After 20 years of fast-paced London life running a busy advertising agency, I moved to Dorset sure living the “good life” would make writing a book easy. It didn’t. A blank page is incredibly frightening, it takes a huge leap of faith to get started.
Sometimes you just need the right trigger
12 years later, inspiration finally struck after a long – and very loud – lunch with friends at a Nigerian restaurant in London. As I boarded the slow Waterloo-Crewkerne train, I felt myself code-switch out of Nigerian me into English me and started thinking about my two cultures. I started writing and sketched out the first scene before I got home. Sometimes you just need the right trigger and this was mine.
I always knew my book would have people like me in it – mixed-race and middle-class. Characters whose lives include jollof rice, carjacking, and cornrows in the same breath as ubers, focaccia, and ski holidays. So many books about black people are centered on struggle but that’s not everyone’s experience, it’s not mine. My main goal was to entertain – make people laugh and gasp.
Most writers are plagued with self doubt
My husband (also head of plot and my biggest cheerleader) booked me on a short online course, aptly titled ‘Starting to Write Your Novel’. By week six, I had three chapters, a synopsis, and writer buddies who have become firm friends for life. Writing is such a solitary pursuit – you are basically spitting words out into a void – and as most writers are plagued with self-doubt, it’s important to have friends (real or virtual) to moan to and celebrate with.
Charmed lives are very boring
My first draft poured out of me in six months. I printed it, read it back and realised how absolutely awful it was. I’d managed to avoid plot altogether! I loved my characters, a group of women not dissimilar to my real-life friends, but nothing happened and charmed lives are very boring. I put the draft in a drawer and changed the subject when anyone asked, ‘How’s that book of yours going’. I assumed my writing dream was over but my girls kept walking around in my head, nagging at me. Then one night, six months later, it came to me, give them lots of wahala, a pidgin English word for trouble.
I started injecting wahala into their lives
So I dug out my manuscript, unpicked my scenes and started again, injecting wahala into their lives. I knew my characters inside out which was a huge advantage, I meant I had a clear vision of how they’d react to all the trouble I was throwing at them. Writing a draft is hard, editing is even harder. I worked hard to sow the seeds of the twists into every scene, tying threads so they unravelled in the right way at the right time. It’s tricky. My husband is my first editor and once I’ve finished sulking, I usually realise he’s got a point.
Dream come true stuff
Six months and two edits later, I started entering competitions. Being long listed, then short-listed and then winning a competition gave me the confidence to query agents. And I got lucky – I queried eight and got six offers of representation.
The rest is a blur – more editing (there’s always more editing) and then Wahala went to a nine-way auction in the UK, a six-way auction in the USA and then the screen rights were snapped up by the BBC. It really was dream-come-true stuff. An overnight success story that was fifty-eight years in the making.
TOP WRITING TIPS
Read, read, read
Read in your genre and out of it. Read great books, they’ll inspire you to work harder. Read rubbish books, they’ll make you feel better about your writing. Keep reading – it’s the best way to learn how to write.
Get to the end of your first draft (always awful)
Get to the end of your first draft. First drafts are always awful – it’s the law. But you have to tell yourself the story in order to work out how to tell it properly, so keep going.
Enter the Bridport Prize!
Competitions like this one made me polish my opening and craft my synopsis – and you never know, you might win.
About Nikki May
Born in Bristol and raised in Lagos, Nikki is Anglo-Nigerian. At 20, she dropped out of medical school, moved to London, and began a career in advertising, going on to run a successful agency. Her debut novel Wahala was inspired by a long lunch with friends. It was published around the world to rave reviews, won the Comedy Women In Print New Voice Prize 2023 and is being turned into a major BBC drama.
Nikki lives in Dorset with her husband, two standard schnauzers and way too many books.