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.
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.