Visit to An Author’s House

July 30, 2010 in Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

The author's home I visited

A few weeks ago I went to visit an old family friend, an ex-neighbour who has retired and moved down south to live by the beach.  He’s been a family friend, our closest family friend, for as long as I can remember.  I grew up with his son and in many ways he’s been like a father to me.  He also happens to be a published author (a novel, a few novellas, short stories and poetry), a fact that didn’t mean much to me throughout my childhood.

The last time I went down there to his new house (a couple of years ago), it wasn’t even close to being finished.  This time, it still wasn’t, but at least it’s getting there.  I recall the last time I saw him — it was just before I was about to leave for the UK.  At that time I hadn’t decided writing was what I wanted to do, but by then I already had a keen interest in it (and was secretly plotting my escape from the law).  Even back then, we talked a little about writing and what it was like to be a part-time writer (he did have a full-time day job).  The only thing I came away with was that it’s very very hard.

This time, things were different.  I had finally made the decision to give the writing a serious go, and our conversation naturally gravitated towards that.  Over a long lunch, dessert and tea, we talked about what it was like to be a writer and how to become one.  These are some of the pointers I took away from that day.

Write what you know

He said it was important for a fiction writer, especially writers just starting out, to write about what they know.  By this I don’t mean writing narrative non-fiction or anything like that.  It means using your life’s experiences and things that you know about to form the foundation of your story.

Fiction, naturally, is about making stuff up.  But it helps to start off with something you are familiar with and branch off from there.  It’s doesn’t even have to be something you have experienced personally.  It can be something you read in the paper or a story you heard from a relative or friend that you thought was interesting.  Steal bits and pieces here and there to create your own reality.

Sounded like good advice to me.  The problem is, I always feel like my life experiences and knowledge of the world are somewhat limited.  I was fascinated to learn that he has held dozens of jobs throughout his life and had plenty of amazing experiences as a youngster.  For example, he travelled to Europe as a twenty-something kid.  With hardly any money in his pockets, he purchased a bike and rode it from Paris through Belgium and Germany all the way up to the Netherlands.  He relied on a book that taught him how to live off a pound a day and slept wherever he ended up for the day.  Of course, it was a different era back then, but I could only imagine the type of things he would have seen, the people he would have encountered.  Similarly, when both his parents passed away, he travelled to India to get a better perspective on life, and came back realising just how lucky he was.

Me?  I’ve lived in four countries at various times in my life but I’ve only worked in one full-time job (that clearly was not for me!).  I’ve travelled to many places but always as a sheltered and ignorant tourist.  I’ve worked hard but have never tasted any true hardship in life (and continue to hope to avoid it).  No wonder I can’t come up with any good ideas!  Looks like I’ll need to either get out a bit more or start stealing.

Characters make or break a story

This is often said but not appreciated as often as it should be.  He said it’s always his aim to write interesting characters — characters that are real, characters that connect with the reader.  Characters with special quirks that readers are likely to remember.

He listed a few writers (I won’t name them) who don’t necessarily write the best books or come up with the best stories, but have succeeded over time because of an endearing character they’ve created.  I thought about it and knew it was true.  Sometimes all you need is a unique character with memorable traits and you’ve got a book franchise!

He acknowledged the success of crime fiction at the moment and suggested perhaps I could create a quirky detective who happens to be an ex-lawyer!  Mmm…maybe he’s onto something here…

Read, read and read

Another piece of advice that writers hear all the time.  To write, you have to read.  To become a better writer, you have to read as much as you can.

He told me that even the crap books you read will help you in some way (because they help you realise what NOT to do).  Everything you read will help you (consciously or subconsciously) when you write, but it’s good to read the classics.  Read the Russian greats, read Dickens, read Shakespeare.  These are classics for a reason.  Learn their techniques and harness them.  He said a crap writer can make the most exciting event boring, but a great writer can make the most boring event exciting.

This is a person who left school in the eighth grade (to make money) but is a terrific writer because of the amount he reads.  At one stage, he told me, he would read one book a night.  He’d start reading and he wouldn’t stop until he finished it, even if it was 3 or 4 in the morning.

I don’t have the attention span to read a single book in one sitting, but it wouldn’t hurt if I read more.  Or at least tried to.

Planning

It’s good to plan your story out in advance, but it’s even better to let the story take a life of its own.  Let the story guide you.

I still have trouble with this planning business to be perfectly honest.  When I don’t plan, the story or chapter simply becomes a complete mess with no direction or structure.  But no matter how much I plan, when it comes to the actual writing I always end up breaking away from the plan.  I wouldn’t say the story necessarily “takes a life of its own” because I usually end up getting stuck and not knowing what I should do next.  That can be really frustrating.

Poetry

Write poetry only when you feel like it — then use it to wipe your bum.

It was a great day chatting like we had never chatted before.  He told me that the publishing business is all about making the right contacts.  It’s hard to get through that door, but once you do, things get much easier.

The biggest shock of the day?  He told me that he really only had one proper novel published and it was the worst piece of shit he had ever written.  The reason?  He co-wrote it with some stupid moron — his editor.  He developed the plot and the characters and wrote the first half of the story and he/she extended it and wrote a second half.  As a result it was obvious that the two parts of the book were written by different people.  And he/she insisted that his/her name should be put first on the novel.  He said he didn’t give a stuff so he agreed but it annoyed him.  And when he showed me the novel I was stunned to find that the co-author was my lecturer!  How’s that for a small world?

More Basketball Documentaries: Iverson, Telfair and Bias

July 29, 2010 in Basketball, Movie Reviews, NBA by pacejmiller

Since watching Hooked: The Legend of Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell on YouTube the other night, I’ve suddenly developed an urge to devour mote basketball documentaries.

And thanks to this excellent article on the Top 10 Best Basketball Documentaries of All-Time, I have watched 3 more in the last couple of days!  Here’s what I thought of each of them:

Through the Fire

This is a 2005 documentary which follows the life of Coney Island playground superstar Sebastian Telfair in his final year of high school.  As most probably know, Telfair had committed to attend college at Louiseville, only to reneg and head straight to the NBA (selected 13th overall by the Portland Trailblazers).

Through the Fire is a very solid film, and it’s not only because of the spectacular basketball footage (man, the kid had some serious promise).  The central focus is on Telfair’s background and his tight-knit family, which provides a very raw and emotional surge to just about every scene.  It’s also a commentary on the life of many African-American males growing up in the projects, and how they all hope one day to make into the NBA so they can buy their mothers a new house and give their families a better life.  The secondary characters, such as Telfair’s brothers and his coach, are clearly guys who are trying to live their dreams through him.  There were a couple of really stinging scenes in there likely to either make you sigh or make your eyes watery — especially the climax when Sebastian finally makes it to the NBA.

However, it wasn’t an entirely pleasing or sugar-coated depiction of Telfair’s family.  You do get to see the ugly side of the basketball star and the attitude problems that would continue to plague him in the future (as he keeps bouncing around from team to team in the NBA without ever being more than “average”).  Reading online it amazes me how Telfair can say he supports 17 relatives in his family and yet continue to do one stupid off-court thing after another.  It’s another sad reflection of what happens to some athletes once they finally make it big.

4/5

[PS: entire film available in parts on YouTube]

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson


Love him or hate him, you can’t deny Allen Iverson plays with unparalleled passion and is perhaps, pound-for-pound, the toughest athlete in the history of the game.  Personally, he’s always been one of my favourite basketball stars.  At 6’0″ (in sneakers) and 165 lbs (soaking wet), it amazes me how Iverson could have accomplished all he has in the NBA (MVP, Finals appearance, scoring champ, etc).

Anyway, I initially thought No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (a very new documentary) was about the “trial” of Iverson’s life, through all the ups and downs.of his NBA career  But no, this was actually about the real legal trial Iverson had to go through in high school, when he was charged with assault during a group brawl at a bowling alley.  It’s a fascinating look into racial politics in America, and you get the polarizing views of both the black and white communities.  For those who didn’t know about this dark chapter of Iverson’s past, they really should check it out.

This film was made and narrated by a white guy, so it’s interesting to see through his eyes.  I kind of wished the scope of the film would be broader though, and capture more of Iverson’s illustrious career.

3.5/5

[PS: entire film available in parts on YouTube]

Without Bias


This was the most haunting of them all.  Len Bias was considered the best college prospect in the country back in 1986.  Some scouts believed he was better than the other top prospect, Michael Jordan.  It was hard to argue, considering Bias was taller, stronger, and a better shooter than Jordan at that stage of their respective careers.

However, just two days after being drafted number 2 overall to a Celtics team that had just won the championship, Bias tragically died from a cocaine overdose, cutting short an unbelievably bright future.  It was the biggest news in the history of the NBA until Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive.

This was the documentary that affected me the most out of the three.  Bias was, from all accounts, a clean cut guy who had tremendous talent coupled with the rare determination to work hard and succeed.  He was charismatic and marketbable.  He would have no doubt helped the Celtics create a brand new dynasty (they still made the Finals that year without him).  That’s what makes his death so heartbreaking.  He had everything going for him, but one stupid mistake and it was all over.

Without Bias is filled with dramatic and haunting interviews with Bias (archived footage of course), his family and friends, and even the guy that he was with when he overdosed.  The basketball footage was also impressive, and it wasn’t until I watched it that I realised how good Len Bias was and could have been.  It’s essentially a very sad story (made even more sad by the shock epilogue) with a stern message about drug use and abuse.

4.25/5

WordPress Resources at SiteGround

July 28, 2010 in Uncategorized by pacejmiller

WordPress is an award-winning web software, used by millions of webmasters worldwide for building their website or blog. SiteGround is proud to host this particular WordPress installation and to provide the following resources, which facilitate the creation of WP websites:

WordPress tutorial
The WordPress tutorial at SiteGround shows how and where to actually start creating your blog site. It includes installation and theme change instructions, management of WordPress plugins, upgrade and backup manuals, and more.

Free WordPress themes
The WordPress theme gallery at SiteGround contains a rich collection of free to use WordPress themes. The themes are suitable for any type of blog and are easy to customize for the particular use the webmaster might need.

Expert WordPress hosting
SiteGround servers are fully-optimized to accommodate WordPress-powered websites. Free installation of WordPress is also included in the hosting services provided by SiteGround.

YouTube Movie Review: Hooked: The Legend of Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell

July 28, 2010 in Basketball, Movie Reviews, NBA, Sport by pacejmiller

Move over Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs The New York Knicks. Move over More Than A Game.  Move over Hoop Dreams (okay, maybe not Hoop Dreams, but definitely the other two). Hooked: The Legend of Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell is now my favourite basketball documentary.

I first heard about the legendary Hook Mitchell several years ago when the film was released (around 2004), but I had totally forgotten about it.  Last night, I somehow re-stumbled across this sad but redemptive documentary on YouTube (the entire film is there in 7 parts) and ended up watching the whole thing.  If you ‘ve ever watched an entire movie on YouTube, you’ll know that the movie has to be really good to sustain your attention.

Hook Mitchell is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player never to make the NBA. His talent and ability on the basketball court is considered unparalleled by some of the all-time greats of the game.  When guys like future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Jason Kidd and multiple NBA champion Brian Shaw all say that there was no question that Hook was better than them, that’s saying something.  Hook has won countless dunk contests.  He’s dunked over cars and groups of kids.  He’s done 360 dunks over motorcycles.  And he’s only 5’9″.  (Hook started dunking at 5’3″ and was dunking in games at 5’5″!)

So why isn’t Hook Mitchell, the playground legend from Oakland, dominating the NBA right now?

Well, for starters, when the documentary was filmed (around 2003), Hook was serving time in prison for armed robbery.  This is a guy who had all the talent in the world but threw it all away because of a bad environment, bad influences and bad decisions.

For every Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, there’s a Hook Mitchell out there.  Hook could have played for millions in the NBA but didn’t have the self-control and discipline to stay away from all the negative things in his life.  Watching the documentary, you really do feel for him.  Hook’s mother was shooting up in front of him when he was just a toddler, and she was out of his life before he could remember.  His brother was a drug kingpin in his neighbourhood.  He grew up surrounded by crime, gangs, pimps and drugs.  He hardly went to class but his teachers falsified his records so he could play basketball.  Drug dealers gave him a gram of coke for every dunk he performed in a game.  It was as though he never had a chance.

Having said that, Hook had no one to blame but himself.  He had plenty of opportunities to turn his life around.  Others in similar situations (such as Payton and Kidd) have managed to do it.  People that cared about him all tried to straighten his path, but Hook pushed them away.

This documentary by William O’Neill and Michael Skolnik is very impressive.  It’s pieced together by extended interviews with Hook himself (in prison) and those who have shaped his life — including NBA stars Payton, Kidd and Shaw, as well as Drew Gooden and Antonio Davis (one of my favourite players growing up).  There are plenty of highlights of Hook tearing up the courts and throwing down one insane dunk after another.  The footage from Hook dominating the prison leagues is particularly riveting because even at 35 he was doing some amazing things on the court, not just throwing down ridiculous jams but also making even the most difficult moves seem natural and easy.  It makes you wonder the type of beast he could have been had he not been perpetually stoned and instead continued to work on his game.

The film is only 65 minutes and has very little repetition (unlike most other sport documentaries out there).  The interviews are candid and the basketball footage is exciting.  Watching Hook reflect on his life with that deep regret and sorrow in his eyes was particularly moving.  The documentary has a strong message and is ultimately a story of redemption.  Do yourself a favour and watch it now!

4.25 stars out of 5

Here’s the trailer:

PS: For those wanting to find out more, here are a couple of interviews with Hook following the release of the film (IGN and TLChicken) and a SI article.

Update: Buying more books than I can read!

July 28, 2010 in Blogging, Book Reviews, On Writing by pacejmiller

Recently I’ve been enjoying the idea of reading books more than actually reading the books themselves.  I don’t know why that is.  I love the feeling of browsing a bookstore for hours, randomly picking up books with interesting covers, those recommended by staff, or those classics that I’ve never had the chance to read.  It makes me feel motivated and makes me want to write (though I rarely ever do anything worthwhile as a result).

Today I bought another couple more at this cheap bookstore (selling “specials” only), bringing my total book purchases for the year to more than 20.

But the problem is, I’m not reading nearly as much as I want to or should be. Including books I’ve borrowed off others and the free ones I’ve received for review, I’ve only read a dismal 12 books for the year (according to the reviews I’ve got on this blog).  I’ve still got 3 or 4 books borrowed from others that I am yet to read.

It’s not like I don’t have the time.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I used to read more when I was working full time.  Every day I’d get at least half an hour on the train, sometimes a whole hour if I didn’t work late (rare, but it happened).

Another problem is that I’ve been having trouble getting into books lately.  I’d be stuck on the first chapter for days and only read sporadic chunks every second or third day.  I’m not sure if it’s because I had been reading too many short stories and extracts of novels for my writing course over the last few months and it’s put me off long stories.  Or perhaps I’m starting to realise what good writing is like and I’ve become too picky with the stuff I’ve been reading.  Either way, it’s frustrating.  Perhaps I need a really good book to help me get back into the swing of things.

Nevertheless, class recommences next week.  This semester is all serious, non-fiction stuff.  Lots and lots of non-fiction reading.  Maybe that’ll help me redevelop my interest in fiction.

I was reading Anne Rice’s autobiography at the same bookstore today and she said that she was a horrible reader until later in life, even though she acquired a masters in English literature.  So maybe there’s hope for me.

PS: I’m finally starting to submit stuff for external publication.  Nothing substantial, just short reviews, etc, but at least it’s a start.