How to Keep Writing Your Novel.Jun 20, 2021
May You Always Be A Beginner.
- Write with innocence, wide-eyed about the vagaries of humanity and a willingness to be surprised at how low or high humans can go.
- Write with hope, that your tale will bring a smile to even one person, take another to a location they will never visit in real life, cause an individual to reflect on the human condition or guide someone on a thrilling adventure that happens in the safety of their minds/imagination.
- Write with generosity, with a heart so big that you’re willing to share your dreams and crazy ideas with someone else through words.
- Write with love, for people, life, love and everything that lies within and between.
- Write with an open heart, willing to listen to feedback that only gets you back on the computer, not down in the pits of despair.
- Write your truth. Always. That’s where authenticity comes from, that elusive quality called ‘voice’ but is really industry parlance for ‘to thyself be true’.
- Most of all, Write.
Whatever you heard or read about 'The Difficult Second Novel' is all true and more. But that is not what this blog is about. At least, not solely.
From the Desk of Femi Kayode.
As of the time of writing this, I am over 90k words and still going with no end in sight. Three nights ago, on a cold Windhoek night (I can only write when normal people are asleep or at nightclubs or binge-watching Netflix), I bawled as I sat in front of my computer, finally able to admit that despite my plotting and planning, quite restful siesta, liver poisoning-level of black coffee, and my favourite writing outfit (a UEA hoodie with loose slacks), nothing was going to happen. For over three hours, I could barely remember the name of my protagonist, let alone the plot that less than 12 hours earlier I was eagerly recrafting based on research. What happened? How did I lose the plot, literally?
I have had time to reflect on what was going on. And at the heart of it all is memory. How easily we forget past experiences, especially when they have been rewarded in one way or the other. My debut novel was published in 2021, less than 6 months ago. Despite all I have read about how difficult writing the sophomore book is, I was sure I could rise to (if not above) the challenges. I had learnt so much in writing my first novel that I was confident that I was well poised to apply all the past four years had taught me. After all, all this did not happen by chance. It was the culmination of careful, orchestrated action towards being a published author. It took much longer than expected, but it did happen.
Prior to my MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, I had explored several programs in my home country, Nigeria (an MSc in Clinical Psychology and a truncated attempt at a PhD in the same field), the US (a post-graduate diploma at the University of Southern California and another in International Health at the University of Washington, Seattle) and in South Africa where I obtained a Post Graduate Diploma in Futures Studies at Stellenbosch University. In practice, I had written several stage plays, some screenplays, radio dramas while creating and developing several TV dramas. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself.
I decided about five years ago that I was no longer interested in writing for screen within the current environment in Nigeria and the continent at large. Copyright laws are archaic and a writer’s role in the value chain remained (to my mind) questionable. I was tired of wrangling over fees, residual rights and credits. I was discouraged by my lack of control over the final outcomes and most importantly, I baulked at the idea of being labelled a ‘Nollywood’ writer. But, it was an invitation to be part of the storylining team for a successful soap opera in Nigeria that reignited my dream of writing a novel.
Storyliners in a soap opera are not scriptwriters. They plot, structure the story, and ensure continuity. For several weeks, I and about seven other writers were sequestered in a hotel in Lagos, churning out hundreds of thousands of words, coming back to discuss character and plot in a workshop environment, and going back to our rooms to write more. It was exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. Stories are broken down by the head writer, scenes structured to fit with the different story threads, and each beat structured to flow into the other writer’s plotline. I loved it.
But, the remuneration for being a storyliner was not impressive enough to take this on as a career path. Besides, I knew my ‘voice’ would be lost in the sequencing of breakdowns, scriptwriting and editing, with the involvement of a myriad of directors, producers and a hundred other personnel all working on the soap. A TV show is a brand and everyone that works on it writes to the brand. Your ‘voice’ – whatever that really means — is inconsequential, and your originality is appreciated as long as it within the proverbial box. I was already working on brands in my day job in advertising and there was no way I would do that for my side hustle too. Life’s really too short!
Nonetheless, the idea that I could write a novel had taken root and wouldn’t let go. I applied for the UEA pilot Crime Fiction programme but missed the email that was sent to me for an interview to finalise my admission for the 2016/17 session. I was devastated. Fortunately, UEA were understanding, and offered me admission for the 2017 session. I might have missed doing the course at the same time as The Novelry’s own tutor, Harriet Tyce, but at last I was definitely going to be writing a novel!
If there was one thing going back to school taught me, it is that the secret to writing the novel lies within you as a person: your determination, commitment to craft and ability to pick up the pieces of your ego off the floor and start over. The end result is generally a tale that is peculiar to you because your journey to that story is a culmination of your experiences, psyche, disappointments, pain, dreams, hopes and more.
For me, I had dreamt of writing a crime story in the tradition of the high stakes, almost implausible storylines of Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins. I wanted the stories to be set in Nigeria, while presenting my continent in a manner inconsistent with the literary world’s experience of ‘African Literature’. Most of all, I wanted to write contemporary stories about Nigeria to show the people, its cultures and landscapes in a truly human manner that reinforces the notion of the ‘universal experience’ rather than one of the ‘dark continent’. Because I could not see any writer from my world doing this, I had no template to follow or deviate from.
I took solace in Toni Morrison’s advice to young writers; If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it. In fact, this quote was my screensaver all through my writing of Lightseekers and I believe that’s where this amorphous idea of ‘voice’ comes from in creative writing. It really is about originality, and the way to guarantee that is to use school/workshops/training to know what has been done, learn the rules and the tropes, and then go out there and break it all. Training allows you to risk it all without the fear. There is an innocence that learning confers on you (contrary to popular opinion), and it is no wonder that some of the great innovative thinkers of our time are the ones that never stop learning, and growing. They are constantly ‘training’ their minds to keep searching for knowledge with an open mind, and then going on to break the rules of all they learnt.
I graduated with a distinction, Lightseekers won the Little Brown/UEA Crime Fiction Award and I had an agent who was willing to take a chance on me. It is important to note here that I don’t think I would have had access to the publishing industry from my little corner of Windhoek if I had not attended UEA or expose myself to the community of writers that further training via workshops or programmes like The Novelry offer.
The Italian rights for Lightseekers were picked within 24 hours of sending it out. And after an exciting bidding process amongst publishers, I was able to get a two-book deal with Little Brown in the US and Bloomsbury in the UK/Commonwealth. The catch? The second book must be a sequel to Lightseekers, setting the stage for a series.
Back to The Difficult Second Novel.
As I write this, I am realizing that to deliver the manuscript within the prescribed deadline, I need to replicate the magical season of risk-taking, or learning, and growing without fear of failure. Truth is, few people can tell you the secret of writing a bestseller and most of them can only tell you what they did, how they arrived at the destination only after they are there. No one knows the route or the secret formula that will deliver that Booker prize-winning book. The best you can do is your best. Start by writing. It sounds basic and patronizing even, but that is really the secret of writing a great novel: write!
Write with innocence, wide-eyed about the vagaries of humanity and a willingness to be surprised at how low or high humans can go.
Write with hope, that your tale will bring a smile to even one person, take another to a location they will never visit in real life, cause an individual to reflect on the human condition or guide someone on a thrilling adventure that happens in the safety of their minds/imagination.
Write with generosity, with a heart so big that you’re willing to share your dreams and crazy ideas with someone else through words.
Write with love, for people, life, love and everything that lies within and between.
Write with an open heart, willing to listen to feedback that only gets you back on the computer, not down in the pits of despair.
Write your truth. Always. That’s where authenticity comes from, that elusive quality called ‘voice’ but is really industry parlance for ‘to thyself be true’.
Most of all, Write.
I am reminded of all the above as I prepare for the last leg of writing my second novel. Notice that I have removed ‘The Difficult…’ as a prefix to this privilege that’s been afforded me. It’s not ‘difficult’ except if I make it or think it is. I wrote the first novel and it’s not too shabby an effort. Lightseekers made the Book of the Month in 9 UK publications, was reviewed in The New York Times and Booklist gave it a starred review. Hindsight tells me that the pressure I was putting on myself was to write ‘better’ because apparently, I now know better. This is the beginning of the great fall towards the ‘difficult’ part of writing the second novel. You don’t know better. You are not smarter. You are as clueless as when you wrote the first line in your first book. Embrace this ‘engineered innocence’ and you might regain the freedom to take risks, have fun and just write.
I don’t know whether Book 2 will be any good. I don’t know if my editor will trash it or if my agent will hold his head in despair after reading it. I have no clue about anything beyond my need to love the process as I did the first time, and have as much fun as possible doing it.
May I always have the wide-eyed innocence of the beginning writer who is as eager to know what happened next as the future reader.
This will be my mantra for finishing this book, and writing the next, and those that follow.
Femi Kayode will be our guest for a live session, in conversation with author tutor Harriet Tyce on Monday July 26th at 6 pm BST.
His debut crime thriller, Lightseekers, won the 2019 UEA Crime Writing prize.
Selected as a Best Crime Novel of the Month by The Times, Sunday Times, Independent, Guardian, Observer, Financial Times and Irish Times.
'Lightseekers is ripe with all the twists and turns you could hope for... A fast-paced thriller that offers insight into the ever-present tensions in a poverty-stricken community. An action-packed and spirited debut.' Oyinkan Braithwaite, author of My Sister, the Serial Killer
When three young students are brutally murdered in a Nigerian university town, their killings - and their killers - are caught on social media. The world knows who murdered them; what no one knows is why.
As the legal trial begins, investigative psychologist Philip Taiwo is contacted by the father of one of the boys, desperate for some answers to his son's murder. But Philip is an expert in crowd behaviour and violence, not a detective, and after travelling to the sleepy university town that bore witness to the killings, he soon feels dramatically out of his depth. Will he finally be able to uncover the truth of what happened to the Okiri Three?