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Editing for excellence - the writer’s dilemma

Some of the writers at the Croc Prize workshop 2014PHIL FITZPATRICK

THE halcyon days of Papua New Guinean literature just prior to independence were dependent upon three factors: the emergence of talented writers; an atmosphere that nourished their aspirations; and the availability of mainly Australian publishing houses.

When PNG achieved independence, Australian interest in it began to wane.  It was similar to what happens when a beloved child reaches adulthood and strikes out on its own.  The fondness remained but the support structure fell away.

The same happened to PNG’s writers: their support structure disappeared virtually overnight and there was nothing available to replace it.  They were cast adrift to look after themselves.

As Australian interest waned so did the interest of its publishing houses.  It was the beginning of a great drought in Papua New Guinean literature that lasted for more than 30 years.

Thanks to the rapid development of digital technology, the vexed question of finding a publisher in PNG has now been solved.  Salvation is at hand.

Electronic publishing and print-on-demand technology means that anyone with access to the Internet can publish their own book.

It doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, or how poorly it is edited and presented.  The process also costs little money.

Vanity publishers were once the mainstay of determined Papua New Guinean writers.  Now as technology advances they are losing their appeal.  Their high costs are the main factor.  Companies like Createspace and Lightning Source are pricing them out of the market.

However, the advances in publishing technologies have brought their own unique problems for aspiring writers.  Among these is the fact that the labour of publishing as well as writing has dramatically shifted to the writer’s side of the ledger.

Nowadays a writer has to do all the work, including editing, formatting and cover design.  The days of sending off a manuscript and waiting for a galley proof to arrive are fading.

So while modern technology has virtually solved the problems of printing and distribution, it has not solved the problem of quality control.

This was a topic discussed at the recent Crocodile Prize Writer’s Workshop in Port Moresby.  Of particular concern to writers was how to get their work edited.  Every writer needs an editor.  If your first language is not English this is doubly important.

Our guest writer, Trevor Shearston, explained how he has a couple of writer friends who help him with editing and he does the same thing for them. 

When he has finished a manuscript he sends it to one of his writer friends and asks them to critique it. This can involve advice about typos, spelling errors and grammatical mistakes as well as inconsistencies in the narrative and suggestions for improvement, addition and deletion.

When he explained this to the room full of Papua New Guinean writers there were some puzzled looks.  Imelda Yabara voiced everyone’s concern when she explained that criticising someone in PNG is not really culturally and socially appropriate.

Imelda said it would be extremely hard for a Papua New Guinean to criticise a friend’s work.

Writers in PNG have to overcome this natural reluctance about constructively evaluating each other’s work if the new publishing opportunities are to flourish. Without criticism and evaluation, excellence will be hard to achieve

Writers will have to form networks of like-minded people and work together and support each other.  Skilled writers will need to mentor less experienced peers. 

A culture of being able to accept constructive criticism from close associates and friends will have to develop.  Pride will need to be swallowed and ego suppressed. 

Men will have to learn to take advice from more experienced women.  Women will need to take advice from men.  It will take time, but it is the only way forward.

The writers at the workshop acknowledged these needs.  They have collected a list of each other’s contact details so they can stay in touch.  They know that editing is hard work and they know that their writer friends will be unable to pay them.

As Trevor Shearston pointed out, it works in Australia even among well-established and celebrated writers like himself.  Whether it will work in Papua New Guinea is anyone’s guess.


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Jimmy Drekore

I was vice-president of SWEP [PNG Society of Writers, Editors & Publishers] and I must admit Phil is totally right.

The SWEP model couldn't work hence Francis Nii, Arnold Mundua, Mathias Kin and myself started SWA.

PNG should take the Crocodile Prize wholeheartedly, dedicated writers must embrace it and willingly sacrifice time and self to seeing results.

SWEP was a good lesson hence, going forward, let's work together with the current COG and see 2015 set a precedent of Melanesian flavour in planning and execution.

Arnold Mundua

Getting comments and constructive criticisms from fellow Papua New Guineans, even from learned persons, in this field is often hard to get.

I have tried it out with my work amongst my friends and it did not work. That's why I still find undetected errors in my work after they are published.

Yes, PNG still have a long way to go in this department.

All material published in the Crocodile Prize Anthology and in PNG Attitude is edited. A simple way of improving your writing is to check your original manuscript against the published version, and interrogate yourself about what was changed and why - KJ

Phil Fitzpatrick

If SWEP is to get up again it needs to be Port Moresby focused (or Central Province focused) and take the lead from the Simbu Writer's Association.

The key thing that the SWA has got is a group of dedicated writers willing to work voluntarily to further their craft. This was very much lacking in SWEP.

To be perfectly frank I think there were people in SWEP who simply saw it as a way of advancing their own personal agendas and using it for personal gain.

Those people overwhelmed the dedicated individuals in the organisation.

I think SWA is creating a great model for other provinces to emulate. There are indications that this might begin to happen. I suspect that Bougainville will be the next cab off the rank.

I think that Trevor Shearston and I made it plain at the 2014 writer's workshop that the average writer will never make a lot of money and will always have to supplement their passion through other work.

People like you, Baka, now you have experience with mentoring and editing and publishing on Createspace are in an excellent position to recreate SWEP as a local provincial writer's group.

Phil's observations are astute. As more provincial (and university) writers' associations are established, so the preconditions will exist for a viable national body. This is likely to be created by the associations appointing people to the current COG or something like it. The SWEP model is unnecessarily complex for a voluntary organisation in a country where few people have much time and money to spare - KJ

Baka Bina

I'm sorry for myself that I was stuck in Madang when the workshop was held. I agree with editing.

We need an instrument or vehicle to get us going and somewhere in heaven some saints decided that Papua New Guinea must have a Society for Writers, Editors and Publishers.

They had these wands with which they could smite some people to get together. They did. However, they forgot to give them something with it. Willpower.

You see willpower was plentiful down there on earth. They did not have any in heaven.

With willpower, those struggling writers in PNG could move the world. With willpower came dedication. If the writers were dedicated to getting their work shared, commented and critiqued, they could do better.

With will power, the writers in PNG could sacrifice time and money to get together socially and hold writing workshops, hold poetry reading evenings etc.

The saints look down and see a lot of writers have no willpower to do things for themselves so the PNG Society for Writers, Editors and Publishers has gone to wokabaut but I'm sure Amanda and her team can have all the assistance from all you who has have misplaced willpower.

PNGSWEP will need all the help to get working. Please can PNG Attitude give them a lead.

We tried. It failed. We're now on a new track with COG - KJ

Imelda Yabara

I want to thank you for allowing me to attend. I learnt and it has helped me.

Francis Nii

"A culture of being able to accept constructive criticism from close associates and friends will have to develop. Pride will need to be swallowed and ego suppressed".

Very well said, Phil. Without this, PNGeans will continue to struggle in the area of editing.

For us to be able to progress and get above the woes of editing, we must take to heart and apply those wise words. Thanks for the advice.

Jimmy Awagl

The discussion was very sensitive since editing and publishing is a big concern raised.

Also the market of selling the novels or books and even the government, especially the Education Department, is not recognising Papua New Guinean writers or the genuinness of their art and work.

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