Book Review: Kat Jumps the Shark by Melinda Houston

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Oh, with a title like that, Melinda Houston was just begging for poor book reviews to come rolling in!

For anyone who doesn’t know it (although surely everyone does by now), the Fonz jumped a shark while water-skiing in a latter season of Happy Days and it is considered to be the point at which pretty much everyone realised the show had its best times long behind it.

This book suffers from a pretty common problem – it’s a novel about the television industry written by someone who has worked in the television industry. Just like those novels written by actresses about an actress trying to make it in Hollywood. There’s a common saying to “write what you know” but often these types of books become inside jokes – only the people on the inside get it. And I suspect that’s the case here. Certainly the quote on the front cover from Kat Stewart, the well-known Australian actress, seems to suggest this. She calls it, “An irresistible cocktail of intrigue, egos and insider information.” Take out the word “irresistible” and I might agree. Continue reading

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Infusing Your Characters With Cultural Identity: Does It Have to Be Your Own?

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In 2016, Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Big Brother and The Mandibles, delivered the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The topic was supposed to be “Community and Belonging” but she opened her address by admitting she would not be sticking to the proposed subject. Instead, she would be delivering her thoughts on “Fiction and Identity Politics”.

To boil it down to the most simple premise, her thoughts were that she shouldn’t be restricted from writing about cultural identities other than her own and that if she were, all her characters would be “an ageing five-foot-two smartass” and she would have “to set every novel in North Carolina”.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was in the audience listening to Shriver’s speech. An Australian born in Khartoum to parents of Sudanese and Egyptian backgrounds, she is a mechanical engineer, activist and founder of Youth Without Borders and last year released her memoir, although she is not a fiction writer. After twenty minutes of listening to the speech, she walked out, unable to listen to what she called “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”, continuing, “The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal.” You can read her full response here. Continue reading

The Death Decision: Which Characters to Sacrifice for the Good of Your Story

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Because writers are the gods of the little universes they create, eventually they must make hard decisions about their characters. And unless you’re a psychopath or sociopath, the hardest of them all is deciding which characters to kill and when.

Even in genres where it might seem like death isn’t going to or shouldn’t rear its ugly head, like romance, it can be an important background event. But it’s just as important not to overuse it. Violent video games have shown us that too many deaths leave people desensitised. But one perfectly-timed and meaningful fatality might be exactly what your story needs. Continue reading

The A to Z of Writing

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Just because everybody loves a good listicle (so I hope it qualifies), here’s the A to Z of writing.

A is for Authenticity – you don’t have to know what you’re talking about. Write what you know, write what you don’t know but just make sure you sound like you know what you’re talking about. If you write about the police force and someone actually in the police force reads your book lacking in accuracy or verisimilitude (the ring of truth), then that person won’t hesitate to tell the world. And you’ll just come off as someone who couldn’t be bothered doing a little bit of research.

B is for Brainstorming – it’s one thing to have an idea but to bring it to life with all the little details that give it depth, you’ll have to do a lot of brainstorming. If you want to write about a man who kills his father, great (maybe not for your father, who might wonder why). But it becomes two very different stories depending on whether the son had a happy upbringing or an abusive one. And only brainstorming will get you to the point where the story makes meaningful sense. Continue reading

Book Review: The Writing Class by Jincy Willett

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If ever there was a novel to break the “show, don’t tell” rule – willingly, completely, knowingly – this is it and this is the only novel that is likely to be able to get away with it. But getting away with it doesn’t automatically equal a great book. In this case, it equals a good one but not a great one.

Amy is a published author and academic who teaches a writing class at a local university. But her last book is a very long way behind her and the wannabee writers aren’t students, they are paying for an evening extension class. The participants include a doctor, a lawyer, a former child actress, a mildly infuriating feminist, a retired teacher and several others. Each week someone brings a piece of writing and the class spends time analysing it and provides written feedback to help the writer improve.

At first it’s like every other writing class Amy has ever taught. There are some good writers, there are some bad writers, there are some who aren’t writers at all and thought the class would be a good way to pick up women. But then one of the participants starts providing feedback that is anonymous and unnerving including cruelly parodying a poem, drawing crude images and using very bad language as well as crank calling Amy on the phone and whispering repeated phrases and sentences. Continue reading

What to Do When You’re a Bad Writer with a Good Story

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These days it seems like writing a book is on everybody’s bucket list. And if you’ve got a great story, then it deserves to be told. But what if you’re a bad writer? Just because everybody wants to write a book doesn’t mean everybody is capable of doing it.

If you can recognise that you’re a bad writer, congratulations. It puts you one step ahead of all those people who can’t see it and persist in trying to write and circulate a book that is never going to get published, at least not in its current terrible form. And if you’re committed to getting your story out there regardless, here are a few options to help make it happen. Continue reading

One Main Character versus an Ensemble Cast

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When I first started developing the concept for my upcoming novel, Black Spot, there were six main characters, three women and three men. But the more I worked on it, the more interested I became in the story of just one character. She didn’t mean to dominate – she wasn’t that kind of girl – but it ended up happening anyway. She was just so much more interesting – her story was just so much more interesting – and eventually all the other characters started drifting away.

Sometimes a character is so powerful that they insist on having their own story and sometimes a story is so varied that it needs an ensemble cast to tell it properly. There are pros and cons to each choice so make sure you consider them all. Continue reading