These are really interesting times we live in. As a voracious reader who writes occasionally, I am often asked by young writers for advice or successful tips on writing. I used to find this hilarious given that I have never ever bothered to publish a book and it is my desire to die without having written a book. Indeed, as an inebriated hater once reminded me, I am yet to publish as much as a wedding invitation card.
Don’t laugh, but it makes sense to see me as an authority on an area where my expertise is loudly silent, at least on paper (you see what I did there, right?). I have been married for at least a quarter of a century now, and I owe my survival in that institution (you see what I did there, right) to expert advice from a friend who has been divorced five times. Expertise comes from strange places. In any case, it is counter-intuitive, but I think it makes sense in the 21st century to ask me, a reader who dabbles in writing to offer advice on navigating the writing life. There is now a blurring of the lines or boundaries between the reader and the writer. In the multi-dimensional digital canvasses of today, the call-and-response style and instant feedback to ideas force readers and writers to exchange roles in real time. Many readers do not know they are writers and vice-versa.
Overall, with little exception, the rules for writing, remain the same. The medium may have changed, but writing is still writing. There is one challenge though. Many writers are not being paid, even as they are writing mind-blowing content on the Internet. Unlike what iTunes has done for the music industry, technology has not created a digital pay system that rewards writers. Online magazines and blogs are struggling with this, many simply defacing their sites with tawdry adverts just to stay afloat. It is only a matter of time before an equitable system is developed to pay writers their due.
It is a paradox: The good news is that there are millions of writers on the Internet. The bad news is that there are millions of writers on the Internet. Where the reader once battled the tyranny of narrow literary choices, one is now faced with the poverty of prosperity, way too many free choices assail the reader on a given day. Buried in the avalanche of writing begging to be read is a clearly defined river of narrative that is fast defining what we now know as contemporary literature, especially with Africans long used to the gatekeeping of Western publishers that forced enterprising but compliant African writers to create a narrative called poverty porn, important slices of the African condition taken to exaggerated extremes — for profit. For African writers, particularly those living in the continent, this is a crucial time to be a writer. Publishing houses are struggling in Africa, most newspapers struggle to stay afloat and sadly some take advantage of young writers just to fill the quota of content.
For the African writer, I am really passionate about one thing. I am in love with the writing on the web because it is so original, so authentic. When you compare it to what is in books, especially published in the West by mostly Diaspora writing, it is the difference between my mother’s jollof rice and chef Jamie Oliver’s. There is no comparison. Be yourself, be yourself, be yourself is the only advice you should take seriously from me. Stay away from publishing houses that want to force you into a certain rigid mold. Just be yourself and they will come looking for you.
But, hey, I am nothing, if not a dizzying bundle of contradictions. I actually decided to humor a certain young writer, and I have come up with twelve steps for navigating the new world that is literature. Enjoy. And don’t hate. It is free advice, what does it matter if it is mostly nonsense. Enjoy.
- Read, read, read. Most readers can smell a poorly read writer from miles. Read voraciously, especially if you are a young writer, it will more than make up for your lack of life experience.
- Write, write, write. Be disciplined. Write a book (I know, I know, I said the book is dying). Writing a book helps you focus. And who knows, you might get published in the West.
- Build a portfolio. You will need evidence of your genius when the time comes. No one will pay you if you have nothing coherent and attractive to show for your efforts.
- Self-promotion is the new normal. Promote yourself. If you don’t, you will be sorry.
- Network, network, network. Go where people are on the Internet and on the ground and announce yourself. The sea drowns those who are too shy to yell for help.
- Strive for excellence, step out with your absolute best work, even in draft form. Marry, fall in love with or befriend a good editor. Or all of the above.
- Find your own unique voice and use it. There are millions of writers out there, if you can’t find your voice, you will die in an echo chamber.
- Be like the writers of the West, be insular, be provincial, be yourself, write as if you are writing for yourself and your audience will find you.
- Respect yourself; ask to be paid. And while you are waiting to be paid, get a real job, lol.
- Innovate, innovate, innovate. Above all, your writing must have purpose. Why do you write? Why should we read you?
- Do not be in a hurry to be published. Rewrite. Edit. And rewrite again. Never submit your first, second or third drafts. Be circumspect about who you submit to. The publishers you choose could make or break you.
- Master all the rules of writing – and break them, every one of them
“Dear Genevieve” is a writing-advice series. The weekly missive allows Ikhide Ikheloa, one of Africa’s foremost literary critic, to dish out prized advice on various aspects of writing. Stop by next Monday for the next email.
Read more from the series:
About the Author:
Ikhide R. Ikheloa or Pa Ikhide is a social and literary critic who writes non-stop on various online media. He was a columnist with Next Newspaper and the Daily Times, Nigeria, where he held forth and offered unsolicited opinions on any and everything to do with literature and the world. He has been published in books, journals and online magazines and he predicts: ‘The book and the library are dying. Ideas live.” Find him on twitter @ikhide