Tag Archives: fiction writing


longI own about 300 books on writing, including the much-touted “On Writing” by Stephen King, but “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long is the single book that belongs on every writer’s bookshelf. While Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, and Julia Cameron talk about the head-stuff of writing, Priscilla Long talks about the actual nuts and bolts that are required in a writer’s toolbox. There are no gimmicks in her book either. This is a practical text-book, if you will, about how to become a craftsman. After all, that’s what a writer should aim to be – a craftsman. It’s suitable for the novice writer and the advanced writer because the skills that Long suggests writers need are applicable at whatever stage a writer happens to be at.


Long discusses the importance of reading, and while all readers read, virtuoso writers re-read. Long guides readers through reading to develop craft. It is only when we learn to dismantle great stories that we find the tools that will develop our own stories. Long’s style is accessible and the advice she offers is practical and enormously helpful.


The importance of grammar is given an ample amount of attention. Sentence types are elucidated upon to improve a writer’s range of skill in sentence structure. The importance of metaphor and simile are explained. Long has a knack of making the reader want to immediately pick up a pen and start practicing. Which brings me to practice.


Long promotes writing practice, after all, writers write, and Long suggests keeping a writing practice notebook where all that practice takes place. That’s nothing new, you say. You’re right, it isn’t new. Dorothea Brande promoted practice pages/morning pages in the 1930s, long before Julia Cameron came along with The Artist’s Way. What is new, is that Long doesn’t want the writing practice sessions to stay in the notebook, she wants them to be purposeful at the outset, and then for them to be transcribed into the appropriate project at the end of the writing session. Long encourages writers not only to write, but to write with the intention of publication, and her proposed strategy elevates the practice of writing practice.


The Writer’s Portable Mentor is one of those books you won’t take off your desk. When you’re stuck, you’ll return to it again and again to seek out one of Long’s practical suggestions to assist you. If you read only one book on writing craft, this should be it.



Too Sore to Read; Too Sore to Write

I was pacing around the garden, admiring the blooming agapanthus and sipping a cup of tea, ruminating about things and finally settled on the South African stories that I read in New Contrast and New African Writing and then I considered some of the things that I haven’t written about. I don’t mean the gender-appropriate, or race and religious related literary no-no’s – I mean the ordinary every day things that happen in our country.

Nadine Gordimer recently accused South African writers of failing to write the stories that are happening now. A common cry from South African readers is that they don’t want to read another damn story that takes place during the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid.

In fairness, many of the local novels have themes that have moved beyond apartheid; but rainbow-nation-weary readers aren’t prepared to even read the blurb. And who can blame them, when they’re faced with international novels that completely convey them to another place, another time, another life.

I tried to consider some of the contemporary issues in our country and wondered who might be interested in hearing how repatriated refugees are tasered on the flights to their countries of origin, who might be intrigued by the porn-star whose daughter attended my own daughter’s private school and was rejected by her peers because the car-park mommies didn’t want their children attending a party at a porn palace.  Such stories, who’d believe them, I thought to myself.

Living in South Africa is a challenge. I doubt there is a resident of South Africa who doesn’t have a crime story to tell. In less than twenty four hours I had been told about or the following stories: The home invasion where a woman watched a thug holding a gun to her son’s head; a grandmother who had to leave her job two years before pensionable age to look after her orphaned grandchildren; a woman was ambushed while driving under the bridge situated 2km from our house, killed by the thugs who dropped a cement slab onto her windscreen.

While these stories might appear on the daily broadsheets and on TV news, they’re not the subject matter I, nor any South African reader, I imagine, want to be clutching when we get into bed at night or when we’re waiting at an appointment. No, I want subject matter that transports me from the horror stories that punctuate daily life for many South Africans.

So where do I find the stories that I write; well personally, most of the last twenty stories I’ve written have not been set in South Africa, simply because I am a travel writer and travel has provided me with an opportunity to look for stories elsewhere. I grasp this opportunity with both hands because I find that when I’m writing about another place or about the people that inhabit them, I am able to get the critical distance that I don’t achieve as easily when writing about South Africa. I’ve written short stories set in Mauritius and Thailand and a novel set in Morocco. The short story collection I’m compiling at present is set in Egypt as is the novel I will begin working on in June. The novels I plan to write after that one is set in Singapore, and the one after that in Japan.

I don’t think for a minute that there aren’t wonderful, spirit-lifting stories to be told about South Africa; I just don’t believe that, at the moment, I can emotionally detach myself from the grime of the crime to polish up the pretty.

The First Time I Got Paid

My first writing job was as an online writer for Big Brother II.

During each 8-hour shift I was expected to produce daily diaries for half of the contestants, write one feature article a day and one ‘he did, she did’ short per hour. If I was on a day-shift it was my duty to do a poll at a local shopping centre or write a quiz for online viewers, and if it was an elimination Sunday I had to interview the eliminated housemates and family members of other housemates present at the elimination. I also had to capture my own stills from the daily live feed. What a brilliant experience it was and I had great fun making up tittilating article titles and provocative photo captions.

It was chaotic at times and hilarious at others and the writing came easily when the house was full of housemates, each one eager to out-perform their competition. But once the contestants were eliminated, my shift-mate and I found ourselves writing about the house cats because the two remaining housemates slept the days away, and really the writers were forced, as our editor said, to make “koek from kak.”

Towards the end of the event, I was tasked with interviewing the mother of one of the contestants; the press had slated her for being a bad mother and so when I telephoned her, it took a lot of calm negotiating to get her to agree to the interview. She was embarrassed about the way her family had come across in the local sensationalist mag that had already interviewed her and she was eager to minimise her family’s exposure to public scrutiny, even though her daughter had already outed the family skeletons in such a public way. It must have taken me well over half an hour of just listening and reassuring her until she agreed to be interviewed.

Families are not perfect, parents are fallible. When I interviewed the contestant’s mother and when I finally wrote the story, I realised that as a writer I didn’t have to add to her pain and humiliation by continuing to present the hardships of her family in a judgemental way; there is more to a person’s life than some bad choices they’ve made. It was my first interview and an extremely valuable lesson: writing about other people demands respect and an ethical responsibility from the writer.

Since then I’ve written a few profiles of people and I’ve managed to present the people as I found them, allowing their own words and their environments to paint them, trying to minimise my own prejudices or views.

For one of the elective courses that I took at varsity I had to interview someone I didn’t know and I interviewed a biker who trawled our suburb like a contemporary cowboy. He agreed to the interview and all was going well until he launched into a sermon on Krishnamurti and then he reached across the coffee table and pinched me viciously on my arm – to illustrate a point about feeling. I was stunned at how he reached across the boundary of writer/subject; this wasn’t supposed to happen. He then told me that if I had not interviewed him that morning, he had planned to end his unravelling life! At the end of the interview, he gave me his card, I gave him mine, but neither of us ever used each other’s number again and although I wrote the article, I never attempted to publish it. The experience sort of turned me off writing profiles.

However, I’m still a voyeur, what with my Big Brother training and all that; but these days I watch and I write and I imagine and I use all of those imaginings in my fiction. Fiction is a much smarter genre in which to manipulate the lives of your characters without anyone really getting hurt.

For the record, I haven’t watched a Big Brother episode since I uploaded my last story on the Big Brother II website. But, I’m a girl in touch with my roots, and I know that I’m the writer I am today because of the lessons I learned in the green room at M-Net in Randburg.