Short Note: Hey my dear Naija Stories people. I recently had the great pleasure of being a part of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop which ended Saturday, July 2, 2011. It was simply divine. There really is no other way to put it. It was and will remain one of the most beautiful and enlightening experiences I have ever had in my short life. To sit in a room with 19 other talented writers, who all love what I love, and who had the same fears and troubles and stories about their writing as I did, and who were all as intelligent and as keen to improve their craft as I was… wow! There are no words to describe the feeling. I felt free. I was on Cloud Nine. I felt and still feel truly blessed. So, now, a week and then some after coming back to Earth, I decided to share some of that blessedness in the form of a few creative writing tips I got from the workshop.
Ok. Here we go:
HOW AN AMATEUR WRITER CAN MAKE HIS WORK LESS HORRIBLE!
From Chimamanda Adichie:
One: The central dogma of creative writing workshops: When it comes to your characters, show us, don’t tell us. Show, don’t tell. SHOW, DON’T TELL. The repetition is to show how important it is. Showing is more effective in conveying emotional truth than telling. And we show by dramatization. Rather than saying “David was angry”, show us how angry he was. Maybe when he’s angry, he stammers or his hands shake or his upper lip trembles or something else like that. The reader should be able to see David’s anger from your description. Don’t just say David was angry. That makes your writing lifeless and dull.
Two: Avoid clichés. Clichés are forbidden. Don’t use clichéd plots, storylines, expressions, sentences. Try as much as possible to create something original. Clichés kill the interest of the discerning reader. Avoid writing thrillers like James Hadley Chase. Avoid writing romance that feels like Mills & Boon. Avoid any story that reminds you of Nollywood. No offence to Nollywood, but we all know those guys are the KINGS of cliché. Once you know the title of a Nollywood film, you already know the plot. If your work is like that as a writer, then the only thing you should expect is commercial success and you may not even get that. No cliché work gets good critical reception.
Three: Include SIGNIFICANT details. This also has to do with the dramatization of your story. Details make your story believable. Picture your character and their immediate environment and put that ‘mind-picture’ on the page. Let your reader be able to imagine the scene as clearly as you saw it. Details hook your readers’ interest and fire up their imagination. However, never include TOO MANY details. Do not over-describe. Over-description quickly becomes tedious and boring and it turns off most readers. It also shows a lack of confidence in your own skills as a writer. Don’t compensate for insecurity by overdoing it. Less is more. Significant detail.
Four: Art is to be enjoyed. We write because we want to be read and appreciated. Otherwise, we would just finish our pieces and lock them up in our drawers at home. Now, if we want our writing to be read and enjoyed, our writing must be comprehensible! Style is good, and artistry is good, and difficult language, big words, metaphors, idioms, proverbs, complex philosophical and metaphysical concepts are good but if your work is to be enjoyed and appreciated as true art, comprehension is KEY. You can use any of the above but your reader MUST be able to connect to what you are saying. Otherwise, there is no point. As someone said, “the fact that no one understands you doesn’t make you an artist”. I for one think writing big volumes that no one appreciates makes you a kind of madman. Or a clown.
Five: When writing about religion, be honest. Write something that both believers and non-believers can relate to. Don’t preach the converted. In fact, as a believer, you should write something so true and honest and persuasive and real, that non-believers can see exactly why you believe in what you profess and maybe even be moved to believe too. Never sermonize or get ‘preachy’.
Six: Be real. Say it like it is. Don’t get all ‘writer-y’ and try to decorate simple sentences with stylish language. Don’t let truck drivers speak like university graduates. Be real. Say it like it is. Adewale Maja-Pearce said ‘People loved Mark Twain because he was the first person to write the way Americans speak’. Be real. Use pidgin and local languages where necessary so your characters are believable. However, you should always consider your readers. If you want to write for an international audience, use local details and language in a way that doesn’t leave readers confused. But note that you shouldn’t write local language and then translate side-by-side e.g. “Mo ti n bo,” Jumoke said (“I’m on my way,” Jumoke said). That is horrible writing because it takes all the joy out of the reading for someone who does understand the language. Let the local language be in the middle of the speech, in a way that the international/non-local reader can guess at the meaning from the context.
Seven: Consistency. The language of your work should be consistent. Chimamanda said ‘a story tells you how to read it’. The way we read dreamers and fable-tellers like Ben Okri and Amos Tutuola is different from the way we read realists like Chinua Achebe. The language of your work must be consistent. Don’t tell a hard, gritty story about domestic abuse or violence with the language of a fairytale. No one will take you seriously. Also, don’t start a story with one style, and then break into another style in the middle or another one at the end. Let the language be consistent so the reader can tell exactly what kind of story you are writing. Is it serious? Is it a comedy? Is it non-fiction? Is it sarcastic or sly? Is it absurd? Is it a dream sequence? The style and language help the reader know.
Eight: If you’re writing about a familiar subject e.g. love, domestic abuse, marriage, sibling rivalry, drug abuse e.t.c, look for a fresh approach or a new angle. Again, avoid clichés. The truth is every story that can be told has been told. Every story has already been written. What you can do with your new story is to handle that familiar material with a totally different approach or from an unusual angle. Don’t let your story be the same old thing. Again, avoid Nollywood.
Nine: On style. Style is good. It is good to play with language, to be ‘linguistically playful’. Stylish language and clever turns-of-phrase delight readers and they are a major part of the pleasure we get from reading. Your style is part of what constitutes your ‘voice’ as a writer. It’s how people can pick up your book and immediately know you wrote it. However, too much style gets in the way of the story and can distract the reader. If all your sentences are graceful and stylishly constructed, the reader can get tired and confused quite quickly. Also, making every sentence clever and every paragraph ‘an intricate work of art’ can signal a lack of confidence in yourself. It’s like you’re hiding behind style so people won’t see that your work is empty. The way to work with style is to make it moderate. Ask yourself, “Does the story need this?” “Would this character say this? Or do this?” And then, even after you have crafted a sentence or paragraph that you absolutely adore, be ruthless with it. You need to be able to cut the whole thing out if you decide that the story doesn’t need it. Don’t keep any part of your work in there just because you loved writing it and it would be too painful to remove. Every bit has to add to the story you’re telling.
Ten: The most prescribed rule of writing: Write what you know. At the workshop, we got a slight modification: Don’t write what you don’t know. The truth is if you only write what you know, after a while, you’ll run out of things to say. So, don’t write what you don’t know. Make sure that if you’re going to write about something, you’ve studied it and done your research appropriately so that when you write about it, everything feels real and tangible. For example, if you’re going to write about prostitutes, it would be a good idea to interview a few. Just like Chika Unigwe did with ‘On Black Sister’s Street’.
Eleven: The Hating-Your-Own-Work rule. It is a good thing to hate what you have written. It is a good thing to be wracked with self-doubt and disgust when you look at what you’ve made up. It is a good thing to feel like a fraud and to question your abilities as a writer and to try and investigate the reason why you consider yourself gifted at all. Chimamanda called writing ‘a pathetic way of seeking validation’ and it is true. The only way to feel good as a writer is when other talented people (i.e. other writers/discerning readers) tell you your work is worthy. But how do we deal with hating our own work? First, realize that uncertainty is a good thing. When writers stop feeling jittery about their work, they become smug. And being smug makes you write trash. Second, keep writing. Never throw away your work because you hate it. Save it and come back later. If you still hate it, move on to something new but always keep the old work for later. If you don’t hate it anymore, rework it. Look for the flaws and make it better. Third, find gifted people who can critique your work. Not your close friends or family members, but people who you know can help make your writing better. They may be writers themselves, or readers, or teachers; anyone you know who can tell the difference between Mills & Boon and Shakespeare. Writer’s workshops and online forums are a good place to find such people. The more positive responses you get, the more your confidence grows. If you keep getting negative feedback, ask what you’re doing wrong, and fix it. Whatever happens, keep writing and never believe that your work is perfect. There is no perfect writer. Everyone is a work in progress.
Twelve: The Unbreakable Rule: Read. Read. Read. A writer can never read enough. The only way to be a good writer is to read. There is no school for professional writers. There is no workshop or degree programme or certification. There is only reading. We are professional writers only because we write. Not because we have published anything or received any prizes but because we write. And the only way to write well is to read. Read poetry, prose, drama, fiction, non-fiction, flash fiction, short stories etc. Read the kind of things you would like to write. Read writers who inspire you, who can serve as role models for the kind of art you want to create. Read people who use the same kind of style you use. Read people who write about the same kind of things that you want to write about. Read widely. Read everything. A simple prescription from the workshop is thirty books a year. But for a good professional writer, it should be one a week, fifty-two books a year. Or more if you can. You cannot be a good writer if you do not read. A writer can never read enough.
Thirteen: The Thirteenth Commandment: When you know the rules, you can break them. There is no rule of writing that cannot be broken. Except for the Reading Rule, a writer MUST read. But you can break all the others. Just make sure that in breaking a rule, you are achieving something uniquely creative and interesting. Almost all of the best writers have broken rules at one point or another. As long as the rule-breaking doesn’t turn the story to trash, then go ahead.
We learnt so many other things at the workshop. The above lessons came from Chimamanda Adichie alone but we also learnt lots from Adewale Maja-Pearce (author of an upcoming biography of J.P.Clark), Binyavanga Wainaina (Caine Prize winner and a man who is uproariously funny), Tash Aw (a Malaysian-British writer who is quiet and gentle but deeply intelligent) and Faith Adiele (a mixed Nigerian-Finnish American who writes non-fiction and whose short half-session with us gave me so many non-fiction ideas that I couldn’t believe she had spent such a short time). They all gave us gems of writing wisdom. I will not share the rest so you guys can make an effort to be part of the workshop next year or whenever. I know a lot of writers believe writer’s workshops teach you little but I can honestly tell you that, in this case, that belief is TOTALLY FALSE!!! I would recommend it for everybody. I made lifelong friends at that workshop. I got insights at that workshop I doubt I could have got anywhere else. It was an experience I will have golden memories of till the day I go to my grave. Nothing beats sitting in a room with people who all share the same desire to be good writers and learning together from writers who are already established. It was divine.
P.S.: To Mr. Lawal Opeyemi Isaac, it was really nice to meet you that Saturday evening. Before that, I had been silently wondering and searching for some kind of Naija Stories representation at the event.