Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Superpower of Pain

I have spent most of the last six days  in bed. I've had sciatica, a terrible pinching of the sciatic nerve that runs down your leg from your hip. It's given me lots of time to think and read and listen to short story podcasts. And it gave me time to think about how efficiently pain focuses your mind. When I tried to stand or move in a way my sciatic nerve didn't approve of,  a sharp burning pain would run down my leg, the worst pain ever, and I've had two children. It really forced me to clear out all other thoughts and focus on it alone. It was like a superpower for focusing.

I lay there in my bed thinking how much I wished I could have pain's focusing power for other things. When I'm writing, so many things push there way in and fuzzy up my mind, make me lose track of what I really want to be doing. The everyday stuff like- I forgot to feed the cat, I should go buy milk, what will we eat for supper?

And then the outside critics: no one will understand that, that is the worst sentence ever written, that is the most pompous sentence ever written, is that even grammatically correct?

 And then my constant inner doubts: no one will ever publish this, why on earth do you think you have the authority to write about that? You're a complete poser. Quit wasting your time. She (fill-in-the-blank) is a much better writer than you. With all of that mental noise I wonder how I ever manage to write anything at all.

Pain never allows that. If something starts up, pain shuts it down. How I wish my writing could have that superpower, how  I wish it could say- NO! We will not be listening to any of that! How much easier this job would be.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Who's Telling the Story?

 When starting a short story or a novel, one of the first decisions you must make is how the story is going to be told, this is the point of view. You have a few different choices each with their advantages and disadvantages.

First person
This is probably the easiest for new writers. In first person, one of your characters is telling the story. Usually it’s your main character (protagonist) or another major character who is affected by the events in the story. The story is told using “I”. Look at the example:

I never liked Refilwe. She had an air of superiority about her that clashed with my practical sensibilities. I looked at her as she came toward me and knew it was not going to be good.

A first person point of view brings the reader close to the story and the narrator, but the writer is confined to the thoughts and feelings of the character telling the story. Events that take place when the character is not there pose a problem the writer needs to find a way to deal with.

Third Person Omniscient
Third person uses “he” or “she”. There are three main types of third person.
In third person omniscient the writer knows all. She can move in and out of her characters’ thoughts. This gives a lot of freedom but creates a distance between the reader and the story because they never feel too close to any particular character. Also the writer needs to be careful not to move in and out of character’s minds too often so that the reader becomes lost. Here’s an example:

He looked at her and thought- not my type- and turned back inside.

She thought if he was taller I’d marry him in heartbeat. It was only later when they found a way to bring their divergent thoughts together.

Third Person Limited
In third person limited the writer still writes using “he” or “she” but confines herself to a single character. This point of view ends up having many of the same problems as first person. Here’s an example:

He never liked pumpkin. It was so soft and mushy in his mouth reminding him of things he didn’t like to be reminded of. Still, it was impolite not to eat it considering she’d cooked it and all.

Third Person Objective
In third person objective, the writer only reports what happens. Action and dialogue is covered, but there is no going inside characters’ heads. The writer does not know what the characters are thinking about what is happening. It will be only through what is seen and heard that the characters’ thoughts will become apparent. Here’s an example:

He lifted the spoon, heaped high with orange pumpkin to his mouth, and then hesitated. He looked at her across the table and smiled. She smiled back. Then he ate the spoonful in one go, no chewing. After it was gone he exhaled.

Second Person
Second person is the least common point of view and probably the most difficult. In this case the writer uses “you”. In second person, the reader becomes one of the characters. It is the writer’s task to convince the reader that the events are happening to them. The other way second person is used is when the writer is writing the story to another character in the story. Look at this example:

You step off the bus and look around as if you’d never seen the place before. Maybe you forgot what home looked like, but home didn’t forget about you. You pretend not to hear Rre Modise say, “Now we’re in for it” when he sees you.  You walk up the road, greeting no one, your step sure and solid.

Second person is often used in experimental writing and is often in the present tense. It is difficult to write in second person but often has quite a profound effect if done well.

(This first appeared 10 August 2012 in my column It's All Write in The Voice newspaper) 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Bessie Head Literature Awards Extend Deadline

2013 Bessie Head Literature Awards
(sponsored by Pentagon Publishers)
Novel, Short Story, Children's Story
P10,000 in Prizes!
Bessie Head Heritage Trust and Pentagon Publishers announce prizes in literature,
three prizes to be awarded each for novel, short story, and children's story.
Residents and citizens of Botswana are invited to submit manuscripts on any topic in one of the above categories. Categories are defined according to standard literary
characteristics, and are limited to the following lengths:
Novel 40,000 words and up
Short story 10,000 words /10 pages
Children's Story 10,000 words /10 pages NOTEXT

All submissions must adhere to the following criteria:
1. All work must be original, unpublished and not submitted to any publisher.

2. All manuscripts must be typed. No handwritten manuscripts will be accepted.
You must submit four copies of your work. You must submit by post; no
emailed entries will be accepted.

3. No more than one submission (novel, short story, or children's story) per
person. You may only submit in one category.

4. No school assignments will be accepted as submissions.

5. All submissions must include one cover page with the following information:
author's name (no pen-names will be accepted), at least two ways the
author can be contacted (telephone and post or email), a clear statement
of the category of the manuscript (“novel”, “short story”, or “children's
story”), and its title. All submissions must also include one photocopy of
Omang, passport and residence certificate, or other form of ID (this copy
need not be certified). The first page of the manuscript (not the cover
page) must also state clearly the category and title of the manuscript.

6. All submissions must be written in English, and be thoroughly revised and
proofread for grammar and spelling.

7. Except for the cover page, manuscripts must not have the author's name on
them. Judges will judge all submissions blindly; that is, they must not be
able to identify the author. Any submissions that do not follow the above criteria will be disqualified. Authors are advised that they may be asked to authenticate their work, and therefore should not destroy any drafts, including the first one, since winners may be asked to produce them as proof of originality.

Contestants may only win once in each category (once you win, you are barred from
entering in the same category again for three years), and contestants must enter their
own work (a publisher or friend may not enter your work).

Novel              Short Story                             Children's Story
First prize                   P 2500             P 1500                                     P 1200
First runner-up           P1200              P900                                        P800
Second runner-up       P800                P600                                        P500

Send your cover page, copy of identification, and four copies of your manuscript to:
Bessie Head Literature Awards
P.O. Box 70401
Deadline: All entries must be postmarked by 23 August 2013

Winners announced at mid-October on website
Prize-giving ceremony details to be announced.
Queries to or visit

Bessie Head Heritage Trust members, Pentagon Publisher employees, contest judges, and members of their families are prohibited from entering. Pentagon Publishers reserves the right to publish prize-winning manuscripts and to evaluate the remaining manuscripts for publication. All manuscripts will be deposited with Bessie Head Heritage Trust; however, Pentagon Publishers acknowledges the substance of the rights of copyright in the manuscript and the lawfulness and validity of the copyright holder's rights and title to the rights of copyright in the manuscript.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Only to Believe (a short story)

Matlapeng blames himself for her death. Things might have been different if only he had done the right thing from the beginning. She came to him that icy day in a controlled panic. “I’ve got the results,” she said.” I’m positive.”  It meant he was likely positive too. They’d been lovers for more than five years, but she was the one who was sick. “I’ve thought about it.  Mosadi knows of a church. It’s up north near the border.”

“Tebby, you know it’s not like that.” He took her small pretty face in his hands. He loved her with desperation at that moment, like a favourite toy that he’d soon have to give away. “It’s a virus.  Didn’t they speak about ARVs at the clinic?”

She stood up and began pacing, annoyed that he couldn’t see it her way. “Yes, they told me all about that, but Mosadi knows better. She’s been HIV positive for three years. She says those medicines are poison. We need to go to her church, the African Church of Hope. There’s a minister there, he has magic. Mosadi’s healthy now; she’s cured.”  She was so hopeful and he was too sad and lost, so he gave in.
A week later, they were in the car pulling up to the church, a white painted cinder block building in the middle of the mophane bush. The parking lot was packed with cars  - from shiny Land Rovers to rusted out Hiluxes - people from all over had come to Pastor Nkgonne. They were searching for the answer they wanted; the truth had no relevancy.

“They say there’s no cure, but God has a cure,” he preached from the front.

“Amen,” the crowd shouted.

“I am here to tell you that God is almighty. There is nothing that he won’t fix if only you believe completely.”

“Hallelujah!”  People rushed up to the front throwing money into the overflowing basket. Their payment for salvation.

Mosadi led Tebogo to the front of the excited crowd.  Pastor Nkgonne placed his huge hands on Tebogo’s head, nearly covering it.  He lowered his face and spoke quickly in a mumble that couldn’t be heard from where Matlapeng sat. Then he pushed her away, and she fell back into Mosadi’s arms. “She’s cured,” the Pastor declared. “She’s a believer, my sisters and brothers. For believers, there is nothing like illness.”  The church erupted into ululations.

He ran to Mosadi and they carried Tebogo to the car. She slept until they arrived home at their flat in Gaborone. She looked radiant when she woke. For a few hours, Matlapeng was sure that Pastor Nkgonne had cured her that they would be okay, that she wouldn’t die.

“Let’s pray,” she said as the TB wracked her body and he would kneel on the floor next to her bed taking her skeletal hand in his. While praying, his mind drifted to how he needed to get her to the clinic, how he needed to get her to take the medicines that he was convinced would save her. “Amen,” she said weakly.

She opened her eyes and looked down at him next to her bed. “Please, Matlapeng, you need to have faith. I know what you want me to do, but Pastor Nkgonne says that I’ll be insulting God, not believing in His powers if I take the medicine. He’ll cure me. It’s only that my faith is not strong enough. Will you help me? Have faith Matlapeng and we’ll be cured.”  


On a lovely September morning when the blue sky echoed with birdsong and Matlapeng was sure all would be well, Tebogo died.

Four months gone and the guilt still weighs heavy on his heart. It eats at him. He’s losing weight and coughing non-stop.  He knows what he must do. He needs to take the action that he should have; the action that would have saved Tebogo’s life. This time, he’ll do the right thing.  He parks the car. He has complete faith in his choice.  This time a life would be saved.

Opening the heavy door, he walks towards the front of the church where Pastor Nkgonne waits.