Six award-winning writers have gathered around the fire to discuss their writing philosophies. We’ll have the privilege of learning how these philosophies galvanize the exceptional works they write. Also, they will talk about memorable rejection letters, what they think of such letters and what has kept them going.
For me, I once got a personal rejection letter two years after submitting the rejected story. Magazine’s name? Callaloo. The 600-word letter told me why the story didn’t work. A ‘No’ spelled out in 600 words! Rejection letters are part and parcel the craft. I tell people not to feel attacked when they come. What has kept me going? The endlessly fascinating human condition. Oh! Here come our six writers:
Acan Innocent Immaculate
I spend a lot of time with myself, in my head – thinking, imagining, and wishing. I can’t pinpoint the reason I became like that. Maybe it happened early in my life when I was a child who was more solitary than social. My immediate family is a small one – composed of my mother, two sisters, and myself. My mother was often at work upcountry, and as the youngest, I spent considerable time alone at home, with the fantasy storybooks my mother got for me. By the time I joined boarding school, I’d already learnt to daydream and enjoy it. I suppose it’s no surprise that when the stories decided to leave my body, they chose to do so in the form of speculative fiction.
I am, I think, the worst kind of writer – a slave to inspiration. It finds me. I never find it. When it hears me stumbling about, crashing into objects in the darkness of my mind, it runs away and hides, like a child playing hide and seek. Then, when I least expect or desire it, it strikes and demands that I feed it, that I pour its misshapen manifestation from my mind into my hands, mould it into something legible, something coherent. This has left me with the ability either to write really well when the inspiration is there or to write utter rubbish when I try to do so without the assistance of my muses. It’s a handicap I haven’t done much to correct, probably because of my longstanding history of procrastination, and yet it is one I must overcome because I have decided to foray into the world of short stories.
There was a time when I couldn’t write a story shorter than 10,000 words. A 2000-word story was a feat beyond my comprehension, and yet, now, short stories are all I seem to write. Of course, I know part of the reason for this is the fickle attention span we have now; flitting from an online magazine article to an interesting Twitter thread, to a YouTube video. We are more likely to give 10 minutes of our little time to a 1000-word story than a 40,000-word epic piece. And short stories are easier to sell; I’ve recently started taking writing more seriously as a source of income, as opposed to just being a hobby.
Don’t be mistaken; my short stories haven’t been selling like hot cakes. I’ve submitted a small number, and the scales are beginning to tip in favour of the rejections.
Ah, rejection. It’s something writers are told to expect as part of their journeys. The best of us get them, so who am I, an amateur, to be stumped by a rejection letter or two? Besides, all the ones I’ve received so far have been quite nice. The worst kind of rejection I ever received was radio silence – ongoing still, by the way. But none of that has been enough to blunt my aching need to keep writing.
I believe there may be an otherworldly raison d’être for my writing. I’ve never been a particularly superstitious person. But when the urge to write comes, I can’t shake it, can’t cool the fever until the story leaves my body and becomes its own entity. It’s then that I most believe I was born to do this, and sometimes, I laugh at my thoughts because isn’t that the most egotistical thing a writer can say?
People often ask me if, in the future, I see myself as a writer or as a doctor. My standard response has been to scoff and say both, of course. But I’m starting to wonder if, with my history of procrastination, I’ll ever be able to achieve the discipline it takes to learn how to write as a habit, not as a result of inspiration. There have been days when I’ve been so exhausted from schoolwork that I can’t think of writing. But inspiration, my incorrigible mistress, always returns to me, be it weeks or months later, and then I believe I can do this writing thing for, maybe, life. I suppose that makes me a writer, in pursuit of habit.
I believe that there are stories in everyday life. We don’t need to go out of the world to look for stories to tell our readers. Our bodies are already containers of so many wonderful stories. I would say my writing philosophy is to dig out hidden stories, to unbury what has been buried in our bodies and in everyday life. And so, this means that in my writing, I am very particular about the distinct ways in which we love and talk, how we form relationships and the kind of relationships we choose to have.
I have received a couple of rejection letters. They always come. But I started getting personal (tiered) rejection letters after a period of paying close attention to the magazines and journals I submit to, and guessing if my work was the kind they’d like to publish. Such letters go along the lines of, “we have already selected the pieces we want for this period but we hope you will submit to us again.”
The very idea of entering another consciousness through thinking and writing means a lot to me. Points of views that differ from mine, widen my life in impossible ways. I live through telling stories. These and more have kept me going.
I write because I cannot stop. I keep at it because the art motivates me to get out of bed each day. It makes me feel useful, and the stories create a surreal company as I go about my day. It is a profession that I can do at home, that flexes with my children’s needs, and can be accomplished without an apology for my disabilities. It gives me the voice to address matters that upset me, to allow me draw characters that are scarce in the majority of tales out there, to write a reality I wish were true, and to vent my fury at what is actually true. Thus, writing is what keeps me going. I learned, the hard way, that when I stop writing, the low-grade depression and anxiety I battle start to slide into something much more serious. My sense of humour, that is vital for my health – both physically and mentally – wanes. I need writing. It does not need me.
When I write less, everything becomes harder, like taking the kids to school, to fixing something to eat. When I began to lose functionality in my hands, the medical team advised I step away from the keyboard, as it was a large source of my physical pain. However, when I did so, my physical health’s deterioration accelerated. Mental health is not separate from physical health. So while my physical health issues are not ‘all in my head’, feeling useless does cause my physical health to worsen. Thus, they told me to go back to the keyboard, despite the pain. Even if it’s for only 100 words a day.
I could paper my walls with the rejections I’ve received. Most are impersonal form letters. A rejection letter I received for my first novel had three personal sentences scrawled across it. Those three sentences contained vital constructive criticism. I took the advice, made changes to the opening chapter, submitted it to another agent and it was accepted. The worst letters are the ones from editors that have or had a temporary lack of common sense. I’ve been told certain phrases and terms are “childish” and to “do better” when “world building” for using the common name scientists use. A letter criticized a phenomenon I wrote about as being “unbelievable” whereas the phenomenon was scientific fact. The most insulting are often the ones where editors think they are being polite. Rejecting stories with main characters that are often marginalized by society. Telling me I am “so brave” because I wrote a main character who uses a wheelchair or one who is deaf or autistic, but the story “is not quite right for them.” The most rewarding rejection letters are the ones that affirm I got it right but the story simply wasn’t a good fit. A recent good rejection letter was for my story, ‘An American Refugee’ which was published by Cast of Wonder. The main character in the story is Trans. The story was unusually accepted to the first place I submitted it to. The person who selected the story is Trans, and was tired of reading SFF stories with Trans characters that tell nothing but horror and pain. Mine tells about the hard times Trans face but it’s also about other things, like finding a place where one fits, and where one is accepted as Trans. After it was published, it was submitted for an anthology of 2018 SFF Trans stories but was not accepted because it didn’t quite fit in with the other stories selected. But the editor, who is Trans non-binary, thanked me for having a character who surfed. The person wrote, “trans people are often not allowed to do ‘everyday things’ in stories.” Sad to hear so many writers only include “diverse” main characters outside of the white-able-cis-gender to tell “train wreck” tales, so that readers gasp, go wide-eyed, as they read with eerie fascination. Not that telling stories about the challenges faced by the poor, disabled, neurodiverse, LGBTQI+ is wrong. But these people have lives, pets, jobs, hobbies, lovers, children, and celebrate holidays. They go away on adventures, laugh, dance, sing, go to the pub for a beer. Everyone has challenges, just as much as everyone has dreams.
My writing philosophy is, ‘Kill em all and keep moving, or be killed by em and keep moving. In any case, keep moving.’ This philosophy is what keeps me going. It lets me know I don’t have to be perfect. It’s okay for the present work to be rejected since there will be more, I will have another go, whatever the outcome. And as a writer, it helps me to keep in motion. If it’s bad, well I already have something else coming up. When you stop though, that’s when despair sets in. I have other things I subscribe to as well. Always ask for help. It’s a whole community out there. Someone’s good at this, or that, always take what you can get that makes you better in the end. So those two things, being willing to learn what you can, from who you can, when you can, and being ready to keep going no matter what comes your way, are two things that have helped me on my journey as a writer.
A memorable rejection letter I’ve gotten is one that’s rather recent. It’s remarkable because of how fast it came, my reaction to it and the eventual outcome. It was about a month ago. It stands out because it was in record rejection time. I sent out this story to the magazine, a pro SFF magazine, paying 6c per word according to SFWA specifications. I subbed to the magazine at about 6 P.M. By 8 P.M. I had gotten back a form rejection. Many mags take months to respond. The speedy ones, say a month. Writers are always impatient, complaining about the time it takes to get responses. Always wishing it could be less. Well, my wish came through here. Ironically, it didn’t make me happy. Rejections mostly come faster than acceptances, but this one was a little too fast. Two hours, and it had already gone through the chain of readers and editors? Two hours was all it took for them to decide they didn’t want the story? They couldn’t have deliberated on it that long. How bad does one’s story have to be to be rejected in two hours? My self-esteem took a hit. But I talked about my philosophy earlier so you know what I did. I sent another submission, and in another two hours, I got an acceptance. I had been accepted as fast as I had been rejected. It was both my fastest acceptance and my fastest rejection. The entire process, from the first submission to rejection, to resubmission and then to acceptance took less than 12 hours. Of course, I sent a third story but no, it wasn’t accepted. What’s that saying? Lightning doesn’t strike the same spot twice? Oh well. Still, I tried. That I think is what has kept me going. Prodding and dragging myself off my butt, to just keep going, no matter how bad rejection letters might make me feel. Eventually, something will turn up. It’s just a matter of time. If you keep taking what you get from the rejections, and improving and trying again.
My writing has been constantly guided by the idea of the Writer as one who holds a mirror to humanity, and by so doing, bears witness to reality and holds humanity to account. It has guided the kind of stories that I tell and what I imagine. I am also guided by the belief that humans are neither entirely bad nor entirely good. There is always a blend of these. This guides the way I write about places and people.
I have had so many rejection letters that it’s become convenient for me to forget them. For some reason, agents and editors are fond of telling me that some of my works are “not the right fit.” I always wonder what the right fit is for them. Anyway, I don’t forget the email an agent from Molly Friedrich Literary Agency wrote to me after I was nearly certain I was going to end up with him:
Oh, Nnamdi, I am so torn! You are such an inventive writer, but with each iteration of the novel you share with me, you’re getting further and further from the heart of the story. It’s leaving me at a loss as to what kind of editorial direction to give you. I’m terribly disappointed because you’re so talented. Do you have any other novels written or have plans to write another? Best.
Such letters raise and break my heart. I think they are useless, even the ones interspersed with praises. Like cold, impotent ash!
For me, writing has always been a battle against forgetting, an opportunity to commit to paper what the brain may choose to forget, and a resistance against that possible loss. This is what drives the topics I choose to write about –that need to stand by the sidelines as a witness, to commit myself to a moment as an individual who lived through it.
Every rejection letter I have received over time has been memorable because rejection itself is a memorable event. It never leaves you, it stays with you. You either choose to resent the ones who sent the rejection or move on and try again. I can say that for every single acceptance letter I have ever received, there usually are about eight rejection letters littering my inbox. The idea is to stay focused. What I have learned over time is that there is no single measure of quality. Each journal, press or anthology has its own bias and usually, these biases are what informs the kinds of works they accept. So when I send work to a particular journal and they reject me, I take it back and workshop it again and send it elsewhere. Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes I don’t. But what is most important is believing in the importance of my own work to the point that it owns its space (deservedly) in whatever journal, press or anthology that accepts it.
Personal Essay: On Getting Writing Advice From Chimamanda Adichie, Bonding With The Literati and Enjoying The Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop
Acan Innocent Immaculate is a Ugandan writer and medical student. She won the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2016, and has been published by AFREADA magazine, Omenana Magazine, Brittle Paper, and in Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction. Her most recent work is a children’s book titled The Pearl Trotters in Black, Yellow, Red.
T.J. Benson is a Nigerian writer and creative photographer whose work has appeared in online journals like Jalada Africa, Expound, and Bakwa Magazine. In print magazines like Transition Magazine and more recently, Saraba’s ‘Transitions’ Issue. His chapbook of photography ‘Rituals’ was published as a downloadable PDF on Sankofa Magazine in 2015. His short story ‘An Abundance of Yellow Paper,’ was a joint winner of the AMAB-HBF contest in 2016 and this collection shortlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize. He is the first runner-up for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize themed ‘Migration.’ He is a two-time Writer-In-Residence at the Ebedi Residency, Nigeria. His first book, We Won’t Fade into Darkness, is published by Parresia.
Tiah Marie Beautement is the author of two novels, including This Day (2014, Modjaji) and numerous short stories. Her latest publication is May I Want (2018, Stubborn Raven). She is the managing editor of The Single Story Foundation’s journal, teaches writing to all ages, and freelances for a variety of publications. She lives on the South African Garden Route with her family, two dogs, and a small flock of chickens. Her hobbies include horse riding and zipping along as a pillion on motorcycles, although not at the same time.
Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald is a Nigerian writer and Lawyer. He is a first reader in SFF Mags including Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Strange Horizons. He is also a submissions editor at PodCastle. His short story The Witching Hour has also just been shortlisted for the Nommo awards, which is the premier award for speculative fiction by Africans.
Nnamdi Oguike is a Nigerian writer. He was selected as The Missing Slate’s Author of the Month for March 2016 and was a finalist in the 2018 Africa Book Club Short Story Competition. His writing has also appeared in The Dalhousie Review, African Writer, Brittle Paper, and The Wrong Patient and Other Stories. He lives in Awka, Nigeria.
His first book, a collection of short stories titled Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country was published by Griots Lounge.
Tolu Daniel is a writer and editor. His essays and short stories have appeared on Catapult.co, The Nasiona Magazine, The Wagon Magazine, Prachya Review, Elsewhere Literary Journal, Expound Magazine, Bakwa Magazine, Saraba Magazine, Panorama Journal, TSSF Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Arts & Africa and a few other places. His essay ‘My Mother Is A Country’ was longlisted for the 2018 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. His essay ‘The Man Who Fought Boko Haram’ was selected as one of the Notable Creative Non-Fiction pieces of 2018 at the Annual Brittlepaper African Literary Digest. He currently holds editorial positions with Afridiaspora, The Single Story Foundation Journal, and Panorama Journal. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram via @iamToluDaniel
Thanks to Tega for composing and editing this post. Tega Oghenechovwen has published work in Litro UK, Black Sun Lit, The Kalahari Review, Afreada, African Writer, and other venues. He tweets @tega_chovwen.