It’s the end of season 1 of my writing tips. The only cliffhanger we’re left with is, how much writing/thinking/plotting/planning/editing have you managed in the last ten weeks? Me? I’ve edited my next book. I’m drawing to an end. It’s been a hard edit but luckily, I have a great editor. (I know you’re reading this, editor. Yes, yes, after I press send on this, it’s all about the final edits.)
So my friend, I don’t want to really do the hard sell on the old coffee thing or the old book-buying thing, but you know, I put out three books this year! The paperback of my adult novel, The One Who Wrote Destiny, which is for fans of multi-generation family epics. Four colliding narratives about death, inheritance, British history and what makes us laugh; The Good Immigrant USA, which is for fans of the original UK book; essays about race, migration, displacement; any of the contributors; jaw-dropping covers; and The Boxer, which is a sports drama and is my attempt to write for young people about the trauma of racism. It’s about racism, radicalisation, sport, mental health and the far right. Any support would be great. Also, please consider buying me coffee through this freelancing site: ko-fi. I love coffee. I’ll tease season 2 at the end.
WRITING TIP: WHY?
I’m going to take you back to week 1 here. Because most stories are circular. I asked you to find out what the story was (not the plot, the story). And hopefully by now, you know what your story is really about. It’s a great mission statement to have. But the mission statement, the story you need to tell, sometimes, it needs a bit more from you. As well as knowing the story, you need to know why you’re doing this.
So ask yourself three questions, right now:
1) Why this?
2) Why me?
3) Why now?
You need to know the answers to all these questions The answers will get you through the hard times, the slow times, the ‘I can’t make this goddamn scene work’ times and the inevitable rejection times. All approaches are valid. There are no right or wrong answers here. But knowing the answers to these questions will help you. More on rejections in a bit.
So… let’s break this down:
1) Why this? This could have been a poem, a tweet, a conversation, a film, a stray thought. Why this? Why this story? What is it about this story that requires a novel-length interrogation? Why do these characters require 300 pages of obstacles? Why? Why does their story demand you tell it? What is the urgency in telling it? Write down why this. And think about why you’re choosing the form you’re choosing. Why a novel? Why not another form? Why a short story? Why a screenplay? What is it about that form that suits these characters and this story? Write it down, write now, on a piece of paper. Why this?
2) Why me? Why do you need to write this? If you don’t write it, will anyone else? Will it stretch you? Will it stretch culture? Literature? THE WORLD? Do you bring a particular expertise or worldview? Is this something that happened to you? Is this something happening in the world right now and your unique take hasn’t been explored yet? What is it about your viewpoint that we need? So… ask yourself. Why you? Write this down now too.
3) Why now? Some stories require distance. Some stories require closeness. Hindsight and reflection can radically alter stories. Being in the moment of the story, still living in it, in its consequences, its fallout can radically affect a story. So what is it about now that is compelling you to tell it? Is it to do with the world? You? So why now? You know what I’m going to tell you, right? Write. That. Down. NOW. Why now. Now, write it down now.
Answer these, and what the story is really about, and you got yourself one hell of a novel my friend.
A quick note on rejection: rejection is part of the process. It’s a part of every writer’s life. We will all be rejected. We will continue to be rejected even after success. It is part of it. Rejection isn’t always about you. Often it’s because you sent it to the wrong person. Or you sent it before it was ready. Or you sent it at the wrong time. It’s important to know all these things because none of these things are about you. One is about researching the right person to send things to. One is about doing the work to edit. One is about not sending in your novel the week before a huge trade fair or on Christmas Day. Rejection is part of it. What you want in rejection is a helpful one. One that might give you an insight into what you can do differently. Some notes on the manuscript. Maybe that can give you pause to think about whether it’s ready. Maybe there is some insight into who might be better suited for the manuscript. Ask nicely. Don’t be mean or defensive. Rejection is part of it. Embrace it and use it to get better.
WRITING PROMPT: Secret Santa
I challenge you to write a short story, max 1000 words with the following prompt:
You’re at your office Christmas party. You unwrap your secret santa present. It’s a bloodied glove, with a note that says, you’re next.
MY WRITING LIFE:
I feel like I’ve spent a whole week correcting people on twitter misspelling Bernardine Evaristo’s name. The irony being, they were tweeting in outrage about a BBC reporter referring to her as ‘another author’ when talking about this year’s Booker Prize. The reporter didn’t forget Margaret Atwood’s name. The thing about Bernardine Evaristo is, she’s a prominent writer with not a difficult name, so put some respect on it. Especially when you’re tweeting about how BBC reporters should remember her name. Anyway, it reminded me of a gig I did about three months ago. One of the panellists kept referring to me as Nicklesh. And I kept correcting her. But she did it repeatedly, to the point where I felt like it was on purpose. But that’s nothing compared to a certain famous politician’s famous sister, who I did a panel with earlier this year. She referred to me as four other names, Nikhil, Neeraj, Rakesh and something else I can’t remember but vaguely Indian. I corrected her each time, and then I became, ‘the person to my left…’
You have to laugh, right? You can be put on the biggest stages with some of the best writers and they can all have heard of a book you once edited, and they’ll still muck up your name. Or you could win the country’s top literature prize, and they’ll still forget your name. Is it a racialised thing? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. But it reminds me of the quote from Uzo Aduba, the actor: ‘I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka."’
That’s it for season one my friends. I hope it was useful. In the new year, probably around February or March, look out for season two, which will be ten weeks on how to write a novel, from planning right through to not rushing your final act.
Happy writing. Happy 2020.
Remember to tell your friends to subscribe, buy my books and hey, you could buy me a coffee. There’s a site called ko-fi that allows you to caffeinate freelancers. I drink a lot of coffee. So please do consider buying me one