How I Crushed My Biggest Writing Project to Date


So I began this ghostwriting project for a client early January this year. It was a real growing experience for me. For one, it was the first time I would handle a book of that magnitude, both in terms of subject matter as well as calibre of client.

The client was a part of the previous political regime and the book focused on policy, youth development and the African narrative. It was a big picture book, with a lot of new terms and concepts, a lot of history, a lot of case studies.

I began talks with his team in early January. A week or so after I had taken the job and contracts had been signed, the man dropped a big bomb on me:

He told me he’s been trying to write this book since 2012. And somehow the project always falls apart.

Yeah, that did wonders for my self confidence. 

Anyways, I prayed asking God to make me a solution to this man’s problem. Rather than become another statistic, another failed attempt to write this book, let me be the one to take the project across the finish line.

It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I’d glance at the interview logs I had done, the notes I had taken (enough to fill 2 notepads), and then the blank pages in front of me waiting to be filled.

It often felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew.

After several false starts and four sleepless months, several back and forths with the editors, FINALLY, the book launched on October 2, 2017!

It was a really emotional experience for me seeing the book in my client’s hand.

I felt like a surrogate mom and a midwife at the same time.

I guess ghostwriting is a bit of both.

I’m still reeling from the euphoria! And I’m eager for even bigger challenges .

The last thing I’ll say is, my writing tutors were right – there’s no project that can’t be crushed. It may take time, but Goliaths will fall if you keep lobbing stones at them.

I guess I’m writing this as a reminder to myself, and to all of us who face frequent episodes of self doubt – Keep going.

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Trusting the Process

Trust.

I’ve never understood how something so powerful, so pivotal, could be so fragile.

I don’t understand it but I’m thankful.

As a writer, you have to trust your writing process.

There are days I feel like a fraud. I wake up thinking, “Aha, this is the day everyone finds out just how much of a hack you are. The gig is up. You’ll try to write today and nothing but thrash will come out of your pen.”

Every day, I wake up with this thought. The thought isn’t an “in-your-face, yelling and screaming” thought. It’s more like a persistent irritating sound that you’ve relegated to the back of your mind when you’re deep in work.

This thought stays with me all morning till I sit at a desk to write. When it’s time to start punching out words, there’s this sudden moment I feel like running away from the computer, just run away and not come back.

“There’s nothing left to write. You’re done. You’ve finally met a blank page you couldn’t conquer.”

The only thing keeping me at that desk is Trust. I trust my process. (I also usually have Sade Adu playing in the background which helps but we’ll get to that eventually).

Every writer should have a process, especially if like me, you experience strong episodes of self doubt and impostor syndrome.

I remember that scene from Leap Year (pretty forgettable movie but this scene stuck). The guy said, when your house is on fire, what you love most is what you grab before running out.

Battling impostor syndrome is a bit like that. Every morning, as my internal world crumbles or goes up in flames, I stroll out of the house, with trust intact. Trust in my process.

As long as I can get to the table with my process, it will eventually turn out okay. I’ll show up, deliver and walk away.

The gig isn’t over yet, my con is still intact. Live to write another day. Till the next day. Then you get to do it all again.

Trust the process.

Photo Credit: Strategic Monk

Writer, don’t take yourself too seriously

way too seriously

It’s no secret that writers have an elevated view of themselves (try editing a writer’s work and see the sparks fly). It’s no surprise either because it comes with the territory. To wake up every morning, braving uncertainty, self doubt, loneliness, boredom (sometimes depression) and so on takes a level of commitment, balls and yes, a twinge of narcissism.

But there’s a difference between borderline narcissism and absolute conceit. And nowhere is it more obvious than in the place of criticism.

If you want to see writers at their worst, do a brutal criticism of their work. They’ll claw, scream, defend and explain their writing, with the conviction that, “if only you could see what I was going for, you’d leave all that in there.”

Look, there comes a time when you just have to release your work and trust your editor’s judgement. The truth is, we’re not attempting to reduce your work to a shadow of itself. Believe it or not, we’re trying our best to make sure your writing reflects your genius, your wit, and your skill. We’re also there to make sure you don’t show the world just how clueless you are about the difference between “there” and “they’re” or if your “clever wordplay” is merely pedestrian at best.

I came across an article recently, listing several writers who were ridiculously protective of their work (and their egos), so much so that one refused to have an editor, another compared himself with Hemmingway and Shakespeare while a couple verbally attacked their critics, denigrating them for bashing their books. (There are a couple of other quite embarrassing reactions but these stood out).

So this is to all creators, whether writers, designers, musicians and whatnot.

Look, not everybody will “get” your work. Make your peace with that. A quick search through my computer will tell you I hold some musicians in high regard whilst others virtually don’t exist in my world. I go through my colleague’s playlist in the office and I feel like puking (which I tell him in quite graphic ways). All human beings have that in common. Our taste change over time. Sometimes they don’t. Some people will NEVER like your work. Don’t take it personal. It’s not a reason to go to war and show the internet your insecurity.

I dare say that rather, you should welcome criticism.

The Oscars held yesterday and J.K. Simmons won for Best Supporting Actor in Whiplash. Deservedly. I really hope every creative person sees the movie because, oh boy! J.K. Simmons’ character may have been a beast but he said something that struck like a canon – There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”. Nothing has crushed potential, and tamed passion and genius as much as those two words.

I agree.

While I’m not saying you should purposely seek out people who would find joy in poking at your work (there are plenty of those already), or haul things at you whenever you make a mistake (like in the video above), you definitely do not need a fanclub. In fact, a better strategy would be to surround yourself with people who cut you down to size. People who aren’t so enamoured with your writing prowess. People who don’t think, “he’s such an amazing writer”. Rather, people who would tell you to your face that you have talent, but so do the Nigerian Super Eagles and they’re yet to win the World Cup. So, talent counts for diddly squat. Show us you’re great.

If they’re writers, they should be “better” than you, at least in your own evaluation. This makes you value their assessment more as something that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

And then we sit down and play Call of Duty.

Because at the end of the day, we’re all just humans, trying to live one day after the other, and making it count. You deserve to live as a person, with all your vulnerability intact. Not as a god to be worshipped. Don’t let them strip you of your humanity. You need it to keep creating relevant content.

I used to have a reader who worshipped my writing. She was always full of praise for my prose – I never had a sentence out of place. No clutter. Nothing. My writing was one of the best she’d read. I was destined for great things. Guess what that did for my writing? Nothing. I didn’t improve. I didn’t experiment. I didn’t go out of my comfort zone. My writing became repressed, formulaic, predictable.

It took some brutal honesty to come to terms with the fact that if I’m going to get better at my craft, I don’t need fans. I need critics. People who can objectively tell me what is wrong and right with my writing because believe me, no matter how good your writing is, it can still be improved.

So please, the next time you write or publish something, say this to yourself:

“I will not take myself too seriously. I will not be a cry baby. Not everybody will like or understand this and that’s fine. I’m improving and will keep doing so.”

Amen.

HOW TO PRODUCE BETTER WRITING

Happy-New-Year-Cards-2015-06

Yay, it’s 2015! Let’s begin on a positive note.

Writing is not hard; at least, not as hard as any other job on earth. But from my experience as an editor, the problem most people have is having something worth saying.

Excluding the 1% who have a freakish knack for storytelling, wordplay, or humor, the rest of us writers have to rely on the one dependable and common human trait – we all have a unique perspective and perception of different subject matter and events.

The challenge therefore isn’t so much writing as it is, thinking and being able to sort through our heads and unclutter our own ideas.

It’s not strange for me in a day, that I’ll come across a piece of writing in which two or more ideas are floating around without ever jelling together. That’s called clutter.

Sometimes, the author has unique and fresh ideas but the execution is askew. He/she starts writing about one thing, veers off into another idea, perambulates around another totally different one and so on; and what’s the point of having great ideas when your readers don’t get to see and experience the ingenuity of those ideas. You may argue that that’s my job, fine-tuning and helping the genius of the writer to shine through, but an editor can only do so much for an author’s work.

The creative process can be a beast. Writers sometimes start off writing one thing and discover somewhere along the line that they really want to talk about something else. No biggie. Writing can be therapeutic. It’s a great way to sort through your thoughts.

However, is if you want someone else to read your work and you consider yourself a professional of some capacity, you have to do what they call a rewrite. You rewrite and refine the work until it’s as polished and as sculpted as can be.

This is a particularly good idea because as an editor, when your writing comes to my desk, I don’t want to be confused about what exactly you’re trying to say.

My advice?

Get ONE thing you want to talk about. Speaking out loud helps. Imagine talking to your best friend about it.

Talk about it. Say everything you have to say about it. Rambling is allowed. Strap the internal editor to a wheelchair.

Go back and remove everything that isn’t essential to the ONE thing you wanted to say. [Kill your darlings or move them into the “other articles” box]

For example, the ONE thing I want you to take away from this post is that, writing isn’t necessarily hard; the hard thing is sorting through your thoughts.

I think I did just that.

Happy New Year.

Genre fiction vs. Literary fiction – Can’t we all get along?

literary vs genreI’m pissed right now. Really really pissed.

If you read what I just read, you’re be pissed too. See for yourself:

How does [the writer] seemingly climb into our heads—and not even “our heads” but “my head,” because it feels so personal, so specific—without actually knowing us or our circumstances, and from that vantage point proceed to unfold a narrative that we are certain was written only with us, only with me in mind? I don’t know how it is done. It isn’t taught in any school, not even in the schools of writing. But here’s my guess: the writer takes us into her confidence, but does it without appearing to do so. This invitation into the writer’s thoughts is there in all works that really get under the reader’s skin….

Now, if you are reading a romance novel or a thriller, all of this is irrelevant. There are certain plot points that are followed, the language is kept moving and, if you like reading such genre works, your adrenalin carries you through to the finish. Afterwards, you feel like you have experienced a good love story or an action film. You won’t necessarily feel that the characters or situations in the book brought you to a more profound understanding of the human condition. This is because genre writing usually deals in stereotypes: the banker, the spy, the beautiful widow, the handsome new cattle rancher, characters who are of interest only insofar as they contribute to the plot.

There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with any of this, but it is writing that skims the surface, entertains you, and is gone from your life. In serious writing, the writer goes one extra step, and by taking the gamble of including “you in particular” must perforce exclude other, perhaps more casual, readers.

That was taken from Teju Cole’s Eight Letters to a Young Writer. It’s a testament to my growing level of temperance that I didn’t stop reading, close the PDF and truncate the file’s destiny in the recycle bin. I’m glad I didn’t though because the remaining letters were quite enjoyable, interesting and insightful.

 

I still find it troubling that Mr. Cole would say such a thing.

What pissed me off the most (and is still pissing me off) is:

“There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with [genre fiction], but [genre fiction] is writing that SKIMS the surface, entertains you, and is gone from your life. In SERIOUS WRITING,… ”

angerMe I wan yarn fire. Cos I dey vex.

This goes out to Mr. Cole and every other “serious” writer and all their pundits, I have just one question for you. Please, what constitutes “serious” writing? What makes a piece of writing “serious”?

Is it the author’s level of professionalism? Or the amount of awards, fame or money that the writing has accrued for its author? Perhaps it’s the artistic merit of the writing, the use of words, de-contextualizing, creating, inventing etc?

If these are the criteria used to determine serious writing (and tagging it literary), then I have some news for “serious” readers and writers – you’re missing out on a larger bank of serious writing because genre writers are some of the most professional workers in the world, they make bucket loads of cash, are world famous, and have some highly coveted awards.

Mr. Cole alludes to the ability of serious writing to capture and attempt to expose the human condition. Well, most of the genre fiction I’ve read, have not only captured and exposed it but they’ve also tried to explain why people act the way they do. Of course, there’s no straight textbook answer to this – people act rationally (and irrationally) for numerous reasons simultaneously. But the beauty of writing is in the journey, the attempt to understand something so elusive and encrypted.

And genre writers (and in turn, genre fiction) is quite beautiful when it embarks on this journey.

There are countless genre titles I could point to that act as a thesis of the human condition. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 come to mind as a recent example. Or perhaps Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I may not be in a sociopathic marriage, but I found within the pages of the book, those thin lines that separate bliss and soul crushing frustration that salt every marriage. Patrick Rothfuss and Dennis Lehane are two wordsmiths who have demonstrated that nothing “plot propelling” has to occur to enjoy reading. These two men could be writing about the travails of preparing moin moin on a budget and you’d still enjoy the yarn as their dexterity with prose is envy inducing.

John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War may have done for science fiction what Ernest Hemmingway did for the short, short story form. I could go on and on.

I’m thinking. Is serious writing anything that is real? Grounded in real life? I’m trying to mimic the thought patterns of a “serious” writer, guesstimating what he/she considers serious. “Serious fiction is any fiction that is external thereby making it easily relatable. War, famine, family, depression and coming of age stories are some prevailing tropes in “serious” fiction.”

Awesome! What do you think science fiction is about? Tap dancing drag queens? I beg you to read Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. I’ve never been to South Africa and I’ve not met anyone quite like Zinzi December. But I know Zinzi December. I am Zinzi December (despite being a guy). I see traces of her in myself, in my girlfriend, in my sister, sometimes, even in my boss.

Or have you not read Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death? The book’s themes included rape, tribal cleansing, love, revenge. That’s serious fiction right there. It was raw and different, despite that nibbling feeling of familiarity because those are things I read about in the national dailies.

Just because genre authors choose to put their stories in a different container from regular, vanilla fiction, does that make the writing any less serious?

And just for the sake of argument, who determines what’s real and what isn’t? For someone like me, Canada, the EU or USA is as foreign to me as a colony on a planet light-years away. When an author tell me about these places, he/she shows me their people, their culture, their habits and I the reader experience them based on how different or similar they are to me. That’s the soul of all good writing, be it genre or literary.

I’m an evangelist of good fiction. And good fiction, serious fiction, can come in any package, form and variety. Period.

On my bookshelf, you’ll find  Sefi Atta, Ben Fountain, Chimamanda Adiche, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o right beside Nnedi Okorafor, Brandon Sanderson, Robert Whitlow, John Scalzi, Greg Bear, Orson Scott Card to mention just some.

This stereotyping has gotten out of hand as was evident when African Writing was being featured in the news on CNN and New York Times and notable genre fiction authors were excluded from the list. I’m going to stop that train of thought right now because I don dey vex again.

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Let’s stop with all the snobbish and elitist statements like “Literary fiction is serious fiction for serious, non casual readers” and every other variation of that statement. It hurts the industry, especially in Nigeria where the reading culture, particularly for fiction is still in its infancy. I still struggle to get my Sunday school students to read Frank Peretti or Ted Dekker.

Speaking of the human condition, it is quite easy to deride “the other”; the other being anyone who isn’t like us, morally, ethnically, even professionally. I believe it’s the foundation of all stereotypes. But the best way to damage a stereotype is to experience it first hand and with an open heart.

So this is an invitation to all serious writers and readers. Please, come check out our buffet of “genre stereotypes”. I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly disappointed.

P.S. I still dey vex but I don talk finish. Abeg Mr Cole, and every other serious writer out there, no talk that tin again o.