Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pumping Life into Characters

No matter how exciting your story, if your characters are flat, two-dimensional stereotypes no reader will connect with them and your story won’t work. Here are some pointers to help you create characters that come to life.

1. Start with a list
When I begin a novel, I start a page for each of my main characters. On that page I have all of the important information about that character. Some of the things I include are age, family, special mannerisms, education, what they look like, what they like to do, where they live, what they fear, ambitions.  Some writers even have a prepared form that they fill in for each character. I don’t do that because different stories have different requirements but if it works for you give it a try. As I begin to write, and more details come out about the character I add this information to the character’s page. One thing to remember about this list is that it is for you the writer. It is for you to get to know your character. Some of that information might end up in the story, but not all of it.

2. Interview your character
This might sound crazy but some writers say this works. You interview your character as if you’re interviewing a real person so that you can interrogate what views they have on various issues to get a better idea in your mind about who they are. You need to know this person completely so you know how they will behave in your story.

3. Find a Photo of your Character
I’ve done this before. If I’m not seeing my character clearly, I page through magazines and newspapers to find someone who looks like the character in my head. I cut the photo out and staple it to my character’s page. If I can’t find the exact person I’ll take a head off one and a body off another.

4. Choose the right name
When a writer chooses a name for a character she must be careful. Firstly, the name should match the character. Names have certain impressions associated with them. For example your sexy, svelte kick-ass protagonist is not going to go over very well with readers if she’s called Bertha. And keep your readers in mind. I had an instance in one of my books where my main female character was called Lame. The book was published in South Africa where not everyone knows Setswana and a non-Setswana speaker would read the name as the word lame instead of La-mee. I only had this pointed out to me by the editor; I hadn’t thought of it myself, so her name was changed.

5. Don’t forget your Bad Guys
It’s easy to make good guys the reader can be sympathetic with, but what about your bad guys? If your bad guy is an adulterer, a child beater and a thief just because he’s evil, he’s not interesting, he’s flat and stereotypical. If instead he watched his mother murdered at the hands of his father, things become a bit more interesting. Your bad guy starts to come to life.

6. For Main Characters reveal them Through Action
For characterisation just like all other writing- show, don’t tell still applies. Let’s say your character is short on cash to buy a new car. You could have your character steal the money she needs. You could have her borrow the money from a cash loan company. You could have her get an extra piece job to earn the money. Each of these would be a way of showing something about your protagonist instead of saying she’s dishonest, not very disciplined, or hardworking.

7. Introduce your Main Character at the Right Time
When introducing your protagonist, do it at a point of crisis. Don’t start with her entire back story. Introduce her when her husband is leaving her or she just lost her job or her child died. This will immediately have the reader empathising with the character. They will want to know how she gets through this crisis. If a reader has interest in your protagonist they will have interest in your story, if not, they won’t.

8. Plot sometimes drives Characterisation and Some times it’s the other Way Around
If your plot for your detective novel requires the kicking in of doors and the running after bad guys, you need a detective that can fill those plot-prescribed shoes. A tough, fit character will be required. In literary fiction, that is pulled more by characterisation than by plot, the character will decide the plot. For example, if your character is one with weak morals and they succumb to an act of corruption, the plot must follow him to where he will go, to a place true to his character. Will he turn himself in? Will he run? Will he lie? Will he make a deal and turn his wife in?  This will be decided by his personality which you the writer need to know inside and out. 

(This column first appeared in The Voice newspaper on 4 November, 2011)

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Cape Times Reviews In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories

Below is today's review of my short story collection, In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories, in the Cape Town South Africa newspaper The Cape Times. Hope you can read it!!

An excerpt from the end: 

 "...Her storytelling is rich in its simplicity and reminiscent of the telling that is engaged in folk tales. Kubuitsile's strength lies in her ability to highlight ordinary human moments. She zooms in on them with care and humour, turning the seemingly ordinary inside out to reveal the magic that lies within." Yay!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How to Market Yourself

I know we all want to be artists. We don’t want to have to concentrate on the business side of writing. This is fine if you want to write and never want to make a thebe out of it. That’s a perfectly valid choice and if that describes you, it’s best you move on to another article. This one is for people wanting to get their name out there in the hope that someone, somewhere might pay them for their writin

Let me speak about which marketing techniques have worked for me.

1. Website vs Blog
When I started out writing about seven years ago, I had a website. Because I am not very techy, I found the website cumbersome. Things happen fast in my writing world. I have books coming out, I have short stories published, I have events I’m attending, and I couldn’t keep my website up-to-date because I was unable to do it personally. I had to ask the website tech people to do it for me and it was very slow and not always done how I wanted. I find most websites to be dull and too static for my liking. You can fix that situation if you’re good at the technical side of things- I’m not.

So I let my website die and moved on to a free blog. I use blogger. I use my blog as a sort of online personal diary, but I also use it for marketing. If you go there you’ll find a page with my CV, a page with all of my books and where they can be found. I also have a section where I write about any news in my writer life.

I’ve found a blog more useful. It is interactive and I’ve met a lot of people through my blog. The important thing, though my blog is perhaps not the best example, is to be clear about what you’re selling. If you’re a freelance writer, for example, it’s a good idea to focus your blog posts in that direction.

At the same time, any blog that is just about blowing your own horn and marketing your goods will get little attention. You need to give back too. People need to have a reason to come to your blog, it’s up to you to give it to them.

You can do a lot on your blog. You can sell an ebook. You can get readers to sign up for a free e-zine that you send out to their email. You can have polls. You can hold contests. Whenever I have a new book out, I give a free, signed copy away on my blog.

2. Write articles
I was a published writer for quite some time before I started this column but now suddenly strangers come up to me on the street and want to talk about writing. I’m a fiction writer, but writing this column helps to sell my fiction.

If you are, for example, a nonfiction writer who writes about career guidance, a good way to sell your career books would be to write articles about career guidance and get them published, even free if you must. If you set yourself up as the expert in career guidance in Botswana, then it is likely more people will want to buy your book.

3. Show Your Face
If you get invited to speak somewhere, make sure you go. Be prepared, be professional, be entertaining, if at all possible, and it will assist you in selling your writing.

Make sure you come prepared with things to promote you. Print business cards or bookmarks. Have copies of your books for them to see. If possible come with copies to sell.

4. Social Networking
Say what you want about the time wasters called Facebook and Twitter, but I have found them invaluable for marketing. Many people outside of Botswana (and inside for that matter) know me only though Facebook. I’ve only just started on Twitter so I can’t speak too much about it just yet. As for Facebook, it has presented so many opportunities for me. I’ve found writers residencies on Facebook. I’ve met journalists who have interviewed me in magazines and newspapers in their countries. I have even got freelance jobs from contacts I’ve made in Facebook. I’ve also met a whole community of writers which has opened up my world.

Again, if you use social media only to promote yourself, it’s not going to work. You need to build up solid networks and you do that by interacting. It should never be a one-way speech.

 (This article first appeared in my column, It's All Write in The Voice newspaper 1 July 2011)

Monday, February 18, 2013

How Claudia Became a Bad Girl (a short story)

On the day the light appeared at the top of St. Mary’s steeple, Claudia was sure her prayers had been answered. Although her father looked at the red-gold light high up in the sky and decided the only cause could be aliens, Claudia was convinced that God had finally found time in his busy schedule to listen to her nightly prayers.  Every night for two and half years, once the door was firmly closed, Claudia knelt at the side of her bed and made a deal with him; she would be a good girl for the rest of her life if only he would find her mother and bring her back home. Somehow she was positive the light was him saying the deal was on.

It showed up on a Friday night. Claudia and her family lived in the house at the corner, just opposite to the church so they were among the first people to see the light. Claudia’s younger brother, André, looked out of the window after hearing a noise. He was always thinking he heard stray dogs outside, so any noise had him rushing to the window. André believed that though their father had banned all dogs, a stray dog was a different story. Who could pass up an orphan? Claudia knew the answer was her father. That night, like all of the nights before it, there was no stray dog. Instead it was the beginning of the crowd that would soon begin to assemble on their front lawn.

“What’s that?” André said pushing the dusty curtains aside to get a better look.

Their father got up from the sofa where he’d been reading the newspaper to see what André was on about. “Well I’ll be damned! Claudia, get the camera!”

They rushed outside and joined the growing crowd. They flung their heads back like everyone else to look at the light. It was a glowing ball stuck on the very top of the steeple creating a giant, golden shish-kabob. Claudia smiled. She knew that God was just then working on her mother’s mind. He was sticking in thoughts and memories that would remind her that when she got in the taxi saying she was off to her sister Glenda’s, she had left behind a husband and two children who still waited for her return. The light was the sign that holy forces were at work.

Since God was keeping his part of the deal, Claudia immediately got to work on her part. She stopped fighting Mrs. Anderson, 14th in the parade of baby-sitters that passed through their house since Claudia’s mother left. She started taking better care of André and kept her room tidy and neat. Claudia knew enough that cheating in a bargain with God was not a good idea.

As the days passed and the light remained on the steeple, people collected from all over the state to stand in Claudia’s yard to look at it. Claudia found it odd that no one climbed up there to see exactly what was going on, but she suspected that they, like her, preferred to operate from a firm position in faith. The factual intricacies might just mix them up.

On a Tuesday evening, with a gasp from that evening’s collection of onlookers, the light went out. The crowd slowly drifted away. Discussions about the light fell back into memories only pulled out when relatives visited who hadn’t been there during the time. Claudia watched the trampled grass in their lawn unbend itself, and kept an eye on the road for her mother who was surely on her way home. Every day that the grass got greener, Claudia’s faith in the light got dimmer.

Claudia sat at dinner, more than a month later, another meal of burnt hamburgers and milky macaroni and cheese, Mrs. Anderson’s specialty, and Claudia’s father said out of the blue, “I wonder what the point of that light was anyway?”

André shrugged his shoulders.

Claudia looked down at her food, and then she said, “There was no point. Just a bunch of nonsense”.

Friday, February 15, 2013

And the winner is.....

Because I so enjoyed the comments, I've decided to pick two winners, each will receive a signed copy of In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories. The winners are Amo, for incredible effort, and Susie Dinneen, for linking to the incredible photos of the Botswana Cowboy Metalheads. Congratulations!!

Please contact me with your postal addresses. You can use lakubuitsile at gmail dot com.

Thank you to everyone who entered!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pay for Writers

Writers in Botswana are notoriously underpaid. This is endemic from television to magazines to newspapers. Since most people learn to write in standard one, many people believe that writing is easy, anyone can do it. Because of this good writers are undermined. If you compare rates for writers in Botswana to our neighbours in South Africa it is shocking what we tolerate in this country.

Let’s look at television. A few years ago BTV was looking for scriptwriters for a thirty minute sitcom. They were offering a rate of P1800 per episode. If you check the minimum rate for South African scriptwriters for writing a thirty minute sitcom as recommended by the South African Scriptwriting Association you see that they recommend R8000-R11000 per episode. The discrepancy is almost laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

Freelance writers in South Africa regularly get R2/word for magazine and newspaper articles. In Botswana even P1/word is considered high and you’d be lucky to get it. I was recently happy with pay I got for an article I wrote for a local newspaper but when I worked out the per word rate I realised I’d been paid 30t/word, I was no longer very happy.

Other aspects of the job that make freelancing very difficult in Botswana are the way most publications work in the country. In other places, when you want to write an article for a certain magazine you query first. You send the editor your idea with the manner in which you would approach the topic and the word count of the proposed article. You ask the editor if they would be interested. You only write the article once the editor says yes they will buy it and at which rate.

In Botswana, in most cases, freelancers write on spec. What this means is that writers conduct interviews, do research, write up the article and then send it out to the publication they would like to buy it. Now it is up to the editor to decide if they want to buy the completed article. If they say no, then all of the writer’s work was done for nought.

Another difficult aspect of working as a freelancer in Botswana is payment. Almost all publications in Botswana pay on publication. What this means is that you might write an article in May but if the publication does not use your article until September, you will be paid at the end of September. What other industry would tolerate such conditions?

Publications need writers. Production houses need writers. Without writers many industries would come to a standstill, but writers continue to operate under very harsh conditions. Some of this can be negotiated with the employers. Here are some things you can do: 

  • Always ask for more.  If the money is not enough, don’t write for them anymore.
  • Ask for payment on submission. Many overseas publications pay writers as soon as last edits are done. Why can’t publications in Botswana do this?
  • Don’t write on spec. Writing on spec is an inefficient way to freelance. Everything you write should make money for you, if you write on spec then that may not be the case. Pitch an idea to the editor, if she agrees- only then write the article.
  • Work your articles. If you interview an MP, for example, use the time wisely. Ask a wide range of questions. From that interview try to pull out at least two or three articles. Maybe a personal piece, an article about what he’s done for his constituency, and maybe a third article about a recent overseas trip he took. In this way your time is efficiently used. You conducted one interview; you get paid for three articles.

Trying to make a living in Botswana as a writer is tough. It’s made tougher when writers undermine themselves and write for peanuts, sometimes even for free. Respect your work and the situation will improve for all of us.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Win a Copy of In The Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories

My short story collection, In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories, is now available in print thanks to Hands-on Books. It contains a collection of my stories all set in Botswana.

Would you like to win a signed copy? Then leave a comment below telling me one obscure fact you know about Botswana, my lovely adopted home. The weirdest unknown fact gets the book.

Good luck!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Making of a Bestseller

 When I was in London at the London School of Economics (LSE) Space for Thought Literary Festival to speak last year, I also had the opportunity to attend some of the other talks and panel discussions one of which was titled “The Making of Bestsellers”, a panel discussion which made me slightly sad, but was an education all writers need.

The panel included Andrew Franklin, the managing director of Profile Books, an independent publisher in the United Kingdom, and author John Thompson. Thompson has written a book titled Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century and what Thompson had to say I found the most interesting. His book approaches the study of the trade publishing industry (books sold for the mass reading public) as if he is an anthropologist studying an unknown tribe. Though everyone is aware that trade publishing is currently in flux because of new technologies such as ebooks, Franklin argues the change in the industry began some time ago.

His book focuses on the English language trade market in America and the United Kingdom. From his research he uncovered three key factors which have changed the way trade publishing operates. First was the establishment of big bookstore chains and later Amazon. Second was the rise of the super agents in the 1990s, agents that no longer acted as an intermediary between author and publisher but instead work ruthlessly in the author’s interests.  And the last change was the consolidation of publishing houses under big mega publishing companies.

Once these things were in place publishers were suddenly under immense pressure from every side. The mega publishing companies wanted an increase in their profits. The agents wanted larger and larger advances for their authors. And the bookstore chains demanded deeper and deeper discounts.

In this pressure cooker, according to Thompson, was born “the big book”. “The big book” is a hoped for bestseller, and often times because it is so hoped for, with so many people with a vested interest in its success, it is made into a bestseller. He gave the example of the book The Last Lecture by an unknown academic who was dying of cancer. His agent managed to sell a proposal for the book for an advance of $6.75 million (USD).

Thompson cited three things that made such an event possible. The author had given a lecture as part of a symposium of last lectures and had been invited on a famous American morning show and on Oprah. His lecture was put on YouTube and watched by millions of viewers. By doing this, he had a ready readership, a platform from which to start.

Another important aspect in the making of a “big book” is the building of a web of collective belief. A few key people, big people in the industry, respected agents for example, must give the book some attention. This calls the attention of other people and soon a large group of important industry insiders have decided the book is important, if it is or not is not that important, it has been decided that it is important.

The last thing the book needs to be a “big book” is a comparable title.  The book needs to be able to be compared to a best seller already published.

So the publisher of The Last Lecture paid out a massive advance for the book and then they began the process of having it defined as a “big book”.  When it finally hit the shelves it was a best seller, selling more than 14 million copies. They made their advance back and then some and all the actors applying pressure on the publisher were happy.

Quite disheartening though I must say, the publisher on the panel did his best to disregard Thompson’s theories on the industry, explaining that good books from unknowns with no platform still get published and go on to do very well; that things are not as jaded as Thompson was making it seem. 

We can only hope. 

(Note:  This  first appeared in my column, It's All Write in The Voice Newspaper, 4 March 2011)

Monday, February 4, 2013

My Pet Store Mother

It was six flights up to the apartment that smelled of forgotten dirty laundry in corners of closets that were never opened. Most of those dragging days in the summer of my eighth year the apartment rang with my mother’s voice. She bellowed out creative insults against the anger that echoed back and forth in her head, while all I yearned for was to be away from the people-smelling city, and home to the fields and forests I was used to.

“You drunk bastard!” she’d shout at her father. Slumped on the sofa, he watched the Baltimore Orioles on a staticky, portable black and white. His bald head showed red in protest against the temperature in the tight apartment. He wore an over stretched dirty vest that hung loosely on his body covered with a fine, white fur. He rarely responded to his daughter, who had been confirmed crazy by the doctors who examined her inside and out after her first attempt at ending her life.  He hardly noticed me.

I was spending the summer with this stranger called my mother, so that my father could move his new wife into our house. My mother, between her required fights with her father, tried her best. I breakfasted on ice cream and had trips to concrete covered playgrounds with red plastic ponies that bounced back and forth on giant springs, and I feigned gratitude but wished myself anywhere but there.

I cried most nights into the grey pillowcase in the tiny room in which my mother slept. I cried as the concrete of the city suffocated me. The concrete stairwell leading down to the patch of concrete fenced with a gate opening onto the concrete back alley where I spent most days watching the sinewy street cats dig through the rubbish bins. Any life in the lifelessness around me was welcome.

At night I dreamt of lying under spreading oak trees, rolling in the fresh grass, picking apart the purple clover flowers and sucking out their sweetness. I’d wake up with the sugary taste still lingering on the tip of my tongue until the concrete wiped it clean.  I counted off the days on the calendar pages I had folded up in my red suitcase I never unpacked. I thought my unhappiness was not seen by the two adults I lived with, who could not find space in their ritual of hostility for me, but I’d been wrong.

“I have a secret place I want to take you to today,” my mother said that morning.  She smiled and her green eyes, normally damp and grey from medicine and torment, shown emerald.

A humid, organic smell filled my nose when we entered.  At the door, a bath tub held slippery frogs and lazy turtles that swam between lily pads floating on the water’s surface.  A room at the back had big trees where parakeets and canaries sang from high branches. An African Grey Parrot sat on a perch keeping a careful eye on what went on, commenting with, “I’m a pretty bird” whenever attention  drifted from the glory of him.   The oppression of the concrete melted away.

 “It’s nice here,” I said to my mother.

“I thought you’d like it.”

For the rest of that summer, my mother and I made that trip to the pet store each day. My mother was different there and so was I. And though the summer ended and I went home to my old house with a new mother inside, my pet store mother was the one I searched for in my memories when the dark days that were to come descended.