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What to write about

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By DD Phiri:

A budding writer has to make two choices at once: how to write and what to write. Incidentally, a budding writer need not be a youth. Anybody of mature age who decides to write is a budding writer.

How to write is a matter of technique. Do you want to write like Dickens, Chinua Achebe or George Eliot? What to write is a choice of subject. Broadly writing, writing is divided into fiction and non-fiction. Do you write fiction only or do you write non-fiction only or do you write both? These choices will be made on the basis of whom you see needs your writing and will pay for it.

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In this essay, I dwell on what to write. You may decide to confine yourself to fiction. But there are divisions in fiction. You may have to make further choice. Are you to concentrate on short story, novels or plays? A fourth category is rather difficult to classify. Is poetry part of fiction or part of non-fiction?

People wishing to write in Malawi today are luckier than those of us, their grandfathers, who started writing in the 1950s. They receive constant encouragement from bodies like Story Workshop and Malawi Writers Union (Mawu). They are a bit unlucky in that they do not receive help from official bodies like the Nyasaland and Northern Publications Bureau which existed during our time.

Mawu and Story Workshop concentrate on the short story. But this is not the golden era of the short story. In the 1950s and early 1960s, you would go into the Dar es Salaam Bookshop, Dar es Salaam, or Times Bookshop in Blantyre and come across magazines like Argos devoted entirely to short stories. Those whose stories were accepted were paid fabulous sums. But, by the 1970s, we were reading that the popularity of the short story had waned, readers preferred to read in magazines articles which provided information or knowledge about something real such as Mars or malaria.

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Those who want to concentrate on fiction should know that the short story alone cannot take them far in sales. They should also try their hand on novels and plays. The greatest playwright in England is George Bernard Shaw of the 20th century. First, he tried his hand on short stories and novels but succeeded writing plays and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Some writers have tried their hands at fiction and non-fiction and achieved remarkable success in both, as is the case with H.G. wells, who graduated in biology and first wrote short stories and scientific novels. They earned him a lot of money. He also wrote a biology textbook. But it was when he wrote a history book that he got maximum financial rewards. His book surpassed in popularity those written by professional historians.

Wole Soyinka, one of Africa’s greatest writers, started by writing plays and they made him famous. They were acted in London theatres. He wrote a novel which, however, did not compare with his compatriots Cyprian Ekwensi and Chinua Achebe of Nigeria. But when he wrote the semi-autobiographical novel AKE’ Sweden, it was most impressive. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and had money to spare.

Dale Carnegie first wrote novels. The publisher told him he had no gift and that he should try something else. He wrote How to make friends and influence people, How to stop worrying and start living, and several non-fiction books. His fame and earnings were fabulous.

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