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How to Write Fiction

by Sumaila Isah Umaisha

Even though writing is a talent and every writer develops his own method of writing instinctively, only a combination of talent, careful planning, persistent hard work and patience can produce a good literary work. It is, therefore, advisable for you as a writer to be meticulous and avoid rushing your work, bearing in mind that every literary work takes form in stages.

Basically, there are three of such stages; conception, gestation and delivery stages. The stages have some semblance with the biological process of child bearing. From the time of conception to the delivery time, the expectant mother has to tend the pregnancy through prenatal care. Likewise, the writer has to treat every stage in the creative process with a sense of commitment if the work is to meet the expectations of his potential readers.

Conception stage refers to that moment when the idea of a story occurs to the writer. It usually occurs either during a conversation, at a quiet lonely moment, while driving, when strolling or in a dream. It could also be inspired by an incident of a high emotional impact. It is advisable for you to always have a piece of paper and a pen with you so that any time and anywhere the idea occurs, you could quickly jot it down. However, you should not rush into full writing at this stage. Just jot down the main body of the idea in a few sentences and allow it to expand and take root in your mind.

The period under which the idea takes root is the gestation stage. The stage must also not be rushed. Keep turning the idea or the story line over and over in your mind and continue to update it on paper as it develops. As time goes on you would discover that the story is not only gathering momentum but you are becoming more familiar with the setting, characters and other components of the work. And by the time you get to the delivery stage, you would have gathered most of the necessary materials – the building blocks for the work. You would have also become so familiar with the story that you could tell it easily and convincingly. It becomes as easy as telling your own personal story!

The last thing you may do before the delivery stage is to make the complete outline of the story, i.e. the synopsis. This entails the structure of the story from the beginning to the end, including the twists and the denouement.

The delivery stage is the final phase. At this point you would develop your work fully, based on the synopsis. However, there is no rule binding you strictly to the synopsis; it only serves as a guide. Just follow your creative instinct and do away with any part of the synopsis you find unnecessary or unsuitable. Even at this final stage you need to take your time. Don’t write too much at a sitting. Stop writing as soon as you run out of ideas, then resume again as soon as your brain has rested. Remember, your first writing at this stage is a mere draft. You have to rewrite and rewrite, taking care of elements like narrative logic and grammar, till you get a clean copy. That is the secret behind the success of writers like Mario Puzo, who said he rewrote The Godfather several times before it went to press. The same thing goes for the famous poets of old.

These three stages are a general knowledge to every writer. But not many writers believe it is necessary to be so meticulous as to go through them systematically. Their reason is that writing is a natural process that requires no rules. Yes, writing might not require rules in the strict sense of the word, but it does require some procedure or steps. Even plants, whose existence depends solely on the dictates of nature, need to be tended to bloom and look attractive. No gardener worth his salt would leave his flowers to the mercy of nature. William Wordsworth acknowledged this fact in his piece, The Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798). Having stressed the fact that poetry results from the spontaneous overflow of compelling emotions, he added: “Though this be true, poems to which any value can be attached were produced…but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensitivity, had also thought long and deeply”.

There are a number of practical examples to substantiate this view that seeks to underscore the need for the writer to be more active and scrupulous. Wordsworth never waited for inspiration to come to him. He went in search of it, taking long walks in countryside with camp stools and writing materials. And when an idea occurred to him he would write it down quickly and then carefully develop it afterwards. Another British poet of the romantic era, John Keats, adopted the same method. It took him only a few minutes to draft his famous poem, Ode to a Nightingale, which consists of eight stanzas of ten lines each. He wrote it as he watched the bird frisking on a tree, and stopped shortly after it flew away. But the rewrite took him several days!

All the renowned writers I’ve read about went through this tedious process to produce their masterpieces. Therefore, you don’t have to be ashamed of the amount of effort you expend on a piece of work. It is not a symptom of weakness but a sign of commitment. Moreover, the number of rewrites you make does not matter; what matters is the end-product. No one cares to know how you produce your work, all your readers care about is to see a good work. And satisfying this need is your surest way to success. So put in your best no matter what it takes.

About the Author: Sumaila Isah Umaisha is the Literary Editor of New Nigerian Newspapers, Kaduna, Nigeria. He has written two collections of short stories; The Last Hiding Place and Burning Dreams, and a collection of poems; hell@heavensgate. His poems and short stories are published in six anthologies. He is currently working on two books, collections of interviews with Nigerian writers; Nigerian Writers Talking (Vol. 1 & 2). He is a joint winner of Association of Nigerian Author's Literary Journalist of the Year Award, 2004. E-mail:

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