NOTES ON CRAFT: ON LANGUAGE AND CLARITY by Olakunle Ologunro

NOTES ON CRAFT: ON LANGUAGE AND CLARITY by Olakunle Ologunro

clarity

Notes on Craft: On Language and Clarity

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.

The letter for this week (or month, seeing how very irregular and inconsistent I am 🥴) is about language and clarity, and how these two things work to improve the quality of your writing.

***

In my final year of university, I had the privilege of reading the works of some students at other levels. Many of them were freshers trying their hands at prose writing so they could hone their skills. Some of the stories had potential, but there was a major barrier preventing this potential from shining through. That barrier was language.

Language, to me, is the vehicle a story travels in. It is the microphone that amplifies the story, the colour that animates everything. And this is why it is important for you to get it right. The use of language in the freshers’ stories came from a place to impress– at least that was what it read like to me. They used too many ‘big’ words, a lot of which took up space but added nothing to the story as a whole. They were clunky, mismatched, and useless, and instead of displaying their mastery of language, it revealed their tumultuous relationship with language.

Simplicity and clarity is a sign of mastery in language. It shows that you are able to communicate effectively, express yourself in the story and give your characters room to do the same. This is what I strive for in my stories, what I think you as a writer should strive for too. Each time I sit down to write, I wonder, “How best can I tell this story?” I make myself the reader because I believe that if I am able to understand and communicate my intentions in the story, I have solved a major problem.

“Anyone who wants to become a writer should be vigorous, direct, simple, and lucid.” That’s a quote from Henry Watson Fowler. But then, to do this, what are the basics?

First of all, don’t use ‘big words’ where a simple one will do. Buy instead of purchase. That is, in a situation where a simpler word or sentence can achieve the desired effect, choose it. Yes, the big word looks fancy, interesting, but will it add to the story’s flow or take away from it? That’s one thing to always consider.

Another thing to keep in mind is that clarity also matters in the story before anything. Language can be as clear as day, but if the story itself is unclear, only little can be done to salvage it.

Do not attempt to impress a perceived ‘judge’ because you assume that a certain type of writing is not fancy enough for them. Don’t assume to know what they will like or dislike. You cannot know, really. So, when you enter for a competition or simply write to submit it, do not choose intentionally complex vocabulary. Do not be deliberately unclear, unless that is what you are going for. Simply tell the story that feels like you. Let it be in a language you are familiar with.

Read. This cannot be overemphasized. What stories do you like? What strikes you in their use of language? Study the people who have gone before you. It is one of the best ways to learn. 

As I write this, “Conference” by Naja Marie Aidt is the story that comes to my mind. The simplicity was what struck me on my first encounter with it. How the language worked to simplify the prose rather than complicate it. Such a level of simplicity is what I aspire to and what I hope to transcend. I think you should do the same. Language can comfort, enrage, arouse, disgust, and do many things to the reader. But only when it is applied simply.

I’ll end with this paragraph from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s conversation with Zadie Smith on writing, relationship, etc.

“Clarity’s important to me. I forget who said that ‘Prose should be as clear as a windowpane.’ I’m very much in that school, and it’s the kind of fiction I like to read. The kind of writing that I like to read is writing that is clear. I think it’s very easy to confuse something that’s badly written as something that’s somehow deep. If something is incomprehensible and the sentences are bad, we’re supposed to say, ‘Oh that’s really deep.’ It’s not the kind of fiction I like to read, so I guess maybe when I’m editing I’m thinking about that. I’m thinking that the sentences I really admire are sentences that are lucid.” 

Listen to the full podcast here.

What are you reading? More importantly, what are you writing? How is it coming along?

For me, I reached out to a number of writers and asked them to share a piece of work most significant to them, and what they think other writers can learn from it. Over the coming weeks, I’ll share each letter with you.

Don’t stop writing.

All my love.

-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:

Photo by Dancan Wachira from Pexels

 

 

 

 

“Read a lot and be patient with your art” – Interview with Anthony Okpunor

“Read a lot and be patient with your art” – Interview with Anthony Okpunor

Anthony Okpunor

TABLE TALK

“Read a lot and be patient” – Interview with Anthony Okpunor

As we anticipate the fourth edition of our Annual Creative Writing Contest, we recently interviewed the winner of the third edition in the poetry category, Anthony Okpunor.

Anthony hails from the Southern part of Nigeria. In this interview, he discusses his passion for writing; including his early days as a writer as well as some of the challenges and inspirations behind his art.

Ready? Let’s go!

Kreative Diadem: Who is Anthony Okpunor? Tell us briefly about yourself.

Anthony: Anthony is a mix of quiet and trouble. Fun, with a flair for solitude. Also a good listener & conversationalist. These provide the space for me to be an artist. I write poetry as an aesthetic. I love music a lot, a whole lot that I find myself singing almost all the time. There is then this attraction to people, not just my own space. I enjoy the company of (the right) people, gathered anywhere having long laughs at the silliest of things, toasting to friendship. This hybrid longing makes me omniverted. Before all these I’m a Nigerian male, dark skinned, from an Ibo speaking tribe in the South. I’m also a Christian. I love God.

Anthony Okpunor

Anthony Okpunor

Winner of the 2019 Kreative Diadem Annual Creative Writing Content (Poetry Category)

KD: When did you first discover your passion for writing and what inspired you?

Anthony: I’ll have to take you back to my secondary school days to give you an answer.

There was this tradition at the time where English teachers gave students compulsory essays with a title to write on. The tradition was in the title: “A Day I Will Never Forget”. I do not know if they still do it.

I remember I wrote a fiction. At the time I did not know it was called that. I did not mind, so long as the ideas kept pouring out of my head, I was happy. I remember I wrote about a robbery, what made me think of something like that; I will never know.

At the dawn of the following term when our exam papers were handed back to us, I turned out to have scored highest in that section. I still see the smile on my teacher’s face sometimes. I remember she made the entire class know I wrote the best story.

I got home and showed it to my sister who read it and said she loved the story. Ever since, I’ve grown one or two writing limbs.

KD: What are some of the challenges you face as a writer and what steps do you take to overcome them?

Anthony: I believe writers in Africa (Nigeria especially) have a challenge of getting access to good & contemporary books. In my country where there are not many libraries, & the ones available carry the weight of old thoughts, this is a huge challenge. There is hardly a place here where contemporary works are displayed for writers to have access to them. This is why literary festivals are such miracles.

Then there is the struggle to be “seen”. It is sad that writers are not really “writers” except they have been published in a foreign journal or have won a major awardwhich has to be foreign, else you were just lucky. Who made foreignness a test of true art? There’s no one to point a finger at anyway, because before now there was no platform to celebrate the younger generation of writers. But now there are literary bodies here and there, big and not-big. The Nigerian Students Poetry Prize at the moment is the highest platform for emerging writers that are undergraduates, and it is such a beauty because it gives every student a chance to express their art, & winners get recognition from home and abroad. Before now it wasn’t so.

I get my books online, some of which I have to pay for. Others I get from friends and colleagues. Being a writer anywhere is not easy, but I think here in Nigeria the volume is turned up a lot more. The good thing is, none of these hindrances have stopped us from telling the world we exist.

KD: What are some literary figures that inspire you and your work?

Anthony: I think Ilya Kaminsky inspires me a lot. I don’t know if it’s because I have read his jaw-dropping Deaf Republic countless times. I appreciate the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie too. I like her stories and the voice behind them. There is Chinua Achebe, who I believe to be the father of African literature. In that light, I still go back to the works of Wole Soyinka from time to time. Chris Abani. Kwame Dawes.

Coming down to a younger generation, there are a lot of them that have really dressed the Nigerian literary bed. They are poets like Saddiq Dzukogi, Romeo Oriogun, David Ishaya Osu, Okwudili Nebeolisa, Kechi Nomu, Chisom Okafor, JK Anowe, Theresa Lola, Logan February, Kolade Olanrewanju Freedom, Kukogho Iruesiri  Samson, Jide Badmus, Gbenga Adesina, Rasaq Malik, Gbenga Adeoba. They are beautiful poets like Michael Akuchie, Adedayo Agarau, O-Jeremiah Agbaakin, Ogwiji Ehi, Hussain Ahmed, Nome Patrick, Ernest Ogunyemi, Chukwuemeka Akachi (RIP),  Wale Ayinla, Hauwa Shafii Nuhu, Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Taiye Ojo, Ugochukwu Damian, Pamilerin Jacob. Some poet like Anthony Okpunor.

I also enjoy reading Safia Elhillo. I love how she uses language and metaphor to navigate identity. Also Aja Monet, Warsan Shire, Ladan Osman. There are many not mentioned here I would have loved to talk about. In general good art inspires me, not just poetry; songs too. Movies. Paintings. Drawings. Anything that has rhythm to it. And oh, I enjoy reading Shakespeare big time!

“It is sad that writers are not really “writers” except they have been published in a foreign journal or won a major award— which has to be foreign, else you were just lucky. Who made foreignness a test of true art?”

Anthony Okpunor

Anthony Okpunor

Winner of the 2019 Kreative Diadem Annual Creative Writing Content (Poetry Category)

KD: Last year, you won first prize in the flash fiction category of Kreative Diadem’s annual writing contest. What was your reaction like?

Anthony: The funny thing is I didn’t get to see it till an hour or two after the winners were announced. When I got the email, at first I wasn’t all jumpy. I wanted to be certain I knew what I was reading. It wasn’t until I began receiving accolades from friends that it started to dawn on me that I had won. It was a joy.

There is a kind of noise that comes with winning, that day that noise was all I could hear. And it’s great because before then I was seriously getting kicked by rejections. (I still get slapped around with rejections a whole lot). So there was no way of assuring success, but I won regardless. It came with both grace and light.

KD: What was the inspiration and meaning behind your winning poem: ODE TO OUR BODY ON FIRE?

Anthony: The poem on its own has no origin. It is a sequel to another poem I wrote in 2017, “When We Started Taking Notes”. I had told a friend that if she would take out time to write something, even if it wasn’t a poem, that I would write her a poem. A love poem somewhat about survival, for at the time I was reading Romeo Oriogun a lot. So my poems started to look like his. I believed I was scammed because she didn’t write anything that day, but I wrote mine. It’s sounding funny in my head. Anyway I posted the poem on Facebook before sending it out to African Writers.

That was where it all started from. So when I was to write for the competition, I went back to my old poems to find inspiration. As fate would have it, that poem was the first poem I read. I thought of creating another like it, and I did.

The winning poem carries the same thoughts with its antecedent; survival. The struggle to be anything at all. Not only the struggle to love, although it looks as if the poem takes just that one shape.

Now I write about love. But not the juvenility that parades the internet, I aim to heal. I believe there are many things that make up this ocean so I write about them too: things like grief, acceptance, peace, death, laughter, silence, thirst, lust, kindness, sacrifice, long-suffering, betrayal. There is no love without loss, so I write both black and white.

KD: Do you have any other published works aside from ODE TO OUR BODY ON FIRE, as well as any other achievements you’d like to share?

Anthony: I have works published on African Writers mostly. I’d be glad if readers took out time to read them. I have also had works on Rattle, the McNeese Review, Praxis Magazine. As for the achievements, I’m still working on those.

KD: What are some of your long-term goals as a writer?

Anthony: My long-term goals are really long. I prefer not to say for now.

KD: Any forthcoming works or publications?

Anthony: Yes. I have works forthcoming on Palette Poetry, and Frontier.

KD: What advice would you give to young writers like yourself, especially in Nigeria?

Anthony: Read a lot, and be patient with your art. In time it will be kind to you. Rejection is a crucial part of the journey so do not take any comment on your work personal. Every comment is an opinion. Have yours (an informed opinion), and grow.

Then write. Tell your story. Tell your truth the way only you can. The prize is not what is gained when you win, remember. When you don’t win tell yourself nothing was promised.

Any final words for Kreative Diadem and its readers?

Yes: thank you.

Isolation

Our third issue ever, "Isolation" is out. We had thought-provoking conversations with Alexis Teyie and Tobi Nifesi. It's a collection of works from some of the finest minds out there -- poetry, short stories, interviews, and creative essays.

Do you love our published works?

You can add your literary work to an endless list of poems, short stories, flash fiction, and essays.

“Find your voice and your style” – Interview with Nneoma Mbalewe

“Find your voice and your style” – Interview with Nneoma Mbalewe

TABLE TALK

“Find your voice and your style” – Interview with Nneoma Mbalewe

As we anticipate the fourth edition of Kreative Diadem Annual Creative Writing Contest, we had a chat with Nneoma Mbalewe who won the flash fiction category of the third edition.

Nneoma is an award-winning writer who was shortlisted for the Creative Freelance Writerz (CFW) prize last June. She currently studies Law at the prestigious University of Ilorin, Nigeria. Nneoma discusses the inspiration behind her winning entry “Ayomide” and also shares some tips for young writers.

Enjoy the read!

Kreative Diadem: Who is Nneoma Mbalewe? Tell us briefly about yourself.

Nneoma: I’m an avid reader and zealous writer. Besides that, I’m a law student at the University of Ilorin.

Nneoma Mbalewe

Winner of the 2019 Kreative Diadem Annual Creative Writing Content (Flash Fiction Category)

KD: When did you first discover your passion for storytelling and what inspired you?

Nneoma: I would say in primary school. I was a ferocious reader (still am) and with such reading, grew my desire to tell stories.

KD: What are some of the challenges you face as a writer and what steps do you take to overcome them?

Nneoma: I would say timidity and lack of confidence in myself. I read some stories/novels and they’re so good that I begin to question myself. Is writing for me? It pushes me to want to better my work and spend time trying to be a perfectionist instead of actually sitting down to write.

KD: Who are some literary figures that inspire you and your work?

Nneoma: I have a lot, actually. Internationally, I read a lot of James Patterson, Sidney Sheldon and Karen Rose. I also look up to Elnathan John, Chidera Okolie, to name a few. But I don’t limit myself and my favorite figures change very often.

“Find your voice and your style. Just because someone writes the way you like does not mean that style is for you.”

Nneoma Mbalewe

Winner of the 2019 Kreative Diadem Annual Creative Writing Content (Flash Fiction Category)

KD: Last year, you won first prize in the flash fiction category of Kreative Diadem’s annual writing contest. What was your reaction like?

Nneoma: I was surprised, honestly. I hadn’t wanted to submit Ayomide because I felt it wasn’t ready but the deadline was approaching and I really wanted to submit something. Winning made me elated.

KD: What was the inspiration and meaning behind Ayomide?

 Nneoma: Ayomide was birthed by the question,” How do we prove our worth if we do not even get an opportunity?” If Ayomide was born elsewhere, at his age, he probably would have gotten a college degree being a prodigy. Besides that, no one else has noticed his genius, except his teacher. A lot of people we meet are talented yet have no way of letting the world know. That’s the story I wanted to tell.

KD: Do you have any other published works aside from Ayomide, as well as any other achievements you’d like to share?

Nneoma: I have very few published works. I was shortlisted for CFWriterz June 2019 prize and one of my stories was published in their magazine. Apart from flash fiction, I have won two essay competitions.

KD: What are some of your long-term goals as a writer?

Nneoma: I still see myself writing years and decades from now. It’s something I really love and I can’t let it go just like that.

KD: Any forthcoming works or publications?

Nneoma: I have a few incomplete works that I would like to flesh up soon.

KD: What advice would you give to young writers like yourself, especially in Nigeria?

Nneoma: I’d say, find your voice and your style. Just because someone writes the way you like does not mean that style is for you.

Any final words for Kreative Diadem and its readers?

Nneoma: To Kreative Diadem, thank you very much for this opportunity. You guys are awesome. To the readers, don’t you ever dare quit reading.

Isolation

Our third issue ever, "Isolation" is out. We had thought-provoking conversations with Alexis Teyie and Tobi Nifesi. It's a collection of works from some of the finest minds out there -- poetry, short stories, interviews, and creative essays.

Do you love our published works?

You can add your literary work to an endless list of poems, short stories, flash fiction, and essays.

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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