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Helen Moffett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Stuff that (would-be) authors need to know 4: So take a course already

Everyone in the book business is familiar with the Sidle Query: you’re at a party, lecture, bar mitzvah, wedding or memorial service when someone sidles up to ask if you have any ideas on how they can get their novel/poetry/memoir published. There are a number of responses: one writer asks, “What are you reading right now?”, and if she gets a blank look, she makes a hasty getaway.

My preferred method is to ask what local authors the Sidler reads, and which local publishers they see as a good fit for their MS. Nine times out of ten I get either the blank look or a frank demurral – “Oh, I don’t read local stuff!”, at which I become very stern, and the unfortunate Sidler scuttles away.

Then there is the Sidler who hasn’t written a book – yet. They have an amazing story to tell, they confide. Child abuse. Travels with the lost tribes of Patagonia. Their battles with cancer/divorce/bereavement/addiction. A children’s book. A novel that will outsell Harry Potter. A book of religious inspiration. (Some of their tales sound truly fascinating: one octogenarian regaled me with her adventures smuggling herself and four children across Spain and Portugal during World War II. Apparently she seduced a sea-captain into sailing them back to Blighty. I really hope she wrote that story.)

But how and where should they start? these would-be writers ask. And it takes courage to sidle, and I don’t want to be discouraging. Stomping on ambition and hope is the adult version of pulling wings off flies, after all. So the answer seems blindingly obvious – if you want to dance the flamenco, or sail a boat, or play the flute, you need to take lessons – and setting out to write is no different. But until recently it was extremely difficult for Joe or Josephine Bloggs to enrol in a writing course – at least, one that was affordable, helpful, sans stringent entry criteria, and left time for shopping, cooking and taking the dog to the vet.

Now ads offering fame and fortune via writing courses pop up all over the Internet (in some cases, the costs are stratospheric). The trouble is telling the good from the bad from the ugly rip-off merchants. So, for the benefit of all hopeful Sidlers in the Cape Town area, here are some writing courses I can recommend. All these folk know their onions; they combine skill with integrity, they won’t rip you off, and I can guarantee that you will learn something about the craft of writing from all or any of them. Above all, none of them are intimidating. They will not mock or peer down their noses at you. They are kind people.

So before the gloss wears off the new year, go on and do it. If you attend any of the courses or workshops I list here, not only will you have a great deal of fun, but you will get a glimmering of what’s involved in setting out to write something. If you’re already got something in a drawer, a course will give you a good idea of how to go about reworking and editing your manuscript.

First, if it’s poetry you have on your mind, Finuala Dowling’s immensely popular monthly Saturday afternoon gatherings in Kalk Bay get rave reviews and have even led to a publication, Difficult to Explain – itself an extended and delightful poetry tutorial of sorts. (Before you send a poem off into the universe in the hopes of publication, read this book.) Nuala tells me her poetry class is currently fully subscribed, but spaces open up all the time – bookmark her blog and keep a beady eye out for announcements there. Years ago I took one of her writing classes at UCT’s Winter School, and loved every minute. I find fragments that I wrote for class exercises surfacing in my work, or triggering new work to this day.

Memoir is definitely the genre du jour, and one of my personal reading favourites: it’s also an accessible and relatively unthreatening starting point for would-be writers. You’re in luck, because Dawn Garisch is about to run a memoir workshop in Kalk Bay — here are the details. As a bonus, you’ll be able to pick up croissants at the Olympia Bakery before, or drink coffee on the terrace at the Annex afterwards.

If you’d like to ease into memoir-writing more slowly, Hugh Hodge, editor of New Contrast, has a course, As You Write It, every Saturday morning starting 5 March from 9.30 – 12.30 at his home in Kommetjie. He writes “The course runs for 7 Saturdays, then repeats. It’s aimed at the new writer with creative exercises lateral thinking – some of the usual things, others less so. Work is critted in the session. I’m trying to build up mutually supportive groups of writers so that people can send their work to a “trusted” friend for feedback. Cost – R250 per session or R1000 if you pay up front for all 7 sessions. Quorum is 3 people, maximum is 8.” To book, or for enquiries, write to hahodge@gmail.com.

Not all local courses are in the South Peninsula. If you live in the city, and your yen is for fiction writing, or simply the nuts and bolts of crafting sentences together to construct a story, then try Tom Eaton’s four-week creative writing course in the cozy surrounds of the Book Lounge: course outline here. If you’re tempted, but the idea makes you feel skinless with nerves, that’s okay: Tom understands.

While I am on the subject of the sensible route of doing a little training if you want to write, I have another suggestion. At the party celebrating 50 years of literary journal New Contrast, Hugh Hodge said that if only ten per cent of those submitting poems, stories and essays to NC also subscribed to it, its future would be assured. I was shaken: this means that 90% of those who submit pieces for publication don’t support the journal they are hoping will support THEM. Even excluding those who genuinely can’t afford the modest cost of an annual subscription, that’s a lot of folk with a lot of chutzpah. If you don’t regularly read the journals (online and print) in which you hope to publish, how can you gauge whether your work is a “fit” with their content? It’s like auditioning for a part without first reading the script.

Here’s a starter list of some local print literary/poetry journals. Read before mailing your latest opus to the editor. New Contrast; Timbila; New Coin; Carapace; Chimurenga Magazine; WordsEtc.

In a nutshell: if you’d like to write a book, or you HAVE written one and would like to publish it, run through this checklist and make sure the answer to all queries is “yes” before you do the Sidle.

1) Do I read voraciously? (corollary: do I use I my local library?)
2) Do I read local books voraciously, to the extent that I have a clear idea of what sort of manuscripts the various local publishers and imprints are looking for?
3) Do I subscribe to local literary and poetry journals? (if you’re a scholar or student, note corollary to No 1.)
4) Have I attended at least one writing course? (The more the merrier.)

The list above is by no means exhaustive. Although he’s not currently offering any courses, I once did a course on non-fiction writing with Mike Nicol (also through UCT’s Winter School), which was superb. Keep your ears pricked for ongoing courses: what you’re looking for is something not too costly, a smallish group, a kindly trainer with experience (not just in writing, but training and publishing too), and plenty of exercises. The best advertisements are word of mouth. If you’ve had a good experience, please share.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    February 23rd, 2011 @15:02 #
     
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    While the NC stat doesn't surprise me, it does make me glum.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 23rd, 2011 @16:18 #
     
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    I just realised that the figure for those submitting, but not subscribing, to New Contrast is much higher than 90%. Maths not my forte.

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    February 24th, 2011 @10:02 #
     
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    There's also SAwriterscollege.co.za, which covers short stories and novel-writing (as well as business writing, magazine features, scriptwriting) through online courses. Tutors including Henrietta Rose-Innes, Alex Smith, Liesl Jobson and Mike Nicol.

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  • <a href="http://saradias.co.za/blog/" rel="nofollow">Sara P. Dias</a>
    Sara P. Dias
    February 24th, 2011 @10:40 #
     
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    Random House Struik's Creative Writing | Short Course:

    http://www.getsmarter.co.za/creative-writing

    The course started this week, but on the web site they say that 'late registrations will be accepted'.

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  • <a href="http://www.amillionmilesfromnormal.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    Paige
    February 24th, 2011 @13:06 #
     
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    Too true, Helen.
    My most recent sidler experience was smack bang in the middle of a funeral. Fun times.
    I did a writing course a couple of years ago with Sarah Bullen, which I loved. She is incredibly smart and inspiring.
    Here's a link - www.letswrite.co.za

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    February 24th, 2011 @13:26 #
     
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    The main thing to learn (perhaps the only thing to learn) about writing is how to sit still at your desk and work for a year or more. the rest is detail

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 24th, 2011 @21:00 #
     
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    Or, as Marie Heese says, "Writing takes application. Apply seat of pants to seat of chair."

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    February 24th, 2011 @21:30 #
     
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    Nobody ever sidles up to me. Not at funerals or at parties. Must be the Chanel

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  • <a href="http://ingridandersen.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ingrid Andersen</a>
    Ingrid Andersen
    February 24th, 2011 @21:38 #
     
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    As editor of online South African literary journal "Incwadi", I get many requests for advice on how to get published. Like Helen, I have found that a lot of the enthusiastic writers wanting to be published admit to reading very little.

    For those that live in KZN, I always run a creative writing course at the Hilton Arts Festival.

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  • Sven
    Sven
    February 25th, 2011 @09:45 #
     
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    For anyone who's interested, I also run a writers course. It runs over five days, and topics include:

    1. Survival - how to survive on an income of R4000 a year. Includes a free dried sugarbean stew recipe written on edible rice paper.

    2. Writing - we throw fridge alphabet magnets at a tin garbage can and then apply the use of the word 'like' generously to construct obscure similes. We then burn an effigy of the indefinite article before eviscerating an adjective.

    3. Politics - Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Fabian, Fascist or Rhodesian. Which model of collectivism will get you noticed in 2011?

    4. Praise - Give it to get it, and It's Who You Know. Also includes black belt training in being nice to get stuff.

    5. Launches - From Cape Canaveral to the Bookehuis. Includes a seminar on the physiology and anatomy of the dorsal region of the human trunk, combined with basic knife fighting. Course in well poisoning optional.

    6. The Internet - Leveraging your leverage for more leverage.

    The course runs over 5 days on Rondebosch commons. Bring you own papsak and cheescake.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    February 25th, 2011 @10:45 #
     
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    I'm signing up for Sven's course. I still haven't learnt to leverage my leverage.

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  • Sven
    Sven
    February 25th, 2011 @12:34 #
     
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    Great, thanks Fiona. You'll be happy to know that I pay attendees R500 per night for their attendance (it's kinda like Pay Per Click, except in the real world). For some inexplicable reason there's been sparse interest in this course to date.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 25th, 2011 @19:34 #
     
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    Sven, I think I can offer a "lite" version of your course. Core syllabus involves subsisting on cheese sandwiches (note clever po-mo nod to Margaret Atwood) and wringing hands. The component on the best wines from Checkers-Shoprite for under R15 a bottle is also popular. In this the slack-packing version, already published writers will carry our bottles and sandwiches round Rondebosch Common for us in exchange for tips (the cash variety).

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