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Nneoma Ike-Njoku’s Note on Craft

As part of the Notes On Craft series, I (Olakunle Ologunro) reached out to a number of writers and asked them to share a piece of work that is most significant to them, and what they think other writers can learn from it.

Here’s Nneoma Ike-Njoku’s pick: Atonement by Ian McEwan.

Atonement by Ian McEwan is one piece of writing that has greatly influenced me. The book does so many things so well, like weaving the bildungsroman structure with a war narrative and having a protagonist with a strong, distinctive voice. I first read it at around thirteen or fourteen and remember being deeply moved. At its heart, it’s a story about a writer, which perhaps is a cliché for a writer, but it’s also a story that gets to why many writers do what we do in the first place. We write to understand ourselves, our lives, our pasts, and our world. For what writers can take away, McEwan’s attention to language and sensory detail make this novel an easy one to immerse oneself in.

You can read an excerpt here.

workplace with laptop and opened diary


Nneoma Ike-Njoku was born and grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Transition Magazine, The Winter Tangerine Review, The Kalahari Review, and NANO Fiction. In 2016, she won a Miles Morland Writing Scholarship.



close up view of an old typewriter

Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo’s Note on Craft

As part of the Notes On Craft series, I (Olakunle Ologunro) reached out to a number of writers and asked them to share a piece of work that is most significant to them, and what they think other writers can learn from it.

Here’s Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo’s pick: “The Writer and His Community” from the collection of essays, Hopes and Impediments by Chinua Achebe.

There is something I like to call the writer’s darkness. It is that moment when a writer, hungry for literary prowess, shaken by utter humiliation at the artlessness of their work, descends, for days and weeks, into the darkness, looking for secrets. The precipitating event is different for everyone: a reader gives haunting feedback, or the writer stumbles on a perfectly executed short story of a colleague, which heightens the lack of skill in theirs, or the writer receives, in a space of four months, sixteen rejections from sixteen different literary magazines. The plunge into the darkness is similar: racing thoughts about failure, an inability to look people in the eye, want for too much or too little food, and long moments spent in a state of stillness thinking about the precipitating event, dissecting the minute details, what was said and how it was said, everything so thoroughly painful. And then come the moments of slight clarity, when the writer asks, what must I do to stop feeling this way, and the answer, for writers for whom writing is a calling, is simply to write better. 

At this point, the writing darkness becomes a personal song, pieced together by the writer’s own instincts and eccentricities. Some writers bathe in craft books, interviews of renowned writers, lectures and talks, anything which might hold the possibility of an elixir guaranteed to unlock the dormant literary genius in them. Some read fiction, copy out whole paragraphs and chapters from admired books, attempting to figure out tricks and patterns. Some go straight to the desk and implement trial and error until they emerge with peculiar writing rituals.

The writing darkness is necessary, but like many harrowing experiences, it wounds you. You come out brutalized and blistered. And what I fear the most is that sometimes you come out having lost your chaotic, glowingly weird self. 

Mine happened in my first year in an MFA program. I had been sick with imposter syndrome before then, certain that my work was subpar, and in my first workshop had submitted a story from my application packet because at least it had been blessed by an MFA acceptance. For my second workshop though, I had to turn in a new story, one anxiously strung together. The workshop was immensely kind, but I could feel the lack of enthusiasm as they spoke. The story did not stir or inspire. It was not a good story. I knew it.

After the agonizing and self-pity associated with the darkness, I began to read and write in a way that I’d never before, carefully, rigorously, and with aim. I began to read like a writer. I got better. I learnt the dos and don’ts. I learnt to write better sentences, to construct a cohesive short story, balancing scene and narration, quickening the pace when necessary, zooming into moments, wrenching from a scene every drop of emotion it can afford me. This was enough for a while until it wasn’t. I wanted more. But I did not know what more was. Then I read Chinua Achebe’s collection of essays titled Hopes and Impediments, specifically the essay titled “The Writer and His Community.”


workplace with laptop and opened diary

In the essay, Achebe makes an argument for writing as spiritual congruence with the other, and writers as being responsible to a community. He contrasts Western individualism with Igbo communality and smartly evades dichotomies by adding that none of these societies hold a monopoly on either. But the difference, he states, is in how individualism is balanced out in these societies. He argues that the Igbos have balanced “this extraordinary specialness, this unsurpassed individuality, by setting limits to its expression.” 

The argument solidifies into one about craft when Achebe inserts a quote from a letter he received from John Updike about Arrow of God.

Here is what Updike had to say: 

“The final developments of Arrow of God proved unexpected and, as I think about them, beautifully resonant, tragic and theological. That Ezeulu, whom we had seen stand so invincibly to both Nwaka and Clarke, should be so suddenly vanquished by his own god Ulu and by something harsh and vengeful within himself, and his defeat in a page or two be the fulcrum of a Christian lever upon his people, is an ending few Western novelists would have contrived; having created a hero they would not let him crumble, nor are they, by and large, as truthful as you in their witness to the cruel reality of process.”

Achebe responds, with delicious sarcasm: 

“Of course a Westerner would be most reluctant to destroy “in a page or two” the very angel and paragon of creation—the individual hero. If indeed he has to be destroyed, it must be done expansively with detailed explanations and justifications, not to talk of lamentations. And he must be given the final limelight in which to speak a grand valedictory soliloquy.”

After reading this, I began to wonder about the many other possibilities of craft creation. If societies influence craft decisions, and how much of what we think of craft, of the structure of fiction, is inherited from Western literature, and in turn, the arrangement of Western societies, what about my own society and its rules can make my fiction truer?

What I bathed in while in the darkness were craft books written by White people, and the novels I read were, you guessed right, novels written by White people, and the people I looked to for constructive criticism were writers fluent only in Western literature. I came out of the darkness, armed with these tools, anxious in my implementation of them, and I fear, a tad bit soulless, having lost my own way of seeing the world. 

And I did have my own way of seeing the world. I have always written. For as long as I can remember, I have strung words together in my imagination, on paper, and whether I knew it then or not, these stories were shaped by my immediate intimacies, what I was seeing around me, how that was absorbed and defined by the bewildering chemicals in my brain. It was, and I hope can still someday be, me, my soul, and what I was seeing, my world—nature and nurture. 

So while you go through your own darkness, if you haven’t already, I want you to fiercely hold on to your own nature and nurture, and when you come out to the other side, I want you to still be as chaotic, as fearless, as raw (this word gets a bad rap and I would never understand why) as you were when you were free, unencumbered by the rules of the craft. I want you to see that, too, as craft, those decisions that come to you naturally. Maybe you don’t want to use dialogue in your stories because it messes with the natural flow of the world you are trying to create. Maybe like Achebe, you want to say f**k you to the idea of an individual hero because it doesn’t read true to your sensibility, to the world as you know it. Maybe you want the middle of the story at the beginning and the beginning at the end. Do what feels true to you. Then come tell us about it. Show us other ways of seeing the world. 


Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Isele Magazine, Ake Review, and Catapult. She currently teaches creative writing as an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa.



coffee notebook pen writing

Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s Note on Craft

As part of the Notes On Craft series, I (Olakunle Ologunro) reached out to a number of writers and asked them to share a piece of work that is most significant to them, and what they think other writers can learn from it.

Here’s Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s pick: ‘Sexy’ from the collection Interpreter of Maladies by Jhuma Lahiri

It was a boy’s greatest find, like finally striking gold just on the verge of giving up after endlessly digging. I discovered Jhumpa Lahiri through her short story ‘Sexy’ from the collection ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ on one of those languid weekday evenings at my campus hostel in first year. At the time, to combat boredom, I had been on a mission to read any available short stories online. Some of them were good, some not so much, but very few struck me like ‘Sexy’, which I had ironically dismissed in my mind as vain erotica. “It was a woman’s worst nightmare…,” the first line read, and thus began a moving and intimate portrayal of a woman’s contention with unnamed yearnings, while in an entanglement with a married man. It is Jhumpa’s unwillingness to (subtly) establish opinions, her ability to create real and realistic dialogue, and her compassionate and tender storytelling that elevates the narrative to a level of art.

I think what readers and writers alike can take away from ‘Sexy’, and from Ms. Lahiri’s writing in general, is the lightness of her touch in crafting the story, but most importantly the full dignity she ascribes to each character, even the most insignificant of them. It is also her ability to make a mountain out of a molehill, in this sense, utilizing something otherwise irrelevant and making such a grand gesture from it. In ‘Sexy,’ for instance, a little boy whom Miranda, the lead character, was babysitting, tells her ‘Sexy means loving someone you don’t know’. On the surface, and stripped of context, the statement appears meaningless, but it ultimately forms the rock of the whole story, and Miranda’s latter decision to take the reins of her own life.

The ingenuity embedded in ‘Sexy’ is replicated in all of Jhumpa’s work. Since ‘Sexy’, I have long become a fan, reading everything of hers I could find, and coming off each read with the same sense of wonder and admiration at her craft. I like to think that I discovered Ms. Lahiri in 2017, and my life never remained the same.


Chukwuebuka Ibeh is a Nigerian writer. His short stories have appeared in McSweeneys, Clarion Review, Charles River Journal and The New England Review of Books.



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Aishat Abiri’s Note on Craft

As part of the Notes On Craft series, I (Olakunle Ologunro) reached out to a number of writers and asked them to share a piece of work that is most significant to them, and what they think other writers can learn from it.

Here’s Aishat Abiri’s pick: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The first time I read White Teeth, I must admit, my admiration for Zadie’s writing was mixed with a degree of indignation. Because why should you as an author have so much fun writing a book? I went on to read On Beauty and The Autograph Man and soon became a huge fan of Zadie’s work.

As a writer, my biggest challenge initially was writing in the third person; whenever I wrote in the third person, it felt detached with zero emotional stakes. It felt empty. I had concluded that writing in the third person was not for me so I stuck to writing in the first person with an occasional piece in the second person. For White Teeth, I know that I learned to write in the third person from that book. For me, it’s a textbook of sortsa fun and extremely enjoyable one. I learned to also enjoy the story, even as the teller of it. 

When one reads White Teeth, the first thing that strikes the reader is the persiflage she wields so effortlessly in her narration; how comfortable she is with teasing her characters, finding amusement in their predicaments, like a mother who is all too familiar with her children’s nakedness to the point of see finish.

“Below him on the pavement stood Varin—a massively overweight Hindu boy on a misjudged traineeship program from the school round the corner, looking up like a big dejected blob underneath Mo’s question mark.”

“Maybe he should have left with her right then, run to the hills. But at the time it seemed impossible, too involved, what with a young wife with one in the oven (an hysterical, fictional pregnancy, as it turned out, a big bump full of hot air), what with his game leg, what with the lack of hills.”

I believe this ease of humour stems from a degree of confidence in 1) Her story and 2) Her audience that makes her relaxed. Of course, this degree of confidence comes from practice, from telling and retelling stories, from reading other people’s work and paying attention to detailwhat the author was trying to do, what worked or didn’t. 

Like me, I think other writers can learn to relax in the stories they tell, to find enjoyment in storytelling because if you enjoy telling a story, how much more would the reader enjoy reading?


Aishat Abiri is a writer with a passion for issues concerning gender, politics, sexuality, and mental health. Her short stories have been featured in Afreada, Saraba, and the Aké Review. She has written screenplays for Tinsel and ‘In Love and Ashes.’ She lives in Abuja and is a Farafina 2016 alumnus.




Notes on Craft: The Thing About Flashbacks

by Olakunle Ologunro

Hey there,

If this is your first time reading this letter, you can flashback to the previous letters in the series here.

This week’s letter is for flashbacks.

When you think about flashbacks, what comes to mind? I’ll be honest, I think of two things. First, I think of the Nollywood typical treatment of flashbacks. Yoruba Nollywood, especially. You can watch a movie where everything is a flashback. Or a flashback that contains three more flashbacks. 

I kid you not.

The second thing that comes to my mind is a sprint in a former direction. A runner turning back to swiftly pick up something. And that’s how I often like to approach my definition of the word, as well as my relationship with the entire concept. A sprint in a former direction, usually to pick up a[n old] detail, or to draw the readers’ attention to something that is important to the story or the character’s personality.

The definition of a flashback is simple, easy to grasp. It is when you, the writer, take the reader out of the present story and go back into an earlier time in a character’s life, or an earlier event in the main course of the story. 

Here’s an example from one of my favourite short stories to read, “Someone Like Sue,” by Rebecca Curtis.

This is what I was thinking:

The fact that Sue didn’t have a job didn’t surprise me. The last I knew, after college, she’d been working at a large department store. But I always thought she’d lose the job, especially because she was so small—she only weighed ninety pounds and she was only five feet tall. Her smallness seemed to point to something about her everyone could see, that she was untrustworthy and could be easily beaten up. Not many people had trusted her in college, and a lot of people had beaten her up.

In this story, this character has just received a phone call from a woman who calls herself Amy but who the character believes to be Sue, her old friend from college. The character is sitting down after the call when her husband comes to her to find out who called. But our character is thinking, and in revealing her thoughts, the author flashes back to her college days to reveal her relationship with Sue, and the kind of people Sue and our character are.

By using flashback, the author achieves a number of things:

  1. She reveals details that help the reader understand Sue and the character, and thus gives the story more depth because the reader now understands the motives of each character.
  2. Interiority. The reader is able to see the character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the situation. 

But her friendship brought me a lot of benefits, like the way we held hands when we entered a party, and how all the guys thought that looked good, and when I thought about the money I’d loaned her that she never paid back, I knew that in a way she thought I owed her the money, because of all those times we’d held hands.

Reading the whole paragraph to the end, the reader is able to see how the character feels about Sue, what she thinks about their relationship and her reaction to Sue’s lie that she is now Amy.

  1. The flashback helps us understand the current conflict even further. We, the reader, now understand why Sue might pretend to be Amy, and why the character struggles between giving her the money or not.
  2. The author has also been able to tell the story in a way that is not 100% linear. She takes the reader to the past and back, and this time, the reader returns with even more details that make the story more interesting and gives a new dimension to the previously expected outcome.


Flashbacks can take a number of ways: an object can be used to start a flashback. A word, a gesture, a sound, all of these can bring about a flashback for the character. 

As a writer, the best approach is to use flashback as a tool to complement and strengthen your work. Make it richer, more interesting. But also be wary of too many flashbacks. This will do the complete opposite of what you have in mind. 

Ask yourself questions. How does this flashback change your story? What does it add or take away from it? How has it changed your character? What do they now know?

A very simple way to do this is to apply it to yourself. If, right now, you had to flashback to a specific period in 2020, what would that period be? Why? How will the flashback change your present circumstances, even if for a minute?

Let me answer that. If I had to flashback to a specific period in 2020, it would be the lockdown period. Why? It was the one time where I felt absolutely listless, I could barely read or write. I’ll emerge from this flashback with complete gratitude for where I am right now: able to read and write again, to enjoy the solace that stories bring. 

Now, will you also take the test?

Read: “Someone Like Sue” by Rebecca Curtis.


See you soon.



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:

Photo by Dancan Wachira from Pexels





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