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Caribbean Writers Discuss Publishing – Lessons, Breakthroughs, and Rights 3/5

Recently, I (Joanne C. Hillhouse of Antigua and Barbuda) reached out to three female Caribbean writers (Diana McCaulay of Jamaica, Lisa Allen-Agostini of Trinidad and Tobago, and Shakirah Bourne of Barbados) with whom I have in common the distinction of being a finalist for the Burt Award for Teen/Young Adult Caribbean Literature (Diana with Daylight Come in 2019 and Gone to Drift in 2015; Shakirah with My Fishy Stepmom in 2018; and Lisa with Home Home in 2017; my own Musical Youth was a 2014 finalist).

daylight comeGone to DriftMy-Fishy-StepmomHome HomeMusical Youth

The three writers interviewed for this series have further distinguished themselves by selling rights to U.S. editions of their Burt books (McCaulay’s Gone to Drift released in the US market with Harper Collins in 2016; Lisa’s Home Home’s US edition landing in 2020 with Delacorte Press; and Shakirah’s book forthcoming in 2021 with Scholastic). I want to thank them for making the time because I believe their experiences, different though they are, are an education on publishing, especially if you’re a Caribbean Writer. The conversation is serialized due to length (so click here for the start of the series) – there are 5 questions.

Q. 3. What have you learnt through this journey about the business of publishing? – What tips do you have for navigating the publisher and/or agent relationship; Biggest mistakes to Best decisions. Think of this question in light of what you would say if you were mentoring your younger, yet unpublished, self.

Lisa: My advice: Submit your work. Be honest with your editor and realistic about deadlines. Persist. Network. Follow through.

Diana: I can’t say anything about the agent relationship – I did have one briefly, but she delivered nothing, even avoiding a scheduled in person meeting with me in New York. I’ve tried to get an agent because I do think it helps a writer to get a better deal, but in the current literary market, it’s harder to get an agent than a publisher, in my opinion. One issue for Caribbean writers who are resident in the Caribbean is that publishers and agents worry that you will not be able to do the kind of publicity a writer living in a literary market can do. And the days of writers being able to adopt a mysterious reclusiveness are long gone – you have to be out there, at library readings at which six people show up, doing the dreaded (for me, anyway) networking, etc.


Diana in a panel with other Burt 2019 winners at the Bocas Literary Festival.

Shakirah: I want to jump in to say that I’m grateful that my location was never brought up as an issue, because doing that dreaded networking (I feel the same) is much easier thanks to technology. Of course it would be much simpler for a US-based author to pop into a book store and sign books and establish a face to face relationship with readers and distributors, but booksellers and librarians are just as open to having online events. In the time of COVID publishers have relied on digital promotions and understood that these meaningful connections can still be forged from a distance. I would not refuse a physical book tour once it’s safe to travel again though!

Diana: Regarding the relationship with publishers, I have had three now, the thing I wish most is that they would communicate more regularly with you, tell you what they are doing for your book. Your contract will most likely require an annual royalty payment, so you know nothing about how sales are going until one year and three months has passed. In a way, you send your book out into the world and the only feedback you get is if you are reading in front of audiences, and those do not necessarily translate into sales, or the few emails and Amazon or Goodreads reviews you might get If you’re doing your own publicity you have no way of knowing what brought sales, and it’s easy to believe your publisher is not doing much.

This is why I self-published my fourth book. I wanted to see how difficult it was to promote my own book – I felt like I was doing quite a bit of promotion for my books that had publishers. And the answer – I’ll save readers some heartache – is that publishers are doing A LOT. They just don’t necessarily tell you about it. So, much as self-publishing gets easier and easier, I learned that everybody needs an editor, and even very low-key publishers have networks you have no access to as a writer. You asked about biggest mistake – and in one way I think the decision to self-publish White Liver Gal was a mistake, but it was a necessary one for me to make and I am glad I did it.

white liver gal
I’ll also say that I kept the e-book rights for my first two books (until recently), and the thing I loved about that was I could go online every day if I wanted to and see who downloaded my books, where they lived in the world, and the royalties would be sent directly to my bank account by month end. It was important, real-time feedback that made me feel connected to a reading public.

Lisa: The best decision I made was to tell Polly about my mental health conditions, even though I was afraid she would judge me. I had terrible anxiety and depression while publishing other books before and because it was a surprise to the editors I was working with they didn’t know how to respond. Being honest with her helped both of us. I followed the same route in working with Monica.

Shakirah: I have learnt that the journey to publication is more dependent on luck and timing than talent. We all know several amazing writers who are still waiting for a book deal, and are hoping to submit the right book to the right editor at the right time. In my experience, a lot of quality manuscripts aren’t selected for publication because the publishers already have a similar title on their list or are unsure of how to position the book in the market. It was difficult, but I had to learn to separate myself from the book, and understand that rejection is most likely a business decision and not a personal one; a rejection of your work is not a rejection of you as a writer. It has nothing to do with your ability to write or the value of the story. I had to redefine the meaning of rejection, and realize that every “not for me” brought me closer to finding the right editor, eliminating those who were not the best advocates for my work. It may take some writers more time to find that publisher, and the journey requires LOTS of patience, but in the mean time I’ve learnt to focus on what I can control—the writing.

Clear communication is key in navigating a relationship with both an agent and publisher. With an agent, it’s important to know what kind of support you’re looking for. Do you need an agent who is editorial and can help develop your story? A career agent or simply an agent for one manuscript? Do you want an agent with a good sales record in the genre? An agent who advocates for diversity and represents clients you admire? Figure it out and only query agents who you genuinely want to work with and whose goals and values align with yours. Talk to current clients, read and listen to interviews before signing with an agent. Don’t just say yes to any offer because having a bad agent is worse than having no agent. And always voice concerns. Though my agent readily answers all my questions, I still worry about bothering her or being seen as demanding. I have to constantly remind myself that it is an equal partnership and it’s her job to give insight and guidance along the publishing journey.

This can be applied to a relationship with a publisher as well. Speak up and ask for what you want. If you have an agent, you can voice these requests and let the agent communicate with the publisher. If there’s no agent, then engage with the publisher directly and do not be afraid of the word “No”. I think this fear of rejection stops us from asking for things that we want, and instead we sit and hope that the publisher offers and then get terribly disappointed if they don’t. Do not let fear of the word “no” prevent you from trying.

I think this ties into the question about biggest mistakes—that fear of the word “no”. Most of my unfavourable situations have come out of my fear of offending and subsequently acquiescing to unfavourable terms. I’d just advise that you get a lawyer or agent to look over every contract.


Caribbean students with several Burt titles including Lisa’s Home Home.

Lisa: I don’t know if I’ve made any big mistakes. For many years I won no prizes and was quite despondent about what I perceived to be my lack of success, but if I’m honest I’ll admit I’ve had more success than most so maybe I was doing something right.

Diana: If I were mentoring my younger, unpublished self, I would say – grow a very thick skin because no matter how successful you get, your work is still going to be rejected. I saw a post recently by Bernardine Evaristo, the 2019 Booker Prize winner for her book Girl, Woman, Other, that a commissioned short story she had written was rejected. I had the impression that once you “made it” as a writer, rejection was a thing of the past, but this is not the case. I would tell my younger self – write all the time. Submit. When stories or articles get rejected, send them somewhere else. Try to stop thinking about “success” – try. It’s hard to define anyway, and I know I keep moving the goal posts on myself. The thing I hate most about writing for publication (I have always written and will always write, but writing for publication is a different thing) is that feeling of envy you get when other writers win prizes, even prizes you have not entered! What’s that about?? But apparently we all feel that, and if I could get rid of those feelings, that’s what I would zap.

I would also say to my young writer self – learn your craft. I’ve done work as a creative writing teacher, a reader and editor and I’m often struck by how sloppy some of the submissions are – poor grammar, cliché-ridden, point of view changes in every other sentence and so on. If you want to write, be serious about it. Study it. Do workshops. Read widely and constantly. And write. And submit. And submit again.


Diana at her first Burt ceremony in 2015.

Shakirah: I’d tell my younger self to trust in your story. Stop worrying about international editors not understanding the dialect or getting the subtext or voice. The story will appeal to its intended audience. Continue to read, experiment, challenge yourself and go where the pen (or keyboard) guides you. And practice self-care! All the inevitable rejection and waiting can take a toll, so make sure you have a good coping mechanism.

Get involved in the writing community and spend time around like-minded persons who can empathize with your journey, help you brainstorm ideas and give advice on navigating through the industry.


Q.4. and the author responses will follow in the next installment of the series.

All images are courtesy of the authors and interview was conducted and published by Joanne C. Hillhouse. You can excerpt and share with link-back/credit but do not republish without permission.

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Workshop Space

UPDATE! Your’re also invited to check out the Wadadli Pen Prompts.

I’m calling this the workshop space for now. It’s where I’ll post links on craft and maybe writing prompts to help us hone our craft year round, not only at challenge time. Here goes:

Poets and Writers has numerous daily prompts, check them out.


This one’s an online poetry workshop; check it out.


I decided to share this post because it tackles the creative line writers must walk when writing historical fiction for readers with modern sensibilities; if you too are writing historical fiction, you might find it useful. It’s How to Put Women where there were None by Nick Taylor.


Best Books for Writers – an extensive list over at Poets and Writers


Genesis of an Idea.


Finishing your novel.


Grammar matters.


Use adverbs sparingly, says Maria Murnane. She also explains why you should just say it.


“The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.” Read this and more tips from Janet Finch, author of White Oleander, an Oprah’s Book Club pick and later a film starring (the ageless) Michelle Pfeiffer, (Bridget Jones or) Renee Zellwegger, (the Princess Bride herself) Robin Wright, and Alison Lohman. Despite the star power, I really did prefer the book and I think Finch’s tips are really spot on. One of my favourites: “Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences.”   Check them out.


This piece is on writing dialogue.


Check out what she says about “active description“.


“For a story to work, there needs to be both consequence and agency…” so says novelist Joshua Henkin. Read more.


“Active description requires the writer to think hard about the objective of the scene he’s writing, create conflicts based on the setting or other descriptive elements, and then write the conflicts INTO the description.” from this interview with author Holly Isle.


Here’s another one

This is a prompt I came up with to encourage folks to start thinking of their Wadadli Pen Challenge (2013) pieces…or to just write. I got an idea for another one today; will be posting that soon. So look out for more. Meanwhile, how about attempting this one.


This isn’t a quid pro quo for Andrew Blackman naming us one of the Caribbean’s top 20 book blogs, though that was pretty sweet. For some time now I’ve genuinely enjoyed reading his blog and it’s because of postings like this one in which he references things like “To write well, I need to spend less time writing, and more time staring out of the window… to think creatively, you need to let your mind wander, rather than trying to tame it” and “it’s less easy to concentrate when you’re tired, so it’s more likely that your mind will wander and come up with interesting ideas”. I’ll have to agree to disagree with him on the debilitating effects of coffee (“caffeine is bad for creativity”), however. Go read the blog…and then let your mind wander.


I thought about adding this post to the Reading Room – its a written and audio presentation, though which, in the end, seemed more appropriate for the workshop space given that it breaks down how to construct (or the elements of) a blues poem. It is The Blues a Craft Manifesto by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers at the Kenyon Review.


Here’s a whole list of writing prompts in different genres.


I spent part of today working on a response to an online writing prompt only to realize I’d missed the submission deadline. But though this serves as a reminder to me to double check submission deadlines, time spent working on craft is never wasted. What the hell, since they’re never going to see it, I’ll share what I came up with with you. The prompt was to write a 100 word or less opening to a story about a guy overhearing something he didn’t want to in a workplace setting. Here’s what I came up with:

Late shift at the station, only a handful on duty; Dean’s bored stiff, and restless, which probably explains how his hand comes to flip the audio switch for studio one when he stretches to fix the picture on one of the monitors.

At first he doesn’t understand what he’s hearing, but his brain soon catches on and little Dean perks up. He quickly flips it back, but the sounds, sucking and heavy breathing, stay; though through the glass separating studio and control room, he sees only the shadows of tripods, cameras and set pieces.

But now he knows they’re there.

That’s 100 words on the nose, chopped down from nearly 300 words on my first try; if I keep working at it, which I might, it might turn out to be something. If not, it was a fun and challenging exercise. Doing these prompts is one way of not only winning prizes and recognition, but staying limber. Here’s the link to the next Writers Digest prompt, if you feel like flexing your muscles. It’s a visual prompt this time (and I know Wadadli Pen judge and organizer of the Just Write Writers Retreat Brenda Lee Browne is a fan of those).


This is an exciting insight into the process of creating a story using visual prompts and one’s natural curiosity. If you haven’t read her book Girl with the Pearl Earring or seen the film you really should, and you’ll find yourself looking at the painting again and thinking, hmm maybe. Because it just could be. Stop and take in an image today and see what stories it reveals about itself to you.


One True Sentence by Kendra Bonnett


Memos to Poets by Kwame Dawes


Processing Feedback by Joni B. Cole


WADADLI PEN EXCLUSIVE! Diana McCaulay, Jamaican author of Huracan and Dog-Heart, and Commonwealth short  story prize winner for Dolphin Catcher talks writing, publishing, and more of particular interest to the Caribbean writer.


A little perspective on “show, don’t tell”  by Jessica Strawser


Take Your Readers Somewhere…The Importance of Place  by Kendra Bonnett


Don’t be Afraid to Use Pronouns by Maria Murnane.



Recommended books on craft (here’s some of mine; feel free to suggest your own)

Writing Fiction by Janet Burraway

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

The 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kitely

As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

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But I don’t know what to write about?

Wadadli Pen 2012 has launched. And you have a vague notion of entering, maybe, if something comes to you before the deadline. The thing about writing though is something won’t always come to you, sometimes you have to go looking for it.

And it’s important to remember that while a competition has parameters – word limits, themes – there is within those parameters no limit on the imagination. And it’s always a good idea to write about what genuinely interests and concerns you. Don’t fake the funk.

As Gayle Brandeis, author of the book of Live Wires, says here, “When we write about the things that electrify us–either with joy or with fear–we bring a great zing of energy to the page. Energy that will propel our words forward; energy the reader will be able to feel.” Be passionate.

As for what makes a good short story, tastes vary of course, but there is some resonance in British author Bernadine Evaristo’s response that she looks for “Linguistic flair, something fresh and original, depth, re-readability, stories that explore new ways of seeing, being, that surprise, provoke and even shock.” Be original.

Finally, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie who knows a thing or two about winning major literary prizes and critical acclaim, reminds that it’s never a good idea to copy another’s idea. You know, this is what this person did to win so this must be what they’re looking for. Uh-uh.  Like snowflakes and fingerprints, your story is a unique creature; each person has a different story to tell. So, tell yours. “Be truthful,” she said. “Don’t write what’s false, write what is true. Write the best story you can write; make it your story.” Be real.

So with those thoughts in mind, we look forward to receiving your entries for the Wadadli Pen Challenge 2012 being held this year in partnership with the Best of Books with support from several patrons.

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For Wadadli Pen Competition Guidelines go here; it’s important that you read and follow the guidelines when submitting

Draw on Caribbean lore, attitudes, values, environment, sensibility, and your own experience; feel free to make up a world with wholly new characters and/or creatures, to reflect your own world, to incorporate real life characters from the past or present, to invent your own characters, to have both invented and real characters play in the same pool. There are no limits on imagination.

Engage and amuse your reader; have fun with it.

Enrich your stories with detail, authenticity and sensitive treatment of issues. “Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.” – Anne Enright, author

Draft and redraft until you have it just right.

“I write, rewrite, add, delete, analyze and synthesize continuously until I feel a sense of satisfaction with the piece.” – Malachi Smith, poet  http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/2009/01/so-much-things-to-say-malachi.html

“Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.” – Esther Freud, author

Use proper spelling, grammar, punctuation – take the time to proof your submission or have someone do it for you.

Keep in mind that a story is more than just a chronology of events and pay attention to things like plotting, character development, pacing, tone, style, and rhythm – yes, rhythm. “A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.” – Esther Freud, author

Make it fresh.    “Beware of clichés (including clichés of response, observation, thought, conception as well as expression)” – Geoff Dyer, author

Show don’t tell…tighten it up…pay attention to pacing – http://www.unheardwords.com/tform.htm (The Problem of Form by Bill Manville)

Further reading:

Examples of past Wadadli Pen winners who’ve created close to the kind material desired are:

Stray Dog Prepares for the Storm by Gemma George (2004) https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/stray-dog-prepares-for-the-storm-by-gemma-george-2

Fictional Reality by Rilys Adams (2005)

and The Creation by Rosalie Amelia Richards (2006)  https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/the-creation-by-rosalie-amelia-richards

Also check out other winning pieces categorized by year elsewhere on this site and visit our Reading Room or check this Caribbean children’s literature site where perhaps you’ll find inspiration.

Of course, we think you can do better. Do not attempt to mimic these, dip into your own imagination and see what comes out.

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