Tracing your artistic lineage
Plus: WOTW Excerpt and How To Author Like a Strategist
Hello and welcome, friends new and old! In this month’s essay, I share an exercise I do with my students to help them understand where they’re situated as writers, but also as readers and receivers of stories. This will be a darling 15-minute read.
State of the Suyiverse: Summer in the bin?
From the Desk: Warrior of the Wind cover & sample chapters
Essay: Tracing Your Artistic Lineage
From the Grapevine: How to Author Like a Strategist
For the Road: Five Tools That Make My Author Life Easier
(If you’d like to ask more questions about anything you see in this letter, come by our water cooler AKA our private Discord and do so!)
State of the Suyiverse
Something unprecedented happened last week for the first time in my 6 years of being a novelist: a publisher, unprompted, came to me and said, “We’re going to give you more time to write this book, just because.” It was the best news I received this month. I’d already been this close to writing off the summer and forgoing all vacation plans—you can’t call it a working vacation if you’re doing more working than vacationing, right?
This extension has finally given me the room to breathe that I needed. Prior to the news, I could feel myself running close to burnout, which I often recognize by how irritable I tend to become, how I tend to recede from major obligations, even those I’m excited about. Worse, it increasingly makes the writing feel like a chore, another feeling that can be detrimental, because if the joy and wonder of finding the story is depleted, what else is left? What kind of artist wants to be a human ChatGPT?
Just last week, I took a personal writing retreat by booking myself and the fam into a hotel uptown and securing some workspace for rolling 2-3-hour work stretches, filled with coffee and snacks and interrupted by visits to the beach. Thankfully, this week, I get to down tools completely and just get out and play football, catch up on some reading, gaming and binge TV. Here’s hoping the well of wonder is refilled when all this is done.
Reading: The Teller of Secrets by Bisi Adjapon
Listening: Janelle Monae’s new joint The Age of Pleasure; Fifth Harmony’s throwback joint, “All In My Head (Flex)”
Watching: Succession (I have to say, a decent show, but it’s all a bit mid, isn’t it?)
From the Desk: Warrior of the Wind cover reveal & sample excerpt!
In case you missed it, we launched the Warrior of the Wind cover two weeks ago. There’s a three-chapter sample on my website that, if you haven’t read, you’re truly missing out on some good stuff (it basically sets up the first third of the novel).
If you’re on Goodreads, have you added WOTW to your shelf yet? (I’ve previously talked about how much this helps authors, and I’ll appreciate it if you do add it to shelf!) For those of you who have—I see you, and I appreciate you!
Also, if you’re a bookseller, librarian, journalist, reviewer or other kind of industry person, digital advance copies of WOTW are now available for request on Edelweiss!
Tracing Your Artistic Lineage
Whenever I teach an advanced fiction class, I do a little exercise at the beginning that I call Tracing your artistic lineage and locating your artistic locus. A mouthful, but it basically means that I want students—many of whom, prior to this class, have never thought about why they write what they write, where their stories come from, what subjects interest them, etc—to do a deep-dive into their literary past. I call the exercise Excavating The Literary Self, and the aim of it is to get everyone to realise that they don’t all think about stories the same way—what is a “good” and “bad” story, what is the “right” way to tell a story, etc—and get them to see that the way they think about stories is deeply influenced by the kinds of stories they have always known and consumed.
Today, I’m putting on my professor hat and bringing this exercise to you.
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve met readers who are so convinced that how they think about stories is universal. More importantly, I’ve witnessed many struggle to accept the fact that impressing a specific set of storytelling expectations on all stories they come across, without an awareness of (A) the tenets, patterns and traditions the story is dipping into, engaging with or influenced by; and (B) where their own expectations and measurements of quality arise from, is not a good-faith exercise in objectivity. I do not think there is a thing such as pure objectivity, but I think there is such a thing such as informed assessment, and this is what I think everyone, reader or writer, should aim for.
(As an aside, while I do not believe in pure objectivity, I do believe there are such things as objectively poorly-told stories. There are stories on the spectrum from “meh” and “could be better” to “actually horrible” and “should never have been published.” How we express this “badness” may differ, but I’ve come to understand that most of us want to exit a story having experienced something new and different. Stories on this badness spectrum, in my opinion, do not, in comparison with their closest counterparts, offer us anything new about the human condition, directly or tangentially, that has not been encountered before in this very same packaging. And some express things that should never have been allowed to be put in a book, for reasons ranging from them being lazy, trite and banal to being outrightly false or offensive.)
While I usually require writers to carry out this exercise (the artistic locus part is mostly for creators), it’s probably even more useful for readers. Try it for size, and document all your responses for yourself.
1) Forebears: How did you first begin to soak up stories, real and/or imagined? The fables, legends, tales from religious and spiritual communities. The subjects of these stories: moral lessons, specific themes, knowledge of social or political or other events, etc. The speech patterns, voices of these tales. The modes of receipt: oral, written, visual, games, songs. The tellers/givers of these stories: parents, friends, places of organized learning like school. The craft elements of these stories: events, characters, archetypes, stereotypes. Everything that shaped how you perceived and understood the best ways to tell and receive stories, up until you became able to decipher otherwise for yourself.
2) Catalysts: What stories (or aspects of stories/storytelling) have you since actively enjoyed, and have spurred in you the desire to write yours? If you have, over time, become drawn to specific styles/kinds of stories, try to articulate why in writing. Are there any specific aspects of subject or craft or the reading experience, etc that appeal to you? Describe that. Look at your Forebears and see if you can draw a line between what you like now and the stories you were raised on. If you have plans to become a writer, ask yourself: What would I want to write, and why? Of all the stories I’ve consumed, whose style would I follow, and why?
3) Compatriots: Whose/which work have you intentionally studied, that now forms the basis/tentpole of your writing? Similar to Catalysts, there are surely some storytellers whose work has strongly influenced how you think about storytelling? Make a list of these sources, and beside them, write what you most enjoy in their work. Consider, again, if there is any similarity to the storytelling of your Forebears. If you aim to be a writer, also include what their greatest influence on your work has been.
4) Contemporaries: Which work out there continues to inspire you and help you reshape how you think about and tell your stories? Think of other storytellers coming out right now, and consider which are doing work similar to that which you already enjoy. Make a list. Document: How are they reshaping, subverting, twisting the elements of storytelling that already excite you? How are they doing old things in new ways? Document your own comforts and discomforts about what they’re doing: what have you loved, and what has rubbed you the wrong way? If you’re a writer, document: What do you hope to learn from them?
5) Ideal Story: Now that you know what kinds of stories you enjoy, and why, describe in a paragraph or two, what your Ideal Story looks like. What elements are absolute must-haves, which are completely unacceptable, and which are optional? Based on this ideal story, which storytellers and kinds of stories are your instant picks to read?
6) Story Engines: Look back at your Ideal Story, locate the must-haves. These are the story engines of your Ideal Story, i.e. the elements that drive the stories you love. Can you expand on them some more and articulate why they must be present for you to enjoy a story? If you wish to be a storyteller yourself, do you also aim to tell stories in this same way? Will you make any deviations?
7) Audience: Now that you have a strong sense of (A) stories you enjoy; (B) why you enjoy them, and (C) what you would write if you were writing, try to answer this question: Who are you writing for? When you write, who do you imagine is on the other end reading your work? Try to imagine what this person looks like, and where they might fit in the world. How similar/different from you is this person? Document all this. Then answer: Who are you speaking for/about/on behalf of when you tell stories? Whose experience are you conveying? Is this an experience you’re capable of conveying adequately and appropriately? Lastly, answer this: What is the relationship between the audience you are writing for and the audience you are writing about, and how will you, as interlocutor, navigate this position?
What I’ve learned from this exercise is that very few people have ever been asked questions like these, or been forced to reckon with these realities. Many don’t like the answers they come up with, because it exposes what they often don’t want to accept: that we, as humans, are truly creatures of habit. Without that extra effort to understand the artistic lineages that bore us, and then step beyond them if needed, diversifying our reading becomes an exercise in futility.
With the rise of internet spaces that foster critical discussions of stories, this exercise is one I wish more people, readers and writers alike, will carry out. So whether you’re a professional or novice author, librarian, reviewer, booktweet/booktok/booktube/bookstagram enthusiast, or just a person who loves to read (and/or write), this exercise is for you. Try it for size, and if you learn anything revealing about your artistic lineage, feel free to drop by and tell me about it.
From the Grapevine:
(news from the press & the interwebs)
My How To Author Like a Strategist class with the Carl Brandon Society is finally live! If you’re a BIPOC writer at any stage in your writing career, with a book project that has languished on the backburners (day job, school, family obligations, life responsibilities, etc) and you’re worried you’ll never get to complete it, I’ll try to help you set up a project plan during this two-day virtual class. July 29th - 30th, 5PM - 7:30PM UTC. $50 - $100 (Scholarships available!)
Sometime last month, I noticed the subscriber count for this newsletter ticked up a bit, and I’ve been wondering where these new subscribers were trickling in from. It turns out this newsletter was featured in a recent Writing Excuses podcast episode. (Welcome, new folks!)
Around the 12:21 mark, my good friend and writing colleague Erin Roberts, whom I met on the WXR cruise in 2019, shouts out After Five with some beautiful words. I may have teared up a bit. The rest of the episode is great and insightful too—give it a listen if you wish. And while you’re at it, you may want to dip into the Writing Excuses archive, which is chock-full of goodies (I would know—I’ve been listening to this podcast since 2015).
After receiving applications from writers in 8 African countries, last week, we announced our selected fellows for the Literary Laddership for Emerging African Authors: Gabrielle Emem Harry from Calabar, Nigeria and Yanjanani L. Banda from Zomba, Malawi. Follow the link for more details about the fellows, the fellowship, and how to support us.
Following the WOTW cover launch, I had two open Q&A sessions with readers on Twitter and Instagram. These were really, really exciting conversations (you folks asked some really wonderful questions!). The recordings are available for playback here: Twitter Space | Instagram Live.
For the Road:
(a miscellaneous column for useful takeaways) | Last month’s takeaway: Jury Duty + the virtues of the boring draft
In honor of the upcoming Carl Brandon class, I want to point you to this throwback on my blog: Five Tools That Make My Author Life Easier. This is in no way an exhaustive list of tools that help me navigate the writing life, but it’s a good place to start. Even if you’re not a writer, these tips are also applicable to any other profession where some semblance of sanity has to be fought for tooth-and-nail. Enjoy, and good luck.
If you’d like to ask a question that’ll be featured in a future letter and answered in an essay, you can drop your question in our private Discord channel. Feel free to share this letter with a friend who may find it useful. See you at the next go-around!
Your friendly neighbourhood author,