Monday, August 31, 2015

What's Been Keeping Me Busy???

This year has flown by! I cannot believe it is already September tomorrow.

I've had a crazy, busy year. The first half of the year was spent working on an early reader series for Cambridge University Press (UK). It was not the first time I'd written for this age group as I'd written a book for Macmillan UK called Elephants, which was part non-fiction and part cartoon story. But in this case with CUP, the readers were graded and learning the system required a very steep incline to be tackled. In the end, I wrote three fiction titles and two nonfiction. They will hopefully be coming out next year.

I've been spending a lot of time during the last few months going through various edits for my two books that will be coming out soon.

My book Thato Lekoko: Superhero will be coming out with Oxford University Press- SA in December this year. It's the story of a young teenager who is trying to manage her school duties, her home life, and her friends, while also being a superhero who can be called out at any time to save a dog in a well or a man in a car accident. She tries her best, but never seems able to measure up. This is the second book I have at Oxford University Press SA. The first is The Second Worst Thing which is now CAPS approved for grade 7 and is read in the schools there (along with my book with Vivlia, Curse of the Gold Coins, which is CAPS approved for the same age).

The other book I'm very excited about is called The Scattering and is being published by Umuzi (the South African imprint of Penguin/ Random House). It is my first published adult literary novel and my first book with Umuzi, an exceptional South African publisher.

The Scattering is the story of Tjipuka. It takes place primarily around the years of 1904-1908. Tjipuka is Herero and lives in the then German South West Africa (GSWA). After a series of events, the Herero rise up against the Germans and, at first, are successful. But then the Germans arrive with overwhelming fire power and a mission to exterminate all Herero people. In the final battle on the plateau of Ohamakari, Tjipuka loses her husband Ruhapo. Then begins her journey through the harsh desert, the concentration camp at the coast, and finally to Bechuanaland (the colonial name for Botswana) where she mistakenly believes she will re-find the peace that was lost on Ohamakari. The book will be coming out next year in May.

So that's 2015 so far. When I look back on what I've been working on this year, it looks as if I have been preparing for a very big 2016. Crossing fingers that next year, the 50th birthday of the country of my heart, Botswana, will be as wonderful as I hope it will for both me and Botswana.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Bessie Head Workshop

Wazha Lopang

On Saturday 1 August writers came together at Maruapula School (thanks for the room, MAP!) for the Bessie Head Heritage Trust (BHHT) short story workshop. It was a one-day event packed with information for writers. The objective was to improve the quality of the submissions for the Bessie Head Short Story Award later this year.
Writers around the country were asked to submit a 500 word story if they were interested in attending the workshop. From there twenty-two writers were chosen. Sadly, of the twenty-two only ten managed to attend, but at least those ten seemed committed to writing and improving their stories. I hope we’ll find their names among the winners later this year.
The facilitators were three past Bessie Head Literature Award winners: Wazha Lopang, Wame Molefhe, and me. Topics covered included: what makes a story a story, show don’t tell, point of view, tips for writing stories and the importance of reading, building tension, and writing realistic dialogue. The guidelines for this year’s contest were discussed by Trust member, Dr Mary Lederer.
Wame Molefhe explained that presenting facts is telling, but showing in your stories is the real challenge. When writers are able to show the reader what they see in their mind, the reader will stay interested. A story that is all telling is a boring story. She used Unity Dow’s novel Far and Beyond to give examples of how a writer writes so as to show. She gave participants a writing exercise where they had to describe an angry man and a beautiful woman without using those adjectives and instead getting the reader to see and come to the conclusion that the character is either angry or beautiful.
Wazha Lopang taught the group about point of view and why a writer chooses one point of view over another to tell their story. Choosing between first person, second person, or the various types of third person will depend on how you want to tell your story. He explained how each point of view puts restrictions on the writer. For example, if you choose first person and the narrator is an eight year old boy, you cannot expect him to know the intricacies of a car’s carburettor.
Wame Molefhe warned the participants not to use dialogue as an information dump. The people talking already know things about each other. For example if two friends are talking, a clumsy writer might want to get in the information about how they became friends through a conversation. If one of the friends says in a normal conversation- “When we became friends in standard one, when we were seven and living in Serowe.” – that would be an unrealistic conversation and a good example of an information dump.
Molefhe also spoke about how dialogue is punctuated, which was quite important since many writers are unsure about the punctuation around dialogue and tend to leave it out of their stories because of that fear, making the stories worse for it. She gave pointers on the use of dialogue tags (i.e. he said, she asked, he whimpered, etc.) which again was very useful.
Lopang gave a list of ways to build tension into your stories. Dramatic tension is what keeps readers interested in the story, without it they will stop reading. Some of the things Lopang mentioned were sentence length (short sentences up the tension), the manipulation of time, repetition, italics, and the weighing of options by the character. When manipulating time, meaning cutting back in time at the peak of a dramatic scene, a writer can leave the reader wanting to know what happens. He also explained how repeating a phrase or italicising it can also create tension. He gave the example of a person coming home and finding their front door open. You might write: The door is open. What could that mean? The door is open. Or: the door is open. Either option emphasises the fear in the character’s head and ups the tension for the reader.
Mary Lederer explained the guidelines for the contest this year. It is only for short stories, unlike in the past. The prizes are being sponsored by Diamond Educational Publishers. The deadline for the submissions (which can only be done by email) is 15 September. All details for the contest can be found here.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

International Judges for this Year’s Bessie Head Short Story Competition

The Bessie Head Heritage Trust has been fortunate to nab three of Africa’s rising writing stars as judges for this year’s short story competition. The three judges who will choose the winner of this year’s prize sponsored by Diamond Educational Publishers are Zukiswa Wanner, Karen Jennings, and Fiona Snyckers.

Karen Jennings was born in South Africa but recently relocated to Brazil. She is the author of Finding Soutbek and the short story collection Away from the Dead. She also edited the anthology of short stories Feast, Famine and Potluck for Short Story Day Africa in 2013. She holds masters degrees in English literature and creative writing, both from the University of Cape Town, and in 2015 she will complete a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Zukiswa Wanner was born in Zambia to Zimbabwean and South African parents. A widely published journalist and novelist, she currently lives in Nairobi. She was listed among sub-Saharan Africa’s most exciting writers under forty and was included on the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list. Her debut novel, The Madams, was shortlisted for the K. Sello Duiker Award in 2007, and her novel, Men of the South, was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Her most recent novel is London Cape Town Joburg (Kwela Books, 2014). Most recently she was announced as one of the judges for next year’s Pan-African Etisalat Prize for first novels

Fiona Snyckers is the author of the popular Trinity series of books (Trinity Rising, Team Trinity, and Trinity on Air). She graduated from the University of Witwatersrand with a first class masters’ degree in English literature. In addition to her novels, she writes numerous articles across a wide array of subjects including lifestyle, humour, reviews, and opinion.

For an opportunity to have your work read by these accomplished writers, you need to enter! This year’s Bessie Head Short Story Competition is for short stories only. Submissions can only be sent online to as a Word document attachment.  There is no theme and the maximum word count is 5000 words. Only citizens and residents of Botswana are eligible. The deadline for all submissions is 15 September 2015. For complete information on formatting and other requirements, see the Bessie Head webpage here.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Artists are their Worst Enemies

Across the spectrum artists tend to be crap business people who make other artists’ lives more difficult because of the bad business decisions that they make. Take musicians. Musicians like playing music, so when they get the opportunity to play for the public they take it. The problem is unscrupulous business folk take advantage of that characteristic of musicians and use it to get free entertainment. They’ll say things such as: “Come Friday night, you can play a few hours at my club and get exposure.” The musician is excited. The opportunity to play – yay! The business person exploits the musician’s poor business acumen and the musician pitches up, plays, and then goes home with empty pockets.
Okay, you can say- that’s fine, that’s the musician’s business, he’s “not in it for the money”. But it’s actually not fine. Because now when the person trying to be a professional, a musician attempting to make a living from music, approaches that club and tells the owner that their fee is P3000 for a two hour set, the owner thinks the person is mad, a diva trying to rip them off. See, the owner is used to getting music for free thanks to the musicians that came before this one. It makes it a steep, uphill climb for the professional musician to educate the owner that workers should be paid for the work that they do- all workers. And they should be paid a fair fee.
The same goes for contracts. So many artists will agree to perform without a contract. “We have a verbal agreement,” they say.  Verbal agreements mean nothing; they’re usually the beginning of a long drawn out, and often bitter, argument about money. Artists must get written contracts. The contracts should include the responsibilities of each party, and they should breakdown how the money should be paid. For example, if you’re a dancer, you might want a certain percentage before the event, maybe 40%, so that you have money to get yourself there, money for rehearsals, etc. Then the remaining 60% of the fee should be paid immediately after the performance. Any other requirements should also be in that contract. It needn’t be drawn up by a lawyer, just a straight forward agreement, all of the things that were discussed in your meeting to set up the gig, written down on paper, both parties sign it.
The same applies for writers. Writing for free is problematic. It sets up the same situation as playing music for free. It makes editors think that writing is not something that needs to be paid for, making it difficult for professional writers to make a living wage.
Many writers get so excited when they get a story or book manuscript taken for publication they don’t take the time to read their contract carefully. They are overflowing with gratitude and see no reason to disagree with the publisher on anything. There are many places in a book contract, for example, where the publisher has leeway for discussion. Writers must read contracts carefully and consider the long term effect of what they are signing. Where they don’t like something, they have the right to ask for it to be changed. If it can’t be changed, and the writer finds the clause difficult to live with, they can walk away from the deal. Nothing is locked in until the contract is signed, but once it is- that’s it. You need to live with it.
Writers who accept everything, even things that are not good for them and other writers, make it more difficult for all writers. When a professional writer now questions things on the contract or questions the behaviour of the publisher on things such as marketing or timely payment of royalties, they are considered problematic because the publisher only has experience with writers who do not view writing from a professional perspective.
Artists in all sectors must think how their actions affect all of us. Trying to make a living from the arts in Botswana is difficult. If the buyers of our work see us as unprofessional, as people who take art as a hobby, they will see no need to treat us as the professionals we actually view ourselves as. We are the ones who can define the artistic economy in the country, but it will require effort from everyone to improve the situation. 
(This column appeared in my column It's All Write in the 7 August, 2015 edition of Mmegi newspaper)