Friday, January 29, 2010

A Plunger, Bostek, Cellotape and a Paper Clip

I have always dreamt of being the Ms Fix-It type. I knew a woman, a teacher I used to work with, who taught design and technology. She had a fantastically tidy lab with all sorts of scary equipment- you know the kind- POWER TOOLS. She could take any of them from their assigned place on the wall and turn them on and use them without losing a single finger. Our headmistress at the time was always asking her to do complicated things. “Could you build the school a classroom out of Coke tins and left over magwinya?” And this woman would smile and say, “Of course” and take down the exact power tool needed for the job and get to work. The resulting classroom would be a work of art that could bring tears to your eyes. Even now, years later, I think of this woman with silent awe.

I often say off-handedly to my husband, “You know life would be so much better if we had a power drill.” There is a part of me that really wants a drill. The part that still has hope that I could BE that D & T teacher, and if only I had a power drill I too could build a Coke tin and magwinya classroom. But then there is the realist side of me, the side that knows I am not that woman.

My box of fix-it tools, sadly, has nothing that requires an electrical connection. The box is not full; it has four things: cellotape, a plunger, bostek and a paper clip. In my world most things can be sorted out and made to work in some sort of fashion with one or a combination of these four things. I have an accelerator on my car held to the other plastic bit with a paper clip. Our fridge that doesn’t close properly has a strip of cellotape you must replace after closing. Bostek was keeping my recently put away Christmas tree, that lost its connecting bits, together. And our bath tub drain likes the attention of a good plunge or two before it allows a single drop of water to escape down the drain. My tool kit keeps my life going and the things I need working, but it lacks the elegance of taking out a power saw and a burning hot welding machine, donning some sexy goggles, and getting to work.

The thing I often wonder about that woman is -did she become herself once she got her hands on those power tools or was she already formed like that and the power tools were just going to be part of her destiny? The answer to that would make a big difference in my decision to drop my collection of tools and make that leap of faith and buy a power drill.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mma Ramotswe on BTV

The books by Alexander McCall Smith about the traditionally built detective Mma Ramotswe have been made into a movie and a series shown on BBC. Lucky for TV viewers in Botswana our local television station has been able to air the movie and the series on Mondays and Wednesdays after the 9pm news.

The books are set in Botswana and at the time of filming our government paid money to the production company to get them to film the movie and the series here in Botswana. The production company was planning to film in South Africa where there are far more trained personnel and other facilities needed for such a big production. To do the same thing in Botswana would be very costly as much of what they needed would have to be brought in. But the government of Botswana thought the movies would help to attract tourists to our country if the film was shot here so used tax money to entice them to our side of the border. I, for one, think it was one of the better investments of our public funds. If the local newspaper columnists are anything to go by, I may be alone in my belief.

Last week, Sonny O. Serite a columnist in The Telegraph had a scathing commentary on the programmes. His beef comes in a three guises:

1. Jill Scott who plays Mma Ramotswe, and her secretary played by Aniki Noni Rose are vilified by Serite for not producing a perfect Setswana accent.

2. Serite claims that big roles played by South African actors could have easily been played by Batswana actors.

3. He says the plots are simplistic -"the story line is too childish and it is very difficult to follow the series and connect what you saw on Monday with what you see on Wednesday".

Serite says from the outset that "....I am one of those who were never caught in on the hype that came with the release of the movie..." later he admits to having never watched it until it was free on BTV. The assumption is he also did not read the books, though he doesn't mention that clearly. He claims the movie was meant to ..."depict Botswana and the lifestyle of Batswana..."

I believe Serite operates from quite a few false premises. The Mma Ramotswe books are not nonfiction; the movie is not a documentary. It is a work of fiction. Just as Mr. Bean is a character based on a man in Britain, Mma Ramotswe is a character based on a woman in Botswana. I doubt anyone with sense makes the assumption when watching Mr. Bean that this is how all British people are; the same can be said for Mma Ramotswe. The books are a gentle, comical view of Batswana. A much nicer take than the normal picture given by the world of Africa: the land of disease, starvation, and inept governments. A breath of fresh air if you ask me.

As has been mentioned over and over throughout this debate in Botswana, we are barely walking when it comes to film and television production. The few Batswana actors with a CV longer than half a page all work in South Africa or overseas. The Mma Ramotswe films gave many Batswana opportunities to learn more about the film industry- both in front and behind the camera. I, personally, know many people who worked on the production and can add it to their CVs to boost their chances of getting more significant positions for the next production that comes along.

If you look through the cast list you will see quite a few Batswana with substantial speaking roles in the series. For example, Lebogang Motubudi does an excellent job as Mma Makhutsi's brother who is sick with AIDS. It is a speaking role spreading over a few episodes. Joe Matome has a speaking role as the curio shop owner. Musicians such as Tshilo Baitsile and Gaolape Basuhi appeared in the movie and were involved in the soundtrack. I'm only mentioning a few, but to say Batswana did not benefit from this production is disingenuous.

We also need to accept that film production is a business. It would be an unpardonable risk to cast an unknown in the major roles. People like Jill Scott and Aniki Noni Rose are famous Hollywood names. The accents might have been better, but few outside Botswana would even recognise the difference, and, in the end, weren't these films made for a foreign audience? Didn't the government invest that money so foreigners could get a look at our beautiful country and decide they would like to visit?

I think Serite and those of his ilk have seriously lost the plot. It is more of the same. Batswana have the terrible tendency to always look for the dark side. Why is no one mentioning the sterling performances by Batswana actors in the production? Why are they not happy that a writer who lived in Botswana for many years (contributing significantly to the development of this country while here) has gone on to write such delightful and popular books that have shown even the most geographically challenged foreigners that a country called Botswana exists?

The PHD (Pull Him/Her Down) Syndrome is alive and well in my country, I'm afraid, and it is doing nobody any good.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Contest Deadlines You Don't Want to Miss

There are some important deadlines for contests coming up for writers in Botswana, Africa and the Commonwealth.

1. Penguin Prize for Africa Writing
If you haven't entered this one yet, you better get cracking as the deadline is 30th January, 2010. The prize is for book length manuscripts; either fiction or nonfiction, from citizens of African countries. Fiction rules are here and nonfiction here. The prize in each category is R50,000 (USD 5000) and a publishing contract. The shortlist will be announced in April 2010.

2. Commonwealth Short Story Competition
This annual flash fiction competition has changed slightly this year. The deadline has moved up to 31 March, 2010. They offer prize money for the twenty or so highly commended stories, the regional winners and a 2000 (British pound) prize for the overall winner. This year there will be two additional prizes: one for the best children's story and one for a story around the theme of "Science, Technology and the Community". It is a free contest open to citizens of any Commonwealth country. All winning stories are recorded on CD and sent to all radio stations in the Commonwealth to play the stories on air.

3. Bessie Head Literature Awards
This has become an annual writing award in Botswana for citizen and resident writers. This year the categories are: novel, short story, and children's story. The word count limits for short story and children's story are outrageous (10,000 words) but don't let that scare you off-keep in mind that is the maximum word count. A story of 1000 words is still acceptable. The prize money is for first position only: novel -P2500 and short story and children's story-P1250. The rules are a bit complicated and require things such as certified copies of IDs etc. so please read them carefully. The deadline for submissions (which must be posted only) is 20th March 2010.

4. The Baobab Prize
The Baobab Prize is an American based literature prize for citizen writers of any African country. Its goal is to promote African writing for children. There are two categories: junior for children ages 8-11 and senior for children ages 12-15. There is also a prize for writers below the age of 18 called the Rising Writer's Prize. Prize money is $1000 (USD) for the main categories and $800 (USD) for the Rising Writer's Prize. Entrants can send up to five stories. The deadline for submissions is 26th April 2010.

So folks- let's get writing. Contests open up doors and get your name out there. Remember the worst that can happen is you don't win and that will push you to try harder next year.

So Good Luck Everyone!!!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Just what we need- Another Private Hospital in Botswana

For a few weeks now Bokamoso Private Hospital in Gaborone has been getting free advertising on Botswana Television news thanks to my tax money. Apparently it is owned by the big medical aid schemes in Botswana and managed by some American hospital conglomerate called OR International. That explains why every person from the hospital interviewed on BTV has an American accent. Great- let's emulate the American health care system because it's doing such a fine job.

One wonders which bigshot politician also holds shares in the Hospital so that BTV could be used as its defacto PR department. Goes back to transparency and the declaration of assets something Botswana politicians pretend is a silly notion from the even sillier and irreverent media.

For people outside of Botswana let me give you a bit of information about health care in Botswana. We have a very large and widespread public health care system. There are clinics in most villages where basic health care is provided. In larger villages and towns there are quite substantial hospitals. In Mahalapye, where I live, we had quite an old hospital but it was recently replaced with a big, modern new one. Service is sometimes poor, but occasionally excellent, much depends on the staff.

I delivered both of my children at the old Mahalapye Hospital and it was fine. For my daughter the labour was quite long, more than two days, and when she was finally born she had an Apgar score of 2. Thanks to the quick work and knowledge of the nurse and doctor on duty my daughter is fine. I knew a woman who delivered her son in Gaborone and he too was born with an Apgar score of 2, he is profoundly retarded, unable to sit, or do anything for himself. It all depends on the staff.

We pay a small fee and all expenses are included in that fee. Recently at Princess Marina Hospital, the government hospital in Gaborone, heart surgery was done for the first time. The patients paid nothing.

I think what Botswana has done in terms of health care is quite remarkable. It is not perfect, but they know this and are trying to improve. Training people to become doctors, nurses and other health professionals takes a substantial part of the government's education budget. One of the biggest problems, though, is retaining staff. The civil service tries to pay what it can, but it cannot compete with private organisations.

And now we have Bokamoso Hosptial. So the government trains doctors and nurses at their expense (our expense) so that a private hospital can employ them. Compounding this is that only the wealthy can afford medical aid, 1 out 18 Batswana have medical aid. So the other 17 of us go to the government hospital where there are no doctors or nurses because they have gone off to the greener pastures of Bokamoso Hospital.

Private health care in general has a detrimental effect on the public system. The most educated go to private health care providers. These people are often the ones who feel they are in a position to complain about poor service. They too are often the ones making decisions about the public health care system, decisions that will not effect them.

The commercials/news stories on BTV about Bokamoso Hospital show all the fancy equipment the hospital has. I'm sure they are important but I learned from experience that machines in the end are not what make the difference, it is the quality of the personnel. Sadly, they may end up having a monopoly on that too.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Books Have Arrived!!

On Friday, I received my author copies of two short story collections I wrote with two other Batswana writers, Wame Molefhe and Bontekanye Botumile. I'm so pleased with the books I can't stop looking at them. They look so jolly and inviting. I'm so proud my name is on the cover. (the third one will be coming out next year)

In 2008, we three women writers set out to write short story collections for upper primary school. We agreed we would do three; for standards 5,6, and 7. We had a fanatically short amount of time, I think it was about three months. I was lucky as I had quite a few stories already written. We started writing and submitting stories to each other. We critiqued and edited and finally decided which stories we could use and in which books they would go. It was a stressful process for all of us. We submitted the books to Pentagon Publishers and they were then submitted to the Ministry of Education. To our surprise and delight -all three were selected as prescribed books.

What I love most about these books is that each of us are very different writers so there is quite a wide selection of stories for children to choose from. Bonty has made her mark re-telling traditional tales and in these books she writes many of her stories about mythical snakes that live in Setswana folklore such as the scary Kgogela,the Hypnotist. Wame writes of modern problems kids face and how they find their ways through. Her story Another Mother, for example, is about the problematic situation of a young girl's father marrying again after the girl's mother dies. I often am inclined toward the silly, as in my story about the magical TV that allows you to reach in and get what you see on the screen ( The Problem With That TV), or the occasional social message as in my story My Friend, Jackson about the friendship between a Mongwato boy and a Mosarwa boy.

We often hear in Botswana, that Batswana are not readers. I love thinking that maybe somehow, somewhere a story in one of these books will ignite the love of reading in a few young hearts. How lovely that would be.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Satan Talks Tough With Pat Robertson

Here in Botswana, on a Sunday morning we get the pleasure of listening to Pat Robertson on BTV. Since in my home we are currently down to one television station ( a blessing and a curse) we usually drink our morning tea while having fun with Pat and his 700 Club. To be honest, I was not surprised to find my bud Pat tried to use the earthquake in Haiti to his advantage. He's like that. He gets letters from people,people with real problems, like the lady last week with the husband addicted to porn. Pat has a tricky way of turning everything upside down and sideways to get to the point where every problem can be solved by pledging your life to his god and popping out a bit of change for Pat's bulging pockets. I'm wondering how the porn guy is doing with that. I must say though his method seems to have backfired on my friend Pat and now his slip is showing in a most embarrassed way.

For those who missed Patty's words of wisdom, here they are:

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it," he said on Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club." "They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal." Robertson said that "ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other"

Okay before you rush off to the bathroom to vomit, you must get the follow-up. Apparently Rra Satane watches the 702 Club religiously and he was not too pleased. He dashed off a letter to The Star Tribune in Minnesota (of all places) to set the record straight:

Dear Pat Robertson,
I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher.
The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake.
Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll. You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working.

But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract. Best, Satan


Friday, January 15, 2010

Short Circuit- Blog Book Tour Stop

Today, Thoughts from Botswana is happy to host Vanessa Gebbie editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story.
(Read my review of the book here.)
Welcome Vanessa!
TFB: How were the contributors chosen? Did you assign them topics or did they stipulate what they wanted to write about?

VANESSA: The short story world is very small, really. I have got to know many superb writers, many of them prize-winners in quality literary competitions, and many of them writers who also happen to teach writing. Others I knew of, via the Internet, blogging, by reputation… It was a simple matter to draw up a wish-list of contributors. (example – I knew I wanted to cover the short short story, or flash fiction. Two names were obvious – Tania Hershman and David Gaffney.) Both Salt authors.
But that raised another issue. Although this book was to be published by Salt, I wanted the contributors in the main body of the book to be not all Salt writers. In the end, we have a 50% split.
Before I approached anyone, I drew up the topics I wanted covered. That was easy. I was taught to strip a story down into its craft elements, to analyse the efficacy or otherwise of that element within the work. It worked for me, so I wanted to follow that approach in the book. I also wanted to cover as many process issues as I could get my mitts on!
I asked writers to contribute, and apart from one, the original wish-team said yes! If they had an idea themselves, that was terrific. The pure ‘process’ essays such as Alison MacLeod’s treatise in taboo, or Adam Marek’s on the writer’s response to originality, for example, answered a real need for writers to see what makes a story resonate and buzz rather than be pedestrian. As the writers talked to me about what they would write, the craft elements all appeared organically. The contributors picked things they felt passionate about – and if they were passionate about everything, I maybe gave them a gentle shove in a particular craft direction! Then I waited to see what was left – and I wrote the chapter on openings, which I find very interesting and very difficult anyway – so it all panned out fine.

TFB: At the beginning and the end of the book you include this quote from Faulkner-
“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. But when it comes right, it is the best feeling in the world.”
Why is this so important to you? Doesn’t this run head-on into the idea of writing a textbook on short story writing?

VANESSA: Exactly. It sure does. I think there has to be an element of total bewilderment allied to times of confidence/stubbornness if you are going to be a good writer. The swing between confidence and self-doubt sets up a dynamic that drives you onwards. Without the self-doubt we’d never bother to try to get better. Without the confidence in ourselves and our work we’d never have the faith to send work out.

Short Circuit is not a didactic ‘do this or else’ sort of book! The whole idea is to get away from the type of book that says ‘do this and you will become a writer fast’ and gives the budding craftsman/woman the impression that if they follow that ‘law’, they will cut a corner and become a great writer uber-quick. There is no substitute for writing and writing and writing, and reading and reading – and it takes a long time to get it right. I agree with the ‘teach yourself by your own mistakes’ quote.
But having a team of great writers and teachers all sharing tips and thoughts with you can only help on the journey – save a few of the pitfalls, sharpen your act, keep you on the straight and narrow, save you making fundamentally silly errors.
At the same time, you’ll notice that some of the contributors contradict each other. Marvellous! That doesn’t weaken the book, it strengthens it! There is no simple a, b c in writing fiction. Everything is complex. I WANT the reader to question, disagree, to hit against what it said. I want them to get a little closer to the heart of their own creativity, as I said in the introduction – I do not want them to ape other writers just because they are told to! If what they suggest chimes with you, then fine. If not – move on.

TFB: I’m curious about the exercises at the end of each chapter (which are excellent by the way), did each contributor submit their own exercises or did you as the editor write them?

VANESSA: Many did, and many didn’t. Some go so far as to say they don’t actually like ‘writing exercises’ themselves. Salt Publishing decided they wanted something for the reader to try out, at the end of each essay – each topic covered. So where there were no ideas from the contributors, yours truly came up with something she found useful herself, from workshops I have attended. Or even something invented for the purpose.

TFB: As a writing teacher what is the single most easily corrected mistake a newbie short story writer makes?

VANESSA: I think my answer to that is ‘over-writing’. I think overwriting is easily spotted, once you know what it is. Once you learn that actually, floral tributes, modifiers, saccharine and purple words do not a great piece of prose make. I think many new writers aim to be clever, and writerly. The results are the opposite – distinctly un-clever and nothing like a good writer.
But you see I’m using I think, over and over? It depends on the writer, surely?! There are others – the use of cliché and tired images. Spending ages describing a character’s appearance to ‘make him real’. I worked once with a writer who spent paragraph after paragraph telling me that her female character had a tiny waist, wore satin jumpsuits and was very beautiful. Fine – so what? I still don’t know who she is. And all easily corrected. Hopefully, a zip through Short Circuit will iron out the easily corrected blips!

TFB: Graham Mort says in the book, “The reader, I would argue, both experiences the story as it unfolds and completes it”. How important do you think it is to leave space for the reader in a short story?

VANESSA: Hugely. If I don’t enter into the story and take part in it, I am just a passenger, watching puppets. I need to be IN it, to believe in the world and the unfolding events. If the writer put everything on a plate, tells the reader everything, there is nothing for the reader to do apart from follow the plot. For this reader, that is not satisfying fiction. Not good fiction. Not memorable fiction.
Reading, to be satisfying for this writer, needs to be active. Not passive. I don’t want a story to play itself out like a film created by someone else. I want to make the pictures.
But I need to add that there are oodles of readers who don’t want to read like this, who find it a pain, and think I am being a pretentious so and so. That’s fine- there’s room for all of us.

TFB: In Alison Macleod’s chapter she says, “If you know everything you want to say as you start writing, the story won’t be a story; it will be a message". What is your view on this?

VANESSA: I know what she means. Think of some fables – stories that are told expressly to illustrate a moral. Or the ghastly and bloody Victorian cautionary tales - it’s the message itself the reader was intended to recall. There are no layers, just the message sledgehammer that hits you between the eyes. I think she means that if you plan to say something specific, and force the piece into something that shouts what you intend, the story may end up weaker than if you come at it in a more organic way – exploring, allowing your creativity to work.
But it IS hard to put into practice sometimes, I know that!
I would also add here that some writers can manage to do what she counsels against – and one example is William Golding. He deliberately wrote Lord of the Flies as a fable. He knew what he was wanting to say and he went for it. And went for it with his full talent, his full imagination, his skills as a writer. I think rather than win the Nobel Prize for Lit, most of the rest of us would fail miserably…

TFB: Elaine Chiew admits to being controversial in her chapter on endings when she says “neatly-tied up endings, everything resolved, often seem contrived by the author to me”- are such endings passé? Do we need unresolved issues to make it in the modern world of short stories?

VANESSA: I don’t think so – but it’s an interesting thing isn’t it? I am no academic, and have not made an academic analysis of the stories that constantly make it to the highest level. Maybe I should. But Elaine gives away what she is saying in one word… ‘contrived’. If anything at all feels contrived, the author is intruding and the fictive dream is shot. The ending of a good story is fundamental – isn’t it what stays with us long after the reading is done? If everything is too neat, then ‘they all lived happily ever after’ or something equally final slams the story shut. Isn’t it good to leave an echo, no matter how slight?

TFB:Okay, Vanessa, in 25 words explain why my readers should purchase Short Circuit- A Guide to the Art of the Short Story immediately.

VANESSA: It’s recommended by the Bridport, Fish, Asham and Frank O’Connor Prize organisers, by writing teachers, by writers. AND there’s 20% off at Salt Publishing! (25 words)
Fantastic Vanessa. Thanks so much for stopping by and good luck with the book. Readers, if you want to buy a copy of this excellent book click here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Pre-Writing Method

I only know the method of writing that works for me and that method changes with every project. My first detective novella, The Fatal Payout, was written with very little pre-planning. I had a sketchy plot skeleton with a few names and that was it. For me, I found this quite inefficient for writing detective novels since the writer needs to be firmly in control of the plot or they will find that they’ve written themselves into a hole where they either can’t justify the ending or they’ve made it too obvious and the reader will be disappointed.

With my next three detective novellas each became progressively more pre-planned. When I started my first romance, Kwaito Love, I had come to the decision that pre-planning would work well for romance too. Again just like in a detective novel, I feel the author needs to keep a firm hand on the plot and the characters so as to build up the romantic tension at key points. I’m not sure how writers who don’t pre-plan do this. I’d be interested in knowing.

My pre-planning includes an A3 size general plot map, character bibles, usually an A4 for each character, then chapter synopses and occasionally an A3 calendar if time needs to be kept very clear as part of plot tension. The decisions at the beginning are not written in stone though, if I find as I start writing something else works better I change, as can be seen by the crossing out on the character bibles in the photo above. I do all pre-planning by hand in my terrible, and degenerating handwriting.

I found a new trick that is proving helpful as I begin my new romance, He Can’t Be the One. I wanted to see my characters more clearly so I paged through magazines and newspapers until I found them. I cut out the photos and stapled them to the respective character bible. I’ve found this very useful as I write.

I’m not sure how I will proceed when I start my next project which is not genre but literary; the book I want to work on during my residency in Egypt. I feel a bit as if literary fiction might need a freer reign as it is less about plot and more about character, but I find as I’m thinking about the project I’m already writing things down. I’ll have to wait and see.

How do you approach your projects? Is it always the same or does what you’re writing affect the process? I'd love to hear about it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why'd they Reject Me?

Every rejection gets us wondering:what is wrong with my manuscript? Agents and publishers rarely have time to tell us. This post on the web this last week might give us some insight.

It is from literary agent Janet Reid's blog. She gives a breakdown of why she rejected manuscripts she had requested to see (124 in total). This means the writer got through the query stage and the three chapters and was hopeful s/he was on the road to getting an agent. But not actually- as you will see.

Just plain not good enough: 21
Good premise, but the rest of the novel didn't hold up: 11
Not compelling or vivid, or focused; no plot/tension: 10
Slow start or the pace was too slow: 9
I didn't believe the narrative voice: 5
Structural problems with the novel: 8
Interesting premise, but not a fresh or new take on familiar plots/tropes: 7
Had caricatures rather than characters: 2
Boring: 3
Grossed me out: 2
Major plot problems: 2
Needed more polish and editorial input than I wanted to do: 2
Good books but I couldn't figure out where to sell them: 7
Got offer elsewhere; I withdrew from scrum: 2
Great writing, just not right for me: 2
Not right for me, refer to other agents: 9
Not quite there/send me the next one: 1
Sent back for revisions with editorial suggestions and I expect to see them again in 2010: 9
Getting second read at FPLM: 1
Got offer from me: 2 (Congrats you two!!!!)

So? Does this make us feel better ...or worse? 2 out of 124? I think I feel sad.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Should Writers Review Books?

I read a review of a book on a blog recently and the owner explained that she often gets asked to write reviews of books on her blog but rarely does since she doesn't want to bash other writers' books and doesn't want to write a lot of fluff about friends' books she's not so sure about.

I review books occasionally here, mostly when I'm blown away by a book or it touched me in an important way. I also occasionally give books a miss. I implement my father's advice when it comes to book reviews on this blog- if I have nothing good to say, I keep quiet. Something I don't often do in my real life, usually to my own detriment.

I read this great article as The Rumpus about the problematic position of writers writing reviews of other writers' books. The author is Joshua Mohr and he says-

Yes, I like to read book reviews, and in the past I’ve enjoyed writing them. Right now, though—and who knows if it will change—it feels like a violation, a petty way to throw a wrench into someone else’s artistic career. A publishing career is hard enough without people who should be on the same team wielding criticism like a weapon.

What do you think? Should writers review books? What about a writer on a mission to bash the competitor? The world is not all rainbows and puppies, even in the writing world. Should we leave book reviews to non-writers only to stop any conflict of interest?

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Accumulator

For Christmas my husband bought me a present which has been dubbed "The Accumulator". Some have wondered about its many attributes so I thought, at the very least, it deserved a blog post.

Cursory looks would bring you to the conclusion that The Accumulator is a radio -cassette player. It is that. I needed a cassette player as the world moves ahead, but my music collection sits obstinately in its time of origin. So it does serve an important purpose in that way.

In addition, it has two types of lights- a lamp and a flashlight. That is handy for camping and electricity blackouts. It also has a lovely, jolly colour.

But the real magic is its source of energy. You can plug it into the mains supply. (boring). You can insert three dry cells (boring) OR you can switch it to accumulator (exciting). On accumulator, it will run almost for ever. I realised on New Year's Eve that eventually it dims. It will still run, but the volume cannot be increased. I don't know the science behind this wonderful machine but I think it's worth looking into.
Climate change, global warming- the answer may lie in The Accumulator.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

5 Things I Loved about Short Circuit

Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story is a unique textbook. Much like the writing it tries to educate the reader about, it is conflicting and sometimes controversial. Each chapter is written by a different award winning short story writer, each with their own opinions about how one might go about writing a good short story. It's fun to see them disagree.
Each chapter ends with a list of short stories the writer of the chapter likes and a few writing exercises.
The editor of the collection is Vanessa Gebbie. Here is Ms Gebbie's bio from the book:

Vanessa Gebbie’s short fiction has won over forty awards, including prizes at Bridport, Fish (twice), Per Contra (USA), the Daily Telegraph and the Willesden Herald, from final judges such as Zadie
Smith, Tracy Chevalier, Michael Collins and Colum McCann. She is a freelance writing teacher working with adult groups, at literary festivals and with school students. Her work with disadvantaged adults led to the publication of two anthologies of their writing: Roofless and Refuge (QueenSpark Publishing 2007). In 2009 she was invited to contribute to A Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (Rose Metal Press USA), a creative writing textbook that received a coveted starred review from Publisher’sWeekly. Many of her prize-winning stories are brought together for the first time in her collection Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt, 2008). A second collection, Ed’sWife and Other Creatures, is forthcoming from
Salt. She is Welsh and lives in East Sussex.
Vanessa will be here at Thoughts from Botswana on the 15th January to talk about the book. The table of contents of this book looks a bit like a Who's Who of short story writing.
But what did I like about this book? Well......
5 Things I loved About Short Circuit
1. I have to admit some of the chapters I found more interesting and helpful than others, but I think that is a bit of the beauty of this book. It is written from the perspective of working, successful writers and as all of us know writers each have their own way to get to the end of that story. Some things work for me, some don't; and some that don't work for me will definitely work for you.
2. The book is comprehensive and to the point. There are chapters about the importance of the right title, how to start the story, how to end it, and all the aspects of what happens in between. There are chapters on where to get ideas and how to cultivate creativity. I see myself referring back to particular chapters over and over again.
3. A few of the writers brought up something that I've gone through but have never been able to verbalise. It happens to me only when writing short stories, not writing novels. Perhaps it is the intensity of short story writing . It is "writing into the void" as Marian Garvey describes it in the book. It is when suddenly a story is on the page and you're not sure if you were consciously part of the process of getting it there. You have to be willing to let that happen, to relinquish control. In her chapter, Alison Macleod advises us to take that risk. "You need to be willing not to know." Short Circuit reminded me that I cannot walk away from short stories (something I'd been considering) I'm addicted to that magic.
4. Something all writers struggle with is their style- what is my style? we ask ourselves. Nuela Ni Conchir's chapter on style was comforting for me regarding this issue. She says, "Your personality oozes into your work without you knowing or being able to stop it. Everything you write is stamped with your innate style." That was a bit of a relief for me. I just want to write and since my writing seems to take on my chaotic, schizophrenic personality I often wonder if I will ever find my unique style. Apparently I already have.
5. Some chapters I felt were such a gift. The interview with Tobias Hill on character, characterisation and dialogue was full of wonderful advice. In the end, short stories are about character and if we don't get it right the story flattens, often morbidly so. He advises (controversially) that short stories need a few cliched characters, that dialogue is not an easy way to avoid showing and ensuring you are telling-some dialogue is showing, and therefore boring, and that physical description of characters is your salt- use it sparingly, but don't leave it out completely, readers need something to grab onto. It was one of my favourite chapters in the book.
Stop by on the 15th to hear more!

Monday, January 4, 2010

That First Book

I'm always amazed when a writer gets their first book published and it immediately gains international literary success. I always wonder where did they practice? How did they learn everything? Did they secretly write for years putting everything in a drawer until they knew they were ready? How did they know that?

My first published book was a bit of an accident. At the time I owned a small newspaper that circulated around where I live. We had been printing it in Gaborone and decided we would buy our own machine and print for ourselves. The problem was we had to shift from tabloid size to A4 to do that and there were other A4 papers in our market. I decided it might be a good idea to serialise a novel to build readership and separate us from the crowd. But where to get a novel? I decided I would write one.

I'd mostly only written news articles and opinion pieces up until then. I didn't really consider myself a writer at all. But I thought I could try my luck. Our deadline was on a Friday, and it usually turned out I'd be staying late on a Thursday trying to write my next 1000 words of the novel for that week's issue.

When the story finished in the newspaper, we had a few people calling saying they missed some instalments and couldn't we give them the whole story. Then I thought maybe I could send it to a publisher who would put all of the parts together for these readers. I sent it off to Macmillan and they decided they wanted to publish it.

That book was The Fatal Payout, the first book in my Detective Kate Gomolemo series, all four of which were serialised in the newspaper I used to own. That was 2005. The second book, Murder for Profit was published by Pentagon Publishers in 2008.

I was disappointed with The Fatal Payout. I felt I could do much better. I wasn't happy it was my first published book. It was written chaotically with a plot that moved at warp speed. But at the same time, I feel I've improved a lot since then, even if just having a better idea of how a book can be written, the process, though I hope my writing has improved also. I feel like I had to write The Fatal Payout and the other books in that series to get to here, and I must write the books I need to, to get me to the writer I will eventually be. I'm a process, not an event.

I recently read an interview with a writer who said that she doesn't understand writers who publish many books that are not the best that they could do. She would rather publish a few books that she knows are her best.

I know the books I write now are better than the books I've written in the past. At the time of writing those books, though, they were my best. I am a writer learning on the job. I don't know how other writers do it, it's a mystery to me. I know, only to a certain extent , how good my writing is; publishing is how I find out how I'm doing. Writing and having it published is my way of improving. I know no other way I could have become a writer. Those are my steps. I'm learning to accept that.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Why Post-pone Pleasure?

Have you ever saved a certain much loved outfit for that very special occasion only to take it out of the wardrobe and find its too small or eaten by moths? How about putting that gift certificate to the side, waiting until you can buy the perfect thing only to find it months later and see that it has expired?

If you answered yes, then you are likely suffering from pleasure procrastination. An article in the New York Times discusses new findings by scientists who have uncovered this odd sort of disorder in humans. Apparently it involves a bit of greed on our parts- we want the best and do not want to settle for less even if in the end it means we get nothing. We save that special bottle of wine for that very special night out there in our future with that very special person, our soul mate, waiting for us to fall into his open arms. But instead that ideal never materialises and the cat accidentally knocks the special bottle of wine off the shelf and the person ends up with nada.

So, let's not put off fun we could have today waiting for that perfect tomorrow that never arrives. Do you want to go scuba diving but you're waiting to lose that last 10 kgs? Do you want to visit the museum but can't seem to make time in your weekends full of clothes washing? Do you want to write that book but don't want to take time away from your family for something so indulgent?

The term pleasure procrastinator makes me sad. Don't be one of them.