writing a debut novel


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Writing a debut novel can be a daunting task for a newbie writer. So many what-ifs plague the mind, all borne out of feelings of self-doubt. It’s hard enough to get the idea of the plot right in your head, more also finding the right words to fill the blank pages before you. Many have started and stopped a quarter, half or three-quarters of the way, either trashing the whole thing or stashing it away in the cold files section.

We all need that dose of encouragement to surge on with our writing. Nothing beats hearing an experienced writer’s point of view about the process. Currently working on her debut novel, Chikodili Emelumadu is the perfect muse for this subject. Just like the Nike slogan says, ‘Just Do It’, that’s about what you’d hear from her if she’s motivating herself to keep writing or if you are looking for a push to get started. And really, that’s one of the keys to getting started.

Coffee keeps the general population awake but for the Caine prize nominee, it’s interesting to say it makes her sleepy. I would say that’s perfect, given that dreams are one of the means through which she gets her ideas. If you’ve read her stories, you would load her with coffee so she can get pumping with ideas. She had this to say;

“My dreams are pretty mad sometimes. I once had this dream about this creature perched on a doorway. It had a huge tongue with which it used to lick people’s faces as they walked by. I woke up hating the damn thing so much (It licked me!) It’s going to be in my second book – a sequel to my unpublished debut novel, ‘Dazzling’.

I’m thinking, that’s a really colourful imagination – and then turning it into a story; Genius! I may have been busy trying to block the image from coming up in my head out of fear, because seeing it in every dark space would send my heart racing. By the way, the colour doesn’t stop in her head, she has a penchant for colourful and beautiful socks.

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear colourful socks is kids and Chikodili has a handful of them. To maintain the serenity needed for reading, she has to keep shouting at them to be quiet. It’s no surprise – you would say – that she’s a big fan of libraries. Who else is lucky like her to have four libraries within a six-mile radius from their home? I wish.

I’m laughing at this point when she says, “Honestly, who raises these people? Jackals?” Do you know what people? The book distorters who fold pages instead of using bookmarks and leave books open and face down causing badly cracked spines. If this is also your pet peeve, we should form an invisible army to fish out the guilty.

Aye! Can we sip the main tea already?

writing a debut novel

What does writing mean to you?

It means that I will never ever pick up a knife and stab someone. Or a pencil. Or go completely stark, raving, naked-on-the-street mad. I am lucky. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have an outlet.

I believe writing is a gift but did you get any formal education? Do you think every aspiring writer should get one?

Is writing a gift? Or is storytelling? I think the latter. Writing is a skill. You practice it. You read and read and you write. That was all the real education I had. Although my love for expression in the English language led me to study it for my BA. I preferred the literature modules. Quelle surprise! If I had my time again, I’d do a BA in Creative Writing, an MA in Creative Writing or something related and a PhD in…you guessed it, Creative Writing. There is so much to explore.

How have you worked on your writing skill to get it to the beautiful state that it is now?

Reading a lot and reading widely, though not as widely as I’d have liked. I used to be much more varied when I was younger and hungrier for artistic expression that explained who I was and what I was feeling. I tried any and all forms of writing. I did it all. Plays, poetry, stories, drawing comics and cartoon strips, novels, novellas, essays – which I never finished.

Have you always been confident about your writing and stories?

Who says I’m confident now? {laughs} Talk to any writer and no matter how successful, they’ll tell you about impostor syndrome. In fact, I wager the more successful you are, the more you feel as though you don’t belong, as if you’ve hoodwinked people into giving you money and soon they will find out. A lot of the time, I write things that don’t see the light of day because I am convinced they are shit, then beta readers convince me otherwise. I suppose I am a lot more confident now than I used to be when I started out though and a lot of it is down to practice.

You’ve written quite a number of very interesting short stories. Bush Baby was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2017. Congratulations! How did that affect you as a person and your writing as well?

Thank you! Erm, to be frank, I had a newborn baby at the time and during all the Caine stuff, they were just nine weeks old. My worries were breastfeeding in private, changing in private, having someone hold the baby while I read, having all my stuff in two locations (having just returned from living in America that week), and worrying about my other kid who was in another city with my partner.  Then of course, with all these, there were people saying I didn’t deserve to be nominated and asking the five of us at panels to defend being the best in Africa – blah blah blah – that part was eye-twitchingly boring. You get the same people every year, not writing, not editing their stuff, not getting it published and yet they want to point in your face and ask how come you got nominated and not some village woman in Malawi.

Now, I suppose, I will always have ‘Caine Prize nominee’ affixed to me somewhere and the heft of it helps with people to whom it means something. It hasn’t affected my writing. I just try to be better today than I was yesterday and I keep it moving.

After reading Bush Baby, Candy Girl, Sin Eater, The Fixer and Soup, I had to draw the conclusion that you love speculative fiction. How was the love born?

Nigeria. Nigeria is a land of people, spirits and creatures, strong belief systems and vivid imaginations. As a child I read all the Grimm Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen and all the written Nigerian folklore. I also watched Tales By Moonlight and listened to elders tell stories of urban legends and myths. Powerful, imagination-building stuff.

I never called my stuff ‘Speculative fiction’ though. People did that. To me, I was and am, just writing life.

writing a debut novel

I heard stories about bush baby while in boarding school but I never saw it neither did I hear it cry. I dismissed it as one of those myths told to scare us. How do you find the words to describe your speculative characters; bush baby, sin eater, candy girl,  the Fixer, and make them so real that they inspire true horror?

I don’t know. They just come to me, I guess. I will tell you a secret though: The title ‘Candy girl’ embarrasses me a little bit. It’s too on the nose. Of course, it’s gone on to become one of my most successful short stories. It’s made me so much money in rights and brought people so much pleasure, I cannot be too hard on myself. Well done, little story!

What’s the best way to get better at descriptions of persons, places, animals or things?

I’m not sure there is any answer for this apart from reading and maybe trying it out a few times. Describe things in the way they occur to you, not in the way you think they should sound. Write it down. Read it aloud. It’s worth noting though that sometimes ideas or thoughts do not make their way across to the page seamlessly. It might be clumsily put or clunky. Practice, practice, practice. A lot of great descriptions arise from people just being themselves.

You’ve been working on your debut novel. How does writing a full length novel for the first time feel like to you?

This is not my first time writing a full-length piece of prose. It’s just the first one I am keen to publish. It’s been a long hard road of writing and reading and writing and trashing. Sometimes scavenging pieces of the work, sentences and ideas that work.

For a while there, writing the book was a pain and the first draft I finished was actually 94,000 words. It was bloated and all over the place. I put it aside for two-and-a half years and started again in November of 2018. I finished March 2019 and it is a book I am proud to have written.

In total, I have about half a million words of drafts from writing and discarding because the execution and conveying of my ideas was not quite right. I’m not sure what I will do with it. It’s in the cloud somewhere.


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