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.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 11: Farewell

December 4, 2012 in China, Travel

November 16

Can’t believe it. My 11-day visit to Beijing has come to an end.

My final day in the Chinese capital was a short one. I didn’t even bother grabbing some crap buffet breakfast in the basement of the hotel before checking out and hopping into a car headed for the airport. Out of fear of missing my flight, I gave myself an-hour-and-a-half from my hotel to the airport, but smooth traffic got me there in barely over 30 minutes.

My driver (from the same car company that took me to the Great Wall a couple of days earlier) wasn’t much of a talker, but he continually expressed shock over the fact that China allowed Japanese reporters to enter the country to cover the 18th National Congress.

“How dare they?!” he would say over and over, reminding me that every piece of land in the world claimed by China is, in fact, owned by China. “China’s just too big. We don’t have time to look after everything so people steal our land.”

Gotta love the locals.

I checked in at Terminal 3, which, I mentioned before, is supposed to be the largest airport terminal in the world. Again, I didn’t get that feeling at all, but I was impressed with the security. Not only did they get me to take out my laptop, they also asked me to take out my iPad, keys and coins from my bag and patted me down for good measure. My bag went through the machines three times and I twice. It can be annoying but at least you know you’re safe.

I started reflecting on my rare trip to China while seated at a Costa Coffee, sipping on an awesome lemonade (but passed on the exorbitantly priced Evian mineral waters which cost something ridiculous like 19 yuan (AU$2.92) – not crazy compared to the $5 mineral waters in Sydney but a lot considering local mineral water bottles cost around 1-4 yuan, as water should).

It has been a rare experience indeed the last week and a half. It’s rare to have the opportunity to see China’s leaders all together in a room and up close (once every five years, in fact) and even rarer to witness a Chinese leadership transition in person (once every 10 years).

It was challenging to work long, unusual hours and travelling on the crowded metro, and even more challenging being away from my young family, but I also got to meet a lot of interesting reporters from all over the world, sampled some delicious Peking duck, stayed in possibly the cheapest hotel I have ever stayed in and visited a couple of iconic tourist sites. And not even a single bout of food poisoning.

At that moment, all I wanted to do was to go home, kiss my wife and son and rest, but I’m sure in a few weeks, months or years from now I’ll look back and realize what a once-in-a-lifetime privilege this was.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 9 (Part I): Closing the 18th National Congress

November 23, 2012 in China, Travel

Outside the Great Hall of the People on the final day of the 18th National Congress in Beijing

November 14

Closing Ceremony

The 18th National Congress finally came to an end today, which was a welcome relief considering how exhausting it has been. It also marked the last time I would head over to the Great Hall of the People, where I first attended the glittering opening ceremony a week ago.

According to a notice posted on the media center website, the closing ceremony would take place at around 10:30am, and it advised reporters to get there a little earlier to go through the security check. Unlike some eager beavers who apparently got there at around 3am (I have no idea why), I took a leisurely stroll there from the hotel and arrived shortly before 10am and met with some other journalists in the waiting area (but not before I caught a glimpse of hometown legend Stan Grant, who currently works for CNN, walking up and down the Great Hall stairs doing his best Stan Grant impersonation!).

I’m Stan Grant, formerly from Channel 7’s ‘Real Life’

At precisely 10:30am we began to move in a massive group from the waiting room towards the main hall. For some reason, the crowded journey was very stop-start (mostly stop), and soon we found ourselves stuck in a long corridor with no movement whatsoever. And we remained like that for a good 30 minutes.

I took a photo of this inner quadrangle in the Great Hall of the People. I counted one Volkswagen, one Lexus, and about 50 Audis. Communism at work.

Eventually we moved again into the area outside the main hall, where we waited again for another 20 minutes. No explanations, just waiting. Naturally, we started getting restless and wondered what the hell was going on. It wasn’t like the Communist Party to be so disorganised, having been spot on with the timing of every press conference up to that point. We started speculating — perhaps the mummified former leader Jiang Zemin had a stroke (I personally suspected it might have been a Weekend at Bernie’s situation all along), or maybe future leader Xi Jinping wasn’t “voted” into the Central Committee, sending his comrades into a tailspin.

Anxious reporters wondering how much longer they’d have to wait

Anyway, it wasn’t long before they crushed the rumors by starting to let us in, and soon we were treated to a typical Communist Party charade where the new 205-member Central Committee unanimously passed resolutions to approve reports as well as amendments to the party constitution. It was hilarious watching them all raise their hands to vote in favour of the resolutions, and then watching them pretend to wait to see if there were any dissenting or forfeited votes.

In the end, following a hearty rendition of Internationale (the party’s de facto anthem), outgoing party leader Hu Jintao (“exiting” is probably a better description considering Hu’s personality is anything but “outgoing”) officially declared the “successful” closing of the 18th National Congress. See you again in another five years.

The Communist Party’s new Central Committee

For me, that was also the official end of my “live” reporter duties. There’s the first plenum of the new Central Committee tomorrow where they will “vote” on the new Politburo Standing Committee (the highest and most powerful political body in the land) and introduce China’s new generation of party leaders — but I can’t attend that in person and must watch it from my hotel room on TV (as only one reporter from each news organization gets an invite and I of course wasn’t that person), not that I am complaining because I’ve had enough of all the subway rides and long waits.

Coming up, my afternoon trip to the Great Wall of China!

The Beijing Diaries, Days 6 & 7: Settling into a Routine

November 16, 2012 in China, Travel

It can get awfully crowded at the press conferences

November 11 & 12

When I first found out I would be coming to Beijing I secretly wished it would be like a mini holiday. Sleep in, do a bit of sightseeing, do some shopping, watch a few movies on my laptop, catch up on this blog, and maybe even do some actual writing — and I don’t mean the articles I’m paid to write.

Well, talk about wishful thinking. As it turned out it’s been anything but an easy ride. There are articles to write and press conferences and interviews to attend, and it’s been pretty full on with the early morning starts and late night finishes.

The last couple of days have been about settling into a routine. I get up, take a shower and go downstairs to the basement for a shitty hotel breakfast where I have nothing except reconstituted orange juice and plain white buns because everything else looks gross and could potentially make me vomit.

Then I work on an article in the hotel room and pack my belongings (as I like to lock everything up before I leave) which takes me to around noon (depending on how much analysis and research I have to do), then I go across the road to the mall for lunch, after which I head off to the media center for a press conference. The press conferences are long and boring and full of propaganda, and not much is useful until they open up for questions, and even then it’s not a guarantee.

When the press conference concludes I start working on another article and upload the photos I’ve taken, if any. I hang out at the journalist lounge sometimes and chat with the other reporters for a little while before heading back the hotel or if there is another press conference later in the night I’ll stay for that as well. Ether way by the time I get back I’m exhausted, and usually I’ll try to relax by watching a movie/NBA or writing a blog post, though to be honest writing is usually the last thing on my mind at that stage (but as you can see I persevere).

The worst part about the day is without a doubt the travelling on the subway to and from the media center. Line one is the busiest line in Beijing, and standing for eight stops packed like a sardine is not something I look forward to.

But on the whole I try to remain positive and absorb as much of the experience as possible. I just miss my family, that’s all.

Book Review: ‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman

November 6, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Due to a minor miscommunication on my part, I only had 4 days to read and review Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists, (instead of the expected 14) for a trade publication.  Unbelievably, I did it in 3.  Does this mean the book is so good that it was unputdownable?  Not quite.  But it was good enough, for the most part.

Tom Rachman is, according to the bio, a (former?) editor and news correspondent who has worked in North America, Europe and currently lives in Rome.  The Imperfectionists is described on the book cover as ‘a wise, funny and moving novel about the people who write and read an international newspaper based in Rome.’  That sounded like a perfect book for someone interested in the day-to-day workings of a newspaper and is writing on a book about inter-office power struggles and relationships.

But as it turns, The Imperfectionists is really more a collection of short stories (11 to be exact) — and it just so happens that the central character in each of these stories works at the same international newspaper.  There is the foreign correspondent, the obituary writer, the business reporter, the copyeditor, the publisher, and so forth.  The only exception is a wealthy old woman who reads the paper on a daily basis.  Occasionally, the characters might cross paths, but it’s never more than a small cameo.

All stories do deal with the newspaper publishing business, but that’s not what they are about at the core.  Rachman’s stories are about the characters and their relationships, the intertwining of their work lives, personal lives and love lives.  If this were a movie it would be kind of like Love Actually, New York, I Love You, or Valentine’s Day — one of those films with a central theme and an ensemble cast.

Rachman does try to thread a narrative through the book by inserting these short, snapshot-like chapters in between the main stories that chronicle the rise and fall of the newspaper.  However, the truth is that these aren’t much more than ‘breathers’ and it would be a stretch to suggest that the book is a single, unified story.

So what was it that kept the pages turning?  For starters, there’s a number of cracker stories.  There’s Winston Cheung, the young ‘stringer’ in Cairo vying for a permanent role, only to have his life turned upside down by a slick, manipulative veteran douchebag (and let’s face it, everybody knows someone like that!).   There’s Ornella De Monterecchi, the abovementioned reader who lives years in the past because she reads each paper cover to cover and does not move on to the next day until she finishes the one from the day before.  And there’s Abbey Pinnola, the CFO who by chance sits next to and ends up falling for the man she just fired — on a cross-Atlantic flight.

On the other hand, I won’t deny that there were a few stories that I struggled to get through (which happens from time-to-time in short story collections or anthologies), but it’s never due to Rachman’s ability to write.  I enjoyed his style — subtle and tight, with efficient but not overwhelming or contrived descriptions and natural, flowing dialogue.  Every now and then I do find that the conversations drag on for longer than they should, which can suck the life out of a short story, but on the whole the good outweighed the bad.  I’d be interested to see what Rachman comes up with next.

3 out of 5