South Africa remembers the struggle against Apartheid


Live, painted and mirrored figures at entrance to Apartheid Museum

Those who are passionate about politics will find South Africa’s museums as exciting as its game reserves. There are two that I visit every time I’m in the country – the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, big, architecturally daring, emotionally overwhelming; and the District Six Museum in Cape Town, small, intimate, focusing on just one neighborhood obliterated in the 60s and 70s by the Apartheid laws.

The Apartheid Museum can be exhausting, the scope of the story spanning centuries and virtually the entire world. District Six Museum is comfortable, homey if melancholy. You would want to live in District Six if you were somehow transported to South Africa in the 40s or 50s, whatever your race or religion. Christian, Muslim, Jew, it didn’t matter.

My Pigeons Come Home

Writers Room - District Six Museum. Writers mourn the loss of a community to racism.

To the architects of Apartheid, that nasty, Rube Goldbergesque and uniquely South African system of racial separation, District Six was an abomination. The races were living together, even having sex, and you could listen to jazz and smoke marijuana! The place had to go. In 1968 it was declared a white area and the bulldozing of houses and forced removals began.

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Unsolicited submissions

I haven’t submitted a story to a literary magazine for at least a year. Yet I enter contests sponsored by those same magazines all the time. The reason is simple – I believe the odds are much higher that someone will actually read my story, when it’s accompanied by a check. I’m sure that the editors and staff at these magazines want to read every submission that comes to them, but they are swamped.


I'm sure we have your story in here somewhere

In my mind’s eye, I can track the progress of my story as it drops into Somebody’s inbox along with 25 or 50 others, and Somebody doesn’t recognize my name, and my story ends up in a virtual or literal heap of fellow orphans until Somebody accidently hits the delete button or the pile of ancient unopened envelopes is finally declared a fire hazard and carted off to the city dump.

I’m not saying that an unsolicited story is never considered by a literary journal. One of my rare successes came at the hands of a guest editor, Edie Meidav, at Fifth Wednesday. She read my unsolicited story, liked it, took the time to suggest some very smart edits, and published it. In my experience, however, something like this happens only every decade or so.

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It’s good to be the winner

There seem to be a lot of fiction contests lately. I’m getting my new novel in shape to enter the James Jones Contest, and I have a well-travelled and oft-revised short story going out to Passages North and Pinch. Passages North also has a short-short story contest, and I’ve got exactly one of those critters under my belt. Might as well send it in.

I don’t have the stomach to write to any more agents, but hope springs eternal, and right now it’s perched on that slender reed – the literary contest. Since it seems that most agents want to go out and find writers and don’t want writers approaching them, I’m focusing on getting the attention of these shy and elusive creatures by winning a literary prize.

Sure, these contests are a long-shot too, but at least you can be fairly certain your stuff will get read. After all they are charging $15 or $20. Unless they are total crooks, the contest organizers have to take a look. Another advantage of entering a contest over hunting agents is that the people running the contest can judge a piece of writing by its merits, not its money-making potential. I’m sure some of the literary types who run the contests have goofy standards, but at least they have standards a writer can accept as such. An agent above all else has to make a living, and we all know that crap sells.

If you are writing something that varies at all from the usual formula, if your hero or heroine dies at the end, for example, or you are a bit too fond of black humor, you’re better off with contest judges. If you manage to win a contest, maybe an agent will come looking for you, and that seems like it would be a much better way to start the relationship.

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Mitch Hedberg – too bad he’s gone

I came across a one-liner by Mitch Hedberg yesterday.

“Rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2,000 of something.”

Kind of Zen-like but funnier.

More Mitch Hedberg

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Abandon All Hope – Agents Advice to the Struggling Writer

I just read an interview with four literary agents that provided a useful if painful reality check.  It was published in Poets and Writers a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure the  points the agents made are still valid.  They lamented the poor state of the industry, how much harder it is to get good books published, how the advances are getting smaller and smaller, trends that have only worsened lately.

They were also very frank about the chances of an unpublished writer having any luck in getting their attention via a query.  These four, at least, found new writers by 1. referral and 2. solicitation.  Their biggest source of referrals was teachers from MFA programs.  So if you are thinking about spending time and money on one of those, you  ought to try and find out how effective your chosen program is in boosting your career.  Seems like that ought to be one of the areas on which MFA programs are rated, some sort of Getting-Your-Students-Published scale.

If you are famous or infamous or have won a literary prize or published in a high-status magazine, you can also snag an agent.  In any of these cases, they will go after you.  The four didn’t quite come out and say that they ignore queries from unknowns, but they also never gave an example of a writer they discovered that way.  It was all referrals, or clients they had chased down themselves.

They did have advice for  all of us writers out in the hinterlands, who aren’t famous, who haven’t had a story in the New Yorker and who don’t know anyone to intercede for us with an agent – don’t concern yourself with getting published, because it probably isn’t going to happen.  We should concentrate on writing better, writing for the sake of the writing.

Condescending but realistic advice.  Still, I think most of us need at least the illusion of having a shot at getting published.

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Pitching – the Aftermath

It’s done.  I went to New York and pitched my book.  It was a great experience, and I even found an editor who asked me to send her the first 50 pages.  It was also at times a sobering and depressing experience. Four editors listened to me for a couple of minutes, asked a few questions and then decided if they actually wanted to see the book.  Two of them hadn’t a clue what I was trying to do.  It wasn’t really their fault.  When I registered for the conference, I had to choose a category of fiction that best described the book.  There was no “Black Humor” option or “Literary Novel with Exotic Locale, Violence and Some Sex”, so I checked “Thriller/Mystery”.    I figured the fact that I had written a literary novel with elements of an international thriller would be seen as added value by the editors. Not true.

In genre fiction there are rules, a lot of rules.  The protagonist can’t die, for instance, even if you make it funny, especially if you make it funny.  If you have been successfully published, it’s a whole different matter, but first time writers need to follow the rules.

I was advised by editor number one that my subject, the US Invasion of Iraq, was outdated, in that awkward limbo of not long enough ago to be done as historical fiction but not current enough that readers would find it interesting.  He only handled crime fiction and thrillers.  In fact he didn’t like working with literary type writers because they take too long to turn out a book.  “They don’t treat it like a business,” in his words.

A second editor simply said, “We don’t do that,” when I mentioned black humor.  She wanted  cosy.  If I could write an Iraqi version of Three Cups of Tea, she said she would be interested.  That was wrong on so many levels. I was speechless.   Apparently bogus but heart-warming stories with cute Muslim kids are hot right now. Editor number three really got me down.  He worked with a wide range of writers and was not chained to genre fiction only.  He seemed to understand what I was trying to do and asked a lot of questions.  He even asked if was working on anything else.  Problem is, at the end, he didn’t ask to see the book.  Rejection by someone you respect is doubly painful.

By the last day of the conference and my last interview, I was feeling sorry for myself.  I re-wrote my pitch, eliminating most of the plot detail and saying up front that it wasn’t a feel-good book.  I figured at least this would get it over  with quickly and I wouldn’t be subjected to wrong-headed advice.  I knew my luck was changing when I said “black humor”, and she smiled.  This editor was not interested in feel-good and cosy.  And when the workshop leader passed among us hopefuls at the end of the interviews, I was one of the chosen.  She wanted to see 50 pages.

Of course, I realize that she might not like the book at all, and even if she does, she might not be able to get her company to publish it.  And as I said above, rejection by someone you respect hurts worse.  But for now I’m enjoying what is probably an illusion.

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The Elevator Pitch

I’m attending the New York Pitch conference this month, which will give me a chance to talk up my book to editors who are supposedly looking for new material.  I guess this will be kind of like a job interview, though, hopefully, with less desperation.

At this point I don’t have a pitch.  My assignment this weekend is to write one.  It’s only supposed to last a minute, about as long as a ride on an elevator, hence the name.  I suppose elevators are good places to corner editors, at least in Manhattan.

The conference organizers suggested collecting book jacket copy from books similar to ours for examples of good pitches. I picked Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler, Conrad’s Victory and, last but not least, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry.  I figure I might as well model my pitch on book jackets of the gods.

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The Slug in Winter

Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD.  I hate those pseudo-medical names for conditions that should be left to poets and fiction writers.  The sun goes away in the winter and inertia takes over.  It’s not quite depression, but death is much easier to imagine in this state.  It seems that for most of us the symptoms grow worse as we age, which makes sense – we’re already more aware of death because suddenly it’s a lot closer, and then comes Fall with the sun going out and the shriveling and dying of leaves and flowers and all that.  Fall just gilds the gloomy lily , so to speak.  This raises the question – why did lilies become the go-to flower for funerals?  Is it because they smell so strongly?  That would have been useful before the days of quality undertaking.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I have loved that line from Dylan Thomas since I first heard it as a kid.  Very heroic sounding.  But now I don’t know if I would have the energy to rage against death like he wanted his father to do, especially if it was this time of the year, when the light is literally dying.

Actually, I credit my blog with rousing me somewhat from my stuporous lethargy.  I couldn’t let the entire month of November pass without an entry.  I might loose one of my four regular readers if I’m not diligent. And now that I’m on a roll, I should mention that an agent is looking at my book, and that I’ve signed up for that writers and editors speed-dating thing, the New York Pitch conference.

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Dog River

If you were an Egyptian general on your way to smite the Hittites you would have led your army up the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean through Lebanon.  This route had a major drawback, however, the Dog River, backed up by a steep rocky ridge that runs straight into the sea.   Great armies had to proceed over the ridge and down to the river in single-file making them incredibly vulnerable.

Tourist and Assyrian king

Around three thousand years ago, some general instituted the tradition of carving a memorial into the rock to mark his successful crossing of the Dog River.  The path across the ridge is lined with dozens of these carvings.  Greeks, Egyptians, Assyrians, Turks, Arabs, French, Brits, even Lebanese all left their marks.


The Dog River is no longer a barrier.  There is a bridge across the river and a tunnel through the rock.  And the armies of the last two countries to visit Lebanon, Syria and Israel, didn’t  come this way.

I love the name of the river and I love its history.  I’m going to use it in my book.  Maybe the two adulterous lovers will meet here.

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Too many facts

The book I’m working on now is set in Lebanon around the years 1990 – 2005.  This period encompasses the civil war, the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Hariri and the 2006 Israeli invasion.  I want to concentrate on my characters, but I’m constantly snagged on some historical detail that requires research.

My heroine flees south Lebanon after her parents and her Irish soldier boyfriend are killed.  The intricacies of the civil war affect her every move, and it was a maddeningly complicated fight.  One example – I have her sheltering in a Druze village at one point.  So I need to know which side the Druze were on at that particular time.  Were they fighting the Christians, or were they allied?  Questions like this pop up constantly.

I’ll be in Lebanon later this week, so I can do a bit of research in my spare time, and renew my sense of the landscape.

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