Summer Reading for Locked-Down Travellers

Namisa and its sister island of Pundar are the setting for my new novel, A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa, which is available now on an Amazon site near you. Namisa can be difficult to find on a map and exceedingly problematic to Google, but when readers get there, they will have the time of their lives. 

If I were to try to describe A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa, I’d say it is a contemporary, modestly amusing, coming-of-age-for-late-developers kind of novel, set in a world of work for the inadequately qualified.

Had I written about a real country, I would, alas, have been by now declared persona non grata by its government. A very unhelpful literary agent, who shall remain nameless, told me to set my story in a known location so that readers could more easily understand it and identify with it. If I had done this, I would have cancelled out all of the novel’s unique selling points – its whacky invented locations, its Namisan language, and its idiosyncratic customs.

You need to know that I have looked for an agent for my writing since the 1990s. Many publications and many prizes later, I have come up blank. In my lifetime I only ever received one response from an agent and that was in 1995. On that occasion, the person concerned was a very well-known and respected American agent. He had the good grace to write back to this new fiction writer with words of encouragement and guidance. It is due to him that I am still writing today.

Because I believed in this particular novel, I took it forward and published it myself. Literary agents are very valuable if you find a good one. Otherwise, there is absolutely no need for you to go cap-in-hand to someone who doesn’t know the difference between an adverb and an adjective. This, sadly, has been my experience. So very often, the people who are supposed to arbitrate public taste, lack the knowledge or the skills to do so. If you believe in your novel, if you have polished it as well as you can, and then no one replies to your agent queries, publish your novel yourself and move on rapidly to the writing of your next book. There is no overnight success. Don’t spend a lifetime hoping. You could die in the meantime.

My protagonist Philip Blair is an ‘innocent abroad,’ but he learns quickly. Among the issues he has to contend with in his role as Officer of Culture and Education for an NGO in Namisa are the autumn-autumn uprising, Pundexit, cultural appropriation, British imperialism, immigration, racism, the role of women, office politics, and happy-happy hour cocktails.

Writers, if you believe in the book you are writing, then stick with it and make it as good as it can be. Trust your own judgement when agents or publishers tell you that your book won’t sell unless you do X, Y, and Z. They may well be right up to a point, but ultimately you – the author – have to write the book that you need to write.

If you enjoyed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and if you enjoyed The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, then the likelihood is that you will also enjoy A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa. If not, then you will need to wait for my next novel. Sorry about that!

Getting Your Stories Published

Some words of encouragement for those of you who have been trying to get your work published.

Submitting stories for publication can be a long and thankless task, but it is immensely uplifting when a story is accepted. It means that someone has read your work and has, in a sense, validated it. One of my favourite stories: A Cure For Snakebites, was sent out a total of 30 times to different literary journals between 2011 and 2017. I re-wrote the story multiple times, but essentially the heart of it remained the same. I had a message to convey and somewhere the message was embedded in that story.  Sometimes when we start writing a story – or even when we have written the first few drafts – we are not sure what our story is about. We cling to that tale because our heart says we must.

I stuck with this story for that reason. I would take it out, re-read it, tweak it, and experience a range of ‘Aha!’ moments as I began to understand what it meant for me. The writer Dorothea Brande said, “Writing is re-writing.” We need to re-write in order to dig deeply and find out what is in the pit of our subconscious. So, don’t write your story and say that you are done with it after the first draft. Look again and you will see something new. 

For readers, our stories may have many different meanings. We can explain up to a point what we were trying to say, but ultimately it must be for the reader to search and find what they are looking for in that story.

A Cure For Snakebites was finally accepted on the 31st try, by the literary journal Litro at the beginning of 2017, and I later republished it under the title Charmed in the collection  A Brief History of Several Boyfriends.

3 A Brief History of Several Boyfriends - janet Olearski

Part of the key to getting your stories published is finding the right match between your style of writing and the journal to which you are submitting. That means reading the material they publish to see if your story is likely to fit. Don’t submit at random. Your story, if you love it, deserves better than that.

 

Why you need to start writing yesterday

It may come as a shock to you to learn that you are not the only writer in the world, or in your country, or – indeed – in your neighbourhood. In fact, it would seem that every other person writes. I keep bumping into people who tell me, ‘Oh yes, I’ve written a novel.’

So, what’s the difference between one writer and the next?

Well, some writers are committed, and some are not. Some write every day, and until the sun goes down. Some have objectives, and some do not. Some prioritize their writing, and some drop tools to do other things… go out with friends, work late at the office, chat to people on social media. Yesterday they decided to write something, but today they’ve decided to go to a movie or to go out for a meal instead. You’ve got the idea. The writing isn’t going to happen.

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Meanwhile, you need to hear a few statistics. In the United States alone there are over 200 MFA writing programs (Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing). In 2016, more than 20,000 people applied to these programs. Every year these MFA courses produce 3,000 writing graduates. A few of these have some moderate successes. Many more go on to teach… usually on MFA programs.

In short, there’s a lot of competition out there. While you’re sitting around thinking that you might like to be a writer, and that you might start writing seriously tomorrow or the next day, you’ve actually already been left behind in the dust of others who are a whole lot faster and a whole lot more committed.

But, if you still want to be a writer, here are a few things you need to do:

  1. Give up your socializing.
  2. Decide what you want to write, and plan your writing projects.
  3. Commit to and prioritize your writing.
  4. Stop talking about what you’re going to write, and write.
  5. Read like a writer. In other words, read to learn.
  6. Keep writing until you’ve completed a first draft, however terrible that is.
  7. Rewrite and improve, using the ideas and insights gained from your reading.After that if you are still not making any progress, consider that writing may not be for you. Think about trying your hand at some other art form. How about painting?

The Write Stuff: short stories

In case you’re wondering if any good comes out of being part of a writers’ group… well, it does. This month sees the publication of The Write Stuff, a collection of stories by members of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. These are all writers who stuck with the group, read, listened, discussed, and wrote their socks off.

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Of the 14 whose work appears in the anthology, at least four are first-time authors who thought that the chance of ever getting published was either impossible or remote. But today, they are in print and on the path to future writing successes.

My formula for becoming a writer: read a lot, write a lot, re-write a lot, read some more. Don’t rush through books just to clock up numbers. You’re a writer, so read in order to learn how others write.

The Write Stuff is available now on amazon.com, on amazon.co.uk, and on Kindle.