How To Write A Caine Prize Story ( Whatever That Is) Part 1


Nta Bassey

First you must know, that this is not a guide on how to win the Caine Prize. Rotimi Babatunde, Noviolet Bulawayo or Olufemi Terry and co would do well to write that. This is merely concerned with getting you on the shortlist , and for that you must be grateful. For if Sir Michael Caine never did have a prize, your name would still be deeply ensconced in Africa’s jungles known only by your town crier. Now, back to business.

1. Choose Your Title Carefully, Two Words Max.

You might love a long title like Romie Scott’s ” A Robot Walks Into A Bar And Says” or Laurie Kubuitsile’s “In The Spirit Of McPhineas Lata” ( She made the shortlist in 2011 but that’s old school now). Those might get you gung-ho fans and instant interest; but remember it is global recognition you crave. Make your title simple and to the point- Bayan Layi, Miracle, America, Whispering Trees, Foriegn Aid.
You see? Two words max. Forget all those editors that insist that a short fiction title must not be a summary but a revelation. Forget anything that would arrest a reader’s attention. Think economy, think simple-minded, think bland.

2.Renounce Your Faith

As a African it is very likely that you believe in God, gods or goddesses. Well,that has to stop now. As a Caine prize hopeful, you are only allowed to believe in ghosts. If your writings show any respect for things that can not be explained and experimented, woe betide you. Islam is only to be mentioned to justify man’s inhumanity to man or to declare one’s independence from it. Christianity can feature but only to show how deceptive and manipulative its clerics are. You may also mention it while alluding to homophobic parents,nothing else. Don’t venture into Traditional religion. Ghosts though are welcome, witches and wizards too. Yeah, they love Harry Potter that much. An utterance should suffice for the shortlist seeker.

3.Bring Out All Africa’s Dirty Linen.

Pa Ikhide and Binavanga Wainaina have spoken extensively about this. ( C’mon, don’t be lazy,google it!) Don’t dare to present Africa in anything but her shabbiest. And if though shabbily dressed she attempts to stun with her wit ,courage or resilience then slap her, better still hack her with a sharp machete or shove on the forehead –DOWN! Dig out the most depraved and contrived of her vices. Turn your hungry cousins to urchins, your broke friends to beggars, your street kids to mafia men. Whatever you do, keep the propaganda pumping–Africa, is a country,one of poverty,stupidity,ignorance, corruption, bigotry and disease.

4. Break EVERY Short Fiction Rule You Ever Heard Or Read.

This is one is simple. Dawdle your words, triple your adverbs, let adjectives litter your prose like confetti. If you can tell a scene with four words use forty. Tell everything as if you are writing for prehistoric preschool children that can’t google broom or slum or snow. Pour in Simile and Metaphor by the handfuls, make sure everything is like something.  Leave all your fillers in as well. Take this qoute from this year’s shortlist for instance “an orange tree grew,and a guava tree, and a mango tree…” see? You are three words closer to three thousand ,for free! If that fails then just vacillate, give people titles like Saint, use that to get a ten word bonus. If you are stuck , just imagine camera crew on a Nollywood film site and describe the same scene through each of their lenses. Yeah, that should do it, works best for church scenes though. Good, now you know.

5.Find The Western Angle, Flog It Till Your Readers Faint.

Again this works best when you are reffering to religion. The judges can not have enough about a character’s crimes being passed on as the will of Allah. They go wild when you tell them how you faked a miracle you didn’t get. Allude to it, at least in the parents of your gay partner, or better still let your main character do it Jonah style–one man against his Maker. If that isn’t your style you could go for second best which is homosexuality. Glamourise it, romanticize it, fantacisize it , demonise it, just do it. Every major global  literary prize has had healthy doses of queerness in it from the 2012 common wealth pacific region winner–Two Girls In A Boat , to the 2012 Caine Prize shortlist tale– S. Kenani’s Love On Trial . The odds are in your favour, write with them.
If you are still squirming about those, at least, this should be doable– Glorify the immigration experience. You can do it obliquely, directly, subtley, or glaringly( remember peppering your work with adverbs as stated in 4 above), but make it count. Turn America into a bank where a hundred dollar bill is mistaken for two twenties. Make her a Snow Wonderland where even “fruits glisten”. Paint her as a  generous haven of broke African Charlatans. The choice is yours. If you can’t do any of these, then perhaps you are on the wrong web page. Log out now, time is money.

6. Write In The First Person.

Forget what your writing workshop teacher said or what you read, the Caine prize short list is serious business and you must do drastic things to get on it. So throw away all those works in the third person limited or the All Seeing Eye Of God (eww! how religious!). Discover your voice. Afterall isn’t this all about you and your winning story? Exactly! So even if you’ve never attempted walking around with a blindfold you can become quite the authority on counting footsteps from your house to the nearest bus stop. Moreso, you can tell us about road trips form Port Harcourt to Lagos that last just eight hours done on your visa interview day. You can also speak of miracles forced on the unbelieving, afterall, its not like the judges read their bibles. In the first person you can also let your author’s voice roam free. Instead of a street child thinking of survival, he can calmly philosophise on Allah and his strange ways. Even a final year medical student’s mind can be reset to avoid nightmares on differential diagnosis, prognosis, probable opthalmology surgery or anything like that. You are the boss remember? Now go and act like it! Don’t forget to mention me in your BBC interview though. That would really hurt.

At time of posting I was visited by my muses, they whispered various other secrets to writting a Caine Prize story, so keep a date with us on this blog. We promise new content everyday, who knows tomorrow part two may be out. This enough for your first draft though , so go!

Naijawriter warns that heeding any of the above advice can prove harmful to your writing career. The statements made are the sole preserve of the author. 😉

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36 thoughts on “How To Write A Caine Prize Story ( Whatever That Is) Part 1

  1. You are such a crazy girl…..dazall I can say. ROTFL. See the way you have dissected all the shortlisted stories without exception. Welldone. This made me laugh

  2. This is hilarious! Well done.

    Until our publishers wake up though, we’re going to keep telling the stories the western world wants to hear… sadly.

  3. Hehehe! You no just well. But you didn’t touch the corruption part….maybe in part 2? 😐 Looool! You might want to correct this tho, *those will might get you …” A line in the1st point. Cheers

  4. You are the most hilarious cynic I’ve ever read. Hilarious, yet strangely, no clowning. You’ve pointed out ever so charmingly shocking lapses in what is deemed ‘good African writing’ by the West. Until we are allowed to tell our stories with a free hand, this is what we may continually get: the truth with paranormal twists that pander to western taste buds. Great work, my friend!

  5. This was totally revealing. Brilliant, articulate and well-thought out piece. It is not that those stories aren’t brilliant. It is that they always fixate themselves on a limited spectrum of themes.

  6. Of the selection, I’ve Bayan Layi and Miracle. I have to read the rest before I can comment but I found your piece witty and insight, makes one stop and ponder.

  7. Lwkmd! Its uncanny how i was just saying the same thing my husband on sunday, how the caine prize shortlist will no doubt comprise of stories on the bad sides of Naija like the BH madness and other stuff. These people only want to hear about the backwardness and ingloriousness of africa. When we depict the beautiful sides of our culture and how far we have gone with technology and education, they don’t want to hear. Africa to them, will always be backwards, warring, religious, ignorant and primitive.
    And sadly, we have writers who see through such eyes.
    Well done dear, retweeting this again.

  8. Of the selection, I’ve read Bayan Layi and Miracle. I have to read the rest before I can comment but I found your piece witty and insightful, makes one stop and ponder.

  9. Sad. Have they gone back to their criteria? E.C. Osondu’s piece (Waiting, 2009) was about children in a refugee camp who are fighting for water, places to ease themselves and waiting for adopters from America. Sad. Olufemi Terry (of Stickfighting Days, 2010) is about children fighting with sticks, sniffing glue, and scavenging on the rubbish dump. NoViolet Bulawayo’s winning piece (Hitting Budapest, 2011) is about children in the poor part of Zimbabwe visiting the rich part and their fantasy of life and how they want to travel abroad… how they removed the shoes of a woman who had committed suicide to sell to buy bread. The only one different was Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic (2012) which was about a man deranged after a duty in the army and involvement in the WWII.

    Last year, Bernadine Evaristo – the Chair of Judges – actually stated that they will move ‘beyond the stereotypical narrative of Africa’. However, from this write-up it looks like Gus Casely-Hayford had brought us back to the pre-2012 days. Sad.

  10. I am not so sure the bad stories break every fiction rule. I actually wish they did that. Too many of these shortlisted stories, when viewed from afar, follow the same script. It’s like all the writers went to the same school and were brought up to use the same technical fiction weapons. We have Mormergil Sticks, Bombay Rifles, Guavas, Bayan Layi Knives and Amulets, Jambullas, Orlando T-shirts and so on as weapons of choice. Nobody wants to use space age weapons like North Korean Hydrogen Bombs, born and bred in South Kordofan vodka (fired under the hot Sudanese sun), Jambula Tree porn movies firing out of Samsung S-IV phones in downtown Nairobi…no original weapons being used esp in this shortlist. Tired old fictional catapults last seen being used by grand daddy in 1916 sijui what. These guys are not breaking the rules. They are following them too strictly. Like it’s a stiff upper-lip british colonial birthright. &*-£#%.

    About Western and Diaspora she-bangs. What can I say? Who takes a Port Harcourt bus drive to American embassy. Nobody smokes Embassy Cigarettes in Port Harcourt, Nobody cares for Diaspora guys anymore. They are just teddy bears to go to sleep with. Nice things to know we have but teddy bears, just because they have fur like African hunting dogs, cannot replace man’s best friend. I don’t care what blind man is doing in some Alabama church. I have Goldenberg fully sighted man doing more exciting things in my church here in South-west Nairobi where the compass points. MIRACLES make diaspora look retarded. So goddamn retarded. I don’t care. Retards can break out of the mental hospital but that doesn’t mean they can come live at my house and read the books in my library.

    Whatever I said. Maybe even I don’t know what I said.

    And I love Stick Fighting Days. Greatest Caine Prize winner of them all. Nobody will write a story like this again.

  11. I had intended to write a story on homosexuality. I had intended to transform Africa to a brown, wet, and terrifying forest. I had intended to elevate the Westerners, to make them the visible god. Then here you are, saying things I had thought. I will say it is the work of God, because that’s what everybody wants to hear. The pastor will be satisfied, because miracles will gain more worshippers, and more worshippers means more money. It’s that straightforward. Now, I don’t know if to turn red on you for sharing my God given secret :/

  12. Elnathan John-styled. A few points are new. Hilarious though. But I think we need to read writers propose some better model for assessment, not just to whine satirically. As for African poverty-porn story and the likes, writing, – even fiction – reflects reality, though I accept that stereotypes should be avoided. Meanwhile, the book is not the only medium for telling the African story to the world – the West don’t need books to have a glimpse of Africa. They only need Twitter, Facebook, Nollywood, TV, etc. These ones are more convincing, more graphic, and will readily put a lie to any book that hawks the story of a gleaning Africa! Think about it.

  13. You are very very brilliant. I really enjoyed this. You have a unique perspective on life events. You might want to have someone proof read your work though. Thumbs up.

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