Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Fiction Writing

review by Inez Baranay



Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Fiction Writing
Lance Olsen
Cambrian Publications, San Jose, California, 1998
ISBN 1-878914-50-2 rrp US$18.95

"Carefully follow what most handbooks on writing fiction tell you and chances are you'll end up producing a nice, tight, well-crafted story that could have been produced just as easily in 1830." (Lance Olsen, Rebel Yell)

That is the first paragraph of Rebel Yell but you already know that this handbook is of the moment and about the moment. The chapter titles and interview questions are in that font that makes the letters look as if they had been beaten out by two fingers on a battered manual typewriter - that font that became so fashionable right at the time when all writing is done on computers and hypertext is where writing is (supposedly) going. This book's size, its cover, its layout, the look and feel of it, the language it uses, the attention to new genres - all say: this one is hip.

Rebel Yell acknowledges that it's a "high-tech, increasingly global, hugely un-stable, multi-cultural, multi-gendered, multi-genred pluriverse [that] our fluid selves inhabit" and sets about to encourage the kind of writing that comes out of this knowledge.

This all probably reflects the different, um, market in students of writing these days. Most of the books that have been offered as guides have a safe, conventional, middle-aged feel about them. But the writing course these days is less often the one night a week at the local TAFE or community centre, less the weekend workshop for the hobbyist. These days writing courses are increasingly an option for the young student starting out to be a writer, and you have to understand some of them are quite serious about this and some of them will make it, and the way they go about it these days is to take it as a subject at university. A chapter is devoted to the uses for a new writer of university writing programs.

I look at guide-to-writing books as both a writer and teacher of writing and mostly they make my heart sink and I know I'm better off doing what I tell my students to do and go read something wonderful. Really, that's what will teach you best. One exception is Natalie Goldberg's books, which usually I don't find on university reading lists. Her process-oriented stimulations to writing remind this long-time practitioner to get right back to the fundamentals in which authentic voice, thought and desire are found.

Rebel Yell provides back-up to my contention that the only universally good advice to a writer or wannabe, the only thing that you can't do without or ignore, is to read. (Why even mention it? Because we all experience the jaw-dropping phenomenon with every new group of students who intend to be writers that they do not read. Why don't the young believe us? We, the generation that invented don't trust the old, didn't mean us.)

Rebel Yell uncompromisingly promotes reading as a necessary "daily addiction". Each chapter has a reading list and it's an exciting one - I value this book for its reading lists alone. Heavy dead white males and queer new voices, essays, novels and websites are seductively recommended.

So, what about Rebel Yell? It's really good. I used it last week to help me prepare a lecture for first-year creative writing students. It covers all the usual considerations in the planning, writing and editing of fiction. The book reminds me of my own practice, and the practice of writers I know, and so I am stimulated to be able to talk to students about, for example, developing an idea. Its voice is energetic and engaging as it reminds you or reveals to you many sources of ideas about story, character, structure, form, dialogue and so on.

The most attractive, and I think important, aspect of this book, however, is its (to me most informative) attention to a realm it calls "alternative" fiction. That is, anything not part of the mainstream. The changing culture of mainstream publishing increasingly limits what - and what kind of thing - can be read in the mainstream. But it is the mainstream, too often I think, that is held up to students as the goal and the norm of publishing. Yet the possibilites of online publishing, for example, are a new territory still being explored and invented.

Interspersed among chapters adressing specific writing issues are short interviews with a range of writers, most unknown to me, but quite likely better known to the young Americans this book considers its main or only audience.

Rebel Yell makes no explicit acknowledgment that its voice, examples and audience are USA-based. Some people will mind, I don't. But could it be worth discussing the desirablity, possibility and parameters of producing an Australian (or, better, Commonwealth?) book of this kind?

Can we discuss what success in writing programs is? I suggest that it be not only measured by winners in short story competitions and short-lists of the Vogel, but, as Rebel Yell suggests, in the creation of something that should not be predicted and will suprise us.

Inez Baranay is a well known novelist who tutors at Griffith University and is reading for her PhD.


Rebel Yell is available via direct order from or by emailing

Lance Olsen's article, Revolution, Revelation, & Rock'n'Roll, is published in this edition of TEXT.


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Vol 3 No 2 October 1999
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady