Things The Book You Don’t Write Will Never Do

I don’t know
what the book you write will do
but I know the book you do not write
will never win a Man Booker, a Baileys, a Kirkus or a 9Mobile
will never top a list or close a list
will never be a book club rave
kindling debate and speculation the world over
will never have a sequel
never be a movie
or a series
or a franchise
It will make you no millions
earn you no fans
birth you no rivals
It will not make a reviewer shudder with delight
or squirm in pain
it will never be quoted
book-spine story stacked
photographed, venerated, or vilified
It will never gladden a heart or fill one with rage
It will cause no laughter, awe, anguish or shame
It won’t spark friendships between strangers
build bridges between daughter and father
create kinship between old and young
It will do none of these things
That I guarantee.

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Conversations: Like A Heartbeat

What are you waiting for?

I don’t know.

Are you scared?

Yea, a lot.

Of what?

Everything. I am scared of success and scared of failure. Scared of being inadequate, scared of being too much. Scared of making the wrong choices and scared of trusting the wrong people. I am not just scared , I am terrified.

Aha! Then you have no problem. If fear is all that is holding you back, you must go ahead. You must do it afraid.

What if I fail?

What if you succeed?

What if I can’t finish?

What if you can?

People will laugh at me. They’ll tear my work to shreds!

Maybe. And maybe some will love you. Maybe you will reach those fpr whom your gift was meant.

It is useless. The world is strewn with the bones of dreamers, failures and wannabees.

It is also full of success stories, if you only look out for them.

But the world doesn’t need another piece of “African Art”

If it doesn’t, then why is the need to make some surging in you as strong as your heartbeat?

Open Letter To Pa Ikhide

Pa,

I trust this meets you well, and happy. Permit me to send my love to Ma, Omi,Fefe and other members of your constituency. Ke du? How is the white-man’s land? I hear it is Autumn there: the season of shedding, harvests, falling leaves and rebirth. Here it is rainy season 2. The august break is over and the rains have resumed in earnest: waking us with the sweet petrichor of drenched clay, lulling us with rhythmic beats on the rooftop….

In other words we are fine. (Fine is such a lifeless word. Maybe I should say we are alive. But are we? The way many of us drift through the day? Hmm. I trust that you will understand though, you are an elder. Elders know these things.)

I am tempted to meander. It is easier, to beat around the bush, than confront a spitting cobra face first. This is different though, I am writing to you in faith. Faith that you will understand. Faith that you will sift my chaff for seeds. I am a soul that needs an ear, not a belly dance. So I will be straightforward– Pa,I need your help.

I can’t pinpoint the time and place, of this problem’s birth. Maybe it has always been there. Maybe I have always harboured a thirst for writing that lifts. Maybe it is something that was just waiting for the right conditions. Maybe not.

But from the minute I heard about blogging the Caine Prize, something in me changed. For the first time I read a creative piece with the frown of a sceptic not a reader’s smile of bliss. It didn’t stop there. I found myself writing about it, in two blogposts over two days. I thought I was free then. Alas, the torture had just begun.

After that, everything I have read has been with the critic’s stance: pen in hand, frown on face, and a resolve to kiss or kick.

Reading for fun is hard now. In the first sentence or two I am thrown off never to be seen again. I mope over things other people can’t see. People rave about Americanah’s realness, I count the -nesses and the -ilys.

Friends have become foes. My amateur attempts at trying to kick their work into shape is seen as a mini assassination attempt. I feel lonely Pa, and alone.

Worse still, the books and stories that leave people giddy with glee, make me scratch my head and squint. People enthuse about a story’s perfection, I wonder about its loose ends. I am worried Pa, I am, I don’t want to look ninety when I am twenty-nine.

I love words. I love Literature. I have loved her my whole life. Drama,poetry, fiction or non-fiction, I love them all. This metamorphosis of mine is something I don’t understand. If I become a critic, won’t that take all the joy out of my life?

I want my innocence back, that, and the feeling of naivete. I want to read through work without looking for rapture and find the little bright spots within. I want to be insulated from bad writing with the soft safe cushion that Ignorance is. I want to be happy again, to read freely again, to believe the best of everything and be blind to mistakes.

Besides, I am also a writer. I want my work to be appreciated, doing hatchet jobs is dreadful Karma. A peep at Michiko Kakutani’s GoodReads page confirmed my suspicions: critics get no love. Despite having worked in the ‘Industry’ for twenty-five years and winning a Pulitzer, Ms Kakutani had just seven GoodReads fans. Ouch.

It is probably late for me to restore my critique virginity. But, I still hope something can be done: tightening jellies, soap, anything. There has to be a way. There has to be a balance. There has to be a way to read, write and critique without becoming a killjoy or a charlatan.

So, Pa, please tell me what I must do. I want to read with reckless abandon, write with courage and passion, critique with the impartiality of the surgeon’s scalpel: keeping the good and carving up the bad. I want to tell the truth and keep my friends. I want good Karma, for when my own imperfect work hits shelves or mailboxes or blog’s pages. I want to make an important difference, in a good way, for my readers.

Show me how Pa, I know you can. Thank you for reading this far.

Eagerly waiting,
Nta Bassey

The Heat Is On

“Loves the fire but can’t stand the heat.” Famous last words spoken to me by an ex-girlfriend. Years later, the words linger; dancing around my sub-concious, jumping to the fore, like they did today.

What brought them up? A little experiment. Instead of moaning about bad blogs and sloppy writing, I decided to do something about it.

What did I do?
I started the #BlogPolice.

What is that?

It is a platform to call out bad writing on blogs, things like clichés, gratuitous adverbs, typos, redundancy, chunky writing and tense confusion.

Does that mean you are perfect?

No, it doesn’t. We found an omission on our blog and mentioned it too. There’s no perfect writer and no perfect blogpost. The aim is to encourage people to make an effort and to give people a sense of accountability.

Why do you want to do that? Does it work?

We want to do that because we care about writing and we care about writers. We left names out so no one would feel victimised or picked on. We added a #BlogAngels bit later on and talked about the good things we noticed as well.

The idea was culled from the Twitter typo-spotting tyrants, handles like: Grammar Police, Gbagaun Detector, Sharp Spotter etc. These handles were dedicated to spotting typographical errors on Twitter. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes, they were a pain in the neck. In any case, they made people read over their tweets and double check before they sent them. They made tweeters accountable.

The Blog Police was meant to do the same thing. It was meant to remind bloggers that people heed their ‘Please read and comment’ requests. It was to show that the effort they spent proof-reading, redrafting or rewriting a post was not wasted.

Alas, it failed.

Despite listing the offending sentences and phrases in anonymity, some people still decided to raid my direct messages with tirades. They went on to state that I should never mention their blogs again. Some unfollowed after that. Some had me blocked.

Normal events, except that these were the same people clamouring for names of offenders be affixed to their ‘blog crimes’. Some of them asked that offenders should be informed so they ‘learn from their mistakes’.

All the while, lying through their fingertips.

The #BlogPolice is defunct. It was a rewarding experiment. It made me read many things I don’t usually read. It taught me open-mindedness and patience.

It also made me notice the great work some people are doing on their blogs.

Most of all, it made me realise that people are often as two-faced as a cheap coin. They can smile with you in the sunshine and stick a dagger into your groin at night.

No wonder the Book says “Woe is he that trusts in a man.”

It raises questions though.

In the world today, every product or service gets reviewed. Some get nods and others get knocks. Sometimes the same product gets both nods and knocks. It doesn’t mean the producer is a bad person, it just means there is room for improvement.

It is great to hear rave reviews. People telling you how amazing you are is soothing. To get better, though, we have to listen to less than savoury stuff. We have to pay attention to issues raised and treat them if they are real or toss them if they are malicious.

If a blogger can’t cope with having a single sentence queried, how will they cope? When they get Kakutanied?

Smile For The Cameras

Smile for the cameras

Let me weep for the mike

Write about the roses

Let me write about the thorns

Show them your medals

Let me show my scars,

Look to the stars,

Let me weep at the gutters,

Quote second hand statistics

Let me feel the hunger pinch,

In the end let’s

Keep telling our stories.

How To Write A Caine Prize Story (Whatever That Is) Part 2

As promised, you are about to receive the second part of your instructions on this treatise. Heed them well and very soon, your name shall join those being celebrated in print,on air and online. It has been noted that some of you have already begun applying these nuggets in earnest . This is most commendable, the shortlist seeker must be a person with their wits about them. Time is of the essence. Now to business.

7. Avoid Technology .

When crafting such an important story, you might be tempted to mention some of the latest communication gadgets: mobile phones, laptops, Ipads,Tablets and the like . This temptation you must resist. However the mistake you must never make is to mention the internet! You are also not permitted any hint of the Social Media world, space may not permit to list them all but surely you understand. Yes, Facebook and Twitter are not allowed. This is an absolute. So when you feel the need to have characters sending email,pinging on blackberries, and skyping remember–you have been warned. Telephones are allowed though, provided their connections crackle with static. Also no guns, you can use sticks, stones and occasionally a machete for your violent scenes. Don’t mention any of the anti-aircraft guns possessed by insurgents. Be silent on the sophisticated assault riffles used for election violence. Don’t even let a character wish for them. Care less about how this might hinder the plausibility of your story, or render your narrative unauthentic. Ignore this at your peril.

8. Never Write A Heterosexual Romance

The quick learner you are , you must have read through the shortlists of as many years as are on the internet. You must have found that any kind of love is well received except the old fashioned type that exists between a man and a woman. (i mentioned this in a in 5 above but it bears repeating)
So let ladies touch jambullas or get caught by their mothers or men face trials for love. Just make sure it is not a man-woman thing. You will be on prize story ground.
If you must include any heterosexual romantic liaisons it must be in the context of a Fable or an affair. Forbidden love like forbidden fruit always sells.
You would better off without it though. This is to assist, if you insist.

9. Use Your Story To Highlight Political Issues

Here corruption is an instant winner. Crude oil spillage, bad governance, inefficient civil servants will come handy, arm yourself with a lot of them.. You must be quite expansive here, ensure no one is innocent. Everyone must have a trace of corrupt even the expatriate embassy staff. It is a guaranteed winner. Political issues create a resonance in your readers. It reminds them vividly of the Africa they see on television. Don’t you dare enlighten them. Take a clue from the stories shortlisted in the past. Never mind the “new” African focus. The new is silent.

10. Get Your Story Published Overseas

Of course there is a 20% chance of making it on the shortlist by getting published by a home based outfit. This you can in no way guarantee. The easier matter is to be in the 80%. That should be quite self explanatory. Besides it would be quite the task to convince a local publisher that children’s bodies are black with crude oil in Port Harcourt or that you need 3000 words to describe a fictitious healing. Western publishers however would be delighted. Besides where exactly would you find a publisher to accept just a short story from you ? Not in Nigeria definitely and not in Serria Leone. Simple statistics, get the story published overseas.

11. Be Blind To Other Races.

You might have observed first-hand some fascinating yarn that involves Indians, Chinese and Lebanese living on the continent. You might even have gotten a fast moving authentic story written and under the word count too. Unfortunately this you would have to discard. A shortlist story must not feature any of these, ever. There is a picture of Africa in your reader’s mind, your duty is just to highlight it. Zoom on it if you will. Any attempts at radical,rebellious,experimental, what-if thinking will meet the fate of the 92. And like them your story will languish in the endless literary cosmos, unread and un-appreciated, soon to be forgotten…. A most unbearable thought.

12. Limit Infrastructure.

This point you know already so it will be brief. Write only of the kind of infrastructure all the other writers have written of. Again this is reminiscent of
7 above but a slightly different matter. Transport for instance. Your story must never feature aeroplanes. Private jets are anathema as are any air conditioned vehicle. Bicycles,canoes, leg breaking motorcycles and rickety buses with smelling women are allowed though, so make good use of them. Note that the roads must always be bumpy, “sandy and brown ” and bumpy.
Also any mention of the following in your stories will be deeply frowned upon : fast food outlets, universities, cinema theatres,shopping malls, picnics, carnivals and parties. Forget your ambitious entertainment industry and their like. You must stay within the boundaries set from old. As in E.C.Osondu’s Waiting, Monica Arac De Nyeko’s Jambulla Tree, Noviolet Bulawayo’s Hitting Budapest, you must paint a bleak picture and do that deftly.

At this point you are ready to produce a shortlist story. Of course you would not attempt to set your story in a futuristic context. What? This is not genre fiction! There are other concerns like the liberal use of mosquitoes, nauseating smells and the ubiquitous eye disorders and the absence of banks. These you will discover in time and be all the more shortlist worthy when you do. There are other matters of course, punctuation, continuation, omissions ( now known as typos). These are minor matters that the help of a first rate editor can easily solve, another reason to examine with care where you send your story. It feels bad to let you go now, but all good things must end. Go, put your name on the Caine Prize shortlist roll call, 2014 is just months away. Best wishes. Adieu.

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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. 😉