Monthly Archives: February 2010

District Nine

We watched the South African movie District Nine last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are so many layers to this movie, which has received rave reviews. I’m a little surprised by its universal appeal because much of the inherent humour and self-mocking would be understood only by South Africans, but perhaps I’m being too parochial in my outlook.

Our unlikely hero, Wikus van der Merwe, finds himself thrust into the forefront of an action to evict the extraterrestrial aliens who have been living in squalor on the outskirts of Johannesburg for the past two decades. Even his name would have most South Africans rolling around in the aisles. Who would have van der Merwe, the butt of most South African jokes, as their hero? And then listen to how he speaks, that quick, high voice, unctuous and ingratiating – until the chips are down. He is the archetype of so many Afrikaners from the bad old days of apartheid. Sharlto Copley is brilliant in this role, capturing the essence of the Afrikaner bureaucrat to a tee.

The movie goes on to mock each South African stereotype in turn. We have the obligatory Nigerians; the tough ex-army men hell bent on wreaking vengeance on helpless unarmed aliens – the typical bully; the pretty young blonde; the father who disowns his treacherous son; I could go on and on.

And then there are the themes. The first and overt theme is the fight between good and evil, resulting in a violent battle between the opposing forces. But hold on. We don’t only have one baddy; there are at least two, from opposing camps and across colour bars. And then what is Wikus? Is he a hero or a bad guy? We do have the expected love interest but with a slight twist: Wikus is already married to her and her father is the one who thrusts Wikus into his improbable role and then persuades his daughter to betray Wikus. Some of the other themes are the racism and the xenophobia which pervade the culture. These are not one and the same but distinctly separate as xenophobia at times unites otherwise hostile cultures against a common ‘enemy’.

My verdict? An excellent movie with so many layers it would be worth watching again and again.

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Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books

The Encyclopaedia of Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books by Desdemona McCannon, Sue Thornton and Yadzia Williams (ISBN: 9781741755152) gives a comprehensive insight into everything an aspiring children’s writer, and particularly illustrator, would want to know. The layout of the book is attractive with many colourful examples and plenty of tip boxes filled with interesting and informative snippets. As a text editor, I found the advice on writing, particularly when it came to point of view, somewhat contradictory and perhaps a bit thin in some areas, but considering the scope of the book and the vast amount of knowledge crammed into one volume, the authors have actually pulled off an amazing achievement.

 In this book you’ll find out how to come up with an idea, how to develop that idea, how to lay out a storyboard and even how to construct a dummy book, complete with pop-outs. The narrative covers fiction and non-fiction and explores writing for toddlers as well as older children, though the focus is probably more geared to younger children who would gain most benefit from illustrated, full-colour books.

 Once you’ve gone through all the useful exercises in the book and have your dummy copy, the authors guide you on your journey towards securing a commission and explain the ins and outs of copyright and licensing.

 I found that I couldn’t wait to get started on drawing up a storyboard, writing the text and making my own book. If nothing else, you will have a wonderful handmade book to show to your children or grandchildren.

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Want to write a mystery?

I’ve recently read How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N Frey (ISBN: 9780312304461) and I must say it’s one of the best books I’ve read on writing. He lays out in clear steps how to construct a mystery. This process might seem too clinical for some writers, but I found the methodical approach appealing because it made the task seem doable. Until now, although I’ve written a number of novels, I’ve always found the task daunting and floundered in a sea of uncertainty, wondering where to begin and how to proceed once I have begun. As James Frey so aptly says, you end up writing loads of superfluous waffle until you find the right path, whereas if you know where you’re going from the beginning, this cuts out a lot of unnecessary work.

The most important points I gleaned from this book were:

  • Lists of the most important mythic characters found in mysteries. This isn’t what it sounds like. Mythic characters here stand for types, not actual characters. And from the dog-ears dogging this book, I would say most readers found this part the most valuable.
  • A list of the various stages of a mystery. Frey equates these stages to a five-act play, whereas many other writing teachers speak about a three-act play, so this was interesting and different.
  • What readers of mysteries expect of the writer and how to meet those expectations.
  • What to avoid so that your reader will be satisfied with your book and will want to read more of your novels.
  • To type out passages written by writers you admire. James Frey is not advocating plagiarism, but he does stress that to learn to write well, one needs to emulate the masters, so typing out their work helps new writers learn rhythm, pace, dialogue, setting, whatever it is you feel makes up a great piece of writing. In this way you can learn to write in many different voices and styles and eventually develop a style of your own.


All useful stuff, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

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