Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reflections on the old year, Promises for the new one

I love New Year's Eve. There is something quite nice about taking a minute to look back at what you've accomplished and to look ahead at what is waiting for you.

2009 was a good year for me. I won a few contests- the best being the one in which I won the laptop. I had some exciting acceptances. My first attempt at romance got taken on the first time out. My first time entering the Sanlam Contest for Children's Literature saw me place as a finalist. My first novella, The Fatal Payout, was chosen as the only prescribed English novel for junior secondary schools in Botswana. I've made a bit of shift in my writing and now concentrate a bit more on books than short stories. I'm not sure if this is permanent but for now it is working well for me.

Personally, we moved back home after six years in Lecheng. It was nice to be back in my own house. My husband went off to university and my daughter finished her secondary school. We had two additions to our family- Catman and her son, Ramon.

2010 is looking to be a busy and exciting year. The winners for Sanlam will be announced early in the year. I have two books coming out in the first part of the year- Kwaito Love (Sapphire Press- imprint of Kwela) and a collection of short stories from Modjaji Books. I'll be off for the writers' residency in Egypt in May and am hoping to get a lot of work done on a new manuscript while there. Personally, my daughter will be starting university and my son finishing his secondary school. In 2011, father, son and daughter will all be at university together- how fun is that?

What does your new year look like?
Whatever it is I wish you a happy, dream of a 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The White Wedding

As my dear readers know, I spent my Christmas at my husband's home village of Xhumo where his youngest sister was getting married. For those outside of Botswana, Xhumo is a village located southeast of the Okavango Delta about 150 km west of the diamond mining town of Orapa.

When my husband was growing up in the area, the Boteti River flowed every year and the area was lush and green. That doesn't happen anymore. I'm not sure why. Some say the mine used too much water, some say a misguided rice growing project near Maun caused the water to disappear. Whatever the reason, Xhumo is now a dry, dusty place. When we were there there wasn't even water in the taps despite all of the promises of the politicians just a month or so ago during elections. The people of this area are primarily Bakalanga.

For people outside of Botswana when the bride wears her white wedding dress and a big tent is put up we call it a white wedding. This wedding was held at my mother-in-law's compound where a big tent was erected and the mud houses in the compound were painted. The house above was designed using reddish/brown soil and white soil mixed with water. There are different formats for white weddings but for this one, in the morning we all went to 'church' which was at the local primary school. After church the wedding party which consisted of about ten bridesmaids and their ten groomsmen, all in their first outfits bought for the occasion by themselves, parade around the village in the back of open baakies (trucks) hooting and yelling.

When they arrive back at the compound, they are greeted with ululations and they usually have a dance to the big tent. Then speeches are made. In this case, the spokesperson from the bride's family introduced the relatives that were present and then the same happened for the groom's family. Then both the bride and the groom spoke.

Then lunch is served. It is usually seswaa (pounded meat) from a cow or a goat or in most cases both. It is served with samp (boiled corn) or rice and salads (usually butternut and beet root).
After lunch the wedding party go to change.

They usually change into traditional clothes, which in Botswana consist of various designs of a cloth called German print (see photo to the left) . The history behind this material is cloudy but it is considered the traditional dress here. It normally comes in brown and blue though lately it can be found in other colours such as red. Dresses and two pieces made of this material are called letaise.

When the wedding party comes back there is more dancing. Then dessert is served. It is usually trifle. After this there is dancing with the DJ. This can go on until quite late in the night, especially since there is usually ample amounts of traditional beer available. Sometime near evening the couple were taken to the side to be given advice from the elders. This was slightly differnt than other weddings I've attended where it is usually only the bride who is taken to the side to be told by the elder women in the family about how a wife should behave.

Cooking is done by members of the two families. Tents and chairs etc. are usually rented. There will be two big celebrations like this- first at the bride's family's home and then at the groom's. It is very expensive and the bulk of the cost is carried by the couple though each family pitches in what they can. Usually contributions are made well in advance and meetings are held to confirm how things will progress. In this case the next celebration will be at the groom's place on New Year's Day in Seronga, a village in the north near the border.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays Then...

I'm off to my sister-in-law's wedding in a small village called Xhumo, my husband's home. It's been a while since I've spent Christmas in a small village. I wonder if I'll be hearing choirs all night? I once spent Christmas on the roadside waiting for a lift in the middle of the Kgalagadi Desert and I remember listening to the choirs that moved around the village singing; it was lovely. That would be nice... choirs under the stars on Christmas night.
So where ever YOU are -be it the snowy fields of Colorado, the sandy beaches of Australia, the mountains of the Drakensburg or the slushy streets of London or Chicago I wish you a calm, peaceful Christmas Day, defined by what makes you happy not what the instructions on the box we all need to break out of might dictate.
Enjoy yourselves and 'see' you next week!
Peace on Earth.

Egypt Here I Come!

About a month or so ago I applied for a writers' residency in El Gouna Egypt. It is their first year offering such residencies and they are open to writers from all over the world so I didn't expect I had much of a chance. Nevertheless, I sent off the application because I knew without doing that I had no chance at all. Well- I've been chosen! Yes, I'm off in May 2010 for a month in Egypt along the Red Sea to spend 30 days writing- ONLY! What a gift.

As my blog friends know, this year, thanks to five of my books being prescribed by the Ministry of Education in Botswana, I have a bit of breathing space in terms of money. I had already intended to spend some serious time this year working on a novel but now I get to do it away from the normal pressures of home. I'm so happy.

And what can we learn from this my dear blogging friends? Take that chance- you might just get it. When May comes around I'll keep you folks posted. Maybe you'll want to apply for a residency next year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The First Line Game

I'm spending the weekend reading Short Circuit, a guide to writing short stories, with chapters written by various award winning short story writers. It has lots of excellent advice. I'll be hosting the editor of the collection, Vanessa Gebbie, here on the 15 of January as part of her blog tour. I hope you'll stop by.

In the part I was reading yesterday, the writer speaks about the importance of first lines. I always hear about agents and publishers who claim that they can pick out a winner from only the first line. I never actually believed this. I tend to be a bit more holistic, I want a good story. A good line does not make a good story. But perhaps I'm wrong; I'd like us to find out.

I thought it might be fun if I put a few first lines below and get my readers' comments. I'm not including from where they come. I'd like to hear some unbiased opinions. Names often cloud our judgement. I'll reveal everything after a few days in the comments section.

A) Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university.

B) When she was eight, Irene Rosen's grandfather told her one day, with the air of confiding a momentous secret, that he was half Sephardi.

C) She goes to their tiny country house in the woods with her daughter, ten days after the sudden death of her husband, and it isn't the silence but the noise, the wind in the trees, the way the leaves whack the window.

D)Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water.

E) This tale begins at the end; McPhineas Lata, the perennial bachelor who made a vocation of troubling married women is dead.

F) The leaves are the color of dried carrots.

So, which do you like best? Which ones catch you and make you want to finish the story? Which ones make you want to move on? Why? Do you think the first line defines the story?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Writers Beware When Signing Contracts in this "New Age"

A recent statement from UK's Society of Authors warns writers to take care in this fast-changing time. The recent announcement from Macmillan about selling enhanced ebooks brings yet another issue to the table. The UK Society of Authors recommends that authors be very explicit about what rights they are giving to a publisher regarding the type of ebooks the publisher has rights to. They advise that a complete and separate contract be drawn up for "enhanced ebooks". They also advise writers to push for big royalty increases on such products.

According to them: When a book has become well-established, it may be reasonable for the author's share to rise to as much as 75%. On other forms of electronic access – e.g. rental and pay-per-view - authors should receive at least 50%, preferably nearer 85%, of the publisher's receipts.

They also suggest writers allow a limited time frame for the rights to publishers regarding electronic media. They suggest 20-30 years. It is obvious technology is changing the way books can and will be sold. We can't know what the future holds and signing a vague contract that alludes to "electronic rights" without a strict definition of that term could cost us a lot of money. As I write this, I fear I hear my own money dripping away thanks to the contracts I've signed with such vague definitions.

They also suggest that somewhere in the contract writers should get the right to review royalties for ebooks, possibly every two years, and have them adjusted to "match those then prevailing in the trade".

This is fantastic guidance for all of us. Let's be armed and ready for the new publishing world that awaits us.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why I Loved Trinity Rising

Many times on this blog I have discussed the dire need of African writing to diversify away from literary fiction and the need for African writers to move into the genres- whatever African genres may turn out to be. Fiona Snyckers has done an excellent job doing just that with her debut novel Trinity Rising.
Elsewhere I've seen the book described as South Africa's first attempt at chick lit, but that's not true. Zukiswa Wanner wrote The Madams some time before this book was published. Nevertheless Trinity may be the first African chick lit that has the long, sexy legs that can stretch across the wide seas.
Trinity Rising is the story of Trinity Luhabe daughter to the famous struggle icon Abel Luhabe, something she wishes people would get over. It is her first year at university and though she has all of the intentions to study she never quite gets around to it with her packed schedule of parties, socialising, and shopping.
Trinity tries her best to show the world that she is all fluff and no substance. She is sick to death of the politics she was raised on and is now free and wanting nothing more than a good time and a sexy handbag. But the skill of Ms Snyckers is most evident in her characterisation. Trinity is a complex, contradictory character. Though she seems irresponsible, she has a brilliant business mind. Her marketing prowess is best seen when she is establishing her babysitting business. Though she seems flippant, when her friend is suddenly in dire straights, she shifts into high gear and saves the day even when she knows it might be the end of the friendship. Trinity is a brilliant character who I couldn't get enough of- thankfully the book is the first in a series- so I know for sure Trinity will be part of my future.
And what would chick lit be without romance? Again Ms Snyckers sneaks up on the reader -and on Trinity who is looking for a drop dead gorgeous guy with unlimited capacity to earn cash as Trinity's goal is to be the wife of a rich man. The author has no intention of allowing Trinity to follow such a marshmallow agenda. From stage left the leading man appears, but what is this? A lefty poet with a pony tail? Oh Ms Snyckers how could you do it to our girl Trinity?
Trinity Rising is intelligent South African chick lit. The plot is full of interesting twists and turns. I also like how she uses emails and lists to move the story forward. This reader can't wait to get her hands on instalment number 2.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Many Ways to Sell An Ebook

Macmillan has announced that they will sell enhanced ebooks for select titles that they feel will become bestsellers. They will be released on the same day the hard cover edition comes out. These enhanced ebooks will include author interviews, reader's guides and other unspecified material. The enhanced ebooks will cost more than the hard cover books and will only be available for 90 days. After this, the ebook version of that title will revert back to the standard type of ebook.

This is in contrast to some other big name publishers who believe the best way to sell ebooks is to withhold them and let the print book get its time in the sun and only bring the ebook out much later.

Despite what the pessimists say, this is actually an exciting time for publishing. There are myriad of ideas of how the publishing industry can embrace new technologies. I think Macmillan's idea is fantastic. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Uncharitable Side of Charity

Recently a comment in a post made on UK writer Nicola Morgan's blog got me thinking. The post was about what seems to be a lovely book written by Ms Morgan's friend. Among the many things in this book is a bit about his trip to Botswana where he visited an orphanage. The thing that troubled me was this- "Or there are the terrible true stories of young orphans in Mma Ramotswe's Botswana, where many of the children have seen unbearable things, survived unspeakable horror."

I felt an immediate annoyance, but even as I write this I can't quite put my finger on the cause. Does this writer not have the right to visit an orphanage in Botswana and write about it? Of course he does. At the blog I wrote about how I'm sick of African countries forever being seen as unfixable basket cases full of unspeakable horrors. Botswana is far from that picture. Ms Morgan found my comments unjustified.

Why is it when a British writer comes to Botswana and visits an orphanage and writes of what he sees, it is different than a Motswana writer going to an orphanage in England and writing about what she sees? I don't know, but it is.

I feel, for reasons I can't quite articulate, that England will not be defined by the atrocities her orphans might endure, while Botswana will. There will be the impression that yes, these children have problems but England has the capacity to help them out and get them back on their feet- alone, while Botswana does not. Someone from outside must save them; it is the children's only hope.

The same thing applies to this business of celebrities adopting African children. Madonna adopting a child from Malawi is not the same as a Malawian pop star adopting a child from England. It sounds the same, but it is not. In one case, it is a child finding a new home, in the other it is a condemnation of a country.

This issue involves charity to some extent. My problem, I think, starts with the flaws in the whole concept of charity. It is charitable to visit an orphanage in Botswana and talk about the terrible lives the children have endured. It is charitable to adopt a child from Malawi. But charity has two aspects I find repugnant.

First, it assumes the recipient is unable to help themselves. It institutionalises helplessness. It, almost by definition, insists that the person first be helpless to receive the charity. Why couldn't the adults in Malawi help the child Madonna adopted? Of course they could, but she needed them to be thoroughly helpless to justify her charity. Why must the UK writer write of the terrible tragedies Batswana orphans endured? Is there no Motswana who is helping these children? Can Botswana not attend to its problems on its own?

Second, charity of all sorts helps the giver much more than the one receiving. The giver gets satisfaction in being defined as charitable- sometimes in big ways by announcing to the world what they have done, sometimes in small ways by just saying quietly to themselves "I am good, I've done a good thing". In either case, by whatever fraction of a degree, the charity benefits the giver, it is always at the expense of the receiver. The receiver must be found, identified as unable to sort themselves out, and then the giver must step in, wearing their glowing suit of armour and save the day. The handing over of money or food or clothes is a one off thing. We go back to giving a man a fish as opposed to teaching him to fish or in many cases ( as in aid (charity) from many Western countries) allowing him to have a fair shot at selling the fish he has rotting in his basket. Charity makes people weaker and more helpless.

I grew up poor as many people who read this blog know. I wrote a story called "The Do Gooders" which was published some time ago in the UK journal Riptide based on a memory from my childhood when people from a nearby church brought food to our home for Thanksgiving. I've never in my life been more ashamed. I swore as I hid behind the curtain that I would never again be placed in a position where I would be the recipient of charity. Never. I'd rather die. Without a doubt this event taints much of my world view.

It is all of this which fuels my anger at the manner in which the world views Africa and my adopted country of Botswana. Charity, as history has proven on this continent over and over again, improves nothing and, I feel, only makes things much, much worse. Perhaps I am so far away from sense I cannot see reason, I'm not sure. My hope is my dear readers will sort me out.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Botswana Music Camp Concert 2009

Saturday the 12th of December was this year's Botswana Music Camp Final Concert. Botswana Music Camp is quite a special thing. For one week out of the year people from Botswana, and also from over our border, gather in Gaborone to play music together. There are professional musicians, experienced amateurs and people just learning. My daughter and I attended last year for the first time. I couldn't go this year because of work pressures, mainly two textbooks and a novel to finish over fairly tight deadlines. I have to admit that I regretted not being able to attend this year but was so glad my daughter did.

The music camp offers classes in various disciplines. This year there was marimba, mbira (which is a type of traditional thumb piano), pop singing, classical singing, African drums, dance and instrumental. The schedule is tight and very vigorous with lessons and performances. Last year I attended for instrumental ( I play trumpet) and by the end of the week I was completely exhausted. It is huge fun and you meet all sorts of interesting people.

At the end of the week, the campers give a free concert to show the public what they learned. The concert on Saturday was great. The talent in the country is quite astounding. But I have to say, I was most astonished by my daughter who performed a solo. I'm scared to death on stage but as you can see from the video, she is NOT her mother's daughter, at least in that sense. She was fantastic and we were so proud of her. (Save perhaps her unfortunate decision to wear rainbow socks- one thing can certainly be said- she has her own style!)

Congratulations all of you Music Campers out there! Fantastic job!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My Secret is Out!

Some months ago I had a pile of good luck and mixed in there was a secret. Well now the secret has been let out of the bag. (Click here for other finalists) My children's book, Aunt Lulu, is a finalist in the 2009 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. This year's theme was humour which makes it even more important to me.

When I first started writing about six years ago I thought I would be the Motswana version of Sue Townsend and create hilarious characters like Adrian Mole. I promptly wrote two, what I thought were hilarious novels. Both have had so many rejections they can barely hobble back to their bottom drawer. I gave up my dream and became quite serious. But now my hope is that Aunt Lulu might pull my dream from the ashes. (hope hope)

Aunt Lulu is about Amo, who dreams of becoming a famous journalist one day but has, to her horror, been assigned the agony aunt (Aunt Lulu) column for the school newspaper. This leads to a series of unfortunate events leading her to decide if it might not be time to drop out of school and sell fat cakes for a living. Amo lives with her Gran. Nono is Amo's best friend and she has plans to become the first Motswana astronaut. Here is a small bit from the book.

Gran knowing that I was to be Aunt Lulu for the school newspaper would have been a disaster. Anything even smelling of a waste of time got Gran seriously wound up. “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground.” The Devil played a big role in Gran’s life; actually the avoidance of all things devilish played a big role in Gran’s life.

Many things reeked of the Devil. Long unplaited hair, gardens not cleared and swept tidily, people who spoke badly about Sir Seretse Khama, most television shows, Miriam Makeba, food from tins, anything associated with airplanes, maize meal in paper bags,…. actually the list was endless and ever growing and surprisingly fluid.

You would think God and the Devil would have long ago divided up stuff. Like God got hardworking, the Devil got lazy. God got books, the Devil got comic books. Like that. I would have thought the lists were sorted out. But if you kept track of what was godly and what was the work of the Devil, according to Gran, you might very well become confused. The lists shifted a lot. But a piece of advice- don’t point it out to Gran. First she will deny it. And then she’ll be annoyed at you for the rest of the day. For example, since she liked Nono (“Comes from a good Sekgatla family”) all things to do with airplanes remained the Devil’s work, but somehow going up in the heavens in a spaceship was strictly out of Satane’s realm. I suspect the Devil list was conveniently pulled out whenever my life was to be judged....

The prize giving is in March -so wish me and Aunt Lulu luck!!!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Missing in Action

Saturday afternoon was very hot. At about 7pm my husband said he was going out to water the garden. My son and I were watching television. At about 8pm, the wind started to pick up,but at first I hardly noticed it. But then it took on an edge, the sound upped a few notches and I started to pay attention. I went outside to look for my husband but he was already on his way back inside. For the next two hours we had the worst storm I've ever seen since I've lived in Mahalapye. The wind just kept increasing and increasing. At first there was dust and then the rain started. The wind was beating the rain so hard against the eastern side of our house water came in the air bricks. And then the hail began. I was sure the windows were going to break, the wind whipped the hail with such force. In the middle of it all the electricity went out.

When the storm finally stopped about 10:30 pm, we opened the door and looked out into the pitch blackness. We could hear people talking in the distance, saying how they nearly died but we could see nothing. It was only in the morning that the devastation became clear.

Roofs were peeled off their rafters and in some cases like at our neighbour's house the rafters broke and the roof blew away. Tree branches lay everywhere. Big, old, strong indigenous trees were lifted from the soil, roots and all, and thrown to the ground like so many sticks. Electricity poles were knocked down all over the village. Four poles leading out to the water treatment plant were knocked down cutting off the water supply for the village until Tuesday.We've heard from neighbours that three people died in the village. Someone old us a tree fell on the house.

We were lucky. Our vegetable garden looked as if a lawn mower passed through it. A few roof tiles were pulled up slightly. Our mogonono tree lost a lot of its branches. Most of our tree lost their leaves making it look like early spring again instead of mid-summer. Our power was out until this morning. But otherwise we were all fine.

It was scary and reminded me of the tornadoes of my childhood in the Midwest of America. I'm glad it's all over and life is pretty much back to normal but it certainly won't be forgotten very soon.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Short Circuit-A Guide to the Art of the Short Story

Thoughts from Botswana will be hosting the award winning writer Vanessa Gebbie who is on a blog tour for the book she edited Short Circuit - A Guide to the Art of Short Story a collection of short story wisdom from some of the best short story writers currently in the business. Among the writers in the table of contents are Chika Unigwe, Tania Hershman, Elaine Chiew, and Elizabeth Baines among others. I just got my copy and am itching to get into it. Click the book cover to buy yours.
So make sure you stop by on January 15th to hear what the talent Ms Gebbie has to say!!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Sad Story of Caster Semenya

Everyone has an opinion on this one but somehow this excellent article in The New Yorker by Ariel Levy seems to put things in perspective.

The article starts looking at Semenya's track club in Limpopo Province in South Africa- Moletjie Athletics Club. A club where running barefoot on dirt tracks that if you're lucky will be cleared of thorns and stones is the norm; in a province where poverty is everywhere and if you can see a way out you better grab it fast with two hands because it is not going to pass your way twice.

Semenya's coach advised her to do just that. He told her to work hard because she had talent, and if she worked hard enough someone might spot her and give her the keys to a golden future far from the thorny, dusty tracks in Limpopo. And the dream came true.

That is the very heart breaking bit for me. She did all she could and the dream came true. Her team mates left behind at Moletjie Athletics Club use her as their new goal post- if she could do it, so can they. Suddenly the coach's talk had some weight to it. A little girl Joyce tells Levy, “I will be the world champion. I want to participate in athletics and have a scholarship. Caster is making me proud. She won. She put our club on the map.” Why does hope suddenly sound so menacing?

In the article the coach admits that at many events Semenya was forced to go into the toilet with a girl from the opposing team so that they could check and see that she was indeed female. That done, they would get on with things.

In the article Levy brings up the very unique case of South Africa where the classifying of humans into categories is a wound still raw on the edges. With one word, you could think yourself white only to find yourself black, and all the weight of that classification would come crashing down on you. Who defines the category is an issue fraught with controversy and ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema and Winny Mandela took no time to jump on the band wagon and ride it for all its political worth. Outsiders would not define their daughter. The politics were sickening to watch, but underneath it all there was a solid grain of truth. Who defines us? Who gives them that right?

No one can say exactly what makes someone a woman and what makes someone a man. The deeper you go into the science the more variations you uncover and the more cloudy the issue gets. Semenya apparently has three times the testosterone levels of an average woman- but again what is average? Always the excellent in sport are not like the rest of us. They are gifted with traits outside of what can be produced with training. Should only the average enter the ring of competition?

At the end of the article the writer, by accident, stumbles upon Semenya. She writes -
When she shook my hand, I noticed that she had long nails. She didn’t look like an eighteen-year-old girl, or an eighteen-year-old boy. She looked like something else, something magnificent.

She speaks with Semenya trying to get her to talk a bit about what has happened. Semenya says she can't speak about anything. The writer says that must "suck". Semenya responds-" “That doesn’t suck. It sucks when I was running and they were writing those things. That sucked. That is when it sucks. Now I just have to walk away. That’s all I can do.”

And all I could see when I read that was the little girl running her heart out, barefoot, dodging stones and thorns, in the sweltering sun of Limpopo Province, knowing that if she just worked hard enough the dream her coach showed her might just come true. Now as she sits firmly in the folds of that dream, she sees the only way forward for her is to turn her back on it and walk away. How heart-breakingly terrible.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

5 Things I Loved About The Double Crown

The Double Crown: Secret Writings of the Female Pharaoh is a novel about Egypt's female pharaoh Hatshepsut written by South African writer Marie Heese. I liked the book and though I finished it a few months ago, it still lingers in my mind telling me that there is something special about it for me.

1. I love history made real.

History is lovely but it often seems flat, playing out in black and white. Heese tells a story with beautiful, fully-developed characters. The history of this important pharaoh is pulled from its hidden caves nearly lost in history and shown in full colour. Hatshepsut was a real person as most of the people in the book are. Heese has fictionalised details in her life around the real life events documented in Egyptian history. She's done an excellent job. It is written as a diary of Hatshepsut and of her scribe, Mahu.

2. Hatshepsut's battles in the book are all successful women's battles.

Hatshepsut must choose between the love of her life and the power and position she must maintain. For her to give in completely to her love of Senenmut, a non-royal, she will show weakness and her position as a female pharaoh would be put in jeopardy. Many women in positions of power even today must question everything that they do so that there are no chinks in their armour where attacks can be made. The weakness of the emotional female is an easy tool used by a powerful woman's enemies. Very unfortunate, but still quite true.

3. I love the character Senenmut.

He is such a wonderful supportive mate for the pharaoh. He builds her a temple of never before seen magnificence. He loves her and respects her in equal measures. Their love story is a beautiful one.

4. The sadness Hatshepsut must endure is heartbreaking.

Throughout the book she must endure one sadness after another but still maintains at the front of her mind her position and how her actions might affect her kingdom. Sometimes as a reader I found this infuriating. I wanted her to get a break but it keeps the tension high until the end.

5. The research behind the book seems astounding.

Hatshepsut's legacy appears to have been wiped away by her predecessor her stepson Thutmose but bits and pieces have been pieced together to recreate her reign. Who she was has been defined from different perspectives depending on the writer's inclination. Heese needed to read all of this and decide what perspective she would take on this character using the freedom of fiction within the confines of historical fact.

Heese has done an excellent job of merging history and narrative. This is an excellent book, I hgihly recommend.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

5 Things I Learned From Re-Reading The Pearl

I was a reader miles before I was a writer. From the time I learned to read, I wanted to be more involved in books. That's why I became a writer. I always listen to writers speak about the method a certain author used or how the plot developed in a book or the style of the author. They read books as writers. I find that so difficult to do. Being a longtime story lover, I get lost in the story and can't stop to look for the puppets' strings. I've always thought the story would be lost for me if I read a book in that way.

I recently found a half price copy of The Pearl by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was one of my favourite authors while growing up. His focus on the underclass with so little choices and insurmountable injustices to fight against was a theme close to my heart. I re-read The Pearl and tried to maintain my position as writer. I stopped my reader/story lover mind and tried to search for the secrets Mr. Steinbeck might teach me. I'll admit I was not 100% successful. Can you maintain that objective distance when Kino and family are on the run? Difficult, but I tried my best and here is what I learned.

5 things I learned from The Pearl

1. The foundation of a good book is a strong, and often simple, story.
Nowadays we have so many books with complicated magic and new worlds, vampires and technical medical jargon it seems almost impossible to get a book published with a simple story. Still, I believe the really good books are human stories and those human stories don't need flash to work.

2. Pacing is very important and easily done wrong.
There is a scene in The Pearl where Kino is home with the pearl and his neighbours have gathered at his house. They want to see the pearl and they want to hear Kino's plans for it. The slow pacing of that scene builds fantastic tension. You shouldn't slow down just to slow down, you must keep readers interested, but sometimes slowing down the pace is the very way to let the impact of the event sink in and the tension to take up its rightful space. By slowing things down in that scene Steinbeck lets the reader realise the implications of finding that pearl; the good side and the bad side. The reader must be brought to that point and to sit for a moment and consider it, so that the events that lie ahead have the correct impact.

3. Simple strong language is better than trying to wow the reader with your linguistic gymnastics.
Steinbeck's language is never flowery, never over the top. Always simple words used in an interesting way to let the reader see. Look at this example:

"For Kino and Juana this was the morning of mornings of their lives, comparable only to the day when the baby had been born. This was to be the day from which all other days would take their arrangement."

How lovely is that last line-.... the day from which all other days would take their arrangement .. Simple words to make a beautiful , spot on picture in the reader's minds.

4. Give your readers limited information about your characters, mostly through actions.
Steinbeck never stops and gives a description of Kino. We don't know if he has a big nose or thin eyes. We learn about Kino from his actions and from there Steinbeck respects his readers and their imaginations enough to allow them to build a Kino in their minds, each will have a slightly different Kino but that's okay. By giving your readers too much character information you are disempowering them, and in most cases boring them too.

5. Consider perspective and distance carefully.
More and more I'm realising the distance you take to tell your story becomes almost a character in itself. I'm likely not going to explain this well as I have no proper training as a writer being a science teacher by profession but it is more than Steinbeck choosing third person. Sometimes he comes in close, he moves into Kino's mind and we hear the songs that play there. We need to do that to develop the empathy we need for him. But then Steinbeck can pull back to the people of the town. From each distance the reader gains something that is needed to move the story forward or to build the tension. First as writers we must choose our perspective: first, second (rarely) or third, but then if you use third, think carefully if you need to be close or far and why. Don't move around without intention. Use the pulling back and moving in only to further your story.

This was an excellent exercise for me. I will try to do it more often.
Do you read as a writer or as a reader first?