5 Ways to Jumpstart Your Writing Career — according to Ben Okri and other experts

Blog 22 July 2022

African literature is going through a global renaissance, and aspiring authors from all over the continent are looking for ways to work towards their goal of being published and making it big globally. The Writing Room by Brittle Paper wants to continue to centre emerging African talents through free online masterclasses led by prominent authors and publishers.

Ellah Wakatama, the chair of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, is the instructor on Language and Style. Zukiswa Wanner, the instructor on Plot, is a publisher and author of nine books. Chimeka Garricks, the instructor on Character Development, is a Nigerian Irish writer and has published award-winning and bestselling works of fiction. Molara Wood is the instructor on Themes. She is a Lagos-based journalist, editor, and author of Indigo, a collection of short stories. Eghosa Imasuen, the instructor on Setting, is a Nigerian novelist and the co-founder of Narrative Landscape Press Limited, a publishing company based in Lagos.

They were joined by a special guest, Ben Okri, in Brittle Paper Presents: The Writing Room. The webinar was moderated by Prof. Ainehi Edoro-Glines, the editor-in-chief of Brittle Paper, and Natasha Kimani of Africa No Filter. It unpacked the beauty and challenges of African writing and how emerging authors can work towards illustrious international careers.

Here are five tips from their conversation.

  • Focus on growth as opposed to perfection: Booker Prize winner Okri noted that he doesn’t “hold up very much light for [his] first novel”, but he shared an important lesson it taught him: “It taught me discipline. It made me aware that to tell a story — no matter how badly you tell it— requires a lot of work.” Ellah Wakatama added that discipline and constantly taking yourself seriously as a writer are inseparable in your journey. “Yes, you will be dedicated and hardworking, and all of those things, but also, if you’re taking yourself seriously, you’re seeking excellence,” she said. In other words: start writing, be consistent about it and always strive to produce work that has the potential to get attention from readers and the publishing industry.
  • Be prepared for bumps on the road: Okri began his conversation reflecting on the difficulties he experienced as a writer, remarking that he wrote: “from a space of impossibility.” He didn’t have a lot of resources. Publishers did not want to publish his writing. He didn’t have a supportive community. He added that while these challenges are quite common, you should not allow them to deter you from working on your manuscript. This is where The Writing Room platform comes in, added Prof. Edoro-Glines. The platform is designed to smoothen common challenges experienced by emerging writers through world-class training and other tools to help you navigate the publishing space.
  • Understand rules but write freely:  Both Imasuen and Garricks agreed on a need to know and understand the rules of writing and when to mess with the boundaries as you find your voice. Imasuen, with a unique perspective as a writer and publisher, reflected on the need to obey practical rules like those with submission guidelines. “The best writers,” Garricks remarked, “do the little things well.” However, he noted that love for the craft trumps any slavish adherence to writing rules when it comes to writing.

He added that writers must be “mad, but it makes them good at it.” As a writer starting, navigating this tension between adhering to convention versus doing your own thing is a crucial part of finding your flair and voice. Garricks suggested learning and understanding, emphasising the difference between obeying and understanding: “There are specific rules you obey, like submission rules. Writing rules, not so much; have fun.

  • Seek Out Community: Building or seeking out a supportive, honest, and steadfast writing community is essential for new writers. “When you are in conversation with other writers, you can become a better writer,” said Wood. And it is not a one-way street of just having someone give feedback on your work. It is essential to intensely and actively listen as well. It is important to listen to what others say, in feedback or through their writing. “It can help you fine-tune your ideas about fiction, your place in the world, what you think about things, and what topics energise or task you,” Wood added.
  • Look for inspiration in your own life and experiences: Okay, so you’ve read through this list, checked out some classes, and now you’re wondering: what should your first work be about? While this task seems daunting, do not despair. Reflect and look around you and your world for inspiration for your writing. Okri offered this wisdom on seeking inspiration: “Our novels, stories, poems—they come from our vivid, alive, passionate, curious engagement with this great business of living. The more vital one is in one’s relationship with life, the more vital the one's relationship with inspiration.”

Do not worry about who else is writing stories or if your topic is too obscure or popular. Your story is unique because it comes from you.

Watch Brittle Paper Presents: The Writing Room