion, in awe really since I'm a generalist by nature, so I like this programme quite a lot.

So the other night I was watching the guitar show and a man there mentioned John Prine. I never thought I'd hear John Prine mentioned on BTV but there you have it. Since my last John Prine cassette got eaten by the car radio from hell, I haven't listened to his music for some time, though I sing it sometimes alone in the car, the one without a radio. The mention of John Prine opened the flood gates and my mind was awash with John Prine memories.

For me John Prine embodies the summers of my adolescence. John Prine means Summerfest in Milwaukee on the shores of windy Lake Michigan. Sunny days when I could wear shorts and halter tops and look like the sexy teenager I was. It means drinking beer when you're under age and making out with your boyfriend who is "older" which means you are dangerous and wild. It was the time when life was so full of potential your paths seem endless and time was infinite.

I don't know how many times I watched John Prine on a stage at Summerfest, just him and his acoustic guitar playing songs so loving they made you cry and so sad they'd hang around your neck for days and so funny you'd still be pissing your pants laughing days later. He was such a humble and sincere performer. I loved him from the first time I saw him on stage before I really listened to his lyrics; for lyrics are where John Prine's magic lives.

One of his saddest songs and most well known is Sam Stone which is likely just as relevant now with all the Iraq veterans going home.

Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well he played his last request
As the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air
But life had lost its fun
There was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the GI Bill
For a flag draped casket on a local heroes hill

(From Sam Stone)

About the truest love song ever written is In Spite of Ourselves, about real life love, the one with flabby guts and farts.

He ain't got laid in a month of Sundays
I caught him once and he was sniffin' my undies
He ain't too sharp but he gets things done
Drinks his beer like its oxygen
He's my baby and I'm his honey
Never gonna let him go

(From In Spite of Ourselves)

See aren't his lyrics incredible? Listen to Hello in There or Angel from Montgomery or Muhlenburg County or Sins of Memphisto or Unwed Fathers, in fact any of his songs and you will find inspiration.

Once when my sister and her husband were visiting here in Botswana from Colorado, I put a John Prine tape in the cassette player for them to listen to and my brother-in-law said, "Yeah, he's a bit like Jimmy Buffet." I've never heard such an insult! I felt like I'd been stabbed in the heart; for a moment I had to restrain myself from reaching over the seat and giving him a backhand. I liked my brother-in-law a fraction less after that.

I adore John Prine, I even wrote a novel inspired by his song Donald and Lydia, unfortunately it is one of my wallflower novels. John Prine's lyrics are so spot on, so true and right you almost believe he invented the thoughts while he's only the observer; what more can we ask from a writer?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Me At Bookaholic!

Click HERE to read my interview at Bookaholic. Considering yesterday I cheered ebooks on I think my comment that ebooks are the work of the devil may have to be reconsidered.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Re-inventing the Book Business- Step by Step

In all corners of the world, people are re-inventing the book business, they're trying to find new ways of making money with books. I've collected a few of the interesting ideas I've come across and thought I'd share.

1. Melinda Blau is co-author of the book Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter...But Really Do. In an interesting marketing ploy, she has asked her Facebook friends and other fans to go into bookstores where her book is being sold and take a picture with her book. Then they should send the photo to her and she will post a collage on her website. I'm not sure if this will necessarily sell more books, but it will definitely generate a bit of hype.

2. To add money to publishers' and writers' pockets, most American publishers have set up speaker bureaus. Festivals, universities or other institutions or events which might need a particular author for speaking now have the process streamlined. Authors can earn between $5000 and $20,000 per engagement with the money divided between the publisher and the author.

3. The self publishing business is booming. Many authors, especially those with an established platform around non-fiction books find self publishing highly effective. Their marketing strategy is already in place either through speaking engagements or websites. 80,000 self published titles in one year? Wow! Read this interesting and informative post from self published author Enid Wilson about easy ways to make polished looking covers for your self published book.

4. Though this idea came from someone who was trying to rip authors off, if you do it yourself it is an excellent way to market your book- make postage stamps with the cover of your book as the design. Here's a website where you can buy the stamps.

5. Ebooks are the new wave. The internet is a fantastic way to sell ebooks and we all have access (at least if we are here). Setting up an ebook is also not that difficult. Check it out here. For African authors published in Africa who want their books read overseas, ebooks are proving the only way to compete price-wise. We need to get on the boat- it's sailing already. Here is a new start-up for African writers wanting to sell ebooks in the United States. It's called Little WhiteBakkie.

What interesting book-y ideas have you heard about recently? I'd love to hear about them.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rewriting Those Horrible Children's Tales

We've spoken before in this blog about the terrible sort of stories we subject our innocent children to- Velveteen Rabbit being top on my list of nightmare-inspiring fairy tales. After a comment by Anne Fine that the current crop of books for children are very bleak, Guardian writer Stephen Moss thought perhaps it was time to put a new twist on those old tales in his hilarious article online.

We all know how The Ugly Duckling shaped us into the looks obsessed people that we are; we saw the consequences of being ugly and it was not pretty. Moss has a new ending for this classic mind warper:

Rewrite: Joins Ugly Duckling Support Group; campaigns successfully for physically challenged ducks' rights; is ultimately accepted for what he is rather than conforming to meaningless notions of grace and beauty.

Or how about his rewrite of Peter Pan:

Rewrite: After numerous adventures, Peter and Wendy settle down to a life of domestic tranquillity in Notting Hill; the Lost Boys work hard at school and make it to Cambridge, where they study law and win rowing blues. The evil Captain Hook does not escape the clutches of the ticking crocodile, who swallows fey Tinkerbell and the annoying Mrs Darling for good measure.

See folks, every story CAN have a happy ending with just that little bit extra effort.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ian Khama and the Day that Wasn't Friday the 13th

You could have been confused, anybody would have been. Perhaps it was Friday the 13th or April 1st, but it wasn't. It was last Friday, the 21st of August. I was driving home from the shops listening to Gabz FM, my preferred radio station when I can get it, and I get an SMS from my husband in Gaborone- "Radio Botswana- Emergency Speech by the President". So I quickly change the station and enter mid-speech. The first thing I realised was the person speaking spoke in first person but the person was not the President of Botswana. Later I realised it was the new director of broadcasting services, the boss of BTV, Daily News, and Radio Botswana, Mr. Mogomotsi Kaboeamodimo, a civil servant. He was standing in as the president. That alone was bizarre. One would think if the president has something so urgent to tell the nation he might have taken time out of his schedule to do just that- tell the nation. Instead he chose to pull the new director down into the quagmire and compromise his integrity too.

The speech was about the personal beef between President Ian Khama (of the "A Team") and Gomolemo Motswaledi (from the Barataphati Faction) both members of the Botswana Democratic Party. The factions have been wrestling each other for power in a dirty, public battle. So the President felt it was suitable to tell his side of the story on the public owned media, for he didn't just use the civil servant to read his political message on Radio Botswana, he did the same on BTV and he did it numerous times throughout the day.

To compound all of this we are coming up on a national election. Besides the fact that the President used public assets for his own personal agenda, a case can be made that the address was a form of advertisement for the BDP.

In yesterday's Mmegi, Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, the ministry that controls the state media, Ms Pelonomi Venson- Moitoi had nothing to say. What did anyone expect given her heavy handed, barely hidden attempt to regulate the press with the recent Media Bill, now law, that requires journalists to get permission to operate from a council set up by politicians?

Friday happened and as the editorial in the same issue of Mmegi portends, "Friday was a new low in government media abuse by BDP". Watching the BTV version of the speech after the 9pm news on Friday, I couldn't quite believe the audacity of the whole thing. Botswana has never experienced such blatant disrespect for the electorate. I felt very sad and for the first time, scared. We are in for some rough times ahead I'm afraid.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Meanwhile Don't Push And Squeeze: A Year of Life in China by Robert Berold

Meanwhile Don't Push and Squeeze: A year of life in China is the account of South African poet Robert Berold's year in Hangzhou, China teaching English. It's a delightful book for so many reasons not least of which is Berold's attitude to the whole experience. Before arriving he already had an awe for the culture, literature (in particular poetry), and the beautiful calligraphy of the country. This love brought about an intrinsic respect for the culture that echoes through all parts of the book. In many instances the heat and polluted air and the constant crowds weighed on him, but he never became the 'disgruntled expat'. His wide-eyed interest in the country comes through on every page. It nearly had me wanting to rush off to China myself, even with my pathological hatred of crowds, so that is indeed saying something.

He travelled quite a bit while he was in China. In one part he visits a student's farmer family. The house he stayed in astounded him as it was so dilapidated that it had no walls and it was winter, but yet the overwhelming hospitality of his Chinese hosts was humbling. This was the case throughout his travels.

I loved the whole of this book, but the best parts for me were the bits of writing he included from his students at the university. It gives the reader such insight into their lives and the lives of the people they interact with. There was a lovely assignment where they had to interview someone they didn't know. This produced windows into the lives of typical Chinese. The immense pressure they are under to work, often separated from their families far away. Their commitment to the success of their children, especially their fear they won't do well in school and get into good universities. The students' writing in many places is so beautiful in its honesty and simplicity one is shocked that they are writing in a second language, one so very different from their first.

Of course a book about China would not be complete without the crazy translations found on signs and labels and these gave me more than a few giggles. The title itself comes from a sign board at a tourist attraction.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Pay if Forward

About a month or so ago, UK based author Sue Guiney received a gift from someone. It was part of a sort of project. When she received the gift, she was to pay it forward by sending gifts out to three people. I was one of the three people. Today I received my gift which you can see above. A copy of Sue's poetry play Dreams of May, a beautiful starfish pendant reminding me of the sea I love so much, and a lovely book-y card.

So now it's my turn. I need three people who are willing to pay it forward. If they agree, they must provide me with their postal address and I will send them a gift. When it arrives they must send gifts out to three others. I think it's a lovely thing, sort of a ripple affect of happiness.

So if you'd like to be part of this let me know; either in the comments below, by email, or in Facebook. I will take the first three people.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thoughts of my Father

Today would have been my father’s 79th birthday. He died at the age of 50 from lung cancer after smoking Lucky Strikes for over 30 years. Most of my thoughts about my childhood are problematic, so I try to forget them, but today I want to not do that, I want to try and remember what I can about this man, about my father.

He was not well educated; I think he went as far as primary school. He grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin. He escaped the farm by joining the navy and later the army, or perhaps in the other order. He fought in the Korean War and was awarded a Purple Heart medal. He was not one of those men who spoke about the war in all its glory. He never mentioned it. When my cousin, who fought in the Vietnam War, visited they would lock themselves up in a room and drink and speak of the things no one else could understand.

My father worked very hard at working class jobs. For most of the time that I can remember he was a long distance truck driver. He transported tanks of corn syrup, mostly, around the Midwestern United States. I don’t know if he liked this job. He was gone for most of the week sleeping in hotels, coming home only on the weekends.

He married twice. He married my mother, who he told me once was the only woman he’d ever loved. Unfortunately, she was flawed and harmed him in uncountable ways. He was left with five children and a job that gave him only two days out of seven to raise them. He married again. This time, as he also told me, “to get a babysitter”. He had shockingly bad judgment in choosing wives.

He liked to build things though detested instructions; I’ve inherited the last from him. He would buy DIY books only to get ideas, never to be read. So we had strange objects such as picnic tables that catapulted people on one side into the air like a seesaw when someone sat opposite them, and a braii stand people always thought was a far too elegant dog house. He once used a chain saw to change a station wagon into a baakie. He was the definition of a man who ‘could make a plan’.

A farm boy at heart, he loved to hunt. He’d hunt anything in season: deer, geese, squirrels, rabbits, but rarely had success. It was not about that, it was about being in the woods with his friends or his dog.

He was very patriotic. One of his many projects was to build a very tall flag pole. On public holidays he made a ceremony of raising his flag, the one he’d been given, the one that would drape his coffin, up that pole to blow in the wind high above.

He was a charismatic man, few people who met him stopped there; they went on to be his friend, often fiercely so. At his funeral, I remembered being shocked at the number of people. Many grown men wept openly, something I had never seen before. As they carried his coffin out the door of the church, stepping over puddles of melted snow amidst the first sprouts of green grass, honking could be heard and the gathering raised their heads to watch the high above V of Canadian geese on their way home, perhaps they were accompanying him, I don’t know.

So today I think about this man, my father. I know more about him and his motivations now as I too am an adult and a parent, a wife. But still I wonder what he thought about at the front of his mind and the tiny crevices too. I wonder what secrets he kept. I wonder what his dreams were, what regrets he had. I wonder if he raged at his life cut too short, or he welcomed it as relief after years of struggle and pain.

Today I think of my father, Chancey Eli Burch.

10 Facts about Botswana

I thought I'd answer a few commonly asked questions by making a list of 10 interesting facts about Botswana you may or may not know.

1. Setswana is the language and culture. Batswana is the word used for many citizens of Botswana. One citizen is a motswana.

2. Botswana currently has a population of just over 1.8 million people. The country is about the size of France or Texas.

3. The majority of the people live on the eastern side of the country.

4. Most of the diamonds in the country are mined by Debswana- a company in which DeBeers owns 50% of the shares and the Government of Botswana owns 50% of the shares.

5. Jwaneng Diamond Mine, in the south of the country, is the richest diamond mine in the world.

6. Botswana was never actually been colonised. It was a protectorate of Britain only after three chiefs from Botswana travelled to England to request such an arrangement.

7. 17% of Botswana has been set aside as game reserves and parks more than the internationally recommended 10%.

8. The capital is Gaborone. Pronounced Ha-bo-ro-nee.

9. The kgotla system is entrenched in Setswana culture and is based on a system of democracy and free speech were every person in attendance has the right to speak their mind.

10. The current president is President Ian Khama. He is the son to the first president of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama. His mother was a white British woman. President Ian Khama is also paramount chief of the largest tribe in the country the Bamangwato.
Are you interested in learning more about Botswana? Consider purchasing Lauri's short story collection (ebook) In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories, all stories set in Botswana. You can buy it at Amazon HERE

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Paper Bag Publishing- Part of the New Wave

For years now, I've been saying it is not that Batswana don't read, they just don't buy books. They don't buy books because 1) they're prohibitively expensive and 2) the books that mention their lives, at all, are often far too serious and not very entertaining. What's needed are cheap, fun books about Botswana and cheap, fun books about Africa as a whole. The same applies to the black population in South Africa. People complain that they don't buy books, but yet no one can shift the marketing plan, even a fraction, to entice them. I think this is, thankfully, beginning to change.

There is a great article in this week's Mail and Guardian (14 August) about a new South African publishing house that is doing just that- Paper Bag Publishing. The company was started by Pat Hopkins who wanted to use the model set down by American and European dime novels and penny dreadfuls that helped build a book reading and book buying public among the working class of those countries. Paper Bag's first title was launched at the just ended Johannesburg Book Fair titled "I Ain't Yo Bitch" by Jabulile Bongiwe Ngwenya. It's the story of a budding lesbian hip-hop artist. (Buy it at Amazon here)

Paper Bag's strategy is to mentor young black writers to write their own stories and then to publish them cheaply so that young black readers can buy them. I think it is exactly what the continent needs.

Elsewhere in this blog I have spoken about the fact that for so long if African books were to be successful that success was only found off the continent. It is time African books, by African writers find their success here in Africa, but that will only happen when our books are written for our readers-the whole wide spectrum not, the little slivers the publishing houses now pander to.

A similar theme comes out in a recent interview at Litnet with South African Fiona Snyckers, author of Trinity Rising .

She is asked: It is very refreshing to read a South African novel which isn't beating a drum about issues. How has Trinity Rising been received so far?

And she has this to say: The feedback I’ve been getting is that local readers generally don’t expect to be entertained by local fiction. Instructed, moved and harrowed perhaps, but not entertained. So a lot of readers have expressed relief at coming across a novel that doesn’t preach to them about social issues. They have enjoyed the familiarity of the local setting without the angst that usually goes with it.

African fiction needs to lighten up and pull everybody into the wonders of reading and books. I think the changes that are happening are fantastic. Already bigger publishing houses are jumping on board. I think it is the beginning of change.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Visit with Sue Eckstein

Sue Eckstein is the author of the book The Cloths of Heaven which I reviewed here.

Welcome to Thoughts from Botswana, Sue! You seem to love dialogue. Tell me more about the role of it in your novels.

I do love dialogue and I think I use it a lot in the novel as characterisation – the characters are described more by what they say to each other than by a narrator. I love the way a character’s single phrase can sometimes say so much more than a whole page of prose. When my writing is going well, it really does seem as though the dialogue writes itself.

You have so many characters. What is your process? Do you create character bibles? Did you map out all of your connections beforehand?

I did nothing as organised as that! I’m not a writer who writes lengthy back-stories to characters. I kept all my characters in my head and just brought them out when I needed them. The connections seemed to just happen by themselves. I’d start writing a chapter and somehow another character would want to come in.

As characters come and go in different chapters – there may be a gap of several chapters between their appearances – I had to make sure that their lives had moved on during that time – for example, that they weren’t sitting in the same cafĂ© as they were before. At the end, I went back through the novel to check that it all worked and luckily didn’t have to make a lot of changes.

Bob Newpin is a vile character. Does he have a wider purpose than being just the local baddy? Are you making a political point with his character?

All the characters in the novel are capable of some kind of redemption, self-awareness or act of kindness, however small or insignificant - except Bob Newpin. I don’t think I ever thought for a moment that he’d have a redeeming feature. But equally I didn’t want him to be some kind of pantomime villain. There are Bob Newpins working throughout the world, often in developing countries where they seem to be able to get away with their bad behavior for much longer than they would here and I’ve met quite a few of them. I wanted him to get his come-uppance and I thought it fitting that it was another “fixer” who managed to put him in jail rather than the British or Bakinaban authorities.

There is a lot of the expatriate racism and condescension in your book that is quite common in expatriate communities around Africa. If you were the boss of the Foreign Service, how might you sort that problem out?

I think the racist and condescending characters in the novel are those who have never wanted, or perhaps haven’t been given the opportunity, to get to know any local people or the country outside their immediate environment. Those that do, including - eventually - Alec Moss, are capable of forging meaningful relationships.

I’m absolutely sure that people who are given the opportunity to forge those kinds of relationships and really get to know another country –VSO volunteers, Peace Corps volunteers, people who have spent gap years in Africa etc – will be very different kinds of expatriates or diplomats to the Barlings and others in the novel if they ever go on to work for the Foreign Office or any kind of organisation or company based in Africa. Or indeed if they end up working in the UK with refugees, asylum seekers or visitors from Africa.

If I were the boss of the Foreign Service, I’d make it a condition that all staff would have to spend some time living at grass roots level with local families in both rural and urban areas in that country before moving in behind the compound gates.

Humanitarian projects in your book are mostly a fiasco. Do you think that is usually the case? Are they fatally flawed? If so why?

I worked in overseas development for over 15 years, initially for Intermediate Technology Development Group and then for VSO so I’ve seen a lot of development projects throughout the world. It is easy to become cynical when, for example, you see brand new health centres lying empty because nothing was budgeted for doctors or nurses or even basic things like bandages or mattresses, when projects have clearly been planned with no input from local people. But perhaps things have improved in the 20 years since the book was set. More anthropologists are involved in project planning, the ideas of visionaries such as Robert Chambers are now quite routinely put into practice. I think one problem is that government and non-government organisations may be willing to give a very large amount of money for a big, prestigious project which will also bring in revenue and jobs for expatriates, but it’s very hard for local people to access small amounts of funding. I think the most useful thing I did during all my years working in development was to set up the Small Projects Fund in The Gambia. I managed to get some funding from the British High Commissioner (who was nothing like Alec Moss in the novel!) to set up the fund which the VSO volunteers managed. It distributed very small amounts of money to small, local groups – such as women wanting to set up a soap-making business. As far as I know, the fund is still going strong and I’m sure it’s made a small but significant difference to people’s lives.

How do you think your play writing has influenced your novel writing?

I wrote the novel before the plays. I’ve learned a huge amount about writing dialogue while writing the plays. The art is very much in what you don’t say rather than what you do say. Cutting and deleting is the key. In the novel I’m writing at the moment, every alternating chapter is a dialogue – with no description at all.

Sue, tell my readers in 25 words of less, why they should buy your book.

It’s got an intriguing plot and is peopled by characters who’ll stay in your mind for a long time after you put the book down. (25 words!!)

Sue, best of luck with your book and I look forward to the next one. Thanks for stopping by!
(You can purchase Sue's book HERE)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Death of the Publishing Industry? I Don't Think So

Since the economic crisis struck, and maybe even before it people have been predicting the death of the publishing industry especially anything written on paper. In America the June sales figures (published on the blog Shelf Awareness) tell a different story.

E-book exploded 136.2% to $14 million.
Higher education climbed 60.6% to $357.2 million.
Adult mass market jumped 30.9% to $94.2 million.
Adult paperback rose 15.7% to $132.6 million.
Adult hardcover climbed 12.6% to $132.1 million.
Children's/YA paperback was up 1.1% to $46.3 million.
Children's/YA hardcover fell 2.8% to $47.8 million.
University press paperback dropped 7.4% to $3.4 million.
Professional and scholarly fell 11.7% to $55.9 million.
Audiobook slipped 17.3% to $12.9 million.
University press hardcover slumped 20.1% to $3.3 million.
Religious books fell 22% to $41.7 million.

A closer look at these figures are actually quiet inspiring. Adult paperbacks up 15.7%, Adult hardcovers up 12.6%, Adult mass market up 30.9%.

So- begone all doomsday-ers! The Book Lives On!!
(Okay I know I didn't mention the 136.2% increase in eBooks but that really doesn't mean paper books are dead. It doesn't.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Botswana, South Africa

Botswana is currently struggling because people aren't buying diamonds because of the economic collapse around the world. I want to start this post positive because I do think Debeers was trying to do good, the only thing they decided to do it on a tight budget. The plan apparently was to get some Hollywood celebrity types to be part of the marketing campaign to brand Botswana's diamonds. Tight money meant they got C List stars, the ones who make a big splash in places like Boise, Idaho. In this case, it was a football player named Reggie Bush and his IQ challenged, reality show, girlfriend Kim Kardashian.
They got flown into Botswana and toured the mines. According to Big League Screw they even got a few diamonds to take home as souvenirs. Once home the happy couple immediately broke up and for that I give Mr. Reggie Bush two points.

Bright Spark Kardashian decided to speak about her trip;that was where she erred. While on the trip she decided to pop in at Twitter and dropped this gem, “We are here in Botswana, South Africa! Wow what a long flight!” . Oops... I guess that branding of Botswana diamonds spiel sort of went in one ear and out the other.

To add to the mess, on her blog she tried to explain why Botswana, South Africa's diamonds are not 'blood diamonds' :

July 19, 2009 6:30 PMKim Kardashian said to: sarah_jane Reply
I am so glad you are saying this, because us going down there to spread the word is our mission. I too thought the same as you, thinking about Blood Diamonds, and wondering how can buying diamonds really help the community? However everyone there encouraged us to talk about the fact that when these diamonds are purchased they can then fund schools, rehab center, hospitals etc. This is their sole funding source and people in the US are so afraid to purchase the diamonds, thinking they are blood diamonds, but that's just wrong. First of all, in the movie they sifted diamonds in the water to find them, so basically anyone willing to stand in water all day looking for diamonds they would hire. That is the old way, there are mines now, where a 6 month training process has to take place before anyone can even get the job of a miner. These mines have given thousands of jobs to the community which in itself is helping A LOT!

I'm glad she's cleared that up for us. According to her in the past in Botswana there were blood diamonds, when we were finding the diamonds by sifting with water, but now that the miners get a six moth training course everything is fine. WHAT? I really think if Debeers had the money to pop out to get her here couldn't they have forced her to listen to the history behind diamonds in the country and perhaps give her a short exam to be sure she got it? Multiple choice if it had to be, but really.

The comments at the blog after that just go downhill:

July 19, 2009 6:56 AMMisspeak says: Reply
Of course if a diamond company is paying for your trip they're not going to mention the people slaughtered in order to obtain those diamonds. The ignorance in this post is completely disgusting and sad.

July 18, 2009 2:45 PMjrrrca says: Reply
free trip, free hotel, free diamonds, free publicity, but guess what? u still got used, smiled pretty for the camera while still poor children and workers are basically slaves for these companies that are 'conflict-free'

July 17, 2009 8:20 PMbetzy95 says: Reply
Hey kim,I m sooo happy that u were helping out children over there in africa!! N i didnt now that diamonds helped africa out...i m gong to go out n buy some. LOL

At least Ms Kardashian got her publicity so the people in Boise will be pleased. As for the marketing of Botswana diamonds let's see what we learned:

1. Botswana is located in the country of South Africa.

2. It's easy to recognise blood diamonds, they're the ones that are sifted in water. (Duh!)

3. Workers in Botswana, since they are given a 6 month training course, no longer need to sift diamonds in water therefore the diamonds from Botswana are not blood diamonds.

4. Botswana, South Africa's sole source of funding comes from diamonds. They do not collect taxes, or have any other industry or mines. There is no commerce to speak of. We have no services provided from government income. Everything comes from diamond money- even the rehab centres. (?)

5. And, of course, Ms Kardashian, the humanitarian will be remembered for all the help she gave to the poor suffering children of Africa (that nebulous black hole where only suffering and hunger can be found).

My only question is how much money did Debeers splash out on this nitwit and who can we expect next- Paris Hilton?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Would You Be a Writer Without The Computer Age?

There's an interesting discussion on the blog Gusty Writer discussing how the internet has changed how we write. I was thinking about it yesterday. I don't know if I would have found myself working full time as a writer if it was not for computers and the internet.

So many of the successes I have originated from something I saw on the internet. My first contest win, a highly commended in the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's Short Story Contest, I entered after reading about it on the internet. My first story that was chosen to be submitted for the Caine Prize was published at Author Africa a website I found on the internet. I've met almost all of the writers I know on the internet. For about two years now I've been doing a lot of collaborative writing projects with a woman who lives 200 kms away from me. We did the bulk of our work together through the internet. Without the internet I would be extremely isolated in my village in Botswana.

As for computers, I doubt I even need to mention how invaluable they are to me as a writer. Even just simple things. Like yesterday I was working on my romance novel and I decided I wanted a very minor character to take on a new role. If I was typing or writing by hand, I would have had to go back through all of the pages and find where this minor character is mentioned and make sure everything jives with her new expanded role. It might have taken a big chunk of my afternoon, not to mention having to re-type any pages that needed edits. Instead thanks to the computer, I used the find function and in a few minutes tightened everything up. Easy-ka-peasy.

As much as I rage at technology, and I do it often, I really must take a few minutes today and be grateful for how it allows me to follow my heart and do it so easily. Would I be a writers without computer and technology? Perhaps, but I would be no where near as successful as I've been.

What about you?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Who? That Which!

No, this is not going to be a post about dialogue in soap operas, so if that’s what you were looking for you better move along. This is a post about one of my pesky grammar issues- when to use who, that, and which.

According to The Macmillan Good English Handbook, we use who with people.

An example: Creek, who married Fern’s ex-husband and then poisoned him, cried into her third glass of Merlot and wondered if she was becoming an alcoholic.

We use which, on the other hand, for things.

An example: The poison, which Creek used to kill Cliff, was not found during the autopsy, but Detective Smith still had his suspicions.

Okay that’s the easy part. So what about which and that? Those are the tricky ones right? Grammar Girl makes it very simple. If the phrase must remain in the sentence or the sentence will no longer mean the same thing, you must use that. (This is a restrictive clause, if you must. I try to avoid grammatical terms. They give me a rash)

If the phrase can be taken out of the sentence and the sentence still keeps its meaning then you should use which. (A non-restrictive clause for all you grammar devotees who insist on having your way)

Cliff’s death, which caused havoc in the fashion industry, made Fern a wealthy woman thanks to a legal technicality he had included in his will

Cliff’s will that he wrote only days before his death was the one with the critical change that left Creek destitute.

In the first example, if you remove –which caused havoc in the fashion industry- the sentence will not lose its meaning because the sentence is really about Fern getting rich thanks to Creek’s handiwork.

Whereas in the second example, removing- that he wrote only days before his death - would change the meaning of the sentence completely and wouldn’t let us in on the fact that Cliff had a feeling his days might be numbered and that his darling Creek might be the one numbering them.

Another small thing about that- watch it! Thats are very tricky and, frankly, pushy. They have a tendency to push their way into sentences when there is no job for them there at all.

For example: That poison on the shelf was the poison that Creek used to kill Cliff.

The second that is just sitting there serving no purpose except to needlessly increase the word count. Get rid of it. Remove all thats with no job. Unemployed thats must go. I’m sorry; that’s the way it is.

(This post originally appeared on Blood Red Pencil)

Sceptical of Happiness

Nowadays everybody is searching for happiness and, frankly, I find it dead annoying. I don't feel like the pursuit of happiness should be a sensible life plan. Whenever I meet someone who says,"I just want to be happy", the first word that comes to my mind is "fool" ,the second is "lazy". Only a fool can be blindly happy. The world is not set up for happiness. Look at nature. I mean, really,- lions, springbok, lizards, trees, grass, even that jolly fellow the rabbit - they're not happy in their kill or be killed world. What makes us think humans are above that?

Then you have The Secret. Okay I do believe if you walk around all day thinking the world is out to get you, the world is going to seriously get you. But I certainly don't think everything is in abundance. How did that piece of psychobabble come into mainstream consciousness? I listened to a woman going on and on about it on Noleen the other day and I thought I'd vomit. I thought about a struggling single mother living on minimum wage in a tin shack in some vile squatter camp with a quaint view of a bubbling brook of sewage in front of her home watching this idiot, who is likely living off of some BEE, money-grubbing scheme, and wanted to reach in the TV and shake the woman until her brains rattled back into place.

Natural selection requires limited resources. When did we throw natural selection away? Was I asleep? I know for a fact as I write this, despite all the good thoughts I have - my nartjies are finished. They are finished. That is just the fact of it. So what's actually in abundance- happiness? Do these fools ever watch the news?

I'm always sort of wary of happy times. I laugh and joke and have had some pretty damn good times in my life, but at the back of my mind I'm always wondering -"Okay life what's next?". Life is not a jolly roller coaster ride of adventure and happiness. Telling people that is just cruel. Life is tough. At times life is damn near torture. Occasionally a chocolate sundae with real whipped cream and a cherry on top will fall from the sky, but by no means should you start thinking that's the norm. Just eat it up, be thankful you happened to be under it when it fell, and then get back to the hard work of living.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Careful Critiquing

Critiquing another writer's work is problematic. Some writers ask for critiques but what they really want is praise. They want you to say,"Boy that's wonderful! I don't know why it got a rejection". This is what they want even though their mouths are saying "Please tell me the truth I really want to improve". They don't want the truth unless the truth is "Boy that's wonderful! I don't know why it got a rejection". I know these writers because sometimes I'm in that category, I have to admit it.

I've written something I love, I've sent it off and it was slapped down without a second thought and my feelings are hurt. I think the best thing to do then is read it to your husband or other family member who thinks you're the best thing since cheese and then let him say "Boy that's wonderful! I don't know why it got a rejection". Please don't give it to another writer and pretend like you want a critique, a real one, one that will help you to improve the story. Please don't do that- it's not fair.

Critiquing is a big job. For me critiquing another writer's fiction may be the job I like least of all. Mostly because I have trouble staying out of it. Also you don't want to hurt people's feelings, you just want to improve things a bit, but you don't know which turn of phrase they are so proud of, which character quirk they got in a flash of brilliance, which plot twist they are sure is the key to the story's success. It could be the very one you don't like. It's tricky this business.

I have improved along the way; on both sides- giving criticism and accepting criticism. Rick Daley wrote a lovely post at Nathan Bransford's blog that gives some pointers and I have a few of my own gathered along the way.

1. Use Word's tracking tool.
I used to not know about this and just made changes in brackets on the document or highlighted with colour. I think the tracking tool is less invasive, it feels more like the suggestions that the critique really is.

2. Watch your wording
Unless the person is a very close writing friend, saying things such as "Get rid of this" might not wash well. Maybe use "Might be stronger without this" you still get the point across but again as a suggestion not an order.

3. If things are in a bit of a mess, don't nitpick with grammar
I know people may disagree with this but I feel if the plot and characters are not working you rather leave grammar issues for the time being. Too much colour on the returned manuscript is demoralising for anyone.

4. Don't miss the good stuff.
Don't only comment on what's wrong. Highlight also what is right. Mention that beautiful wording, dialogue that is right on base, a refreshing ending.

5. Give a positive round-up.
I always try to end with my general impression of the piece; what worked, what didn't. I try always to be positive but I'm never dishonest. If it is not working it's not working and I won't say it is. In a true critique, you're doing no one a favour by giving false praise. Don't be negative but don't be dishonest.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Enemy is Within

Yesterday literary agent, Nathan Bransford, had a guest blogger Regina Milton at his site. She wrote about all the external things that keep us from writing, the things we shake our fists at in rage. But then she pointed out that sometimes we are in fact the problem. Do any of the points below sound too familiar to you?

complacency - that thing that stops us from rewriting a bad chapter one last time

doubt - the voice that says "your book will never be good enough, why even finish?"

pride - the force that convinces us to not take any more writing classes or attend any more seminars, because we've already "arrived"

fear - fear of failure, fear of success, fear of agents, fear of being misunderstood, fear that we are wasting our time, fear of hard work

writer's fatigue - yes, it takes a long time to make things perfect

procrastination - not making the effort until the last moment (sure this sometimes produces brilliant work, but it often results in shoddy writing)

Well, as I write this it is 12:08 and I have not started writing yet though I've been at this computer since 10 am. I have watched quite a few humorous videos on YouTube and read all about what my friends are doing on Facebook, but actual work? No, none of that. I think Ms Milton makes an excellent point and as I am someone who at least alleges to be able to take advice- I am now off to work.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

2 Bad Things = 1 Good Thing, and, Maybe, 1 other Good Thing

So some who read this blog might remember some time ago when I decided to take a trip into romance writing. It all went pear shaped when I discovered that I was indeed not black. How that is related to writing romance is a long and winding road, but suffice it to say I had completed a substantial amount of work on my first romance novel and was quite bummed to hear it was for nought. I had a title, a chapter plan, a plot map, character bibles, and the first chapter all finished. That's a lot of work to throw to the side and say "lesson learned". (Bad thing No. 1)

A year or so ago when I had a bit of success with my short stories, I got the crazy idea that it might be time to have a collection of them published. When I first started writing six years ago, I sent one of my wallflower novels to Kwela Publishers in South Africa. They sent me the most encouraging, nice rejection and I promised myself if ever I write something I'd like published in Southern Africa for the trade market, I would send it to them. So I sent the short story collection and they sent back a rejection with a quite brutal reader's report. (Bad thing No. 2)

Last Friday, after a pretty yucky week, at 3:59 pm, when the week was just about to be finished and thrown in the Crap Week Bucket, I got an email from ditsala ya me at Kwela. They wanted to know if I might like to write a romance novel for them. I asked why they thought of me and I got the reply that since I sent my short stories, I had been put on a list of writers to keep track of. Unlike the numerous unsavory lists where my name usually appears, I think I like this list. (Good thing No. 1)

So, Monday I sat down highly motivated and have since written 11,000 plus words in three days. I hope to finish the rough draft in a month, month and a half at most. Then- clean it up and polish to a bright shine and hopefully- voila!- I send it off, get an acceptance ,and I become a romance writer. (Good thing No. 2 , maybe)

Lessons learned?
1. Rejection is sometimes a really, really great thing.
2. Don't toss any writing away- it may just find a home.
3. A crap week is not a crap week until the Kwela bird doesn't sing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Cloths of Heaven- Review

The Cloths of Heaven by Sue Eckstein

When you sit down to read The Cloths of Heaven you should know that you are entering a spider web; a spider web of connections between a vast cast of characters. Ms Eckstein brings the characters to the reader in tiny drips; a scene here, a thought, a bit of dialogue. She is expert at adding layers to give depth. Each time you make a stop at a character a bit more is given, but only a bit, to add flesh and dimension. Nothing is extra, a skip of a line or two will have you missing a connection in the intricate web and a bit of the tale Eckstein is weaving.

The book is set in West Africa and revolves around a group of expatriates. The cast is multitude. There is the cheating high commissioner, Alec, and his equally cheating wife, Fenella; Isobel and Patrick who are some how connected with the British Council and by default a few rungs down on the social hierarchy; the surly, enigmatic Rachel Kayne who works in the cloth shop; Daniel Maddison the new arrival at the High Commission, and the vile, entrepreneur Bob Newpin to name only a few. Back stories hover in England where Daniel’s Aunt Eleanor visits Stanley Shea at the nursing facility where he lives after shooting half of his head away in a failed suicide after his West African servant decides to get married. Isobel and Patrick’s son has moved in with Daniel Maddison’s sister, while Rachel’s grandfather has gone “bush” and appears time and again in half page accounts of his traipsing. Everyone is connected and knocking into each other in delightful ways that can only happen in a novel, but at the same time are what make novels so wonderful.

Ms Eckstein’s talent is in characterisation and dialogue likely from her experiences in play writing. People talking is what seems to interest her. She has had much success with plays having written among others The Tuesday Group, Kaffir Lilies, Laura, and Old School Ties, many of which have been performed on BBC Radio 4.

The Cloths of Heaven is a delightful book, likely you’ll read it at one sitting it's quite difficult to put down once you're pulled in.


Stop by Thoughts from Botswana on Tuesday the 18th of August when the author of The Cloths of Heaven, Sue Eckstein will be here to answer questions about her book and the writing process. If you've read the book and have questions you'd like answered please send them through to me.

See you then!

See the entire blog tour for The Cloths of Heaven below:

27 July Myriad Editions - Publisher of the Week at The Book Depository
28 July Caroline Smailes - review and

interview/comments chat plus giveaway
28 July Sue Eckstein Tuesday Top Ten at The Book Depository
30 July Helen Hunt – Bookersatz - review
4 August Thoughts from Botswana – review
6 August Jackie Wills - review
9 August Denyse Kirkby – review, interview and giveaway
11 August Trailing Grouse – review
13 August Keris Stainton – review
18 August Thoughts from Botswana– interview
20 August So Close
25 August Sarah Salway – review
27 August Bubblecow – interview re: usefulness of tour

for authors

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sunday Book-y Sunday

Last night I stayed up, despite the cold and my warm electric-blanketed bed waiting for me, so that I could follow SA Books' Ben William's almost minute by minute coverage of the Sunday Times Awards on Facebook. A bit sad Whiplash didn't win. The Rowing Lesson by Ann Landsman won the fiction prize. It's quite a lovely book about a young woman who goes home to Cape Town when her father is dying. The book moves back and forth in time though her father's life revealing the man in all his colours, some not so lovely, in the beautiful three dimensional way of the human species.

This afternoon I noticed during my Sunday afternoon newspaper read that all three of John Van de Ruit's Spud books have made it to the Sunday Times Top 10 list at the same time (position 1, 3 and 6). They are hilariously fun books about Spud's time at boarding school. I've yet to read the last one as I bought it for my husband, who loves the books, and he is still reading it.
In 2007 when I went to the Cape Town Book Fair the Spud phenomenon was just taking off. I'd read the first book and bought the second one while I was there and got it signed. John Van de Ruit is very nice and quite entertaining. I went to his talk in 2007 and also this year.
This year I bought the third book in the series and realised everything had changed. John Van du Ruit was now a star! Everyday of the book fair I went to get the book signed for my husband and the queue was threaded through the Penguin stand and out along the hall. I'd tell myself "Well this can't last forever, I'll do it tomorrow." And the next day when he was signing books, I'd go to the stand and there was another queue of the same or perhaps longer length. I did this until the last day when I finally had to join the queue and wait as everyone else did.

In front of me was a young man of about my son's age (15). His excitement at being in the queue to get his copy of Spud Learning to Fly signed vibrated the air around him. The thing that I found especially endearing about this young man was that he'd obviously discussed his love of the books with his family at length. Every few minutes a family member would come up to him with little bits of Spud info. One minute it would be his mother reminding her son to get Mr. Van de Ruit to write his full name in the book. Then his younger brother came up with a copy of the first Spud book to show his older brother. Later his father arrived with a blank diary written 'Spud' on the front. The whole family were part of this boy's joyous experience- a teenager getting his book signed by an author. How lovely is that?

I spent the last part of my Sunday, after being taken out for breakfast by my husband, cleaning the house, reading the papers, and seeing said husband off to his first week back at university, enjoying the late afternoon sun on my bedroom sofa reading Exhibit A by Sarah Lotz. I'm feeling a bit bad about admitting my feelings for this writer in an earlier post since now none of you will believe me when I say that this book is great. But it really is. It is laugh out loud funny in many parts. I'm only half through but I love the way she is maintaining the tension, giving bits and throwing in doubts. It is a mystery - a young woman has been raped by a police officer after they throw her in a cell. I know it doesn't sound funny but the characters are my favourite kind- quirky and foul mouthed and mostly very messy. Exhibit A is the dog who has been taken into a witness protection programme of a sort and spends his days mostly in the back seat of the car licking his privates. I'm not even finished with this book and will not do a review since I'm dead biased, but I do highly recommend it.