Writing fiction after all that non-fiction is really really hard

August 1, 2013 in Novel, On Writing

once upon a time

I have recently developed a very real fear that I may never be able to write fiction again.

They say writers need to write, and over the past year all I’ve been doing is reading and writing non-fiction, almost exclusively. At work every day I write news, and in my spare time I write on this blog, which essentially comprises film, restaurant and book reviews these days, or my sports blog, which is, well, all about sports.

My reading habits have also veered towards non-fiction. Browsing through my book reviews this year I see (chronologically from the start of the year):

– Fifty Shades Freed by EL James (fiction) — the final book in the Fifty Shades Trilogy and probably the worst book I have ever read, fiction or otherwise. I think it barely counts as a book, let alone fiction.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (non-fiction) — the legendary writing book, part memoir and part writers’ guide.

Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill (fiction) — a collection of short stories about Japan.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (non-fiction) — another seminal writers’ book about staying out of the rejection pile.

Inferno by Dan Brown (fiction) — no introduction necessary, though again, some would argue whether Brown’s writing classifies as fiction given that it is dominated by Wikipedia-like entries about history, architecture and artworks. And the quality of the fiction writing is, let’s just say, somewhat lacking.

Dream Team by Jack McCallum (non-fiction) — a riveting account of the one and only 1992 Dream Team.

The War for Late Night by Bill Carter (non-fiction) — the fascinating account into the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno late night television feud of 2010.

Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (non-fiction) — Phil Jackson’s account of how he won his 11 NBA championship rings as a coach and 2 as a player.

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (non-fiction) — the writing bible.

The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith (non-fiction) — the controversial book about Michael Jordan and the tumultuous 1990-91 season of the NBA champions Chicago Bulls.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (fiction) — the classic novel about a man whose youth and beauty was preserved by a magical painting.

Justice by Michael J Sandel (non-fiction) — an engrossing philosophy book about morality and the right thing to do.

By my count that’s 8 non-fiction books and 4 fiction books. But one of the fiction books is Fifty Shades and another is Dan Brown, so they don’t really count. And of the other two, one is a short story collection and the other is a classic novel written in the 19th century (which can be helpful but not that helpful).

It’s not that you can’t be creative with non-fiction writing, it’s just that the parameters are defined and confined by the facts you have to convey. With fiction writing it has to all come from your imagination, and that’s where I feel as though my brain has been reprogrammed and all that creativity I once had (however little it may have been) has been sucked out of me completely.

If I had to sit down and write a short story or screenplay right now I wouldn’t know where to start. In fact, just the thought of the possibility of getting back to working on my novels or screenplay makes me nervous, and scared — which probably explains why I have set myself the long-term target of completing all my backlogged blog posts before commencing any “proper” fiction writing. It’s pathetic, I know, but at least I am clearing out my backlog.

To lubricate my ride back into fiction, I am going to try and re-enter the land of fiction. Classics are good, but right now I’m thinking something less challenging, like commercial fiction. I’ve started reading Gillian Flynn’s acclaimed Gone Girl. I’m only about a fifth of the way through but it’s already shaping up to be one heck of a cracking read. It’s one of those books that grips onto you with characters that ring so true you feel like you know them. Apparently Ben Affleck has signed on for the film version, to be directed by David Fincher, so his head keeps popping up in my mind. (And Rosamund Pike has reportedly been cast as the other lead).

I still have some other non-fiction books I must get through, including parenting books on baby sleep (it’s gotta be done) and a couple of book reviews for publication. But my focus for the rest of the year will hopefully be on fiction. I have lined up The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and Anna Funder’s All That I Am, and I intend to get through them all before December 31. I don’t know how, since having a job with two kids under two means I pretty much only have time to read while travelling to and from work and just before bed — but I’m still going to try to reach my New Year’s Resolution goal of 20 books for the year.

And before you start being a dick, give me a break; that’s very good for me already.

New Year’s resolution 3: read more (classics and fantasy)

January 25, 2013 in Fantasy, Misc, On Writing

Man Reading Book and Sitting on Bookshelf in Library

I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted to last year, but I blame that on the life-draining force that is parenthood, which makes sleep a priority over anything not baby-related. I blame that as well awesome TV series such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Most of all, I blame the turd that is the Fifty Shades Trilogy, which wasted a good part of my year and just about turned me off reading altogether.

This year, I am glad to say, I have already read two books (though I started one of them last year) and am halfway through a third. Reading really does help your writing in so many ways, including expanding your imagination and ability to visualize scenes, and I’m trying to learn as much as I can. I feel like I am already way behind because I didn’t read all that much once I hit high school, which I blame entirely on Sony (Playstation) and basketball.

Anyway, this year one of my resolutions is to read more. A lot more. I have already started executing my ‘no smartphone and read instead before bed’ plan, which is kind of working. I’m also trying to read whenever I can on public transport and even during lunch breaks at work.

A subset of that plan is to read more classics. I always find them daunting and often put them off in favour of trash like Fifty Shades or whatever commercial fiction is in fashion, but it’s time for me to discover why classics are classics. The last modern classic I read was probably Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (which I loved) and the last classic of any era I read was Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (which, despite being told repeatedly that it was probably the most technically perfect book ever written, bored me to death).

The good thing is that many older classics are now out of copyright and free to download. My guess is I will attempt to tackle the easier ones first, like say Frankenstein or Dracula, or perhaps some Dickens. War and Peace and James Joyce will probably have to wait a few more decades.

The other of part of the goal is to read more fantasy to prepare myself to get back on the fantasy writing wagon. I have A Game of Thrones ready to go, and if that isn’t enough I might finally (re)try the original Sword of Shannara trilogy or Feist’s Magician.

I doubt I’m going to get through anywhere near what I’ve planned for myself but I sure am going to try.

Happy reading!

Book Review: ‘Catching Fire’ by Suzanne Collins

June 30, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

As soon as I finished the first book, The Hunger Games, I moved straight into the second of the series, Catching Fire.

I said in my review of The Hunger Games that my impression of it may have been tainted by the fact that had watched the film version first and had also watched Japan’s Battle Royale, which has a similar premise.

Catching Fire didn’t have to face such problems. I was sceptical at first because the core of the story is the Hunger Games itself, and I wondered how Collins could possibly squeeze out two more books that didn’t simply repeat what happened in the first. After all (spoiler for the first book ahead), didn’t Katniss and Peter win the darn thing already?

Well, those concerns were unfounded. In fact, Catching Fire completely breaks free of the parameters set by the first book and takes the series to a whole new level.

How does Collins do this? Well, for starters, she ups the ante on just about everything that made the first book good. I won’t reveal too much about the plot, but Collins finds a clever way to make the games “fresh”, from the manner in which the tributes are selected to the fascinating new characters and the innovative new battleground. Even the returning characters are given new angles as more is gradually revealed about each of them.

Collins also intensifies the relationships Katniss has with the two boys in her life, Peeta and Gale, adding more tension to the love triangle. It wasn’t my thing but could be appreciated my some readers.

The best part about it was how the story played out with a Harry Potter-esque mystery that does not get revealed until the very end. Some of it was rather predictable but I still came away impressed. The biggest compliment I can pay to the book is that it is not only better than The Hunger Games but also improves it by providing added context.

Of course, Collins still manages to infuse that addictive quality of her narrative style into the book as well. I breezed through this book by reading it any spare minute I had, and sometimes even when I’m not supposed to have the time. It’s not hard when every chapter ends on a mini cliffhanger and the writing is so easy to read.

I do, however, have two major complaints with Catching Fire. The first is that certain parts of the book felt a little drawn out, while others felt too condensed. Occasionally I got the feeling that there was an imbalance in the storytelling that needed to be addressed. The second complaint is how Collins botched the ending. After setting up the mystery so well all the way through, the book trips and falls flat on its face at the very end with an extremely rushed “unveil” and ends on a cliffhanger. The payoff after going through such an exhilarating ride turned out to be unexpectedly disappointing.

That said, it has forced me to jump immediately into the third and final book of the trilogy, Mockingjay, which I hope to finish and review soon.

4 out of 5

Book Review: ‘Zero and Other Fictions’ by Huang Fan

June 8, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Short stories and novellas are in a weird grey area for me. I love the idea of them, but at the same time, there aren’t many that I find myself fully engaging with. It is with this bizarre love-hate relationship that I have that I read Zero and Other Fictions, a collection of three short stories and a 100-page novella by acclaimed Taiwanese writer Huang Fan.

Not many people have heard of Huang, but he is no doubt a big deal in Taiwan’s literary circles, having won just about every major literary prize the country has to offer. Zero and other Fictions is the first collection of his work to appear in English, and it is translated and edited by award-winning translator John Balcom.

This is a fascinating anthology because it is so varied in its subject matter and styles. If the idea was to show off Huang’s versatility and the range of his imagination, this collection certainly achieves that.

The first story, “Lai Suo”, which propelled Huang to the forefront ofTaiwan’s literary scene in 1979, is a subtle and sometimes confusing story about a naïve man who becomes an unwitting pawn of Taiwanese politics. Spanning a period from the Japanese colonial era to the late 1980s, the story jumps back and forth effortlessly through time in a stream-of-consciousness style. It is the type of story that allows the reader to appreciate Huang’s literary genius but many not connect with it unless they have a bit of an idea about Taiwanese history and its political environment through the years.

The second story, “The Intelligent Man”, provides a stark contrast. It is a light-hearted satire about a Taiwanese businessman who moves to the US but through his business travels frequently back toAsia– where he has developed a habit of keeping a mistress in every port. It’s actually not an outlandish concept because I know for a fact that it is rather common.

The third story, “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch”, is a bizarre metafictional tale of the narrator’s childhood in a rapidly urbanisingTaipei. This one had me scratching my head more than once because I had no idea what it was getting at until the very end, and I believe that was Huang’s intention. It’s an experimental piece, well-written, sure, but probably the least enjoyable of the collection.

The fourth and final story is “Zero”, which takes up about two-thirds of the book’s pages. It is the first work of science fiction to win a major literary award inTaiwan, and considering that it was written in the 1980s, that’s a pretty impressive achievement. “Zero” depicts an Orwellian future, a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where nearly every significant human decision – from jobs to holiday destinations – is made by higher powers. Conformity is not an option – it is mandatory and an accepted philosophy. It is with this backdrop that the story’s protagonist, Xi De, an independent thinker, begins to ponder whether this totalitarian world is all there is to know.

One hundred pages is an uncomfortable length for a piece of adult fiction. It’s too long for a short story and in this case, one gets the feeling that Huang could have easily made it a novel three or four times as long, but chose not to. As a result, I found Zero engaging, certainly the most engaging piece of the four, but still strangely lacking in the end. Also, having seen so many sci-fi movies over the years, it wasn’t easy getting excited about a world which is not too dissimilar – I had to keep reminding myself that this story was written nearly three decades ago.

All of Huang’s stories have political and societal undertones which will resonate more with people who have background knowledge of the circumstances under which they were written. Every story in this collection, especially “Lai Suo”, demands multiple readings to fully appreciate the power of Huang’s writing. However, I still think my lack of genuine understanding of Taiwan’s political history has made me lose something from the experience. Balcom’s translations, as elegant as they are, probably also failed to convey the full force of the writings in their original Chinese. The result is a sometimes enjoyable but also frequently frustrating read that I wished could have been better.

3 out of 5

Book Review: ‘Tomorrow, When the War Began’ by John Marsden

October 30, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews

I can’t believe I had never heard of John Marsden’s Tomorrow series until I saw the movie poster for Tomorrow, When the War Began (review here), the first book in the series.  For years one of the most critically and commercially successful book series for teens not just in Australia but across the globe, and recommended for young people when I was a young person, but for some inexplicable reason it had completely fallen beneath my radar.  Shame on me.

The movie was fairly good, but nothing spectacular.  A bunch of country kids go camping, an unknown foreign enemy invades, the kids have to decide whether to hide or strike back.  By Aussie production standards it was extremely impressive — up-and-coming stars, big sets, massive explosions, potential for sequels (the second film, based on The Dead of the Night, has reportedly commenced filming).

After discovering how famous and popular the book on which the film is based was, I decided to check it out.  It’s always somewhat dangerous to read a book after you’ve seen the movie because you already know exactly what happens (more so than the other way around), but I figured the book must have its lofty reputation for a reason.

The book is written in first person, from the point of view of Ellie, the teenage protagonist.  Marsden does a fantastic job of emulating the voice and tone of the teenage narrator, capturing her fear, courage, confusion and angst in a surprisingly realistic way.  I recall lambasting the cringeworthy dialogue of the film, but on the page it came across as genuine, for the most part.

However, I’m not sure if it is because I felt I already knew the story and the characters, but it took me a while to get into the flow of Marsden’s narrative.  Coincidentally or not, it was when the book started to diverge from the film version that I began to feel the compulsion to keep the pages turning.  While the film focused primarily on the action, Marsden took considerably more time to develop his characters and deal with the complications that come with teenage relationships (especially those blossoming during a full blown war!).  This brought the characters to life and made the book a much richer experience.

Perhaps I’m getting too old for this kind of book, because I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.  Nevertheless, having finally read the novel, I can definitely see why the series is highly recommended for teenagers.  It’s a well-written tale of self-discovery, friendship, love, courage and standing up against evil.  No doubt more suitable for today’s youths than stories about vampire and werewolf boyfriends.

3 out of 5