Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Editor

My first editor was M. Before her, the people that read my work, (mostly family members) had been cheerleaders. It wasn't that they never criticised me but their criticism of my writing was mild, like soy sauce.

"It's really good. The writing is wonderful. Best thing since sliced bread but I don't like the end."

The thing was the criticism came so late that all I remembered in my head was praise. I never once gave a piece of writing to a family member and went away feeling bad. I always left them feeling like the Nobel was just around the corner; after JSSCEs and summer vacation.

Cue M.

She wasn't the first friend I'd shown my work to. The first was F. We were in primary 5 together; I was eleven; a little older than her; a little bigger than her and I was class Captain, with the force of law behind me. Maybe that's why when I showed her the opening pages of a novel I had scribbled in a chequered exercise book meant for Maths, she smiled widely and said "I really like it."
"Do you think I should continue?" I asked, probing for more praise.
"Yes, yes," she said, "It's really good."

M was not like F.

I showed her the first few pages of the book I was writing at the time. I had written twenty three, slow, painstaking twenty three pages and I expected her to read them all. When I asked, "Will you read the first few pages and tell me what you think?" I meant will your read all of it because you will like it so much that you will finish it and ask for more, more, more.

M stood up after page 5.

"The writing is really nice but nothing is happening."
"What do you mean?" I asked, wondering how she would turn this into a compliment.
"It's boring."

Point blank. No drenching in praise that made me forget the criticism tacked on at the end; no running over the sections that she liked and brushing lightly over the gaping holes. Point blank.

"But what's boring about it?"
"Nothing is happening. It's well written but there is nothing happening."

And that was all M would say.

I stopped writing that book because of M. She was right. There was no plot. The characters meandered around in painstakingly described settings, they thought interesting thoughts, they saw interesting things but they did absolutely nada. There was no point to that novel and my prose wasn't strong enough to carry this wandering aimlessness and so I gave this book the axe.

Of course you can't just allow anyone to be your editor. You can't just delete a book everytime somebody says it is boring. After all writing is a subjective thing. What's good for Peter can never be good for Paul but it's good to have a yardstick. Someone whose judgement you will trust, sometimes even at the expense of your own.

Funny enough, M doesn't read much, neither does she read novels for the purpose of criticism But out of the 3 books she reads in a year, all of them are quality and though she does not critique in the language of criticism, she cuts to the chase. In short, M is an intelligent reader. She didn't have to say there was no pacing or plot structure. Boring did it. She knew what she read and she knew how to express her opinions succinctly and directly.

Everybody needs an editor like M. An intelligent reader who not so much disregards your feelings but cares about your writing more.

About a two and a half years later, M read the first thirty pages of the draft of The Spider King's Daughter that I sent to my agent. She didn't stop after page 5. She read right up to where I would allow her to and then she breathed in deeply and said,

"Yaaaaaaah Chibs, this is very good."
"Why do you say so?"
"It the way you... Mmmm and in that bit where you... Ahhhhhh and that part where you almost... Ohhh I don't know how to say it."
Unfortunately when it came to compliments, M's usual succinctness deserted her.

Of course, you can only take being told your manuscript is boring so many times - my ideal ratio is about a thousand cheerleaders to one editor. However, you must, must, must have at least one person whose eye is on the book and not your feelings. You might not like it that the time but it will serve you well in the end. Trust me.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

My Life is Readable?

Chimamanda Adichie often speaks (most famously in this Ted Talk) about how reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, gave her permission to tell her own stories. Hitherto she had written about white children playing in white snow and drinking tan ginger beer but after reading Achebe, she realised that Africans were worthy of their own fiction and so set off on her journey to becoming the writer we all know today.

My story is somewhat different.I too was prone to writing the characters that I read in popular Western fiction. Thus all my books were set in America, in a landscape gleaned from my brief summer holidays there. My characters were white middle class, then African American middle class, then because my mother once told me to 'write what I know,' I bowed to her wisdom and made the father of this African American family of Nigerian extract. Like Chimamanda, I didn't think African people should be in books but not because I felt this was somehow taboo but because I just didn't think they could be fictionalised in an interesting way.

Nigeria was not exotic. It wasn't interesting. You could, if you wanted to, write novels with scenes of the traffic I sat in everyday, and the rice and stew I ate everyday and the mosquitoes that bit me in the night but Eze Goes To School would never be as sweet as Malory Towers and The Bottled Leopard only a dark flimsy retelling of Tom Brown's School Days.

It was only after I'd travelled four thousand miles and eaten apples everyday, and seen the lacrosse that Enid Blyton was always talking about, and tasted the famous fish and chips (fat and oil), that I realised that if English writers could fictionalize Sunday Roast in a way that made me want to taste it, then I could try and write about Ijebu garri, sugar and water in way that would make a Chinese man want to drink it. The longer I stayed away, the more interesting, and exotic, and readable my country became. After all Nigeria is a nation of hyperbole that even the wildest fiction cannot dream up. It is a place of police men arresting goats and women begging in traffic with borrowed babies and of politicians cross dressing to cross borders. If writers block should ever knack, then all one had to do was look outside their window.

So 4,ooo miles away, sitting in my cold room in school, I began to type away at the nucleus for what would eventually become my novel. For the first time, it would be set in Nigeria, with Nigerian characters, with Nigerian accents. For the first time the hero would be Nigerian, the villain Nigerian, the clown Nigerian, the battered, bruised, humoured, abused, loved, hated, laughed at, all would be Nigerian. It took me four thousand miles to believe that my country was interesting and complex enough to be read about at home, talk less of on a world stage. It was a while but I am glad I made it in the end. Some are still travelling.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Writing A Novel is Like....


I suffered from severe bouts of constipation when I was a child. My mother blamed it on the lack of fibre in my diet; she blamed it on the fact I hated drinking water; she blamed it on my stubborn nature. Whatever reason, every two or three months, I found myself straining on the porcelain throne, then leaving my position to suck balefully on an orange, then resuming duty, then leaving to down a glass of water, then going in again, then coming out for some garri and water, then in again, then out again and back and forth, and back and forth.

Now anyone who has ever had serious constipation will know that you don't expel very much on your first few tries and this is very similar to the first stage of a novel. You have a great idea, a large, chunky piece of novel that is shoved inside you, waiting to come out. So you pick up a note pad, a typewriter, a laptop and you sit down, pen in hand, fingers poised and nothing comes out. Hopefully, not literally nothing but just very tiny, minute shavings of the great mass that is inside you that might as well be nothing.

I started the Spider Kings Daughter, two years and a few months ago. I remember the day clearly. It was the last day of my AS Level exams and I was relieved, a little stark eyed from cramming the functions of T-cells and lymphocytes into my head but I had promised myself that I would start writing this novel that had a title and a vague plot, the very day I finished my last paper so I turned on my lap top.

I sat down to write at around 4 o'clock and didn't get up for about five, six hours, and when I was done, I had a page long prologue that was about 600 words in length. I don't know if that sounds good to you, but six hundred words in 6 hours seemed frustratingly ridiculous. I mean I was happy with my six hundred words and very excited that I had started but when you did the Math, that was a hundred words an hour, fifty words every half hour, 25 words in 15 minutes and just over one word a minute which included words like but and 'and.' It only got worse. Two weeks later, I had five pages, three months later only 30, as you can see, this was an exponential decrease in pace.

What I'm trying to say is that just as in the first few days of constipation (my worst bouts lasted that long) very little comes out, in the first few months of writing a novel, very little might come out, painfully little, painfully little that is painful to push out.

However, take heart ladies and gentlemen because the one thing I learnt from my childhood years of constipation is that eventually, it has to come out. There comes a point where your body cannot endure any more. It has to make space for the next batch, your mind has to make room for new ideas and products, and so you go back in, you turn on your computer, and you shake, and you shudder, and you lose sleep, until you can say honestly, that it is all out and you can sleep properly now.

It took me a while to reach this point. I was about two thirds through when something just clicked, my mind had, had enough and literally the rest of the book just shuddered out of me. I was up every night till around 3am, writing in days, volumes that would have taken me weeks and before I knew it, it was The End. I wasn't finished. There was still editing and polishing and garnishing to do, but the novel was out; I could rest properly... until the next one.

So take heart ladies and gentlemen if any of you are in the process of writing a novel or knows someone writing a novel. It will come out ;)

Onyeka Nwelue the author of Abyssinian Boy was kind enough to mention me in a list of influential Nigerians under 20. Here's the link.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


Apparently, the month of Novemeber is the National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo as it is called in more literary savvy circles. Themes work for me (as seen from Nigeria Month) so I officially declare the month of November creative writing month on this blog. Yay!

I will talk about my writing experiences and anything and everything I can think of that has to do with creative writing. Stay tuned for more folks. NaNoWriMo should be fun.
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