Review: A Brief History of 7 Killings

A_Brief_History_of_Seven_Killings.JPGWhile certainly not brief, this book does contain its fair share of killings (more than 7). Chronicling the lives of various Jamaican ghetto dons from the late 60s all the way to the 90’s, it reads like The Godfather goes Caribbean. The language is rough, but it bounces with a jovial, yet often treacherous, Jamaican riddim. Fall on the wrong side of the beat, and you’re like to get a bullet in your belly.

I grew up in Jamaica during the 80’s, and the idyllic island life that plasters most people’s mental picture of the country was as far from the truth of my childhood as India is from the West Indies. Gangs ran amok. Thievery and murder were commonplace. When men began testing the bars on our windows at night looking for weak points in the house’s defense, my father asked a neighbor what he should do.

“Don’t bother calling the police, brethren,” our neighbor said. “When you call them, they tell you, ‘We’ll come by and pick up the bodies.’ No. Buy a machete, and wait by the window. When the first man comes through, chop de head off ‘im, and pull ‘im through. Then the next man. Chop ‘im head off too, and pull ‘im through. When they stop comin’, then the police show.”

This book–with fictional characters and factual events–lives, breathes, and speaks the Jamaican story: the best and the worst of it. It’s a book you get lost in. If the dialect is a little tricky to read, I suggest picking up the audiobook. It feels less like a reading and more like a stage play with some of the best voice acting I’ve heard on a book.

For the amazon link, click here.

To Write Better Characters, Invert the Binary

French linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure was studying Western languages when he discovered that everything we understand, we only understand because we can compare it to something opposite. In order to know evil, we must know good. To know freedom, we must know slavery. To know light, we must know dark. 

Jacques Derrida took this thought further and said that in all of those binary relationships, one of the values dominates the other. Light dominates dark. Good dominates evil. Freedom dominates slavery. Man dominates woman. You see where this is going. When you only have two values and you place them in opposition to each other, one of them is going to come out on top. In Western culture, many of these values have been cemented into our worldview. Thus, wealth dominates poverty. Capitalism dominates Communism. White dominates black. Those who are able are inherently better than those who are disabled.

Pieter Fourie claimed that deeper in each of these binary oppositions were secondary oppositions. White means wealthy, powerful, civilized, good, favored, intelligent. Black means poor, powerless, uncivilized, inherently bad, cursed, and unintelligent. Man means strong, virile, intelligent, capable of leadership, logical. Woman means weak, chaste, unintelligent, incapable of leadership, emotional. While most of these assumed binary positions have been criticized and proven false over the years, many of them still remain in our subconscious view of the world. 

As storytellers, it’s our responsibility to shape others’ view of the world. The easiest and most subversive way to do this is to get ahold of one of these binary oppositions and deconstruct it. We do this by inverting the binary order. Instead of a Black savage in Africa, why not explore the mind of a White savage in New York? Try making your hardened special forces operator a mother of three. Or make your benevolent, successful businessman a high-school-educated Ugandan immigrant.

Doing this creates interesting characters who leave a greater impression, because they challenge our preconceived notion of the way things are.

Finally, you can invert the binary on locations or objects as well. So many fictional murders are committed in dark alleyways that it has become a cliche. Why not place a violent encounter in a place we deem as safe and free from turmoil, like a sunny day in a flowery garden?

So, how do you do it? When you’re creating a character or a setting, choose one defining characteristic, say age. You’ve got a little girl, age 9. Now, ask what characteristics are associated with youth. Innocence, imagination, playfulness, beauty, naivety, a lack of knowledge, etc. Pick one and invert it. Let’s take “a lack of knowledge”. Instead, we’ll make this girl very well read. In fact, when we meet her, she’s reading a Dostoyevsky novel in an attic where she lives while using a knife to cut off a slice of apple. She lays it down on a stack of other Russian authors and pulls an Isaac Asimov off the top of a tower of science fiction books. Already, this girl is more interesting than a pretty little princess in pigtails playing with dolls. What’s going to be even more interesting is how all that reading affects her decisions. We want to know how she sees the world, what she thinks, why she locks herself into books.

Give it a go. Try as extreme a departure from the norm as you can imagine. If that doesn’t fit, rein it in a little bit more or pick another characteristic. I’m interested to hear what you come up with.

Thank you for downloading!

Sending out a huge thank you to the over 3,500 of you who downloaded your free copy of Hindsight this past week. High fives all around! Hope you enjoy the ride! When you’re done, let me know what you think, either in a private message, a comment, or (better yet!) a review. Looking forward to hearing from you soon!

How to Get Ideas for Stories

I told my wife a while back that I had finally hit the turning point in my second novel, Fracture, coming out at the end of this month. My first novel starts out with a whip-crack (the lead character falling out of an 8th floor window) and only slows down to take a breath in a few places. With Fracture, I wanted to work on a slower build that gradually increased in tempo like a lit fuse nearing the first stick of dynamite in a chain of explosions.

When I explained this to my wife, she said, “I wouldn’t know where to begin writing a novel.”
“It all starts with an idea,” I said, “usually a ‘what-if?’.”

That’s why de-cluttering your space, schedule, and mind is so important to an author. When you’re stuck in routines or harried by to-do lists, your mind doesn’t have time to wander.

  • You need time to read. Books are great. They shape your perception and your style as an author. Books aren’t the only places where authors get ideas, though. Pick up magazines, news articles, slip through an encyclopedia or a national geographic. Here’s the lesson about reading: read inside your genre to perfect your style, outside of it for new ideas. So if you’re looking for something fresh, get outside your genre for that brilliant “what-if?” that sets your pants on fire.
  • You need time to wander too. Set aside 30 minutes to go for a walk at the end of the day. Go alone if you can or with a friend who likes to talk about things outside of conventional conversation. Maybe just sitting on the same bench in the same park is what you need. Whatever it is, clear your mind of all the tasks you have to do and give yourself time to dream on whatever takes your interest.
  • People-watch. There is no better place to find drama than laundro-mats and all-night diners. Go places where people talk loudly. Bring a pen and paper or your phone and a note-taking app. Capture moments of dialogue that hook your attention, life’s ironic twists, physical descriptions and tics, and the multiple facets of the human psyche.

These are just a few ideas to get you going. How about you, though? How do you find your stories?

Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

51EQHor4tJLI’ll admit I was skeptical, at first, when I began The Orphan Master’s Son. How much could an outsider truly know about the everyday lives of North Koreans. Pak Jun Do’s story proved me a fool. The Orphan Master’s Son is a story of one man’s life in North Korea: his trials, his devotion to his country, his heart’s longing, and the improbably marvelous and harrowing journey that his life takes.

Adam Johnson weaves the details of North Korean life, culture, food, poverty, and propaganda into this story with such deftness that I found myself continually rechecking the title page to make sure that I wasn’t misreading a Korean name.

This is not a fantasy tale, but it is magical all the same. The magic is not light. It is dark and ominous, twisting the cords of fate until some snap and others twang off inharmonious notes that seem to sing the song of this secret nation. Yet, despite the discordant melody of disappeared people and forced labor, the citizens of this nation say that it is beautiful. How? This has been a real mystery to me as well. How have the people of North Korea not just risen up and overthrown their government. Johnson masterfully explains by recrafting the culture of North Korean propaganda in which every single word spoken by every citizen at every moment of their life has already been written by the author of the nation’s fate. It’s a brilliant tale, and review can’t do it justice because the world inside this tiny country is so unlike the world we know. It’s a place that everyone should visit.

Click here for the Amazon link.