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"So, I’m working on my first novel. Do you have any tips?"
I’m still startled when people ask me for writing advice. When someone asks this question or another version of it, usually during the Q&A aspect of an event, I resist the urge to look behind me just to make sure it isn’t directed at some apparition that has made its presence known in the room.
"Read, read, and read. Then read some more"
"Write even when you don’t feel inspired."
"Be prepared for rejection."
I believe in the answers I give, but I’m never sure that they’re sufficient. When this person is confronted with the many challenges of writing and getting published, will these tips be adequate?
When I started working on Stay With Me
, I thought it would take two years to complete the novel. I’d been thinking about the story for two years already, and I’d been making notes, stitching sentences into paragraphs while I was stuck in traffic. In the end, it took me just over five years, but I did finish the first draft within two months like I’d planned. During the day, I sped through a pile of books: several novels, a collection of poetry, and a couple of plays. At night, after my family had gone to bed, I wrote 1,000 words. I could, at the end of each writing session, tick "write 1,000 words" off my to-do list. I knew where I was headed; I was on course and in control. It was exhausting, but fantastic. And when I had 60,000 words, I really thought I was almost done.
Some nights, I walked and walked...so immersed in my protagonist’s despair that I no longer knew where her sadness ended and mine began.
I used to think that most published writers, the ones I admired, had a muse, or a special connection to the universe, to nature, or to aliens — something inaccessible to me that caused their prose to flow onto the page, already perfect.
After I finished that first draft, I didn’t touch the manuscript for a month. I went back to writing short stories, hoping to return to the novel able to read it like a reader might in the near future. I was astonished, when I read the manuscript after my month away, by the distance between what I’d wanted to write (and thought I’d written) and what I was reading. I spent the next five years trying to close that gap. There were days when I felt as though I was bleeding the words onto the page. Some nights, I walked and walked, grateful for the long productive hours I’d been able to put in, but so immersed in my protagonist’s despair that I no longer knew where her sadness ended and mine began. At those times, I wished I could ask the writers whose work I admired, "Really, how on earth do you do this? Do you have any tips?"
Eventually, I did what I usually do when I have questions: I turned to books. I added literary memoirs to the pile of books I wanted to read while I was writing. I began with Mary Karr’s The Liars' Club
, and over the years was delighted, comforted, and challenged by Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory
, Soyinka’s The Man Died
, and Styron’s Darkness Visible
Here’s one of the things I should say at Q&As, but which I’ve so far been too nervous to remember: Read literary memoirs. I didn’t always find the answers I wanted in their pages, but I did discover the questions I really needed to ask.
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‘s stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth short story competition. She holds BA and MA degrees in English literature from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and has worked as an editor for Saraba Magazine
since 2009. She also has a MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. She has received fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Sinthian Cultural Centre, Hedgebrook, Ox-Bow School of Art, Ebedi Hills, and the Siena Art Institute. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Stay With Me
is her first book.