by Phehello J Mofokeng, Bookworm in Chief
I do not know who said this, but the saying goes “everyone has a story to tell”. I really do not care who said this because all that matters is that – it is true. We all have a story and the question of importance to me is – how do I get the story out of people?
I am a publisher. This means that I am very interested in stories – people’s stories. I am fascinated by the storytelling journey (process) and its fine intricacies that lead us to a book (product). Kendrick Lamar says that if he is going to tell a story, he must start by giving his name. Names of people – just like their stories – are important. And stories do matter. We are nothing without our stories – and that is why whole nations have been lost to history and time. Simply because their stories are not told.
As a publisher, I meet people who want to publish their stories. Often, they write about themselves in biographical form and these can be boring. They follow such a typical route and mostly they start with: “I was born …”. While your story is important, how you write it can be boring and no publisher will pick it up.
I do not want to sound pessimistic, but the world is against the independent publisher and the little-known author. I am going to touch a bit on this matter – without any delusion of trying to give immediate answers to it – but to highlight it to anyone who thinks they are a writer. We need to remove all illusions of grandeur about the writing profession – more so if you are writing for an independent publisher and you are an unknown author. Many authors come to me with lofty ideas of how great they think their stories are and the sales or even the Facebook Likes do not correspond. Many writers give up at this point – the very point when they should be pressing on.
I will press space out of the page to ensure that I also address the issue of language. In a nutshell, we need all the vernacular writing that we can get – out of Africa and the Diaspora. The world is actually getting tired of English metaphors and silly books written by Africans who think they have mastered the English language. For our generations and those coming after us, we have to start preserving our languages by writing more and more in them. We do not want history to judge us painfully – as the generation that forgot its own tongues and embraced a foreign one. We are an African people and the only remaining shard of our being is in our stories and I am interested in writers who want to preserve their language in all means possible and necessary. This is a wonderful challenge because only we can make it possible – not the Caine Prize or any amount of money.
In this tutorial, I am not going to tell you how to write your story, because each of us have a different voice. I am going to show you how to write a story that I as a publisher might find interesting and I can consider it for publishing. Do note that I am referring to our independent publishing house. My ideas and guidelines will certainly not fit all publishers. I will try as best as I can to provide a guide, not to dictate terms. I will lead you, but I will not instruct. I will suggest, but I will not argue. I will even refer you to some professional standards that we use at Geko Publishing to address the language use among other things. I will also highlight our process – from submission, proofing, editing, layout and design etc. Then I will give some tips regarding what to do to ensure that you have a script that – at first glance – is professional and meets the high standards of publishing in SA and elsewhere. This latter point is meant to show that even if your story might be weak, it still has to have a professional touch to it. I know of many stories that were published – only because they looked professional but at their core, they are just bad books. Looking professional will get your script on the door and it might just get picked up. A very good story that is not well-written will not be picked up – in fact it can end up repulsing the author. I know for a fact that I have rejected many scripts just because they did not look professional at all.
In the last part of the multi-part tutorial, I will give examples of what can be done to make a book a success. This will be my own ramblings, not so much a scientific method, but excerpts from my experience. This is important because we write stories not only to release them from our psyche (or to release our psyches from the stories), but also so that they can be read. To this effect, let me preempt my answer. The author is his/her first marketing tool. And then added layer to this is technology. African writers, authors, publishers and other literature professionals must look to technology for answers. Technology answers so many questions – especially the nagging issue of distribution.
With this foundation, I think it is fitting to go on this journey now – and see who has a story in them and how can we help the story out of you, on to the page …
“Ba re e ne re …” You respond by saying “Qoyi”!