How do you pronounce your surname?
Beukes, rhymes with “mucus”. Or, if you prefer, “George Lucas”. (That’s the anglicised version, of course. The correct Afrikaans pronunciation is slightly different, but I grew up English-speaking).
Are you really South African? You sound American.
I am really, really, really, for real-life, South African. I was born here, grew up here, live here now. I did live in the USA for two years but Americans don’t think I sound American. My accent is more of a mid-Atlantic mongrel melange of English variations. Ashraf Jamal recently described me as an “international bastard”. That shoe fits and I’m wearing it.
What’s your life philosophy?
Be cheeky, but nice. Ask for the things you want; the worst anyone can say is no, but if they do, handle rejection with grace and style. This ties in very well with my other life philosophy which is: don’t be an asshat.
Has being a mom changed how you write, are you softer and more spiritual and stuff?
I’m answering this here because I have actually been asked this. Uh no. I did the final edits on my cynical political thriller Moxyland, when I was pregnant, I wrote Zoo City during the first year of my daughter’s life, working at night cos I had a day job writing a cute show about a princess and her magical dragon friends for Disney during the day.
I like cute. I like dark. I like rugby-tackling social issues through fiction. Having a kid has changed how I live, but not the things I’m fundamentally interested in – and it’s lovely to see her start to become interested in them too.
Where do you get your ideas?
Everywhere. In South Africa, we have a great expression, “picking up stompies” (cigarette stubs) which means eavesdropping on snippets of a conversation and jumping to conclusions. I pick up a lot of stompies, from stuff I’ve read or seen or overheard or a news story or an advertising billboard or something half-glanced from the car windows – and I use that as a jumping off point.
The inside of my head looks like a crazy person hoarder house. Full of useless things that sometimes, if I’m lucky, come together in interesting and surprising ways.
What’s your writing process?
Ideas develop like polaroids in my head. I always know my beginnings and my endings.
I love how EL Doctorow described his process and I’m paraphrasing here: It’s like taking a road trip at night. You know where you’re leaving from and where you’re going to, and some of the major landmarks along the way. The rest of the time, it’s pitch black, you can see 20 feet ahead of you in the headlights and you just have to figure it out. And sometimes getting lost or taking a detour from your intended route turns out more interesting.
What software do you use?
MS Word for day-to-day stuff and comic scripts, Scrivener for novels (great for managing all your research and easy chapter switching and back-ups of earlier versions), Final Draft for scriptwriting. Freedom for saving me from myself, Dropbox and TimeMachine for back-ups – AND I email myself a copy of the work to my gmail account too.
HELP & WRITING ADVICE
What’s the most important advice for a would-be novelist?
Finish the damn book. Nothing else matters. Stop second-guessing yourself and write it through to the end. You don’t know what you have until you’ve finished it. You don’t know how to fix it until it’s all down on the page.
I’ve got a great idea for a book, but I don’t have time to write it. Will you do it for me?
I have ideas like plague rats have fleas – swarms of them, attacking me all at once. What I don’t have is the time to write my own ideas, let alone anyone else’s. Sorry! I suggest finding a good writing course in your area or online and write it yourself. Or be prepared to pony up for a good ghost writer.
Will you read my unpublished or self-published manuscript?
Sorry, no. For legal reasons, and because I don’t have time, and it’s a service, like plumbing. If you want a professional job done, you need to pay someone professional to do it. John Scalzi wrote a great, long blog post on exactly this: What To Know Before You Ask Me To Read Your Unpublished Work.
Of course, I’ve had people help me in my career, but before I published, it was all a paid-for privilege. I did my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town and had wonderful lecturers, visiting writers and my supervisor push me and my writing and force me to finish my novel.
Do a writing course or find a freelance editor who offers pro-manuscript evaluation and editing for reasonable rates. Google and cross-reference against Writer Beware.
Can you help me get my book published / get a foot into comics / get a movie deal?
You need professional help. I’d recommend getting an agent.
I can tell you how I did it, which was 10% talent, 10 % sheer bloody luck and 80% hard work and rolling with the gut punches.
You can make your own luck to a certain extent. Be open-minded, be friendly, be cheeky, be nice, be professional, put yourself out there. Richard Wiseman’s pragmatic The Luck Factor covers a lot of this.
But the most important factor in making it is sheer bloody-minded determination. See Richard Kadrey’s essay on his 20-year overnight success.
Okay, so how do I get an agent?
Finish the damn book. Let it simmer for a couple of weeks or months. Send it out to trusted friends to read and take the useful feedback and apply it to your revisions. Most important things to keep in mind: get over your ego and trust your gut.
Revise and revise and then polish until that bastard gleams. Then find an agent who suits your work. It’s like dating, you want to pick the person who is right for you and your work.
Google authors who have written books similar to yours and find out who represents them, buy The Writer’s and Artist’s Handbook, check out Writer Beware and case out agency’s websites and particular agents to see what kind of work they’re looking for and if they’re open to new clients.
Pick a handful that seem well suited. Approach them personally, spell their names right.
Then write the best damn pitch letter the world has ever seen that strikes just the right balance of modest and professional while blowing your own vuvuzela in a cheeky but nice way.
As a general guideline, I’d say keep it short and punchy. Tell them who you are in one paragraph (got any cool skills, famous friends, weird story behind the book), why you’re approaching them in particular, and a summary of your book in one paragraph.
There are lots of great resources on how to write the perfect pitch letter. Google is, as always, your friend.
Will you blurb my about-to-be-published book?
I don’t have a lot of reading time, but ask your editor or publisher to get in touch with me direct with more information. I like smart, beautiful, inventive, surprising books. It has to be something special and remarkable. I have to love it unreservedly.
To give you an idea: books I’ve blurbed recently include The Explorer by James Smythe, The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington, God’s War by Kameron Hurley, Adam Christopher’s Empire State, Lexicon by Max Barry and Gun Machine by Warren Ellis.
What career would you recommend for someone who wants to be a novelist one day?
Journalism. It’s a backstage pass to the world, you’ll be exposed to people and places and ideas, you’ll develop an ear for dialogue and how real people speak by transcribing interviews and you’ll be writing stories every day. Sure, it might be a story about parking meters, but it’s like doing piano scales. To be a better writer, you need to practice writing as much as you can and if you can get paid to do it, so much the better.
Journalism as a career is also horribly paid with an uncertain future, so you’ll get a real taste of the novelist’s life.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I believe in writer’s procrastination. The way to get through a block is to chip away at it, a sentence at a time. Or step away, do something else and sneak around it when the block’s not looking.
I like Chuck Palahniuk’s write-for-a-set-duration-no-matter-what trick (aka the Pomodoro technique). Commit to writing for a short set duration – while the washing machine is on, or for the duration of a soapie on TV. That’s all you have to do. Half an hour, one hour. You can stop as soon as it’s done. Usually, you’ll find that once you get into it, it comes easier and you won’t want to stop.
But I don’t have time to write.
Make time. I know writers who wrote their novels in half-an-hour a day, every day, sitting in their car in the parking lot of their office during their lunch-break. If you want this, make it happen.
But it’s so haaaaaaard.
Yeah. Sorry. Not like coal-mining is hard. But it’s lonely stuck-in-your-head-work and it’s often frustrating and tricky. Some days it will be better, some days worse. Having a book at the end of it is totally worth it. You will have to keep telling yourself this.
Can I mail you something?
It depends on what it is. If it’s an unpublished or self-published manuscript, then see above. (In other words, no, sorry).
If it’s something alive, dead, or undead, definitely not.
Unless it’s a fossil of something cool. Or a zombie pygmy pterodactyl who will be my beloved pet and nest in my hair and dive-bomb racists.
Will you send me an autographed picture?
That kind of thing is best left to the Scarlett Johansens and Anne Hathaways of the world, dontcha think?
Okay, well how about a signed bookplate?
I’m really bad at getting to the post office. But ask me and I’ll see what I can do (you’ll have to paypal me the postage fees).
How do I get a signed copy of your book?
Catch me when I’m in your part of the world (my schedule is up), or ask my local indie, The Book Lounge in Cape Town to mail you one. You’ll have to prepay for the book + postage and please specify exactly how you’d like it signed. Eg, just signed, or signed and dated, or signed with a message or with a customized personal message. Email them with your request on email@example.com. It’s fairly expensive, but I can personalize the message however you like and you’re supporting a wonderful independent book store!
You spend a lot of time on Twitter, how do you get any writing done?
Erm. Yes. I have this great app called Freedom, which locks me out of the Internet for set durations of time so I can actually get some work done. I’m also really good at panic-sprints, but that’s not very good for my stress levels and I’m trying to do better.
I tweeted at you, why didn’t you reply?
Sorry, I get a lot of @ replies, it’s not always possible to answer them all. It’s not personal and I don’t mean to be rude. If you ask me a direct question, I’ll try to answer it. I usually don’t RT on request unless it’s from a someone I know personally or about a charity organization I know is doing good work.
Why don’t you follow me back on Twitter? I’m really cool and interesting.
Because work. I try to keep the number of people I follow low so I’m not swamped with wonder and interesting things that are all really, really good reasons to procrastinate on writing.
I’m studying one of your books at school, can you help me with my essay?
Nope. But I can point you to some interviews I’ve done that might prove helpful. Remember, authorial intention only goes so far, it’s how you interpret it that counts. There’s a good list of links here: http://laurenbeukes.bookslive.co.za/about/