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  • How to Start a Short Story: Write your own story

    I often get asked, “How do I start writing?” Like many endeavours, starting is the hardest thing to do. And whether you have done this before or not, the beginning is just as important as the end. The beginning, in fact, determines the end. How do you start a short story? How do you write your own story? How do you know you’re ready to begin writing? How do you know that you will even tell a good story? The answer to these questions is that you often don’t know. You don’t know until you start. Starting your own short story does not have to be like skipping up a hill. With the right amount of help and sheer determination, you can be on your way to telling your own compelling story and learning things you never thought you could. Ready? Let’s begin. Where do stories come from? A story begins with an idea. An idea that sneaks up on you in your car, while walking the dog, in the bathroom, or even in the doctor’s office. Yes, ideas are disrespectful imps whispering things in your ear, forcing you to reconsider the world you know and urging you tell a story only you can. This is often how you know that you must start writing your own short story: the idea tugs at you until you’re restless. The best thing to do about an idea is to consider it. Consideration is letting it into your mind and evaluating its potential. It’s questioning it – interviewing it – to discover its merit. Why should you pursue this idea? What about it is unusual? Or perhaps, how can you pursue it in an unusual way. We all know a story about a rich man’s daughter who falls in love with the son of a pauper, so how will this idea be different? You must strip it bare, examine all its angles and see if there’s anything worthy to be found. Do the children fall in love only to discover they are siblings, or does the mother of the rich man orchestrate the whole thing because she’s hiding a terrible, old secret? Is this idea better suited to a longer form or can it be told within the confines of the short story? You must consider the idea. And don’t be afraid to toss it out if it proves unworthy. The story has passed the ideation test, now what do you do with it? You keep thinking about it to determine your entry point. Who is the main character in this story? Should they be the narrator, or should they be observed by an omniscient eye? Whose voice is loudest in your ear? That’s who should be narrating the story. The voice will be authentic, carrying the power it should. Consider this excerpt from my short story, The Burden of Beauty: Flashing images of my encounter with him replayed in my mind as I lifted the scissors to my head. To my mind, my hair shone even brighter, and I was momentarily caught in the light-brown tint surrounding my head. I lowered my hand, wondering what my mother would say and fearing what she could do to me. And then I remembered Wonu’s mother, she wouldn’t kill her child so she could be beautiful. No burden can be placed on a head if it doesn’t stoop to receive it. Stories are about making readers feel something, whether that’s joy, love, hate, or anger. Now that you know the voice, how's the plot going to go? This next part is all about what works for you. Some people outline their story before they commence writing, others do not. Some people research the story first, others do not. I’ll say that the most important thing to consider at this point is the theme and pace of the story. Are you going to start writing this story from the end or the beginning? From the middle or from somewhere after the end? Sometimes the voice of the story determines the pace of the story. In my story, Off and On Carter Adebowale Street, the voice/narrator tells the story from the beginning and intertwines a major theme with the first paragraph. Consider the beginning: It started in the middle of the day, when the heat arises like an apparition, descends on mankind, and sheds itself through sweaty armpits and down sinewy backs and hard faces. The community of Olanbe was quiet, animals settled themselves under wide, old trees and the children lay on thin mats, exhausted by heat and hunger. Here's a litmus test for the efficacy of your voice and plot: does it keep the reader engaged? If readers aren’t curious or otherwise invested in the story, you might want to review the narrative voice and pace of the story. You know the plot and pace; now how do you actually write this short story? Be honest. Even if you have an agenda with this short story, set the stage but let it take on a life of its own. Let the characters speak and react honestly. Don’t try to pretty them up; they’re not your brand ambassadors! Be open-minded enough to accept the trajectory of the story. The key to telling an honest story is truly understanding your characters and observing the world. How well do you know your characters and understand real life and people? If you feel stuck in your storytelling, you can read some short story writing tips, but you will find more help taking time to observe the people and things around you. Read the news, sift it for material, talk to strangers, talk to friends, talk to the elderly. A good writer is intimate with the pulse of reality. Get into the mind of your characters. Let them ask questions, let them wonder about other characters, let them conclude on things, let these conclusions drive their actions. It’s almost mathematical—show your working. Discard the flowery stuff—if it gets in the way of the storytelling. Now that your short story is complete what do you do with it? Let it rest. Revise it. Please revise or edit your short story. You always miss something in the early drafts. Don’t be in a hurry to publish. This is something I’m always having to tell clients. I understand the eagerness to share the story with the world, but it’s crucial that you let your short story rest. Now I’ll be honest and tell you that I haven’t always done this. Here are a few consequences I’ve personally experienced when I rushed to publish my work: I discovered loopholes in the story, mostly because of a faulty premise. I discovered that I missed out on a more effective narrative voice. I discovered grammatical errors. I discovered structural errors and underdeveloped characters. The work got rejected by magazines and publishers. It was embarrassing to discover these things after I’d already sent them out for publication, and I ultimately understood why when they got rejected or criticized. Please don’t be like me, let your work rest. You’ve birthed the story, clean it up before you show it to the world. Don’t get too fussy! Let it out. This is the truth: you’ll always find something to adjust in your short story. So if you’re waiting for it to be perfect, you’ll be waiting for a long time. After you’ve done all you can and had the story edited, you should send it out for publication (or keep it in a folder if that’s what you prefer). Don’t be afraid of rejection; some will appreciate your short story, others won’t. What matters is that you’ve finally told this story. Living the rest of your days as a short story writer Don’t stop writing, even when life pauses your writing. Pick yourself back up when you fall off the wagon. Developing your short-storytelling skill is like building a muscle, the more you exercise it, the firmer it will get. Give yourself time to grow and watch yourself become the writer of your dreams. Keep elevating the quality of your stories. Be an eternal observer of life and people. Contemplate your observations, meditate on strange phenomena, ask questions. Happy writing!

  • How to Improve Your Writing Skills: Eight sure tips for effective communication

    What if I asked you this question? What would your answer be? How would you rate your writing skills? A. Good, readers understand me clearly. B. It’s fair, needs improvement. C. Not very highly, writing is hard for me. D. Lol I have no idea. Whatever your answer is, you’ll find this article useful. Whether you’re providing writing services, writing for business communication or just here to gain new knowledge, you will learn eight, sure tips to improve your writing skills for effective communication. To begin, let’s consider these two scenarios. Two friends were walking down the road. A car zoomed past and splashed muddy water on them. The first friend, closer to the road, mumbled, “Well, this is why I hate walking on the road after the rain.” The other friend replied, “But you said it was okay to go out. This is so typical of you—always complaining!” The first friend responded, “You know what? I don’t have to put up with this, I’m going home.” This conflict did not need to happen. While the first friend was understandably upset by the driver’s action, the ensuing communication took the focus off the offender and placed it on the consequence, leaving the other friend feeling hurt and defensive. A more effective communication would have garnered sympathy and maintained the peace: “I wish drivers would be a bit more considerate of pedestrians.” In the second scenario, a manager wanted a team member to submit one of two proposals before the close of work. In an email, she wrote: “Hello Jack, please send the proposal as soon as you can.” It was a Friday and Jack had other tasks, he assumed that this specific proposal could wait. When the manager found out that he had not prioritized the job, she got upset. He spent the night at work and ended up submitting a proposal full of errors. Effective communication is important to avoid unnecessary conflicts, ambiguity and pass the intended message. Improving your writing skills will save you a lot of distress, time and effort. A 2019 survey revealed the following statistics regarding workplace communication: 92% of people have had to repeat their communication to colleagues 87% find this repetition bothersome So how do you improve your writing skills for effective communication? 1. Itemize your points before you commence writing. This will help you to coordinate your thoughts in a sequential, logical manner. Your writing will come across as cohesive, well-thought-out and earn you the respect of your reader. It will also help you to think of the subject holistically so you can include missing points, facts and figures. How to itemize your points Write out all your thoughts—include the points you don’t think are relevant, they might actually come in handy. Get everything out on the page. Look at them. Check to see that you’re not repeating your points and everything is relevant to the point of the communication. Arrange them. Determine what point should start the list and continue the arrangement sequentially. 2. Carefully elaborate your points After you have itemized your points, begin to carefully elaborate on them without digressing with unnecessary details. Write what you think about the subject, not what you feel. Remember the first scenario? I find that when I communicate based on my feelings, I leave out the necessary communication. A hungry child wouldn’t say to her mother, “Mummy, what are you doing?” Rather, she would say, “Mummy, I’m hungry.” Communicate what you think about the point/situation, not what you feel. Endeavour to contain a point within a paragraph. If two points are similar or consequential, you may add the second to the paragraph. What you want is for the reader to be able to summarize the point of each paragraph in a sentence. How to carefully elaborate your points Review every point based on the whole point/theme of your communication. That is, don’t write about the properties of a yellow flower when you’re writing about an orange tree, except those properties are relevant to the properties of an orange tree. Leave out irrelevant details and repetitions. Don’t belabour the point—you’re more likely to do this if you’re writing based on your feelings. 3. Use subheadings where necessary, avoid lengthy blocks of text Readers often read with their eyes before they read with their minds. They’re asking: “How long is this?” “Can I see interesting highlights?” “Can I see interesting images?” “Is the font readable?” You want to encourage them to keep reading by highlighting important points via subheadings. This helps to dispense the information and ensure that the reader can follow the order of your writing. Another great thing about subheadings is that they are attention-grabbing. The title of your piece might not catch their attention, but a subheading within your text can do the job of retaining the reader. How to use subheadings where necessary and avoid lengthy blocks of text Logically break up your points. A good way to do this is to begin with an introduction, follow up with the middle (where you can further break up your points), and conclude with your final thoughts on the matter. Use bold fonts to make subheadings obvious. Try to keep your paragraph length to a maximum of 10 lines for a single-spaced document. 4. Use readable, acceptable fonts Find out what fonts are acceptable for communicating within your field and use them. The wrong font (too big, too formal, too playful, unusual for the material) might be off-putting to the reader and stop the communication flow. Resist the urge to make the text look fancy—except of course it’s necessary for your writing. How to use readable, acceptable fonts Avoid big font sizes—except they’re used for headings and subheadings. Ensure there’s an adequate line spacing. Apply the appropriate formatting guidelines for your industry. Avoid using too many fonts within the same document. Readers may find this distracting. 5. Use images and graphics where necessary Pictures help to buttress your point, and if you’re writing for social media, it is advisable that you add an image to your post. Not only does it buttress your point, but it also grabs the attention of your readers. How to use images and graphics where necessary Make use of graphs, infographics, especially when writing about numbers. It adds credibility to your point. Design and use graphs and pie charts based on the textual information you’re providing. Download and use free stock photos which are copyright free, or use copyrighted work with permission and give credit to the copyright owner. Ensure they are of the right size (not to big or small) so they are not ignored. Use high quality, clear pictures. 6. Let the text rest, then review it after some time The first draft is usually just about getting everything on the page. Avoid sending it, instead let the text rest. The first draft usually contains errors—grammatical and conceptual. Return to the text after some time to get rid of unnecessary elements. Rewrite the draft if necessary. How to let the text rest Give yourself enough time to write and revise your work. You’re more likely to send a first draft when you’re in a hurry to turn it in. Improve your writing skills by doing some more research on the matter. This helps to stimulate your thoughts and sharpen your opinions. If your thoughts are not flowing, leave the subject and return to it when you feel better about it. 7. Edit your work. This is non-negotiable. It is of utmost importance that you edit your work to weed out inconsistencies, grammar errors, referencing errors and language unsuitability. At the copyediting stage, you can easily discover wrong quotations, missing links, misspelled words, repeated phrases and incomplete sentences. How to edit your work Do it yourself, following grammatical and language rules. Evaluating your writing is a good way to improve your writing skills, with the benefit of hindsight, you can see your flaws and make a mental note to correct them. Evaluate your punctuation usage. Delete unnecessary commas, spaces and use question marks after every statement of inquiry. Check up on your word usage. Have you used ‘their’ instead of ‘there’, or ‘suit’ instead of ‘suite’? Don’t hesitate to delete long, flowery sentences that leave the reader winded and confused. Succinctness is key. Read the text again, like the receiver would. Have you used wrong or outdated terminologies? Is it easy to understand? Are your words kind? Does your tone show consideration for the reader? Have a beta reader to review it or hire a copyeditor to do a professional job for you. 8. Include action points If your writing calls for it, include an action point. It doesn’t have to be a long paragraph; these are usually one-liners. If you’re writing about food for instance, it’s best to advise readers to try out their own recipes or tell you if they have found the article helpful. If you’re writing an official email, encourage the reader to reach out to you with any concerns or questions they have—if necessary. Action points encourage the reader to react to your communication. Examples include: Please sign up today! Can you think of any points I have missed? Feel free to type it in the comments! Would you try out this recipe and share your food pictures with me? I’d love to post them on my Instagram page. How to include action points Include some urgency in the action point Add a benefit to your action point. Let readers know that you value their feedback Final thoughts It takes time and diligence to improve your writing skills. However, you can become the writer of your dreams by learning from your mistakes and practicing until you master the art of effective communication. Are there any tips you think I left out? Please share them in the comments below! Happy writing!

  • African folktales: 5 short story writing tips we can learn from them

    African folktales are often full of wisdom, songs and unforgettable characters. But beyond these are effective short story writing tips that we can glean from them. This article will share five short story writing tips we can learn from African folktales, why you should adopt them, and how to execute them. 1. Establish the desire of the villain or hero from the outset One of the loveable things about African folktales is that you can identify the desire of the villain or hero from the very beginning. It is always clear what they want and why this desire is (or may be) unattainable. As you write your short story, it is crucial for you to establish what the hero or villain wants promptly, this helps the reader to understand what’s at stake and why it is important for them to keep reading. In this Zimbabwean folktale about the midnight goat thief, we see that the desire of the hare is to eat to his heart’s content. But as we go along in the story, we see that his desire is actually two-fold: to eat abundantly, and to take advantage of anyone to ensure this. We can infer this from the moment he chooses to send his friend back for help, instead of plucking the herbs himself on their journey. This inference gives us a hint of some upcoming mischief and causes us to worry about the other character. This is good, you want readers to worry about your character. Try not to keep the reader wondering what the story is about, establish the desire of the villain or hero from the outset. Why you should establish the desire of the hero or villain early It helps the reader to get involved. They start to think about this desire and speculate on the hero or villain’s ability to attain it. This keeps them engaged to its conclusion. It helps you the writer to identify what you’re working towards and keep the aim of the story in focus. How to establish the desire of the hero or villain in your short story Give the character a relatable desire Create a believable obstacle to achieving that desire. A good idea might be to give them a character flaw that prevents them from attaining it. Alternatively, you can think of a believable hero or villain who also wants the same thing they do. Short stories don’t have the luxury of length, so getting your reader’s attention early is vital to your short story’s success. 2. Give the villain or hero a personality strength or flaw (give your character character) African folktales often use a personality strength or flaw to instill a moral lesson: The turtle was greedy so don’t be greedy. The baboon was too trusting, so don’t be too trusting. These personality strengths or flaws help to make the story believable. One is hardly ever blindsided by the narrative plots of these folktales because the characters’ qualities facilitate the outcomes. In this Nigerian folktale of how the tortoise got the cracks on his shell, the personality flaw of the tortoise is his cunningness. We see this cunningness woven throughout the story, connecting the plot points and securing the steady decline from the climax to the resolution of the story. Why you should give the villain or hero a personality strength or flaw It makes the story believable. It makes the characters relatable. It helps in story development. It helps you to stay true to the identity of the character(s). How to give your villain or hero a good personality strength or flaw Think of a remarkable person you know and identify what makes them so. Or perhaps think of a time you did something really good or bad and what personal quality made you do so. You can give these qualities to your characters. When the personality strength or flaw is one of yours, it helps you to understand the character even better because you know what it’s like to be them. Constantly seek to understand humans and why people do things the way they do, it will help you to create relatable characters and write objectively. 3. Create suspense Suspense is a key element of African folktales and storytelling. Imagine little children surrounding an elderly person, their faces illuminated by the moonlight, all anticipating the next words of the experienced storyteller. The ability to hold the attention of young children is a vital ingredient of these folktales. The same ingredient is necessary in short story writing. A short story is most effective when the characters and plot intrigue the reader from the beginning to the end. Suspense is not needlessly drawing out the story, rather, it is drawing the reader into the mind of the character as they make a crucial decision that can make or mar them or other characters. The reader should always be asking: What is this character going to do? Why you should create suspense in your short story It keeps the story interesting, and the reader engrossed. When executed well, it gives a more satisfying end to the story. It creates an avenue for your reader to understand the character even better. How to create suspense in your short story Leave hints within the dialogue or the narrative that show the character’s dilemma. Infer (or reveal) a serious consequence of the decision the character makes, i.e., let the reader know what’s at stake. Introduce the impact of the decisions of other characters. This presents another view to the situation at hand. How will the actions or inactions of the other characters affect the character? 4. Give your short story a good title If you struggle with giving appropriate titles to your short stories, perhaps you can try reading a few African folktales. You might gain incredible insights! The titles are mostly persuasive and fascinating. Here are a few examples: The midnight goat thief How the tortoise got the cracks on his shell Why turtles live in water One good meal deserves another Why the leopard has spots Ananse and the pot of wisdom What do you notice about these titles? They are all direct and give a hint of the story. While these may not always work for your short story, one thing we can learn is making short story titles as direct as possible. Try including something that’s integral to the story in the title. In my short story, Off and On Carter Adebowale Street, I chose a title that mentions the road where the major characters eventually pass through. Other examples include, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah, and Sweet, Sweet Strawberry Taste by Samuel Kolawole. Why you should give your short story a good title It arouses interest and will likely cause readers to explore your story. How to give your short story a good title Create a title around the theme of your short story. Pick a random punchy line from your story. 5. Give your short story a solid, satisfactory ending African folktales often end satisfactorily, otherwise they would lose their potency. The solid ending of these folktales causes children to request for them to be retold. As a young girl, I often loved hearing the ending of the story of how the tortoise became bald. I couldn’t believe how strongly the turtle’s personality flaw could push him to make such a self-sabotaging decision. It’s one thing for your story to start well, and it’s another for it to end well. Aim to make your short story unforgettable; give it a satisfactory ending. A satisfactory ending doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a happy or predictable one. Rather, a satisfactory ending brings a resolution of some sort to the climax of the story. Why you should give your short story a solid ending It makes it unforgettable; readers will want to read it again. It establishes you as a writer who understands the principle of the story arch. This is good for your self-esteem. 😊 How to give your short story a solid ending Ask yourself (or get a beta reader to determine) if the story has resolved from the climax. Ensure that the protagonist evolves after the climax. This usually resolves the tension that has peaked. There’s a lot we can learn from African folktales, writing short stories doesn’t have to be as difficult as some find it. Following these simple tips will lead you to become the writer of your dreams and make sure that your short stories are unforgettable. Please share this post! Happy writing.

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