24 (+15) hours in Kampala with Commonwealth Writers

Juliet Pickering reports on her whirlwind visit to Uganda for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Thursday 12th 

Readers, I took that seat

Readers, I took that seat

2.30pm: Sat on the plane next to a guy who looks about 12, who tells me he's on a Christian mission to Uganda. He's American, has never left even his state before, and seems pretty scared of what's ahead. I re-read the shortlisted stories before we watch Frozen in friendly silence until a fellow missionary comes along and takes the mickey out of him for watching a girly film. Not very Christian, to say the least. 

 Two disgusting plane meals later...

 10.30pm I get out of the airport to find my transfer, and realise that there were six other people on the plane that Commonwealth Writers have brought over too. Hooray! We all pile into a large taxi with our cases teetering dangerously over our heads, and head to the hotel.

 11.30pm I'm sharing an apartment with Vimbia Shaire, a freelance editor who is teaching workshops the following week. She's chatty and lovely, and despite the lack of proper milk in the apartment and therefore being unable to drink a good cup of tea, we have a lengthy chat about all things publishing; often working with more academic titles, her experience is very different to mine.

It's good, but it's not P G Tips

It's good, but it's not P G Tips

Friday 13th 

8am I peruse the selection of exotic breakfast dishes: baked beans, curried vegetables, chips, chicken foot... Yup, chicken foot: in breadcrumbs. It's not bad, and goes well with the cassava wedges. 

Breakfast, avec pied

Breakfast, avec pied

I get chatting to Myn Garcia, Deputy Director of the foundation, who delicately nibbles a bit of fruit while I scoff my chicken foot and explain what I'm doing there. I get the sense that the Commonwealth Writers people (especially Lucy Hannah and Emma D'Costa) take on a hell of a workload, and travel a huge amount to promote literature and work with writers all over the world. An incredible and varied job to have, although exhausting.

 Lucy asks me to join them for a non-fiction workshop at midday, to talk about the UK publishing industry and the role of the agent.

 10am I wander the compound but it's fairly self-contained. It alternately rains like crappery and then the sun shines hot and strong. No chance to park myself by the pool and read The Miniaturist, damn it!

 11am I am taken to the hotel where the workshops are being held, and introduced to a group of non-fiction writers - who have come from Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Kenya - and who are being taught by Ellah Allfrey (Chair of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize) and Mark Gevisser. David Godwin also shows up, as he's in town for literary events the following week.

Non-fiction workshopping

Non-fiction workshopping

We are asked about the role of agents in the UK, and when we want to see material etc. We're reminded about how different things are in the Ugandan/East Africa publishing world, when we're asked a lot about book ideas being stolen by unscrupulous publishers. I mean publishers are unscrupulous the world over, obviously (to any publishers reading this - love you guys!), but the writers' concerns were about them telling a publisher their non-fiction ideas at an early stage, and the publisher then taking that idea and publishing that book with someone else. I got the impression that the publishing world is pretty corrupt there. It might be related to the fact that there are no agents, of course.

 1am LUNCH. I eat shredded goat and it is surprisingly delicious. We also chat to the writers who are all kinds of interesting. There are quite a few political memoirists: writers who have suffered because of their political beliefs, or who have lost family/home/identity in genocide. Their experiences are varied and fascinating.

 I also meet Billy Kahora from the Kwani Trust, a literary charity based in Kenya "dedicated to developing quality creative writing and committed to the growth of the creative industry through the publishing and distribution of contemporary African writing".

 3pm I do a podcast interview for the Commonwealth Writers website, with top Dos and Don'ts when submitting to agents.

 4pm Back in our room, Vimbai and I are peckish and order some food. You would only have believed the size of the chocolate cake I was brought if I'd taken a photo instead of greedily attacking it immediately. One word: BRICK. Good to know that giant hunks of cake are enjoyed the world over.

 6pm Having donned our party frocks, Ellah, Vimbai and I head to the Short Story Prize party.

Photocall for the non-fiction writers

Photocall for the non-fiction writers

After an hour of drinks, canapes and chat by the poolside (tough life) – during which I learn that to be 34 and unmarried means I am an ANCIENT SPINSTER in Uganda; I so enjoyed my conversations with the writers about their lives - Romesh Gunesekera announces Jennifer Makumbi as the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014, for her story about a Ugandan woman living in Britain, whose husband dies unexpectedly, leading her to discover he has been leading a double life with a second family in Uganda. She's a worthy winner, and you can read her story on the Granta website here.

Jennifer reads an extract of her winning story

Jennifer reads an extract of her winning story

At 9pm I dash to my room to change, and go to reception to wait for a taxi to the airport. Mike van Graan stops by and we introduce ourselves.

 9.30pm INSANE drive to the airport. The roads are packed, mostly with tiny scooters carrying three people, zooming lethally between traffic. I try not to wince as scooters regularly scrape our car bonnet. This was one of the best bits of the trip: 90mins of cruising through Kampala as people gathered at roadsides to eat from smoking food stalls, gather round a tiny TV or sell gum and nuts to passing cars (my lovely driver bought me a pack of Juicy Fruit as we sat in a long queue). Because you can't walk around town whenever and wherever you like, this was the closest I got to seeing Kampala. And it's worth noting that if you own a new and/or large car in Kampala, you can turn your lights on full beam and drive along the wrong side of the road and everyone will get out of your way because they're in awe of your amazing car *eyeroll*. 

 1am It's announced that the plane is grounded because it's been struck by lightning on the way in, and BA have to check it over before we fly again. No argument from me! Check that mofo twice!

 2am The one hour delay becomes a 15hr delay, and so ensues a long night/day of shunting around from airport to hotel to airport to plane. But despite this, it's been totally worth it.

 Follow-up: I've recently emailed some of the shortlisted writers from all over the Commonwealth; stories I particularly enjoyed included one about a young girl’s friendship with a gardener that’s destroyed by racial tensions; another which told of a teenager dealing with coming of age and the calm wisdom her grandmother could offer her; and a third about a brief, meaningful but then discarded love affair in Paris. I'll begin talking to the authors about their writing and what they're working on, in the hopes that some good fiction might come my way as a result!

 I'm really pleased that this trip introduced me to two groups of writers who might not usually think to submit to a UK agent. This is exactly what I hoped for when we began the association with Commonwealth Writers last year, and huge thanks are due to Emma, Lucy, Keenda and the brilliant team there, for making this happen and taking me along to Uganda.

Agents Don't...

Partly inspired by a twist on Richard Charkin's recent talk and his 'Don'ts for Publishers', we've turned this on its head and instead put together a list of Agents Don't…’, intended to debunk some common myths about agents, or help explain how and why we agent!

 Agents Don't…

1. Publish your books. We seek a publisher for your book, and ensure your work is in the hands of a great editor and their team of marketers, publicists, digital experts and sales people.

2. Earn anything until you do. We work on a commission basis, so we only get paid when our authors do! This ensures that it's in everyone's best interests to take a book that's in the most appealing shape possible, to publishers, and why we might spend a lot of time honing your manuscripts and proposals before they go out on submission to editors.

3. Know the tastes of other agents. Strange to admit, but other agents are either our friends, our competition or both! We might know them socially, and know a little of their list of authors, but when it comes down to it representing a book is a personal business and we don't always know what floats another agent's boat. So that’s why we are very rarely able to recommend other agents if we turn your book down. Agency websites are most helpful; go and look at an agent's list and their bio, for the best information on what they're looking for.

4. Have any time to read during office hours. It's a common fallacy that we're to be found at our desks, feet propped on stacks of manuscripts, thumbing through our authors' newest deliveries and reading at our leisure. I WISH. Sadly there is no time to read during the day; we're busy negotiating deals and the resulting contracts, chasing payments and checking royalty statements, forwarding requests for our authors' appearances at festivals and events, meeting editors and listening to what they're looking for, liaising with publicity and marketing teams, catching up with colleagues on sending out our books for translation and media sales, and pursuing potential new authors. Very occasionally we might be able to squeeze some editing in on a Friday afternoon, but usually all reading (and editing) is done outside work hours.

5. Have the time to reply to submissions with detailed feedback. Unfortunately we simply don't have enough hours in the day to feedback our thoughts on your three chapters or proposal. And, if we want to be businesslike about it, it’s not in our interests to spend time editing a book we’re not going to work with! However, if we think a book is good enough to consider despite its flaws, or that it could be very interesting to us after a good edit, we will always say so. Equally, if the writer has talent but this book is not for us, we’ll say so.  And no book comes to us in perfect shape!

6. Appreciate rude or persistent writers, whether that's someone calling up the agency reception at regular and increasingly agitated intervals, or barging in on a conversation at a Fair or Festival. We know you're anxious to hear from us and, trust us, if you've a great book or idea then we will definitely be in touch. However, if you've a great book but have been rude to our receptionist or in chasing emails, we won't want to work with you. Polite and professional is the best way for us both to be!

7. Choose brand over book. It has to begin with a great novel or book idea, not just with one hundred million followers on Twitter (however helpful that might be further down the line!). Writers seem to worry a lot these days about their ‘profile’, and it can’t be denied that this is a concern to publishers sometimes too. However, we all need to be convinced that there’s a good, publishable book in whoever we represent (we would always hope that there are many good, publishable books ahead for an author), so the best introduction to us and to a publisher is with a winning idea and strong writing. Not every single author we work with is social-media savvy. I’d personally recommend using Twitter as it’s a LOT of fun and a brilliant place for talking to other writers and sharing writing experiences, as well as a valuable peek into the publishing industry via agents and editors, but it’s not essential.

8. Give up on an author after just one book. As mentioned above, we usually take on an author with a view to them having a long and fruitful career. This is why good writing is important; you could have one great idea, but then… nothing. But if you’re a good writer then we’ll keep chatting with you about potential new book ideas. And if your first book doesn’t sell, we’ll talk to you about pursuing something else. We’re in it for the long term!

9. Chase trends. Because a) we couldn’t possibly predict them (who saw FIFTY SHADES coming? Pardon the unintentional filthy pun) and b) we couldn’t keep up – most books benefit hugely from several months of editing, marketing and publicity, by which time the reading public is going crazy for the next trend: whatever happened to vampires?

 10. Go to lunches and parties just for the free booze. Yes, we know there is the popular belief that we are carousing every night, quaffing cheap party wine and canapes, but actually we go to these kind of social events (much less so now than a decade ago, too) to fit in catching up with editors and their colleagues, hearing about what they’re publishing and using these friendly occasions as an opportunity to pitch our books. And if we can munch a tiny quiche whilst we talk about our fantastic authors, so much the better.

11. Have to read just their own authors’ manuscripts and the submissions pile, but also a wide variety of newly-published books to keep up with competitors and publishing tastes. I try to cram in one non-‘work’ book per weekend, so I’m up-to-date with the books that are appealing to editors and readers alike. Why did everyone rave about The Fault in Our Stars? Best way to find out is to read it…

12. Only make deals.  It’s all about career planning and thinking strategically, looking ahead to try and shape an author’s career in the long term. We’re also sounding boards for our writers, who might come to us with new ideas and their plans for their futures; we maintain a continuous conversation about how we’re going to develop an author and their books, and how best to get them to where they want to be. This is becoming especially important in an ever-evolving publishing landscape, with new platforms, formats and models to explore with our authors.

13. Like telling their clients about rejections.  It hurts the agent too: they’ve taken the client on because they admire and love their work, and have a genuine and unswerving belief that a book should be published. Rejections are rubbish for everyone, and don’t get any easier!

 14. Exist in a vacuum.  We’re all actually human (strange as it might seem) and while reading and editing seeps into every moment of our supposedly spare time, we do occasionally have to have time off, do something else, to maintain perspective. (I don’t think we ever REALLY switch off, but a bit of fresh air can do wonders for new inspiration…) Just as writers are advised to put a book to one side for a little while once they’ve finished the first draft, in order to edit with a bit of new perspective, we all benefit from a break.

15. Sit behind our desks ignoring submissions, feeling superior or polishing our keys to the gates of publishing. (In short: take everything you read about publishing in the newspapers or similar, with a LARGE pinch of salt.) We're desperate to find good books and great authors; we comb our submissions pile as frequently and as thoroughly as we can, and are always happy to meet new writers, whether on Twitter or IRL. It's important for us to be accessible and excitable! And we never get bored of finding that next incredible book. 

By Juliet Pickering