Monday, September 28, 2015

We Come In All Kinds

Being a writer, or really an artist of any kind, is difficult in myriad ways. Besides the lack of money, because the arts are continually undervalued, you have the constant rejection, and the relentless plague of self doubt. If you’re an accountant, you do your job: you prepare a balance sheet, you make financial statements for a company, but that work is not tied up with the accountant’s internal thoughts and feelings. The balance sheet does not carry a small bit of the accountant’s soul with it. There is no place where the personality and beliefs of the accountant are incorporated into the work she produces and sends out into the world.

This is not the case for writers. Everything I write has a part of me attached to it. This is why rejection of a piece of writing or a bad critique of a book can be so painful. It is as if those are judgements of me as a person, or at least a part of me.

The other thing about writing is that there is no one way. People can point out what they like and what they don’t like. You might judge writing by correct grammar and punctuation, the conventionally correct way the words are used, but others may find such things unimportant, even insulting to the concept of good writing. Another person might like highly descriptive writing, while another finds such writing unpalatable. No one can pin down good writing. No one can say: write like this. Every writer writes her own way. That’s the way she must write. I suppose the way can be improved on, to some extent, but a writer’s voice is hers. To try on another’s will ring false in even the most amateur of ears.

A person can love John Steinbeck’s writing and Ben Okri’s at the same time and yet they are so different from each other, like a good steak and a glass of exceptional  wine, each lovely but not comparable at all.  Still each is considered good writing. Each can exist; they do not compete on any direct level. They are too different for that. This is how writers and writing are. This is how short stories and novels are. They are different and unique. They are diverse. The way the tools: the words, the grammar, the punctuation, the ideas— are expressed, can never be replicated.  Each piece of writing is pulled from the writer carrying bits of skin and blood, microscopic portions of the writer’s DNA, the scent of their thoughts and history. This is important. It is maybe the most important thing about the entire art form.

Good writing cannot be captured in a net. It is not if the writing is ever published. It is not if the writer collects accolades and slips of paper posing as judgements on excellence. In the end, good writing is about truthfulness to that unadulterated voice. Good writing is about honesty to the story. Good writing should not look outward at who is viewing the process, who will judge the end-product. Good writing must hurt a little bit. And good writing must be like a fingerprint.

I believe this, I do, and yet it is hard to close out the world. It is hard to read a beautiful book and not wish that you could write in that way. To read a short story and not feel as if you will never find your own words to create such loveliness. To not be discouraged and pushed off track by the world that feeds your writing.

We all want to be seen as a success. The problem with writing is the definition of that word. I suppose that is the problem with all of the arts. We need to find a way to adjust our own minds to accept that success comes in so many kinds of packages, with so many kinds of labels. For writers, the packaging is as diverse and as ever-changing as the people we meet and the days that pass. The writing should only be judged against yesterday’s writing, against the truth, against the elimination of all false gods. Judged for the clarity between writer and reader so that the truth of the story can be recreated in the other’s mind.

It’s a difficult road this writer’s road. Take it with caution and be a little bit kind to yourself if you veer off in the wrong direction. Maybe it is the right one but only it has been waiting for you, that certain person to walk its way, to wear down the grass and clear the thorns so that the magic waiting there can be found. 

(This  first appeared in my column It's All Write in the 28 September, 2015 issue of Mmegi)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

FAQs (from my column It's All Write)

I get a lot of people contacting me asking questions about publishing and writing. I try to address many of the issues through my columns, but some folks want a one-stop-shop so I thought a Frequently Asked Questions column might be the answer.  

1. How much does it cost to get a book published?
It cost nothing. A publisher publishes your book for free, that is if they think your book is up to their standard and they can find a market for it. The publisher’s job is to edit, design, market, and sell your book. They pay for all of that from the money they get from sales. The writer of the book gets a percentage of sales, normally 10%, this is called royalties. Anyone calling themselves a publisher but then asking the writer for money to get the book out is purposefully trying to confuse things. If you are paying anything you are self-publishing your book. Full stop. You have not been published in the universally understood way, meaning your manuscript has not been assessed and deemed good enough for the publisher to take a risk on it. You are paying to get your book published. In most of these cases, no assessment has been done.

2. I see that you are a writer; can you get my book published for me?
No. Just as the word says- a writer writes. I do not publish books. I have no sway over any publisher to force them to accept someone’s book manuscript. If you want to be a writer, you must learn to do the work of a writer and that includes researching, finding, and submitting to publishers.

3. A publisher has said they want to publish my book, but now they say they will only give me 10% of the money they get from the sale of my book. Are they cheating me?
No, they are not cheating you. With a minimal amount of research you can tally up the costs a traditional professional publisher will spend on your book before a single copy is sold. They will pay for an editor, usually about P20,000. A designer and layout person, maybe another P20,000. A cover designer, for a good one it could be another P10-20,0000. And then there is the printing. Depending on the print run (short print runs are more expensive per book) it can be between P40,000-P60,000. This is all money the publisher has spent on your book without making a single thebe on it. They will then market the book, distribute and sell the book. Ten percent is standard royalty rate for writers, I have signed contracts for as low as 5% and as high as 15%. You can negotiate, but the publisher knows their margins so they can only go so high, especially in the difficult book trade in Botswana, or even Africa for that matter.

4. I’ve put my poems together in a book, who will publish them?
Very few publishers will publish a collection of poetry. My advice for poets and short story writers is to spend some time sending your work out to literary magazines, both print and online. Try big exclusive magazines as well as easily accessed ones. Read the lit mags, understand the kind of work they want. Send your work for anthology call outs. Build up a track record of publication. Get your name out there. Go to literary festivals, even if you must pay for yourself, and read your work out loud. Enter your work into contests. After you have your name out there, you can try to send your collection out to the few poetry book publishers around the world. If you fail to find a publisher, you have a following, and you regularly read at events, you might want to self-publish your collection and sell it at the places where you read your work.  But know from the beginning, getting a collection of your poems or even your short stories published as a one author book is tough.

5. All the publishers in Botswana only publish for the school market and my book is not for schools. What can I do?
The world is a big, big place and with the internet that world lives in your office. Do your research. There are publishers all over the world and you can submit to any of them. No one needs to be tied anymore to the publishers in their respective countries. Check what the publisher publishes, read their submission guidelines— and send your work out! Rejection is part of the game, don’t take it to heart. I once read that every book manuscript gets on average sixteen rejections, so you need to think of every rejection as one more to whittle down that number until you get to your acceptance. 

(this appeared in the 11 September, 2015 issue of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Are you a fan of Kate Gomolemo and The Fatal Payout?

The Kate Gomolemo Mystery series has four books: The Fatal Payout (Macmillan) , Murder for Profit (Pentagon) , Anything for Money (Vivlia) and Claws of a Killer. Many young Batswana have read The Fatal Payout in school and have become fans of Kate Gomolemo. The other print titles may be difficult for most people to get but now you are in luck. FunDza Literacy Trust has put both Murder for Profit and Anything for Money up on their website for anyone to read for free!

Read Murder for Profit HERE.

Read Anything for Money HERE.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Book Review: Kalahari Killings

Kalahari Killings is a nonfiction historical book by Jonathan Laverick published by the UK based publisher, The History Press. Laverick lives in Botswana and has done for many years. He is currently a teacher at Maruapula.
The book is about the killing of two British pilots, Gordon Edwards and Walter Adamson, who were training to become pilots in camps in Zimbabwe during World War II. On a routine exercise in October 1943, they got off track, ran out of fuel, and landed in the bush some distance away from Nata in the then Bechuanaland. They leave a note explaining that the plane needs oil and fuel and that they are going to walk to get help. They were never seen again.
For two months it appeared as if the two young men had disappeared into thin air- but they hadn’t. They’d been murdered; allegedly murdered by a group of San people, who initially appeared as if they were going to help the two men, but then changed their minds when they feared the Britons would turn them in for hunting a giraffe. This book is about the events leading up to the murder and the trial that took place in Lobatse in 1944.
There are many things that I adore about this book. In the first section of the book, Laverick alternates chapters between events in the UK and what is happening in Botswana. In a quick and efficient manner, he gives a Botswana history lesson to the many readers who may have had little to no contact with our beautiful country. He does it skilfully and with great detail and in a surprisingly interesting way, no easy job. This is the work of a writer with exceptional talent.
Meanwhile in the UK chapters, we are following our future victim, Gordon, as he makes his way toward his dream of becoming a pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF). He works first as an aeroplane mechanic for most of the war, until finally managing to pass his health test that allows him to attend pilot school in Bulawayo, a school perfectly placed to be out of the enemy’s eye. He was on one of his final test flights, just about to finally achieve his dream, when the plane goes down.
I’m a sucker for anyone with passion and it is clear that Laverick has huge passion for planes. He knows them inside out and for anyone who is interested in planes too, I would suggest you read this book. But for folks like me, with a love of history and an interest in murder stories of all kinds, this book is a real treat, especially since it takes place in Botswana.
The trial sections in the book are absolutely fascinating. Besides the gruesome details that emerge, there are interesting cultural aspects that come up.  I found the barriers of trying to force one language into another especially interesting. The court officials had to take a San language, translate it to Setswana, and then to English; the questions being translated again in the other direction. The restrictions and loss of meaning caused by this can be clearly understood. You also see the ways in which language creates our world, defines it, and because of that either limits it or expands it.
A writer with less ambition would have stopped after the verdict of the trial, but Laverick is completely engrossed in his own tale just as I was. He finishes every storyline, much to my satisfaction as a reader. We learn what happened to the flight schools in Zimbabwe, what happened to Gordon’s mother and fiancĂ©, what happened to Twai Twai Molele, the main suspect in the murders.
For anyone interested in law, history, Botswana, airplanes, WWII, or just a good story told well, this is the book for you. I highly recommend it; it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. 

(This first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in Mmegi on 4 September, 2015)

Friday, September 4, 2015

How to Survive the Editing Process

So you’ve managed to sell a short story to a literary magazine or you’ve found a publisher for your book. What’s next? What comes next is the editing process and if you’re writing fiction, especially, it can be quite painful. You created that world, that story, those characters- who is this person wanting to step-in and move the furniture around? That person is an editor, and despite cursory observations, they really are on your side.
I’ve just been through about three months of editing for two books I have coming out in the next nine months. The first is a  book for kids called Thato Lekoko: Superhero which is being published by Oxford University Press- South Africa. The other book, coming out next May, is a historical novel called The Scattering, published by Umuzi, the South African imprint of Penguin/ Random House. Just as these two books are miles apart from each other story-wise and readership-wise, the editing process, too, was as different from each other as cheese and milk. It has been a tough three months, but I’ve come out on the other side a slightly better writer, if a bit ego-battered.
Here are some things I’ve learned that will make your next editing process a lot easier:
1. Learn how to use tracking on Word before the editing starts.
Tracking is how the edits are made in the computer age. Small edits can quickly be resolved by pressing “accept”. Others will require more work. If you don’t understand tracking you’re going to have a rough time and so is your editor.
2. Your editor would have read through your manuscript numerous times. They are making changes that they believe improves the manuscript. They’re not just changing things to make you angry.
I once had an editor who did not do that, though. She started editing immediately, without reading the entire manuscript, and sent me bits and pieces as she progressed. I could see she was not serious and quickly got out of the publishing contract since the publisher was not willing to hire a different editor. This happened only once, and it will not happen with professionals. They spend a lot of time getting to know your writing before they start suggesting changes. They are looking for inconsistencies and plot holes, clichéd writing, repetition, and convoluted, and badly constructed sentences.
3. When you get your edited manuscript back, it can be frightening and infuriating.
An edited manuscript can look quite scary. Lots of red, lots of comments in the margin. Lots of work for you. Take it in slowly. Let the anger out. I shout a lot at my computer. If I’m in my office alone and I’m saying things such as – “Are you kidding me??” And other words that can’t be mentioned in this column- I’m going through an edited manuscript. It can be painful; embrace the pain.
4. Keep to all deadlines.
I know lots of editors, some I even call friends. Many nowadays work on a freelance basis. This means that they agree to projects in advance knowing how long each will take. They give dates to publishers and these dates help decide publisher time-lines and a freelancer’s income. If you miss your deadlines, you are throwing the entire train off the tracks.
5. In the end- it’s your work.
After everything, after you’ve shouted, after you’ve “killed your darlings”, after you’ve put your ego to the side- the work is yours. A good editor helps you enhance your voice, not replace it with theirs. Sometimes you just need to say- I want it like this. And that’s how it should stay. But make sure you are doing it from a place that is improving the book, not from a place of ego. (A lesson I have not completely learned yet.)
            No one is perfect. No one. You might have self-edited your manuscript a thousand times, but still a good editor will find a way to make your writing even shinier. Submit to the process, it will make you look like a better writer than you really are -and who doesn’t want that?

 “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”  Ernest Hemingway

 (This first appeared in the Friday edition of Mmegi in my column, It's All Write, 28 August, 2015)