I am Ready to Become a Full Time Editor, says Otieno Owino

Otieno listening to Vimbai
Otieno listening to Vimbai

Written by Otieno Owino

Whenever I have applied to be considered for an opportunity, I have always had mixed reactions. Where will my letter end? Will they consider it? Will they write back to say how they regret leaving me out? Or will there be a letter that drags a smile out of my heart and plants it onto my lips making me bare my teeth in a wide grin?

Then there is the period of waiting. There is something about waiting that torments my mind, fills me with anxiety and drives me to near craziness; yet I have had several moments of waiting. I waited, and waited for the African Writers’ Trust Editorial Skills Training Workshop.

You see, I had been doing a lot of proofreading work, some copyediting work, and manuscript evaluation for publishers on freelance basis; without any training whatsoever. I bumped into the business by chance. A friend who knew me, my madness about books and work as a journalist introduced me to one publisher and the rest of the work came through referrals. Before long I was working on books from Zambia, Uganda and other publishers through the same Kenyan contacts.

I found my way through, wading in the books like a duck wading in mucky water. I worked on the manuscripts like a man groping in the dark but seeing a little flicker of light somewhere ahead. I learnt on the job; and the jobs kept coming. I got paid, but the waiting was always a nightmare and I couldn’t bargain for fair rates because I didn’t know any rates.

And then came along this chance to be in a workshop, to get practical skills and share experiences with others from East Africa. Nothing could have been better. But I had to try first, and was elated when I finally got the tickets to Kampala.

The flight from Nairobi to Kampala is short. Like a quickie, it ends before it starts but still leaves you with that feeling that something happened.

The two of us from Kenya arrived in Entebbe later than expected because of a delay in Nairobi. We had another hour waiting for the participants from Rwanda. When Olivier and Lydia finally arrived, our cab was full with Swahili-speaking, French-speaking and Luganda-speaking English editors with the true spirit of the East African Community. Our drive to Kampala was lively and informative as the beautiful Crystal Rutangye doubled as our host and guide.

I had thought that my situation in the editing profession was unique. It was not until the participants started talking about their work that I realized that we had a lot in common. All of us except a few, had side jobs but were editors by choice, doing what the love of the written word had led them into; like a calling.

If I had a choice to, I’d talk about the facilitators for the whole of this piece. I think Ellah Allfrey and Vimbai Shire should just leave their day jobs and become teachers of editors, open an editing school and teach everybody else who wants to be an editor. When I make my business cards I will put somewhere a tagline: Taught by Ellah Allfrey and Vimbai Shire

Learning about the editing cycle, the different types of editors, copy-editing, proofreading and most importantly, how to put value to the work I do was a joy. There were several eureka moments for me. “I’ve done that before… Oh so it is actually called copy-editing! I, the proofreader, am the last in the line…so I shouldn’t have thought about significant changes! And so I shouldn’t really work for free for friends? This is professional work!”

One more thing: I fell in love. I’m head over heels in. You know that feeling that surges through you when you see the object of your desire? That feeling that you can’t live without them that makes you helpless; the folly that made Lord Egerton build a castle in Kenya? I’m that much in love with Butchers. This and the other resources I received from the workshop are great tools. I will hold them close to my chest. They are the passport to the world of making books out of words.

The rare chance to meet Jennifer Makumbi and talk to her about editing her novel Kintu was priceless. I am keen on becoming an editor, and to hear Jennifer talk about her relationship with Ellah during the editing process will forever be the guiding principle when I become that editor. And I hope to make a terrific one when that time comes.

We had a chat with Kwani?’s Managing Editor, Billy Kahora. This was another illumination of the concepts learned earlier on the need to have systems, to demarcate roles and the publishing industry dynamics presently.

When in moments of solitude I peer deep into the future and find myself aging, streaks of white hair all over my head and spotting Mugabe glasses, I have always thought I would retire to the village and look after my own cows. After all I began my life in the village looking after my grandpa’s cows. But I think I have a plan now. I could be a literary agent! David Godwin, the UK-based literary agent spoke to us on the business of being a literary agent. Considering how he got into it, I may want to follow his path. When I realize I can’t be an editor anymore, I will set myself up as an agent. And be the good guy taking money off publishers and distributing it writers.

If somebody asked me what is the best thing to have happened to me this year? I wouldn’t hesitate to say it was attending this workshop. I have cultivated contacts, I leaned from the best there is and I’m looking forward to a world of possibilities.

I believe some doors will open because I have got many of my freelance jobs through referrals, the next person I work for will definitely see the difference.

My people say “You cannot build a granary because somebody else’s farm is doing well,” so I am tending my own farm, the harvest will come.

Left: Otieno with Ellah, Vimbai, Olivier (Rwanda) and Mwanga (Uganda) at Gaba Beach.
Left: Otieno with Ellah, Vimbai, Olivier (Rwanda) and Mwanga (Uganda) at Gaba Beach.
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