The concept for Nigerian Gems, Expatriate Tales of Adventure was simple—to create a snapshot of our Lagos experience through stories, snippets and photos. Many expats had already written emails or blogs about quirky moments, outrageous anecdotes or insightful observations. We wanted to collate these diverse voices to share a range of experiences with friends and family back home.
To collect the material, we put out the call through the American Women’s Club, various housing compounds, the American International School of Lagos, the Lagos Yacht Club and any other organisations where we could get airtime. Stories rolled in. We ended up with 43 contributors from eight countries—Peru, USA, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, England, The Netherlands and Nigeria.
Gail Collins and I then had to sort and edit them. Our first challenge was deciding which English to use—USA versus British. In the end, we agreed to use the voice of the author, so one person’s flip flops were another one’s thongs. Then we moved on to language and grammar.
I soon learnt that editing is an art form. Not for the faint-hearted. By changing words, we risked altering the voice of the author. Poor grammar and badly phrased sentences needed to be improved, while preserving colloquialisms and unique phrasing. We wanted to comment on cultural misunderstandings by laughing with people, not at them—a fine line to tread. We lost one piece because the author thought our edits altered her tone. I was too polite to tell her that her original story sounded condescending. Fortunately, most stories only required tweaking and we kept the authors happy.
Gail and I were harshest on each other. One of my stories, “Jacob’s Education”, was about a young boy learning to play the system. I wrote it in simple, child-like language with a lot of repetition. Now, repetition, as I will discuss next week, is generally to be avoided. It’s lazy. Of course, to every rule, there are exceptions and because I did it deliberately, I thought I was being clever. Gail understood what I was trying to do, but pushed me to work harder. I was torn between sticking to my original concept and using a broader vocabulary. In the end, I changed it and was glad that I did. Reading “Jacob’s Education” today, I still love the concept about endemic corruption, but my writing has evolved and I’d write it differently. Regardless, I learnt heaps through both giving and receiving feedback.
In hindsight, recording the details of my time in Lagos was brilliant preparation for writing a novel set in Nigeria—the shanty on the side of the road calling itself Stomach Care Restaurant, the street vendor advertising rat poison by carrying around a bunch of dead rats, and the legless beggar getting around on a skateboard. My advice to aspiring novelists is to jot down copious notes/blogs/letters home while you are in the moment. The details will give authenticity and turn your rich setting in to a whole character. When the time comes to write a book, don’t make the mistake of including every snippet, just use the specifics that fit the story. Writing Mistake No. 4 is not being selective.
Once we finished editing, it was time to turn the document into a book. We needed someone to do layout and design, and we still didn’t have money for printing. The path was yet to be clear.
Note: Gail G Collins is now a successful freelance writer, author and photographer. Read all about her here.