by Tega Oghenechovwen
I attended the Aké Festival Writing Workshop at the Ouida Book House, Lagos on the 25th of October 2018. It was facilitated by renowned British Author and Screenwriter, Ben Aaronovitch. The course was geared towards:
- helping young writers start their novels
- teaching writers to stay creative and to overcome writer’s block
I learned so much more from this accomplished writer. In this article, I will focus on the novel-building tips and tricks I learned from Ben Aaronovitch. Each sub title will enumerate the most important things every writer should know about designing, building and writing a novel.
If you truly desire to write a novel, nothing on earth can stop you. Desire is the major qualification for writing a novel. It is an ‘open sesame’, a gust of possibility. A strong desire kills doubt and procrastination.
What story do you desire to tell? What issue(s) do you desire to bring to life and raise awareness on, albeit in a fictitious way? Get a (working) title. Go for the story. Grab it.
On Starting A Novel.
People often ask, “how do I start writing a novel?” Ben Aaronovitch shared a few helpful tips and guidelines for beginners.
You may want to begin by writing a summary of the story you want to tell. It is important to write this down, no matter how short it may be.
Here’s an example: Jack meets Jill (Where and how did they meet? Why call them Jack and Jill?) Then, Jack and Jill decided to go up the hill (Why a hill? Which hill? What time of the day?) After three days, Jill comes down from the hill alone, eyes focused on nothing at all (My God? What happened to Jack? Oh! Poor Jack).
Query your one-paragraph story. What are Jack and Jill wearing when they first meet? Who are they? How do they react to each other? Who sees them climbing up the hill? Is Jill wearing the same dress when she climbs down? Is that a streak of blood on her left cheek?
The more you query, the more you acquire juicy material, fuel and food for the journey.
Regard the one-paragraph story as the skeleton of the novel you intend to write. It is what holds everything else together.
Most important novel-starting tips to note:
- When you start stringing words together in order to flesh out your one-paragraph idea, you might experience various stages of despair (it is part of the process). You will feel mired in the process. But if you really care about the story, if you believe that it needs to be told urgently, you will not be deterred. You will wrestle on. You will hang on until the end.
- Never allow yourself be held back by the initial shape and form of the story. Just write. Many writers agonize over their sentence structures or their spellings, or even the fonts they use. They go back to put a comma here and there, or to correct spellings. This is unhealthy for the creative process. Story portals close up on writers who are bent on making the work perfect before they even write the words on the page.
You can always return to your sentences or your passages to tweak them after your first draft is done. When you’re just starting, turn off your internal editor. Just allow the story flow undeterred. Listen to the creative storyteller’s voice in your head. Turn off the editor’s voice.
- The first lines are usually the most important part of a novel. They are what give the reader either a green light or a red one. They must be deliberate, appealing and inviting. But guess what? They must not be the first to be written. You do not even have to write the first chapter of your novel first.
Start at the point that is most convenient for you. Start with the idea that is boiling in your head. For example, if it hits you that there is going to be a murder on top of a certain hill, and you do not know who will be on that hill or who will be killed (Assuming, you have not conceived the idea of Jack and Jill yet.). You can start writing the murder scene on the hill. Think of blood. Spilt blood. Caked blood. Warm blood. Think. Get a red pen (or open a word document) and start writing the bloody scene. Before long, the story will snap into focus and your rounded characters will start to take shape. You’ll be stunned by how things will fall into place on their own.
You can always rewrite later, remember.
Unless you drafted a character profile beforehand, you might not know your characters until you have written about them. The more you write about your characters, the more they’ll take on lives of their own. They will begin to astonish and lead you in tremendous ways. Some of them will teach you how to do secret things.
Important tips on characterization:
- Ensure your characters are plausible and fully rounded.
- It is important that you give your characters agency. Do not make them passive or just receptive. They should always be doing things that move the narrative forward especially if those things are interesting. When people are doing routine stuff, we do not want to see them.
A house-cleaner becomes interesting when he or she has the habit of…. (Selling other people’s houses behind their backs? Tell us)
If it is important to take your character to the barbershop in the dead of a November night, let the barber turn out to be a…. (Well. You almost got it. Query more.)
Most importantly, create characters your readers will care about.
It is advisable that we show the conflict between what characters want and what they need.
—Girl is running. She needs to be on a train that leaves for ? in (how many?) seconds (Why?) She halts when she hears the enchanting tooting of a flute, turns around to see . (Who?). She so much wants to listen until the music fades . (Could the music be ? Does she get on the train?)
Conflicts should be able to arrest your reader’s attention and to make them lean over.
- Let the conflict be very important. Make the stakes as high as they can possibly be.
- Always create obstacles for your characters.
There are two main obstacles. First, internal obstacles (or conflicts): Flaws, mistakes, habits, explosive passions and so on. These are often part of the character’s personality.
The other. External obstacles: nature, government, police, a broken-down toilet, a faulty elevator, gadgets, other people, and so on. Pitch them against each other to create a beautiful cocktailed conflict.
Plot must follow a cause and effect sequence. X does this because of Y and so XY happens.
The plot of a novel is not separate from the characters or themes in that novel. Characters act out plots. Hence, plot is characters acting out and dealing with their emotions and/or circumstances.
Some writers painstakingly plot every part of their story. This is popularly known as outlining the novel. Workshops are often agog with writers who argue that it is good or bad to outline the novel before the writer starts writing.
Pro-outliners do character analyses and draw detailed outlines before they commence. Other novelists develop the story in their heads for centuries before they write.
Once upon a time.
Anti-outliners, however, choose to go with the first blaze of their feelings and face the empty page.
My job is not to argue for or against outlining.
However, every writer must know that creative processes differ. Know what works for you and stick to it. No technique is better than the other, so long as the option yields good results for the writer.
Here are important tricks on crafting a novel
- Be deliberate about creating a conducive space to write in. Anything that isn’t tied to your project is a potential distraction. Get in your creative space and write away.
- A lot of people will think your writing is not important. You must ignore them. Your writing truly matters.
- Writing a novel is a question of commitment and hard work. It is a question of perseverance and pushing until you hit the finish line. You must have faith in your creative abilities. You must trust your creative process. Every stroke on the paper (or every punch on your keyboard) affords you a chance to get better.
- Writing can be a painful, lonely, gritty, funny, dark process. Connect with those on the same journey with you. It helps to ease the pain. It adds to the fun. Right company is light.
- Keep scrapbooks, journals and diaries. They are important. They are fountains from which ideas flow. They are the scaffolds you need to climb into the worlds of the novel you want to write.
- Discipline yourself. Nothing can substitute discipline, not even a fecund imagination.
- Reading feeds your imagination and dresses up your mind. Digest materials related to what you are working on.
- Create time for your writing. Writing is a slogger. Be patient with it.
- The end of your story has to be important and bigger than the beginning.
- Follow through with determination. Finish your work.
Writer’s block is whatever you make of it.
A lot of us write ourselves into corners where forward motion is not possible. One trick to getting out is by cutting out the words that led us there. Sometimes, you have to destroy beautiful words (Chimamanda Adichie says, kill your darlings). The goal is help the work-in-progress progress into a fruitful completion.
Click to get more tips on overcoming writer’s block.
Cutting is sculpting. It is like taking your work to the gym. Every word must sing and count.
Do not throw all you cut away. Open files for them and store them there. You may recycle them in future projects.
- Have an arrogant faith in what you write. Believe that it will be read and loved by many.
- You must be able to judge your own work and know when you are not doing it right. A lot of suggestions will come later from beta-readers and editors but you must be the one to decide. It is your work. You are the god of it.
- As you write, do not identify a target audience by saying this book is going to be for X and for Y. Or that it must benefit the theory of Feminism or Existentialism or Idealism or any other ism. Allow the book become whatever it wants to become. It has a life of its own. Do not stifle or deny it of possibilities.
- Do not worry about getting published. Worry about getting the work written. You only control one part of the process: writing. Not editing. Not Publishing. Not Selling the work or getting it applauded.
- Push your work far enough. It is okay to float your boat.
- The first book you write will be the freest book you will ever write. You will think of it with great nostalgia. If the book is successful, you will lose a chunk of your will to your readers or your art managers (Ouch! C’est la vie).
Ben Aaronvotich, the workshop facilitator, is one of the funniest and nicest persons I have ever come across. I count myself lucky to have been under his wonderful tutelage.
Tega Oghenechovwen has published work in Litro UK, Black Sun Lit, The Kalahari Review, Afreada, African Writer, and other venues. He tweets @tega_chovwen.