Anthony Okpunor

TABLE TALK

“We Should Always be Looking to Create Opportunities” – Interview with Uchechi Princewill

Uchechi Princewill is a fiction writer and medical student at the University of Benin. He is a founder and administrator of The Story Tree Challenge. His works have appeared in The Story Tree Challenge Maiden Anthology. He is also a winner of the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Council Unseen and Unspoken Poetry Competition.

In his recent interview with Kreative Diadem, Princewill takes us on his writing journey and offers a glimpse into his writing process.

Enjoy!

KD: Let’s meet you. Can you tell us about yourself?

Uchechi: I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing. I enjoy reading a little more, and I think that’s a good habit for a writer, that is, consuming more than you produce. I know that is some extremely inappropriate advice in any other context outside of art. But I really believe in it and it’s shaped my writing journey so far. Currently, I am a founder and administrator of The Story Tree Challenge, an online writing challenge I started with friends in March 2020 to give writers like myself a medium of expression and growth during the pandemic. It’s since blossomed to become more than that, and it’s still growing. I am also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Medicine and Surgery at the University of Benin.

Anthony Okpunor

Uchechi Princewill

Winner of 2017 Commonwealth Youth Council Unseen and Unspoken Poetry Competition

KD: When did you start writing professionally, and can you tell us a bit about the early days?

Uchechi: I started writing seriously around 2015. Before then, I’d dabbled in some short fiction, poetry and essay writing. It goes without saying that most, if not all, of those early efforts were pretty bad. But they were necessary. I found my first serious commitment to writing when I joined Facebook and immediately joined as many writing groups as I could find. It was around this time that I discovered my affinity for fiction and promptly started focusing on that. I chose fiction because, frankly, you can still find some of my poetry around if you sleuth hard enough and let me be the first to tell you my poetry is rubbish. I have written three or four poems that I like, but beyond that, it’s an art form that eludes me. But fiction comes more naturally to me. In those early days, my two major influences were ‘Storried’ run by Andy Akhigbe and a Facebook group run by Brian Paone. They were what took a juvenile curiosity and gave me a path to focusing it. I’m still on that path, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

KD: How would you describe your writing style?

Uchechi: That’s an interesting question. I’ve heard people describe it as clean, precise, functional, and even utilitarian. What I take away from that is that I don’t usually spend a lot of time describing things and while this is a good thing in that my stories can be read easily and keep a fast pace, it also can be a hindrance when writing particularly complex stories because I might not be providing the reader with enough information to create a meaningful mental image. This is what I ask my “beta” readers, actually. Did you think it was too confusing? Did the scenes come across how I intended? Is this paragraph too dense?
All in all, I like my writing style. It has taken influences from Nnedi Okorafor, N.K Jemisin, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, etc. (you can already tell I like sci-fi/fantasy a lot) and I think I would point to Kritika Pandey, winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, if I wanted to show someone what I’m aiming for with my style. Her writing is a ten thousand times more mature version of my style, but with a flavour that’s distinctly hers. I’m enthralled by it. 

KD: Can you give a brief description of your writing process or routine? Do you have any helpful writing tips you’d like to share?

Uchechi: My writing process is quite simple, actually. I take out my laptop. I have Word open as well as my favorite dictionary—thesaurus. I also have my phone nearby just in case I need to Google something. Then I start writing. If I have a theme to follow, I like to put myself in the mood by imagining a cinematic soundtrack that evokes that sort of feel playing in my head. Hans Zimmer usually does the trick. I don’t write with music actually in the background, however. I find it distracting because I’m also a musician and I end up trying to analyze what I’m hearing instead of focusing on writing.
I also do not usually plot or plan. I rarely ever know what my story is going to be until I’m three-quarter of the way through writing it. It’s very satisfying when it turns out great, but sometimes I do wish I was more organized. But when I plot something, it usually ends up in my unfinished WIP (work in progress) folder.
In the way of tips, someone once gave me the advice to start with the action. Think up the high point of your story and start writing that. This was when I used to complain a lot about being stuck. It worked for me. Sometimes the story you want to tell is easier to de-escalate than to escalate, and writing back from the climax is a good way to skip the uninspiring setup phase. This advice also works if you want to tell a story backwards. That kind of nonlinear storytelling is beautiful when done right. Just try not to be too predictable. 

“I think there are never enough opportunities. I think that we should always be looking to create opportunities, as well as take the ones that are available to us.”

Anthony Okpunor

Uchechi Princewill

Founder of The Story Challenge

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

Uchechi: I briefly touched on this in the discussion of my writing style. I have something called Aphantasia – the inability to conjure a mental image. You can find more information online and I’m working on an article about it for my Medium, but basically what this means is: Picture a red apple in your mind’s eye. If you can do that, if you can produce a detailed image of something that’s not in front of you, then you do not have Aphantasia. I can’t do that. Never have been able to. It was recently I actually discovered that “picturing things” was a real thing people did and not just a metaphor. This explained many things about myself I had taken for granted. It also exposed why I didn’t really put a lot of descriptions in my writing. I rarely give a detailed physical description of a character—black hair, blue eyes, ruddy complexion— because all these things mean very little to me. It’s not usually a problem, but discovering it has made me a little more intentional about adding these descriptions for the many other people who do appreciate these visual cues. 

KD: What was it like completing and publishing your first book?

Uchechi: It was an illuminating experience, I’ll tell you that. There was so much work to be done, especially for an essentially three-man army, because we did the editing, compilation, preparing all the ebook versions, promotion, and one of us, Mustapha Enesi, exclusively did all the graphic design work. It was a lot of work. Self-publishing is not easy. Add to that having to go back and forth on individual stories (because The Story Tree Challenge Maiden Anthology is a collection of flash fiction from seven different authors), deciding to drop some at the last minute and add some, edits and rewrites—add all these things and it’s suddenly a huge deal that we were able to complete all of this in the one-week deadline we gave ourselves. Most of the work was split three ways between Raheem Omeiza, Mustapha Enesi and myself.
For the sequel anthology, we’re slowing down a lot, because that one week of barely sleeping, constantly working, was very eye-opening.
However, the sense of fulfillment we got when we were done, and when we were able to get quite the number of downloads that first week, was amazing. I loved every second of it. But if I had to do it again, and I will, I’d slow down and spread that process over a month at the very least.

KD: Rate the influence of the Nigerian education system on literary arts.

Uchechi: I’d rate it how I’d rate the entire Nigerian Education system. ‘Painfully lacking’. I mean, we have the material. Books are not our problem, although availability and cost can be a limiting factor and our libraries are grossly out of date; that’s not the major issue. The teaching of literature and grammar can be painfully boring, pedantic, and outdated across both secondary and tertiary institutions.
I’d rather attribute the raising of good quality to the efforts of Nigerian giants like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and honestly, more recently and relevantly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nnedi Okorafor, who is ‘Naijamerican,’ and great writers on the African continent as a whole, of which they are many. Many who write specifically short fiction. It’d be difficult to name all of them. Great writers are inspiring new great writers, and everyone is taking their education into their own hands, because school here doesn’t cut it for creative writing, if we’re being honest. As to the specifics of that, we’ll have to ask my colleagues who are pursuing degrees in the literary arts. Most of the writers I know personally don’t come from writing degree backgrounds.

KD: Who are some literary figures that inspire you/you look up to?

Uchechi: I think I’ve mentioned a few of them so far. Brandon Sanderson, for the expansive world building and his fantastic handle on magic systems. Nnedi Okorafor, for her masterful command of African futurism. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for making us feel and making that feel very African. N.K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy was mind-blowing when I read it and it had an impact on my style. Many others.

KD: Do your short stories have a unifying theme or you simply write on matters of the heart or what inspires you?

Uchechi: There’s no unifying theme that I’m aware of, though something may have leaked in subconsciously. I write what comes to me or what I come up with. In The Story Tree Challenge, we’ve been playing with the idea of writing stories connected to each other by characters that travel between them. That is, one universe with characters playing out stories in different corners of that universe and running into one another. It’s a very fun concept and we’ve explored it in the maiden anthology, and are exploring it in the sequel as well. But that is as unified as my stories get. This may change. I still have, hopefully, decades to go as a writer. Maybe I’ll be thinking about this when I write now. Maybe I’ll explore having a unifying theme.

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

Uchechi: My long term goal is to publish a novel-length work of fiction, maybe a series of books as intricate as Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. I’m not rushing this. I see people rushing to put out books here and there and I’m working on flash fiction anthologies and generally just improving my craft. I’ve been asked when I’ll publish a novel of my own and my answer is always “when I’m ready”. As much as I think writers should write, I also want my novel debut to be special and as good as it possibly can be. And I have a very strong idea of what that time will feel like so I’m not just procrastinating.
Oh, and I want to write a film. No details on that one yet.

KD: Are you currently working on any book(s) at the moment?

Uchechi: Yes. The sequel to The Story Tree Challenge Maiden Anthology is currently being written. It’s a very special process that involves as many writers as contact us indicating interest. We’re just there to grow, experiment, write and compete. The anthology is just a bonus because we look at some of the stories we’ve written at the end of the day and go “Damn! That should be in a book.”

KD: Do you think there are enough opportunities for young writers in Nigeria?

Uchechi: I think there are never enough opportunities. I think that we should always be looking to create opportunities, as well as take the ones that are available to us.

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

Uchechi: I’d give them the same advice I received when I told Andy Akhigbe, founder of ‘Storried,’ that I wanted to write a book; that was over four years ago. He said to go read five hundred books and come back. I’ve passed that number and stopped counting a long time ago, and I’m still reading. My writing’s improved, and my vocabulary. And more importantly, I am aware of my limitations and can see an almost quantifiable difference between where I am as a writer and where I want to be. I can see my weaknesses and I’m now able to target them and improve my strengths. My writing’s transformed radically in those four years.
Never stop reading. That’s the only advice I feel qualified to give because it’s the best one I ever received.

KD: Any final words?

Uchechi: I’ve said a lot already. Final words should be short. Keep writing! And thank you to Kreative Diadem for this opportunity to share.

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