Writing your first novel can be very hard, and if you must do it successfully there are four qualities you must possess: connection to your subject matter, the ability to make the best of your resources, originality, and the willingness to sacrifice the time required to complete your novel.
How did I come to these conclusions?
I am an aspiring writer working on my first novel, and I get the usual writing blues that make me doubt myself. So, I went and did some research on some female African writers who had successfully crossed the hurdle of the first novel. When I read their stories, I found is that they each possessed all of the four qualities I listed at the beginning; in fact most of them possess all of the four qualities!
Do you want to find out why I say so?
Read their stories below and tell me if you agree with me.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie needs no introduction as her name has circled the globe many times over. Anyone who looks at the massive success she has achieved would imagine that this feminist icon was never a struggling writer.
But that is far from the truth.
Chimamanda has had her fair share of rejections. Her first novel was rejected by publishers, and she even agrees that the novel was not her best work. She was also rejected by many other publications where she submitted her short stories.
But all that changed with her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus. Chimamanda often says that writing the book was brought out by a sharp homesickness she felt when she was studying in America. The story set in Nigeria, is told from the point of view of Kambali, a shy and reclusive fifteen-year-old girl in a politically unstable Nigeria, surrounded by her devoutly Catholic and abusive father Eugene, her supressed and timid mother Beatrice, her virile teenage brother Jaja, her progressive thinking Aunty Ifeoma, and her three independent minded cousins, Amaka, Obiora and Chima.
In 2013, the book was published, and though the early sales were modest, they picked up due to word of mouth, and the book eventually became a sensation. It was shortlisted for the Orange Fiction Prize (2004) and was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (2005). Now, fourteen years after it was published, the book is still receiving worldwide attention as it recently won the One Maryland Initiative, a US state-wide reading program.
I have read Purple Hibiscus more than five times, and what really stands out for me is Chimamanda’s painstaking attention to detail. From the way Chimamanda describes Catholic Rites to the way she describes Igbo festivals, it is clear that Chimamanda cares about what she is writing about. For me the lesson is that you can only describe accurately what you have seen with your own eyes (except in cases of fantasy writing when you have to use your imagination). When Chimamanda describes the weather in Nsukka or the feeling of sitting in a Mass service, we can imagine that we are there, because she has been there.
You can fool the reader to swallow your fiction as truth if your fiction is based on your truth.
2. Adaobi Tracia Nwabani (I Do Not Come To You By Chance)
Adaobi is a rare writer who proves that you do not need to study abroad or live abroad to make it as a writer, and this message is extremely important in this age where most of Africa’s successful authors are based in the diaspora. In 2008, her debut novel, I Do Not Come To You By Chance, landed her an international publishing deal, even though she was still living in Nigeria, and she became the first contemporary writer to achieve this feat.
In the novel, Adaobi tackles the murky waters of 419 in Nigeria, with lead characters, Kinsley and Cash Daddy. This made her the first person in history to capture the world of 419 in a novel. The funny, realistic and emotionally true novel went on to win the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Africa), and was named by the Washington Post as one of the Best Books of 2009.
Adaobi’s story proves that even in Nigeria, where people complain that the education system is poor and there are no opportunities, it is possible to achieve international success, if you are willing to work for it. Adaobi simply wrote a fantastic book, got it published internationally, and achieved international success, despite the fact that she had no formal training in writing, no foreign degree, and no home apart from Nigeria.
It’s not what you have that matters; it’s what you do with what you have that matters
3. Taiye Selassi (Ghana Must Go)
This vivacious and stylish Ghanaian-Nigerian first captured the world in 2015 with her essay, Bye Bye BarBar (Or: What Is An Afropolitan?), where for the first time, the experience of the new age ‘Afropolitan’ was accurately captured. She followed this up with her very original short story, The Sex Lives Of African Girls, which was published by Granta in 2011.
Then the idea for her first novel came to her when she was taking a shower at a yoga retreat in Sweden in 2011. Taiye knew that the idea was the one she had been waiting for, and she left the yoga retreat immediately to start work on the novel. By the time, she finished 100 pages of Ghana Must Go, she had already found a publisher, and when the book was released in 2013, Taiye Selassi became a literary superstar. Even the Wall Street Journal praised the novel as “Irresistible from the first line.”
When I read this book, the most important thing that hit me over and over again was Taiye’s originality. Her book was a reflection of who she was – an intelligent and well travelled Afropolitan who loves music, art, travel and literature. There was never a point in the book where I got the feeling that she was trying to sound like someone else. Though some people complain that book is overtly poetic with too much punctuation, I think that is what makes it unique because that is Taiye’s style.
Your originality is your gold.
4. Yaa Gyasi (Homecoming)
The first time I heard about Yaa Gyasi was when the news went around that she has scored a multi-million-dollar deal for her debut novel. It was anomaly, firstly because she was a debut author, and secondly because she was an African – American debut author.
When the novel was released, and I read the first chapter, I knew why she had nabbed that deal. In the book, Homegoing, Yaa tackled an issue that affected and still affects many races across the world: Slavery. And she tackled this issue with an unusual precision, drawing the story of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, and their descendants, through a three-hundred-year span.
As I kept on reading excerpt after excerpt from the novel, I couldn’t wrap my brain around how this 26-year-old was able to execute the book so flawlessly, a feat that many writers double her age wouldn’t dare. Then I watched her interviews when she recounted how the idea of the book came about. The Ghanaian native paid a visit to the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana (where slaves were held before they were transported) and the mixed emotions she felt during the visit prompted her to write the book, which took her over seven years to complete.
As I watched her during the interviews with her natural hair dancing to its own rhythm, and her eyes swimming in pools of intelligence, I knew Yaa was not a going to be a ‘One book literary superstar’. I knew that just like Chinua Achebe said of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yaa Gyasi came fully made.
And the world thinks so too. The novel was selected in 2016 for the National Book Foundation‘s “5 under 35” award, the National Book Critics Circle‘s John Leonard Award for best first book, and was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2017. It also received the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for 2017.
I have not read Homegoing, but from all the excerpts I have read, I can clearly see that writing the book had to have taken a huge chunk of the seven years it took her to complete. What this shows is that quality cannot be rushed; everything that is done exceptionally well takes time to complete – It took Chimamanda almost seven years to complete Half Of A Yellow Sun and about nine years to complete Americannah. This shows that the level of success your book is going to achieve is directly proportional to the amount of time you are willing to put into it.
If will be worthwhile, it will take a while
So, in summary, the four qualities that these writers possess are connection to your subject matter, the ability to make the best of your resources, originality, and the willingness to sacrifice the time required to complete your novel.
If you already have these four qualities, then you are well on your way to becoming the next Chimamanda.
If you don’t, then not to worry; you can learn them.
Do you agree with me?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
Source: Wikipedia and The Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Website