Kevin Jared Hosein is a Trinidadian writer who this year made the Bocas long list with his fictional work The Repenters. We’ve met once, at the Trinidad launch of Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean in which we both have stories. At that same Bocas event I bought a copy of Kevin’s Littletown Secrets as a gift for one of my nephews, a reluctant reader if ever there was one. He started reading the book right away and, more importantly, finished it, and wonder of wonders, liked it. I read and liked it too (as I shared in Blogger on Books). Kevin’s also been gracious enough to approve the use of his Commonwealth winning short story King of Settlement 4 in a couple of my workshops, to include providing a copy of the story in the draft stage for comparison with the final which proved illustrative re the editing process. I am legit happy at his breakthrough on the Bocas list. Kevin did something recently that I try to do here, and to some extent on my other blog, school and encourage on the journey and the process – with the understanding, of course, that each person’s journey is his/her own. I asked his permission to re-share what he described in his facebook note as The Colossal Post About Writing and Publishing in the Caribbean. Here it is.
There are many people who horde great stories and manuscripts under their bed—and dwell in anger of not being recognized. I know, because I was one.
You’re in a boat with the line up in the air, expecting the fish to leap to your feet. Cast the line—see what bites. But it’s not that easy, is it? Not when it’s your own drowning confidence being used as the bait.
Four years ago, I was nothing. Publishing a novel through Peepal Tree Press; winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize; making the longlist for the OCM Bocas Prize—the numerous accolades and publications I have under my belt—were all so far away four years ago.
This isn’t a case of, “Ah reach!”
I am nowhere close to doing everything I want to do, but I can step back and gaze—and realize the milestones surpassed in this relatively short timespan. Why I’m writing is to enlighten those about the overall literary scene here in the Caribbean and to outline my own ongoing journey. I stress that everyone has their own path and mine is not to serve as a template. But hopefully, it can help another budding writer clear the bushes to their own road.
The art of writing is an enormous and ultimately rewarding undertaking. It is the business of it that resides on the bleak, dark side of the moon.
I came into this business knowing nothing about it. I knew nobody and nobody knew me. Like many, I had stories but I had no idea how to get them out there. I had no mentor or link. My degree is in the natural sciences and my secondary school alma mater (Pres. College, Chaguanas) didn’t even offer English Literature as a subject while I was there.
So, with writing, I was always on my lonesome. I have always stayed away from writing groups, because I could never find a good one. Writers get easily disappointed or offended, they get finicky and vengeful. To be short and blunt, most groups devolve into circlejerks, afraid to criticize each other, in fear of being criticized themselves. And there is no shame in that. That’s just how it is. I can understand that.
While writing, you constantly surprise yourself. You might blow yourself away with a scene. You break your own barricades down and step your farthest steps constantly. It is a difficult emotion to keep internalized and there is an intense yearning to share it with someone else. That being said, never share unfinished work. If you have to talk about it, limit yourself. Two minutes. That’s it. The more you talk about something you’re not finished with, the more you feel like you’ve already finished it. Let the yearning stay there—it will be your driving force to completion.
Even when work is complete, it’s not. Read over old work every year. See if it holds up. You will be surprised how often it doesn’t. But this is a good thing—you’re growing. You’re setting higher standards for yourself each year. Literally, time will tell if your work is good.
Writing is a constant comparison of other writings. Not comparison that leads to cockiness and arrogance, but that of doing a peer review. I believe there is some universal constant in writers, harkening all the way back to Greek theatre. It is difficult to describe but there is something in us—something transfiguring the darkness around us.
For me, writing has always thrived in the hinterland of solitude. To improve in writing is to narrow that gap between your own ability and your expectations. You have to fail privately and realize when your own characters and scenes fail before someone else can point it to you. Writing is simply about overcoming failure. You know how the sayings go—scar tissue is tougher than regular tissue; you have to fall to know how to get back up. Such platitudes may not make for good literature, but the sayings exist because they are true. The more you read, the greater you’ll hone your ability to do this.
First off, if you’ve started writing today—don’t think about publishing until at least five years down the road. Enjoy the art of writing before you even put yourself through these worries.
I’ll come right out and say it: traditional publishing opportunities for Caribbean authors are scarce. We simply do not have the support. Even smaller, highly reputable publishers such as Alma Books, which did Roland Watson-Grant’s Sketcher don’t take submissions from outside of the UK. There are two main publishers who take special interest in us:
1.Peepal Tree Press, based in Leeds, UK. Peepal accepts a general minimum of 40,000 words per fiction manuscript. However, because they are a small press, they have to be very selective, only publishing a handful of books per year. I’ve worked with Peepal Tree Press rigorously and can personally attest to their passion, knowledge and expertise.
2.Akashic Books, based in Brooklyn, NY. For periods of time, Akashic does not take unsolicited submissions—but don’t let that stop you!
Both publishers have immense respect among Caribbean literary folk. Getting a reader audience is a different story.
I think it’s an unspoken rule that before you can be considered by these presses, you must have a respectable writing resume. The traditional publishing route is crucial if you want to be taken seriously in this region – a litmus test for quality, if I may. To be blunt, Trinis just don’t just other Trinis’ taste unless it’s backed up by a foreign opinion.
Both being small presses, however – you shouldn’t expect a fortune or any sort of lump sum upon being published. The only money comes from the royalties, which is just a small fraction from the overall sales.
My contract put 12.5% royalties for first 3,000 copies sold and 15% for every copy after that.
Simply put, don’t quit your day job.
Feel free to seek out a literary agent and submit to the big ones like Simon & Schuster and Jonathan Cape, but I have no advice on that. Not yet. You’re better off trying the small presses for a debut, in my humble opinion.
Competitions & writing resumes
Before you even think of publishing, it is necessary to have a few things: to have written a treasure trove of words—good words; and a flourishing writing resume.
A writing resume doesn’t entail how well you can write, how many stories you’ve written and have under your bed, or read aloud at an open mic, or which workshops you’ve taken. It is an account of what you have out there in solid print—publications, accolades, articles, mentions. Your writing resume is your name.
The two best ways to build a writing resume is to enter competitions and submit to anthologies (which are like competitions themselves, aren’t they?) I’ve spoken about scar tissue before for a reason. Concerning entering competitions, you have to know one thing—you will get rejected. Sometimes it’s ten to twenty times in a row. That’s a given. Even most regional competitions, such as the Small Axe Literary Competition, receive hundreds of entries. International ones such as Commonwealth Short Story Prize receive thousands. You’re going to have to get used to those cold, impersonal emails that begin with, ‘Dear entrant, thank you for entering! Unfortunately…’
Regardless, enter them. I had entered the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for four years before winning. I hadn’t even shortlisted before. But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is this—despite not even having given a mention, my 2014 entry, The Monkey Trap, was read by an editor over at Akashic Books. Their imprint, Peekash Press, emailed me and told me they’d like to include it in their upcoming collection, Pepperpot. This was how I sold my first short story and how my writing resume really began to take form.
Even if your name ends up on a short- or longlist, you can include that on your writing resume. That’s in your name forever.
But realize this: a competition judge is not God, and in the history of this Earth, there has been no universally loved story. Do not seek to write such a thing. Some who read my story, The King of Settlement 4, said it was too obscene and over-the-top. Fred D’Aguiar and the rest of the Commonwealth panel thought more of it than people on my Facebook list. Opinions differ. Sometimes, it works against you. Sometimes, it’s in your favour.
Either way, if you win something—don’t congratulate yourself too much.
Here are three reputable, regional competitions you should consider:
•The Small Axe Literary Competition, which is usually starts taking submissions around May and reveals their winner in October or November. There are two categories: Prose and Poetry. No entry fee.
• Wasafiri New Writing Prize, which takes submissions around October. There are three categories: Life Writing, Fiction and Poetry. There’s a reading fee of £6.00 for one category. Not exactly regional, but it has been very kind to Caribbean writers.
•Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which takes submissions around September or October and reveal their shortlist at March/April. Winners are chosen by region before an overall winner is chosen. No entry fee.
Aerogramme Studios publishes a monthly list called “Opportunites for Writers”, filled to the brim with international writing competitions. Consider these as well. Also keep on the lookout for times when places are accepting unsolicited submissions, such as what Granta did a few months back. The chances are slim—but the more you cast that line, the better. Remember this: you’re not losing anything by entering.
In addition to entering competitions, I would also suggest submitting to journals and magazines. Many places use a site called Submittable to track submissions (and rejections), so get used to it. Here are a few you can consider:
• The Caribbean Writer
• Moko Arts & Letters
• Akashic’s Duppy Thursday series
• Guernica Magazine
• Lightspeed Magazine (if they can publish me, why not you?)
• Nightmare Magazine
Note that the latter three are international publications of very high caliber, but have shown great appreciation for Caribbean writers lately.
Enter as many competitions as you can. Think of them as challenges. For example, I entered the Mogford Short Story Prize this year. The theme was “food and drink”, something I wouldn’t normally even think to write about. The longlist was announced this month and I was not successful. But that’s okay – know why? Because now, I have another short story in my collection!
Refrain from submitting your story into an online publication that both offers no payment, and is without academic reputation. I understand some of the smaller e-zines cannot afford to pay—but if they have no means of granting you a readership, stay away. Why I say this is because once your story is published online (not in your personal blog), it becomes ineligible for many other competitions and publications, which can potentially net you payment, a prize or mention of shortlist. While it is a cheap, easy way of bulking up your writing resume, it is simply not worth it. Be patient.
When I was in UWI, I wrote a collection of linked short stories titled Littletown Secrets. I didn’t do much with it until a few years later. I re-read it and still liked it—remember what I said about re-reading your old work? The main problem was this: it was very short (close to 25,000 words) and it was fantasy. There isn’t a big pull for fantasy here, not so far, and certainly not back then. So, I decided to self-publish. It was self-publishing, but at the same time, it wasn’t.
Lyndon Baptiste and his small publishing company, Potbake, agreed to print the book and work with me. It was a simple process. I handed him the manuscript. He put it in book format. My girlfriend, Portia, does amazing illustration work, so that made finding a cover artist easy!
The Trinidad Guardian stated it as one of the best children’s books of 2013, and Caribbean Beat Magazine (the in-flight magazine) also highlighted it. This is important if you want to self-publish. It is no secret that being in the company of other self-published books isn’t flattering. Many of them are riddled with spelling errors, unprofessional formatting, clichéd characters and overall amateur writing. You’ll need those newspaper reviews to separate yourself.
This makes folks wary of your work. It was perfect to bridge the gap between primary and secondary school literature, so I received orders from both. A teacher from St. Joseph Boys’ R.C. Primary taught the book in his Standard Five class and exercises were done with Form Ones of San Fernando East Secondary. Even my own school did it during a reading camp.
The Bocas Literature Festival invited me to do readings with children three years in a row. Sales were made, little by little. We ran a batch of 500 books for about $8,000, all of which sold out. We walked right over to Trincity Mall’s R.I.K. outlet and gave them 15 copies and priced the book at $60 right there. That’s about a $20,000 (taking away $2000 for manuscript editing costs) profit right there from that batch. As I said, the little book put in some great work. That money is chump change in the end compared to other businesses. But you’re a writer – expect that kind of money. As I said, don’t quit your day job.
Even modest sales numbers like these are rare for Trinidadian authors, however. It is simply not practical to depend on local retailers to stock your books. Sometimes they do, they sell out and they simply do not bother to restock. Sometimes only a few outlets stock them. Either way, making the books available has always been a problem. A good example—it is probably easier to find The Repenters in the Cayman Islands right now than in my own country. Having total control of sales, making deliveries by post, taking orders from schools—these contributed more than the major local bookstores ever could’ve.
Aside from the late, great Angelo Bissessarsingh’s books, local retailers have zero confidence in their West Indian section.
The people over at Paper Based Bookshop in Normandie Hotel (St. Ann’s) and Metropolitan Bookshop will be your saving graces. Without them, you’ll probably never see your book on a shelf.
You get to create your own selling opportunities. You get to approach the business side of writing from different angles. It’s a good learning experience. I marketed the book hard with as little cost as possible. I even sold about 20 copies at an Upmarket. You have to be creative. Fish aren’t going to leap at your feet, I said.
So, you shouldn’t write it off.
I self-published for one main reason—to get my foot in the door. It was a risk, but that’s what it’s all about. I used a short manuscript that was appropriate for all ages and did my own illustrations to keep production costs low. Children loved the book. I know a few who still read it over and over.
I even made a video teaser for the book for a Christmas promotion, utilizing my video-editing skills and having my own friends record the voice-over narrations. Even the background music was a composition by my friend, Brandon Abley.
I’ve dabbled in Kindle Publishing, but I just used it to give away the book for free. Availability is important. If people read it and like it, they’ll buy it if they see it on a shelf – if not for themselves, then for someone else. However, if you do want to set a price, $4.99USD seems fine as a starter. As of right now, I think I need to read up more about marketing a Kindle product before I can speak any further on the subject.
Editing is essential to elevate your work into something great. It is also tedious and, as a result, expensive. I’d say the average editor charges a little under $1,000TTD per 10,000 words. You’re thinking—you can do this yourself, save some money. What an editor is supposed to provide is at least the following:
•Improvement of syntax, i.e. reducing ‘clunkiness’ of sentence structure.
•Ensuring that continuity and verisimilitude (truthlikeness) are maintained; that plot details and descriptions flow without errors in logic or plot holes
•Ensuring character flaws are kept to a bare minimum; pointing out jarring actions or dialogue by characters.
•Ensuring the writing is economical; paring down of excess words that weigh down the story and its impact.
If your editor is charging you premium for simply correcting typos, drop that person and run. An editor can function as a proofreader but their prices are supposed to be much, much less for that aspect of the job.
It is important to note, however, that many publishers have in-house editing. Before I published The Repenters, I had the manuscript edited by Shivanee Ramlochan. She did a bang-up job, good enough to get Peepal Tree Press to consider publication with me. They, however, wanted me to expand certain plot points. When I did, they did the final editing themselves (free of charge, of course, since the book became their interest). However, if I had sent The Repenters without editing, I most likely would’ve gotten a flat rejection.
Get your work edited by a professional. But you have to be professional as well. Ensure those are good words you’re sending. Most editors flat-out will not edit a manuscript they deem as unsalvageable. In addition, it is crucial to know about manuscript format before you even send something to an editor.
Networking and image
This is the dreaded part, isn’t it? Establishing those links and connections. Trust me, this part is the most frightening for me. However, I don’t think I’ve ever really worked to give off a certain image. I am who I am. However, I do wear the same clothes all the time—like I have a uniform of sorts (akin to Earl Lovelace’s white shirt). More than once, people who meet me cannot believe I am a writer. I don’t look like one or give off the vibe, they’ve said. It figures.
I’m a Chaguanas Indian who attends Super Smash Bros. tournaments, collects Legend of Zelda paraphernalia and still headbangs to nu-metal.
You don’t need to live and breathe an image. Just do good work consistently. That’s much, much more important. Who cares in the long run about writers who can only talk and don’t write well?
Networking obviously helps—not that you have to be a high-falutin literary type or anything like that. If you’re like me and are terrified of being judged by people in real-time, this is all you have to keep in mind if you find yourself in such a situation:
•Keep conversations very brief with your literary peers. The less they know, the better. It’s good to keep some mystery to you sometimes.
•Don’t talk about things you don’t know about. Don’t pretend to know.
•Be punctual if you’re invited to an event. Be professional.
•Don’t be too stoic. You’re not impressing anybody by being the brooding writer type.
•Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. It relieves tension. It makes life a little easier.
I was invited to a dinner with a Commonwealth Writers group about a year ago. It was terrifying, until it wasn’t. They’re just people. I was seated next to two South Americans, one from Argentina, the other from Chile. They each looked like they were in their mid-forties. They weren’t out to kill me. When I reminded myself of that, we spoke normally. They told me about things I didn’t know and I told them about things they didn’t know. It was as simple as that.
You don’t need to suck up or schmooze. Just be cordial to your fellow writers. You don’t need to get drunk with them and tell them your whole life story. However, if you’re a naturally charismatic person, by all means, go ahead and charm! I am simply not that type and do not pretend to be.
I’ll remind you of the most important contact you’ll have, though: Paper Based Bookshop.
I’ve tried to divulge as much information as I could in this post. It took a lot of time to figure out the ins-and-outs of the Caribbean literary scene and the many paths that can be taken to get your work out there. To those who are trying, keep casting the line. If you feel like you’re drowning, that’s okay—take a minute to breathe. The business of the writing scene is nails-tough, but it’ll make you tough in the end too. Write as much as you could. Worry about publishing after it’s done and fine. It’s there forever, anyway.
If this is something you’ve been interested in, I hope the information was helpful. I know it was very difficult to find any when I was starting out four years ago If you know it would be for someone you know, please share it with them.
A long read but both comprehensive and incisive, yes. Thanks for your clarity and candor, Kevin.
You can find more information on the publishers, journals, and contests mentioned – and others – on our Opportunities page (which also has programmes, project funding, etc.). You might also find the Resources page instructive re some of the business side of publishing touched on in his post.
I endorse much of what KJ says here (and learned some things too, though I’ve been at this writing and publishing thing for a while). This site, if you’ll dig around, also has interviews and other guest blogs about the journey with/by other (usually) Caribbean writers. Links to some of my own reflections on the journey that have published here on the site are copied below:
As with all content on Wadadli Pen, except otherwise noted, this is written by Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Fish Outta Water, Musical Youth, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings, and With Grace; also a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and workshop facilitator). Excerpting, reblogging, linking etc. is fine, but PLEASE do not lift ANY content (images or text) wholesale from this site without asking first and crediting the creator of that work and/or copyright holder. All Rights Reserved. If you like the content here follow or recommend the blog, also, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. Thank you.