Friday, June 8, 2018

Don't Do What Your English Teacher Told You To Do

If you want to be a published writer, you should ignore most of what your English teacher told you about creative writing. Don’t ignore the grammar though—that’s important! But some of the other things your English teacher told you would get you points on your beautifully crafted essay will ensure that you are never published.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
            English teachers love to see English idioms in an essay. The more you have, the more the points will pile up. But a publisher will cringe at each one. If your character comes late for the meeting and you write “better late than never” your English teacher will smile but a publisher will put your short story to the side. Butchers down the street who are “right as rain” and paragraphs that start with “to make a long story short” are not wanted in modern novels and short stories.
            Most publishers see the use of such idioms at lazy writing. They are clichés and all clichés should be avoided. The reason is because they are used so often they make the writing uninteresting. You want to produce fresh, interesting writing. Some commonly used phrases can be cliché too, examples include: blushing bride, bored stiff, cold shoulder, and let her hair down, just to mention a few.
Even entire plots can be cliché. If your protagonist goes on an incredible journey but the last line of you story is “…and then she woke up” you need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something original. In fantasy, if your protagonist is searching for a ring in a magical fairy land with a mean dragon, try to sit down and change a few parts of the plot to make it fresh.
Another thing to avoid is what I call “thesaurus writing”. In thesaurus writing simple words will not do. A thesaurus writer wants a long complicated or obscure word every single time. An English teacher might like that, but a publisher wants precision. I recently read a self-published novel and it was nearly impossible for any character in the book to walk. Students in the book “gaited up the stairs”, “danced through a crowd” and “quietly trooped.”.  If you want to be published by a literary magazine or by traditional publishers, you must work to get the correct word. If the correct word is walked— then use it. You don’t get points for finishing the words in the dictionary.
In that same novel, verbs were unable to move along in the narrative without the constant assistance of an adverb. Groundsmen were “fervently sweeping” and a receptionist “answered enthusiastically”. Adverbs weaken verbs, they don’t strengthen them. I am not a writer who bans adverbs, but I use them sparingly and, I hope, for effect.
English teachers want description; they want everything described in detail. I think if you’ve read a novel written in such a way you will realise how tiring it is. A writer slows down the story to describe something for a reason. When I teach writing workshops, I always talk about significant detail. If I go into detail describing a man who has walked into the room where my protagonist is, but then three pages later he disappears from the novel and we never meet him again, you as the reader will feel cheated. Why were you taken on this descriptive journey? The man did nothing and plays no role in the story.
But yet time and again I read passages from writers where every single thing in the room is described. It is weak writing not strong, no matter how many English teachers might disagree with me.
Significant detail, though, can make a story very special. When you choose carefully what to describe and you understand fully why you’re describing it, then the reader knows they are in assured, capable hands.
One last thing your English teacher did you no favour with is dialogue tags. Your characters do not need to exclaim, or proclaim or even blame. Your characters can say or ask.  And please never this, “I like that,” Clara smiled”. You can’t smile words. Clara said is good enough.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Need an Editor? Mafoko Manuscript Services is Here!

I’m always getting people asking me to edit their stories or manuscripts but I’m not an editor, I’m a writer. I was so relieved to get the news that no one needs to send me these requests anymore— now we have our very own, Botswana-based, editing service! Mafoko Manuscript Services which opened shop in August 2017. The business is the brainchild of Dr Mary Lederer and Dr Leloba Molema, who I interviewed below.

What made you think a service like yours was required?
We have worked on editorial boards for various journals and anthologies, and we have always noted the fact that a lot of people don’t seem to take care with their work—revising it, editing it for content consistency, presentation, grammar, etc.  We were also struck by the fact that often the creative voice is edited out in favour of homogeneity in some types of publications.  In addition, young writers often need guidance in finding their narrative voices and in letting small alterations to their English enhance the overall voice and quality of their work.  We decided that we would form an editing service in order to address some of these problems.  We would like to help people become more familiar with what is required to really edit something properly and with the process of preparing something for submission, but we also want to support local writing, most especially creative writing.
Finally, we were somewhat tired of people handing us huge reams of paper and asking us to “just have a look”.  Editing and evaluating are detailed, time-consuming jobs, and we decided it was time for us to start assigning our work a value.

What does the company do?
Depending on the subject matter, we can help with content editing and evaluation, which involves, obviously, the content of a manuscript.  We have experience working with writers on creative projects such as stories and poems, and of course we do copyediting (for grammar, style, etc.) and proofreading (the last stage before something is submitted).  We can also do ghost writing, translations, and small administrative things.

We are planning to hold editing workshops for a small fee …The first workshop won’t happen until the spring, but once we have scheduled it, we will post details on our Facebook page and on our website.  If anyone has any suggestions about what would be useful—for editing, not for writing—they can email us those suggestions.

So far how has the response been?
We have had a lot of enquiries, including from overseas, but many people here in Botswana seem to be a bit surprised by our rates.  Because we are based in Botswana, we can charge half of what editors and copyeditors in other places, including in South Africa, charge, so we think we are a bargain.  Overseas enquiries often come to us because the writer is intrigued by the prospect of having an English-language editor working from Botswana; others are attracted by our rates. 

What have the main sorts of projects been so far?
We have had a variety. Some people have sent us their academic papers.  We have edited a novel, a collection of short stories, and chapters from or entire theses and dissertations.  We have had one translating job.  Mary is currently proofreading a 400-page hagiography, and we have a book manuscript that we are copyediting. So we have had a variety of manuscripts on a variety of subjects.

Are your clients primarily individuals or have you started working with local (or even international) publishers?
So far, all of our clients except for one have been individuals.  We haven’t been approached by any publishers, but we expect that to take a bit more time.  Local publishers have told us that they are looking forward to not having to send things to South Africa for editing, but so few books are being published locally that we are not entirely surprised that our work comes from individuals.

How much do you charge?
We adhere to the international standard of 250 words/page and of charging by the hour. So copyediting runs about 3-5 pages/hour; proofreading, about 10+ pages/hour (depending on whether the document has been properly copyedited).  Copyediting costs about P200–250/hour, and proofreading P150/hour.  We ask for a 50% deposit before we begin work. We also offer a 20% discount to students. We can be reached at; our web address is or

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

3rd Poetavango Short Story Contest


The Poetavango Collective calls for good quality short stories for its third annual literary award competition, the Poetavango Award for Short Fiction. The competition focuses only on the short story form of fiction writing for writers living in Botswana.
Writers are requested to submit short stories on any theme, so long as the stories comply with the terms and condition of entry stated below. 

Submission deadline is Friday, August 21st 2018. Submit to with the subject line ‘short story submission’. 

First Prize: P3000, Second Prize: P2000, Third prize: P1000. 
All stories submitted may be considered for publication in a short story anthology. 

 Terms and conditions of entry

1. Stories must be fiction.
2. Only writers living in Botswana can enter the competition (citizens or non-citizens).
3. Writers should be 18 years or over.
4. Only one submission per writer allowed. No multiple submissions. 
5. Writers can submit stories in any fiction genre, e.g. literary, romance, thriller, adventure, suspense, horror, etc.
6. Stories should not be longer than 3500 words.
7. Stories must be in English only.
8. Stories must be set anywhere in existing places/locations of Botswana. Stories with non-existent or international settings will be disqualified. 
9. Stories must not have been previously published in any form, including online platforms (websites, blogs or social media)
10. Only email submissions allowed. Stories must be submitted as a .doc or .docx attachment, no PDF or any other format is allowed. Stories should not be pasted in the body of the email either. 
11. Stories must be submitted on or before August 21st 2018, 11:59pm CAT. Late entries will not be considered.
12. Submissions must bear the title of the story and name of writer. However, stories will be judged anonymously with names removed. 
13. Writers are allowed to use pseudonyms, but real names must be indicated on the email body, see point 14.
14. Document must be typed in Times New Roman, font size 12, 1.5 line spacing. Paragraphs must be left-justified, ie, leave the right margin ragged.  
15. In the body of the email, write your names in full (even where pseudonyms are used in the story, you need to provide real names here), address and contact details and the word count of your story. Personal information will not be shared with anyone.
16. By entering the competition, the writer declares that the story is their original work.
17. Members of the Poetavango Collective and their families are NOT allowed to enter the competition; however, their work may be included in anthologies where necessary. 
18. First place winners of the past two competitions are not allowed to contest.   
19. All submission will be acknowledged with a response from the receivers. Shortlisted stories will be announced by August 30th while the winners will be announced by September 29th. 
20. The judges’ decision is final.
21. The Award Ceremony will take place on October 25th during the Maun International Arts Festival ’18, in Maun, Botswana. Winners are expected to attend this event. 
 For more information or enquiries, email to or call +267 73597356 or +267 74083616

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Gaborone Book Night- be There!!!

I will be speaking about my novel The Scattering and about writing historical fiction in general. Other authors on the programme are: Modirwa Kekwaletswe, Kagiso Madibana, and Thabo Katlholo.

Some of my books will be on sale and I will be available to sign them for you, so I hope to see you there!

What? World Book Night
When? Monday 23 April 2018
Time? 5 pm
Where? UB Library Auditorium

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book Review: Accident by Dawn Garisch

Dawn Garisch is a South African writer, poet and memoirist who has six published novels, a poetry collection, a memoir and a nonfiction book. She’s also written a play, a short film, television scripts and numerous short stories. Her novel, Trespass, was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize in Africa and her poem “Miracle” was awarded the 2011 EU Sol Plaatje Poetry Award. And if that was not enough, she’s a practicing medical doctor in Cape Town.  Accident is her sixth novel.
            Accident   (Modjaji Books, 2017) is the story of mother, Carol, and her grown son, Max. Carol is a single parent. She met Max’s father during a trip to France where they had a brief affair. She went home to South Africa pregnant, never finding Max’s father again.  Carol is a general practitioner in Cape Town and juggling her career and motherhood is difficult. Like most women in that position, she does her best though it never seems to be enough and this creates a lot of guilt and self-recrimination.
            When Max is a teenager, he and a friend have an accident, a passing man saves Max. Carol has the man, Jack, over for a meal to thank him for saving her son’s life. Soon Jack and Max become close and eventually Carol and Jack begin an intimate affair. But Jack is a loner, an adventurer. His priorities clash with Carol’s and their relationship falls apart and one day he disappears. Max loves Jack, almost as a stand-in father, and he blames Carol for Jack’s leaving. Their relationship becomes fraught from then on.
            Max is grown at the beginning of the book. He’s a performance artist who is trying to explore the line between life and death. He set himself on fire and is in the hospital with burns. As a doctor, and as a mother, Carol cannot understand this recklessness. Max’s friends believe that he’s a genius and the art world seems to agree. But Carol thinks he’s reckless and adding undue pain, violence and trauma to the world, in particular her world. She knows when his burns heal, he will try yet another stunt (which he does including a crucifixion and a car accident) and she becomes obsessed by that, sure that her son will die during one of his artistic performances. She doesn’t understand what he’s attempting to do or why. For her, art is not a worthy thing to die for.
            The book has many themes of interest. What can a parent do when an adult child takes a path that they cannot accept? What is a worthy thing to live for —as well as die for? Can art be an arrogant crutch for a person wanting their own way? Or must artists always push themselves to the very edge so as to feel the truth of what they are doing, at all costs?
            At one point, Max’s girlfriend, Tamsyn, finds that she’s pregnant. Max warned her that his art doesn’t allow him to be a father, even to have a relationship since he keeps pushing Tamsyn away and insists they have nothing serious. Carol attempts to get Max to see how selfish he’s being.
            She says: “You’re a narcissistic child, Max, people like you shouldn’t be allowed to have sex, bringing more misery into the world.” She knew she was going too far, but she couldn’t stop the bile from spilling out. 
            “You think Picasso wasn’t narcissistic? Or Lucian Freud? They put painting first, before the people closest to them, but they weren’t only living for their own selfish pleasures. That’s what you don’t get because you’ve never had one artistic bone in your body.”
Carol answers: “…I don’t care if you’re the most famous artist in the whole bloody world, if that makes you unkind and inconsiderate, it means nothing!”
Accident raises many interesting questions but makes no prescriptions on any fronts, it’s up to the reader to sort out the issues for themselves. The shocking ending will stay with you for a very long time, when mother and son find a heart-breaking and unexpected way to find peace with each other’s choices. I highly recommend this novel written by one of South Africa’s most underrated writers who I feel needs a far bigger audience. 

(This first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in Mmegi newspaper on 23 Feb, 2018)

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Cover-to-Cover Books

In 2011 teachers Dorothy Dyer and Ros Haden along with their friends Palesa Morudu and Mignon Hardie decided to establish Cover2Cover Books after Dorothy, who was teaching in Langa Township in Cape Town, realised no books reflected the lives of her students. Ros Haden explained to me in a recent interview that the students in Langa kids struggled to find books that interested them.
“There were very few books in the library that reflected their lives and excited them except for one series, The Blueford Series, set in the projects in the United States that was fast paced, about African American teens, that was about growing up in disadvantaged communities, where gangsterism was rife. Readers in her class liked these books and could relate to the issues the teens faced but still, it wasn’t a context they knew, the language wasn’t the colloquial language they were familiar with. The rest of the books were novels from the UK and very hard to relate to about teens growing up in very different circumstances.”
That was how Cover2Cover’s first title was born.  “Dorothy asked the class if they would like a ‘Blueford’ series but set in a SA township, they said this would be exciting. That’s when Dorothy asked me if I could write a short teen novel, along the lines of the Blueford novels and that’s how the Harmony High series was born.  I wrote Broken Promises chapter by chapter. The sheets were circulated in her class as I wrote them, and went viral in the school. I think that’s when we knew we were on to something that could hook these teens on reading and keep them reading,” Ros said.
They now had the Harmony High series, but just like in Botswana, getting books to teens is difficult. Books need bookstores and the kids need money to buy the books which they don’t have. Ros explained how Cover2Cover gave birth to FunDza to solve that problem.
“And so we formed The FunDza Literacy Trust, a non-profit, whose goal was reading for pleasure amongst black teens in SA.”  Stories are put up each week on the mobi site and can be accessed with a cellphone or computer.  The stories can be read for free online. Now FunDza has a big collection of short stories and books available to anyone who logs on. Ros continued, “They were a huge hit, with the Rattray Foundation, who work with rural schools in KZN, saying the teens couldn’t get enough of them and that FunDza had started a Reading Revolution.”
FunDza’s success is evident. “The mobi site: grew exponentially from when we started in 2011. We now reach 500 000 - 600 000 readers a month across South Africa and beyond with a regular readership of 60 000 readers who come on to the site every day to read the latest FunDza stories, blogs, articles, poetry and novels, and their own stories,” Ros said.
Cover2Cover has eleven titles in their Harmony High series now and has published a selection of FunDza stories in their Big Ups anthologies, Jayne Bauling’s Soccer Season series and Bontle Senne’s Shadow Chasers series too among other books for the trade market.
On the FunDza mobi site they also have places for fans to learn about writing. “We began a ‘Developing Young Writers’ programme  where teens and young adults can send in their writing, get it edited, get feedback and see their work published on and read and enjoyed by their peers. We also mentor a number of young writers into commissioned writers for our weekly stories,” Ros said.
Cover2Cover and FunDza have won quite a few awards both locally and internationally for their work around literacy and getting young people to get excited about reading again. I asked Ros, which prize as of late has had the biggest impact for them.
“FunDza was delighted to win the Confucius Literacy Prize from UNESCO for our work in improving literacy levels in South Africa - one of five global literacy award given by UNESCO in 2017. It was a huge honour and a great reward and international acknowledgement for the work we do in spreading the joy of reading with all its lifelong benefits of developing empathy, creative and critical thinking, creativity, a shift in attitudes, and confidence and ability in writing and reading,” she said.  
I’ve been writing for FunDza for quite a few years now and it is one of the things I am personally most proud of. We need more initiatives like this run by people with a commitment to reading and who are as excited about stories as these women are. Big congrats to these women and their initiatives!
(This originally appeared in my column It's All Write (Mmegi newspaper)  in the 9th March 2018 issue)