I couldn’t stop reading these two novels. Here’s why


Do you sometimes read a book and want it to never end? Sometimes I fear that I’ll never find a novel as keep-me-up-all-night good as the one I’m currently reading. It feels like nothing I pick off the shelf will be as absorbing, as transporting. In the last few weeks I’ve had that feeling twice, in one novel after another. The first one was The Rip by Mark Brandi. The second was The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. I tried to work out why.

What these two magnificent novels have in common (besides being Australian and about characters pushed to extremes) is a first person narrator – the voice of the story is ‘I’. This isn’t uncommon in literature, but both of these novels do it so well.

So how did they keep me hooked?

Neither has a complex plot or a huge cast of characters, but both were irresistible. If I wrote a novel, I thought, this is what I would want to do. So how? How could I possibly draw the reader in so intensely, keep them there, right inside the head of a complex and damaged main character?

It’s all about narrative point of view

In The Rip, the protagonist and narrator is a homeless, drug-addicted young woman, name unknown, living in the parks and streets of inner-city Melbourne. Mark Brandi has used the present tense as well as the first person, making the reading experience both immediate and personal. The Shepherd’s Hut is narrated by Jaxie Clackton, the ‘hardarse the kids run clear of all over the shire’. Tim Winton writes the young man’s voice absolutely authentically, bad grammar and all. So we see the world and hear the story totally from their point of view. They are the main character as well as the narrator. Logically, it may seem that a first-person narrator would be the least engaging, and an omniscient or third-person narrator would add more nuance to the story. In the hands of these first-class writers, the first-person point of view puts us inside the world and the mind of the main character but leaves room for us to wonder how reliable they are. We see what they see, experience their world with them, but also bring to the story our doubts about if the world really is as the character experiences it. Our own imaginations fill in some of the shadows, and foresee where the character is going to end up. Until we don’t.

In the hands of lesser writers first-person narration can be limited and self-indulgent. Both these recent Australian novels are well worth examining for lessons in first-person point of view. But read them first as wonderful stories, masterfully told.

Read more about Mark Brandi in 8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer.

8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer

Mark Brandi is the author of the award-winning novel Wimmera, described by one reviewer as ‘a dark and disturbing story from a substantial new talent’. It’s both a crime thriller and a coming of age story, set in rural Victoria. Recently he discussed what it’s like to be an author at a wonderfully relaxed session at Varuna the Writer’s House in the Blue Mountains.

Picture of cover of Wimmera by Mark Brandi

Wimmera by Mark Brandi

1. It’s true: write what you know.

This maxim holds if you want your work to be the best it can be. Wimmera’s closely observed reflection of small-town life feels all the more real because the author grew up in rural Victoria. He captures both how free this life is for kids, who can go yabbying and stay out until dark; and how claustrophobic it is for adults when the world closes in on them. He also draws on his experience in the criminal justice system as an advisor to the police minister, and the experience of his three brothers, all of whom work in the police and justice system. But remember, you don’t have to have experienced every single thing you write about either.

2. Find a way – and it might be unconventional.

Mark gave up a full-time job as a policy advisor, enrolled in a writing course and – wait for it – WON $50,000 ON MILLIONAIRE HOTSEAT!* And by guessing the final answer! He could have ignored the entry form his brother sent him, but instead, without telling anybody, he applied for this most unlikely source of literary funding for his new life as an author. He doesn’t suggest you give up your day job, but the point is to make it happen if you’re serious about being an author. Find an hour a day or a couple of hours at the weekend. Join that writer’s group. Apply for those residencies that will give you some time out to focus on your writing.

3. Use the support and inspiration that’s out there.

Attend courses and writer’s festivals. Take a look at everything Varuna has to offer, from one-off events to fellowships. Two residential fellowships at Varuna helped Mark to develop the manuscript for Wimmera. Join Writing NSW. See what the Australian Writers Centre has on offer.

4. You can start with a short story.

Mark’s book began as a short story called To Skin a Rabbit (click to listen to the RN audio version).  Two of the main characters in the novel continued to haunt him after he had written the short story. He pursued them, and Wimmera is the result. Often aspiring writers are told to focus on either novels or short stories as their demands are so different. Break the rule. If finishing a short story will inspire you to get that novel out, go for it!

5. Enter competitions and awards.

If nothing else, it will give you the discipline to work to deadlines and get your writing finished. You may even win! Plus, you will attract interest from publishers if you are shortlisted. When Mark won the 2016 Debut Dagger, publishers contacted him. But…

6. Get used to rejection.

Don’t take it personally. Use any feedback you get to learn and to improve your writing. Mark submitted his book to different publishers and programs and got plenty of what he described as ‘nice rejections’. Some of them contained useful feedback, which he took into account as he reworked Wimmera. Instead of regarding rejection letters as negative, consider what they have to say and try to act on the feedback. Publishers may say no for a range of reasons, and many of them have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Keep going.

7. Enjoy the editing process.

I know, it can feel a bit like the teacher got out her red pen and pointed out all your errors, but editors bring perspective and loads of experience to your work as well as fixing your grammar and punctuation. Mark described how an editor researched and corrected details in a scene in which he described a cricket match on TV in the background to a scene in Wimmera. You can be sure one reader will be an expert in almost anything you write about and errors undermine the quality and credibility of an author’s writing. I recently read a book which had the name of one of my uni mates spelled incorrectly. It’s not hard to check that. My reaction was to wonder what else in the book was inaccurate. A good editor will fact check everything as well as look at the broad scope of your work, switching between a sweeping overview and a microscopic focus on detail

8. Revel in being an outsider and an introvert, if that’s what you are.

Mark was from the only Italian family in town. School was tough and he was bullied and excluded. But, as he said it, the excluded tend to be sharp and thoughtful observers. Use what you see and hear around you every day to inform your characters and your stories. Mark does this so well, conveying how children cannot and do not understand adult motivations, how the adult world is inscrutable to his characters in boyhood, and using this point of view to drive the narrative in Wimmera.

Varuna The Writers' House in Katoomba

Varuna Writers’ House

I learned so much from Mark Brandi’s generous sharing of his experience at Varuna’s Open House Day. There were other sessions, including one that explained Varuna’s programs and included a speaker from the Australia Council who fund writers and writers’ organisations. Above all, it inspired me to stop dreaming get back to my desk and write. I hope these 8 tips help you do the same.

*Writer Melissa Lukashenko also won big on Millionaire Hotseat. Read about it here.