Credit: Victor Dlamini

Six African writers talk about their books and what works for them while writing. And of course, share some writing tips for the aspiring author. Pioneering this series is Yewande Omotoso, author of The Woman Next Door. Enjoy!

…find yourself a good reader – Yewande Omotoso

My process of writing is seldom from one single idea. Rather a better way of thinking about it is that there are always many ideas and images and thoughts. And at some point, I pick one or a few as a jumping off point for starting a new book. I start wondering. Let’s say I spend a year wondering. When I say ‘wonder’, this primary activity involves other secondary activities such as reading a huge amount of other fiction as well as non-fiction books on various relevant themes. As well as watching the world, observing myself and my surroundings with my novel as a lens; sifting through the events of life with my project in mind and recording what seems significant even if I don’t know why.

Now that I’m writing my third book, I can see a few patterns. The observing and collecting, the note-taking without necessarily knowing where things belong, figuring that out later. With my second book I started using Excel to create spreadsheets that cover the years of my characters’ lives, mini biographies. There are also patterns of despair, of thinking no one cares, no one will read this, patterns of doubt. It’s comforting to see these recur because these spells also pass and life continues and though nothing seems particularly typical right now as I’ve been travelling a lot, ideally I like to wake up and write. Wake at 5 am or so and write for a few hours before other tasks demand attention. I like to get 1000 words down at least and I’m not particularly precious about these 1000 words, I trust there will come a time in the process when I will have to be painstaking about them but with the initial draft I am very kind with myself and everything is permitted and fine. Apart from the writing, I carry a notebook around with me and write things down by hand through the day: thoughts, dialogue, characteristics, scenes observed and so on.

I seem to take two to four years to finish up a manuscript. I haven’t, up till now, had the experience of writing one up in a couple of months. Instead my process seems to involve stretching it over quite some time (juggling it with other activities), like a fine net over several years of my life, the novel is a kind of long-term climate versus flash flood. It takes a lot of patience but I also allow myself to luxuriate in the activity of writing.

I’m wary of general tips in something as vast as writing because I think almost every tip is right for some and not so right for others; or right for this period but not for that. Perhaps a fairly safe and sensible tip is to find yourself a good reader. This is distinct from friend, mother or lover although they might coincide. Find someone who is interested in your improvement, whose reading is excellent and whose opinion you are willing to hear and, however challenging to you, open to heeding. Being obsessive seems a requirement. Being interested. Being willing to notice. When it comes to blockages, I find Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages really effective, this concept of free writing or writing with lots of permission. Perfectionism is useful at certain (often later) stages of the project but can be incredibly crippling in the early times. It might be strange advice but I think “being well” is important. Or as stated in the Desiderata (a text I got acquainted with through many hours of detention in high school!): …whatever your labors and aspirations, / in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.

  • Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados, she grew up in Ile-Ife, Nigeria and Cape Town South Africa and currently lives in Johannesburg. An architect, she completed a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. Her debut novel ‘Bomboy’ (Modjaji Books), was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the MNet Film Award and the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature. It won the South African Literary Award First Time Author Prize. Her short stories include ‘How About The Children’ in Kalahari Review, ‘Things Are Hard’ in the 2012 Caine Prize Anthology, ‘Fish’ published in The Moth Literary Journal and ‘The Leftovers’ in One World Two. Yewande was a 2013 Norman Mailer Fellow and a 2014 Etisalat Fellow. In 2015 she was a Miles Morland Scholar. Yewande’s second novel ‘The Woman Next Door’ (Chatto and Windus) was published in May 2016.
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