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A Really, Really, Really Brief Writing Workshop

In a few weeks’ time, two writing workshops will begin. The first is organized by the Farafina Trust and hosted by Chimamanda Adichie. The second is organized by Fidelity Bank and hosted by Helon Habila. Understandably, not a few wannabe authors are anxious about being selected. The hosts are big names in the industry and for many people, yours truly included, the opportunity to interact with them is one to die for. Almost.

The truth is that not everyone will get in. Sucks big time. Word on the street is that Farafina Trust received about four hundred applications. Only twenty people will get picked. Daunting odds. My stomach goes all funny at the thought of it. And so, to take my mind off it, I am reviewing everything I’ve learned about creative writing. If I don’t get in for either of the workshops (sigh), I’ll re-read John Gardner’s Art of Fiction and hope I get in next year. 🙂 So here goes. My mini creative writing workshop.  I won’t say I’ve been faithful to them all. Sometimes, I just plain forget. Sometimes, my conceit leads me to ignore them. But they are good guidelines. Scout’s honor.

These ideas come in no particular order, you understand. I won’t say any single one is more important than the other.

  1. Write with ALL your senses. It’s easy to stick with writing solely from the sense of sight. The grass was green, the sky was blue and yonder, two hawks struggled for the corpse of a dead mouse. Easy but flat. One dimensional. And after a while, ponderous. What can the characters smell? Hear? Taste? Feel, inside and outside? Is it cold? Humid? Does the sight of water provoke any fears or excitement in them? Etc. Of course, to write convincingly about this, you have to expand your own palate, so to speak. How does leather smell? (and no, it smells like leather is not a valid answer). How does metal taste? Soap? What is it like to sleep on a cement floor? What is the immediate sensation of being slapped? Punched in the solar plexus?
    An exercise:  When you wake up in the morning, make a resolution to mentally record your day from one sense only. Start with hearing. What does the street sound like? What do you hear first in the morning? Neighbours bickering? Someone sweeping? Your father shuffling in his room and cussing till he finds his glasses? The next day, go with another sense. Touch. And then on subsequent days, take each of the senses.
    Caveat: Don’t go and eat certain mushrooms because Osemhen said to expand your repertoire of sensory experiences. My hand is not there, o.
  2. It’s always a good idea to have a character profile. Depending on what you’re writing, short story, novella, novel, trilogy, sprawling saga, the length of your character profile will vary. A character profile should describe the physical appearance of your character, and temperament, and interesting features. Is your character leftie? Does he smoke B&H or Dunhill? Does she drink tea or coffee?
    One writer who does amazing work on his characters is George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series (writer of Game of Thrones for y’all who don’t read that much). Each of his characters who makes more than a cameo appearance is unforgettable. Every single one. I’m  certain that if I saw Jaime Lannister walking down the road, I’d know it was him. And it all starts with the character profiling. You can get good templates off the internet. Or, if you’d like, I’d send you the one I compiled. I have it as an Excel Sheet so when I have new characters, I just fill in a new column.
  3. Write with a dictionary and thesaurus.  So you don’t confuse a gazebo for a portico. I’m a child of technology and so I use Encarta. My Dad scoffs at this; he uses a giant Webster Dictionary & Thesaurus combo. To each his own, I guess.
  4. As much as possible, write on MS Word. If for nothing else, for the squiggly lines it draws under inaccurate words and phrases. Some people turn off the Spell Checker, why?!
  5. Read. A lot. Give the literary tomes a rest some times. They can stultify your writing tone. Read…manuals. Magazines. Text-books (I swear by this). Poetry (and no, your friends’ notes on Facebook don’t count.) The Bible or Koran. Reading a lot of stuff widens the styles of writing you’re exposed to and so you develop your own voice, and don’t just replicate that of your hero’s. Reading textbooks, for instance, trains you in delivering your message as concisely as possible. Poetry helps in recognizing the cadence of words . And so, if you read your stuff and it doesn’t deliver right, you know where to adjust. Another cool thing about poetry is that it evokes fresh metaphors.
  6. Metaphors.  Tricky stuff. The unaware blithely string clichés one after the other. The aware will look out for said clichés in 2nd draft and murder them. More on that later. But metaphors can be cool. Some writers have the mojo on creating great ones. Markus Zusak does it on almost every page of The Book Thief. “His eyes were made of melting silver, and kindness.” “She looked like a wardrobe with a cloak thrown over it.” And so on. I glanced through Igoni Barrett’s From Caves of Rotten Teeth recently, and in the first story he described  the hunger in a room as a beast with red eyes that glinted. Maybe it’s my love for animation, but that sentence pulled me WHOOSH! Into the story. Loved it. This might sound odd but a way to spot fresh metaphors is by listening to rap music. Hey! Love it or hate it, rap is becoming art! Lupe Fiasco’s a personal favourite but most of them are pretty good on account of how competitive the game is.
  7.  Adjectives and Adverbs are like salt. They season the prose. They are not the prose. ‘Nuff said.
  8. Points of Views. A run-down. First person: I had never seen a sky so blue. Second person: You had never seen a sky so blue. Third person objective: Jack Sparrow had never seen a sky so blue. Third person subjective: The sky’s so blue, he thought. I’ve never seen it this way before.
      Be careful with these. Most people tend to muddle them up. A first person narrative should not have a sentence like  “My face went pale at her news.”  Unless the person speaking is looking into a mirror.
  9. Whew, this is becoming longer than I thought. And so, I’m going to be doing a lot of editing. A lot. One writer, I don’t remember which now, calls it “murdering your darlings.” Yup. Those clever turns of language, the “evocative” phrases, the sweet, sugary and saccharine, the flowery. This is hard. But over the last year, precisely because I’ve entered competitions with a specific word limit, I have had to prune, prune, prune. Some of my friends send me their work to go over and by the time I return it with all the red highlighting, they hate me. “OSEMHEN, I HATE YOU!” Lol! No writer likes their editor…at first. And you’re your first editor. So prune. Chop that lengthy seventy-word sentence into five or six. Delete characters if you have to. There’s no easy way to do this, trust me. But it has to be done. Any word, phrase or sentence that doesn’t help the narrative, obliterate and calmly blow the smoke from your pistol. Or pen.

This is all I can think of for now. If I remember anymore, I’ll put them up. If YOU know of any really important pointers, put them up in the comments. Or hey, write a post and paste the link and we’ll come over and check it out. I’ll  end with a passage from one of the creative writing books I read. It’s called The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, I mentioned it before. Jide lent it to me and I have searched and searched bookshops to buy my copy but to no avail. It’s officially on my wish list, anyone who sees it should please buy it and let me know. I’ll buy it from you, with interest!   🙂

To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathise, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on…

It is to say that every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded to life or death. It means only that they should think always of what harm they might inadvertently do, and not do it. If there is good to be said, he should remember to say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth, that though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living. The true artist never forgets the real world, where teenagers have a chemical propensity toward anguish, people between their thirties and forties have a tendency to get divorced and people in their seventies have a tendency toward loneliness, poverty, self-pity and sometimes anger…

It’s a good book. And this passage is pretty much, self-explanatory. Sometimes, in our bid to spin our yarns, we forget there are really people living with HIV/AIDS. There are really people in abusive relationships. There are really people who are gay, and wish they weren’t. You never know who’s reading. Be nice.


Addendum: Okay, so I just got notified. I got in for the Farafina Trust Workshop! Cool, right? Thanks to everyone who stopped me from slitting my throat in despair. lol! Will keep you posted! 😀


  1. Nnaemeka says

    Kai. Never realised how technical good writing is. Goes to show the extent of my naivete. Already appreciating the authors I’ve read a lot more.

  2. God bless you for this Osemhen…ironically a lot of what you said is what my brother tells me all the time…altho…you’ve approached it with the touch of a professional…let’s just say I’m rili proud of who you’ve become…well done…I hope you get picked for at least one of those workshops.
    Oh n yeah…Rap has always been an art form…it became recognised as one a while back as well…just thot I should drop that for free…*wink*

    • Amen on getting picked, o. And thanks, glad I could help. Has it? I always hear them fighting for it to be legitimately recognised and all. Have they begun teaching it in schools? That’s the true test!

  3. annabella says

    Words to live by Osemhen. This may be the next set of rules I put up by my bed. Its good to be reminded because I forget at least half of these when am ‘in the zone’
    My special thanks for No.2 (excel sheet profile is genius) and No.8 (I have been looking 4 someone to break it down 😀 )
    When you’re ready to host your own workshop sign me up! May I suggest a modest chalet in Ibadan…

    • yes, ma’am. This shall of course be after I have published five novels of modest acclaim. I don’t want to fall into the trap of “those who can’t, teach.” 🙂

  4. tobicomm says

    At times like this, i find it hard to believe u studied engineering. This seems like the work of a pro. Guess u r one now. Nice work!!

    • My heart was always with this one, I guess. 🙂

      A baby pro. I still have Ogas. But small, small. Glad you like it!

  5. This is really lovely. Thx for the tips. I’d to get the excel sheet. Would u mind sending it to me? Thanks

  6. Thanks for sharing this extremely useful workshop. lol @ being really, really, really, brief (indeed) but I’m glad you elaborated. Look forward to reading more, Osemhen.

  7. Chibueze Opata says

    Chimamanda always emphasizes on the first part… 🙂 Nice refreshers… You would really reach space the way I see it.

  8. Pingback: On The Farafina Workshop | eurekanaija!

  9. despite the fact that am still in the middle of this post, i just had to pause and drop a word for you…AWESOME!! your command of words is likened to that of a magician who by the wave of his wand summons unseen forces, i must confess that that your words have got me thinking about lavishly investing in letters…go go ose

  10. Everything i read here i know but knowing doesn’t mean i have mastered it. Writing is a careful art, my editor tells me everytime. You are an inspiration.

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