I’ve moved this blog to The Write Place and I’d love you to pop over and see what I’m up to there.
I own about 300 books on writing, including the much-touted “On Writing” by Stephen King, but “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long is the single book that belongs on every writer’s bookshelf. While Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, and Julia Cameron talk about the head-stuff of writing, Priscilla Long talks about the actual nuts and bolts that are required in a writer’s toolbox. There are no gimmicks in her book either. This is a practical text-book, if you will, about how to become a craftsman. After all, that’s what a writer should aim to be – a craftsman. It’s suitable for the novice writer and the advanced writer because the skills that Long suggests writers need are applicable at whatever stage a writer happens to be at.
Long discusses the importance of reading, and while all readers read, virtuoso writers re-read. Long guides readers through reading to develop craft. It is only when we learn to dismantle great stories that we find the tools that will develop our own stories. Long’s style is accessible and the advice she offers is practical and enormously helpful.
The importance of grammar is given an ample amount of attention. Sentence types are elucidated upon to improve a writer’s range of skill in sentence structure. The importance of metaphor and simile are explained. Long has a knack of making the reader want to immediately pick up a pen and start practicing. Which brings me to practice.
Long promotes writing practice, after all, writers write, and Long suggests keeping a writing practice notebook where all that practice takes place. That’s nothing new, you say. You’re right, it isn’t new. Dorothea Brande promoted practice pages/morning pages in the 1930s, long before Julia Cameron came along with The Artist’s Way. What is new, is that Long doesn’t want the writing practice sessions to stay in the notebook, she wants them to be purposeful at the outset, and then for them to be transcribed into the appropriate project at the end of the writing session. Long encourages writers not only to write, but to write with the intention of publication, and her proposed strategy elevates the practice of writing practice.
The Writer’s Portable Mentor is one of those books you won’t take off your desk. When you’re stuck, you’ll return to it again and again to seek out one of Long’s practical suggestions to assist you. If you read only one book on writing craft, this should be it.
1. Pamela Newham, “A natural combination”
2. Joanne Fedler, “Bedrock”
3. Lauri Kubuitsile, “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” (BOTSWANA)
4. Melissa Gardner – “In sickness”
5. Rumbi Katedza, “The Corpse” (ZIMBABWE)
6. Anne Woodborne, “The quilt of wife-beating crimes”
7. Sarah Lotz, “Heaven or something like it”
8. Jayne Bauling. “Stains like a map”
9. Gothataone Moeng, “Lie Still Heart” (BOTSWANA)
10. Joanne Hichens – title still to be decided
11. Jeanne Hromnik – title still to be decided
12. Arja Salafranca, “Desire without borders”
13. Sylvia Schlettwein, “To own a bed” (NAMIBIA)
14. Liesl Jobson, “On a broomstick”
15. Karabo Moleke, “Nompumelelo’s Sinxoto’s Bed”
16. Margot Saffer, “Imagining Monsters”
17. Megan Ross, “Finding a mother”
18. Ellen Banda-Aaku, “Made of Mukwa” (ZAMBIA)
19. Isabella Morris, “The Outsider”
20. Novuyo Tshuma, “Ikej” (ZIMBABWE)
21. Romaine Hill, “Every Picture Tells”
22. Marina Chichava, “Sleeping Through Heartbreak” (MOZAMBIQUE)
23. Erika Coetzee, “How to Improvise”
24. Bronwyn McLennan, “Portrait of a woman in bed”
25. Claudie Muchindu, “Wings on Indi’s Pillow” (ZAMBIA)
26. Nia Magoulianiti McGregor, “Hunters and lovers”
27. Tinashe Chidyausika, “Fools Gold” (ZIMBABWE)
28. Rose Richards, “Mary Mary”
29. Luso Katali Mnthali, “A requiem for Daniel” (MALAWI)
30. Helen Walne, “Crazy”
31. Rosemund Handler, “Lena My Lovely”
Published by Modjaji Books.
Compiled by Lauri Kubuitsile; edited by Joanne Hichens.
I’m really pleased to be attending this residency. It’s my first residency and I’m looking forward to engaging with writers from other parts of the world, and having a full month to just write without the distractions of daily life. I am grateful to my family for agreeing to live without me for a month 🙂
“El Gouna is a unique fully developed town on the Red Sea, acknowledged for preserving local traditions and culture throughout its 20-year existence. This can be seen through its multicultural living community, international school, international university campus, church, mosque, museum and all other locations where residents can encounter traditional Egyptian architecture, and customs.
A few years ago, El Gouna celebrated the opening of El Gouna Library, a branch of world renowned Bibliotheca Alexandrina and home to one of Egypt’s six “Culturamas”.
Aiming to expand our efforts in cultural enrichment and hoping to make El Gouna a platform for literary exchange, El Gouna offers the first Writers’ Residency Program in the MENA region intended to provide writers with a wide variety of exciting and inspiring life experiences to feed their art and help develop valuable projects.”
I remember standing in a bank queue with my two youngest children when they were about six and seven years old. The queue was long and there was an elderly man standing in front of us; I can still smell the grease in his hair and see the dandruff embedded on the neck of his brown jersey; he turned to me and we had a conversation about his war experiences. In no time at all, it seemed, we’d reached the front of the queue; the electronic board above the teller station beeped and the man proceeded to Teller 5. My son tugged my sleeve and I looked down at his earnest blue eyes. “Do you know that man, mommy?” He asked; I had to admit that I didn’t. My children were perplexed that a stranger would share his story with me and as explanation I told them that my mother had said I would always hear the life-stories of people because I had a face that strangers trust. I now know that if I don’t want to hear every stranger’s life-story, I follow my husband’s advice and avoid eye contact.
Seeds of story are scattered everywhere and often I scribble down a word or a phrase or impressions in my notebook that I overhear or observe. Goldie stood sobbing in her bare feet, wrapped in a pink gown at a phone booth in a hospital waiting area. Natalia confided how her sister wouldn’t eat broken food – crumbs of crisps or biscuits. Michelle told me she was heartbroken when her next door neighbour stopped playing with her; Michelle’s mother tried to cheer her up by saying, “You’ll be friends again once she’s stopped being Jesus’ new best friend.” Carrington told me how he spent a summer in Harare converting the school playground into a golf-course and how thirty boys played golf with one broken golf club. Each of these incidents are seeds that I have been able to use as starters for my short stories.
Other stories are delivered to me – sometimes with the written permission from people to tell them. An immigrant wants me to expose corruption at a world-renowned medical training institution. It is an alleged tale of academic corruption, mining-bosses, xenophobia and American spies. A lady once phoned to say that she had the solution for South Africa’s political problems – God had given it to her – and she wanted to relay the solution to Thabo Mbeki who was the South African president at the time. There are of course legitimate people who contact me from time to time, and after deciding not to take on their stories, I have, with their permission, passed them on to colleagues who were more inclined to their stories, or who had the necessary expertise to write them.
There are stories that I know would be delightful to use as the foundation for my own short stories, but I have chosen not tell them and the reasons vary. These stories are usually very intimate and while they would offer great scenes for my fiction, my friends would recognise themselves in an instant.
It would appear then that I sometimes feel conflicted about what I do and what I don’t write. I guess I don’t want to be a peddlar of someone else’s pain. I can write about painful issues, but I can’t insert the real stories of friends and family because then it would cause pain for them. That said, I do admit to having included personal impressions in some stories or articles that have hurt some of the people I love and I’ve had to apologise for that. Choosing what to write then is quite a delicate balancing act. Yes, writers should be able to write uncensored, but then they must be prepared to pay the price of that choice.
At present I’m writing an inspirational biography. I was genuinely surprised that I was awarded the contract because I had researched and written a paper on biography during my masters degree, and I had been quite turned off the genre because it is such a contested genre and there are too many agendas to be served – at least the writer’s and the subject’s. The only reason I agreed to write the biography was because it is not intended to be sensational – I don’t want to dish up dirt on anyone. I’m writing the biography because the intention is to serve as an inspiration to youth who badly need role models and hope for a future that they might not be that hopeful about. That said, it will not be a sanitised piece. The hardships and the experiences of the subject will be discussed, but not in the Hollywood-Tell-All exposé way.
One of the major issues for writers is that of making choices. We all have to do it, and we all make different choices and these choices result in a wonderful diversity for readers.
(Image: The Storyteller 2 – produced here with permission by the artist Jamie Winter)
Your bathroom at home has miniature-sized everything – shampoo, body lotion, soap.
You spend half an hour going through your dressing table at home trying to find the room service menu.
You speak in hushed tones when you walk down your passage at home.
You ask your housekeeper what else is on the menu for dinner.
You forget you have a car parked in the garage and phone for a taxi.
You dial 9 hoping to book an early wake-up call.
Every inch in your handbag is accounted for.
You go to the bookshop and head straight for the travel guides.
The rotator cuffs in your shoulder are stuffed from lugging heavy wheelie bags through airports.
Roam on / Roam off is no. 2 on the speed dial of your mobile phone.
The constant concern in your life is how many pages you have got left in your passport for foreign visa requirements.
You wear three watches – New York, London, Johannesburg.
Your wallet carries US Dollars, Egyptian Pounds, Euros and Thai Baht, but you have no Rands to pay the local car-guard.
You phone your friends and they say, “Isabella who? God, I thought you’d fallen off the face of the earth!”
New years are notorious for setting up people for failure, and writers are no different. A new year is a blank canvas waiting for you to fill in the colours of your aspirations, but it is easy to get carried away. With eagerness you allow the colours to swirl into each other so that instead of having a clear picture of what you’re hoping for, you end up with a chaotic picture full of muddy colours that have bled out your pure intentions.
There are a myriad of resources to consult in order to design a writing plan and books such as Maisel’s Coaching the Artist Within and Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach can also get you upright at your desk with ideas about how to best approach this business of writing. But there are some basics that you don’t need a book to tell you about. Trust me, this I know after years and years of making plans, or should I say, setting up the traps of self-sabotage.
Firstly, spend some time thinking about what you want to achieve as a writer. Do you want to be a novelist or a environmental journalist? You need to have your mind firmly set as to what it is you want to achieve. To establish a career as a writer, you can’t be a jack-of-all-trades. Case in point: I decided to go to the Richmond Book Fair. I approached a local newspaper to do an article on the fair, but the books editor didn’t want a general piece on the fair, she wanted a review on one of the books being launched at the fair. Interviewing the writer and going to the launch took all my energy away from the fair itself, and it took another two to three weeks of reading the book and writing the review. I am not a review writer, I don’t want to be one, I shouldn’t have agreed to do it! The review was okay, even if the editor didn’t like it, and yet it was a colossal waste of time and energy. Time and energy that would have been put to much better use at the writing projects that I’m committed to and passionate about.
Secondly, take some time to plan out blocks of time to devote to the writing projects that you’ve chosen to do. If you are aware of deadline dates for short story competitions or for novel chapters, then you’ve got an idea of the amount of time you need to allocate to achieving each one of the projects.
Thirdly, don’t set yourself up for failure. If you’re writing erotic science-fiction short stories, don’t send them to You magazine for consideration. Don’t send a non-fiction book proposal to a poetry publisher. You must identify your markets so that your writing has the best chance of succeeding. Also, don’t over-extend yourself. If you’re a part-time writer, then your output is going to be considerably less than a full-time writer, so try not to be over-ambitious. Be realistic – the amount of time you have will usually determine how much you can achieve.
Fourthly, write. I am amazed at how many people consider themselves to be writers, but don’t actually write. They either read about writing or they have ideas in their heads! Neither will get you published. To be a writer you have to write – I believe every day, but you may disagree. However, if you’re not putting words on a page you cannot be a writer. Writers write, it’s that simple. And the more you write, the easier it gets.
Finally, if you don’t have the luxury of being able to share your writing with anyone, invest in Peter Elbow’s book, Writing without Teachers.
I watched a pig die. There are proponents for this event, mainly foodies like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay who believe that you should actually witness the death of the animal you’re so fond of eating so that you fully appreciate the origins of that succulent meat dish. It wasn’t gastronimic ethics that sent me to the pig farm, but literary authenticity and I am afraid that I will now have to include a note in my novel that says, One Animal Died in the Writing of this Book. One of the main settings in my novel is a pig abattoir in Spain. Since I’ve never been to Spain and I’ve never been to a pig abattoir, authenticity concerned me somewhat. I wanted to visit a pig farm or an abattoir, but just hadn’t managed to find one.
If there is a national dish in Bali, then it’s Babi Guling – roast suckling pig. Nasi goreng’s there too, but that’s a more generalised Indonesian national dish. Suckling pig is what most Balinese regard as their best food. It struck me that a Balinese restaurateur friend of mine might know where there was a pig farm for me to visit. So on a recent visit to the small island, I asked Budi if he could point me in the right direction. He looked at me, his eyes narrowed as he contemplated my motivation. His English is good, and my Balinese is non-existent. “My father killed a pig for my wedding, my Japanese wife trembled and wept at the sound of the pig screaming as it died. She had nightmares for months,” he said. Perhaps I would have been less inclined to persist if Budi didn’t say ‘fig’ instead of ‘pig’, so while he was remembering the slaughter of a pig, I had the image of a fig. When he was convinced that I might be less sensitive than his wife, he nodded. “I will escort you,” he said and made a phone call. I love having friends who just have to make a phone call.
The following day we were escorted to “Kak Nagi” in Jimbaran, where the pig farmer and Budi’s chef awaited us. The farm was situated in a grove of ramshackle houses; the shed and outbuildings appeared to be in the same dishevelled state as the house to which they were attached; this farm certainly didn’t have an Old McDonald’s vibe about it, even with the rooster who scratched about in the dirt.
I was invited to choose the pig. As I was led over to the low walled pens, the smell hit me; the pigsties were spotless but the smell is embedded in the place. A pigsty smells like concentrated lime-green acid shit; it is the most curdling onslaught against one’s olfactory sense. Huddled in the first dark cement sty were the four-month old pigs, in the second sty the cutest pink piglets snuffled about happily and I pointed at a sweet little pig then quickly withdrew my hand, forgetting that my pointed finger relegated one of the friendly fellows to their death. We returned to the four-month olds. It was a moral- and existential-challenging moment; choosing an animal that I knew would die. As the pig owner and his daughter climbed into the sty to remove the pig I pointed at, I looked at each one of the other piglets trying to hide behind the other, and then one looked at me as he darted behind the rest of his brothers and sisters. I knew in the moment when the young woman grabbed hold of the shiny eyed little fellow that every single human being is capable of killing, myself included. My husband had tried to assure me that each of the pigs at the farm were destined for the spit, that they would all die irrespective of whether I backed down or not. I haven’t yet come to terms with my decision not to back down.
As soon as the pig was grabbed up by its back leg it began to scream. The girl was swift; she slung it over the low wall and onto the cement floor…. The process from start – removing the pig from the pen – to finish – putting the pig on to the stake – takes no more than twenty minutes. It is possible to discern the time of death – light leaves the eyes.
Is it necessary to have had the experience before writing about it? Many writers write some scenes sight-unseen, such as our own Nobel laureate J M Coetzee; he admitted that he had never visited St Petersburg prior to writing about it, and would not have been able to do so if he had! Prior to writing the pig farm scene, I had vague recollections of watching rams being castrated on a farm in KZN and the closest death experiences I had were seeing my late father shortly after his death, and more recently watching the cremation of a stranger. I didn’t really want to experience anything more disturbing than those two incidents; the cremation is a visual memory that persists and I will never be able to erase the dead woman’s name from my mind. Describing the mechanics of a disturbing sight is do-able, but describing the emotions requires first accessing them in their raw state.
What responsibility does a writer have, to really know what they’re writing about? When one visits a place one gets an overall impression of a place – is this overall impression enough or does the writer (and reader) require more? Can you write about what it feels like to be strangled if you’ve never experienced it?
Through my own experience at the abattoir I discovered that shit is a chemical smell, that eyes are, indisputably, the window of life, that pig skin is white not pink, that it is possible to do things you never, ever imagined yourself capable of, and, that I will never again write without knowing.
I’ve just read a book in which the author mentions Harry Potter in a novel set in the 70s and 80s. Definitely a throw-book-against-wall moment. It’s a sloppy slip up, it shouldn’t have happened, yet it is so easy for these type of inaccuracies to occur during writing.
When I was writing my own novel I wanted to have a certain character singing the Spanish anthem and I wrote an impressive emotional scene around this grave patriotic moment. When I was revising the novel, I took off my lovely, floppy, creative hat and donned the grim beret I wear as editor and when I went to download the lyrics of the anthem to insert into the manuscript, I discovered to my absolute horror that the Spanish anthem is a a march without any words at all.
So these slip-ups happen to all of us. The best way to avoid them is to do as much preliminary research as possible, to get your facts right before you start writing.
The Spanish parliament is keen to remedy their wordless anthem – they’ve held lyric competitions, Placido Domingo wants to be the first person to officially record it and Alejandro Blanco, president of the Spanish Olympic Committee, is desperate to see the lyric dilemma settled in time for Madrid’s bid to host the 2016 games. And, in spite of my petition to Spanish Parliament to settle this asap to avoid a major rewrite in my own novel, the Spaniards still hum when their anthem is played. So, a rewriting I will have to go.
Having work accepted in a literary magazine is a big deal for a writer, it means that something you’ve been working on has found a home and won’t be relegated to the homeless drawer. It is frustrating then that once work has been accepted, some literary magazines don’t ever make contact again.
I submitted a poem to Botsotso and it was accepted and the editor asked for more. I sent more. I waited a year – no publication and no contact. I accept that funding is a problem, but then the editor needs to be upfront about this situation and say, “Your poems might only be published in a year’s time.” This knowledge will give me the option to decide whether or not the poem has the lifespan to wait or whether I want to submit to another magazine.
I was informed that SA Dept of Arts & Culture were sponsoring a new SA literary journal to be edited by Prof. Oliphant of UNISA. I submitted a poem and a literary essay and both were accepted, March being given as the publishing date. I emailed the editor to provide details of publication and where the publication could be purchased, but to date I have had no response.
I provided another new publication with a literary essay and it was accepted. Then I was told that it wouldn’t appear in the print issue but rather as a parallel article online. I accepted the change in publication and agreed to write some reviews for the same publication. To date the literary essay has not been published online, despite the editor’s reassurance that it is on the website!
I think it’s time that South African writers stood their ground and were more demanding of these editors, if they hold themselves out to be a market for writers then they must deliver. If they insist that they are looking for new writers and new writing then they must woo the new writers instead of publishing names that they feel will lend their publication stability. Without new writers the literary magazines will not last.
New writing is about taking risks and new publications should take this into account. South African writing is characterised by writers who have never been afraid to give voice to the unpopular. By serving up safe writing by middle of the road writers local editors are failing to contribute to the tradition of excellent SA writing.