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Book Review: ‘A Time to Kill’ by John Grisham July 30, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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I’ve always been interested in the massive global phenomenon that is Mr John Grisham, and despite my disappointment with The Associate and relative disappointment with The Firm, I decided to check out Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill.

Grisham names the novel as one of his favourites, and most people have told me it’s one of his best.  And I think it has one heck of a premise — a young black girl is brutally raped by two racist rednecks, the girl’s father seeks retribution, and a predominantly white Mississippi community deals with its aftermath.  Caught in the middle is a young, brash criminal defense lawyer by the name of Jake Brigance (a character Grisham admits was modelled on himself).

Lots of stuff happens in this book, which is ultimately a courtroom drama/thriller centred around this very provocative premise.  Would you do the same thing if it happened to your child?  Would the jury convict?  Would you vote to convict if you were on the jury?  Those are the types of questions Grisham keeps asking throughout the story.

Grisham paints the fictional town of Clanton (also used in a later book, The Last Juror) extremely well.  There is a whole cast of characters, with almost a couple being introduced every chapter, and many of them are memorable and well-developed, especially the town sheriff Ozzie, the trial judge Noose, the obnoxious DA Buckley and Jake’s mentor Lucien.  A number of minor characters also have their moments.

A Time to Kill is a very good read, but not a great one.  The opening chapters sucked me into the world of the story but every now and then throughout the 500+ pages there were times when I lost interest in the narrative.  The strengths are the characters (good to see Jake Brigance has his own agenda and isn’t acting out of the kindness of his heart) and the moments of tension — either from the trial itself or the occasional threat of physical danger.  However, as Grisham admitted himself in the book’s introduction, he does waffle on far too much about things that didn’t need to be.

Like many first novels, A Time to Kill could have been pared back a lot more to speed up the pace, especially considering that the actual trial itself does not commence until almost four-fifths of the way through the book.  I felt some parts could have been condensed (the pointless, sometimes repetitive chatter) while others (such as the trial testimonies and jury deliberations) could have been drawn out more.  It’s a shame because with better plotting and pacing it could have been unputdownable.

As for the moral debate in the book — I had to keep reminding myself that it was originally published in 1989 and that a small, predominantly white town in Mississippi where the KKK still roamed is a completely different world to the one I know.  With that in mind I think Grisham handled it rather well.

Ultimately, A Time to Kill is the best Grisham fiction novel I’ve read thus far, but it still fell short of the lofty expectations I had for it, given its reputation and the premise.  Now, which Grisham book should I tackle next?

3.75 out of 5!

PS: I first had a look at A Time to Kill when I was in a Border’s book store (back when they still existed in Australia) and read the author’s introduction, where Grisham discusses his fondness of his debut novel.  It took him three years to complete it while still working as a lawyer (an amazing feat in itself), but didn’t gain success until The Firm became a bestseller.  It’s an inspirational story I continue to use to push myself down the writer’s path.

PPS: I can’t believe I still haven’t seen the 1996 movie based on the book.  Might be my Matthew McConaughey aversion.  I’ll have to check it out.

The pain of an unproductive day May 16, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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I got a reprieve this week because I managed to postpone my next meeting with my writing supervisor, and it was a much needed one because I hadn’t done nearly as much over the last couple of weeks as I would have liked for various reasons, including household stuff, getting the flu, general laziness, Fight Night Champion, the NBA Playoffs, and a battle with the worst food poisoning I’ve ever had (thanks to a cafe at Potts Point) where I actually passed out for the first time in my life!

This week needs to be the week where stuff happens, but I got off to a horrible start yesterday.  It was just one of those days where nothing seemed to go right (write).  I had nothing.  A whole day of trying to write and I ended up with barely over 2000 words — of first draft quality or worse!  My mind raced but no words came out.  Pain.

I think it may have something to do with what I discussed with my supervisor last time, being that it’s time for me to start rewriting and shaping each chapter into the best it can be.  I had so much success earlier on because I was just pouring out my thoughts onto the page (screen) without thinking about anything else.  Now, even though I’m still working on new chapters, shaping the narrative is always stuck in the back of my mind, and it has really handcuffed the free-flowing style I captured earlier.

So today (and possibly tomorrow) I will head back to basics.  Not think so much and just write (type), and see where it takes me.  The fixing up always needs to come later.

China, I forgot about you! May 15, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Study.
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I was running through my list of unwritten posts when I suddenly realised I still had a whole stash of posts about my trip to China.  The trip was from mid-to-late March, but for some reason I had forgotten all about them.  I had done a few posts in the weeks after my return, but the best were actually yet to come.

I guess it shows how busy I’ve been lately.  I powered my through a very successful essay and amazingly, actually completed a short book in the last few days.  It came from a sudden burst of inspiration one sleepless night.  I got up at around 4:30 in the morning and started formulating a plan over the next 3 hours.  I started writing it a few days ago and just completed it today.  I’m going to let it sit for a couple of days while I attend to my other novel (the major project, due in under a month), then go back to it, do a bit of editing and then look for a publisher as soon as possible.  I won’t reveal what it is yet but I think it has potential and let’s just say time is of the essence with this one.

Oh, and I still have a bunch of books I need to read and I need to prepare a chapter of my project for an upcoming workshop.  It’s time to put my head down and start being super productive.

And of course, the Sydney Writers’ Festival which commences next week, and I will be there for the launch.  I’m looking forward to it.

In the meantime, I apologise to China for forgetting you.  Stay tuned.  Lots of wonderful posts to be written.

Fantasy Writing: Creating an Ensemble Cast May 11, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing.
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I think these guys are from Final Fantasy

I’m long overdue for a post about fantasy writing.  Just as well, considering I haven’t touched my fantasy novel for probably a year now, thanks to other ideas and projects that keep getting in the way.

Anyway, the other night we were discussing films and books that had large ensemble casts, and just how difficult it was to manage everyone.  This is a common problem for fantasy novels, which usually have a large cast of characters, sometimes all appearing at the same time.

Indeed, this was a problem that I had encountered with my own fantasy novel, which involves a team that continuously changes in numbers, going up as high as eight or nine.  I had tremendous difficulties when more than three or four people were in a single scene — do I give them something to say, do I describe what they are doing, or do I just leave them out but allude that they are around?  If I put too many characters in, won’t things get too messy, to cluttered?

Through various discussions, I am now slowly getting an idea of how to approach it.  Like it or not, when you have a lot of characters, you must plan in advance.  Films are easier to cater for ensemble casts than books, because in film you can see the character there even though they don’t necessarily have to do anything; in books it can get awkward if you don’t know what to do with them.

The most important thing is to first ensure that each character has a personality and a narrative function.  If you can’t figure it out in your head, lay the names out and actually make a list.  What is this person like?  What is the purpose of this character and how do they drive the narrative?  Are they there to bring tension?  Are they there as a companion?  Or are they there to bring growth to the protagonist?

If you find that the character doesn’t really serve any real purpose, then do you really need them?  Or perhaps you need to give them one?  More often than not, you’ll find maybe one or two characters that serve no narrative purpose, whether just for a particular scene or on an overall level.  It’s then up to you to decide what to do with them.

Next, it would help if you can identify the scenes where a lot of characters appear at the same time and break them down for each character.  What is that character doing and what is the purpose of them being there?

It is important to bring each character to life, to give the unique traits and flaws, and give them character arcs so they can undergo some kind of emotional or personal journey or transformation.

It might seem like a tedious, overkill exercise, but when you put them side by side, the tightly crafted scenes are just so much better than the scenes where everyone is all over the place and you have no idea why they are there.

The key, as with any scene, is to pretend you are a director — create the characters, create the story, and fill in the gaps.

It’s coming along nicely (my book) May 9, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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So I met up with my supervisor again recently, and the feedback was good.  Much better than I had anticipated.

To be honest, it was a bit of a lazy effort on my part — not in all the sleepless nights I had trying to think of different ways to approach the writing and the countless hours I spent piecing it all together — but rather, in terms of the actual amount of time I spent writing and editing.

After our first meeting, I dumped what was supposed to be the first chapter and started again.  Looking back at it now, it was the right decision because it wasn’t what I wanted to write.  It didn’t matter if it was any good.  What mattered was that it wasn’t the type of book I intended.  So out it went and I started over.

This time, I just typed down whatever came to me.  It was easy and I sped through it.  I think it was as close to ‘free writing’ as I’ve come in a long time.  It’s been a really long time, considering free writing was one of the first things I wrote about on this blog like two years ago, and I haven’t done much of it since.  I just belted out the story without worrying about form or structure, deciding that I was not going to worry about it now and will fix everything up later.  The only bit I put a bit more effort into was chapter one, but even that was a pretty casual effort.

As it turned out, it was the best thing I could have done.  The result was a little raw, somewhat rough around the edges, but it was the type of book I wanted to write.  Finally, I was getting close to discovering the right voice.  And my supervisor was happy with how it was progressing.  Joy.

It’s going to be a busy few weeks coming up.  I still have to finish a couple of books I borrowed from the library, plus another book I bought from the Book Depository — all three will supposedly help me with finding my stylistic mojo.  I have a book launch to attend at an upcoming writers’ festival (And yes, it’s MY book!  Well, mine and a bunch of other people’s, but it’s still MINE!), and most of all, I need to do a lot more writing with the project deadline coming up in a little over a month.

The next step is to write a bit more (I have a few chapters lined up, actually), but because the project does not requre me to finish the entire book, I will have to do some serious rewriting shortly.  The key is to develop the humour so that’s punchier, more even and with less cheap shots (I have a tendency to go for the low blow) and craft each chapter so that it can stand on its own, almost like a short story.

A weird analogy here but I’m looking for inspiration in some of the shows that Larry David wrote, such as Seinfeld and Curb.  I’m in awe of David’s ability to create various strands in an episode and allowing them to intertwine before bringing them all together at the end and making the story go full circle.  That’s the type of legendary stuff I need to come up with.

PS: On another note, on one sleepless night I came up with a new idea for a book. It’s not a novel, but is a potentially lucrative idea.  Or so I reckon.

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