Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Writers Reviewing Books

This morning I read a very insightful article written by author Fiona Snyckers about reviewing books as a writer. I often get asked to review books, publishers even send them to me nowadays and there are many issues that come to the fore. If I know the writer how do I approach the review? If it's a good book- no problem, but what if it's not. What then? I've often taken the cowardly approach and wrote nothing.

Though Fiona speaks about the small South African publishing world, with internet the publishing world all over has become very small. Getting a black mark against your name for bashing some one's book is not a good career move and may come back to get you. And too, is it even correct for writers to judge other books? Isn't it a bit like the bosses at Ford critiquing the new Toyota Hilux?

Here on this blog I don't consider my posts reviews. They're my opinion just like my opinion on my performance in the recent bird count (BTW- the woman called me and was full of praise for my work. I told her the truth about what went on but she would not be subdued). As writers we read, and there are books we love and books we don't. On this blog I speak only about the books I love. Perhaps I'm rationalising it and trying to get away from the label 'book review' but somehow I feel it's different.

What do you think? Is it right for writers to review books? Do you? And how to approach these ethical issues?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Difficult to Explain- a Poetry Guidebook

Difficult to Explain, edited by South African poet Finuala Dowling, is a great way to enter the murky water of poetry gently and without fear. The book is published by Hands-on Books an imprint of Modjaji Books. (It can be bought HERE)

The book starts with Ms Dowling explaining her initial reluctance to teach poetry. She finally decides to prolong a summer writing course by holding sessions in her home that teeters on a hill with a window looking out to the ocean where passing whales often mean breaktime for the students and their teacher.

The book starts with Ms Dowling explaining how the classes are run and her approach to teaching poetry. The remainder of the book is poems written by her students. At the beginning of a section she explains what the assignment was and then gives examples of how her students interpreted the assignment.

I don't write poetry though I have an interest in doing so, not for publication, more for exercises to get my creative juices flowing when I'm feeling stale. This book is lovely for me as I intend to try and do some of the assignment too. So the book is an introduction to poetry and poetry writing, with exercises that are safe to do at home without supervision and yet it is also full of fabulous, funny, touching poems. How can you NOT love an assignment that asks you to write a poem with a title that is significantly longer than the poem itself?

I can't deny I'm dead jealous of each and every one of Ms Dowling's students. I would love to sit in that room at the end of Africa looking at whales while writing poetry, but I'm very happy the group put this book together. They've laid out some sturdy step-stones to start me out on my poetic way. Thank you- you lucky devils!!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Counting Birds

On a particularly optimistic morning I was reading the paper and came across an article about how Birdlife Botswana was doing a national bird count and needed volunteers. I thought - "Hey I have a field guide, I have binoculars. I could do that". So I called them.

The woman on the phone was very enthusiastic and I immediately regretted my decision to call. I thought if she's this excited about the call she must not get a lot of volunteers. Then I thought if she's not getting a lot of volunteers there may be a reason and that reason is likely to not be very pleasant. But I listened and everything seemed okay. You count along a 2 km distance, stopping every 200 metres and then you count all of the birds you see for 5 minutes. I like quantitative exercises and it seemed the perfect little outing for me and Mr K so I agreed.

I thought the difficult part was all of the measurements so being the anal Capricorn that I am, I decided the best thing to do was to go out into the bush the evening before and mark off all of our stops on the chosen path so early the next morning we would be ready and prepared. We tied bits of blue cloth at each stop and went home to a nice Saturday evening.

Now I'm no expert on birds in Botswana. I like them. I take out my field guide when I'm in the bush and look up the pretty ones. I know the regular ones that come to my bird bath. I know birds like the lilac breasted roller, the blue wax bill, hornbills, starlings, doves, red eyed bulbuls, pied crows, hoopoes, masked weavers- so I thought I was pretty knowledgeable and the actual counting would be a breeze.

Sunday 5:30 am we are up and ready to go. But what I didn't realise is that on Sunday all of the normal birds are off. Maybe they go to bird church. Maybe they visit their birdy relatives and have a big Sunday meal of worms and seeds. Maybe they're chilling at the Bird Hotel with their Chinas. I don't know where they go- but they go- and they leave behind two groups of birds to man the shop: the brown, nondescript little birds and the fast-as-lightning-no-one-can-see-them birds.

One would really be astonished to know that there are many brown, nondescript birds, perhaps thousands. Do what you will with your field guide, but you will never be able to identify those birds with any confidence. I did my best but I fear major scientific decisions may be based on the faulty data I've collected. One can only imagine the havoc that could ensue. And the worst part about the whole thing is that apparently once you sign up for this bird count, you must do the same area every November and February for eternity. It's a life sentence.

In any case, I've learned my lesson. Next time I'll do it on a Monday when all of the full time birds are back on the job.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Excitement Excitement!

I've had a spate of fantastic news lately. I'm still glowing from the Golden Baobab win. Yesterday there was an article about it in our only private national daily paper, Mmegi, and another article in our national Sunday paper.

I've also been invited to run a writing workshop in London in February. I don't want to give out too many details now because I'm waiting to see if our Department of Arts and Culture will be able to find money to fund the trip. When all is clear I'll let you know everything.

The other very exciting thing is that all of the Sapphire Press' titles, including my romance novellas Kwaito Love and Can he be the one? have been optioned to be made into television movies. The production company is allowed two years to decide which books they want to go with and to see if they can secure funding. I've worked in television before writing scripts but I've never had a book of mine made into a movie. I'm crossing fingers something wonderful happens.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Publishing a book is like bringing a bucket of water to the ocean"

The title of this post comes from this fantastic article based on an excerpt from Betsy Lerner's book, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice for Writers. The article is about the importance of an author marketing their own book.

When we get into this business we think the job roles are: writer writes, publisher publishes and sells- and if things go well writes the writer big cheques. But once our book is out we realise that this model is a work of fiction. If we as writers sit back and wait for things to happen nothing will. Especially when you're new to the game.Publishers have a limited budget and they will focus it on the big names that bring in the big money.

It's not all gloom and doom though, as the article points out. We live in the time of blogging, Facebook and Twitter. There is no better time to market a book. And you can pinpoint your marketing with a blog book tour. You know your book best. Hit blogs with readers that look like the potential readers of your book.

You can wax lyrical about the wonderful writing and your in-depth characterisation but if your book doesn't sell then it was a waste of every one's time. Build your connections now, before you get published. Pay attention to how other authors do it. Copy them. Arrive at your potential publisher armed with your own marketing plan. Proactive marketing is the new name of the game.

What ideas do you have for marketing your book?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Problem with Local Publishers in Botswana

I was recently at a workshop and had breakfast one morning with one of Botswana’s musicians. He said that when he tours Botswana, his producer pays for it. He’s promoting himself so more CDs are sold which is good for both the producer and the musician. I sat there thinking how far the situation is between local writers and their publishers and local musicians and their producers.

Book publishers in Botswana work like this:
They wait for the Ministry of Education to put out a tender for the books they need. The publishers then run around trying to get writers to write those books. They submit the books to the government. The government chooses a tiny, minuscule, fraction of them and then the local publishers print up the books, take them to the schools and get a cheque. That’s how it’s done and always has been. This is what they know. They’re educational publishers and the government pays their bills.

This does absolutely nothing to improve the situation of literature in this country. It does little to promote writing and writers. It does nothing to develop writers. It does nothing to improve the status of reading in the country. Local publishers do not care about any of that. It’s not their concern. This applies to both the international big guys who have set up a storefront and the local publishers who claim they are here for the long term. If tomorrow the government stops buying books, I can assure you there will be no more publishers in Botswana. None. They know nothing else but selling books to government and they have no interest in learning something new. Perhaps I’m being harsh; for sure I am firmly biting the hand that feeds me, but it’s time we look at this situation face on and stop pretending it is something that it is not.

Let’s imagine a world where a publisher wants to sell books to the people- how does that work?

First- they call for submissions. Then writers write books- all sorts of books. Books for little children, books for adults. Stories from our past and our present, stories from the future. Immediately the possibilities for writers and what they can do expands and the books available to readers expands too.

Now the publishers look at the submissions from the writers and choose the best, the ones they think they can sell. They would set up a marketing plan for the books. How could they sell the books? Which media would they choose to publicise their authors? Where in Botswana could the authors go to talk and read from their books, to sell their books like the musicians sell their CDs?

And what about the internet? They would organise the books be sold online. They would have the book selling as an ebook on the company’s website and the author’s blog or website so they can easily sell internationally. Botswana publishers would make books one of Botswana’s export commodities. And soon writing would be a career people with talent could choose. Botswana might start to be known as a place of writers just like Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

But that won’t happen. Publishers have little interest and zero incentive. It would require teaching an old dog a new trick and that old dog likes its old tricks very, very much.

So if you’ve written a book that has very little chance of being chosen as a schoolbook, you’d be cutting your throat by handing it over to a local publisher. No matter what they tell you, there will be no marketing. They will have made you sign a contract that gives them world rights when they fail to even sell it in our tiny country, so you will not be able to give it to another publisher. For all intents and purposes that book is dead. All your work, all your creative energy -gone. So if you’re serious about making money from your books outside of the school market, give the local publishers a miss.
This was my November 5th column in our newspaper The Voice. After the column came out I had numerous conversations with other writers about it. What we need badly in Botswana if our literature is to grow at all is a trade publishers run by someone who reads and loves literature. It would be the best thing for writers in this country.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Golden Baobab Happy Dance!!

Yesterday I found out that my story "The Mechanic's Son" won first prize in the Golden Baobab Prize for the senior category and my story "Lightning and the Thunderers" was highly commended in the junior category. I was also very pleased to see another Motswana writer, Gothataone Moeng being highly commended as well as our honorary Motswana, Jenny Robson, who still holds a South African passport but has lived most of her life in Botswana.

Last year "Lorato and her Wire Car" won the same prize in the junior category and "Birthday Wishes" was highly commended in the senior category. Both are now published with Vivlia Publishers in South Africa.

Congratulations to all of the winners and thanks to the Golden Baobab Prize organisers and judges. They're really doing a lot for African writers of children literature.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Bed Book to Be Launched in London!!

YES!! The Bed Book of Short Stories which I helped compile and I have a story inside of is to be launched in London. A wonderful sort of culture has developed around this book. The writers organise launches wherever they are. There have been launches so far in Windhoek Namibia, Gaborone, Johannesburg, Franschoek, and now there will be one in London.

If you're around London please stop in. The writers who will be reading are South Africans Margot Saffer, Melissa Gardner and Zambian Ellen Banda-Aaku who is just fresh from winning the continent wide Penguin Prize for African Writing for her novel, Patchwork.

For a recent review of the book stop by Helen Ginger's blog.

The London Launch
Date: Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
Venue: OXFAM BOOKS, 91 Marylebone High St
London W1U 4RB
RSVP: Melissa Gardiner, melissagardiner@gmail.com
If you get to the launch stop by and let me know all about it!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Invasion of the Flying Termites

After the first good rains, in the night, maybe the next night or the night after that, the flying termites emerge. Last night was our flying termite night and it was crazy!

They fly for about an hour, hour and half at most. They fly straight to the light. If you forget to close your window, as we did last night, you will be swamped with them. They all fly to the light and then they lose their wings and are back to being pedestrians. But since they've all congregated at the light already it makes it easy to find a date, which is the whole point of this exercise.

In the morning after the invasion of the flying termites, you will find big piles of wings:

...and other big piles of mostly dead termites. I don't know this but I assume they must have mated and laid eggs somewhere before their demise or else the whole thing seems a very dramatic waste of energy and I know nature doesn't do that.

I understand that some people around Africa fry these termites and eat them. I've never seen it but it does seem a waste, all of these piles and piles of perfectly good morsels of protein. Buster the African Sausage Dog ate a good share of termites this morning and he barely made a dent in the piles.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pula e a na!!!

It has been raining in Mahalapye for the last few days off and on and this morning I got a lovely surprise- a mophane moth outside my bedroom door!

These lovely creatures lay eggs which hatch to form the fellows below:

This caterpillar is voracious. I remember one year when we lived in Lecheng we had had fantastic rains and the mophane trees (from which these guys get their name) were in full leaf. We went away for a week or so and when we returned I remember being out on my daily walk with the dogs and thinking everything seemed so dry somehow. Then I realised suddenly that the trees were completely de-leafed! These guys were long gone but they'd stripped the trees nearly bare. I have stood quietly under a mophane tree when these fellows are around and you can hear the crunching- that's how mad they are about their food.

These worms are a source of income and food for many Batswana. They are a serious job to collect and process as they have hard, thorny bodies, but they are collected and gutted and dried. People cook them in various ways and eat them with maize porridge. People who like them like them a lot. My children and my husband will eat them one after another like a snack. In a year of good rains there are often two crops of mophane worms.

I cannot comment on their taste I'm afraid. Though quite adventurous with my eating, I've yet to dive into the world of the mophane worm.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sue Guiney's Blog Book Tour Stop

Though born and raised in New York, Sue Guiney has lived in London for twenty years where she writes and teaches fiction, poetry and plays. Her work has appeared in important literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and her first book, published by Bluechrome Publishing in 2006, is the text of her poetry play, Dreams of May. Her first novel, Tangled Roots, was published in May ‘08, also by Bluechrome. Her second novel, A Clash of Innocents, was chosen to be the first publication of the new imprint Ward Wood Publishing and was published in September, 2010. Sue is also Artistic Director of the theatre arts charity which she founded in 2005 called CurvingRoad.

Sue Guiney has stopped by Thoughts from Botswana today as part of her blog book tour promoting her new novel A Clash of Innocents.
Welcome Sue!!
Let's get into some questions.

All of the "expats" in your books seem to be running away from something. As an expat of sorts yourself, do you think we're all doing that in one way or another?

The expat community is a very funny one, I’ve found. There are some who are dragged kicking and screaming into the experience and spend their entire times waiting to go ‘home’. There are others who stay abroad happily for years and years but always seem to be looking over their shoulders wondering what’s happening ‘back there.’ If anything, those sorts of expats don’t start their running until after they’ve moved. But then there are others who leave without the intention of going back to wherever, with the full determination of making their new country their ‘home.’ And of those people, some are running away and others are running to. I think I am one of those running to. But I agree, my characters are usually running away and that is a predicament that fascinates me.

Why did you decide to use first person with Deborah as your narrator? How did that limit you?

This is an interesting and important question for me, because it goes to the heart of something I still haven’t gotten my head around as a writer. After writing my 1st novel. Tangled Roots, in the 1st person I was determined to write my next book in the third. I didn’t want to have to limit myself to the knowledge or understanding of only one person which a 1st person narration necessitates – ie, unless you are the one having the sex, or you are there peeping through the keyhole, you can’t really know or describe what is actually going on. But I seem to need to know who my narrator is. In order to write in a voice of any kind, even an omniscient 3rd person voice, I need to know about the person from whom that voice is coming. In other words, the narrator becomes another character to me and from there it’s a slippery slope into 1st person. I don’t have this problem when I read. I can readily accept other writers’ 3rd person narrators. I just can’t seem to do it myself. But I’m determined to keep trying. But having said this, I didn’t conceive of this book as Deborah’s story. It was always supposed to be Amanda’s story only with somebody else telling it. But Deborah is a pretty strong and pushy broad. Once she got started talking, the story became more and more about her as well.

It felt to me when I finished the book that perhaps this story might not
be finished. Will there be a sequel? If so, I sort of hoped Deborah would get together with the doctor. Any chance you could work that in?

Wow! I’m so glad you got that inkling of a relationship between them. I thought maybe I had been too subtle! Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that I am thinking long and hard about setting my next novel in Cambodia as well. There is still a lot there I’d like to explore. And I love having characters weave their way from one book to another. Careful readers of Tangled Roots might recognize that the character of Amanda in A Clash of Innocents is the same young woman whose wedding opens up that first book. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Deborah and the others end up in a new novel, though I would be surprised if it was a sequel. I’d prefer the novels to be able to stand alone. Though there is something delicious about realizing you already know a part of the life of a character you are now meeting.

Where is Cambodia now? Is there hope?

Cambodia is much better off than it was, but it is far from being sound. It is still a country with some of the worst poverty anywhere in the world, with terrible problems of human trafficking, a very corrupt government. It is a country at a crossroads. But yes, there is hope. There is always I hope, I believe.

What is your next project?

For now I am concentrating on getting as many people to know about A Clash of Innocents as possible and I am planning a trip to SE Asia where I will do a series of charity workshops and events – my way of bringing the fruit of my inspiration back to the people who inspired it. But I am starting to plan my next novel and, unofficially, there’s a good chance that interested people will be able to read a lot more of my poetry soon.

Fantastic! Thanks for stopping by Sue. Best of luck with the book.
If you want to buy Sue's book A Clash of Innocents click HERE.