Michele Rowe is a South African scriptwriter who works primarily as a head writer and story originator for television and film. I write and edit, write and edit in an ongoing process of refinement.  It means that I write pretty slowly, but I can’t separate writing from editing. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
I find plotting and structuring the most frustrating aspect of writing.  I am a terrible procrastinator. When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal? ALISON LOWRY has been in the publishing industry for 30 years, as an author, editor, publisher and chief executive.
As mentioned to Alison a couple of years ago, I am keen to try and get my selfpublished book, picked up by a main line publisher. Deep story line with issues that the hero Ted has to resolve, such as mending a broken family, and dealing with the school bully.Presently published by authorhouse UK, as a POD paper back, and eBook. So far I have sold around 300 copies, which have been well liked by those who have given me feed back. Part 1 – Friday, 6 June ’14: My self-publishing experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly. Part 2 – Friday, 13 June ’14: Why you need to be in control of every production step if you opt to self-publish. Part 4 – Friday, 27 June ’14: The power of social media – why all writers, both traditionally published and self-published, need an online platform.
Part 9 – Friday, 01 August ’14: How would a writer survive without the love and support of family? Are you an author of general non-fiction work, educational or academic work currently involved in a writing project? This grant scheme owes its existence to the generosity of the Norwegian Non-Fiction Writers and Translators Association, Kopinor (the Norwegian Reproduction Rights Organisation), and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ultimate objective of the scheme is to develop writing and knowledge production in South Africa and to encourage the writing and publishing of high-quality non-fiction works, especially by young authors. The 2013 call for applications has opened (closing date for applications is 30 September 2013 and the winners for this round will be announced in December 2013).
Are you self-publishing your own eBook?  If so click HERE to read a good article (written by Kristen Eckstein for The Future of Ink’s website) on what to take into consideration when you are designing your e.book cover. When it comes to your eBook cover, I cannot stress enough how important it is to look professional.
If your cover looks like it was created in Microsoft Word, your book sales will be directly affected and even your credibility may be at stake. When you browse through eBooks on Amazon, how many times do you click on the picture of the book cover image versus just the title that usually appears next to it? We almost always gravitate towards clicking the picture because that’s what we’re looking at. So if your cover, especially as a thumbnail image, is so important, what are the secrets to making it stand out from your competition?
There’s a succinct little phrase that’s spilled over into publishing, I suspect from the movie industry – the elevator pitch – and I rather like it. To attract the attention and interest of a publisher or agent, these days you could do worse than buff up an elevator pitch to go with your fuller synopsis, covering letter and first three chapters. Whether you plan to approach an agent in the hope of being taken on as a client and finding your way to a publisher this way, or whether you are going direct to a publisher, the pitch and presentation for these two routes will be roughly the same. By now you will have done your research thoroughly, and you will have targeted an agency or publishing house which looks like they take on authors who are writing your kind of book. For your synopsis, longer than three or four pages is probably too long, but one paragraph may be under cooking it. The writer Douglas Kennedy once told me that when he’s working on a new novel, he keeps a piece of paper stuck above his desk with the word KISS on it: Keep it simple, stupid. Do write a covering letter or email, but don’t include your full synopsis or your biographical piece in it. Before you write that covering letter, remind yourself of these four fundamental questions you need to know the answers to: Why am I writing?
I think it was TS Eliot who said: ‘An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. If you know that spelling isn’t your strongest talent and you have never been all that good at grammar and you’re not all that accurate on the keyboard either, then what you are probably looking for is a copy editor. Will it improve your chances of getting your book picked up by a publisher or being noticed by a sharp literary agent? If, however, the intricately clever plot of your contemporary thriller or the inspiration in your heartfelt memoir makes for an unputdownable story but you suspect that your writing is rougher than you’d like, and that the manuscript is going to be extra challenging to read because of it, then yes, do have a copy editor work through it. All respectable publishers will need the specialised skills of a copy editor at a specific point in the production process once they take a book on; they will either have in-house copy editors or they will outsource this function to a freelancer. Should you engage an editor (as opposed to a copy editor) to work on your book with or for you before you submit it to an agent or publisher, or before you self-publish or go the vanity press route? When you tell a commercial publisher that your book has already been edited by a friend, this mostly doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to them. Publishers shouldn’t ever let a book hasten through the production system without an editorial stage, whether they use their own in-house editors or a freelancer they trust. A commercial publisher will assign an editor to a specific book, and should try to match you with an editor who will be compatible with you personally, or who either specialises in fiction, if you’ve written a novel, or in lifestyle publishing if yours is a book on interior decorating, for example. So unless your editing friend does this for a living, rather secure professional help in this preparation period. There are also some poor or downright bad editors out there, who may do you more of a disservice than help your book be the best it can be. If you are going to self-publish, pay a vanity publisher, or go the online ebook route, I would strongly suggest you employ a least a copy editor before you put your work out there, even if this is just for a bit of light dusting.
It’s astounding what you the writer can miss in your own manuscript, despite having read it through probably a hundred times – did you spot the deliberate typo in this posting, I wonder? One of the most nerve-wracking moments in the process of writing a book – and this applies across every genre, to fiction and non-fiction, and to novice writers as well as the most seasoned published author – is that moment of self-doubt when you ask yourself what on earth possessed you ever to put finger to keyboard in the first place. Whether creeping self-doubt doesn’t apply to you and you have read and re-read your manuscript and you feel satisfied and confident that it’s the best it’s going to be, still you should welcome a last dispassionate, objective read before you send it off from someone who will offer you encouragement, wisdom, sound advice and support at this stage in your writing journey.
It may be stating the obvious, but while you may value and trust the opinions of your immediate family or friends, these people are seldom the best readers for your book just before you plan to submit it to an agent or publisher. Friends are also often and mystifyingly tempted all of a sudden to become writers themselves, and want to “help” you rewrite your book and question your use of commas.
A professional reader could save you from, for example, a fatal timeline flaw in your plot that you simply missed – it’s hard to believe but this happens quite often. These days it’s unusual for writers to send off hard copy manuscripts and it’s unusual for agents or publishers to require this. This sounds ridiculous even to say it, but I have to say it anyway: before you send your manuscript off, in whatever format you’re sending it, read it through one more time from start to finish – you, personally, not a helpful friend who used to be a teacher. If you’re sending hard copy, don’t scribble over a line that’s suddenly struck you as wrong and write the better sentence above it or in the margin. Don’t send off one version and then sit down and rewrite it in a panic and follow it up with frantic Please read this version instead emails and three more Word attachments. Double spacing might mean more pages, but it’s easier to read (and to make notes on) than single spacing at this manuscript stage.
Don’t think you need to be a typesetter or book designer and attempt to make the pages look exactly like you imagine they’ll look when the book comes out of the oven. Whether you send off the full manuscript or the usually required three chapters, don’t forget to send a synopsis as well, and also a brief biographical piece. Having spent a good few years in the publishing industry, it always surprises me how little research aspiring authors do before they submit their finished manuscripts to a publisher.
Boring though it may sound, especially when excitement is building over the final full stop in your manuscript which may now be in your sights, some solid research and a dose of homework is recommended.
Your first port of call, however, assuming that you have some knowledge of the local industry and know the names of the key publishers who operate in your home market, is their websites. If, however, your genre is fantasy and your target audience is young adults, or you have a range of illustrated children’s books to offer, and these are not specifically mentioned on the site, ring them up and ask to speak to an editor. Another good exercise is to browse bookshops – bricks and mortar shops, on-line bookstores and other retailers. If you can, have a chat to a bookseller or the store’s manager and ask what’s selling well.
And for genres such as coffee-table books, gift books, cook books, children’s board books and picture books, etc. there are various formats that you could use – so once again see what is out there on the bookshop shelves before making a decision.
Whatever path you may come to choose in your journey towards publication, once you have a clearer idea of where you want to be and where you might actually be headed – and these two things could already be pointing to opposite directions without you even realising it – there is one fundamental rule that applies across the board: understand and respect the process and don’t rush it. The point is that rushing or trying to short circuit the critical step between finishing a book and securing the best home for it can often scupper its chances of success altogether, and that is a dreadful pity when you have worked so hard. Most self publishing companies will provide these items to you as a part of their basic services. With a few exceptions, brick and mortar bookstores will not carry your book unless it is “returnable.”  “Returnable” means that bookstores can return any unsold books for a full refund with no penalty or restocking fee.
Ask your local bookstore to carry a small quantity of your book that they can promote as written by a local author.  Let them know that your book is carried by Ingram (or Baker and Taylor) and that it is returnable. You should approach bookstores and let them know that you would like to do a book signing and what you plan to do to promote the book signing (e.g.
An award-winning journalist, American-born Melissa Siebert has covered a vast mix of stories in South Africa and abroad. 4.         Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you? My writing process…well, as I say, it could change, but for Garden of Dreams – which is forty chapters long – for the first sixteen chapters, I found I could write only four chapters at a time, no more.
5.         Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it? One of the greatest challenges about writing (especially a LONG work, like a novel) is finding or making the time to do it. 7.       When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?
Generally, I think publishers (or agents) ask for a short summary (a page or less) of the book, a bit of biographical info (particularly what else you’ve published) and several chapters – though this varies.
8.       Your work doesn’t stop after your book has been published, the next step is marketing and publicity.  What are you doing to promote your book? One has to promote one’s own book, especially without an agent (which covers a lot of South African writers).
I started a second novel some time ago, dealing with witchcraft in Limpopo and loosely linked to my own ancestors from Salem, Massachusetts, site of the 17th-century witchcraft trials and hangings.
Courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa click HERE to read an extract from Garden of Dreams. Fiona Leonard has a gypsy soul that has carried her across twenty countries on four continents. She submitted her manuscript to ‘traditional publishers’ and after failing to secure an offer she decided to self publish her novel,  In July 2011 The Chicken Thief hit the shelves. Fiona spent the next eighteen months promoting her book, and at the same time continued promoting it to mainstream publishers. I read a lot of books – novels and non-fiction – when I’m coming up with the basic idea for a novel, but I try not to read similar works when I’m actually plotting or writing because I’d hate to feel like I was absorbing other people’s work into my own.
When I’m actually at the writing stage of a novel (as opposed to plotting or editing) I aim for between one to two thousand words, six days a week. Fixing things like that usually means going back to my plotting notebooks and asking myself questions – why is the character acting in a particular way? I think there tends to be two sorts of block – one is caused by specific issues with the book and those I work through as I’ve outlined above. The other thing I should mention is that I put a lot of effort into making the book as good as I possibly could.
I think you want to give the publisher as much information as you can to demonstrate that your book will be commercially viable. Having self published already I was able to show that even with my puny efforts I was able to shift three times the average for self published works. Beyond the commercial aspects, personally, I like social media because it brings a human connection to what can often be a very solitary activity.
4.       Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you? I repeatedly make the painful mistake of letting the plot evolve organically from the characters.
5.       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it? A good pitch, in my opinion, should summarise plot, setting and main characters in an appetite-whetting sentence, expand on the main themes explored (in the case of literary fiction) and hard-sell who the novel’s targeted at and why it will jump off the shelf and grab them by the throat in Exclusives. Courtesy of Penguin Books click HERE to read an extract from Lauren’s latest novel, Cry Baby. MIKE HARDWICH is a dedicated vet who has worked with wild and domestic animals for over thirty-nine years. From first draft to the published book we, Cathy and I, probably edited the draft six times and then gave it to Pegasus who promised a professional edit. Subsequently both Cathy and I have learnt a lot and The Rhino and the Rat took only half as long to complete before we handed it to our editor, Alison Lowry, to work on. How I came to start writing is that many of these stories started as fireside tales and there was immediate general interest.
When we had finished The Lion and the Lamb we looked around for a publisher and as was to be expected we received more letters of rejection but three ‘publishers’ expressed interest. They made absolutely no effort at all as far as sales and promotion was concerned and kept saying to us that we needed to trust their tried and tested ways and that we should be patient.
They would not give us sales figures and all enquires were met with complacency and avoidance. Eventually I had no option but to break the contract based on their not keeping to their side of the bargain.
At this stage I had sold 500 copies out of my veterinary practice and we were getting interest from book-sellers but had no way of meeting these requests. The problem is however that we all want to get our books published and by this stage there was a sizable investment made. 4. Cathy Leotta helped you with writing your books – explain how the two of you worked together (especially considering that you are based in KZN and Cathy in the Cape).
I sent Cathy my scripts and initially she merely read through them and expressed an interest.
From there we got on with the work in our separate offices and would meet for three days on a monthly basis – I would fly to Cape Town and there we would get stuck in. 6. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the animal stories lead you? The planning of my books has been simply to write down the title of each chapter and then fill it. 7. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it? I enjoy writing and I am sure that I would not do anywhere near as well if I never had a very enthusiastic team. At the moment I am busy with The Green Desert – this book is extremely challenging as it is based on my farming experiences and the effects of collusion between the government of the day and the major chemical companies. My third book of memoirs, The Tiger and the Tortoise, is also underway but in a very foetal stage currently.


Click HERE to visit Mike’s blog (where he will keep you entertained with his animal stories), click HERE to like his Facebook page, click HERE to follow Mike on Twitter. His first novel, I Speak to the Silent, was published in 2004 by UKZN Press to widespread critical acclaim, and his second novel A Hill of Fools (a fabulous book) was published in April 2013 by Picador Africa. Hamilton Wende is a freelance writer and television producer based in Johannesburg. He is a prolific writer who has authored eight books (and has managed to cross the genre lines – from non-fiction, to fiction, to children’s books). Arabella, The Moon and a Magic Mongongo Nut – published in 2013, is a charming tweenie thriller about Arabella and the magic mongongo nut that changes her life and involves her in a war between the hadedas and the insects in her garden in Johannesburg. Only The Dead - A thriller set in eastern Congo and Uganda about the hunt for the mysterious General Faustin to free his army of child soldiers called the Claws of God.
A children’s picture book he wrote, The Quagga’s Secret, published by Gecko Books in Durban was selected as one of the ‘1995 South African Books of the Year’ by Jay Heale of Bookchat. He is also the co-author of a young adult novel, Msimangu’s Words, which was published by Maskew Miller Longman and was a finalist in the Young Africa Award 1992.
For a non-fiction manuscript you need a detailed proposal and a suggested chapter breakdown. For fiction you need to have finished the book and have it edited so that it is as perfect a manuscript as you can possibly make it.
I find many of the techniques are the same. The use of dialogue, setting, character, are universal.
He has been a guest on The Editors on the SABC, and has been a guest lecturer at the Department of Journalism at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, the English Department at The University of Cape Town and at The University of the Witwatersrand, at the Durban Institute of Technology and at the Cape Town Press Club, and the Muthaiga Club in Nairobi.  He has also appeared on a number of radio and television programmes including MSNBC, SABC TV, AM Live and on Radio 702. In television he has worked for a number of international networks including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, ABC (Australia), SBS (Australia), NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) Al Jazeera English and a number of others.
City Press and Tafelberg Publishers run an annual competition for writers of non-fiction work, where the winner receives R60 000 to fund the research and writing of their book.
The submissions for the 2015 City Press Non-Fiction Prize are now open, with the closing date being 30 April 2014. Sally-Ann Partridge is an author of young-adult fiction novels (she writes under the name of S.A. Her second novel Fuse was short-listed for the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize for Youth Fiction awarded by the SA English Academy and was an IBBY Honour Book in 2012. Dark Poppy’s Demise was awarded the MER Prize for Best Youth Novel, at the Media24 Literary Awards (previously the Via Afrika Awards). Her fourth novel for the young adult reader is Sharp Edges and this book will be released at the end of August ’13. I love the process of taking out reference books and making copious notes, which I constantly refer to during the writing process.
A synopsis of the story, what genre and target audience it falls under, and the full manuscript attached as a Word document.
And in June she was able to add ‘published author’ to her hat – What Hidden Lies, her debut crime novel, and winner of the 2011 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, was published by Penguin Books.
Coming from a screenwriting background I am used to rewriting draft after draft, so I’ve learned not to get attached to the peerless beauty of a sentence.
Maybe because as a screenwriter I often have to write to deadline, I think of writing as a job like any other.
I introduced myself in one paragraph, told them what I’d done in the second, and briefly described my book in the third.  It’s probably best to keep it short.
As a first time novelist I had the advantage of a certain optimistic naivete.  I had to work hard at maintaining that buoyancy, as writing can be an altogether disheartening process. Most of her career has been with Penguin Books, the company she led for 10 years until 2012.
Her career at Penguin Books began in 2001, and in the role of sales and marketing director, she has sold, marketed and publicised bestselling authors such as Jamie Oliver, Marian Keyes, Lesley Pearse, John van de Ruit, Stephenie Meyer, Clive Cussler, Patrick Holford, Alexander McCall Smith, Lauren Liebenberg and Jeff Kinney of Diary of a Wimpy Kid fame, to name but a few.
The grants are intended to provide around R20 000 – R25 000 for an author to take leave, for instance, and devote herself or himself to the writing or the preparation of a manuscript, or undertake research for purposes of completing the manuscript. There are only two criteria for eligibility: membership of ANFASA and the desire to complete the writing of a general non-fiction, educational or academic work for publication in book or journal form. The short-term objective is to provide both established and aspiring authors with the means to devote themselves to writing.
If you found yourself in an elevator with Steven Spielberg in the Four Seasons Hotel in LA and this was your one opportunity to pitch your movie idea to him, how would you do it? Publishers hear the ‘people keep telling me my life’s been so interesting it would make a great book’ speech fairly regularly and I can promise you it doesn’t make their hearts race a little faster.
It’s OK to reveal the plot in the synopsis – it’s not the same as the back cover blurb – but not in intense detail. Do this again if you get a ‘call back’, ie if the publisher or agent asks to see more material, or if you go into the office to meet with the commissioning editor. Should this happen first, before you send the manuscript off to a publisher or agent, if this is the route you are choosing to go? This is someone who is good at those things you’re not brilliant at and will go through the manuscript and fix them. You don’t want the publisher to give up the chase for that reason when the story may actually be very good and the characters compelling. But do find a professional freelancer, someone who copy edits for a living, not the smug and annoying friend who rings typos in library books and is doing you a favour in his spare time.
The answer, at least in my opinion, is definitely Yes, if you’re thinking of going it alone, and Possibly, if you’re looking at the traditional commercial publishing route.
Publishers have a reputation, too, and they will also want the book to be the best it can be once it goes out on the shelves.
A good freelancer who is established and already has a good reputation in the business, can be a significant plus.
You will want the book to be the best it can possibly be, surely, free of clumsy sentences and recurring habit phrases, and spelling of typographical errors. Whatever you decide, in the end I think it just helps to have a fresh pair of eyes, and sometimes that’s all you need. Some writers experience self-doubt all the way through, while others are assailed at regularly unwelcome intervals by that dull nagging feeling that what started out as a brilliant idea might not, ultimately, be as crisp and original and fascinating as they first supposed.
Family and friends generally love you and want you to succeed (or maybe they don’t love you and meanly want you to crash and burn), but frankly, no one cares if your mother loves your romantic saga and your pilates teacher thinks it’s “very good”. This can have the effect of throwing you back into serious self-doubt or endlessly obsessing over your grasp of punctuation and redrafting five more times. Or he will pick up a glaring error or something that is just plain factually wrong, something you’ve unforgivably overlooked even though your research has been meticulous.
They will give you a written report and a considered, professional opinion because that’s what you’re paying them to do. There comes a point when you have to let your book out of your hands to sink or swim on its own in the powerful current carrying the 150 or so other manuscripts destined for the same slush pile as yours in any given month. The synopsis that publishers and agents always ask for is more to see how well you can explain your book reasonably succinctly than anything else. If the publisher’s or agent’s requirements say submit a synopsis and three chapters, take it that they mean the first three chapters.
Even now that I am no longer in the mainstream of commercial publishing, many writers who are nearing the end of their first drafts contact me to ask for the names of publishers who might be interested in publishing their work. These days you don’t even have to leave your desk to do this – that is, if you have online access, which you do have if you’re reading this – although it might be a good idea to get out of the house and go browsing. All of them will have websites and a tab that tells you about their manuscript submission process.
Booksellers are knowledgeable people generally and they are in the business because they love books and they are readers too. Many writers, even very good ones, make the mistake of waiving this rule in their impatience or eagerness, once they begin to see the finish line in sight, to press Save and Send almost simultaneously on the day they complete a first draft of their manuscript. Make sure that you’ve done this before you even think of submitting anything “finished” to an agent or publisher. It may look self-evident or even simplistic, breaking this important point down into four questions you ought to be asking yourself, but you would be surprised by how many writers, and not only inexperienced ones, don’t do this. I say that somewhat facetiously, but it seems that many writers feel this upon completing a book: Never Again!
As my book deals with child trafficking, mainly from Nepal into India, and most of the book is set in India, and to a lesser degree Nepal, I needed current, ‘on the ground’ research as well.  I’d been to India years ago, traveling around the country from south to north over several months, but I needed to return.
Like driving in the dark with your headlights on – you can see only so many metres ahead, no further. At the start one has to grant oneself permission to do it – or I did, anyway…especially fiction, when there were no guarantees that my book would see the light of day or earn me a penny.
If you can get someone to give you a shout-out – as I did with Vikas Swarup – of course include that in your submission. I don’t use Twitter so much, but have had a lot of response to the book on Facebook, as I’ve explained in #8.
But I haven’t been able to get back up to Limpopo to do further research, so that project is on hold. She has worked as a diplomat, foreign and trade policy consultant, freelance writer, theatre producer, blogger, home schooler and author, and sometimes several of these at once. Over the next five years she picked it up and put it down again until finally, in 2010, she signed up for National Novel Writing Month with the express purpose of finishing it. Her determination paid off – at the end of 2012 she received an offer from Penguin South Africa and this month they have released The Chicken Thief. I suspect this is partly because we’re so worried we’ll be terrible, that we desperately hope the early drafts are good enough. I know the overarching story, what needs to happen by when and I have a pretty good idea of what will happen in each chapter. I usually have one central story line running through and then I layer additional plot threads over the top. The other is usually a case of being tired, or just lacking motivation, and the best solution for that is just to keep showing up, day after day. Firstly I pushed it out into the world with the help of existing contacts, particularly through Facebook.
Her debut novel, The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, published in 2008, was – to her lasting surprise – short-listed for the Orange Prize for New Writers, as well as long-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize.
Suffice it to say that the published novel bears only the faintest resemblance to the first draft of the manuscript.
Perhaps a slight exaggeration … And while I would like to claim that it’s indispensable to a “good” novel (which is true, by the way), there’s also a compulsive element to it in my case – those shelves groaning with reference works are my security blanket.
He assists whenever the need arises and has an extraordinary rapport with all living things. The latter proved a total disaster – they asked us to sign-off a copy that had blatant errors and questions we had asked them (still there, written in red!). A British company offered to publish my book, provided I doubled the length (this I never got round to doing).
I had also, as a schoolboy, won several prizes for literature – probably not based on the quality of the work but more on the story. Before getting a South African publisher, you self-published The Lion and the Lamb – what advice can you give other writers on their own self-publishing journeys? We carefully looked at all three and certainly the best offer was from Pegasus – they asked for very little from me and offered an extraordinary amount in return. Their assistance regarding editing was non-existent but we did feel that the layout was good and they did get the book published on time. I think that we have very similar views and definitely similar standards – maybe she is a little more particular than me and is definitely a huge amount neater!
Bearing in mind that I have a busy practice I found this monthly trip a very pleasant relief, although extremely demanding mentally.
Another very significant factor here is that with memoirs it is relatively easy as the stories are extremely vivid and need little, if any, researching.
As the subject was very well covered by the press I have put a lot of reliance on the paper-cuttings to get the timeline right.
My staff and family are very supportive and I have a few friends and practice clients that are helpful.
Can anyone pass by Marguerite Poland’s book Taken Captive by Birds without stopping to take a look? Even on those bad days when words don’t come I try to write something no matter how scanty or woeful.
It is just a feeling that comes during the process when you feel that you can’t possibly add anything more to the story. In 1999 it was selected by Cambridge University Press in South Africa for an anthology of South African writing. Get the character out of the room and into the woods, get the cop to shoot the criminal, get the wife to kiss her husband’s best friend.  Get the husband to catch them in the act…. The old days of editors taking on scruffy, unruly manuscripts and turning them into gold are long gone. You have written fiction, non-fiction and now a children’s book.  How do you write for such different markets?
In non-fiction you have to find out why the real characters are interesting to your readers. He is a columnist for The Star in Johannesburg and his articles have appeared in many international and South African newspapers and magazines, including National Geographic Traveler, The Chicago Tribune, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.
I think it’s having a hundred pieces of paper orbiting around my desk that makes me feel like I’m well and truly knee-deep in a book. I work full time, so the majority of what I write is written in the evenings and on the weekends or any break I can get. I tried to write one in Dark Poppy’s Demise, and then eventually rewrote the scene so that it didn’t happen.
Finish the manuscript no matter how frustrated you become half way and always, always produce at least a second draft.
At some point though, and preferably early on, I try to dispense with facts and get down to writing otherwise I lose confidence and forget to trust in the mysterious alchemy of the imagination. These usually get thrown out eventually or have changed beyond recognition by the final draft.  Because I’m indecisive and so the story is in a state of flux all the time.
Dentists and accountants have days when they don’t want to work, but they don’t have the luxury of calling it a block.  Having said that I do get stymied by problems that can go on for months. She has looked after the writing careers and published authors such as Damon Galgut, Marguerite Poland, Ceridwen Dovey, Gareth Crocker, Shaun Johnson, David Lambkin, Martinique Stilwell, Mamphela Ramphele, Greg Mills, Reuel Khoza, and John van de Ruit, among many others. Or maybe running short of funds to complete the needed research for the project?  Then AGSA may be there for you. If they can’t see the image clearly in that tiny little thumbnail in an Amazon search, then potential buyers are going to pass right over it. You have maybe twelve floors before those doors are going to open and the chances of your ever getting an audience with him again are about nil. You will have polished up your first three chapters until they’re shining like diamonds, and have your synopsis succinct and not over long.
Also try to resist claiming that your book is way better than Wilbur Smith or any of the rubbish that’s out there on the shelves or that you absolutely know this is going to be a bestseller.
It’s important that everyone – writer, agent, editor, publisher – understands expectations at the outset of a publishing relationship. But if you’re confident in your seven drafts and you just want the manuscript to be tidied up and for someone to check you on the technical stuff, then by all means get a copy editor to run through it. They’re not fussed about your over-use of adverbs, too many paragraphs in italics, or cute use of symbols to differentiate sections of text. What is this author telling you – that it’s ready to go to print and that there’s no need for the publisher to bother with wasting time on editing? If it’s been sloppily edited or proofread, this reflects on the publisher, not the author, and reviewers are sometimes quick to say so and to dismiss the book in the same breath. The chances are that the editor is someone the publisher will already know and may routinely use. There’s nothing less appealing than a book that looks unprofessionally published, on whatever platform it’s showcased, and most readers are alienated by this and by typos as they trip over them.


It can be especially debilitating and bewildering when self-doubt sets in when you think you’re done. In any event try to pick someone you believe can be objective and honest and will give you a frank opinion. At the very least these things can jar and, at worst, jeopardise your authority as the writer and call into question the integrity of the whole book. Still, do check the publisher’s or agent’s requirements on their website or wherever you’ve accessed their details, and do what they say. These things ought to be self-evident, but having been at the receiving end of manuscript submissions, they’re worth noting again. And just because your laptop came with 35 new fonts doesn’t mean you should try them all out at once.
Personally, if the writing in the first three chapters doesn’t hold my attention, it’s unlikely that your synopsis is going to make me want to read them again. Don’t send Chapters 3, 4 and 7 “because that’s when the story really gets interesting” and you were into the swing of the writing by then. And when I listen closely and then suggest a couple of names of houses who could be receptive, they come back to me and ask for contact details or phone numbers. It will also clearly explain the kind of books they routinely publish and the kind of books they don’t. There’s something sobering yet exhilarating, if not a little daunting, about being surrounded physically by hard copies of the hundreds of books on shelves and front of store tables that have been released in a given month, but if you’re serious about writing, you’d better face up to it. So in early 2011 I returned to India – journeying to the places I knew were going to be in the book (Rajasthan, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi) – and went to Nepal for the first time, again targeting places where the novel would transpire (mainly Kathmandu, the capital, and Chitwan National Park, the jungle along the border with India).
Once you advance, you can see the same distance ahead again…But, as I prepared to start Chapter 17, I sat down and wrote out a plot outline for the remaining twenty-four chapters, all in one afternoon (a paragraph on each chapter).
Having written hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, I don’t have a problem writing – ‘writer’s block’ doesn’t afflict me.
It’s more – ‘I don’t feel like writing right now’, or ‘the story hasn’t clarified in my mind yet, it will come’…I don’t want to beat myself up about it. And your query letter needs to show that you’ve researched what kind of books they publish, or represent (in the case of agents).
I’m still learning the ropes, though, in terms of getting the most out of social media for book promotion. I also seem to spend a lot of time researching details – like what a ring might look like or what music would have been relevant for a particular period. I had incredible support from friends and family who read the book and then shared it with their friends.
It’s hard enough to sell a self published book in the first place without giving people something that’s poor quality. Her second novel, The West Rand Jive Cats’ Boxing Club, was published in 2011, also to international acclaim.
At the same time, you need to take a great deal of rejection and criticism – not all of which should be deflected. That sent us back to the drawing board but when we then finished it we told them NOT to change a single thing! Then, after many, many years, Cathy contacted me and mentioned that her daughter Joanne was a journalist and the dusty files were taken from the bottom drawer, sent to Cathy and the entire process started. This is very different to a book Cathy and I are now busy with – The Green Desert – this is a story of the effects of agricultural chemicals and is extremely exacting as it needs be readable but factually correct.
Once I have the heading the stories just roll out and often one has to put on the brakes a little as one tends to get carried away. Further, I know that in having Cathy, a retired scientist, the possibility of me making scientific mistakes is greatly reduced and that she will check anything that she feels may be controversial. With the previous publisher one was pushing a piece of string and unfortunately the journey was uphill! These are cycles of work that every worker, whether a writer or a nurse in a hospital, has to confront. This is when I submit the story to the publishers with a synopsis and a list of all the characters. You have to be the best editor you can be and, if possible, find someone to look over it for you.
Once I’ve completed a first draft, I print out the entire book and go through each line with a red pen, making notes where I think I can add more in or take out scenes that don’t work, pick up spelling mistakes and cliches and fix as many continuity errors as I can.
If I’m busy writing a story and it’s really flowing I can usually write about three to five thousand words in one sitting or more. Personally, I’d rather not force myself to write and to produce output for the sake of producing output. I’m less concerned with trying to perfect phrases, and more about building a strong narrative paragraph by paragraph in as clear and lucid a way as possible.
I think that if you waffle in your letter, publishers will tend to assume that your book is going to waffle. Three minutes tops, and he has his eyes fixed on the changing numbers above the door (he’s heard about the elevator pitch too), so what’s going to grab his attention?
The synopsis will be headed by your elevator pitch, five intriguing lines that will make an agent take notice and read on.
If you’re writing non-fiction, however, particularly in an area of specialisation or competition, do list your credentials. Steer clear of suggesting who might play your main character in the movie (this is especially a no go area if you’re in the elevator with Spielberg).
Every writer’s needs are different at different stages of the writing process, and where one manuscript might benefit from a certain kind of editing at what might feel like the end of the journey to the author, another could need something else entirely. Or that you’re in a real hurry to see your book in print and have already planned the launch function? There are freelancers who only take commissions from publishers and not direct from individual authors, so check this out, too, when you’re doing your research. You have drafted and redrafted and scoured and examined your cunning plot line, and dealt with the characters who felt undeveloped, but still … is it actually any good? The friend who was fabulous at English at school and always picks up spelling mistakes in books may not be the critical, dispassionate, intelligent eye that will be helpful to you now either. If you don’t have anyone you know who fits this bill, an option is to engage a good professional reader to do this for you for a fee. Occasionally, a writer simply doesn’t have access to technology and while this might present a difficulty or a chance of not being taken seriously, if you explain the circumstances, you ought to get as fair a reading as anyone else.
No matter how carefully you have input the manuscript in Word and might have done clever things with dropped caps and spacing, once the book gets to the production department, the look and feel is probably going to be different to suit the format the publisher decides is best for the book. If your first three chapters don’t grab the publisher, they’re probably not going to grab anyone else either so they’d never have got to Chapter 7 anyway. The chances are that whether you have been writing your novel intensely for only six months or have laboured long and hard on the last section for the last four years, you are going to be very close to the book.
I am usually more than happy to help if I can, but what the latter question indicates to me is a lazy lack of effort and a diffidence that isn’t going to get them very far.
In a small market like South Africa, it is unusual for a publisher to specialise in a certain area – for example, publish only cookbooks – so most will offer a fairly broad range of fiction and non-fiction. But I have to say, when I set out to write a novel for the first time, I felt almost paralyzed by a couple of things. I believe that if a good story is going to emerge, I’ll recognize when it’s time to ‘midwife’ it…(ie write it).
So, I have more recently begun something of a memoir, dealing with how women, as they age, grow ‘invisible’ – the book is a claim on the sensuality of youth, I guess you could say, its vitality and visibility…and in my case, wild adventures in Egypt, Palestine-Israel, and South Africa. If that doesn’t work then I go and read totally unrelated novels, and I watch movies, and I exercise and stare into space with the story churning in my head and usually something pops up.
The good news is that the ego-bruising ordeal of getting into print will stand you in excellent stead for bad reviews, (which are like eavesdropping on a conversation about yourself in the smoke-room, in which everyone agrees that you suck)! In addition they have three companies and as a ‘first’ timer we had to start on the lowest rung and then they offered upgrading, dependent on sales. However, I do feel that public awareness is growing rapidly and people are not just accepting their positions. Certainly not ‘People keep telling me my life’s been so interesting it would make a great movie …’ He’ll have pressed the button for the next floor in a heartbeat and you won’t see him for carpet mites. For example, if your book is about post-traumatic stress disorder in conflict areas of Africa, it would be important to know how come you’re qualified to write about this.
Some of the ‘rubbish’ that’s out there on the shelves has probably been agented or published by the same publisher you’re bragging to and that’s not a good start to a relationship. Your own expectations will be optimistic, even confident; the publisher’s might appear conservative in your eyes. Different editors have different skills, too, and some specialise in working on fiction or non-fiction so my advice would be to have a good sense of what you believe you need before you engage one. They are looking through to the core of the book, what it’s saying and whether it’s doing it well. There are a number of professional readers who offer this service to writers and to publishers, just as there are a number of freelance editors who will give you different kinds of editorial help. It’s a tough world out there and you need to equip yourself to weather a few slings and arrows. The names on those glossy hopeful covers will be your competitors for a reader’s hard earned cash.
They know all the publishers because their sales reps call on them every month to talk them through what’s new and what’s coming up.
And if you can’t take your work seriously and really think the process through for yourself, why on earth should you expect anyone else to take your work seriously, from publisher to reader? That’s vital, I think – to have reliable, supportive yet critical, readers of the first draft. I never fully believed what writers said about their characters coming to life and ‘taking over’, calling the shots, but that is pretty much what happened. One was the length: around 100,000 words, a sustained story – when my journalistic pieces had been around 2000-5000 words max. But I may fictionalize all of it, work it into a novel…how is not clear to me yet…but there are many stories within the story. To put it in context, after working on it for four years, in the last six months before self publishing I had it professionally edited and at least four other people read drafts and all gave detailed notes.
I then rewrite the manuscript and apply the changes, then repeat the process until I’m one hundred percent comfortable submitting the book to a publisher.  If there are long lead times between deadlines I’ll ask a friend to read the novel and make changes according to their feedback. You can never really do enough research, especially if you’re writing about a subject you’re not completely familiar with.
I try writing short stories, or working on another book, or going for a swim or a walk to clear my head. The publisher should immediately understand why your view and your book in this field might be a valuable contribution.
All this is doing is telling the publisher that at best you are insecure, have delusions, and don’t know very much about publishing or bookselling; at worst that you are arrogant, dismissive and disrespectful of other authors who have worked just as hard, if not harder, than you have to get where they are.
The closer you can draw the two together will make for a stronger working relationship going forward. Is there something original here, a gripping narrative or a literary read that takes your breath away?
The local industry doesn’t have a very big pool of editors and the good ones are always kept busy. This is part of the publishing process, not yours – yours is the writing and rewriting process. Their websites are usually clear about what they don’t publish – poetry or plays, for instance.
If you write crime fiction, you will be competing with every other crime novel out there for sales and space.
When Penguin SA offered to publish, as per usual I was assigned an editor – Jenefer Shute – and I was lucky in this regard as well; Jenny and I had a fantastic working relationship even though she was mandated to cut the book quite radically (and we were both skeptical, feeling the book had little ‘fat’). Road – the red-light district where many trafficked kids end up – I interviewed pimps and prostitutes. After sixteen chapters, my characters were ‘alive’ enough to guide me in plotting out the rest of the book. Sometimes a publisher will ask me to rewrite based on feedback they received from a reader’s report, other times the major rewriting work comes in once an editor has been through the manuscript. That’s what they’re looking for, that elusive spark of originality or an angle on a topic that is fresh and intriguing.
Mostly, publishers will be helpful – it’s in their interest as much as yours to find that gem glinting brightly in the slush pile.
A word of advice to those undergoing ‘the knife’ (such a big cut, 11,000 words in my book’s case) for the first time: if you trust the editor, close your eyes and don’t look back, ie read through the edited version, see if it works, without checking back with your original (or cross-checking as little as possible). The best thing about having gone through that process though is that I don’t take edits personally any more.
I always make notes in my own words, and then ensure it forms part of the manuscript naturally, rather than just inserting it in. The book I am writing now begins during Earth Hour, and features disappearances that happen when the city turns off its lights and is plunged into darkness.  The story unfolds over autumn, a melancholy time, when people are sombre and inward looking.
I have no idea why I torment myself by writing mysteries and crime fiction as the form increases these challenges a thousand fold. And the good freelance editors, like the professional readers and copy editors, want to work on books where they see potential. A good idea is to filter your search through an organisation like PEG (Professional Editors’ Group). You need a neutral reader, not someone who will feel awkward about telling you that they didn’t enjoy the book.
How is your book going to be different, or “better” and how will you pitch it to the publisher you’re hoping to interest in taking it on?
Because I’m a journalist, I would really advocate this kind of research – firsthand – probably for almost any book one is writing. Luckily, the characters do kick in and start bringing some shape and structure and delineation to the book, containing it somewhat – and the process becomes less frightening.
It’s also a time of introspection and darkness for Persy Jonas, the young detective who drives the story. Frankly, it’s more interesting and rewarding for them and it’s also good for their CVs and professional reputations to be able to say “I worked with Bess T Selling on all her crime novels,” for example, but less useful for them to record working with unknown authors whose books were never going to have a hope of seeing the light of day with a St Martin’s Press logo on the spine. Try to find someone whose opinion you value and trust, or someone who doesn’t know you and will do this for you professionally. Make a note of which publishers’ books are prominently on the shelves and which local authors are being showcased.
Both Jenny and I, and luckily Penguin, were happy with the edit in the end, as it made the book leaner, more powerful. Probably most of them, though, end up shuffling chapters around, and even dropping a chapter or two.
Good freelance editors want to keep working and mostly they don’t want to work on books that might never be very good, despite their own skills being brought to bear on the manuscript. When you go home, find those books and authors on line and see whether they and their books have websites or Facebook pages. So aside from interviewing counter-traffickers, I read a lot of UN and other humanitarian reports on the issue. I overcame these challenges by just getting on with it (like taking a deep breath and diving in the deep end)…and, as I say, my characters came to my rescue.



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