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Fiction Writing —10 Tips from Caine Prize winner Helon Habila

Attendees at the Garden City Literary Festival (2010)

Helon Habila has facilitated two creative writing sessions at the 3rd Garden City Literary Festival (GCLF). His audience, all of them aspiring authors, listen as the writing teacher distils his knowledge of the craft.

1. The small stuff. Wise writers choose subjects they know well and one they are comfortable with. Write about things you know. You can illustrate everything about life in many ways, even the mundane things. A writer’s subject doesn’t have to be grandiose.

2. Research is important. Even when writing about what you know, you still need to do some fact finding. The best researches are the ones you do while you’re writing, but you don’t necessarily have to put every bit of your research in your story. Some people tend to research a story for too long; they let it serve as an escape from the real task of writing. Avoid that as much as possible. There is necessary detail and the unnecessary detail.

3. Do the drafts. Remember that you do not have to submit the first draft of your writing. Never, ever submit a story until you have done at least five rewrites.

4. Get sincere feedback. It is important to have a support system—people you trust and who you can send your writing to for their honest assessment. Don’t show your writing to family, because they are more likely to praise you, say the work is perfect when in actual fact it needs to be improved. Get professionals to do it for you.

5. The Adverb-Adjective trap. As a rule of thumb, systematically go over your story and remove any unnecessary adverb or adjective. By taking them out, you’re making your verbs and nouns more powerful.

6. Imagery is what matters. When you write, always think in terms of images, pictures, because as a writer what you are trying to do is present prose as a picture readers can see. And when you are describing a setting, have the reader see the room without too many details. Everything has to be economised; everything has to be dramatised and every word effectively used. For instance, you don’t write, ‘The weather is hot’. A better way to present that reality is to say, ‘The man is sweating’.

7. What’s your POV? There are only two points of View (POV) you should employ in your story telling—the first and third person. Most writers use the second person point of view experimentally. It’s a bit awkward but I don’t advice writers to use it, but you can also experiment with it. See yourself as a craftsman, a carpenter. If the legs don’t fit, remove it; if a particular approach doesn’t work, try another. Or if a character isn’t working, change the gender and see if it fits in better.

8. Forget the bestseller for now. Think in terms of dialogue, setting and focus your creative energies on the moment. Don’t be eager to pen the next bestseller. Bear it in mind that you are not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Be concerned more about moving your characters from Point A to B.

9. Respect your reader. Try never to underestimate the intuitive power of your readers. A little information can go a long way. Let readers bring in their own understanding to your story—don’t try to do everything for them. That’s another area where drafts are very helpful; they give you an opportunity to take out everything that doesn’t belong in a story. In the early stages of writing, you are the only person who can determine what needs to be in a story and what does not. The rule of thumb again is: avoid too much clutter.

10. Words that last and last. Lastly, real fiction focuses on real, existential issues—that’s why they endure. It’s the reason the world will continue to read Shakespeare.

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