Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Today I will be sharing some lessons from the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, written by Gboyega Otolorin, a fellow participant. My blog posts on the workshop have been accused of being too much of a personal account, like a diary (which was actually my intention). Anyway, for those looking to learn what we did, Gboyega’s summary should be quite helpful and it’s posted below with his permission.

Hey guys, I was scanning my workshop notes and I thought ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if someone summarized the main bits and pieces of writing wisdom we received during those miraculous ten days?' So, that’s what I did. Started with Chimamanda; summaries of Binyavanga, Adewale, Tash and Faith will come later. These are the points I got. Wrote them down the way I understood them. If there’s something I missed or misinterpreted, please feel free to mention it.

Alright! This is for you, my fellow voyagers on the seas of linguistic playfulness, from Gboyega Otolorin, forever and always, in the eternal sense!

From Chimamanda Adichie:

One: Chimamanda’s central dogma: Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. SHOW, DON’T TELL. Show us what the character is feeling. Don’t tell us. Showing is more effective in conveying emotional truth than telling.

Two: Avoid clichés. Don’t use clichéd plots, storylines, expressions, sentences. Try as much as possible to create something original. Avoid writing thrillers like James HadleyChase. Avoid writing romance that feels like Mills & Boon. Avoid any story that reminds you of Nollywood.

Three: Include SIGNIFICANT details. Details make your story believable. Let your reader be able to imagine the scene as clearly as you saw it. However, never include TOO MANY details. It shows a lack of confidence in your own skills as a writer. Don’t compensate for insecurity by overdoing it. Less is more. Significant detail.

Four: Art is to be enjoyed. We write because we want to be read and appreciated. Otherwise, we would just finish our pieces and lock them up in our drawers at home. If we want our writing to be read and enjoyed, our writing must be comprehensible! Comprehension is KEY. The reader MUST be able to connect to what we are saying.

Five: When writing about religion, be honest. Write something that both believers and non-believers can relate to. Don’t preach the converted.

Six: Be real. Say it like it is. Don’t get all ‘writer-y’ and try to decorate simple sentences with stylish language. Don’t let truck drivers speak like university graduates. Use pidgin and local languages where necessary so your characters are believable. However, if you’re writing for an international audience, use local details and language in a way that doesn’t leave readers confused. But you shouldn’t write local language and then translate side-by-side e.g. “Mo ti n bo,” Jumoke said (“I’m on my way,” Jumoke said). Let the local language be in the middle of the speech, in a way that the international/non-local reader can guess at the meaning from the context.

Seven: Consistency. The language of your work should be consistent. Chimamanda said ‘a story tells you how to read it’. The way we read dreamers and fable-tellers like Ben Okri and Amos Tutuola is different from the way we read realists like Chinua Achebe. The language of our work must be consistent.

Eight: If you’re writing about a familiar subject e.g. love, domestic abuse, marriage, sibling rivalry, drug abuse e.t.c, look for a fresh approach or a new angle. Again, avoid clichés. Again, avoid Nollywood.

Nine: On style. Style is good. It is good to play with language, to be ‘linguistically playful’. Stylish language and clever turns of phrase delight readers and they are a major part of the pleasure we get from reading. Your style is part of what constitutes your ‘voice’ as a writer. It’s how people can pick up your book and immediately know you wrote it. However, too much style gets in the way of the story and can distract the reader. Also, making every sentence clever and every paragraph ‘an intricate work of art’ can signal a lack of confidence in yourself.

Ten: The most prescribed rule of writing: Write what you know. Chimamanda said: Don’t write what you don’t know. Make sure that if you’re going to write about something, you’ve studied it and done your research appropriately so that when you write about it, everything feels real and tangible. For example, if you’re going to write about prostitutes, it would be a good idea to interview a few. Just like Chika Unigwe did with ‘On Black Sister’s Street’.

Eleven: The Hating-Your-Own-Work rule. Chimamanda called writing ‘a pathetic way of seeking validation’ and it is true. The only way to feel good as a writer is when other talented people (i.e. other writers/discerning readers) tell you your work is worthy. But how do we deal with hating our own work? First, realize that uncertainty is a good thing. When you stop feeling jittery about your work, you become smug. And being smug makes you write trash. Also, find gifted people who can critique your work. Not your close friends or family members, but people who you know can help make your writing better. They may be writers themselves, or readers, or teachers; anyone you know who can tell the difference between Mills & Boon and Shakespeare. Writer’s workshops and online forums are a good place to find such people. The more positive responses you get, the more your confidence grows. If you keep getting negative feedback, ask what you’re doing wrong, and fix it.  Whatever happens, keep writing and never believe that your work is perfect. There is no perfect writer. Everyone is a work in progress.

Twelve: The Unbreakable Rule: Read. Read. Read. A writer can never read enough. The only way to be a good writer is to read. There is no school for professional writers. There is no workshop or degree programme or certification. There is only reading. We are professional writers only because we write. Not because we have published anything or received any prizes but because we write. And the only way to write well is to read. The simple prescription we got from the workshop was thirty books a year. But for a good professional writer, it should be one a week, fifty-two books a year. Or more if you can. You cannot be a good writer if you do not read. A writer can never read enough.

Thirteen: The Thirteenth Commandment: When you know the rules, you can break them. There is no rule of writing that cannot be broken. Except for the Reading Rule; a writer MUST read. But you can break all the others. Just make sure that in breaking a rule, you are achieving something uniquely creative and interesting. Almost all of the best writers have broken rules at one point or another. As long as the rule-breaking doesn’t turn the story to trash, then go ahead.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Image from here

If you attended a boarding school—particularly a rugged one like my very own alma mater—you probably know its own version of what we at LASMOCK liked to call food ninjas. To be a food ninja was no small matter. You had to have serious mind and adhere strictly to the food ninja code of honour. But the good thing was once a food ninja, always a food ninja. You could never live it down. The food ninjas—and I mean the proud and proper ones, not the ones in denial—lived a life of utter liberation. They had no social obligations (re: levels) to live up to. They roamed the halls and classrooms of the school, free in their wild, uninhibited love for food, even good old LASMOCK food.

I cannot even begin to tell you all the things that a food ninja was, and perhaps still is, but I can tell you 22 ways to be an authentic LASMOCK food ninja.

1. Do admit that you can find your way to the dining hall without the aid of GPS.

2. Do not at any time be found without your ninja tools (cutlery of any form) on your person. Take the motto of the scouts to heart.

3. Do recite the food timetable with 100% accuracy whenever called upon, even if woken from the velvety depths of sleep at 2 a.m.

4. Do not hesitate to say stuff like ‘why shouldn’t I go for food? After all my parents paid for it!’ with a straight face.

5. When forced by teachers—who suddenly realize they have nothing better to do with their time—to go to the dining hall and ‘eat your parents’ money’, do not shuffle with pained reluctance to the dining hall, your face clearly showing how much you detest such degrading treatment.

6. Do not miss making an appearance at the dining hall every day, including resumption, visiting and vacation days.

7. Do proudly display your ‘food badges’ (food stains on your clothes) as battle scars.

8. Do not forget to boast about your *mazzing exploits in the dining hall.

9. Do your damndest to get appointed a food prefect or, if you find that too ambitious or unattainable, a table captain.

10. Do be a junior student. All juniors get automatic food ninja status.

11. Do not bother to hide the sheer joy that fills your heart at the sound of every siren signalling meal times.

12. Do be found in the vicinity of the dining hall at every meal time.

13. Do finish your food in time for the end of meal prayers every time.

14. Do respond to dining hall prayers every time. Anything louder than a barely audible whisper would suffice.

15. Do not be afraid to admit that Friday is your favourite day of the week only because they serve rice and turkey.

16. Do not try to mask Thursday’s fufu and fish fragrance with perfume or body spray when it clings to your clothes after the meal.

17. Do line up in front of the dining hall for eba, eko, beans, or pap and akara—the undesirables—with your ninja tools raised sky high cos you just don’t care.

18. Do not be slow to defend any suspected or confirmed food ninjas from yabis.

19. Do bone up and form not sending when members of the opposite sex from your class see you going into the dining hall (note: this only applies to senior students).

20. Do ensure that the entire kitchen staff knows you by name.

21. Do eat school meals without finding anything to complain about.

22. Do agree with the school authorities, and say so at every conceivable opportunity, that attendance at the dining hall should be mandatory for all students.

*‘Mazz’ is short for massacre and it means to rush for food, usually spilling a lot in the process.

Monday, July 4, 2011


The Farafina Trust literary evening was a fitting end to such a wonderful workshop. It held at Eko Hotels and we had dinner after at Protea on Awolowo Road. We had Jumoke Verrissimo, Odia Ofeimun, Eghosa Imasuen, Tash Aw, Binyavanga Wainaina (who showed up with his head and beard green, don’t ask me why) and Faith Adiele read from their work. And there was a performance by Waje. All in all, a great evening.

I didn’t cry—thank God—but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like it. After spending ten days with nineteen other people I shared something in common with, it was kind of sad parting. There are some of us I know I’ll probably never see again. Thankfully, there are others I know I will see again. It’s amazing how well we all got along, and I believe that we will follow each others’ lives as closely as we can, thank God for email and blogs and facebook.

Here’s to all of you.

Pemi Aguda – the undisputed queen of flash fiction, I remain loyal.

Tahirah Abdulazeez – the one with the very rich imagination (hope you said a proper goodbye to Casper, or whatever his name was), and the interesting face.

Doris Ogale – Miss Sunshine. It was always such a pleasure reading her work.

Elnathan John – the one who made us laugh till we cried with his freakishly accurate impressions. The same one who made us cringe with his very apt critiques. The one of great insight.

Gboyega Otolorin – the one who brought us joy with his stories and his personality.

Olumide Owoo – the one with the deeply insightful stories and calm presence.

Emezuom Nworgu – the ‘uncle’ of the class, with the wise, gentle voice.

Chinyere Obi-Obasi – the ‘mummy’ of the class; passionate, unpretentious and committed to her writing.

Irene – the one with the infectious laugh and truthful stories.

Buchi Nduka – the bubbly one who wrote the daring pieces.

Nkem Awachie – her stories were beautifully grounded and very easy to relate with.

Osemhen Akhibi – she of the beautiful smile and even more beautiful stories.

Glory Edozien – our drama queen; her voice is unmistakably hers.

Lauri Kubuitsile – our Caine woman. I deeply admire her way with words.

Wame Molefhe – the quiet one. Wame has a depth and mystique that always find their way into her writing, to the reader’s pleasure.

Tolu Talabi – he of great mischief and twinkling eyes. His writing is as quirky as he is and I can tell we will be good friends.

Gimba Kakanda – the one with linguistic playfulness and philistinical approaches. I have my eye on you.

Funke Ogundimu – the one with the voice of a sage. Funke’s writing has an understated but distinct and almost surreal flavour.

Morenike Singer – the warm and ever glamourous Miss Singer; her writing has a depth and honesty that is hard to miss.

It was an honour to meet and get to know all you beautiful people.   

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Today’s the last day of the workshop proper—tomorrow will be a book reading and some other stuff—and I’m feeling sad that it’s come to an end, so I decide to go in much earlier than the 11 a.m. that we are supposed to start today. Derica (the girl who reminds me of myself) comes in some minutes after and we get to talking. The workshop starts quite late today cos the others are late getting in from the hotel.
I sit next to Tolu (whom I hereby nickname Tolz) again today and it was fun. 

Today’s workshop started with Tash Aw, a Malaysian writer. He didn’t want us to introduce ourselves by our names, but he told us to say one thing that was true about ourselves and one thing that wasn’t true and let the class guess which was which. From the things each of us said, and from the reaction of others to these things, he taught us some useful tricks in writing both fiction and nonfiction. I liked Tash and wish we’d been able to have more time with him.

After a nice lunch, Faith Adiele came on. She taught us about creative nonfiction and we did a few exercises in class which she used to teach us. We did one where we had to write down in columns things we remembered and didn’t remember about our childhood. We also did one where we mapped our homes or neighbourhoods and told our partners about the memories we had growing up. This was to show us possible sources of stories for memoir pieces. It was quite an interesting time today.

After class Elnathan and Nkem did impressions. That was hilarious. Elnathan refused to do Chimamanda sha, I don’t know why.

After we left the workshop, we went to the hotel with the guys. It was nice. A lot of books were signed and we ate popcorn and shawarma and gizzard. And I took movies from Tolz's hard drive.

I suspect there might be tears tomorrow when we finally have to leave.