#AkeFest16 workshop in 746 words – Ogbu Godwin Ikechukwu
A summary of the 2016 Ake Arts and Book Festival workshop
The most important lesson I learnt at the Ake fiction writing workshop of November 15 is an old but simple one—courage. Whether it is to write good dialogues, to write the perfect beginnings, or even to write the most believable of characters, writers need courage.
So, Sarah Ladipo Manyika was to be our first facilitator. She couldn’t make it in time. Flight issues and all. Therefore, in her place, NoViolet Bulawayo, the award winning Zimbabwean writer, facilitated the first session.
“So,” she starts off, “how did you guys get in…asides being brilliant of course?”
That excites us for a moment, this acceptance of our brilliance by an indisputably brilliant person.
We wrote stories that were accepted, someone says.
“Aha!” she pauses to think. “So, who remembers the first line of this story they wrote?”
No one says anything for a moment.
Then, “Should he call Daniel?” I say.
Actually, the line is “Should she call Daniel?” The excitement to talk to a Caine prize winner has, I guess, slightly twisted my tongue, has made me say a ‘he’ where I should have said a ‘she’. But that’s okay. It happens. I understand.
NoViolet, in her quietly insightful way, legs crossed, leaning forward, tells us how important it is to invest ourselves into our stories, a fact that, if we did well, will keep the first lines of these stories fresh in our heads. Because I remember mine, I am smiling like a new bride.
Moving forward, we learn of dialogue as an effective tool for characterization, as a tool to advance a story, as an avenue for characters to speak their motivations. Then, NoViolet reads a few excerpts on dialogue and asks us to critique it.
I found the dialogue heavy. “I feel the writer is lazy,” Frances Ogamba says. According to her, the writer packed all that details into it to avoid writing a proper narration. Many of us have our say. Then, NoViolet weighs in.
After talking to us about the importance of silence in dialogue, she asks us to do a short writing exercise on using silence in dialogue.
At the end of her session, we learn that dialogue should sound realistic.
A writer should sound out their dialogue to hear whether they sounded well.
Make sure silence in your dialogue is doing something.
No matter the language your characters speak, context matters a lot.
We all just scribbling and scribbling, eager to file these profound lessons for those blurry times we would need them.
NoViolet is done. We give her a resounding applause. And she makes way for Helon Habila.
Helon Habila has a fine American accent, and the appearance that easily swallows up a room. He reads to us some of the best opening sentences in books, emphasizing how important a piece of fiction should start well or risk losing most of its readers, especially in this age of internet distraction.
You can start the novel or short story from the beginning to middle and to end. Easy to pull off. Keeps things tidy. You can also start from the middle, paddle back and then row forward. Can be messy, but if done well, can keep the reader glued. And finally, you can start from the end.
“The opening needs to hook the reader,” Helon says about using declarative sentences.
After this, he gives us a writing exercise. “I got my things and left”, the opening sentence of Dambudzo Macherera’s House of Hunger was our line. With it, we are to write a short piece.
Most of the participants write very good stuffs, but mine is crappy. I learnt from my mistakes and draw positives.
Helon is done.
So, before our third facilitator, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, comes around, Helon and NoViolet sit together for a Q and A.
Finally, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, our last facilitator, kicks off the last session. She talks about the importance of performance in characterization. The writing exercise she gives is that we study the shoes of participants and try to write stories from the impression we got from those shoes. Crazy, right? But we do it, and the result is amazing. I like the piece I write and the response I get from the class tells me they receive it well too.
At the end, I learn of the importance of courage to writers. It is important that whatever story you choose to tell is told with all courage that is true to the characters.
Photo: Ake Festival