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How to cut your novel in half – Nnedi Okorafor describes the painful process of writing Who Fears Death

Nnedi Okorafor at the 2016 Open Book Festival
BintiLagoonWhat Sunny Saw in the FlamesThe Book of PhoenixChicken in the KitchenWho Fears DeathAkata Witch

 
Award-winning Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor was in Cape Town recently for the Open Book Festival, and chatted to filmmaker Wayne Thornley about writing in collaboration, the differences between writing for film and writing a novel, and her upcoming feature animation, Camel Racer.

Okorafor won the movie deal, along with her collaborator, Kenyan film director Wanuri Kahiu, in a competition held by Triggerfish Animation Studios, established with the support of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Walt Disney Company.

During the conversation, Thornley said that in filmmaking often you experience “seismic events” where you realise you need to dump six months of work.

“If we’re serious about quality, if we’re serious about authenticity, if we’re serious about reaching a wider audience, if we’re serious about story being king,” Thornley said, “if we do go down the wrong alleyway and realise it, we have to have the courage to back out.”

In reply, Okorafor said she has never had to take something she has written and throw the whole thing away, but she did have to go through the painful process of cutting one of her novels by half – after it was finished.

How to cut your novel in half

Who Fears Death was published in 2010, and was Okorafor’s first adult novel. It won the 2011 World Fantasy Award – with Okorafor becoming the first black person to win the award since its inception in 1975 – and the 2010 Carl Brandon Kindred Award “for an outstanding work of speculative fiction dealing with race and ethnicity”. The prequel, The Book of Phoenix, was published last year, and was a top seller at Open Book.

But it didn’t come Who Fears Death didn’t come into the world without a fight.

Who Fears Death started off at over 700 pages, a Book 1 and a Book 2, and I showed it to my agent and he was like, oh this is wonderful, it’s going to win all these awards, but you need to shrink it down a lot, because this is African science fiction and it’s new, and nobody does Book 1 and 2 – what is that, a duology?

So he said, keep the same plot, keep the same everything, but get it down from over 700 pages to 300. And I did it! It took me two years, but I did it.

Okorafor said she used a method taught to her by her agent, who also happens to write books on writing.

I took the manuscript and looked at every single word and took out every single word that didn’t need to be there,” she said. “And then I combined the ‘weak phrases’ into ‘strong words’, so instead of saying ‘very big’, you say ‘huge’.

So I took the 700 pages, scattered them around, mixed them all up, and then took each page out of context and went through the whole thing. It took years, but I got it down to 389 pages, and that became Who Fears Death. Even though it had the same story, it was a completely different book.

Okorafor added that the process of making Camel Racer is very different – starting with her collaboration with Kahiu.

“With Wanuri and I, we first sit down and talk extensively about the idea and have long, long conversations. And then one of us will say, okay I’m going to write this thing, whether it’s a treatment or a piece of script, or whatever. And they write a first draft. And once that’s done and nice and typo free, they hand it over to the other person, who then has complete, open, full rein to do whatever they want with it. Then they hand it back, and we go back and forth like that. The end product is so hybrid we can’t tell which thing she wrote and which thing I wrote. It’s one thing. And it’s something that I would never have written by myself.

“Importantly, the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, and that’s another big change that I have really come to enjoy. That I can give something that I’ve just freshly written to someone else and not have to make that thing perfect. When I’m writing a novel I feel like I can’t show something to someone else unless it’s very much together. But when you’re collaborating it’s like you’re one brain.

It does have to do with chemistry. They way we work together, the honesty, and nine times out of 10 we are in complete agreement. It’s uncanny.

From there, Okorafor and Kahiu work with Thornley and three or four other people from the Triggerfish team on the more technical aspects of the project.

“During those meetings we’ll take the whole film and break it down into narrative aspects. That’s something I have never done with a novel and it was a part that was difficult for me. I’ve learned a lot. There are times when it feels like we are taking a living creature and dissecting it into pieces until it dies. But when we get to the end of the process, I see what they are trying to get me to see. And when we put it back together, it’s always better. It’s been an eye-opening experience, but it’s painful. But sometimes a little pain is necessary.

The soul of Camel Racer has stayed the same, but it keeps changing shape. The storyteller in me finds that fun, because it’s still storytelling, it’s just finding a way to tell the story in a different way.

 
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Image: Retha Ferguson

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