Candid advice from a legal drama writer
These past few weeks, I’ve been busy learning, working and figuring out this writing for a living thing. It has not been an easy hack. I didn’t post last week because someone told me that, “Since you’re not paid on medium, you shouldn’t expect to be paid for writing” and I said, “Okay” and thought about it long and hard. It took a while for it not to demoralise me but here I am again, I guess.
FYI universe, persons or people but I DO get paid for writing. I’m a screenwriter, fiction writer and freelance health content writer who is working on her goals and expanding her business, and this blog is just like a personal newsletter of sorts to you, my reader family, who cares to read some of my many ramblings: you have my many thanks. But! I get paid to do the work though so please don’t forget.
Anyhoo, back to why you’re here. This week I interviewed the writer of that book I was raving about a while ago: “the yNBA.” She drops some great insights about her writing process and some honest-to-god truths about the uphill task of writing and publishing her very first novel. So here it goes from Olaoluwa Oni’s lips to your ears or eyes: whichever works for you.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I like to think of myself as a lawyer who writes, although I have been writing long before I qualified as an attorney. I remember being about 6 or 7 years old and writing an Enid Blyton-esque story about a family having a picnic in the park on detached foolscap sheets of paper.
However, I also knew I was always going to be a lawyer long before I qualified as one. First, because my parents, being Nigerian, distributed the “respectable professions” among their children: my elder brother was to be the doctor; me, the lawyer; and my younger brother, the engineer/pilot. My younger sister, the last born, arriving much later in their lives, escaped the burden of a pre-destined career path. For what it is worth, my parents got two of three: I am an attorney, and my elder brother is a medical doctor.
I like to think that even without my parent’s machinations, I would have ended up with a career in law. Early in my law career, I remember saying: “I am not a lawyer because I studied law, I studied law because I am a lawyer.” All these many years later, the sentiment still holds.
Being an attorney feels true to me, and in the period when I couldn’t practice as an attorney I really missed it.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
This is a tricky question because I really don’t remember. It is easier to speak about when I realised I wanted to write legal drama. I always enjoyed consuming legal drama: movies, shows, and books. I was also an active moot-court participant in undergrad so when I was admitted into the Nigerian bar, I felt prepared to take on the world of law practice.
But in my first year of practice, I realised that nothing prepares the young Nigerian lawyer for what to expect in practice. And that’s when I decided to write legal drama to set the experience and stories of law practice in Nigeria onto the page.
What do you think makes a good story?
This is another tricky question. Every writer has different things they are trying to do with their work and every reader looks for different things to determine if a story or book is “good”. So, I try not to prescribe standards. If the writer thinks they achieved what they set out to achieve, then they are within their rights to call the story good. If the reader finds the story enjoyable, they are also within their right to call the story good. I believe in the live-and-let-live arrangement on things like this.
What was your work schedule like when you were writing the yNBA?
I started writing the yNBA a few months into law practice in Lagos; I wasn’t even sure it was going to be a book. It started as little anecdotes here and there that I noted as I navigated the world of Lagos law practice. I started to think it might be a book about two years into making observations and taking notes.
When I committed to developing my little journal of notes into a book, I wrote every chance I got: in court while waiting for the judge to arrive; in the office, after the closing of work, while waiting for traffic to thin; on weekends; and during my vacation. After I moved to New York, I had an uninterrupted stretch of about six months to write and this is when I completed the draft manuscript.
How long did it take you to write the yNBA? Feel free to tell us about all the hurdles you had to overcome.
The draft manuscript took about four years to complete, then the process of revising and editing began. There was a lot of stopping and starting and stopping and starting. There was also a lot of carving out time from the rhythms of daily life. And there were periods when I had to sit through blocks of time when the plot just refused to move.
What kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning the yNBA?
In writing the first draft, I relied heavily on observing law practice in motion and listening to colleagues’ trading war stories. However, during the process of revising and editing, I was a lot more meticulous and tried to have the facts in my story world be as accurate as possible. If I was going to take a poetic licence, I wanted to do it deliberately. Rather than have an error masquerading as a prose device.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned while creating the yNBA?
That mundane things like house chores can become exciting when one is avoiding their writing desk.
Although I think that reading John Grisham may have played a role, I’m still curious about where you got your ideas for the yNBA because it looked so personal to me especially after reading the epigraph.
You are right, reading writers like Grisham and Scott Turow gave me the tools to set law practice into prose. But very little of the book draws from my personal experience. And very little of the action in the book is imaginary. A lot of it observing lawyers in action and listening to their stories.
Your writing was direct and firm and your use of imagery and flowery language was heavily substituted for the use of dialogue. I’ve never read John Grisham, but I do watch legal dramas and I’m certain they are dialogue-heavy. Weren’t you worried about having too much “telling” instead of “showing”?
The dialogue/narrative balance did play heavily on my mind while writing the book. The first few drafts of the book were very dialogue-heavy. But the thing is law practice can get very technical with a lot of jargon. As the yNBA is a legal drama, there was a tendency to have the dialogue be jargon-ridden, which I wanted to avoid. I wanted the book to be accessible to non-lawyers as well so when I could, and if it worked, I opted for narration instead of dialogue.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk? I noticed your use of creases to describe facial features.
I don’t know. That’s the thing about quirks: they are hardly self-identified. My friends find it odd that I enjoy writing in the dark. Does that count?
Most of the characters in the story were male. What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
It was really hard. And it was a deliberate choice. I wanted to reflect on the male-centric and male-dominated nature of law practice in Lagos during the period the book was set. The most difficult thing was trying to figure out how a male character would think, which is a different thing from what a male character would do. I wanted to reflect on both the characters' thoughts and actions, and it was especially tricky with the male characters.
I noticed whole chapters where all the characters spoke pidgin which I felt was very authentic. How were you able to pull the pidgin off without sounding too colloquial?
I am glad you thought it was authentic. I tried to write in a speaking voice, then I re-wrote for the page, and the editors cleaned up the prose.
I was not satisfied with the ending but I like how it ended will there be a sequel?
I don’t know if a sequel will happen, I wonder about this sometimes.
Little secret: I too wanted the book to end differently.
What ethical considerations were put in place to ensure that your book did not compromise any legal codes?
I kept client confidentiality sacrosanct. While I tried to reflect reality as accurately as possible, it was also important to keep privacy rights. And avoid a defamation suit.
How did publishing the yNBA change your process of writing?
I guess I would say it taught me to not be too precious about my work. It is fine to advocate for the core of the work, but I can’t consider every word or phrase “core”. Also: editors are the superstars and publishers know what they are doing so trust them.
I read your acknowledgements and saw how dear your family is to you. What does your family think of your writing?
On the yNBA, I didn’t allow them to read it at the manuscript stage because I didn’t want their voices in my head while I wrote. And after it was published, I didn’t ask for feedback because the book was already out in the world.
But of my writing career in general, they are the most supportive and truly formidable foundation. I am so lucky to have them.
This book is for Nigerian lawyers by a Nigerian lawyer. How have young Nigerian lawyers reacted to your book? What kinds of things do they say?
I can’t change anything. The yNBA is out in the world for people to do with it what they want. I try to stay away from reading reviews because the book is written and published, and I have, however, met some readers in person and some people have messaged me privately, and they had really great feedback. But it usually only those with great feedback that reach out to the author, right?
Asides from practising law, what do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love watching documentaries. And TV shows. I also really like listening to podcasts on long walks.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be to make you a better writer now?
Read more craft books. As many as you can lay your hands on.
There you have it! Some great writerly advice, in my opinion, but it’s the practicing of it now that matters, isn’t it?
What would you like me to talk about next week? Talk to me in the comment section reader kin.