It takes a community to write a book

Great Texts, Big Questions, 18 September 2014, Open Book Festival, Hiddingh Campus, Cape Town.


When sitting down to discuss her book The Chicken Thief, Fiona Leonard made no secret about the fact that writing a book requires hard work. “Writing is a very lonely and solitary venture,” she said. It took her about six years to write the first 30 000 words of her novel, and she was able to finish the book by entering the annual Nanowrimo event – a competition where aspiring novelists commit to writing a 50 000-word novel within the month of November. The time pressure and community gave her the springboard she needed to complete the first draft of The Chicken Thief, and is a perfect introduction to the world of writing.

Fiona has been writing all her life, but pinpoints the origin of her novel-writing habit to when she was sick in bed with glandular fever. She started writing romance novels to pass the time. Her life and writing has changed a lot since then, having left Australia to travel and work in Africa. This inspired her to start writing The Chicken Thief, featuring the bright young Alois, the chicken thief of the title, and president of an undefined southern African country.

When questioned by the creative-writing MA students with whom she is in discussion about how she, an Australian author, felt tackling an African novel, she said: “It’s difficult to determine what you have the right to write about. But a British author isn’t challenged for writing a story set in America. Everyone knows what it’s like to fall in love or be scared: the rest is just research and imagination.”

Despite this, when her manuscript was selected for publication by Penguin SA, she found it validating that her story was accessible to an African readership. She said that she would like to see African fiction growing and expanding: she wants to see it become simply stories of all genres set in Africa, as well as novels about current affairs and political situations. She cited Lauren Beukes as a good example of this, by writing Zoo City, a fantasy noir story set in Johannesburg.

The journey to getting Chicken Thief published was complicated, and Fiona shared her story, as well as advice for anybody hoping to publish. Initially she began by pitching her manuscript to various publishers. This prompted mixed feedback, including a publisher in New York who stated that they liked the book, but wouldn’t publish it because books about Africa don’t sell.

Fiona instead chose to self-publish, which she said was a difficult but worthwhile adventure. She advised that anybody who is preparing to present their self-published book to a publisher should have it professionally edited and illustrated. “You owe it to other self-publishers to do it properly, and take the time to make it professional. There are too many reviewers out there with a negative image of self-publishing, who opened their reviews of my book by stating ‘I didn’t want to read this because it’s self-published’, or ‘I don’t normally read self-published books’. Go out there and do it properly.” She advised against any vanity presses – companies that accept payment from the authors to publish and distribute their books, instead of paying the authors. She recommended Amazon’s Create Space as a good tool for self-publishing and printing on demand.

The average self-published book sells about 250 copies, Fiona said. A self-published author is able to exert complete control over their book, but an author associated with a publishing house has the advantage of a team of professionals dedicated to their book. For anybody interested in publishing a manuscript, Penguin SA is one of the few companies dedicated to accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

Finally, the MA students asked Fiona for general advice on writing. “Write, and write regularly,” she said. “Complement this with reading a lot, and across a variety of genres. When I’m stuck and need to understand how to write tension, I might google the Top 10 Thriller books and read them. When I’m reading, I look for fresh voices and lyrical writing, which inspires me. Don’t get into a rut of reading the same genres and authors.”

She recommended Save The Cat as a useful book to read for aspiring authors, even though it’s about screenplays, as it teaches you about plotting and tension. She also mentioned the ever-popular On Writing by Stephen King, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk on meeting the muse halfway.

Finally, she reiterated that the most valuable tool you can have as a writer is a team of people who will read your work and reply honestly. “You need to find people who will say they hated chapter three, or tell you if a voice isn’t authentic, so that when they say a part is good, you will trust them. Writing is a lonely practice, but the internet is so valuable in finding support and advice. Use it.”

The Chicken Thief is available from Penguin SA.

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