BY MUKOMA WA NGUGI
I love to write and have been doing it for a long time now. Along the way I have learned, mostly through mistakes, a few things that I want to list here below with the hope they will be of use to African writers who are just starting out. As with all advice, some of it will be useful and some of it will not.
The Writing Process
- Read and then read some more. Reading is the apprenticeship that enlarges your creative muscle. Reading is the theory, and writing the practice.
- Have no aesthetic hierarchies. By this I mean, sometimes the story line that comes to you will require the form of realist fiction, at other times it might lead you to popular genres.
- No one writes a perfect first draft. And if it appears to happen, it is because the story or poem has been rewritten several times in the writer’s imagination.
- Go through multiple drafts before you give your novel to your first reader –their criticism will be more useful then because it will deal with issues such as character development, or the structure of the novel, instead of being bogged down in sentence syntax.
- Learning to take criticism is part of writing. The key to using criticism is realizing that your reader might give you criticism that is wrong to a specific character or scene but relevant to the overall novel. Weigh the criticism but always remember you are the writer and it is your story.
- It is okay to start a novel and fail. Most writers have half-finished manuscripts collecting dust in a safe somewhere. No piece of writing ever goes to waste – a line, a character’s disposition, some descriptions will be useful later. Think of failed pieces of writing as spare parts.
- Find pleasure and value in your writing appearing in a local paper or magazine. It is not always about your work being in international journals and magazines. A piece of writing that connects even with one stranger is a successful piece.
- Submit to more than one place if the journal or magazine editor will not get back to you within six weeks. It is unfair of editors to ask you to submit exclusively to them only to reject your work half a year later.
- Find an agent by talking with writers you know. Find a writer whose work you admire and find out who their agent is. If you can’t find an agent, look for publishers (often independent) who are willing to accept unsolicited work.
- Do not sign a bad contract but at the same time do not negotiate yourself out of getting published.
- If you cannot find an agent and must negotiate on your own behalf, here are the basics from my experience. Royalties should be somewhere between 8% and 13%. The future of the book, at least a good chunk of it is in electronic publishing where the publisher does not incur a large overhead – e-royalties should be between 25% to 40% if not more.
- Do not give your publisher rights to parts of the world where they do not distribute books. For example, for a US publisher reserve African rights. If it is a West African publisher who does not distribute in Eastern Africa or in Europe, reserve those rights for yourself. Advances will be different from house to house.
- Be professional and handle edits in a timely manner and hold your publisher to the same standard. The publisher is not doing you favors in as much as you are not doing them a favor.
- Take your writer’s ego out of the equation when working with your editor. You are both working on getting the best book possible out there. Accept, modify or decline editorial advice based on what is good for the book.
- It’s all about the book!
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University. Born in Illinois but raised in Kenya, his essays and creative writing have been featured in many publications, including Chimurenga and Tin House. His second novel, Killing Sahara, was published by Kwela (R175) earlier this year.
Photograph: Jeremy Weate