What makes a short story sweet?

Short fiction. Concise, pointed, generally fast-paced. But what makes short fiction Short & Sweet as opposed to just plain Short? I’ve read quite a cross section of short fiction throughout my years of primary school, high school, personal reading and now university. And quite miserably, for every good short piece of fiction that I’ve enjoyed, I’ve had to endure approximately five terrible pieces. The art of short fiction is apparently one in its own right and those who think you can just cut a chapter out of a novel have yourself a short story are very, very wrong. Short stories require quite a bit of coy plotting for although it may not take as long to write and think up as a five hundred page fantasy novel, you have little room for whinnying your way around to the point. You have to get there. Fast. But still with enough padding that you can call it literature as opposed to an assembly of dot points. 

So, that all said, what are your thoughts on short fiction and what makes it good? What do you like to read and what do you think a writer has to do to serve this genre well? 

The Nanny Diaries – A Review

The Nanny Diaries Book

Sigh. You know what they say about diving into anything with preconceived ideas…something along the lines of: you’re usually disappointed. But I had to learn that lesson for myself, didn’t I? And the Nanny Diaries sure did teach it to me. I went in with the preconceived notion that I was going to get quite a kick out of it… and, in my defence, it has been raved about, gushed about and translated onto the screen; what was I supposed to deduce from such a response? However, to my dismay, I was left pondering one particular question: where the hell did all of this novel’s accolades come from? Did its reviewers even read the book? I sound unjustly harsh, I know. I sound a little over-critical, I know. However, in all seriousness, nearly every literary facet of this book left me disappointed.

The Plot

The Nanny Diaries recounts the  journey of New York University student, Nanny, as her childcare job with the X family steadily transitions from two-day-a-week child-minding to full-time surrogate mothering. Nanny battles the elements of the Upper West Side elitist lifestyle, frantically hunting for lavender water (whatever the hell that is), steaming kale for a four year old who just wants a hot dog and searching desperately for the panties of Mr. X’s mistress before they fall into the hands of his wife. This is a book about a nanny called Nanny who hates her job with ever fibre of her being but can’t quit for her love of Grayer X, the little kid who has her by the heart strings while his mother threatens to cut them.

If you allow me to be blunt, here is my opinion of the plot: boring, repetitive and anticlimactic. Yes, there were brief moments that brought a smile to my face or had me raging at Mrs. X but as an entire novel, The Nanny Diaries was quite a dull, and therefore tiring, read. While I do value a novel that provokes me into sharing its characters’ emotions, whether they be anger, grief, hope or euphoria, I do not enjoy spending chapter after chapter in a state of incessant frustration. As a result of a very cyclical storyline, whose action sequence was void of some much needed contrast, The Nanny Diaries lacked pause for relief and quickly began to feel like one tiresome rant about the Xs.

The minor sub-plots of the story, those involving Nanny’s romance, family and friends, were neglected by the authors and remained unconcluded by the novel’s completion. I found myself frequently yearning for a chapter devoted to Nanny’s love life or her eclectic grandmother, just for a little break from the stream of employment misery.  These things did flit across the pages every now and again but not often enough to satisfactorily compensate for the childcare tedium. These facets of the storyline seemed to me to simply be strings woven into the story but left untied. As a reader, I felt no closure regarding Nanny’s relationship, nor did I feel particularly satiated by the novel’s actual ending. Sorry, The Nanny Diaries, but your plot was weak.

The Writing

I will not unfairly claim that the writing was elementary, incomprehensible or bland; I quite liked the colourful vocabulary and the frequent wit, two elements of style that brought life and texture to the novel as well as to the main character, Nanny, from whose first person perspective the story was told. Unfortunately however, that’s where my positive feedback comes to a grinding halt. It took me a full four chapters to become acquainted enough with the authors’ style to easily flow with the writing. On too many occasions, I found there to be sentences ill-formed, nonsensical or missing altogether, making it difficult to easily (and therefore enjoyably) understand Nanny’s intentions. While this sporadic and candid style of first person prose was obviously used by the authors as a method of characterising Nanny, I often felt that its effect was lost as a result of poor structure and expression. Overall, the writing was not terrible and could definitely be classed as funny and intelligent. However, I found that certain ill-formed elements of the book’s style detracted from much of the characterisation and expression.

My Conclusion

The Nanny Diaries, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, was a book that I was quite excited to read and picked up with a cheery enthusiasm. Expecting humour, wit and warmth, I was disappointed to find myself ploughing exhaustedly through endless chapters of frustration. While the mark of a good book is the sensation of being addicted to it, I found The Nanny Diaries to almost be a chore and was quite relieved when I finally reached its closing paragraph. Although certain elements of its style and characterisation were colourful and textured, the novel as a whole is certainly not one that I would read again, nor one that I would recommend.

I’m curious however, in spite of what may seem to you to be a determinedly negative response to this book, whether you found it be at all enjoyable and what you liked and disliked about it. Do you feel I’ve been unjust in my criticisms? Would you recommend this book? Share your thoughts!

A penny for your thoughts?

I have been struck by what I believe is an excellent idea!

I love fiction and I love short stories but I find it devastatingly difficult to actually write fiction myself. It’s not a fear of style or grammar or structure that injects me with writer’s block, it’s a complete and total lack of ideas regarding plot and character. In the past, I’ve used pictures or lines or quotes as forms of stimulus from which to begin and this works magic with the imagination. Every single one of the stories that I’ve managed to squeeze out of my pen were conceived in the ‘My Pictures’ file on my computer.

So to my idea! Please share your honest and potentially brutal opinions with me.

I was considering instituting a weekly miniature short story competition for all of my readers. I will post a picture or a quote or just a first line and you get a certain period of time to run with your imaginations, employ your brilliant writing skills and whip up a fantastical specimen of fiction for the blogosphere! You can either enter your story via the comment tool or email it to me and I will announce a weekly winner! It would be far from official or strict and would simply be just a fun and free way of creatively frolicking together in the bookish blogosphere.

Please leave me your thoughts on this idea!

‘The Road’ – a journey with Cormac McCarthy

The Road Cormac McCarthy

Last week I was perusing the shelves of an acquaintance’s personal library that I’d define as an amalgam of thriller, mystery, crime and action novels, predominated by the works of Daniel Silver, Lee Child and James Patterson. I came across one book among the many however, that didn’t quite fit in with its neighbours: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’d heard of this book of course, there now being a ‘major motion picture’ of it, but I’d never really taken much of an interest in it and therefore knew little to nothing about it.

Aside from the blurb, the back cover showcased an impressive collection of review exerts from major global publications, all commending McCarthy on this literary triumph.

“Consistently brilliant.” – The New York Times

“Wildly powerful.” – Time

“The writing throughout is magnificent.” – Chicago Sun Times

And so, I decided to read it. I wonder, why has nobody ever recommended this book to me? To describe it in a handful of words: intriguing, sobering, chilling, heart-warming and heart-breaking.

The Story

‘The Road’ will break your heart, warm your heart, soften your heart, harden your heart and make your heart skip a beat or twenty. A searing, post-apocalyptic tale of father and son, the book is essentially an exploration of the heart, the mind, human instincts, the mentality of survival and the nature of unconditional love. Without ever mentioning the names of the two main characters, nor the names of any countries, towns or dates, McCarthy very powerfully strips his book of superficial distractions and thereby creates a timeless, focused and naked tale of love.

The Writing

The first thing you notice when you begin reading McCarthy’s highly acclaimed best-seller is the complete and total lack of chapter titles and quotation marks. At first, I found this slightly off-putting, as the descriptions and the direct speech wove in and around each other seamlessly, standing in stark contrast to the highly punctuated literature that I’m used to. But once immersed in the story and flowing easily with its rhythm, I found that this style of writing served to accentuate the story’s themes of sparsity, simplicity, bare survival and unadulterated love.

In addition to this very daring and clever bastardisation of the traditional narrative, I can confidently say that McCarthy has an astounding command of the English language, exercising his knack for vividness and poignancy throughout ‘The Road’. While some paragraphs were purely for the sake of reporting action, others were dedicated entirely to intense, moving and thought-provoking contemplations, delving into the very fragile psyches of the post-apocalyptic mind.

My Conclusion

‘The Road’ was a spontaneous read for me and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much; I was free from preconceived notions of its content, style or calibre. I read it without knowing anything about it and I loved it. Never before had I read a book of such style and simplicity, finding myself at first disconcerted but soon intensely moved and rapt. Without the clutter of your traditional narrative, Cormac McCarthy very effectively focuses ‘The Road’ on a handful of absorbing, provoking and affecting themes and had me, by its end, in a state of deep contemplation. He simultaneously broke and warmed my heart and although I wouldn’t add ‘The Road’ to my favourites list, I would definitely recommend it as a quick, wonderful and profound read.

“Every child in our world will know his name!” You were right, Professor McGonagall.

On the fifteenth page of my very battered and tattered copy of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, the much beloved (and also somewhat feared) Minerva McGonagall doesn’t mince words when she predicts Harry Potter’s future fame: “He’ll be famous – a legend…every child in our world will know his name!” Well, Professor, maybe you should teach Divination.

Harry Potter is indeed a household name and unless you’ve been living in the middle of the Sahara Dessert, you’ve heard of him. I began reading J.K.’s first book when I was ten years old and have since been a self-proclaimed student of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Yes, I’m a nerd. But I’m not the only one.

Joanne Rowling

I have no qualms in making the bold claim that Joanne Rowling has set the benchmark for imaginative storytelling. As a writer (or at least a wannabe writer), my greatest and seemingly unattainable dream is to pen a story that captures the imaginations of as many children and adults around the globe. To this day, no other author, film-maker, painter or playwright has come within a one hundred kilometre radius of J.K. Rowling’s feats of imagination. They have tried (oh, how they have tried!) and they have oft succeeded in producing wonderfully creative tales, but none has ever come close to pinching the crown from Harry Potter’s lightning-scarred forehead. That is, in my own personal opinion.

Today, while driving to work in weather so miserable it seemed the height of cruelty that I was unable to curl up with a mug of coffee and a book, I heard an announcement on the news that excited me so much that I very nearly drove straight into a pole. Saving my wing mirror in the nick of time, I spent the remainder of my journey very carefully grinning from ear to ear. Are you ready to hear the news? (Exercise caution if currently operating heavy machinery.) The beloved queen of fiction, J.K. Rowling, is returning to her kingdom with a fresh and exciting new novel for adults!

Although the title and plot of this up-and-comer are as unknown to us as magic is to muggles, she has disclosed that her latest book will differ greatly from her Harry Potter stories. Exploring different territory, writing for a different audience and using a different publisher, Ms. Rowling certainly has us all waiting with bated breath, intrigued and excited. The question that I’m sure is now on everyone’s minds is whether or not anything will ever compare to the phenomenal success of Hogwarts. Although I certainly will be in line to buy her book on its release date, I must confess to feeling the slightest bit unsure as to whether or not I have room in my heart for anything post-Harry Potter… I guess I’ll just have to wait, read and see.

Welcome back, Joanne, we’ve missed you!

Wanted: one standard imagination, please.

Writing; oh, how I love it. At school, I would very rarely have a firm grip on any of the content of my courses. Economic theory was a complete blur. Ancient history was facts read and then forgotten a millisecond later. Mathematics, quite frankly, was an alien concept to me. Somehow though, I managed to pass every subject with flying colours…miraculous! So, how did I ace my exams and assignments without ever really understanding the content? Written communication. A skill that so many people underestimate, written communication is what I believe to be the key to success in an academic environment. If you can write well, express yourself clearly and communicate in an effective and intelligent manner, you can take a very basic knowledge of a topic and spin it into a report that impresses the pants off whoever happens to read it! Or at least, that’s how I flew through high school.

Writing is my forte, you could say; a skill I have and would love to improve. Reports, essays, theses, persuasive speeches, expository writing, creative non-fiction…I have all of these things under my belt. (Good Lord, I sound like an arrogant, over-confidant teenager, don’t I?) But, there is one genre of English that lies just beyond the reach of my writing prowess: fiction. Perhaps it’s because I’m not really a story teller (though boy, would I love to be!) or perhaps it’s because my imagination has been thrust to the back of my mind (I blame school). Whatever the reason and in spite of my efforts, the ability to produce a quality work of fiction has eluded me. However, in grade eleven (junior year, for all you Americans), I was required to write a short story for my English class. Terror, horror, fear…all of the above. But, in spite of said disposition towards writing fiction, I managed to produce a passable piece of creativity.

Shall I share it with you all? Now, keep in mind that I was a wee sixteen year old at the time that I wrote this.

TIGERLILY

“Where is she?” the hysterical mother screamed into the telephone, unable to control the rising panic any longer. “Damn it, where is my daughter?”

“We’re working on it Ma’am. We’ll let you know as soon as we have any information as to her whereabouts. For now, just remain calm. Don’t panic until we know we have reason to.”

A sound of tormented exasperation involuntarily left her lips as she slammed the phone onto the receiver. The past forty-eight hours had been agony, when was it supposed to get better?

Tigerlily was a seventeen year old girl. She was the only child of Wendy and Peter Allen: an accountant and a solicitor respectively. The family of three, together with their Persian cat, Josephine, lived in a neat white house of wood with a neat front lawn on a neat suburban street in a neat, normal neighbourhood.

On the seventh of April 2003, the autumn sun allowed just enough warmth for the critters in the neat garden to scurry and nibble before hibernation. The song birds had quieted and the vibrant greenery behind the neat white house of wood had softened into a picturesque blend of browns, yellows and reds.

Tigerlily inhaled deeply as the crisp, autumn air ruffled her lacy curtains. Her bedroom did not resemble what one would consider to be a typical seventeen-year-old’s bedroom. As with the rest of the excessively neat household, Tigerlily’s bedroom was in perfect order. Where one would expect to find boy band posters and clothes strewn across the floor, there was a made bed and neat desk with a small stack of textbooks and assortment of carefully arranged pens and pencils.

Tigerlily leaned back from the window and gazed at her bedroom. It sickened her. The creativity and imagination that shaped her every thought felt smothered by the matching furniture and blue bedspread and plain beige walls. Josephine the cat even matched, with her creamy coloured fur nearly camouflaging her with the carpet. Tigerlily had tried once, to decorate her room with posters and photographs and purple lampshades and a rainbow bedspread.

Wendy Allen most certainly had not approved. “Tigerlily, why do you want to spoil our lovely home with awful clutter like that? Don’t you want our friends to think our home is beautiful? We have a beautiful home, Tigerlily, let’s not spoil it.”

The part inside of Tigerlily that was vibrant, adventurous and colourful was carefully locked away by Wendy Allen who would not stand for such frivolous nonsense. At age three, Tigerlily was enrolled in ballet. At age five she started piano lessons, tennis at age ten and deportment at age twelve. By eleven, after being continuously lectured and redirected by her parents, Tigerlily had given up any ideas of being allowed to pursue her own desires and passions while under their guardianship.

The sound of stones clanging against glass turned Tigerlily’s attention back to the window. Peering down over the sill at the ground a storey below, she felt relief well in her chest. The familiar dark-haired boy flashed the crooked smile that still sent her heart into palpitations. Picking up her rucksack and the small bundle of money, her life savings that she had been collecting and saving for as long as she could remember, Tigerlily graced her disgustingly tidy bedroom with one last glance before lifting her leg over the windowsill. Climbing down the lattice was second-nature to her now. Having perfected the art at age fourteen, the now seventeen-year-old Tigerlily swiftly made her way down to her favourite person in the world.

Oliver James opened his arms to Tigerlily and chivalrously relieved her of her rucksack. Her auburn hair shone magnificently in the autumn sunlight. How good it felt to be in the arms of he who was her soul mate. The pair danced across the browning lawn toward the white picket fence that separated the Allen premises from a park of expansive gardens and towering oak trees.

Tigerlily felt euphoria pulse through her veins as she skipped away from her perfect, neat home. Earlier that day, she had feigned illness, to avoid being dragged out for the mother-daughter bonding activities that Tigerlily despised so deeply. Instead, she had stayed home and packed her rucksack with the essentials and waited excitedly for Oliver to arrive. By the time her parents returned home, she would be many kilometres away.

Oliver clutched her hand and pulled her to face him. Her green eyes pierced his blue eyes and together they stood in silence, in awe at what they’d done. They hadn’t stolen a priceless painting or won a million dollars or run a marathon or anything quite that dramatic, but to them, the enormity of simply escaping the prison of parental expectations was overwhelming.

The setting sun cast deep pink and orange hues across the magnificent sky. Tigerlily and Oliver had walked ten kilometres within two and half hours and then taken the train to the airport. Twenty-three kilometres now stood between the liberated adolescents and their former abodes.

As the glowing oranges started to fade into impregnable navies, Wendy Allen impatiently waited for her daughter to answer her mobile phone. “She told me this morning she couldn’t join me for high tea because she wasn’t well. I’m telling you, if she is out partying, I will be extremely cross,” Wendy chided to her husband.

The blanket of darkness gradually peeled away to reveal a crisp blue morning. Wendy Allen, having fallen asleep on the couch before Tigerlily’s return, entered her daughter’s bedroom with bated breath and a cache of reprimands and disappointed looks. After a long, restless night of tossing and turning, the empty bed sent a piercing wave of maternal hysteria over Wendy.

By midday the next day, that wave had become a tsunami of panic and terror hovering above Wendy and Peter Allen. Don’t panic until we have reason to? My missing child isn’t reason enough to panic?

Wendy sat alone at the neat cream-coloured kitchen counter, head in hands, shaking uncontrollably. Her life was so neat, so tidy, so organised. Her home was her temple of perfection, boasting the same excessive neat and tidiness that shaped Wendy’s personality. Yet, in spite of her consistent efforts, she had never been able to neaten and tidy her daughter. Tigerlily Allen had been a free spirit and Wendy’s mere attempts to impose her own organised ideals on her daughter had placed distance between them that far outstretched the kilometres that now literally separated the two.

Since entering her daughter’s empty bedroom the day before, Wendy’s intuition had been pulsing like a metronome beneath the veil of sheer terror and desperate longing for Tigerlily’s return. At that moment, she would have given anything for the phone to have rung with good news. She knew though, with her intuition throbbing incessantly and painfully inside her core, her rigid body shaking as if in a seizure, that she would never get that chance.

Two thousand, five hundred and seventy-two kilometres away from the neat, white house of wood sat an auburn haired-girl and a black-haired boy, hand in hand, gazing up at the stars which littered the sky above this unfamiliar land. This strange land however, felt more like home to this seventeen-year-old girl than the suffocating perfection she had escaped from ever had. For the first time in her life, a sense of complete peace settled over her as she lay anonymously on a patch of grass in an unfamiliar place, not knowing what the next day held.

While writing this, I realised that I love writing for the beauty of language. For the way in which sentences can be strung to evoke fear, nostalgia, excitement or romance. The sheer poeticalness of words. You probably noticed that my short story focused very little on plot and tension but instead spent a great deal of time describing the scenery…and while I know that this makes for a very unexciting tale, it’s the description, the formation of beautiful sentences, the power of alliteration and metaphor that give me my writer’s buzz.

And this is how I came to the conclusion that I would like to write creative non-fiction. What a sublime genre! I don’t have to care about character and plot and tension…I can take facts and topics and exploit my vocabulary to the very best of my creative ability! Now, don’t get me wrong, I adore fiction. Novels of every genre make me dizzy with literary excitement. I lived at Hogwarts throughout my entire childhood. I fought the enemy with Ellie from Tomorrow, When the War Began. I drifted out at sea in a boat with a Bengal tiger and Pi. Yes, I’ve thrown myself head-first into the many magical worlds of fiction and would be blatantly lying if I claimed to enjoy reading non-fiction any more than I love to read stories. But when it comes to writing, my catharsis, nothing can quite compare to the very malleable genre of creative non-fiction.

Words, words, words. What do you love about words? What genres do you love to read and what genres do you love to write? Are you first and foremost a story teller or a writer? Are you an academic or a dreamer? Share your words with me!