Author Corner – Melissa Siebert

An award-winning journalist, American-born Melissa Siebert has covered a vast mix of stories in South Africa and abroad. She’s been based in Cape Town for most of the last twenty-five years, working for various local publications; co-running Ubuntu Productions, a documentary company; and co-directing the Media Peace Centre, an NGO that develops media projects to help manage and transform conflict. She has also taught journalism at UCT and writing at Harvard. Garden of Dreams is her first novel.

Garden of Dreams is my first novel, so the process may change if I ever write another one. I say that somewhat facetiously, but it seems that many writers feel this upon completing a book: Never Again! It is more work than one could ever imagine, a huge investment of time, energy, imagination, self… – MELISSA SIEBERT

1.         From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

I edit slightly as I go along, not much. Better to let it flow, if it can. Upon finishing the first draft of Garden of Dreams, I handed it over to my trusted, discerning readers, Joanne Hichens and Michele Rowe, and then revised/edited according to their comments. Both women are wonderful writers, good friends, and great critics, so I was lucky to have their wisdom/advice. That’s vital, I think – to have reliable, supportive yet critical, readers of the first draft. 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’). 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). Save yourself the torment. Both Jenny and I, and luckily Penguin, were happy with the edit in the end, as it made the book leaner, more powerful.

2.       What research did you do for Garden of Dreams?

I researched my book a lot…both through secondary sources (online, mainly) and firsthand. 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. 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). Aside from observing the details that help evoke place in these countries (what people smoke; how they dress; the street food; the language/way people speak; the music playing; the spiritual/religious artifacts and rituals etc), I interviewed many people – mainly people working in counter-trafficking in Nepal. In Delhi, on G.B. Road – the red-light district where many trafficked kids end up – I interviewed pimps and prostitutes. I’m a journalist, by the way, so this wasn’t too out of line for me. Because I’m a journalist, I would really advocate this kind of research – firsthand – probably for almost any book one is writing. Place is important to me, and I wanted my book to transport people to India and Nepal (and, in one chapter, to the beach in Kommetjie/Cape Town), a huge part of that ‘transport’ being what I hoped were authentic characters inhabiting those landscapes. (Vikas Swarup, who read the book early on, kindly said I had ‘captured India’ – and that made my day, year etc!) I also wanted to get the ‘facts’ right in terms of trafficking. So aside from interviewing counter-traffickers, I read a lot of UN and other humanitarian reports on the issue.

3.         How many words do you write, on average, per day?

I’m very erratic. Some days I write more than 1000 words, other days I don’t write at all. This year I’ve got a 17 year-old son in matric, so that explains a lot! Exams exams exams exams…and frenzy! (No writing…)

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. Like driving in the dark with your headlights on – you can see only so many metres ahead, no further. 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). It was like an epiphany, really. 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. After sixteen chapters, my characters were ‘alive’ enough to guide me in plotting out the rest of the book. Magic! I think every writer is different, though, in terms of process. Probably most of them, though, end up shuffling chapters around, and even dropping a chapter or two.

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. 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. Having written hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, I don’t have a problem writing – ‘writer’s block’ doesn’t afflict me. 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. One was the length: around 100,000 words, a sustained story – when my journalistic pieces had been around 2000-5000 words max. That was terrifying, the ‘long run’.  Also the infinity of fiction scared me – with journalism (feature writing I’m talking about), one interviews/researches/reports and ends up with more or less a finite amount of data from which to construct a story (and usually a fairly imminent deadline, which limits the story as well). But with fiction – all is fair game. 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. The choices diminish. Which is a huge relief! 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.

6.       What do you do when you have writer’s block?

I don’t have writer’s block. I don’t even like to think of it like that. 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. I believe that if a good story is going to emerge, I’ll recognize when it’s time to ‘midwife’ it…(ie write it). It helps that I am not counting on earning a living from writing fiction…not yet, anyway! And I do not define myself solely as a ‘writer’…which also helps.

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. If you can get someone to give you a shout-out – as I did with Vikas Swarup – of course include that in your submission. And your query letter needs to show that you’ve researched what kind of books they publish, or represent (in the case of agents). Some ask why you wrote the book…

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’ve been ‘talking it up’ amongst friends; posted a lot of stuff about it on Facebook, both on my personal page and on the book’s own page, and tweeted about it; been in regular dialogue with my publisher about promotion, including launches, reviews, interviews, festivals and so on. Am now trying to figure out how to get a film producer to look at the novel as possible film material…

9.       Do you think it’s important for authors to be visible on social media – if so, why?         

Yes, social media does help – a lot. 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. I’m still learning the ropes, though, in terms of getting the most out of social media for book promotion.

10.   What advice can you give aspirant writers?

I guess obvious words, like be prepared to work, HARD; write what moves you, and has a chance of moving others; as previously mentioned, find readers you can trust, who will be honest and helpful, and share your work with them as you go along; don’t be afraid of losing huge sections of your work, if they have to go; kick the ‘editor’ off your shoulder (ie, your critical self peering over your shoulder) as you write; don’t imitate other writers or the IDEA of being a writer; be prepared for people to not like your work, or to not even pay attention to it; be prepared for agents, especially, to treat you like you don’t exist (my favourite example of agent dismissal is The Kite Runner – Hosseini tried about 30 agents before one took him on); have faith in your book, if you know you’ve written something of quality that will touch, at least, quite a few people; rewrite, again and again; and, as many say, read read read read…a variety of works. And LIVE!

11.   What are you working on now?

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. But I haven’t been able to get back up to Limpopo to do further research, so that project is on hold. Also, skirting around witchcraft is not only a little creepy. 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. 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. A few glimpses: riding in the Egyptian desert around the Pyramids and hanging out in the dusty stable courtyard with my male Egyptian friends, the fellahin in galabeyas and turbans, talking politics, listening to the great songstress Oum Khalsoum and smoking sheeshas; fending off the advances of an Egyptian-Armenian-Canadian lesbian artist but becoming her close friend; falling in love with a former Fatah commander; hiding from Israeli soldiers in a West Bank village under curfew; reporting undercover in the dying days of apartheid and my activist days in South Africa – on the fringes of the ‘revolution’. I imagine that once I get writing this (have just started), more tales/memories/images will return.

Courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa click HERE to read an extract from Garden of Dreams.

  • Follow Melissa’s Author Page on Facebook – click HERE.
  • Follow Melissa on Twitter – click HERE.

Author picture copyright © Colette Yslie Benjamin


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    Advice for writers, from Melissa Delport

    Melissa Delport, the author of The Legacy and The Legion, is writing a 10-part blog series for All About Writing titled ‘From Indie to Published & Everything In-Between’. Check their website each Friday, starting today, for some ‘writer-ly’ advice.

    Here is a list of the topics that Melissa will cover each week:

    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 3 – Friday, 20 June ’14: From indie to published, and why you need a great editor.

    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 5 – Friday, 04 July ’14: The Legacy Trilogy – my writing process.

    Part 6 – Friday, 11 July ’14: The Legacy Trilogy – Music playlist & dream movie-cast.

    Part 7 – Friday, 18 July ’14: How to handle your first bad review.

    Part 8 – Friday, 25 July ’14: The strange new phenomenon – The Book Blog Tour.

    Part 9 – Friday, 01 August ’14: How would a writer survive without the love and support of family?

    Part 10 – Friday, 08 August ’14: Does writing get any easier?




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      Author Corner – Fiona Leonard

      Fiona Leonard has a gypsy soul that has carried her across twenty countries on four continents. 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. She lives in Ghana, West Africa, for now.

      In 2005 Fiona began writing a book. 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.

      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. 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.

      1.          From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do? 

      I think every author in the early days underestimates how much editing is needed. I suspect this is partly because we’re so worried we’ll be terrible, that we desperately hope the early drafts are good enough. Truth is, they’re not, and that’s ok. I’ve lost count of how many times The Chicken Thief was edited. 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. Then I probably read and edited it an extra three times. The best thing about having gone through that process though is that I don’t take edits personally any more. I can be objective and just enjoy seeing the book evolve.  

      2.          What research do you do for your book?     

      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. I read a lot of news articles though throughout. 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. Then again, that may also be a form of procrastination… 

      3.          How many words do you write, on average, per day? 

      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. In addition I also try to write a blog three times a week. 

      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 like to work from a relatively detailed plot. 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 know how the chapter will finish in some detail. I start at chapter one and work sequentially through. 

      That said, I often have times when my characters go off and do something unpredictable and my plan goes out the window, then I storm around for a while cursing my characters while my family try to calmly point out that the characters don’t really exist anywhere other than in my head! 

      5.          Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it? 

      I really, really, really don’t like discovering plot holes. I usually have one central story line running through and then I layer additional plot threads over the top. At some point, however, I will usually realise that the story is a bit thin in places, or there’s a gaping inconsistency that needs to be fixed or else the whole thing will fall apart.  

      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? What are their motivations? What else could be behind it all? 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. I tend to get a flash of one of my characters saying something as if they’re in a movie, and then it all seems to fall into place (until the next time). 

      6.          What do you do when you have writer’s block? 

      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 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. The more consistently you write the easier it gets. You can always go back and edit later, but you can’t edit an empty page. 

      7.          You self-published The Chicken Thief initially – how did you market your book? 

      I relied on two main approaches. Firstly I pushed it out into the world with the help of existing contacts, particularly through Facebook. I had incredible support from friends and family who read the book and then shared it with their friends. People took it to their book clubs and gave it as Christmas gifts. I was constantly amazed by how generous people were. 

      The second approach revolved around cold calling. I emailed reviewers on Amazon, I emailed book review blogs. I offered to write guest blogs and articles. And I kept at it. Cold calling is not something I really enjoy so I found that hard. But you have to persist.

      The other thing I should mention is that I put a lot of effort into making the book as good as I possibly could. The cover was professionally done, and the text was professionally edited. It’s hard enough to sell a self published book in the first place without giving people something that’s poor quality. It doesn’t help you, and it brings down the reputation of self publishing in general. 

      8.          When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal? 

      I think you want to give the publisher as much information as you can to demonstrate that your book will be commercially viable. You’re basically answering one question – Will it sell? 

      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. I included excerpts from good reviews and an indication of my demographics. I was also able to demonstrate that in addition to the book I was pitching, I had a sequel nearly finished and a third in the pipeline, hopefully making me a good long term prospect. 

      9.          Do you think it’s important for authors to be visible on social media – if so, why? 

      Can you sell books without a social media presence? Yes. Could it help your sales? All the research suggests yes. Are there a million articles telling you how to maximize social media? Definitely (look them up, a lot are excellent). 

      Beyond the commercial aspects, personally, I like social media because it brings a human connection to what can often be a very solitary activity. A book is something that is written to be shared. Being able to connect with the people who read your book, anywhere in the world, is an incredible gift. 

      10.       What advice can you give aspirant writers? 

      Never under estimate the power of showing up. Whether it’s writing or pitching, persistence is one of the greatest tools in an author’s toolkit. 

      Follow Fiona on Twitter @FionaJLeonard and visit her blog at

      Like The Chicken Thief’s Facebook page HERE

      Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 9780143538554





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        Author Corner – Lauren Liebenberg

        Lauren Liebenberg is a critically acclaimed author. 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. Her second novel, The West Rand Jive Cats’ Boxing Club, was published in 2011, also to international acclaim.

        She is married with two sons, in whom the feral instinct seems to run strong, and is a survivor of the madness of the Super-Mommy-ism epidemic in the Johannesburg suburban outback she inhabits. 

        Cry Baby is Lauren’s third novel.

        1.     From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

        An eye-watering amount! Suffice it to say that the published novel bears only the faintest resemblance to the first draft of the manuscript. It’s like rehearsing for a play – “And, from the top …” over and over again. But editing is not a solo pursuit – it’s important to distinguish the re-writing that I, as the writer, do from the cruel act performed by the editors – all the way to proofing!   

        2.     What research do you do for your book? 

        Enough for your average doctoral thesis! 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. And yet I have still blundered in numerous instances where technical or historical accuracy mattered. 

        3.       How many words do you write, on average, per day?

        There’s no such thing as average and always too few! 

        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. It leads down some deadly blind-alleys. 

        5.       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

        We all have a self-indulgence blind-spot, I believe, so it’s hard to avoid. Preaching; over-wrought descriptions; cardboard cut-out characters who do exactly what you’d expect; sagging pace (to show-case research!) and so forth are all effectively overcome by a good merciless editor. 

        6.       What do you do when you have writer’s block?

        Read a good book. 

        7.       When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?

        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. I don’t always succeed. 

        8.       What advice can you give aspirant writers?

        There is no room in publishing for coy apologists nor, ironically, for ego. You have to believe in what you’ve written and be prepared to convert sceptical others. At the same time, you need to take a great deal of rejection and criticism – not all of which should be deflected. 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)!

        Courtesy of Penguin Books click HERE to read an extract from Lauren’s latest novel, Cry Baby.




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          Author Corner – Mike Hardwich

          MIKE HARDWICH is a dedicated vet who has worked with wild and domestic animals for over thirty-nine years. He assists whenever the need arises and has an extraordinary rapport with all living things.

          The Lion and Lamb – Memoirs of a Vet is Mike’s first book (originally published by a ‘self-publishing company’ and later picked up by a traditional publisher) and his second collection of stories is The Rhino and the Rat – Further Memoirs of a Vet.

          1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

          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. 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!). That sent us back to the drawing board but when we then finished it we told them NOT to change a single thing!

          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.

          2. Why did you decide to write your veterinary memoirs?

          My memoirs were written many years back and left in a dusty drawer. A British company offered to publish my book, provided I doubled the length (this I never got round to doing). 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.

          How I came to start writing is that many of these stories started as fireside tales and there was immediate general interest. 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.

          3. 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?

          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. 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 letters were well drafted and encouraging. 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.

          The frustrations only came much later (as mentioned above). 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. Then came the major problems.

          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).

          Cathy and I had been friends at university 40 years ago. 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!

          I sent Cathy my scripts and initially she merely read through them and expressed an interest. We then had the lot scanned – they were typed, initially, on an old style typewriter.

          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. Bearing in mind that I have a busy practice I found this monthly trip a very pleasant relief, although extremely demanding mentally.

          5. How many words do you write, on average, per day?

          A lot depends on a person’s mood and there are plenty of off-days. 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. 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. I am sure the chemical companies would love us to make a mistake with this one!

          In general, on a good day, I can easily do about 5000 words of memoirs.

          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. Fortunately after 40 years in veterinary practice there are still many stories to be told. 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.

          This is certainly not the case with The Green Desert where timeline is critical. 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.

          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. My staff and family are very supportive and I have a few friends and practice clients that are helpful. 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. And don’t try and be politically incorrect with her!

          8. What are you busy writing at the moment?

          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. In such a situation Joe Farmer is unfortunately a mere pawn in a huge chess game. Unfortunately a game the farmers in our situation lost! However, I do feel that public awareness is growing rapidly and people are not just accepting their positions.

          My third book of memoirs, The Tiger and the Tortoise, is also underway but in a very foetal stage currently.

          9. What advice can you give aspirant writers?

          * Do not expect financial reward – this is a labour of love.

          * And I believe that there are four legs to a good book:

          • Leg one – a good story.
          • Leg two – a good editor who is not partisan in any way. One needs be practical about what is being written and if it is rubbish bin it.
          • Leg three – a good illustrator.  One can but admire the illustrations for example in Jock of the Bushveld!  The type-setting and layout is included here, as is the cover. Can anyone pass by Marguerite Poland’s book Taken Captive by Birds without stopping to take a look?
          • Leg four – perhaps the most important of all is the publisher/marketer. I cannot believe the difference a motivated publisher has made for me. With the previous publisher one was pushing a piece of string and unfortunately the journey was uphill!

          * And finally, if you believe in it then DO IT! Nothing is ever achieved by being too cautious or too pragmatic.

          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.


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            Author Corner – Mtutuzeli Nyoka

            Mtutuzeli Nyoka served as the President of Cricket South Africa (CSA) from 2008 to 2011. He currently lives in Johannesburg where he practises as an Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon.

            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.

            1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

            For my first book I had no less than 8 drafts. For my second book it must have been double that. The books, in terms of style and content, improved with each draft.

            2. What research do you do for your books?

            I don’t write about what I don’t know. So most of the books I read are on subjects I have an interest in. So I choose very carefully what I read.

            3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?

            Varies from 300-500.

            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 usually have the story in my head, and I just write it all out and edit later. I have not tried writing out an outline before. Maybe I should experiment and see what impact it has on the writing process.

            5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

            For me it is overcoming fatigue. I am a very busy medical specialist and most of the time I come home tired. It is a great challenge to write creatively under such circumstances.

            6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?

            I take writer’s block in the same way I take a bad day at the office. Even on those bad days when words don’t come I try to write something no matter how scanty or woeful. These are cycles of work that every worker, whether a writer or a nurse in a hospital, has to confront. Just do what you can no matter how uninspired you are.

            7. When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?

            There comes a period during the writing when the story reads and ‘feels’ finished. It is just a feeling that comes during the process when you feel that you can’t possibly add anything more to the story. This is when I submit the story to the publishers with a synopsis and a list of all the characters.

            8. What advice can you give aspirant writers?

            Keep writing for enjoyment. The more you write the better you become.

            Click HERE to visit Mtutuzeli’s website, and like his Facebook author page HERE.

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              Author Corner – Hamilton Wende

              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).

              Hamilton Wende's book Arabella

              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.

              Hamilton Wende's book Only the Dead

              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.

              House of War – A love story and thriller about searching for the lost diaries of Alexander the Great in the badlands of northern Afghanistan while being hunted by Al Qaeda.  It was long-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Award in 2010.

              The King’s Shilling - A novel about WWI in East Africa published by Jacana in April 2005.  It was long-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Award in 2006

              Deadlines From the Edge: Images of War from Congo to Afghanistan - Stories about his journeys into different parts of the world while working as television news producer in different parts of Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.  It was published in 2003 by Penguin SA.

              True North; African Roads Less Travelled – A non-fiction account of his work as a journalist in Africa.  It was published in 1995 by William Waterman in Johannesburg.  It was nominated for the 1995 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award.

              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. In 1999 it was selected by Cambridge University Press in South Africa for an anthology of South African writing.

              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.

              1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do? 

              I always start the first few dozen pages very loosely, very forgiving of myself so that I can work my way into the story without the inner critic slowing me down too much.  But that phase only lasts a few weeks at most and then, once I have gotten into the rhythm of the story, then I write as accurately as possible, checking spelling, punctuation, grammar – as I find this is taking the story seriously, giving it the attention it demands.  However, I do make lots of mistakes the first time around, and I expect to write between 6 and 9 drafts before the book is published with at least three final, painstaking edits.

              2. How much research do you do for your book? 

              I do a lot of research for my books.  I use the Internet a lot and double check facts in published books.  The Internet is no longer merely a place for half-baked theories and unverified information – there is a lot of that out there, but there are also a lot of very good sites that, at the least, can point you in the right direction.  The Internet has become an essential tool for writers.  For example, I have never been to the White House, but I needed to set a few short scenes from my last novel ‘Only The Dead’ with the US President meeting his aides.  In a few simple clicks I could see a great number of photos, architectural drawings etc. of the White House past and present.  I did have to check one crucial detail with a friend of my brother’s who is a White House correspondent by email and so I couldn’t have the President looking out on a demonstration on Pennsylvania Avenue from the Oval Office and I had to delete that scene and rewrite it.

              3. How many words do you write on average a day? 

              I try to aim for 500 words a day on average.  Some days I only get 100 done and other days 1300.  It is important to have a goal and I keep a record of how many words I have written as I go along.  But the goal must also be manageable – especially when you are starting out.  You need to be reasonable, even generous with yourself, because if you put too much pressure on yourself you are likely to find the whole notion of actually finishing the book overwhelming and then all sorts of unpleasant subconscious acts of resistance to the task at hand start taking control of your desire to actually do it.

              4. Explain your writing process. 

              I have a rough idea of how the story is going to go, but I start at Chapter 1 and let the characters lead me.  I need to be surprised by them and how they react in order to keep my interest in writing the story alive.  To me these subconscious gifts are the greatest reward for writing.  ‘Only connect,’ said E.M. Forster.  To trust that your skill and long practice will be rewarded by a number of ‘aha’ moments as you work is what keeps me going.  The joy of this creative flow is similar to learning how to move and react and innovate in playing sport, practising the martial arts, playing music, sculpting, surfing – just about any human activity that requires commitment and practice.

              5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? 

              Finding the time to write within a busy day is hard. Trying to keep the ever-growing number of terrible, time-wasting chores that eat away at your creative time at bay is a constant battle. You have to be careful to find time away from these potentially exhausting diversions.  Raymond Chandler once said something along the lines of that you have to write even if your car needs servicing or your geyser needs fixing – but the truth is that most of us can’t live that way. There are too many people who depend on us to have these things sorted out for us to completely ignore them.

              Keeping faith with the book you have started is also difficult sometimes. The old ghosts of self-doubt that we all carry with us from various traumas from time to time, or even often, attack the hope and belief that give to our work and tear at them. That’s when you have to be both determined and clear-headed. You have to find a way to keep faith with what works in your book and be strong enough to delete and rewrite what doesn’t – that’s not always easy.

              6. What do you do when you have writer’s block? 

              Keep going. Make it up. 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…. You see what I mean? I’ve got a story going already.

              7. What information do you submit to a publisher? 

              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. The old days of editors taking on scruffy, unruly manuscripts and turning them into gold are long gone. You have to be the best editor you can be and, if possible, find someone to look over it for you.

              You should also write a one-page bio that gives publishers some idea of who you are and why you are uniquely qualified to write this book.  Don’t send them a 30 page CV; they won’t have time to read it.

              8. What advice can you give to aspirant writers? 

              Work at your writing constantly. Every day ask yourself: what have I done for my writing career today? Read, read, read - see how other writers do things.  Learn from them, but remember that The Great Gatsby, The English Patient, The Color Purple have all already been written, you need to write your own book.  Write both about what you know and about what interests you.  Learn from research what you have to about things, places and tools that your characters need for their lives.  The characters will take over in fiction and let them do that.  In non-fiction never give in to the temptation to make things up or to embellish what actually happened.  In fiction you can do anything that works in the special world you create.  In non-fiction you have a duty of trust to the reader that what you say actually happened and you are not making something up to round off a story well.  Don’t be surprised how often this will occur to you while you are writing non-fiction, you’ll do it without realising it at first.  When it does happen, cut it out, go back to the notebooks and look at what really happened – then tell it that way.  Look for the telling unusual detail that will take you and your reader to a deeper level – that always makes non-fiction stronger.

              9. You have written fiction, non-fiction and now a children’s book.  How do you write for such different markets?

              I find many of the techniques are the same. The use of dialogue, setting, character, are universal. In non-fiction you have to find out why the real characters are interesting to your readers. In fiction you have to make your readers believe they are interesting. In all fiction you have to trust your subconscious and follow where it leads.  In children’s fiction that is harder because you create a special world of talking insects and animals, of magic that has to cohere and work within the universe you are creating – you can’t just have a magician wave a magic wand at every turn and resolve the conflict or save the characters.  Children’s fiction is a Jungian journey where you travel deep into your inner symbolic world that must also be interesting and accessible to the children (and adults) who read your stories.  Finding that balance is difficult but doing it and writing children’s stories keeps our own inner magic alive and vital.

              More about Hamilton:

              He is a regular contributor to From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4 on the BBC. 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.

              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.

              He attended St. Andrews College in Grahamstown and then graduated from Wits University in Johannesburg in 1984 with a BA majoring in English and submajoring in Legal Theory and Drama & Film.  He spent the years after that travelling through Europe, the US and Japan.  He studied part-time courses in writing and journalism at New York University. He lived in Japan and the US where he worked as a freelance writer and English teacher. He returned to South Africa in the early 1990s.

              Click HERE to visit Hamilton’s website.


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                2015 City Press Non-Fiction Award

                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.

                Are you planning to write a book dealing with a subject of importance in the South African context?  Then read further …

                The submissions for the 2015 City Press Non-Fiction Prize are now open, with the closing date being 30 April 2014.

                Criteria for the City Press Non-Fiction Award

                • Relevance: The book should add to our understanding of South African society, history and politics
                • Independence: It should be unafraid to investigate uncomfortable or difficult issues
                • Credibility: The quality of the research and information should be impeccable
                • Readability: The book should be accessible with good quality writing

                Applications by authors should include:

                • A one page motivation of why the topic of the proposed book is relevant or significant to the South African context;
                • Draft table of contents;
                • At least one chapter;
                • Author CV;
                • Submissions must be received by 30 April 2014

                Click HERE to download the entry form from Tafelberg’s website.


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                  Author Corner – S.A. Partridge

                  Sally-Ann Partridge is an author of young-adult fiction novels (she writes under the name of S.A. Partridge).

                  Her debut novel, The Goblet Club, won the SABC/YOU Magazine ‘I am a writer Competition’ in 2007, as well as the MER Prize for Best Youth Novel at the M-Net Via Afrika Awards in 2008.

                  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.

                  1.       From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

                  A considerable amount. A story is never quite finished till it’s finished. 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. (This is a trick acclaimed editor Helen Moffet taught me as well as quite a few more useful tricks). 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. 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. A novel only really starts to shine once it’s passed through several stages of editing.

                  2.       What research do you do for your book?

                  I love the process of taking out reference books and making copious notes, which I constantly refer to during the writing process. 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. If I just want to check up a small fact, a quick Google search is usually fine. I love visiting places I intend using as settings and interviewing people. You can never really do enough research, especially if you’re writing about a subject you’re not completely familiar with. A trick with research is to never copy and paste from a source. I always make notes in my own words, and then ensure it forms part of the manuscript naturally, rather than just inserting it in.

                  3.       How many words do you write, on average, per day?

                  It depends. 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. 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. Some days I write nothing. I find that I can’t force it. If I’m not feeling the story then I’ll produce next to nothing. It’s those wonderful good writing days when I achieve output and find it hard to stop.

                  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 start from the beginning and continue all the way to the end. Sometimes I’ll write an outline, other times I write in scenes. It depends on the particular story I’m writing at the time. I don’t have one concrete method that I stick to. I prefer the writing process to be natural and to dictate where it wants to go. Other times I’ll envision the entire story, lay it out, then write.

                  5.       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

                  I find intimate bedroom scenes quite challenging. I tried to write one in Dark Poppy’s Demise, and then eventually rewrote the scene so that it didn’t happen. I’ll master this though. I think it’s more to do with shyness than anything else.

                  6.       What do you do when you have writer’s block?

                  I let it be. The story will continue when it wants to. Personally, I’d rather not force myself to write and to produce output for the sake of producing output.

                  7.       When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?

                  A synopsis of the story, what genre and target audience it falls under, and the full manuscript attached as a Word document. But then again, that’s just me. I’m sure it works differently for everyone.

                  8.       What advice can you give aspirant writers?

                  Write the story you want to write, not the story you think you’re supposed to write. Finish the manuscript no matter how frustrated you become half way and always, always produce at least a second draft.

                  Click HERE to visit her website.


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                    The Bloody Book Week – Practical Publishing Advice Event

                    Jenny Crwys-Williams is a talk show host on Talk Radio 702 and she has become well-known in South Africa for her influential weekly book show.

                    And Jenny’s latest venture is The Bloody Book Week, Africa’s first crime book festival, happening in and around Johannesburg from the 31st of July to the 4th of August.

                    ‘The crime genre is so huge,’ Jenny says, ‘that it became impossible not to want to do something special with it, and to reflect some of the fine crime writing, fiction and non-fiction, coming out of South Africa.’

                    Alison Lowry and Tracey McDonald will be holding a condensed version of their full day seminar, The Suitcase Under the Bed, at this year’s The Bloody Book Week – if you are an aspirant writer, looking for practical advice about publishing, you may want to attend this event:

                    • Jenny & Co @ TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris Auditorium
                    • Saturday, 03 August ’13
                    • 13h30 to 16h00
                    • 3 Sandown Valley Crescent, Sandton
                    • Cost: R500
                    • Bookings:

                    Jenny has a fabulous range of events for The Bloody Book Week 2013, some free, some fee paying, but they all have one thing in common: crime writing at its best. Click HERE to download the full programme of this year’s festival.


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