Developing a Genuinely Tense and Scary Scene

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A few weeks ago, I woke up from a dream – more like a nightmare – frozen in place, unable to move from the fear it had evoked. And in true writer form, the first thing I thought was, “I must remember this feeling so I can put in it into a novel.”

As with all my dreams, it was fairly nonsensical. I arrived at my grandparents’ place and noticed a man standing in the street with a gun in his mouth. I went inside where my grandparents, one of my cousins and one of his daughters were unaware of what was going on outside. As I explained to my cousin what I’d seen, he went to look out the window and suddenly the man in the street noticed he had a house full of people at his mercy. He took the gun from his mouth and pointed it at the house.

We all rabbited to a bedroom at the back of the house but the hallway that runs the length of the weatherboard provided a clear view out into the street. Inexplicably, the man was suddenly on the roof of the house across the road and the gun that had been small enough to fit inside his mouth was now a bazooka that had to be carried on his shoulder. Then he was running down the driveway and had found our hiding place. There was nowhere left to run…

Thankfully, that’s when I woke up. But it had all the elements of a genuinely tense and scary scene. To frighten the pants off your readers, here are the individual components. Continue reading

How to Know If You’re a Bad Writer

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Earlier this year, I posted a discussion on what to do when you’re a bad writer with a good story. PopCultureGrinch read the piece and asked a follow up: how do you know when you’re a bad writer?

I responded wittily, “There’s a reasonably famous quote that says there’s no such thing as a bad writer, only bad writing but maybe that’s just to make us all feel better about ourselves.” It’s a little ironic because in that moment, I was a bad writer. There is no such quote, at least not a famous one. I guess it’s my quote now. The quote I was actually referring to is by Oscar Wilde, who said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

Which just goes to show that being a bad writer isn’t a static state. Someone who has previously been a bad writer can become a good writer. And someone who has previously been a good writer can lapse into moments (hopefully not too many) of being a bad writer. (I hope that it’s not something I suffer from all the time and is more closely related to my laziness in confirming that the quote existed anywhere outside of my mind rather than my general ability to write.) Continue reading

Book Review: Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw

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There is a touch of The Girl on the Train in this story, unreliable witnesses, plenty of selfish motivations, interesting characters, great writing. But the plot isn’t mind-blowing and that makes it, like The Girl on the Train, another okay mystery. And there’s starting to be a very big pile of three-star books just like it. It needed a moment that punched the reader in the face unexpectedly but it just didn’t have one.

Iris is a single mother and part-time lawyer. Ray is in a hospital for the criminally insane. When Iris’s mother goes away on a holiday and asks Iris to house sit, particularly to look after the large saltwater aquarium full of fish in her home, she agrees. It takes nothing more than one of the fish dying to set the unfolding of this mystery in progress. The meticulously kept logbook of the aquarium’s conditions has the name “R. Boelens” on it and Iris’s mother’s maiden name was Boelens. Suddenly, Iris can’t rest until she knows who R. Boelens is.

It turns out he’s her much older half-brother. Convicted of murdering his attractive neighbour and her small daughter, he’s been in prison and a hospital for the criminally insane ever since. Still, Iris is intrigued, mostly because her mother never breathed a word of her brother’s existence. She goes to visit him at the hospital and offers to look into an appeal against his conviction, although mostly to find out exactly what happened. He agrees. Continue reading

Why Writers Should Hire Editors

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I was reading an article recently about Donald Trump that basically said the explanation for the way he behaves is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Wikipedia describes the Dunning-Kruger effect as “a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is” – which basically means that he’s so stupid, he can’t recognise his own stupidity.

Now, I’m not a fan of Donald Trump pre- or post-election but I’m also not a fan of name-calling. I didn’t finish reading the article. But I was fascinated by the idea of the Dunning-Kruger effect and the article contained a link to another article in the Pacific Standard by David Dunning of Dunning-Kruger effect fame called “We Are All Confident Idiots”.

It’s a long article but it was a terribly interesting read, basically saying that we – all of us – are so afraid of appearing stupid in relation to things we aren’t knowledgeable about that instead of admitting our ignorance, we play along and hope nobody realises we have no idea what we’re talking about. Everybody’s ignorance is about something different and even traditionally smart people can suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect – after all, nobody can know everything. Those with academic smarts often lack street smarts. Those with an aptitude for writing can struggle with mathematical concepts. The right side and the left side of the brain control different abilities and most people favour one over the other. As Dunning puts it, “Because it’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.” Continue reading

A Story about Designing a Book Cover

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If you’re anything like me, when it finally comes time to design your book cover, you have a rough idea of what you want but none of the skills necessary to accomplish it. I’m lucky because I once worked with someone with a boatload of design and marketing skills and she has been my book cover designer ever since. She’s less lucky because I’m a bit of a control freak (okay, a lot of a control freak).

When I eventually finalised the manuscript for my latest book, Project January: A Sequel About Writing, I contacted her to to ask if she would do the cover for this one as well and she agreed. She had also done the cover for Project December: A Book About Writing, which looked like this:

Continue reading

Memoir versus Faction versus Fiction

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When I enrolled in a master’s course at university to study writing at the postgraduate level in my late twenties, it came as something of a shock to me that almost all of my fellow students were retired or much older people interested in writing just one thing: their own story. Perhaps it was my relative youth and my correlating lack of life experience that meant I didn’t really understand why. After all, nothing much had happened to me at that point. (In fact, it’s over a decade later and nothing much has happened to me even now.)

But it wasn’t just that I’d stumbled across a rare collection of people focused on telling their own stories. These people, I’ve since discovered, are everywhere. And since there are just as many – probably a lot more – people wanting to read the real life stories of others, it makes sense that so many people pursue this avenue of writing.

But it’s not just as simple as putting it all out there. Writers who want to tell their own stories have plenty to consider. Continue reading

Book Review: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf

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I first read this book in high school because it was one of many on that year’s reading list and it was chosen by the powers that be as one of four all students in my grade would study. I didn’t have great memories of it or any memories really and having read it again, I know why: it’s one of those books that make teenagers think they hate reading when really what they hate is poorly chosen books. Continue reading