by Louis Wiid
The beginning of a new journey
Sitting through hours of traffic jams every day on my way to and from work, snailing through the streets of Sandton, I found myself stuck in a rut. I needed an escape from the drudgery, so I started listening to audio books, and was soon immersed in the adventures of Ken Follett, the Clan of the Cave Bear series, among many others. I’d be listening to 20 hours per title, slowly working my way through my ever-growing library.
Then one day, clicking on websites, I came across an SA Writers College ad and the penny dropped. In order to survive, I needed to write. I picked up the phone. The person on the line, recognizing my Afrikaans accent, advised me to start with a basic, cheaper course, some introductory creative writing course.
I asked him what the most difficult course was.
‘Advanced Write a Novel,’ he said. ‘In English,’ he added.
‘Ok,’ I said.
‘But you first need to pass the Write a Novel Course.’
‘Ok,’ I said.
And I was off…
A whole new world opened up.
I was a banker by profession (but I’m ok now). Somehow I squeezed in time to do the writing course assignments. Lunch breaks, some evenings and week-ends, in between listening to ‘how to write’ podcasts and Audible books on the subject.
Life is sometimes like playing a game of blackjack. You get dealt cards that you initially think are rubbish, but they end up being the trump ones. My health had been failing, rendering me inactive. Writing became my new hobby.
After yet another surgery, after which I couldn’t sit for months and could only work while standing, I served three masters: my banking job, writing and rehabilitation exercises. Meanwhile I completed the Write a Novel Course (thanks to a fantastic tutor) and my novel was starting to get into shape (or so I thought).
So I quit my job at 48.
You think writing is difficult and time-consuming, think further. Try editing and publishing. Some say you rewrite on average seven times. It felt more like 20. If writers were tested for OCD, I reckon most would fit the diagnosis.
Yet again, I convinced myself (with reason) that my book was sh*t, so I started another rewrite and enrolled in the ‘Advanced Write a Novel’ course at SA Writers College, one of the best investments I’ve ever made. This course entails taking you through all stages in putting together a finished product. With the help of my long-suffering tutor, having to work through 100,000 + words, I passed.
Now more confident than ever, I was convinced that I would finally achieve recognition as a global superstar, maybe a South African Stieg Larsson. So I submitted my manuscript, Submerged, to every publisher in South Africa prepared to accept unsolicited manuscripts.
I was so confident that I also send submissions to UK agents, but only the important ones, representing the Lee Child’s, Jeffrey Deaver’s, and such.
To their credit most responded, appropriately of course. The rejection letters that followed were not straight F… you’s.
It started off with…
‘Owing to the volume of submissions we receive, the assessment process may take up to six months and could require some patience, but we’ll make every effort to get back to you as soon as possible.’
And, ‘many thanks for giving us the chance to review your work. One of us will read it shortly. Owing to the high volume of material we receive, we are only able to respond personally when we’d like to discuss things further. If you do not hear from us, we’re sorry to say that your submission has been unsuccessful, but we wish you all the best in your future writing career.’
Short and sweet
‘I’m sorry to say I’m going to pass. The market is very tough and competitive so we have to feel particularly strongly about something if we’re to take it on. I hope you fare better with another agent and best of luck with it.’
Then, not too bad
‘Thank you for giving the XXX Agency a chance to consider Submerged. Unfortunately, this is not right for us. We receive over 300 manuscripts a week and can only take on a handful of new writers every year. The result is that we have to be incredibly selective, so please do not be too disheartened. Another agent may well feel differently.
We wish you the very best of luck.’
‘Thank you for sending your work to me, and many apologies for the delay, we’re simply inundated with submission correspondence these days … So I’m afraid though that your project wouldn’t be for me, not least because I am taking on very few new clients indeed. Good luck with other agents, happy writing.’
Close but no cigar
‘We wanted to let you know that while we think there is potential in your project, and you have a very interesting story to tell, we can unfortunately not offer publication of your book. XXX’s publishing schedule is absolutely full and your proposal is not something we would be able to take on and make room for at the moment. However, this does not mean to say that a different publishing house would not be thrilled to publish your work.’
And then the most positive feedback
‘Although your writing is not without merit, we must unfortunately decline to publish Submerged. The South African market for English literature is small and very competitive and in these difficult times we must be more careful than ever in our publishing decisions. We only publish one or two English manuscripts a year.
However, we were also wondering if you would not like to consider rewriting the text into Afrikaans and then resubmitting it. It is entirely up to you.
We hope to hear from you again.’
Going the self-publishing route
So I ended up with the self-publishing route. I’m not going into too much detail who I chose, suffice to say: STAY AWAY FROM NON-SA PUBLISHERS.
There were the ‘American’ self-publishing boiler room jockeys on the other side of the phone. Call-centered, they couldn’t even string two sentences of English together but, without reading it, they tried to convince me that my book was perfect, and would be a best-seller. Block their numbers please!
The three South African self-publishers I approached were professional and helpful; honest is perhaps the right word. Compared to their US counterparts, they quoted a fraction of the price.
The one I ended up hiring was a recognized SA publisher, but who would publish the book under one of their other imprints.
The process involved the same quality control that is used in their normal publishing process, the same editors, type-setters, marketing agents, sales teams and so on. It felt to me as though I even jumped the queue. My publishing professional held my hand throughout and offered advice, like rather publish in February or March 2016 instead of December 2015 where I would have competed fruitlessly with the rock-star writers.
Eventually, the book was finished, but only after I was forcibly removed from the scene, still trying to sneak in more changes and edits.
Riding the cusp of the self-publishing/marketing wave
Throughout this process I realized that as first-timer fiction authors, we must accept that we will not be discovered easily. Even Andy Weir’s excellent best-seller, the Martian, now a block-buster film starring Matt Damon, was only picked up by an agent after Andy self-published parts of the book on his blog-site and first self-published the entire book.
Self-publishers need to be highly innovative with their marketing strategies in this new, connected, crazy world. Even YouTube book trailers have become old school; how will your trailer be picked up among the more than 300 clips uploaded every minute?
But consider Marsha Pessl’s recent novel, Night Film, where the realism of the digital age and the Internet is fused with ‘old-fashioned’ words on paper. Like screenshots from the websites of the New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, and other real publications of fake online articles in the windows of an internet browser. Even some ‘fake’ videos were pasted online.
Other new avenues and approaches to storytelling include the gripping iTunes podcast ‘Serial’. Serial is a multiple episode story broadcast, with episodes released weekly. As the podcasts are free, income comes from adverts. ‘Serial’ was for an extended period ranked number 1 on iTunes podcasts. However, telling a story in a serial form is as old as Dickens – but the latest breakthrough is the medium.
The Silent History is more than merely a book. It was ‘produced’ (not written) by Eli Horowitz, in collaboration with others. It was developed as an iOS App. User interaction and collaboration, like including stories by many writers, called ‘Field Reports’, were uploaded as mixed-media sections which can only be read via the app with an iOS device at a specific location. Readers were reportedly wandering through neighborhoods in Manhattan, connected to their phones, chasing down these stories.
My own angle is two-pronged (not saying it’s the holy grail, but who dares wins). In Submerged there’s an anonymous blogger who provides lots of background information and back story on a Tumblr blog (a real link to the site). Then there’s also an alternative ending, like in DVDs, that I will put on my website for loyal readers.
I don’t have a literary background and I’m the first person to admit that at best, I can only be considered a commercial fiction writer. Submerged is a labour of love, a bucket-list tick and other clichés on which I spent years, polishing it to be the best it can be.
On a final positive note, it’s a well-known fact that Afrikaans fiction has a much better chance of success in SA, so I have my work cut out for the year.
Happy writing, people!