You Can’t Stop Water… or Ashy Clouds

The focus of the London Book Fair this year is on South Africa. The Department of Arts & Culture duly arranged to send several South African writers to the fair to showcase the versatile literary talent that exists in our country. Local publisher Colleen Higgs has spent months preparing to take her modest yet active publishing company Modjaji Books to the fair. Among the local writers with their air tickets in hand are Fiona Snyckers, Liesl Jobson and Etienne van Heerden, but the plot hasn’t quite gone according to plan and their hopes of getting to London have been dulled by the untimely ash cloud that spewed forth from a volcano in Iceland.

Ah, the best laid plans of man are similar to the best laid plans of writers; I’m referring to structure. I recently had the good fortune to be contacted by a literary agent who had read my short story Bluette in the New Writing From Africa 2009 anthology and wanted to read some of my other work. I sent her the manuscript of a novel and received… well, second prize. While she enjoyed reading my stories, and felt that I had an engaging style, she did have a major concern with the structure. My husband was devastated that I didn’t get first prize, but I was thrilled at the agent’s comments. She engaged with me, discussed some tricky aspects of writing that I have so longed to discuss with someone; I replied and she agreed to read the synopsis and first three chapters of the book that I will start writing in June when I attend the El Gouna Writers Residency in Egypt.

But let’s return to structure. I could validate my reasons for choosing the structure I employed, and while the agent understood my reasons for doing so, she felt that what was most important was to just let the story be what it is, that writers don’t need to ‘clear space’ for issues or themes, they will come through in the telling of the story.

I have spent years studying the craft of stories, the nuts and bolts and how they all fit together, but instead of allowing the story to develop organically, I had become too focussed on technique. I was so anxious to get it right, that I’d got it wrong.

Story is innate in all of us, we tell our families and friends the stories of our lives every day, and we don’t have to think about how we’re going to frame the story, it bubbles forth naturally. So, while my dear writer friends try to get to the LBF and sip bubbly (and I hope that they do), I’m going to be bubbling forth, allowing the little streams of ideas to find their way into the main body of water where they’ll find their own depth.


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