Some time ago, I asked five notable South African writers to share their advice on writing a bestselling novel. Their answers show that it’s all about hard work, humility and perseverance.
‘I don’t think it is possible to set out to write a hit. Readers are smart: they can tell a con at fifty paces,’ said Margie Orford, author of the internationally bestselling Clare Hart crime series. ‘So, feel with your body, write with your heart, edit with your head. Write about what you know, but if you don’t know something then go it find out. Remember this: It takes a very long time to become an overnight success, so work harder than you ever thought possible. Then work some more. Don’t give up. Don’t complain. Just do it again. And then again. And if it’s not working? That thing about killing your darlings is true: if a chapter doesn’t fit, then cut it out, step over the blood and move on.’
John van de Ruit, author of the Spud series, said, ‘Forget about writing a bestselling novel. There is no magic formula for making your book reach people, and I would think that if world domination is your single-minded aim, you are setting yourself up to fail. Rather attempt to write the greatest book you can. Concentrate on the fundamentals of character, plotting, dramatic action, rhythm and subtext, and let the numbers take care of themselves. Don’t be precious about your words, nor marvel at your own ability. Remove ego from your writing, and remember you are a servant to your characters and the invisible presence with the power to captivate.’
‘Write your truth as you see it,’ advised Sindiwe Magona, whose novel Beauty’s Gift Beauty’s Gift was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. ‘Share the feelings that moved you to write about the subject. Submit yourself to the dream as it unfolds through you; with any luck, you shall be as surprised as your readers at what is revealed in the process.’
‘I wish I knew the secret,’ said Lauren Liebenberg, the former investment banker whose first novel, The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, was short-listed for the Orange Prize for New Writers, ‘but this much I do know: you’ve got to take a sober look at every word you’ve written and ask yourself what would make your reader care enough to turn the next page. And the thing that jumps out and grabs readers by the throat is raw, gritty honesty; it’s what brings characters to life and what binds readers to them.’
‘I subscribe to Bessie Head’s words on writing Maru: “…I also wanted the novel to be so beautiful and so magical that I, as the writer, would long to read and re-read it,” said Kgebetli Moele, author of the award-winning debut novel Room 207, and The Book of the Dead. ‘If any section of the writing gets dull, I rewrite or delete, because if the writer cannot read it, how can he or she expect others to read it? There are a dozen good tales I left at the side of the road because they had turned dull and I could not un-dull them.’