NOTES ON CRAFT: 15 REASONS WHY YOUR STORY IS BEING REJECTED by Olakunle Ologunro

NOTES ON CRAFT: 15 REASONS WHY YOUR STORY IS BEING REJECTED by Olakunle Ologunro

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Notes on Craft: 15 Reasons Why Your Story is Being Rejected

by Olakunle Ologunro

Dear Writer,

Here’s a story from my life

In 2016, a few months after I graduated from the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, I decided to apply for a writing fellowship that was open at the time: the emerging writers’ fellowship by A Public Space magazine. I had no doubts that my piece would be accepted. I had just come from a workshop taught by the Chimamanda Adichie. Who/what could stand in my way?

So, I sent in my story. Three months later, I was slapped with a rejection. I thought, “Are these people okay? Do they not see the literary gold I sent in?” The next year when it opened, I applied again. I had been working on a ‘fantasy’ story I cooked up in my head and showed to a friend who told me it was the best thing since Lesley Arimah’s “Who Will Greet You At Home.” I had never written fantasy, but I was sure of that story’s creativity. I was sure that the readers would see my piece, read the first line and fall to their knees in awe. So, I sent it in. Again, another rejection. I looked at the email — polite, yet firm in its resolve to tell me that my piece was unwanted — and thought, “Nah, you people just don’t like me.”

In 2019, I was cleaning my tiny off-campus apartment when I found the manuscript for the fantasy story (I print out my stories to enable better editing). I thought, “My literary gold. Let me read this again and feel good.” Dear friend, I did not feel good at all. As I read, the only thing I could think of was, “Kunle, what exactly were you high on when you sent this thing? What level of idiotic courage made you think the judges would say yes to this?”

To start with, it was ridden with grammatical blunders: the syntax was in disarray, and in some places, I misspelled some words. What was worse, the characters felt absurd. Forget that it was meant to be fantasy — there was nothing fantastic about the characters. The entire story didn’t add up. And while there might have been a hint of creativity in some places (the hibiscus flowers that glowed in the dark, the character’s mother who stiffened to the point of immobility, the uncle who scrubbed fish scales from his face), it was misapplied creativity, almost like icing a cake with cement mix. I closed the manuscript and said, “No wonder they rejected you.”

Long story, but you get the idea: sometimes, rejection comes because you sent in a piece that has not been thoroughly worked on. You simply did not do your best. 

Critiquing a piece to be accepted is done using objective criteria, and a bit of subjectivity. The objective criteria, finely broken down by David K. Slay who writes for Craft Magazine, is what I’ll share here. To make this easier, pick out a rejected piece of yours and as you read, try to identify areas you think your piece faults. Be honest.

  1. DEPTH:

Does this story have depth? Is it superficial? That is, does it simply scrape the surface of things when it ought to probe deeper? Do the characters have ‘interiority’: are they highly motivated to pursue something central to their development? Do they have agency or are they simply forgettable? Are they stereotypical?

  1. STRUCTURE

Here, you look at the narration of the story. Is it unclear, inconsistent, lacking a definite structure (linear, circular where it ends at the same place it begins, etc)? Is the structure too apparent that it seems to drive the characters rather than have the characters move naturally? Are there inconsistencies in the story being told? Is the story itself illogical, wildly unreasonable?

  1. PACE:

The pace of a story tells you how to read it. I believe it is possible to know a fast-paced story and a story that takes its time. A balance must be achieved. Ask yourself: is this story too fast or too slow? Is the pacing irregular?

  1. BEGINNING/ENDING:

How does it begin? How does it end? I treat the opening of a story as a hook to sink into the reader’s mind, one that wouldn’t let them go until they get to the end. In a short story, you don’t have the liberty of time and space to dawdle or miss a proper first impression with your opening. 

How does it end? Is the ending weak? Is it something you contrived to simply wrap up the story? Does it feel like you tried to summarise? Is the ending memorable enough?

  1. ORIENTATION:

This deals with confusing time and or tenses, or a story where the reader is not grounded in the time and place the story is set.

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  1. IMPACT:

How engaging is the story? How remarkable is it? Here, David K. Slay points out things to look out for: Little at stake, lacks tension, impact is unearned, the writer attempts to use surprise endings, melodrama, gratuitous violence, sex, profanity. 

  1. CREATIVITY:

How creative is the story? Is the theme too familiar? Is the plot or story simply unimaginative? Is there an overreliance on adverbs, adjectives, cliches and stereotypes? I wrote in one of my last letters about defamiliarisation where a seemingly familiar story is made new. You should read it here.

  1. LANGUAGE/ PROSE:

Does your story contain irregular or unnecessarily complicated syntax? Does it show a limited vocabulary? Is the rhythm disjointed? In Nigerian-speak, does the story flow?

  1. EXPOSITION:

Does the story tell more than it shows? Is it too explanatory? Does it use a fancy style when it should be lucid? Does the story suggest things it ought to make clear?

  1. VOICE:

How does the story’s voice sound? Does it fit the kind of story being told? For example, I do not expect a story being told by a 5-year-old to read like something a 32-year-old would tell. I do not expect a story told from an illiterate’s point of view to sound boujee, like something a Harvard graduate would pen. How consistent is the voice? Does it carry to the end or constantly fluctuates between coherence and incoherence?

  1. ECONOMY:

How long is the story? Yes, sometimes long can be too long and you need to cut down, especially if some words are superfluous and repeated to no consequence. More importantly, you do not want a story that rambles.

  1. INTENTION:

Are there signs of author contamination? Let me explain: imagine a homophobic writer writing a story with gay people in it. Imagine a misogynistic writer telling a story about women. Characters should be allowed the full range of their humanity, not you, the writer, forcing them to speak or act in ways that are unnatural, more suitable to your interest than to their story. So, check. Does your story consciously or unconsciously promote an agenda?

  1. DIALOGUE:

Do your characters speak like real people? Or, is the dialogue lifeless and unnatural, lacking human touch? Does it contain unnecessary details or convey information the speaker or character would already know? 

  1. POLISH:

How refined is the story? Here, you look at the edits. Does the story look rushed? Is it carelessly presented? You’ll probably find it funny, but some people send in stories without titling them. I once sent a story to a reputable magazine only to discover after that the pdf converter I used had a glitch that blanked one whole page of the entire story. Of course, I got a rejection.

  1. GUIDELINES:

Did you send them what they called for? Imagine sending fantasy to a magazine that needs realist fiction. Did you follow the submission instructions? Right font, formatting rules, titling, and others. 

Now grade yourself. What did you score?

See you soon.

-Kunle

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.

Resources:

What We Talk About When We Read Submissions

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Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

 

NOTES ON CRAFT: WRITING HABITS by Olakunle Ologunro

NOTES ON CRAFT: WRITING HABITS by Olakunle Ologunro

Notes on Craft: Writing Habits

by Olakunle Ologunro

Dear Writer,
 

So, I am here again. This time though, feel free to whip me because what I am writing about, Writing Habits, is a principle I don’t even follow myself. Okay, maybe I used to follow it, but life got in the way. But then, should life get in the way of something you love?

From what I know of them, habits are a routine of behaviour that has become a part of you such that it occurs subconsciously. Here’s a story from my childhood. A woman in my area had a child who was fond of sucking her thumb. It was supposed to be a temporary behaviour, the way children pick up things and then discard them. But this child continued. On and on until she made a habit of the thumb sucking. She would sit alone and the next thing, she’d pop the thumb in her mouth. On her way to school, she had the thumb in her mouth. Sometimes, she fell asleep with the thumb in her mouth. Thumb-sucking became a habit for her.

You’re probably thinking, thumb-sucking and writing, what’s the connection? Well, the connection is in the habit, the constant repetition of it until it becomes something you cannot break.

A lot of people who are writers have writing habits. My friend, M, for instance, wakes up at dawn to write. I’m not sure if I can do that. I sleep too often and too much to wake up and be reasonable enough to write something readable.

For you as a writer, I don’t know what habits you have. But a common one often touted is that a writer must write everyday. Well, I found something interesting in the form of a Facebook comment which I’ll paraphrase: You don’t have to write everyday. I don’t know about you, but I find that my life as it is does not give me room to write as much as I want to. Besides, I procrastinate a lot which is quite shameful, but let’s give God the glory. Anyway, the comment continues: The idea that one can write for hours a day does not apply if you’re not a rich American novelist with a wife making your sandwiches. Thinking about your work is writing time. Reading is writing time.

I hope this comforts you. At least for a while.

I said at the beginning that I used to have writing habits. I’ll tell you about them now.

writing
  1. Journaling: You know, keeping a diary and writing in it things that I found interesting. Or scenes from life and other things.
  2. Recording people: I used to own a small book with a brown leather cover. In it, I would write sentences I thought interesting, either something I thought up or one I encountered in a book. I would observe people too: how they spoke, what they wore, their carriage, their mannerisms, etc and record these things. For example, the sister in my church who punctuated her sentences with ‘like’ (I’m like no need because, like, children anniversary will soon come and you know, like, the children they em, like); the woman whose earrings were shaped like semicolons; the man who, when he spoke, always had a reason to run a hand across his head. I recorded bits of conversation too. Like that time when an announcement came up on the radio from a man who said he needed a God-fearing wife and my uncle said, “Person wey no fear God dey find God-fearing wife.” And sometimes, I recorded my environment too. The colour of the sky, the shape of a particular tree, the sound a particular thing made. If carried into the world of fiction, these things make your work true to life, honest. Here’s something from Teju Cole: It might be hard to believe that these things are interesting, but that is what your writing talent consists of: to make the ordinary interesting. In a field of unexceptional events, zoom in on the pungent detail.  
  3. Reading: There is no shortcut around this thing. You cannot be a writer without first being a reader. Read fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc. Read good books and bad books, because only then can you decide what you like and the things you don’t. And please, read interviews too. Interviews are very important, and I honestly find it sad that I don’t read enough of them. In interviews, one is exposed to the author: their opinion about certain things, but more importantly, the principles that guide them and their craft.

Many years ago, I was at JazzHole with M when this man came in. The details are foggy now, but when this man found out about our love for writing, he went out of his way to suggest things for us to make a habit of. I remember he said to read at least one short story per day, at least an article from a reputable magazine, an interview, and to write down things that we’d learned.

I will stop this letter here.

Do you have any writing habits? Do share them.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.

Photo Credit:  Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels

NOTES ON CRAFT: ESSENTIALS OF A GOOD STORY by Olakunle Ologunro

NOTES ON CRAFT: ESSENTIALS OF A GOOD STORY by Olakunle Ologunro

Black and red typewriter

Notes on Craft: Essentials of a Good Story

by Olakunle Ologunro

Dear Writer,
 

I’m here again, just like I promised the last time. I hope you are here with me?

This week’s letter is focused on the essentials of a good story: what they are and how you can deploy them in your own stories. Before anything, I should remind you that our perception of stories (written work, generally) is often subjective. For example, if the choice was between The Joys of Motherhood and Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, I might go for Second Class Citizen while you’d prefer The Joys of Motherhood as the better book. And it’s fine. We will not always like the same work; our taste and preferences differ. But despite these differences, there will be certain qualities shared by the stories we consider excellent and well-written.

Recently, I shared a story with a friend and told him I liked the writing. He said he liked it too, but the story didn’t do for him what he wants good literature to do.

“What would that be?” I asked. 

“Reveal character, teach me about humanity.” 

I think we can start from here: A good story should reveal character, teach about [or shed new light on] humanity.

In one of my creative writing classes at the university, I learnt about defamiliarisation. Here’s a simple definition: making the familiar appear new. This is a truth we all know — every story we want to write has been written before. There is no new story. It might seem far fetched, but it’s the truth. Are you planning to write something about religion? Done. Domestic abuse? Done too. Infidelity? Done. Queerness? Done too. There really is nothing new. Everything is familiar, known. 

How does one then beat this? By making the familiar appear fresh. This leads to what might as well be my next point: A good story makes the familiar appear new, fresh.

Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta

To do this, you have to find a fresh approach to the story, an angle that seems unconventional. Chimamanda Adichie’s advice is apt here: “Avoid writing stories that feel too much like Nollywood.” A fresh approach can be through the characterization, the plot, the setting, and the style of language. I have read stories about people grieving lost ones, but I will always remember an excerpt from one of Ayobami Adebayo’s short stories where the walls of the building are the ones narrating the story. That is the kind of story that stays with you. So, before writing, it might be helpful to think of all the ways to tell your story in a way that makes it appear new, that strives to shrug off the overly familiar. I’m not exactly making this a rule; I sometimes just pour stories down onto the page before thinking about it too.

I love Victor Shklovsky’s thought on defamiliarization: “Art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived. To do this it presents its material in unexpected, even outlandish ways: the shock of the new.” Again, bear in mind that the ‘shock’ factor is subjective, depends on you or what you have chosen to write. 

Whatever you do, never sacrifice substance for style. 

Have you ever read a story where the style is tight and what not but feel afterwards that something is lacking? Yes, style is good. Play with language and structure and characters; it is something I love to do a lot. But make sure you do not do it at the expense of the actual story you are telling. Always put the story first. Because at the end of the day, it is the story, the substance, that matters. That is another important point: Always put the story first.

In a good story, empathy for your characters is important. This is quite simple: if you don’t feel anything for your characters, how do you expect your readers to feel something for them? In other words, write characters that are human, humane, flawed like the rest of us. How you see your characters determine what you put on the page, and what you put on the page — the character you write — is what the reader will meet and interact with as they read the short story. Even if the character is outrightly bad, be honest in writing them. You owe the character that much.

One piece of writing advice that has remained with me over the years is this: You can do anything; just do it well. What this means is that there are no cut and dried rules per se. And even if there were, if your story is good enough, it can break the rules. What matters is that you tell a story that is honest and true, a story that leaves the reader with something. Or a story that, when it ends, makes them sit quietly for minutes, awed by the experience they just had.

I’ll stop here now. 

Here’s a short story I really like and I think you should read: The Ache Of Longing.

I will be back in two weeks’ time, and we will talk about writer-ly habits. Promise me you’ll be here. 


See you soon,

Kunle.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.

Photo Credits: Cover Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

NOTES ON CRAFT: INTRODUCTION by Olakunle Ologunro

NOTES ON CRAFT: INTRODUCTION by Olakunle Ologunro

Notes on Craft: Introduction

by Olakunle Ologunro

Dear Writer,
 
Can you tell that I rewrote this opening several times before deciding on this one? I wondered how best to get your attention and hold it, how best to tell you the purpose of this letter. And of course, I tried to put a bit of style in it. You know, that literary glitter.
 
But here I am, nearly 50 words in and I don’t know if I have succeeded in doing that. If it looks like I’m rambling, indulge me. I promise you, this will make sense soon.

 

Struggling is a shared inheritance of writers. It doesn’t matter what stage we are in our writing career, there are times when the stories just don’t yield, times when the language falls flat despite all the glitter you’ve stirred into it. There are times when the characters simply refuse to come out of hiding, despite how tenderly you coax them, how crafty you are in cajoling them. It is what it is, my friend: this writing thing sometimes trumps us all. That sounds fancy, doesn’t it? Let me change it: sometimes, writing carries a long koboko and flogs us all.
 
Which is why I am writing to you today. This letter is what I (and the entire team of Kreative Diadem) hope will be the beginning of a series of letters on the craft of writing. It arose as a response to a series of letters we have received (and keep receiving) from writers who are hungry for growth, writers who want to produce literary work that will sit in the hall of fame when writing is mentioned.
 
We have drawn out a syllabus, a list of topics to be discussed: lessons on the fundamentals of writing great short stories, essentials on dialogue, character, and POV. Arguments for and against ‘writer-ly habits.’ Acceptance and rejection, reasons why your work is being rejected and what to do about this. We will do a lot of sharing too: rejection emails that cut us a little too deep, we-love-your-writing-but-we-don’t-want-you emails that left us confused for days, and acceptance emails that made us want to take a danfo to our ancestral hometown and say to our village people, “Shame on you, we have started making it.” And at the end of everything, we hope that these tips will help you produce a short story that will win the Caine Prize, or the Commonwealth Prize and all the notable prizes to be won in one’s writing career.

 

It’s true, I haven’t won these prizes myself, so maybe I am not fit to dispense writing advice, because really, who am I? Besides, I don’t think that prizes are the hallmark of stellar writing. At least not always. That sounds controversial, doesn’t it? In these letters, we will unfurl ‘controversial statements’ as they relate to writing.
 
I will not be running this series alone —  I don’t have the strength or the depth of experience required. From time to time, there will be craft lessons and emails from writers and editors who have more writing experience. They will discuss their favourite stories, their experience with submitting work and reading submitted work. Together, we will learn, and at the end of the series, I hope that one — or all — of us writes what will be referred to as that story.

 

So, dear friend. Every two weeks, there will be a new letter from me to you. Think of it as a growth pill delivered regularly. Or as the beginning of a relationship that will be beneficial to us. Think of it as a creative writing course, free of charge and with plenty of benefits. Think of it as opening the door to a grand house with an abundance of gifts specially crafted and curated for you.
 
Here’s to the beginning of a new thing.
 
See you soon,
Kunle.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.

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