Wednesday, November 26, 2014

WANTED: Bloggers for an Experiment

I'm looking for a few bloggers  who would like to help me with an experiment. I'd especially like bloggers from around Africa (especially from Botswana), but will also consider bloggers living other places.

I have a novel, The Vanishings, that has been accepted for publication by two publishing houses, but for reasons I'd not like to get into, I've had to take it back from both of them. The Vanishings and I are feeling slightly battle worn and don't feel like taking any more walks toward publishers together. I thought, instead, I would serialise it on my blog. I thought, starting maybe next year February, I'd put a chapter on my blog every Thursday for folks to read. Then I thought what might be even nicer was if other bloggers agreed to do the serialisation too. And then I thought how this might be an interesting way for us to share our writing. To make a certain day of the week the day for serialised novels. I'll try to think of a sexy name to describe that day. All ideas are welcome!

Would you be interested in participating? If you are, send me an email ( and I can send you the book so you can see if it is something you like. If you then are interested in being part of this, when I start I will send the prepared chapter to you a few days before it needs to be posted. I will do my best to push traffic toward the various participating blogs on the chapter days through here and social media.

The Vanishings is a detective/thriller set in the tourist town of Maun in Botswana. Here is a brief description:

"Five people seem to have vanished in thin air. Their only connection is that they were snatched in the bush around Maun. No bodies have been recovered. No suspects found. Detective Dambuza Chakalisa, newly arrived in the sleepy tourist town, is probably the worst choice to investigate this case. He drinks too much. He’s preoccupied with his marriage that is falling apart and to top it off, he doesn’t know anyone in Maun to give him a lead in the case.  But he’s about to get help.

On the way to work his first day, he happens upon an older white woman beating the crap out of a young man. It turns out to be the tough, no nonsense Delly Woods dealing with a man who mistakenly thought he could take her cellphone. An unlikely duo, but together Dambuza and Delly will uncover the truth behind the vanishings as well as a few other secrets certain people might have preferred not to have come out" 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Negotiating Writing Jobs

No matter if you are a freelance magazine article writer or a short story writer, at some point you will need to negotiate a deal. If you’re a freelance article writer you will need to turn your query into an article that will be bought and paid for in a reasonable time. The problem is that most writers are not business savvy. At some point negotiating will mean talking about money, which many of us have been taught is rude. It’s a very fine line one must walk to appear assertive and willing to protect your own interests, as opposed to being too hard and rigid. You must keep in mind at all times- this is a business arrangement. The editor has the parameters that she must work inside of, but so do you. Here are some tips to help make the process less painful. 

1. Assist a busy editor
You’ve sent your query for an article to the magazine and the editor is interested. She sends an email asking for more details about how you will approach the article’s topic. You could email back with ideas but you and she might take a few emails to get to a point where the offer to write the article is on the table. Sometimes you need to make money to earn money. At that point, I would pick up the phone and call the editor, even one in a foreign country (keep track of time zones though, no one wants to wake up an editor at 4 am). This way you can hear what she is looking for and you can assure her that is exactly what she will get. It’s a good way to establish a relationship with the editor as well.

2. Always ask for more than you will accept
Once you have agreed to write an article or story, now it’s time to negotiate the terms. In every instance when I’m offered a writing job or a book deal, I ask for a bit more than they offer. Not crazy over the top, just a bit more. They can say yes or no. Then you must know in your mind what you will accept. If they offer you 25 thebe per word to write a 2000 word article and you know you will spend more than P500 on travel and phone charges to get your interviews, then what’s the point? Don’t say exposure- exposure does not feed your kids. And don’t say to get your foot in the door. All that you’re showing this editor is that you are willing to write for 25 thebe per word and that is all they will ever offer you.

3. Look at the total package
I am not saying money is the only factor to consider when accepting a writing job. I’ve had instances where a publication wants to pay me P500 to use a short story and they want to take all of the rights to that story. What that means is I cannot sell that story again, they own it. What I would do in that instance is offer them the choice: they can either pay me significantly more or they can pay me P500 for one time rights. Or alternatively, let’s say a publication wants you to write an article for a fee below your normal rate. You might agree, but then ask them to pay all phone and travel expenses for you to go and interview people for the article. In most instances, you can find areas where the deal can be improved even if the budget is very tight.

4. When are you being paid?
One thing to always look out for is when payment will be made. When writing articles, there is wide discrepancy regarding this. Being paid when the final article is submitted can be very different from being paid when the article is published. I write for one publication that often uses my stories even a year or more after they’ve been accepted. Imagine if you must wait for your pay for more than a year? Or what if they assign you the article, you write it, the editor accepts it, but for some reason they end up not using it? Shouldn’t you still be paid since you did the work? Always push for payment at final acceptance of the article. This is another place where you can occasionally take a lesser fee if they agree to pay at acceptance.

Negotiating fees when you’re a writer can be difficult and something you’re likely uncomfortable with. It’s best you see writing as a business and approach the money side in a professional and businesslike manner.

(This appeared first in my column in The Voice newspaper, It's All Write, 7 November 2014)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Five Blankets- an exercise

I'm currently taking an online writing course at the University of Iowa. Each week we watch a video and are given an assignment around the issues brought up in the video. The week before last we were learning about ways constraints on your writing can force you to look closer at it, particularly at individual sentences. Constraints might include the number of words in each sentence, for example writing a piece where each sentence is only seven words.

In my case, I chose writing a piece where each sentence must have a number in it. I've realised that doing this does indeed improve the quality of the sentences. It was a great exercise and I'm planning to use this when I begin my next longer work of fiction, mostly because in longer works the space actually removes constraint and, at least for me, leads to flabbier sentences.

Below is my piece: Five Blankets.

Five Blankets

He murdered a man at twenty-four. In the prison where they sent him, he shared one big room with tiny windows high up near the ceiling that let in no breeze on forty degree days. Seventy men can make a mighty smell, he realised, a solid, alive smell that moved around and slapped you every now and then, reminding you about the seriousness of the situation. Though he was a murderer he had two non-murderer traits: a soft heart and the inability to identify evil.
            That first night, he was given five blankets and told to find a space on the floor. Blanket number one, he rolled into a pillow. Blanket number two and three he folded into thirds and used as a mattress against the hard, concrete floor. He covered himself with blanket number four. Blanket number five he rolled up and lay next to him. The first night he pretended it was his long ago girlfriend, the girl who lived next door to them when he was ten, Carmela; Carmela made the night shorter. The second night, blanket number five was the woman he left behind when the prison doors shut behind him, the woman he’d murdered for; she promised good would prevail despite all evidence to the contrary.
On the third night, when everything became too real no matter how he twisted his mind, when seven men promised they’d “get him” before the week finished, when the bed bugs and the heat and the prison guards high with their small power picked and poked him until ignoring was not an option, blanket number five became his mother.  He became her little boy, her three year old boy afraid of the monster rattling under the bed.  His mother hugged him and all seventy men disappeared in the fierce light of her love.
His mother stayed with him until day thirty-two when Prisoner 538 tried to steal the rolled up blanket lying next to him. He couldn’t allow that, and with four blows and a kick, he murdered his second man, again in defence of the ones he loved.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Failing is the Best Possible Thing for You

I have a quote from Wendell Mayes on my office wall- "You're only willing to succeed to the same degree you're willing to fail." I read it often. I read it when I'm about to send a short story out to a  new magazine and I'm hesitating because I'm afraid of them saying no. I read it when I think that the new novel I've started is far too ambitious for my writing skills and it might never find a publisher. I read it when I'm preparing for a speech or panel discussion where I know people in the audience are far more accomplished than I am.

I remind myself when I read that quote, that if I want to accomplish anything, I have to accept that if it is tough, if it is new to me, if it is intimidating- that's a good thing. That means I'm stretching myself. That means I'm at that wonderful edge where success and failure are only centimetres apart, but the only place where learning and growth can take place. And it reminds me that failure at that edge is not a bad thing. It's okay. At that edge we must fail and fail until we succeed, and then the edge moves out a bit more, and we must run at it head first once again.

Society teaches us failing is bad. And so we get a bit of success, and then just keep doing that thing over and over and live in our mediocre success filled world. For me that's not living. Living is growing, and growing requires us to reach and sometimes to fall.

I'm thinking of this after the workshop I did for primary kids at the library in Maun during the Maun International Arts Festival. I read them a story and then asked them to review it. When it came time to read their reviews, they didn't want to. They were scared they'd got it wrong, that maybe their opinion was not the "correct" one. They were afraid that they would fail. Because of that they couldn't act. They were stopped like statues. It was one of the saddest things I'd seen for a long time.

Let's fail. Let's fail big.Like my quote says, only big success comes from being able to accept that big failure is also an option. That's okay. I'm fine with that. I'm willing to take that risk.
What about you?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Home is Home

I'm back home from the Maun International Arts Festival. It's our only literary festival in Botswana with any staying power, so I'm always keen to be there to support the organisers, Poetavango, a performance poetry group based in Maun.

Despite late funding and the elections, they managed against quite incredible odds to pull off a wide ranging festival that included workshops on prose, theatre, poetry and music, and another one for kids at the library. There were shows most nights: comedy, people with disabilities, poetry and jazz, the book exhibition opening with the launch of Chimurenga Chronic in Botswana, and the final big event on Saturday.

The invited poets, because still at heart it is a performance poetry festival, were taken up the Thamalakane River to visit a traditional village and to learn about some Setswana culture. It is a wide ranging Festival run by a devoted and hard-working team, all volunteers. A group I respect completely.

Now I'm back home and back stuck into my work, hoping I'll stay put for a while. We've had lovely rains and the trees have leaved out and the grass has gone green and the birds are singing and I'm happy back in my little office, back to my words and sentences, back to my stories. Away is good, but it also shows you that home is pretty nice too.