Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Getting Started

Not a week passes by that I don’t get a phone call, an SMS or an email from someone who says- “I want to be a writer, how do I start?” or “I have a manuscript for a book can you tell me where to get it published?”.  This goes to show that Batswana are writing or have the inclination to be writers but don’t know where to start. It’s inefficient for me to give such advice one by one so I thought I’d give it here to everyone at once. Keeping in mind I’m still on my own writing journey, this is what I know so far:

 Rules for getting started
1. Do your research. Know your business.
2. Write, leave it to sit, and then edit, edit and edit.
3. Submit
4. Make groups with other writers who are about where you are in the process
5. Read

Know Your Business
You need to know your business and you need to find that information on your own. Buy The Writers’ Handbook – there’s a new one very year with publishers’ and agents’ contact details and what they publish. There are also usually some good articles about writing and publishing. Read them. You can also find answers to almost every imaginable writing question on the internet. Have enough passion for your writing to do the research and find the answers that you need.  

Leave it to Sit
I’ve spoken here before about how important it is to leave a bit of writing to sit. I finished the rough draft for a novel in May. I put it aside and only came back for edits at the beginning of November. Now when I look at it again I have that distance so it’s easier for me to see what works and what doesn’t, easier for me to see errors.
Never send out unedited work. Never. Give it, at the bare minimum, three go-throughs, hopefully with some time in between each one.

When writing you often feel as if you’re writing into the darkness, you’re not sure you’re on the right road and you want someone somewhere to tell you that you are. This could be what motivates the messages I receive each week. The best way to know if you’re on the right path is to submit- not to me, though- please. Submit to contests, submit to publishers, and submit to literary magazines. If you have success, you must be doing something right.

Make Groups
When I started out the most useful thing for me was to connect with other writers who were also beginning. At the time I was living in Lecheng and writers were scarce so I found the writers I needed on the internet. There are many writers’ forums around the internet. Places where new writers can ask questions about the writing process and the writing business. I joined such a forum and became friends with many of the other forum members. After some time a few of us created a writing group of our own. We would set ourselves tasks, and then we would write and submit to each other for critiquing. Though I’d never met these people (one lived in America, the other in Australia) I trusted them and I trusted their comments. They helped me to be a better writer.  If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where there are many writers, then face to face writers’ groups are the best way to go, but if not the internet is a fabulous tool.

I recently read the fantastic poetry book, Difficult to Explain edited by Finuala Dowling. She speaks at the beginning about how she runs her poetry writing classes and her own thoughts on poetry and writing in general. She says that good writers must have the right mix of ego and humility. You need enough ego to know what your writing is important, important enough to be published and read by others. About humility she says this- “Humility tells you that you don’t write well enough. You go in search of informed encouragement. You feel that you have something to learn. Humility reminds you that you need to read more. I’m quite stern about urging my students to read contemporary poetry. First of all, it’s good manners. If you want to be a published poet, you must read other published poets or where do you think your audience will come from?”

Humility is what keeps us learning, keeps us reading other people’s work. I’ve never met a successful writer who did not read. It seems crazy to me and as Ms Dowling points out- it is just bad manners.

Writing is not magic. There’s no easy route. You must put in the time and effort and if you have some talent, success will follow. 

(This article appeared 3 December, 2010 in my column in The Voice newspaper, It's All Write)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Understanding Contracts

When a publisher hands you your first contract it can be a heady experience. You are finally going to have a published book with your name on the cover. You are over the moon and so thankful to the publisher who is giving you your chance finally. You look at the thick document and you’re positive the publisher has your best interests at heart, she’s been so lovely throughout the whole process, and there really is no reason to waste your time reading all of the fine print.  So you sign and initial and date and you get your copy and throw it in the corner on top of your exercise books from form two and the Cosmos you’ve been stacking up for five years for a reason that has yet to make itself clear. You forget about it. All you want is to see is your novel with your name on the cover.

Everything in this scenario is wrong. The first and foremost thing for a writer to keep in mind at all times is that the publisher is part of a money making enterprise. The less they can give to you the writer the better. It doesn’t mean they are nasty or cheating, they’re actually doing their job, trying to make money for the business that employs them. The only one in that little group that cares about the writer is the writer. If the writer relinquishes that duty, no one will be doing it for them. If you remember nothing else remember that.

The contract the publisher gives you is a draft. It is what they want. When they give it to you, you as the writer should now say what you want. Then negotiations begin. You must be realistic. If this is your first book and you have no track record, you are not going to have a lot of negotiating power. Aim high but be willing to accept less. But know your limit. At any point until the contract is signed you can walk away from the deal. It’s better to walk away than to have your book tied up with a publisher who is sitting on it doing nothing.

A standard writing contract will have some important parts a writer should pay attention to and understand completely.

1) What are you giving away?
Most publishers would want exclusive world rights to your book for eternity. If the publisher is small and unable to sell your book world-wide why should your book be tied up with them? These rights should be negotiated. You can set geographical parameters and time limits when the copyright reverts back to you.
2) What is the royalty rate and on what amount?
I hear many new authors complaining, “My book is sold at the shop for P100 and I’m only getting paid P6 per book.” Or  “Why should I get 10% and the publisher get 90% of the money?” Both of these statements show a lack of understanding of the contract and the bookselling business.

First, the publisher is taking on a lot of costs to get your novel from manuscript stage to published book. Try self-publishing and that will give you some insight into the costs involved.  Also, in most contracts you get paid royalties on net not gross. What that means is you get paid royalties on the money the publisher receives for the book. Publishers offer discounts to booksellers so that the bookseller can make some money too. If the cover price is P100 at the bookshop, the publisher might have sold that book to the bookshop at about P50, so you will get your 10% on the P50, not the P100, which seems only fair since the publisher only receiver P50 on the sale of that book.
3) Advances and royalty rates
In Southern Africa it is not common to receive advances on books, but in USA and Europe it is standard practice. An advance is money given to the writer when they sign the contract. It is an advance on future royalties. For new writers, it is usually quite small as it is a gamble if they will sell any books. For established writers, it can go into large sums. But when royalties are earned the advance is deducted. Sometimes if the book bombs terribly the publisher will ask the writer to pay back the advance, though this is uncommon.

Royalty rates in Southern Africa are usually 10%. This is not written in stone. I personally have book contracts that range from 10-18%. It will depend on what you can negotiate, and you must always negotiate. And even though I’ve said advances are uncommon, depending on the project and how much the publisher wants it, advances can be negotiated too.

The important thing to remember is that everything is negotiable on a contract. Sign nothing until you understand it, but be realistic.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Mother Me

Her lips are red, too red. Her skirt, too tight. She’s different from the other mothers and I’m old enough to know different is bad so I tell my new friend, “No, my mother’s dead.”

That shuts her up. Problem solved.  No one likes to talk about dead mothers.

My reflection in the window is smiling back at me as the snow dumps from the sky and I’m sure it’s God’s work. I wished for a snowstorm and a snowstorm arrives. I’ll never doubt his existence again.

She sits down next to me on the sofa, pushing the curtain to the side to look out. “Damn this fucking snow. Now your birthday party’s ruined. What will we do with all of that cake? Your little friends will be so disappointed.”

She wrote out the invites in cursive though she should have known in second grade no one can read cursive. But she doesn’t know that, like so many other things she doesn’t know. She put them in my school bag.

“Don’t forget to give your friends the invites for the party,” she shouted from the table as I left for school.

“I won’t,” I said, tuning back to where she sat at the table, an open beer in front of her, already waiting for me to come home from school. 

I threw them in a dumpster behind the Piggly Wiggly, the one near the station, the one farthest away from school.

At night she searches my arms up and down. Bruises must be explained or I’ll be dead like her sister from leukaemia. It’s almost a motherly thing for her to do. She doesn’t want to be alone and I’m the last one left.

She spots a small one on my arm and points a red fingernail at it and waits. She wants an explanation. I tell her, “A boy at school, Geoff, the one that pukes in his desk, pinched me.” He didn’t.

“Really? What an awful boy? Where does he live?” Her eyebrows arch in indignation.

I’ve gone too far. “No, it’s okay. He got a terrible punishment from Mrs. Olson. Had to clean the erasers in the tiny storeroom with Mr Alexander, the janitor.”

She nods her head, smiling. She knows all about Mr Alexander so appreciates the severity of the punishment. Mr Alexander with the greased back hair. Mr Alexander with the match in the corner of his mouth. Mr Alexander who smells like fried cabbage. She’s never been to school, but she knows Mr Alexander. He once caused a big bruise on my leg when he accidentally on purpose hit me with his mop. Not really, but I needed a bruise story.

We hide in the closet. I hold the black cat, Panther, she holds the ginger tabby, Shire. She puts her finger to her lips. “Shhh!”

I can hear the church people. They knock on the door and call out. No answer. They knock again. We stay quiet in the closet. I like it there in the dark, under the clothes. We’re one side of a battle, the church people are the other. We’re a team together against them. Me and my mother.

They’ve brought the Thanksgiving food. The church collects food for the poor family. We’re that family. We wait until we’re sure they’re gone and climb out.  My mother opens the raw turkey and puts it on the bare floor for Panther and Shire. She takes out the pumpkin pie and sets it on the table. The rest she carries out to the dumpster behind the complex. When she comes back, she takes two forks from the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, runs them under the tap, dries them and hands me one. We get to work on the pie.

“The rest of it was poisoned,” she says.


She’s at the corner and I can see from the statue way she sits she’s been there for a long time.  Not moving, her hands on her lap in a way she never holds her hands.

“Let’s go back,” I say to my father who I really don’t know. He only comes when she goes and she’s gone now.

“No, we came to visit your mother. She won’t be happy if we don’t at least say hello.” He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know her.  Hello will not make her happy.

When he calls to her, her head turns so slowly I’m sure it creaks. She’s wearing her own clothes but not in the right way. She’d never wear the pink cardigan with the red turtleneck. Never wear a pair of navy tracksuit pants when she knows men might be around. Her red lips are gone and her tight skirt too, but she’s different. She’s even more different than ever.

I smile and play my role of happy child. The nurses stop and say things like. “Oh Patricia, don’t you have a lovely daughter!” They think they’re being polite and jolly.
And my mother smiles though I know she never likes people saying I’m beautiful. She only likes when they say she’s beautiful.

My father’s talking to one of the nurses in soft whispers to the side and I take my opportunity. The nurse is giggling.  I lean close to my mother like an informant to a journalist. “You need to get better. I don’t like staying with him.”

She nods in slow motion, like her neck is painful, and speaks in her measured hospital voice, “I promise.”

Though I remember it better than the others, it was not the first promise she broke.

Her face is lopsided. Not stroke lopsided, just life lopsided. She’s walking towards me at the airport and I hug her because everyone else is hugging their person.

“I’m glad you came,” she says. I see her lipstick is smudged.

I stay quiet I don’t want to lie. The whole way I wished I wasn’t flying through the air towards her. I’m leaving, for a long time, maybe for ever, and I should say good bye to her. Daughters and mothers do that.

We sit in the restaurant. I tell her I can’t stay long, there’s not time to see her place, I need to get back to pack, though I’ve done it already. I don’t need to see it to know it. Seventh floor, one bedroom in low income housing. Gang bangers hanging in the doorway. Empty syringes and dog shit in the stairwell. Her apartment smelling of Midnight Blue, her perfume ever since I can remember. Ash trays full of butts, all decorated red on the end. And it’s dark, the tiny windows looking out on too near brick walls. I don’t need to see it, I know it already.

“I’m okay now,” she says, her hand shaking as she reaches for her coffee. “I’m going to be just fine.”

“Sure you are,” I say trying hard to be sure.

We drink coffee for the two hours I’ve allowed for it and then I’m on my way. Gone.

“So will I get to meet your mother?” he asks, hopeful.

“Oh sure,” I say.  Breezy. I’ve decided my new husband needs a breezy wife, so I’m breezy, free and breezy. A wife like that can pop in and see her mother with her new husband and everything will be fine. A-okay. That’s who I am now.

We move around America and the time crushes in on me and we’re almost there. I find it difficult to breathe when I think about my new husband with my old mother.  Almost too late I realise I can’t do it. I can’t be free and breezy for him if I’m with her. I can’t go and see her because I’m not that person.

I lie. “She’s had a problem and asked us not to come. We’ll see her next time,” I say in my breeziest and freest voice.


My father, still a stranger, calls on Sunday, during the cheap phone rates. “Your mother died on Wednesday,” he says.  “The state buried her already. No need to come home.”

I wonder if they dressed her right in the coffin, if they put the lipstick. Somehow it doesn’t hurt to see her lying dead, her lips bright red, her fingernails matching. But I know they didn’t do that. I know they didn’t get it right. I circle the bruise on my arm with my finger. I’m not that surprised, really, to find there is no relief when I’m finally set free.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Famous Rejections

Rejection is the worst part of writing -hands down. No one likes to be told they’re not good enough and publishers and editors of literary magazines can be quite slicing in their rejections. I know I’ve had mine that have sent me off in a bad mood for days. Many writers never submit anywhere because they’re so afraid of rejection. But as I’ve said here before rejection is part of the business, you can’t dodge it if you want to find success. They say the average book gets 16 rejections. Acceptance is sometimes just a few rejections away; that’s why fortitude is so important. And you must keep in mind a book one publisher hates another might love. Rejection stories from famous writers might give you some hope that what I’m saying is true.

Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, was rejected so many times he threw it in the dustbin. One of the rejections said, "We're not interested in science fiction that deals with negative utopias. They do not sell." Luckily, he married a very clever woman (Yes, President Khama, a wife CAN be an asset to one’s career). Mrs. King fished the manuscript out of the dustbin and had it sent off to the publisher who finally said yes and the rest is multi-million dollar history.

The Harry Potter books written by author J.K. Rowlings are some of the most successful books in history. They have sold millions and have all been made into very popular movies. The manuscript for the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was rejected by twelve publishers including big publishers like Penguin and HarperCollins.

William Faulkner, one of America’s most celebrated authors, received a rejection for his book Sanctuary that said, “Good God, I can’t publish this!”- enough to force a writer with a more fragile ego out of writing altogether I would think.

 Jacqueline Susanne was a publishing sensation producing sizzling hot popular fiction such as her most well known book Valley of the Dolls, which sold 30 million copies and was made into an Oscar nominated film. She was once told that- "She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro." Ouch!

Highly successful author John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, which was later made into a movie, was rejected by 20 publishers and 16 agents before finding an acceptance. If you’re counting- that’s 36 rejections.

Lord of the Flies had 20 rejections before finding success. But that’s nothing on sci-fi super writer and author of Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury’s 800 rejections before finally getting an acceptance. There is a man with serious fortitude and perseverance!

The book, The Diary of Anne Frank, about the young Jewish girl Anne Frank written during World War II when she and her family were hidden in a family friend’s attic has sold millions of copies and yet was rejected by 15 publishers. One said, “The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level." Oh my how wrong they were!

And poets are not immune to the bitter world of rejection. At the time of her death Emily Dickinson only had seven of her poems published. One rejecter told her, “Your poems are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauty and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities." Sylvia Plath was told she didn’t have enough genuine talent for anyone to take notice. And ee cummings got so frustrated by the 15 rejections for his first work that he self-published it and dedicated the book to each and every publisher that rejected the manuscript. The book, The Enormous Room, went on to be considered a poetry classic.

 I’m not saying that rejection is to be ignored. Sometimes the rejection is spot on; your manuscript is not up to what it could be. You need to re-look at it especially if the publisher has given you some guidance. But this does illustrate that the publisher can be wrong. Manuscripts are rejected for a variety of reasons including:

1) It’s a good book but just not right for that publisher.
 2) The publisher doesn’t know how to market the book
3) Your manuscript is something very new and different and publishers are a traditionally conservative lot, preferring the tried and tested; often at their own expense (i.e. Harry Potter)
4) That particular publisher recently published something similar to your manuscript
 5) That publisher just doesn’t like your manuscript based on his own tastes, nothing more Sometimes, though, the publisher is wrong.

You need to know your work is the best it can possibly be. And then have faith in it. Imagine if John Grisham stopped at rejection number 35 or Stephen King left his manuscript in the bin under the coffee grounds. Put on your suit of armour, prepare for those rejection arrows, and then send that manuscript out!

 (Note: This was one of my columns in The Voice Newspaper (It's All Write, 17 December 2012)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Drawn to the Sea- A story

She saw him the second day after her accidental posting to a broken lighthouse far up the Skeleton Coast. She watched him wander along the edge of the water, immune to the cutting wind and blowing sand, bending every few minutes to pick up what she thought at first might be sea shells but later, after she knew him better, learned were pieces of sea glass.

 It took three weeks before she tried to speak with him. People had disappointed her so she had taught herself to be wary. Besides, she didn’t want to make the commitment of words if she was on her way elsewhere, which she suspected. Someone would realise soon that there was no need for her to watch a broken lighthouse. At three weeks, she realised that was not going to happen. She was here to stay, she thought with relief.

 That part of Namibia has a population density of about two people every 20 sq km, the two in this case were him and her. She knew why she was here at the edge of the mighty Namib and the wild Atlantic; she wondered what brought him to the place. Her days were simple and routine; the way she liked. She woke to tea and bread she baked twice a week. She climbed the lighthouse to see if she could see anything of concern, though she knew if she did there’d be little help she could offer. Still she received a monthly salary from the government and felt she must make an effort. Besides, she liked it up there.

The howling wind beat against the glass as she viewed the world from a God-like perspective. The Atlantic along this coast was one of death and destruction, drama and demise. To crash here and survive was futile with only the wide expanse of desert in front of you. A history littered with sadness was one she revelled in, one she could relate to. Nearing lunch, she liked to climb down, and if the weather was right, take a long walk along the beach.

This is how she found him that day, sitting in a small hollow surrounded by rocks washing his coloured pieces of glass. “Hello,” she shouted above the roar of the surf. He was as untamed looking as the ocean, as the desert. His hair long and matted like the beard that poured down his chest. He wore little in the way of clothing, something that might have been trousers were all that covered him and then not very well. His skin was black and criss-crossed with deep wrinkles speaking of a life spent with an unforgiving nature.

“Hello,” he said in a voice not often used. He was neither surprised nor interested in her and went back to his pieces of sea moulded glass.

“I live in the lighthouse.”

 “I know.”

 The wind was picking up and sand was hitting her bare skin like tiny bullets. She wanted to go, but thought it better to firm up their connection since they were neighbours of a sort.

“Perhaps you’d like to come up to the lighthouse for lunch.”

He gathered his glass, put it in the leather satchel that hung from his shoulder, and stood up, saying nothing. She turned to walk, glancing only once behind to be sure he followed. At the house, she quickly made sandwiches and asked, “Shall we eat at the top?”

When he saw the view, he set the satchel down, and rushed to the window. She put things out on the small table and waited. Minutes passed then he turned. “It’s very nice.”

That’s how it started. It was a slow, drop by drop, kind of movement to closeness. In the sea-salty air with the desert calling, they began to hear each other without words, to know each other without knowledge set down in personal histories. They started from the present and worked forward.

She never found out from where he came, but she did see his beautiful stained glass paintings made from travelled ancient bits set free from their original objects and then joined together with their own kind producing a resonance that she could not help but accept onto herself. They told her more about him than any words he could have strung together might. He never unearthed all the cruelty she suffered to make her wary of human contact and relieved at being forgotten. Her first sly, tentative attempts at touching taught him all he needed to know.

They just stepped forward, two souls of a kind, and began.