The Freelancing Diaries: Part 1 — Getting Started is Rough

November 27, 2015 in Freelance by pacejmiller


As followers of this blog will know by now, I’ve quit my day job to pursue the freelancing (and writing) dream. It’s a beautiful dream, but also one that can potentially turn into a bloody nightmare. I’ve decided to chronicle this adventure in a new series of posts, starting with, naturally, what life is like when first taking the plunge.

Technically, I’m now in my third week as a freelancer, but I still don’t feel like one. Apart from finalising shit from my previous job, I’m still trying to get used to the lifestyle, the self-discipline, and the pressure and fear of the unknown that comes with freelancing. I’ve had days off where I’ve gone out to watch movies, take the kids out on day trips and shop around aimlessly like a socialite, but I’ve also been fortunate enough — or unfortunate enough, depending on your perspective — to have cases to keep me busy already. I translated some songs for an upcoming concert, I did an episode of a TV show, some usual corporate stuff and transliteration work, and even took on my first nerve-racking interpretation cases (I’ll have to write about that experience in another post). There have been days where I’ve felt a bit of pressure and had to work much longer hours than I did as a company employee, but it’s all part of the package.

What this means though is that I haven’t done much work to lay the necessary groundwork to be a full-time freelancer, let alone do any of the stuff I had fantasized about doing with all that supposed free time, such as writing and exercising. Taking into account the amount of time I still require to complete outstanding cases and other odds and ends, I think I need about one more week or get my affairs in order. This involves sending out “feeler” emails and making cold calls to potential clients, completing tests for freelance outsourcing websites and really setting up my “system” properly.

Anyway, here are some things I have already learned for those in the same boat or are thinking about venturing down the same path.

1. Starting out is rough

When I first started informing people — especially other freelancers — of my intention to freelance full time, the vast majority were highly encouraging, but warned that the beginning will involve a very difficult adjustment period. For me, in particular, having been practically a bum for the last four years at my last job, it was going to take some time getting used to it.

However, the adjustment is much more than getting used to something new. Freelancing brings with it an inherent and immediate pressure because your income will no longer be stable like it used to be. Some clients might take weeks or even months to pay, so if finances are tight you will have to factor in the delays. For instance, I recently had to chase up a client who hadn’t paid for work I did more than three months ago (I contacted him last month, actually, and he assured me that it would be paid within three months). First the client ignored my emails completely, but when I called him on the phone he said the money had “come down” and would be paid in the next few days. And really, there’s not much you can do.

Secondly, you need to be instantly better at organising your life. You need to set aside time to do work, preferably on a regular schedule, but you also need to be prepared for things that pop up, as they inevitably do. And unlike before, when you can use “I’m at work” as an excuse, you may have to drop whatever you’re doing and attend to it. You need to have a system for your accounts, so you can better track your clients and payments. I used to just dump files all over the place and lose track of them, but now I’ve had to set up a spreadsheet containing the details and contacts of each case and use Google Drive to file documents away systematically.

Thirdly, and most importantly, you need clients, otherwise you’re not going to get paid.

2. Finding clients — the right clients — is the key

Finding enough clients to sustain the your lifestyle is usually the biggest obstacle to being a freelancer. The best thing is regular clients who can feed you stable work every month, but in the beginning anyone will do. But clients won’t just come to you because you’re a freelancer — you need to go out and track them down.

But how does one go about it? Honestly, if you’ve never done any freelance work at all or don’t have any pre-existing contacts, the task is virtually impossible. I’ve discovered the painful truth that in freelancing it is often all about who you know. I would have never been able to be a full-time freelancer had I not slowly built up a small network of contacts over the last four years. One of the first things I did was to contact my freelancing friends and clients I’ve done work for and tell them I was going to freelance full-time and to send any work they have my way. There are still a few outstanding ones I haven’t been in touch with for a couple of years I’ll have to get to next week.

The other way is to go out and look for clients through other channels. Before doing that you will of course have to fully update your CV and have it ready to be sent out at any time. You can look up the companies doing the sort of work you can help with and email them or cold call them to really sell your services. Most are unlikely to respond, but sometimes all you need is one that does, and that may end up opening doors to more opportunities. You can also try through updating your LinkedIn profile or search for freelancing agencies or websites that post freelancing opportunities — but more on that in my next point.

And even when you finally find a client who is willing to give you work, sometimes you’ll still have tough decisions to make because they’re not always necessarily the right client. What if they are paying you too little for it to be worth your time? Is it better to work for peanuts or have no peanuts at all? What if you happen to be too busy when they decide to give you a piece of work? I’ve heard that one of the cardinal sins of being a freelancer is to refuse work from anyone you would like to work for in the future. If you’ve turned them down once they’ll just go to others who won’t.

I recently turned down a regular freelancing job that seemed ideal on paper. Two to three hours a day, five days a week, and I’d make close to three-fifths of my previous salary. The work was similar to what I was doing before and would be relatively easy for me. I even did a sample translation test and all that. In the end, however, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Though it was only two to three hours a day, it was always the same fixed hours of the day (2pm-5pm), taking away the flexibility I wanted as a freelancer. The rates weren’t horrendous, but they weren’t great either, and I’d have to work my way up to the maximum pricing and volume over a number of months. So in reality, I’d probably be making a fifth of my previous salary for a couple of months, then two-fifths for another couple of months, and so forth, with no guarantees I’d actually get to the three-fifths mark. Not good enough to sacrifice my flexibility for.

3. Be wary of agencies and freelancing websites

As noted above, one of the avenues to look for work is freelancing agencies and websites. Examples include established enterprises such as Freelancer, or the newer WritePath. I’ve also been looking at a Japan-based one called Gengo. In Taiwan, a lot of people use freelance job aggregators such as 104case or 518case, which are similar to Freelancer in that people post freelancing cases for people to bid on, though you have to pay a subscription fee to be able to gain access to the case contacts. As a translator, there are also plenty of translation agencies that will get the work for you in return for a percentage of your earnings.

Personally, while I’d recommend trying them out, I wouldn’t get your hopes up about being able to get sustainable work from such options. For starters, most of these gigs will require you to take a free-of-charge translation test, which can be time consuming and a waste of time. A lot of them are old cases that closed ages ago but people just haven’t bothered taking them down. I’ve also heard of horror stories where some a-hole companies will split their case up into say five parts and then send them to five applicants and tell them it’s their translation test. That’s basically their entire case done for free.

Most of the time, however, it’s just a company looking for ways to push prices down as low as possible. When you have desperate people fighting for work, the rates gets lowered to appalling levels, and they almost always tend to be urgent cases. In the translation industry, they often don’t even care how good or bad the quality of the translation is, as long as it’s cheap. To be fair, there are some awful translators out there who don’t give a shit if they get paid low because it matches the time and effort they put in, but what it does is ruin the market for everyone else. You also have to remember that if the market is international there will be people in say India or China who are willing to work for a lot less.

Translation agencies are the worst because they don’t respect you at all. It’s always urgent cases at basement rates, and they end up taking around 50%-75% of the earnings for doing nothing.  I remember one instance where I did a translation test for free and later received a call on a Friday afternoon asking me to take on an urgent case due the next morning, for less a quarter of the rate I normally charge for standard cases. I said no and never heard from them again.

4. Pricing sucks balls

Negotiating your rates is one of the most annoying things for me as a freelancer. I’ve read around and it seems the general consensus is to never sell yourself short when in discussions. But what constitutes selling yourself short is such a tough question. You don’t want to rip yourself off, but you don’t want to price yourself out of the market either. Most of the time you’ll probably be wondering if you’ve done one or the other. I’ll have to do a full post on this some day after I’ve generate a bit more experience on this point.

5. You never have as much time as you think you do

The most sobering revelation from my three weeks as a freelancer is that you never have as much time as you think you’d have. When I was working a full-time job and doing freelancing cases on the side, I thought to myself that if I were doing freelancing full-time I’d have endless hours of free time on my hands to do all the other things I’d want to do. That’s not the case, at least not in these initial starting-off weeks.

Freelancing cases take time, often a lot of time, and you probably end up spending more time on the same cases as a full-timer because you care more about building up your reputation so you can win more work. Plus, in the past my freelancing was extra cream on top of the cake, whereas now it’s the actual cake. As a result, I actually feel busier than I did before. Just a couple of months ago I was still wasting hours a day zoning out in front of the computer wondering why I wasn’t being more productive, and now I’m working hard but wondering where all my time has gone. It’s more stress but it’s also infinitely more rewarding doing stuff you care about.

Oh well, better get back to it.

The Freelancing Life

November 20, 2015 in Best Of, Blogging, Freelance, Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

There hasn’t been much activity on this blog for a while, and for that I apologize. The last few months have been one of the most tumultuous periods in my life for a long time, with a lot of things happening both personally and professionally.

Life update — the end of an era

Apart from the usual grind of looking after two young kids, a close relative passed away unexpectedly, which hit me very hard, and there were three additional incidents where other family members had to visit the emergency room for various reasons. It was one scare after another, and each time something happened it took a little out of me.

Professionally, I once again find myself on a different path, and it’s turned out to be a bit of a dream come true. For those who don’t know, I had been working at an online newspaper writing and editing mostly semi-translated articles for close to four years, and mid-September, we were suddenly called to an impromptu meeting one afternoon by the editor-in-chief.

It is a place where meetings are rare, and nothing usually ever comes out of it. Just a month or so prior we were told that there would be a restructuring, with our paper moving from under one unit to another. It was painted as an administrative issue only and some staff members were privately assured that nothing would change. So naturally it was concerning that a meeting was being called again so soon, especially when friends outside of our company had been messaging some of us that very morning, asking, cryptically, whether we were okay.

And this is no joke, but every time we had a meeting we would joke that the paper was probably being shut down. We knew it wasn’t the most professional or stable of places, and often I felt like we were just a bunch of amateurs mucking about and were somehow getting away with it. So of course we made the same joke again before this mid-September meeting, and it turned out that this time the joke was on us. The editor-in-chief kicked off the meeting with a description of how wonderfully our paper was performing, which I knew was a bad omen. Sure enough, the next thing he said was that the paper would be shut down “temporarily” due to the fact that the conglomerate had been hemorrhaging money at a rate much worse than they had expected.

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. The company was built on a culture of schmoozing and sucking up to superiors, and few managers were really putting in any effort into driving the business forward. My own superior, for instance, promised many things — some even as early as when I interviewed four years ago — and none of them ever came true. He said he would rearrange our work days so that we’d only have to work on weekends every now and then (fail), that we would have regular seminars to teach us how to be better writers and journalists (fail), that we would have regular meetings to keep everyone up to date (fail), that we would create sub-groups to specialize on certain areas (fail), that we would start marketing our paper and build relationships with other papers (fail), that we would start publishing advertisements so we’d actually make some money (fail) — the list goes on. That’s right, in four years, he didn’t make a single one of these promises come true.

The one that did come true, eventually, was updating the look of the website. That was a promise made during my first interview, and for the last two years we were told it was “imminent.” And do you know when we updated the website? Two weeks after he announced that the paper was shutting down in six weeks. Yes, we finally updated to the long-awaited “new” website a month before it was shut down.

Another hilarious sequence of events took place when the chief decided that we were going to buck the digitization trend by creating a paper version of our online paper. A monthly digest, if you will. We hired a designer and reallocated one of our writers to manage the new magazine. That’s right, two people to create a 100-page magazine every month. Even bought a brand new Apple computer and a color laser printer and everything. As it progressed, this monthly magazine somehow morphed into a “semi-annual” magazine, and then a “yearly” magazine. And then one day, poof, the entire project was called off. Four months of work and the hiring of a brand new staff member for this sole purpose, all for nothing. And there wasn’t even a “WTF just happened”? There was more or less a collective silent shrug, and everyone went back to work pretending it never existed.

Anyway, the outcome of the meeting was that the paper would be closed down by the end of October, but that most of us would keep our jobs and be relocated to join the Chinese-language newspaper in the same building. A few of my ex-pat colleagues were shown the door with just a two-week notice period. As for who will get to stay and what work they will actually be doing in their new roles, the chief told us we’d find out by the end of September.

Naturally, the days turned into weeks, and nothing was said. A few of us managed to individually corner the chief on separate occasions, but the answers were always vague and non-committal. The only assurance I received was that I would be safe, and that everything would be sorted out “shortly.” Later on, we pieced together the fragments of information we each received and basically understood that: (1) whoever hadn’t already been shown the door would probably get to stay; (2) we’d be moved from the comforts of our current floor to join the other media losers in the depths of the basement (literally); (3) our workloads would be reduced towards the end so we could start testing out the new roles on the new systems; (4) we’d work on firm-issued laptops instead of our current desktop computers and sit together on long tables in open plan; (5) we’d have freedom to choose to write whatever we want to write; and (6) if we didn’t like our new roles we’d be able to apply for a redundancy package within the first 45 days.

Initially, I kind of wanted to stay. It was a safe job that paid well considering how easy it was, and the work hours were stable and normal. And I salivated at the idea of being able to write about what I wanted to write, a stark contrast to the existing situation where I got tossed most of the longest and hardest articles on the most difficult topics — and was still expected to produce the same number of articles as everyone else. The main concern was work hours — we were told there would probably be morning and night shifts — and with my family commitments it wasn’t something I was looking to accept. But the chief told me the new hours would be “flexible,” and it was suggested to me that I’d probably be able to keep my existing schedule, though as with everything else, it was “yet to be confirmed.”

Shit dragged on like this until late October. About 10 days before the official end of the paper, there was an update: even after we are technically transferred, we’d stay on our current floor (the top floor) until the end of November, and we’d get laptops by the start of the final week of October so we can start trying out the new roles to see how we like it. The 45-day cooling off period disappeared like a fart in the wind, and the redundancy application date was set in stone at the end of the first week of November. In other words, I’d have 10 working days to decide my future.

The decision was expedited when we had another meeting on the Tuesday of the final week. Needless to say, we had not received our laptops by then, and my workload was actually being ramped up as certain people had already left, meaning I was both writing and editing, sometimes at the same time. At this final meeting, we were told that: (1) the laptops might not come until next week or beyond; (2) we’d still have to work shifts, from 9am-6pm or 1pm-10pm, with everyone having to work a weekend day about once a month from 10am-7pm — and that everyone’s schedule would be different — but no final roster was set and that each person’s exact times would decided “shortly”; (3) we’d have to choose our own stories but with “guidance” from the chief to ensure we’re on the “right track”; (4) we’d be posting our own articles on the website and have no one to edit our writing, but there will be a fine each time someone spots a mistake; (5) everyone would have their own personal page with all their articles, the number of hits for each article, and its “star” rating from readers — this will be used to determine performance.

The meeting was a relief for me, because I had remained torn about whether or not to stay. Even if I were allowed to work 9-6, unlike everyone else, nothing else appealed to me. With the laptops not arriving until after the switch, it meant I would have less than five days to experience the new role. And though we were told that we’d be technically allowed to choose our own stories, I got the strong sense that it would not really be the case. The fines and the personal page — essentially for naming and shaming (another wonderful part of the firm culture) — effectively sealed the deal. I knew it wasn’t all the chief’s fault — it was clear that the firm was mired in bureaucracy and the higher ups couldn’t make up their minds because they were all desperate to save their own asses. That’s what happens when there’s zero accountability and no incentive to do anything until the shit hits the fan.

So immediately after the meeting, I went into the chief’s office and told him I was taking the redundancy. I did some calculations, and with the redundancy package and freelance income, I was actually better off financially in the short-term, at least over the next six months. The plan is to generate enough contacts and steady freelance work to make the arrangement work over the long-term, and if not, I’d have to find a proper job.

PS: In hindsight, I absolutely made the right choice. My former colleagues were booted to the basement in the first week of the transition as opposed to after a month, and as of now they are still yet to receive their laptops. They actually moved a few of the desktop computers in our existing office downstairs into open plan for people to share. And it’s apparently been hectic and stressful, with odd shift rotations, little choice to write what you want, and pressure from the chief to get more hits. Can’t say it’s a surprise.

The freelancing life begins

So despite the fear of instability and uncertainty, I jumped at the opportunity for a freelancing life trial. It was my dream before I joined my translator job to freelance exclusively, but it was simply impossible without the requisite contacts and steady stream of work. Over the past four years, however, I have managed to build up a small network and some regular clients, so it’s a good foundation to build on.

I think I’m going to have to do a series of posts about what it’s like to be a freelancer, because there’s so much about it that I never thought through before I embarked on this path. It’s been a bit of a rough start, to be honest, because there’s so much unanticipated random stuff when you leave an old job for a new one. After a week of rest, movies and expensive food, I started dealing with the post-employment paperwork, updating CVs and LinkedIn, chasing up the company for stuff (typical), communicating with government agencies, dealing with insurance issues — all while trying to finish off existing cases I already have and trying to find new clients, as well as establishing new systems for more efficiency. And when you have more free time in theory, guess what? You end up getting asked to do more stuff, with family and the kids in particular.

On top of everything, I took on my first live interpretation cases for a film festival, which basically wiped out an entire week because I was too nervous to focus on other stuff and had to make sure I was well prepared. It’s been a bit of a wild mess for the last couple of weeks, and I still have cases outstanding that I really should have gotten to already, which makes me feel terrible.

The days have just gone by super quickly and I feel like there is not enough time in a day to get to all the things I want to. And I really need to build up my efficiency and motivation after working at a place that not only encourages but cultivates inefficiency and laziness. I am 100% serious about this. For four years, any hard work I put in was rewarded only with…more work. Basically, if you finish an article, you get another one. There’s no quota or maximum daily number of articles you must do, and you can’t leave early, so there’s no incentive to work fast. So if you’re super efficient and diligent, you could end up doing six or seven articles a day. If you’re completely lazy and unmotivated, you could do two a day. It makes no difference. No one says anything. There are no performance reviews. Maybe your end-of-year bonus will be affected a little, but we’re talking about a maximum difference of about half a month of salary. Even if someone started off in this job by coming to work on time every day and working really hard all throughout the day, what do you think will happen to them when they start seeing that their colleagues are always coming in one or two hours late, taking three or four hour lunches plus afternoon naps, and doing less than half the work they’re doing — with absolutely no consequences? Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. And this was the type of work environment I was in for four years. I did my fair share of slacking off like everyone else, but I’m glad to say I maintained some dignity by at least ensuring that I did a certain amount of work at a certain quality every day, which made me a rarity.

Anyway, I’m hoping next week will be a new week where I can start sinking into a bit of a routine. Once that happens I’ll be able to focus on systematically punching out the existing cases and prowling for new clients and projects. Still, I’m already enjoying the freedom, the nature of the work, and the sense of being my own boss. Makes me want to do the very best I can every time.

What about the writing?

I’ll be truthful: one of the main reasons I wanted to have a go at the freelancing is because I want to free up time to finally finish my two books, and perhaps a screenplay I’ve had in my head for a while. I realized this was an opportunity that will never come around again, and I wanted to grab it by the balls.

So far, I’ve had even less time to work on these things than when I worked a full-time job. This blog post is the only writing I’ve done in months apart from a few movie and book reviews that were mostly composed on public transport. Again, this is something I hope will change. My ideal day once the dust settles would be half an hour to an hour of reading every morning and at least an hour to work on my own writing. Perhaps one day a week I’ll be able to write a blog post or two instead, and another half day I’ll use to catch a movie or go out and about. Not sure if I’ll ever get close to this dream, but I’m going to start doing everything I can to reach it.

Wow, that was some rant. Sorry.

‘Got to Give the People What They Want’ by Jalen Rose

November 3, 2015 in Basketball, Book Reviews, Indiana Pacers, NBA, Reviews, Sport by pacejmiller


Jalen Rose never fails to give the people what they want!

My second-favourite basketball player from the Pacers’ glory years (no prizes for guessing who is No. 1), Rose has since retirement turned himself into arguably the best and most successful pro-turned-analyst covering the NBA. His Jalen and Jacoby ‘Pop the Trunk’ podcast is responsible for getting me into podcasts in the first place, and I still get a little giddy whenever I see that a new episode is out.

And so when I heard he was finally releasing a biography, Got to Give the People What They Want: True Stories and Flagrant Opinions from Center Court, I was naturally ecstatic. Anyone who has listened to Jalen on his podcasts or seen him on ESPN will know that he is a phenomenal storyteller who is never afraid to speak his mind and tell it like it is (notwithstanding the “don’t get fired” caveat he and Jacoby like to spew). Having been an affable dude throughout both his basketball and media careers, Jalen has maintained connections at every level throughout the entire league, and the insider sources and classic vignettes he has stored up are second to none.

Jalen & Jacoby

Jalen & Jacoby

Got to Give the People What They Want is a fantastic read. It’s filled with wonderful insights into basketball and life, great stories and laugh-out-loud moments. Those who are avid fans of Rose, like myself, might be a little disappointed because we may have heard a lot of the best parts before, probably on his podcast, but on the whole the vast majority of readers will be thoroughly satisfied by the fascinating experience this book offers. Importantly, you know he wrote this book himself and no through some ghostwriter, because his unique and familiar voice permeates every page.

GTGTPWTW is a surprisingly straightforward autobiography in a lot if ways. Following a delightful foreword from “The Podfather”, his good friend and now @HBO Bill Simmons, the book is split into four quarters, just like an NBA game. The first quarter details his tough childhood in Detroit, living with his single mother and never knowing his famous father, former No. 1 overall pick Jimmy Walker. This is the part of the book where we learn about his influences growing up and how he very well could have gone down the wrong path. It’s quite a cliched story by NBA standards, but it’s nonetheless captivating because Rose knows how to tell a story better than most.

The second quarter, the college years, was to me the most interesting because I didn’t follow Rose when he was tearing it up as a member of the legendary Fab Five at Michigan along with future NBA stars Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. The crazy thing is, even after all he did in his NBA and media career, most people probably still associate Rose most with the Fab Five, a group of brash, cocky freshmen who lit up the NCAA and set fashion trends while relishing the same bad boy image brandished on Rose’s heroes, the 80s Detroit Pistons.

The Fab Five

The Fab Five

Ever wanted to know what college recruiting visits are like? Ever wondered what it’s like being a college star athlete? Ever wondered what really happened with that fatal Chris Webber timeout against North Carolina in that championship game? Ever wondered why the legacy Fab Five was really erased from history? This is the part of the book with all the answers. Even if you think you know it all there are still interesting tidbits and surprises to be found.

I think it’s great that Jalen doesn’t hold back on his thoughts about the NCAA’s rules against student athletes seeing a dime of the billions of dollars being poured into colleges around the country, especially when it is the students generating all the revenue. And no, he doesn’t think it’s enough that they get free tuition through scholarships. A lot of compelling food for thought.

The third quarter of the book is Jalen’s NBA career, which amazingly never culminated in a single All-Star appearance despite being one of the two best players on a perennial Eastern Conference finalist and a once-off NBA Finals participant. As some of you might know, Jalen started off in Denver before heading to Indiana in a trade involving Mark Jackson (who returned later to the team) and spent a couple of years under Larry Brown. It’s well-known that the two did not see eye to eye, and Jalen has no problem spilling what he thinks of the Hall-of-Fame coach. It wasn’t until Larry Bird arrived that Jalen’s career began to blossom, and it’s no secret how much respect and gratitude he has toward the man they call The Legend.

Two legends

Two legends

The thing that sticks out most in this chapter, apart from his pearls of wisdom on trash talking and “champaigning and campaigning”, is the amount of politics that goes on in the NBA, from the locker room all the way to the front office and beyond. It’s on of the reasons why Jalen’s career turned out the way it did, and why he would go from star player to journeyman in the latter half of his career, bouncing from Indiana to Chicago to Toronto to Phoenix to New York.

The final quarter of the book details life after basketball and Jalen’s new career as an analyst for ESPN. He actually started it when he was still a player in the league and it’s inspirational to see how hard to works at this job as well. He definitely isn’t one of those athletes who fell into the job because of his fame — he went out there and earned the respect and proved the doubters wrong.

Like I said earlier, plenty of wild stories and serious opinions grace the pages of this book. A good chunk of them, however, you would have heard before on “Story Time with Jalen Rose” and/or on the podcast, such as the time he was shot at in LA, or the time he stole Patrick Ewing’s TV. The time he tried to “Jalen Rose” Kobe Bryant in the Finals by sticking his foot under the Mamba after a jumpshot and the ultimate payback in the 81-point game years later are of course also covered.

One of the most prominent aspects of the book — it’s referred to repeatedly throughout — is the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a successful charter school he founded in Detroit. He’s actually actively running it and not just sticking his name in for publicity, and it’s impressive to see how much he believes in giving back to the community.

It’s also clear that the rift with Chris Webber continues to bug him. I’ve followed this feud for years and honestly it doesn’t reflect too well on Webber, to put it nicely. Still, despite Webber being the one who called the time out and lied to the grand jury and stuffed everything up for the Fab Five, Jalen is the one who wants to let bygones be bygones, and it’s CWebb who can’t man up about his mistakes to move on.

Truth be told, I wish this book, at 288 pages, could have been at least twice as long. I know how hard it is to write a book and how much harder it is to remember stuff from your past that happened 10, 20, 30 years ago, but I wanted even more juicy details. Some parts of the book just felt too brief and glossed over — the basic structure was there but I wanted more meat on the bones. And I’m sure there was probably more he wanted to say but he may have gotten a few “don’t get fired” warnings from his publisher or his agent. What a shame.

Nevertheless, for most non-hardcore fans, GTGTPWTW is an instant classic of the basketball bio genre. An inspirational story, a remarkable life, and loads of awesome stories and anecdotes about basketball from the youth leagues to the pros. This is a book that will entertain, educate, make you laugh, and make you think and challenge our understanding of not just basketball but the wider world around us.


PS: And yes! He does reveal why he carries that bat around. But you have to read the book for yourself to find out!

PPS: After seeing Jalen Rose in person a  few years ago when he accompanied the Pacers to Taiwan for an exhibition against the Rockets, I decided to join the wave and name my yet-to-be-born second son after him. My hope is that, apart from being a kick-ass basketball player, he can grow up to be like his namesake, an observant and articulate leader, someone who gives back to his community, doesn’t hold grudges and has a grateful attitude towards life. So thanks for the shout out in the book, Jalen.

‘The Man Who Heard Voices’ by Michael Bamberger

October 30, 2015 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

man who heard voices

I haven’t been reading as much as I would like to this year. First I thought it was just laziness, but I’ve realised it’s because there hasn’t been a book that’s made me want to devour it like a rabid dog.

That changed when I came across — almost by accident — The Man Who Heard Voices: Or How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger. The book flew completely under my radar when it was released in 2006, the same year as Lady in the Water was released. However, with the recent release of Shyamalan’s so-called “return to form” film, The Visit (review here), articles referencing the book started popping up all over the place. They were mainly to remind us what an awful film Lady in the Water is, and to take digs at Shyamalan for being a megalomaniac who thinks his shit don’t stink.

So in all I honesty, I was looking forward to reading the book so that I could gain a better understanding and of just how much of a douchehole Shyamalan truly is. Now that I’ve read the book, I can say this about him: I’ve never been a bigger fan.

First off, some general background about how the book came into being. Bamberger met Shyamalan at a party in 2004 and became fascinated with the “it” director of the time. Night (the English name he made up himself) was still riding high from the phenomenon that is The Sixth Sense and follow-up successes such as Unbreakable and Signs. His latest film at the time was The Village, a moderate success that polarized some viewers but remains one of my Shyamalan favorites.

Anyway, Bamberger asked Night if he could follow him around and write an independent account of the making of the next Shyamalan project, Lady in the Water, based on a bedtime story about a “water nymph” the writer-director tells his two young girls. Night said yes, and, and The Man Who Heard Voices was born.

The book itself turned out very different to what I was expecting. Bamberger is a good writer who tries to keep himself out of the picture unless his opinion as an integral part of the experience is called for. Through observing on set and interviews, he gets into the heads of key people – most of all Shyamalan – involved in the making of the film and delves deep into their thinking and motivations. At first you wonder whether he’s just making stuff up, but he eventually explains that if he describes what a person is thinking it’s because that’s what the person has told him.


Night with his star Paul Giamatti

For people who have ever wondered what it is really like behind the scenes of a movie set, this is the book for you. I’ve never come across any book that gives practically a blow-by-blow narrative of exactly how a film is made, beginning with the writing of the script to workshopping it, from pitching it to a studio to meetings with studio executives, from selecting each member of the team in pre-production (we’re talking cinematographer, cameraman, set designers, special effects designers, music writers, script managers, caterers, stand-ins – the list goes on and on) to building the sets, from auditioning the actors to contract negotiations. I’ve always wondered how cool it would be to direct a Hollywood blockbuster, but this book has definitively put all such fantasies to rest. It’s exhausting; shooting 12-14 hours a day with random start times, braving the elements (in this case the scorching Philadelphia summer), managing all the personalities and egos, controlling the budget and dealing with studio politics. Even the most organised person can be overwhelmed.

For me, reading an in-depth account of a film production from start to finish was intoxicating stuff, though I can understand how it can be boring for others. The only feedback given to Bamberger by Shyamalan, who wanted the book to be completely independent, was to take out “the boring bits,” meaning the nitty gritty of the production process. Bamberger said he tried, and I think his writing style is conducive to a swift and enjoyable read. But that’s just me.

Now for the good stuff – what the book revealed about Shyamalan and the crew. Well, as expected, Shyamalan does come across as a dude with a massive ego and immense self-belief. However, he is also revealed to be quite fragile, suggesting a sense of low self-esteem. The contradiction is not unlike another genius I worship – Larry David.

In a way, it’s not hard to understand why Shyamalan turned out the way he did. Both his parents are doctors from India, and they always wanted him to get a “real” job like being a doctor or lawyer. Even when Shyamalan boastfully told his father that he had become the first director to grace the cover of Newsweek, his father’s response was that Time had a wider circulation.

My affection for Shyamalan comes from his hard work and pure balls. The book tells the story of his big break, The Sixth Sense, which was the ultimate example of betting on yourself. Shyamalan had made a couple of largely ignored indy films for Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, who thought very little of him. Night hated Weinstein’s interference, but he was contractually bound, so he thought of a bold and brilliant plan. He made sure the script for The Sixth Sense was so awesome that there would be a bidding war for it by the major studios. He sent it to all of them – except Weinstein, who received it later – at the same time and staged a make-or-break auction soon after. He gambled on the possibility that a top studio would pay so much money for the rights to make The Sixth Sense that Weinstein would scoff at matching it and let him go. He won when Disney offered US$3 million despite the condition that Shyamalan himself would direct, and the rest is history. The film would go on to gross more than US$670 million on a US$40 million budget.

Reading this book, you get an amazing sense of Shyamalan’s dedication to his craft. I know it sounds phony and pretentious, but he really sees his work as “art”, and he wants to suffer for it. I’ve only seen Lady In the Water once (I plan to see it again) and thought it was a piece of shit, but I respect and even envy his ambition and the amount of effort he put into the film, as misguided as it was. It also shows that, no matter how much a project can seem promising on paper or during its making, you can never tell how it’s going to be received once it is released.

Paul Giamatti from a scene in Lady in the Water

Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep in Lady in the Water

Shyamalan is also portrayed in the book as a loving father and a generous and thoughtful director. On the set of Lady he had weekly prizes – such as overseas vacations – picked out of a hat for staff, and all of it came out of his own pocket.

On the flip side, there’s no denying that Shyamalan can come across as a complete dick because of his bloated sense of self-importance. Being called the “next Spielberg” can do that to some people. This is a guy who got his assistant to send a hard copy of his script to the homes of Disney execs at the exact same time like it was God’s gift to the world, and questioned their devotion when one of them wasn’t there on time because she had to take her kid to a weekend party.

Bamberger tells it as it is and doesn’t sugar coat it. Night thought of himself as a visionary on the same level as artists like Bob Dylan, and wanted to be the Michael Jordan of the film world (more on Night’s basketball exploits later). There was one incident in the book where Night shared an elevator with a mother and son who didn’t know who he was and had little interest in making small talk with him despite his best efforts. Afterwards, he says that if only the mother knew who he was she’d be clamouring to get her son into one of his movies, and lamented how people don’t “connect” with others anymore.

There was another incident in the film when leading lady Bryce Dallas Howard (whom he made a star in The Village) was getting cuts and welts from being dragged on grass during filming.

“This is not about you. This is about the movie,” Night told her. He was apparently more worried about continuity problems. “I can’t have a reputation as a director who doesn’t protect his actors.” Yes, Night, it’s always about you.

One interesting fact I discovered from reading this book was that Shyamalan is a huge basketball fan and can even ball a little. I think he’s around 5’11” and was likened by Bamberger to a solid high school point guard. Living in Philly, he was actually a neighbour of Allen Iverson and the two often saw each other playing on their respective driveways with their respective cousins or nephews. And apparently, Night once said that if he had unlimited time to practice for two years, he’d be able to shoot as well as any player in the NBA. Like I said, balls.

The now-legendary Disney blow-up during negotiations for Lady was also described in painstaking detail in the book, and it’s not as bad as proclaimed. If you don’t know the background, Disney had produced all of Night’s films since The Sixth Sense, but for Lady he ended up going with Warner Bros. Interestingly, the guy who picked it up from Warner because he loved The Village, Alan Horn, is now the chairman of Disney.

The truth of the split from Disney was much tamer. The went to a dinner where the execs told him they didn’t “get it,” but were still willing to give him US$60 million to do whatever he wanted out of goodwill. Too late. To Night, having someone say they didn’t get his art meant they “no longer valued individualism” and cared more about the bottom line. For him, it wasn’t about the box office; it was about their belief in him. He was more disappointed than angry. He was really only angry after Disney came out with a statement that they had parted ways due to “creative differences.” In reality, it wasn’t the hostile break-up it has been made out to be. Disney was hurt Night didn’t want to reconsider; Night thought he had no choice but to leave. Both sides thought they were the loser in the situation.

As for the other characters in the book, Paul Giamatti, the lead actor who played protagonist Cleveland Heep, comes out looking best. He’s shown as a down-to-earth guy, a humble dude who likes to act but doesn’t want to be a star. I had no idea his late father was the former commissioner of the MLB.

Bryce Dallas Howard

Bryce Dallas Howard

Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Hollywood heavyweight Ron, is depicted as more of a mixed bag by Bamberger. She’s well-intentioned but comes across as a little phony; she’s sweet and true to herself with all her vegan philosophies and enviable determination to prove her worth, but is never able to shake off that weird privileged hippy wannabe vibe.

The other crew member who gets a lot of mentions is Chris Doyle, the Hong Kong-based, Chinese-speaking Aussie cinematographer. He’s an amazing character – a flamboyant genius and habitual line-stepper with his over-sexualized antics and alcohol problems. Reading about how Night manages this ticking time bomb on set is one of the most compelling aspects of the entire book.

The book actually ends without any discussion of how Lady in the Water actually performed. All we know is that Night surveyed 40 advanced screening subjects and was shocked to discover that it was his best-performing film since The Sixth Sense. Bamberger himself said he didn’t like the movie.

Well, Lady in the Water grossed US$72.8 million against a US$70 million budget, excluding the cut going to cinemas and tens of millions in marketing expenses. It got 24% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 36/100 at Metacritic. Night won for Worst Director and Worst Supporting Actor at the Golden Raspberries (beaten out by Basic Instinct II). Asian-American actress Cindy Cheung, who played Young-Soon Choi in the movie, won Worst Supporting Actress and Most Annoying Fake Accent at the Stinkers Bad Move Awards.

Shyamalan would go on to make The Happening with 20th Century Fox in 2008, which performed even worse with critics but was a financial success, making more than US$163 million against a US$48 million budget.

The Last Airbender (Paramount) in 2010 was Shyamalan’s nadir in terms of critical failure – 6% on Rotten Tomatoes and 20/100 on Metacritic. But surprisingly, it was still a financial success, making US$320 million on a US$150 million budget. And for all the jokes about After Earth in 2013 (11% on RT, 33/100 MC), the film still made US$244 million against a US$130 million budget on the back of moderately successful box office intake overseas.

And now, Night appears to be back. He directed the pilot of the TV show Beyond the Pines, which was well received. The Visit has been huge, making US$66 million already on US$5 million budget and with a 62% rating on RT and 55/100 score on MC. It’s his best-performing film, critically speaking, since Signs in 2002.

I’ve gotten a bit off track, so back to the book. The Man Who Heard Voices is a fascinating book and a wonderful insight into both Shyamalan and his filmmaking process. Interestingly, I have read some reviews that question why Shyamalan didn’t object to the publishing of the book because it paints him in such a bad light, and others that suggest the book is effectively a hagiography. I don’t believe either is true. While it is obvious that Bamberger has a soft spot for Shyamalan in his heart – why else would he write a book on him – he does, for the most part, divulge the bad and the ugly along with the good. My takeaways from the book are: nobody is perfect; making a film is a lot of work; excessive praise has never done anyone any good; you can be a dickhead but also a great director; hard work and determination pays off; and that you never know how a film will be received no matter how magical the production process may have been.


Movie reviews moving to new website!

September 3, 2015 in Best Of, Websites by pacejmiller

New Blog

This is how the new blog looks right now!

I finally did something I had been meaning to do for ages: create a new website for my movie reviews.

And here it is, the new Spoiler-Free Movie Reviews blog. Take a look, have a browse; it too a long time to set up (mainly because I have no idea what I’m doing).

Basically, I felt like this blog was becoming almost an exclusive movie blog, and together with writing posts, book reviews, restaurant reviews and everything else, things were getting a little messy and out of focus. So I decided to start up a subdomain for all my future movie reviews so that this blog could be freed up to focus more on writing. It means this blog will still be up and running, but it’ll be just for my thoughts on writing and reviews of books I read recently. No more food-related posts either — I never really liked doing them anyway. I am, however, keeping all the existing content as is.

As for the new subdomain, set up with the help of my excellent host, Siteground (this is a free plug because their technical assistance via online chat really is so professional and awesome), it will now house all my new movie reviews. I’ve also moved over the existing ones (more than 600 posts) and re-categorised everything — into years, genres, star ratings, etc —  for ease of navigation and search (check the left panel). Trust me when I say it took a bloody long time.

Lastly, I decided to name the new blog in accordance with my “spoiler-free” philosophy. I already have a bunch of posts ready for launch, so please visit and support!