Reviewing the Sabotage

June 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

I had a terrible time of it last night. I sat down to finish my review of Don Rearden’s debut novel, The Raven’s Gift only to have an attack of the writer’s equivelant of stage fright.

It wasn’t writer’s block per se. The well hadn’t run dry. I just couldn’t find the words to say what I wanted to say, which led to me going back and attacking the little I had written. Essentially, what I was doing was editing before I’d done any writing. I was sabotaging myself.

Many published writers say it; you will write a lot of crap before producing something worthwhile. Years of crap. Not every piece can be a work of art. I know this and yet I still put crippling pressure on myself to write well. Of course, there are added pressures when it comes to reviewing because that is about so much more than the self, it is about doing a service. A service to the work being reviewed, its creator, its prospective audience and then to yourself as the reviewer and staying true to your opinion.

When I experience lulls in my book review writing flow, I’ll often hop online and check out what other people have written. Bad idea. You know where this comes from, right? My compulsion to see what others are saying? I’m not confident enough in my own assertions. The fact that I’ve been reading novels non-stop since I learnt how isn’t a good enough justification for my response to a work; I need other people to back me up. I need to know that other people reacted the way I did. Other people who? Those who leave paragraph-long reviews on Amazon, which are mostly synopsis? If my own review reflects the general consensus then I’m appealing to the book’s readers or something. But what if I’ve completely missed the point of the book? Overlooked a central theme? These other reviews can help me fill the spaces in my own. Wait, what? This sounds crazy to you too, right?

I think as a reviewer it becomes easy to exaggerate your own importance. If someone doesn’t like my review or doesn’t agree with it, they’ll just go and read another until they come across one that aligns with their own views or tells them what they want to hear. Want to read Fifty Shades of Grey? There’s a review out there that will justify you doing that.

Into the narrative, the author successfully weaves Ana’s voice of reason (her subconscious) and her voice of desire (her “inner goddess”), which accurately reflect the seesaw of emotions that a woman might actually experience in her situation.
(Review from The Unexpected Twists and Turns)*

See? The characters are realistic. Although why anyone would read a book that describes a woman’s voice of desire as her “inner goddess” other than for a laugh I will never understand. I don’t think I even understand what a voice of desire might be referring to. Lust? Are they talking about lust? It all sounds very trashy and wishy-washy to me. Of course, there is an appeal in that, but this post isn’t about Fifty Shades.

My point still stands, reviews don’t make all the difference. People are still going to do what they want to do. Thus, it doesn’t matter if I don’t agree with the majority of people out there as long as I have an argument that is backed up by the text. Now, just to implement that next time.

* Please note: I, in no way deny the validity of the quoted excerpt pertaining toFifty Shades of Grey. I have not read the novel by E L James so cannot make my own assessment.The quote merely functions as an illustration of my point that reviews are varied and one can be found to justify any view.


Suspending Disbelief: Adventures with YA

June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Recently, I’ve been reading Young Adult (YA) novels, which have come quite highly recommended, only to find that the stories, which I supect would have captivated me as a teenager, are no longer doing the trick.

Yesterday, I finished Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star, which is the first in her Shades of London series. Johnson has quite an online following, many of whom highly recommended the book, so figuring I had nothing to lose, I added it to my list.

How did I find it? In a word, disappointing. About a quarter of the way through the whole tone of the novel changes when the protagonist, Rory discovers she suddenly has a very unusual ability. Without giving too much away, the circumstance by which Rory gains her ability actually made me laugh out loud because of how preposterous it is. And that unbelievability is the problem I had with the book overall. I thought the book was one thing and it became something completely different.

Johnson fearlessly takes readers from what seems like a cool innocent-abroad-with-iPod story to supernatural thriller. (Kirkus Reviews)

I am not adverse to fantasy stories. I do not lack imagination. I can suspend disbelief, but when a writer doesn’t properly pave the way for something as massive as a complete shift in genre, I will not jump on for the ride. Maybe the fact that I wasn’t really taken with any of the characters also had something to do with it.

Now, I’m reading Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty, which is a lot better in terms of giving the narrator a vibrant and compelling voice. The only thing is, I don’t think it’s the voice of a soon-to-be 16 year-old girl. The enviable way Jessica expresses herself is way beyond her years.

Jessica’s expression is attributed to her intelligence; she has a high IQ, which she suspects exceeds her parents’. But still, if you’re going to write about 16 year-olds for young adults from the perspective of someone who is seemingly of that age, why have them tell the story like Carrie Bradshaw? Like The Name of the Star, Sloppy Firsts is also the first book in a series, each book handling a year in Jessica Darling’s life. I suspect that writing style and character fit a lot better by book four.

The “highly intelligent” young narrator has established itself as a trope in my YA reading lately. John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines is told from the perspective of a child prodigy. While this is integral to the story, it also seems a tool, which allows for YA to be written with a very “adult” voice and at the same time, maintain the favoured first person narrative.

All of this got me thinking about what I look for in a book nowadays, and I think it’s honesty. I don’t know if that was so important to me growing up, mostly because when a narrator is identified as older than yourself you assume they’re behaving/writing/speaking/recounting in a realistic way, having no experience to compare it with. But when you surpass that age (and I’m talking specifically about first person storytelling here), and don’t see anything familiar in the behaviour of the character whose perspective is your “in” to the story world, it becomes tricky to engage.

All of that said, I know that I’m no longer the target audience for YA fiction. Maybe I am out of touch. Maybe my reading tastes have diverged and I can’t even be coaxed back for the sake of nostalgia. Who knows?

Prompted by the Panels

May 29, 2012 § 4 Comments

I’ve just spent my second consecutive night at an Emerging Writers’ Festival Industry Insider event and if I don’t write something down soon, I fear this feeling will be lost, never to be found again. I’d almost forgotten what being inspired felt like. I did have a similar experience after the Melbourne Writers Festival last year. I remember coming away from that completely convinced that if I put in the hard yards, I could do something with this writing thing. At the time, that meant me writing more regularly, and now, unfortunately it means the same. What was gained then? Was my short-lived motivation merely that, short-lived?

To be fair, at the time, I was writing frequently, only it wasn’t the kind of writing I necessarily wanted to be doing, or that I even considered writing; I was writing my thesis. There’s a part of me that has, though not always at a conscious level, considered academic writing an inferior writing form, as if it was somehow a less truthful mode of expression. My reasons for thinking this aren’t completely clear to me, but I suspect it has something to do with how restrictive I find the academic writing framework, but that’s something I’ll get more reflective about another time.

Back to the Industry Insider panel discussions! I intended to summarise the two sessions, Emerging Critics and Emerging Editors in individual posts, but that process tends to get a bit dry, despite the sessions being anything but, so I’ll just stick to relaying a few things that really resonated with me.

At yesterday’s Emerging Critics panel, Kerryn Goldsworthy said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that while the internet has made it much easier to potentially get your writing out there, it is important that you care more about your writing than the networking and don’t get distracted by it. I’m the first to admit, I’ve fallen victim to Twitter’s seductive ways. I’ve convinced myself that reblogging articles about writing is just as good as writing.

It’s research, right?

Oh, what a fool I was. Am? I haven’t quite decided yet.

I’ve become obsessed with the number of followers I have and panic when a few mysteriously vanish, even though they’re probably only spam accounts anyway. I’ve reached a point where I care more about what’s happening within the confines of the Twittersphere than what’s not happening at my desk. Needless to say, Kerryn’s comment was the reality check I needed.

In the same session, Richard Watts explained that reviewing is more than saying what you did or didn’t like about a work. It’s about identifying what did and didn’t work and why. Being able to argue your perspective is something that came up several times during the evening. It’s not enough to pass a judgement, you have to be able to back it up by way of explanation. By all means, be honest, but also be fair to your reader and the maker of the work.

Tonight, it was the editors’ turn to impart some wisdom. A lot of the advice had to do with dealing with writers and how to make the experience of editing someone’s work a pleasant one for all involved. I particularly liked what Penny Modra said about the style of writing they publish at The Thousands. Pieces are sent back with suggestions for edits if they aren’t written in a style similar to your speaking voice. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it.

Obviously, that’s not a rule that can be applied to all types of writing, but I couldn’t help but consider this approach in relation to my own writing. I don’t think I have a voice yet, or rather I don’t have my voice yet. The one I use everyday. The voice that’s not always serious. Integrating more of myself into my writing and letting the walls down a bit is something I have to work on.

Unfortunately, I can’t make it to the remaining Industry Insider panels this week, but they both look really useful so if you have the time, do make an effort to get to an event, whether it be a panel or another of the festival events. You can’t help but feel a little inspired afterwards.

What do you hold, oh future?

January 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Another tipsy evening, another countdown, another year. Hello 2012. What on earth will I do with you?

First thing’s first, this year signals the first time that I find myself without the comfort of schooling to fall back on. I have no uni to fill my time.  Now,  I’m on the job hunt. Oh, what a terrible and draining experience it has been so far. I think part of the problem is that I’m not altogether sure what it is I want to do, whether I want to be a radio producer, writer, professional ‘real world’-averter… the list goes on and on. Then, I have the problem of whether or not, despite my multiple voluntary media experiences, I have the right experience for any job. Okay, enough of my ‘woe is me’ employment anxieties.

I started this blog so I could write, so I would have a space to practice and hone my skills. My greatest fear after Honours was that my brain would turn to mush because I could not imagine doing anything more academically challenging than that year of research. Hence, this blog was a preventative measure. With that in mind, the thing I need to do most at this stage is write more regularly. Every day? Between 3 and 4 a week will do for now, I think.

Similarly, I promised myself that I would produce a weekly podcast. That hasn’t happened yet, but I took the first step the other night by buying myself a Zoom H4n. Earlier in the year, I attended a podcasting workshop hosted by Jessie and Jon of Paper Radio and they recommended the H4n as their most invaluable piece of equipment. I did some research and the rest is history. One portable microphone is headed my way.

I also have every intention of getting through a significant number of books on my Books to Read list. The list began in 2006 when we would regularly share and recommend books to each other in Literature class. I just took the extra step and made a note of them. The list initially comprised of only classics, but has since grown to some eight pages, is always being added to and  goes with me on every library trip. Currently, I’m in the midst of reading Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio’s Stories. And I have a substantial pile of books littering my bedroom floor to get through after that.

In the long term, it’s tricky to know what I want from this year. The plan had been to travel to Europe some time in June or July, but the Olympics will be on and hopefully, I will have a job before then that I won’t want to have to quit for travel. The plan for January at the very least, is to continue my volunteering , get some audio work done including some podcasting and get some more job applications out. Here’s to another year.

Performance anxiety

November 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Today was meant to be my “catch up on NaNoWriMo writing I didn’t get done yesterday” day, but that hasn’t happened yet and it’s already 5.50pm.

I decided to get involved in NaNoWriMo a couple of weeks ago when, still deeply involved in my Honours project-writing/making, I’d realised that my brain may very well turn to mush after submission date. Writing a novel would be my next project. It seemed the perfect solution. I needed a new challenge to keep the brain juices flowing and I’ve always wanted to write a novel, so why not? Things have got away from me a little in the mean time. Submission date rolled around, the Honours crew went partying, I caught up with friends I’d neglected over the past few months, cleaned my room, did a couple of shifts at work and now, it’s the 2nd November – day two! – and I’ve done diddly-squat towards my 50,000 word novel. Oops.

I have no ideas about what I want to write about. No planning has gone into this, but I’m invested now. I’ve pretty much told everyone I know that I’m going to write myself a novel so my hands are tied. To back out now would be a sign of failure and failure is not really an option, not now that I know what it feels like to succeed with something after working so hard at it (though to be fair, I haven’t yet received my mark for my Honours project. I’m just seeing submission as a success).

To be on track  of word targets come tomorrow, I will have to write 3,000 words today. I’m a little intimidated. Fiction writing is a big departure from the kind of writing I’ve been doing over the last eight months. I have performance anxiety. The only solution is to just start writing, I think. Stop blogging. Write.

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