07 April 2023
Creative writing advice and inspiration from Nikesh Shukla, novelist and author of Your Story Matters
Why did you want to write Your Story Matters?
I started a substack a few years ago where I'd post up notes from my creative writing course for free. It gained a following, quite a fun one, of people who appreciated the way I dispensed advice. It wasn't too highbrow, it made writing feel achievable, it simplified a lot of well worn advice and it was friendly. I think a lot of books about structure don't ever really tell you why something works, only when it has worked. And I like understand why we have certain structural conventions, because it allows me to play with them. Anyway, all that said, my lovely editor Carole Tonkinson, who commissioned my memoir, Brown Baby, asked if the newsletters could be a motivational book on writing. I looked at the books on writing, craft and the such by writers of colour in the UK, and there aren't many. And I thought, you know? Sometimes you just need to fill that gap on the shelf.
Why do stories matter so much?
I don't know if there is a big grand answer for this question that encapsulates everything. But for me: stories help me understand. Stories help me interrogate. Stories help me contemplate the grey areas, the nuances, the complexities of the way the world is the way it is. Stories sometimes need to be told in order to process, release, grieve or celebrate. Stories sometimes need to be heard in order to understand better, find solidarity, see new worlds, see your own world clearer. Stories sometimes aren't that deep, bruv. They're just there for the pure enjoyment. Stories fulfill so many functions in our lives. They're malleable and emergent and iterative and whatever you need at the time.
And why do some writers need help to believe that?
Some writers need permission, some need help. Some need support. Some need inspiration. Some need structure. Some need confidence. So much of writing is about intention and execution. In that, if you know what your intentions are in sitting down to write, it becomes a task of executing the work to a standard that matches what you intended. So little of that process is actually writing. A lot of it is thinking, a lot of it is editing, which gives you a deeper understanding of the work. Writers have different needs, ultimately. And hopefully this book helps them with that.
How did you figure out what you wanted to write, and how can new writers do that?
I read a lot as a kid and it inspired me to write a lot. I always read very widely. I read comics, sci-fi books, crime books, books Adrian Mole was always talking about, Adrian Mole books, comedy books, the library was a godsend in giving me access to all of these things. Also, I listened to a lot of storytelling rap and watched a lot of sitcoms. And I would find myself narrating stories in unused school exercise books. They started off as my own Spider-Man arcs then grew into my own superhero, Cat Man, then turned into a mixture of terrible poetry, dark short stories and more. I think the fact that I read a lot and widely inspired me. And helped me. And I only really figured out what I wanted to write by trying lots of different things till I found the voice that fit.
What is your top advice on getting your story across?
Get that first draft down. You are in control of who sees it and when. Once you've done it, write down what you intended to achieve with the draft. Take some time off. Come back to it and edit edit edit. Time away from the draft, knowing why you did the draft, editing the draft, that's the bit that writers should spend so much more time on.
What is the link between story and voice?
I don't know if there is a link. Story is what links your central thematic question as the author and the plot, and voice is the way the story gets told. What you notice and how you notice it.
How did you find your unique voice, and how did that make a difference to your writing?
I think it's because I spent a lot of time trying things that went unfinished that just didn't work. And ultimately, when I started writing Coconut Unlimited, I found that it was the summation of everything I was interested in. It takes time.
How would you define ‘Nikesh Shukla’s voice’?
Yearning, bittersweet, funny, sad, thoughtful. But also, contemporary, not overly flowery or descriptive, very character-focussed and dialogue-heavy.
Does your own writing voice differ between adult and young adult books?
Not at all. I was a youth worker long enough to know that teenagers can tell when you are trying to appeal to teenagers. My YA books have teenage protagonists in a teenage world with teenage problems. But they are told in the same vein as my adult books. Maybe with less swearing.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing over the years that you’d like to pass on to other writers?
The biggest mistake writers make during the editing process is that they don't read their manuscript back in its entirety before beginning the edit. Trust me. Read it through before you begin. You are welcome.
Your Story Matters by Nikesh Shukla is now available in paperback (Bluebird Books for Life, £9.99)
Read more from Nikesh here. He's one of the greatest champions of making creative writing accessible and inclusive and it's always inspiring and rewarding to read what he has to say.