Friday, December 24, 2010

Resolutions for Superheroes

Here is my last column for 2010 (quite a fabulous year, acutally) from The Voice.

I love a new year, just like I love a new day, and a blank piece of paper. Each is 100% potential. Every possible thing could happen. Hesitations and back tracking have yet to make an appearance. No does not exist. Perhaps I’m an eternal optimist but a new year always puts me in the right frame of mind- my superhero frame of mind- I can do absolutely anything and everything.

The world is wide open waiting only for me. Any experiences in the previous year that might be evidence used against my super hero-ness are rubbed clean. They are not allowed to cross that magical line we all step over at 11:59 pm on the 31st of December. Anti-superhero evidence, in its entirety, we drop at the threshold as we walk though the door into 2011.

So this year when you cross the door, in your imaginary blue tights and red cape, where will you be heading? It’s all fine and good to be equipped with x-ray vision and the ability to fly but if your talents are not used positively things can go decidedly pear shaped quite quickly. Even superheroes need goals and it’s best to make them when your mind is still untainted by the faltering steps and cracked pavement waiting to catch you out beyond the magic door. When the slate is clean, you can decide what will go where. Once you let Life get involved, it will start filling up all of the good spots, leaving you only leftovers- and no one likes leftovers.

As writers, despite rumours to the contrary, we design our course. Do I want to write a book about ghosts? How about win a short story contest? Do I want to get an agent? Will I self publish? All of these questions help us to define the path we take. Other jobs you have a boss handing out the goals and even laying down the bricks on your path. Not as a writer. It’s all up to you.

So make some new year’s resolutions- serious, specific ones. Make them now before it gets too late. You’re the boss, lay down those bricks.

From my point of view, as writers we have some main areas where specific goals should be made. We must write. We must learn. We must read. We must be published. We must publicise.

We Must Write
You call yourself a writer- but do you write? Make a resolution. Come the end of December 2011 what writing do you want finished? Do you want to end 2011 with an 80,000 word novel in your hands or five solid poems? How will you accomplish that? Will you write only on weekends? After work? Everyday? How many words must you write at each writing session to accomplish your goal? Commit to that word count. Give yourself quantifiable goals.

We Must Learn
Writing is an endless journey of learning. Tomorrow’s writing will be better than today’s if we make sure we progress in learning our craft. Attend workshops. Read writing books. Go to author talks. Learn online. But don’t only learn the craft, make sure you learn the business too. Know how the publishing business works. Pay attention to up and coming technologies. What learning resolutions do you have for 2011? Write them down; commit to them.

We Must Read
I know you’re getting tired of me singing this song BUT we must read to be good writers. Again make a new year’s resolution. How many books will you read each month?

We Must Be Published
Are you going to start a blog for your writing? How often will you post? Do you want to get your poetry or short stories published? Which literary magazines will you submit to? Do you have a novel that needs a publisher? Which agents or publishers do you intend to send it to in 2011? Write your goals down. On the 31st of December 2011, how many poems will you have published? Where will your novel be?

We Must Publicise
Though most writers would like to stay hidden in their writing room, the game decides that is no longer viable. In 2011 how are you going to get your work out there? Will you set up a website? Will you read at public events? Will you attend book fairs? Make a personal marketing plan for your superhero self.

Writing is a tough, tough business. By the 3rd of January 2011 evil forces will be tugging at your cape, your blue tights will start to fade under their hot gaze, but if you’ve marked out your path with stakes made of steel, at least you’ll know where you’re heading. They’ll bash you around with their rejections and losses. They’ll tell you your characters are flat, your plot predictable and your poem riddled with tired clich├ęs- but it won’t matter. You are a writer with a plan and you expect next New Year’s Eve to be a time of celebration. So, get to work now, my Superheroes- your new day is just about to arrive.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Income Generating Activities for Underpaid Authors

I am a big fan of David Sedaris thanks to my friend Mark Pocan who arrived at my house in Botswana (travelling all the way from Madison Wisconsin, USA) bearing gifts among them books written by Mr Sedaris. I think he is Fabulous (yes with a capital F) and I think this idea is one of his best. Put a tip jar at your book signing table. Wow!! I could do with an extra $4000 I don't know about you.

Writers are notoriously underpaid and I think it might be time to climb out of the box as Mr Sedaris has and come up with some ways to expand that income base. (I wouldn't advocate the selling of drugs as one commenter on the Guardian article suggested)

So what ideas do you have? I'm keen to hear- and of course promptly steal.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Menage a Trois- Part 2

A few months ago I was involved in a three-way email discussion/interview with two writers I admire Tania Hershman (author of the short story collection The White Road and Other Stories) and Sue Guiney (whose most recent book is A Clash of Innocents). Today we are posting the interview on our respective blogs in three parts.

Read Menage a Trois- Part 1 at Tania's blog here.

Menage a Trois- Part 2

This is fun! And very interesting. Is there anything you'd like to ask each other while I am formulating my thoughts?

Ooh yes. Lauri, my dear: you once mentioned on a blog comment that agents aren’t used or needed in the Botswana publishing industry. I’m ashamed to say I know almost nothing about how the business works where you are and I assume you might know something about the UK or US industry. Are there any other differences that you’ve noticed, and if so, do you find some differences better than others?

Thanks both...

Hello Girlies!
I thought what Sue said in this bit below about plays being visual and short stories and novels appearing more in a certain time frame to be very interesting. Maybe you can speak a bit more about this. Being a child of TV, almost everything I write is in scenes- especially genre stuff. I almost even break for commercials. I find it interesting that you compartmentalise in such a way.

What I meant about writing for money is that many people believe it compromises the work. I’d lie if I said it does not stop me from writing certain things- it does. If I can’t see the market, I don’t write it I just don’t have time for that and in that sense I suppose it does compromise the art of my writing a bit. But then too, I feel like I’m a bit more of a technician than an artisan.

Sue, you asked a bit about the difference between writing here and the writing climate in UK. Since most of my stuff is published here and in South Africa I can write about both of these places as they are similar, though Botswana on a much smaller scale. Publishers in Botswana (exclusively) and in SA (mostly) publish books for the school market. That is where they make their money and that is where writers will make their money if they intend to. There is a microscopic trade market in Botswana that is filled to the brim with international titles. Botswana titles do not stand a chance. I have two detective novellas, one published in 2005 which has earned P290 (USD 48) and one published in 2008 which has earned P799 (USD 133) from sales in bookstores. The publishers know nothing about marketing such books. That first book (2005) has now been taken as a prescribed book for junior secondary schools here. In April I will get a cheque for P130,000 (USD 21,600) and I will get about half to a third of that each year for the next five years. You can see the difference. In SA the trades are a bit better and occasionally you get a break out novel from SA- for example the Spud books, which exploded selling maybe 80,000 and now are going overseas and there will be movies etc.. A bestseller in SA is normally 2000-4000 books sold in bookstores, they have a population of about 47 million. We have 1.8 million. It is tough to make a living from those kinds of figures.
Of course there are writers here and in SA that don’t use local publishers and have agents etc and publish overseas. They of course do better in the trades.

I don’t really know about this one but I hear writers in USA and UK talking about editors and the big role they play in their success. Here we deal directly with publishers, even in SA, at least in my experience, except recently with the editor I was dealing with for my short story collection,. But we deal with publishers. They get editors, usually on a freelance basis, and then give you a report. I’ve never really known my editors or communicated with them and they are very ephemeral so I don’t think they’d play a very big role in my career. Then too, I’m not loyal to a single publisher. Currently for my published books I have five publishers, only my local Botswana one am I slightly loyal to.

This is very interesting stuff, really enlightening about the book market in Botswana/SA. Sue, can you shed any light on any differences between UK and US from what you've heard from US writer friends?

This may be a ten-part series, this interview - with commercial breaks!

Hi kids,
Monday morning after a somewhat sleepless night where I couldn’t turn off my brain. Of all the crazy, counterproductive stuff I was thinking about, this conversation of ours is one of the few things that isn’t driving me crazy right now, so I’m thrilled to start the week off with some responses to this latest instalment.

When I was a kid, I assumed that the way my world conducted itself in my little corner of suburbia was the way everything worked the world round, ie that we all had the same electricity, the same tv shows, the same brands of cereal. But then I met my first box of Weetabix. I feel the same now as I learn about the way the publishing industry runs around the world. What you have described, Lauri, is as different from what I have experienced in the UK and US as could be. Where I write and attempt to be published, writers are completely compartmentalized. Writing for schools is a very separate, specialized segment of the market. They have their own divisions of publishing houses, their own requirements and procedures. All that has nothing to do with the writing world I function in. My writing world is also very compartmentalized, but by genre with the most successful ones (financially) being in whichever genre is deemed to be the most popular at the time. Right now it seems to be memoir and celebrity bios, with some high profile detective/suspense novels thrown in. Agents are the gatekeepers to the large houses, and that means to the big distributors. You can’t break in without them. This is especially true in the US. Holding an academic position is also helpful — especially in the States, or so it seems to me. This has caused me to think quite seriously about trying to get a teaching position in a Uni somewhere, although to teach because I want to write instead of because I want to teach seems churlish to me, but that may change. I now find myself wondering if I would be approaching what and how I write very differently if I lived in a country whose markets and industries were run as yours are. It’s fascinating to me how our work is affected by such things. You say you are “a bit more of a technician than an artisan “. A very interesting and telling statement. Shouldn’t we need to be both? How do the vagaries of our individual markets force us into feeling one way more than another. I do want to say, though, that I think new technologies are forcing changes in the industry as it is run up here. I know you’ve heard me say this before and I don’t believe it’s only wishful thinking. The fact that books can be printed on demand or downloaded may well be the saviour of the small press. If small presses which are not only willing but eager to publish things like poetry, literary fiction, short stories can remain viable, then the reading public will have a greater choice of what to read and writers will have more freedom to write what they wish.

But if I can go back to my midnight brain override, one of the things I was worrying/wondering about does affect our discussion, namely how do we decide what we write. It has always been my experience, as I’ve said, that the genre dictates itself depending on the concept, image or character. I’ve also found that this often is directly related to the time frame the piece will develop in. But I now find that I am in a complete muddle about something I’m writing, and Tania, you know where I’m going with this. I have a character who’s been living in my head for years. I know everything there is to know about this man and I’ve tried to write his story in short story form twice. But I now am wondering if his story really would work better as a novel (God help me) and if so, why? But even more to the point, why do I want to insist on this being a short story? Because I haven’t written one in a while? Because I want to have something to enter into a competition? If I had an agent and a publisher presenting me with a 2-book deal, would I even be considering writing this as a story? Technician or artisan?

Ready for Menage a Trois Part 3?
Pop over to Sue Guiney's blog-Writing Life!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Botswana Music Camp

I've been gone for a week to Botswana Music Camp. I play trumpet, not so well, but each year I attend the camp I jump three or four steps ahead and this year was no different. The camp lasts for a week. You sign up for a major group; mine was instrumental band. For that group only you must be able to play your instrument before you come because once you are there it's all about getting the people who have shown up to learn songs as quickly as possible and to play together. There is no time to teach the instruments. For other groups you learn the instrument at the camp. Normally for band we have a lot of guitar players and keyboard players but nothing of anything else. This year I was lucky to be with quite a good saxophone player, a music teacher at Ledumang Senior Secondary School in Gaborone. Our leader for the band is Tshilo Baitsile, a very accomplished saxophone player. He appeared in the Mma Ramotswe movie playing his sax. He's an excellent teacher.

The sekgaba group performing at the Saturday final concert at Maitisong

There are many other groups for campers to choose from including: marimba, setinkane, sekgaba, African drums, pop singing, classical singing and dance.

African drums group performing at the Saturday concert

From the minute the camp starts on Sunday you are immersed in music. Each day starts with camp choir which everyone must be in. Then you have your main class for most of the day except for about an hour when you go to one of the other classes for appreciation, to learn what they do there. Each night we had entertainment, always something musical. One night we had a fantastic traditional dance group from Old Naledi in Gaborone. Friday night we attended the President's Concert at Maitisong which was also pretty fabulous. On Saturday we had our end of camp concert.

The Old Naledi traditional dance group that came for evening entertainment

It really is a fantastic thing. This year was the 25th anniversary of the camp. It was started by Batswana and exiled South Africans including Hugh Masekela in 1985. We pay only P900 per person and that includes accommodation and food (both basic but we're not there for that in any case). The real cost for each participant is just over P2000 but the fee is subsidised by donors like Standard Chartered Bank.

Many accomplished musicians in Botswana got their start at Botswana Music Camp since currently we do not have a school of music in the country.

This year, there was a big group of campers from Walter Sizulu University in South Africa. There was a talented young guitarist from Germany and a beautiful young singer from Finland- all participants in the camp. I thought when I was there what a fantastic thing Music Camp would be for a visiting tourist. They would have to pay the full price P2000 ( about 350 US dollars) for a whole week of instruction, accommodation and food. They could learn about the beautiful traditional instruments we have such as setinkane and sekgaba and go home with something so much bigger than photos of giraffes and lions.

I always leave Music Camp a better player but also a better person, with a new list of friends. It really is a wonderful experience. Now I must wait another year to go back.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Acacia Flowers

Acacia trees can be so stubborn and stingy with their tiny leaves and wicked thorns but I'm always amazed come spring when they are so extravagant with their flowers. It's so unlike most trees with their brown, green non-showy flowers. Acacia trees in full flower look like a tree decorated for Christmas. I took a couple photos so you can get the idea.