Some Thoughts on Bird by Bird and Writing Advice

Bird_by_Bird_LR_titlecoverBestseller Bird by Bird is a quasi memoir and instructional craft book for budding writers. Alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, it’s the most lauded and cited book about writing. Anne Lamott trades in honesty and uses clear, tactile examples from her writing life to illustrate her points. There are some wonderfully evocative passages about human nature and the realities of life as a working writer.

I’ll give it this: Bird by Bird has personality, which, I suspect, is why it’s endured the way it has. Lamott has wit and a knack for metaphor. However, I’m in no hurry to investigate her fiction, as my reaction to Bird by Bird was largely negative. Frankly, I found Lamott unbearably smug. Am I alone in this? Did no one else find her faux self-deprecation a chore and her humour grating? (Just on this, her humour: It starts innocently enough, but morphs into this ugly, sarcastic crutch. How did no one else notice this?) Similarly, some of her admissions made me question her professionalism (see: the chapter ‘Jealousy’, which had me shaking my head in astonishment). When this happened, I could no longer respect her as a writing authority, rendering the book a failure.

Unsurprisingly, Bird by Bird took me an eternity to finish. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, though concede its uses. It was required reading for my course. Most of its advice was second nature to me, but it was nice to have it reaffirmed so eloquently.

A quick aside: I’ve always wondered why intermediate-level writers persist with reading craft books. Don’t get me wrong: studying the mechanics of writing is important. It’s just that, lately, I’m finding writing advice rote and tedious – which is maybe why I’ve ceased dispensing it on this blog. There are myriad resources available for those that need it, so my current view is why perpetuate a dialogue when the inevitable consensus will be ‘Don’t break rules unless with stylistic intent’.

Most professional writers discourage the romanticisation of writing, but breaking it down to bare mechanics feels equally reductive. Frankly, I don’t want to understand everything about creative practice. It’s like intellectualising faith, or watching one of those jerky, fun-spoiling, tell-all magicians. Continue reading


Doctor Sleep Induces Namesake: An Extended Diatribe on First-Ever King Sequel

Screen-Shot-2013-08-19-at-10.45.36In the Author Notes of Doctor Sleep, the extremely belated sequel to The Shining, Stephen King writes diplomatically about nostalgia, fan expectation and the legacy of his wildly successful third novel, The Shining (and its iconic Kubrick-helmed adaptation). King knew publishing Doctor Sleep would be a largely thankless job. The Shining holds a special place in many hearts. It’s iconic, a certified classic. Building on the momentum of his preceding novels, it cemented King’s reputation as a master of the genre and was revered by generations of readers.

Judging by his notes, King is acutely aware of what was at stake with this endeavour. He even expresses reservations. Appeasing everyone was inevitably impossible. That’s the case for any book, but it’s especially true for Doctor Sleep, a novel with so much baggage it’d go bankrupt with extra airport charges. Yet King rose to the challenge, breaking his unwritten rule about follow-ups and putting himself in an unenviable position. Why? Apparently it’s because he’s always wondered what became of little Danny Torrance. Hard to fault someone who approaches projects so sincerely.

Despite my forthcoming criticisms, I can say with conviction that I don’t doubt that King had pure intentions with Doctor Sleep. The Shining has a potent universe, so it’s not like there wasn’t room for additional stories. This is no cheap cash-in and King emerges with his integrity intact. That said, Doctor Sleep is weak, half-baked, a disappointing composite of ideas. It shows King isn’t creatively bankrupt – this novel is enjoyable if not particularly nourishing, like a Big Mac – but its screams for an intervening editor are deafening.

As a late-career Stephen King book it’s serviceable, I suppose, but as a sequel to one of the most defining horror novels of all time? Piss poor. There are some cool ideas at play here but, despite King’s aforementioned admission, I don’t believe the necessary care and attention went into this. I can say with surety that this is not King firing on all cylinders. This feels like just another of the four-a-year novels he routinely churns out. Nothing more or less. The Shining, and its fans, deserve better.

* * *

Doctor Sleep opens with remaining Torrances, Danny and Wendy, grappling with everything that occurred at the Overlook Hotel. Danny, now a couple of years older, is still burdened with the ability to shine. Wendy, on the other hand, has all but shut down after the breakdown and subsequent death of her husband, Jack Torrance (immortalised in a manic Jack Nicholson performance). The telepathic chef Dick Hallorann cameos early on to teach Danny his ‘mental lockbox’ trick, which is used to trap negative spirits.
Jack Nicholson
Continue reading

Review: ‘The Coma’

106373Alex Garland’s claim to fame is The Beach, a Thailand-inspired cautionary tale. While The Beach is a layered ensemble novel, The Coma strives for the opposite. The biggest drawcard here is the concept: a man’s perception of reality is warped following his emergence from a coma.

Look, I won’t beat around the bush. Although I consider this a short, worthwhile read, this book carried an unshakeable feeling of insubstantiality. Its narrative is a thin mechanisation, an exercise in cleverness. There’s no sense that Garland wants to immerse or entertain the reader. This is not a fully realised novel, but a vehicle for the author to explore his interest in the subconscious mind. Continue reading

Review: ‘Room’


  • This is from my enormous backlog of book reviews, most of which were written between 2010 and 2012. Posting this one because, looking back, I found my intense reaction to this book funny. You can see the spit fly. It’s obviously been a while since I finished this book, but I’m still happy to discuss it with anyone else who may’ve read it. (Note: Spoilers abound.)

Room is a Booker-short-listed novel by Irish writer, Emma Donoghue. The ultimate book club book, it was always destined to be a conversational powder keg. This book divides people. The fact that it was recognised by a major literary prize only exacerbates this. Its concept – a woman kept as a sex slave in an underground ‘room’ – is strong enough to carry you through it, irrespective of whether you like the voice, the writing, or the eventual shape of the narrative.

With all this in mind, here’s one opinionated guy’s take on it: Continue reading