Celebrating East African Writing!

Outside on the Inside? Storymoja Writers’ Blog

I’ll begin this by acknowledging comments made by a few of you readers on last week’s blog.

Earlier in the post, while explaining the birth of Urban Fiction, I had noted this: The premise of this genre of writing was based on the fact that anyone outside of the culture depicted cannot accurately describe the people, settings, and events experienced by people in that culture.

Osas said: From within, you cannot describe accurately and astutely. The artist by default must be without. That is the artist’s positioning. Of course, she moves and floats. But she is never only within.

Ndinda said: Someone outside the depicted urban setting is able to mirror it in writing – however, research is needed. You can never write about dogs without an idea as to how dogs live – you must allow yourself to bark for sometime.  When you say that one needs a vast experience in the depicted culture, you deny writers an opportunity to be beyond the culture they were born.

Sheblossoms: Great writers, write what they know. And to know best, you must be. And so yeah, someday you might be able to write about Moi Avenue at midnight. But first you have to be in the culture, in the setting, in order to write it. That does not neccesarily mean that one who never has, cannot be.

Osas: Being within does not help. Actually, it hinders. It blinds. Time and again, when in Nairobi (but to some degree, this is also true for other city slickers, though my cherished Nakuru and Eldoret qualify better as “villages”, and as “towns” at most), I experience this: Many educated Kenyans, usually from the upwardly mobile middle and upper middle class, who know absolutely nothing about their country, their peoples (plural), their own politics. Many a foreign ambassador knows a lot more about Kenya than her senior journalists and her diaspora.

Storymoja Africa: Both the outside, and the inside count. That is probably why some of Africa’s best writers have had a chance to be on the outside before they can really write well about the inside. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for example.

What did YOU think?


The following rules apply to writing great short urban fiction as well as writing other categories and genres.

1. Begin with an arresting first paragraph or lead, enough to grab the reader: make him or her curious to know what happens next. As well as high action, this first paragraph should place the reader in the urban setting immediately, so pay attention to descriptions from the beginning.

Have a look at the following few paragraphs from Mwangi Ichungwa’s Netflix

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. 

It is swelteringly hot in the city, and dusty. Very dusty. It should rain soon, or the streets will choke. The air, fetid from burst sewers and rotting trash in the gutters, ripples with noise; from matatus, the market stalls’ blaring music and human voices.

Everyone is in a hurry and shouting, a seething maelstrom of cogs, each trying to address the machine in their own way. A flustered traffic cop on a pedestrian island takes off his cap and wipes the back of his hand on his brow. Somewhere, brakes screech and an angry horn blows. The handcart pusher who was almost hit by the speeding Nissan van shouts expletives in Kikuyu at the driver, and continues to push his cart laden with bales of flour at the same leisurely pace. The Nissan slowly drives around him and its driver yells something that makes the people nearby laugh. The traffic policeman shakes his head sadly.

2. Do not write a story as if it were a screenplay; for example, avoid writing the whole thing in the present tense. In order to be comfortable playing around with tenses and descriptions you have to write a lot. Practice. Practice. Practice! Teach yourself to read your story once you are done, as if you were your targeted audience. Read it aloud. Listen to it. Does it flow, or is it stiff and jerky? Can you insert flash backs, flash forwards in between the dialogue and descriptions? Does this serve your story well, or does it weigh the plot down?

Have a look at this very short excerpt from Her Friend’s Father by Pauline Odhiambo. Read it aloud. How does it feel to you?

The second time she let him touch her breast he had just given her sixty thousand shillings to buy a new phone. This happened two days after she first let him touch her and now she marveled at the power of those two round globes sitting high on her chest. 

“This is incredible!” she thought as she tried to fold 60 crisp one-thousand shilling notes into the front pockets of her jeans. They were tight jeans so she opted instead to put the thick wad of cash in the brown handbag resting at the foot of the bed they were sitting on.  The yellow low cut blouse she was wearing revealed the shiny brown skin of her cleavage. His eyes were glued there now. After two months, of drinks, food and pocket money, she could see he now felt he deserved the real prize. This was the moment of truth.

3. Introduce the characters smartly as soon as the story begins. Did you present the story line quickly enough to catch the readers interest or did you use up a third of the story with a long biographical preamble of the characters or with dialogue between two of them (often left confusingly unnamed)? You may know exactly who is speaking, but the reader may be left bewildered. Never underestimate the power of dialogue in conveying character, but it must contribute to the main focus of the story.

See this excerpt from The Nightbirds by Alexa & The Princess Project (K). Note how the writer uses the interlude between one line of conversation and another to describe one of the characters.

“Excuse me for some moments, while I and Bint Hurairah, forage some drinking stuff and little snacks for all our ladies,” and Sam already swam away, with light fin-strokes.  Gabrielle used the convenient pause to have a deeper look at this tall lady who was the first to catch her attention when she had entered the room. 

Bint Hurairah, this foreign-sounding name became her. Her very light Somali or Ethiopian complexion could even beat Sam’s bronze colour and narrow European nose; only that her hair was relaxed and in long smooth silky waves like of Indian heritage, playing along her collar bones and shoulders. She was very tall, slender and elegant to boot, wearing a sort of yellow sari, with an embroidered silk scarf running around her highly-set waist; somehow she had managed to leave her left leg exposed up to the waist, and whenever she moved, she showed her entire thigh and the side of her buttock, both of equal toned beauty. A high front, nose as of marble and superbly arched eyebrows completed the impression, which was only contrasted by a pair of light ballerinas on her (large) feet, instead of gold-embroidered slippers or metallic high heels that one could have expected.

4. If you are telling a fast-moving story, say urban crime, keep your paragraphs and sentences short. It is a trick that sets the pace and adds to the atmosphere you are conveying to the reader.

See this excerpt from Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah

Brooklyn-born I don’t have no sob stories for you about rats and roaches and pissy-pew hallways. I came busting out of my momma’s big coochie on January 28, 1977, during one of New York’s worst snowstorms. So my mother named me Winter. My father, Ricky Santiaga, was so proud of his new baby girl that he had a limo waiting to pick my moms up from the hospital. The same night I got home my pops gave me a diamond ring set in 24-karat gold. My moms said that my fingers were too small and soft to even hold a ring in place, but he insisted that he had a guy who would have it adjusted just right. It was important for me to know I deserved the best, no slum jewelry, cheap shoes, or knock-off designer stuff, only the real thing. 

We lived in the projects but we were cool with that. We weren’t wanting for a damn thing. I had three aunts, four uncles, and a whole slew of cousins. As far as we were concerned it was live for all of us to be chilling in the same building, or at least the next building over. We never had to worry about getting into fights because around our way we had reputation. Plus it was plain and simple common sense. If you put your hands on anybody in the family you would get jumped by the next oldest person in our family, and so on and so on. Sooner than later we didn’t even have to say a word. Everybody understood that our family had the neighborhood locked down, it wasn’t worth the trouble.

5. Your successful Urban Story whether crime, romance, science fiction whatever its genre, must have one other ingredient. It must satisfy the readers, who must be left with its resonance, the feeling that they know what happened to the characters.

6. Present your story well. Readers are easily put off by bad formatting, bad punctuation or spelling mistakes. Revise and revise. Get rid of every unnecessary word, tighten all sentences, until you are absolutely satisfied that you cannot improve it any further. Having put that story away for at least a couple of nights, you will find you can read it with a certain amount of detachment. You will spot any shortcomings and hopefully be ready to revise.

So that said, let’s now have a look at your entries for the Kenyan Romance Showcase.

  1. Should I call Him? – She stood her ground and kept her gaze right back at him then replied, “Listen, I told you my reasons. I know what you said, ok; I just don’t see it working, that’s all.”
  2. Quiet Storm – Pretty weird as it seemed, seven months incommunicado and still a spark of emotion was rekindled, it had to be definitely absurd.
  3. Long Road to Nowhere – “You have been long in coming,” a husky male voice says from the side of the road. “I have been waiting for you the whole day. Let’s go home.” Hand in hand, we walk towards home, through the green fields.
  4. Cold Feet on a Sunny Day – Uh, Jimmy. What a sweetheart! It was puppy love so, like all high school crushes do, it fizzled out. I unsteadily take the next step. What was it I loved about him? His sensitivity. The goose pimples I would get when he would gingerly kiss my lips.
  5. Cowgirl Anjlee – “I think you are the most beautiful girl who needs to be told about the birds and the bees but more importantly about the cows.”

Next week, we will spend a little time looking at how to write about Kenyan relationships. Do you have something to say about this topic? If you do, please send in your idea to , and you just might be next week’s guest writing sensei.

Have a wonderful week!


This entry was posted on January 17, 2011 by in Writer's Blog.
%d bloggers like this: