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On becoming a writer

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I have been engaged in writing for a period of over 60 years and have had 20 books published while several publishable manuscripts are waiting for their birthday. Hence, I believe I have the experience from which those interested in writing can benefit.

Writing is a profession. Like any other profession, before you can practice it effectively, you must know its theory or principle. You may learn from a book on the art of writing, from a school or from reading biographies of great writers such as Chinua Achebe, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. I first learned the principles in a small book titled Hints to Authors and Journalists which used to be sold by the Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia Publications Bureau in the early 1950’s. But I kept getting hold of similar books thereafter and I still do so.

Successful and great writers are also veracious readers. Read books in the field you are interested to acquire the extra vocabulary. Without a rich vocabulary, you will not be able to express yourself adequately. Always read without a dictionary nearby.

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If you want to practise fiction writing, read both classics and modern works. From classics, try to find out why they are still being read and bought after all these years; what has made them durable. You will find that they deal with perennial themes or problems such as love, hatred, jealousy, adventure, cruelty, kindness and greed. Passions like these are found all over the earth today. They were found all over the earth in the past. They are the essence of humanity.

Since there are many great authors, choose one, two or three as your role models. Study these diligently, begin by trying to imitate their styles until you develop your own. All those who became great writers started by imitating earlier great writers.

The great German author Johann Goethe advised budding writers to start with small pieces until they have acquired the experience to tackle major works. Therefore, start with short stories or novelettes. Failure to sell a short piece is less painful than failure to sell work of hundreds of pages or millions of words.

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Work according to timetable. Every professional who succeeds owe sit to discipline. Doctors, lawyers or teachers report for duties at particular places and particular times. Writers who have produced a lot of works have fixed places when they work and regular time to start and finish. Writing is a lonesome profession. You do not practise it in front of crowds, not even friends or family members. You lock yourself in a room until you finish the day’s quota. This is the secret of writing and unless you do a lot of writing, your chances of becoming a great and popular writer are slim.

A writer is a rewriter. It is very rare that the first draft of your manuscript will represent the best in you. Great novelists revise manuscripts several times. Leo Tolstoy rewrote War and Peace six times. Margaret Mitchell revised the first chapter of Gone with the Wind 70 times. This sounds as arduous effort. It is indeed. Just as you have to be highly committed to becoming a great doctor, footballer or president, so you have to work hard to succeed as an author.

There are many well-educated persons with a good command of English or some other language who wish they would be writers but find the labour involved too much. Do you want to be a writer? Fine. There is room enough at the top but no ladders or escalators at the bottom. You have to go upstairs by trudging along.

No one is an author until his or her manuscript is completed, sent to a publisher or printer, printed and the book is in bookshop, attracting customers.

Most writers send their manuscripts to publishers. Their manuscript meets manuscripts sent in by other writers. The publisher chooses what appears to be the best.

Usually, a publisher works on the basis of budgets to publish five, 10 or 20 books annually depending on how big the publishing house is. Out of a hundred manuscripts received, the publisher may accept only five or up to 20 and return the rest.

A rejection of one’s manuscript can be excruciating. Right from the beginning, take rejection slips as part of the learning process. Sometimes the publisher gives reasons why he has rejected the manuscript but often no reasons are given.

In countries such as Britain and the United States, authors do not give up first time when their manuscripts are returned. Instead, they send the manuscripts to other publishers. Sometime a manuscript gets published after it has been rejected five or 10 times and becomes a best seller. Not all publishers are the best judges of books that will sell.

In Malawi, publishing houses are still infantile. They are generally reluctant to publish a book of fiction. They would rather publish books which are likely to be used in schools. Still, you better approach them. They have an association currently headed by Alfred Msadala.

What is the alternative if your manuscript is not accepted by anyone of the publishers in Malawi or abroad? Write another book taking into account reasons given by publishers for rejecting your first attempt. You cannot succeed as a writer unless you keep on writing. Persistence is the secret in all endeavours.

If you feel confident that your manuscript has merit, the last option is to publish it yourself provided you can afford the expenses. You will have to approach a printing house for quotations.

Once you have published the book, you will have to approach booksellers to sell it for you. A book is a kind of merchandise. People cannot buy it if they have never heard of it.

Is there money in writing? It is not a shame to write with the aim of earning some money. Most writers are doing some work from which they get regular income. Very few writers depend solely on book earnings, especially in Africa where the reading public is still too small.

If you keep on writing, time will come when you will earn respectable sums from book sales. If by chance your book is adopted for school use, the earnings could be substantial.

In the book What the Achievers Teach about Success by D.D. Phiri, there is a full chapter on how to become a writer. It contains hints given by great world writers. The book can be bought at Claim Bookshop and Central Bookshop in Blantyre or ordered from Aggrey Memorial School, Blantyre, which also offers a full correspondence course on the art of writing.

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