Things I Learned in Writing Class this Semester (Part III)

November 30, 2010 in Blogging, Novel, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller


Here is hopefully the final part of “Things I Learned in Writing Class this Semester”.  Parts I and II can be found here and here.

Read, read and read

Without a doubt, I’ve read more this year than any other year of my life.  I’m still not a prodigious reader like those who can read a book a day, or 3 books a week.  I just can’t focus for that long in a single block, and there’s always too many other things I want to do. 

But what I have discovered is that the old adage is definitely true — to be a writer you have to be a reader.  The more you read the better you write.  This semester I’ve read a lot of non-fiction.  For one writer I interviewed, I read about 50 of his articles (some 5000-6000 words) in the space of a week or so.  This is in addition to all the weekly readings we had to do for class and my leisure readings on the side.

One slight problem I had was that if I kept reading the same person, I would tend to start emulating that writer’s style and voice — but after a while I realised that this was because I hadn’t really found my own yet.  Once I started feeling more comfortable with my own writing, that no longer became an issue.

The bigger problem was that I started to become a different type of reader — one that was always looking out for the writer’s style, trying to identify what is good and what is bad in the writing, so as to improve my own.  This was particularly the case when I was reading for my editing class.  It’s good to be analytical but doing too much of it drains you and takes away the fun from the story.

I guess it’s a matter of separating your leisure reading from your professional one, but it takes more discipline than I’ve developed thus far.

Write, write and write

You can read all you want, but improvements don’t manifest until you start writing.

I’ve written more in the last two years than I could have ever imagined — first of course on blogs and websites, and also the first draft of my novel, and then for the writing course itself and for publication.

I haven’t found writing for fun, for assessment and for publication too different to be honest.  I try and approach it all with the same level of professionalism and enthusiasm.  It’s been fascinating reading over my stuff over the years and seeing how I’ve progressed and changed as a writer.  A lot of it is still crap but occasionally I can see a glimmer of hope, a spark, a moment of clarity — and that keeps me going through the times I struggle (which is often).

But yeah, it’s a matter of writing, writing and writing some more.  The only way you’re going to improve.  In my mind (usually when I wake up in the middle of the night), I can come up with some awesome stuff, or so I think, but when I try and replicate it the next morning on the page, it’s never nearly as good.  Maybe if I keep writing I’ll be able to do it some day.

Time flies when you’re having fun

It’s been one of the shortest years I can remember — since March, the everything has just flown by.  Interestingly, as a lawyer, I used to read and write all day as well, but it bored me to death, stressed me out and made the days feel like they would drag on forever.  Now writing creatively, it’s the complete opposite — I’m always engaged, I find it cathartic, and the days would always end too quickly.

What I’m trying to say is that time flies when you are having fun and you’re doing the things you want to do in life.  I don’t know where this road will lead me, and frankly, it scares me sometimes, but right now I’m just trying to enjoy every moment while it lasts.

Next year will be different and bring with it a new set of challenges.  Can’t wait.

DVD Review: Frozen (2010)

November 28, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

I don’t usually expect much from smallish, straight-to-DVD horror films.  Frozen, a low budget ‘nature horror’ written and directed by Adam Green is essentially (with the exception of a couple of countries) one such film.  Perhaps it’s the low expectations, or perhaps it’s the unique premise and brilliant execution of tension and fear — whatever the reason, Frozen ranks right up there as one of the best horror flicks of 2010.

Frozen is unlike any horror movie I’ve ever seen.  Featuring Emma Bell (had no idea who she was until I watched The Walking Dead), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman from X-Men) and Kevin Zegers (Damien from Gossip Girl), Frozen has no supernatural monsters, no ghosts, no psychopathic killers.  It’s about three friends who take a trip to the snow and somehow end up in a terrifying predicament.  After a short set up, the majority of the film deals with how the they fight for survival, the difficult decisions they must make, and the grotesque consequences they will face.  I really don’t want to give away much more than that (the poster probably gives away more than it should), but I don’t find it surprising that there were reports of faintings during limited screenings across North America.

At a trim 94 minutes, Frozen is raw, intense, visceral, and frankly, terrifying.  Green does a great job of getting everything he can out of his script and his actors, none of which are first class.  It’s basically a well-executed concept with a “this could happen to me” edge to it.  Sure it could have been better, but given what must have been a miniscule budget, Frozen is a surprisingly satisfying little horror film that I fully recommend to those looking for a scare.

4 out of 5 stars!

Things I Learning in Writing Class this Semester (Part II)

November 28, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Man I am slow.  Here is the second part of the things I learned in writing class this semester.  Part I can be found here, and there will probably be a Part III…eventually…

Be Persistent

I guess this applies to a number of things.  Of course, the most important thing when you start writing is to try and finish it.  Sounds easy but it’s probably the most difficult thing.  Unless it’s compulsory, it’s so easy to give up.  Just do something else!

We all know the success stories of writers who were rejected dozens of times before the same manuscript got through and became an international bestseller.  These people persisted in finishing their manuscript, persisted in rewriting and editing hundreds of times to get it right, and persisted in getting an agent and/publisher.  If they gave up anywhere along the way, they’d never have made it.

But what I really meant to refer to was journalistic writing, and the act of going out there and getting people to talk to you.  The first thing that crossed my mind when I was tasked with writing an article about something or someone was — why would anyone want to talk to me?  Well, you’d be surprised how many people love to talk about themselves.  Often it’s a matter of getting them to shut up because you just want to go home!

On the other hand, there are people, especially key people you must speak to for a piece, that won’t want to talk to you, or worse, simply ignore you.  I’ve had so many calls, emails, and even an in-person visit knocked back this semester.  For every successful interview, I’ve probably had five knockbacks and three delays/reschedules.  But the key is, as the heading says, to remain persistent.  Forget about people thinking that you are a pain in the butt.  Forget about the humiliation, the disappointment.  Such is real life.

For one particular piece, I must have emailed and called this one guy at least 50 times over the course of two months.  I think he thought that if he jerked me around for long enough (by not answering, by not returning messages, by continuous delays and rescheduling, and by refusing to come out to see me even when I showed up at the time of our appointment), I would eventually give up.  But no.  I just kept going, kept pestering, and eventually I got the interviews and information I needed, and it ended up being one of the best articles I wrote this semester.

Confidence does wonders

This one also has multiple applications.  In terms of journalism, I was terrified when we first had to go out and talk to people.  Petrified.  I prepared for hours and hours, researched, wrote up lists and lists of questions, anticipated responses, basically played the whole interview out in my head.  And, needless to say, I still ended up being a fumbling, mumbling mess that made little sense. I remember wondering at the time how I was ever going to make it through the semester.

But after a few more goes, my confidence started to build up.  I stopped making up so many questions, instead relying on a few dot points covering specific areas I wanted to talk about.  I looked my subject in the eye.  I spoke coherently.  I felt like a real journalist.  And they thought I was one too!

In terms of writing, I’ve also discovered the power of confidence.  Reading back on my old fiction stuff, I realised I was too timid, too afraid to make mistakes.  I kept gravitated towards the mundane, the cliched style that I desperately wanted to avoid.  It allowed me to get to the end, but it wasn’t something even I wanted to read because it bored me to death.

I still struggle with that a lot, especially when I am not focused, but I’ve found that the more you write and the more confident you become, the more you are willing to experiment with things.  Muck around with the structure a little.  Do something more outrageous.  It doesn’t always work, but it’s a lot more fun.  The most important thing is to develop your own voice and style — which doesn’t necessarily have to be the same all the time, but it should be something you can call your own.

It’s all about connections

Sad but entirely true.  I never used to think it would be that bad, but it kind of is.  If you have the right contacts, you can get access to people you would never have gotten access to in a thousand years.  I was lucky to know a friend who knew a pretty famous guy that was kind enough to grant me an interview.  And through that guy, I got a whole bunch of other powerful contacts who were kind enough to speak to me.  The same can be said for another article I did on a writer.

But I basically exhausted all the contacts I had for two articles.  There were some people in class that had a contact for just about everything.  If you want to give yourself opportunities, you have to put yourself out there and get to know people.  I used to think networking was disingenuous, and it probably is, but it’s gotta be done if you want to give yourself a chance in the industry.  Some of it might be fortuitous, but most of it will have to come from actively seeking contacts.

The same can be said for the publishing industry.  If you know the right agents and the right editors, or people that can get you through to such people, getting published becomes much much easier.  You can have all the talent in the world, but if you can’t catch a break…

Okay, now I’m certain there will be a Part III because there’s just a couple more things.  Stay tuned…

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I) (2010)

November 24, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

I am what you might call a bandwagon Harry Potter fan.

I have never been into the series as much as the fanatics, but I have followed the hype and read all the books (I think starting from when Goblet of Fire came out) and watched all of the movies.  I thought they were all pretty good, more enjoyable than your average book or film, but nothing I would put in my ‘all-time’ lists.

Nevertheless, I found myself excited to see the first part of the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (let’s just call it HP7), directed by David Yates (who also did HP5 and HP6) and with a screenplay by Steve Kloves (who has adapted all seven books).

So far, reviews have been rather mixed.  For Potter fanatics, the first half of this final film is everything they could have hoped for and more, not only because the film is beautifully shot but also because it is more faithful to the source material due to the extra running time.  For non-fans, HP7 probably comes across as a boring (because of the extra running time), confusing (because it assumes knowledge of all previous films/books) money grab (well, because it is).

For me, a relatively minor fan of the series, HP7 leans more towards the former than the latter, even though all the negatives mentioned above are present.  Much like HP6, the film is incredibly dark and bleak (visually, stylistically and in terms of plot), but probably even moreso because Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is finally back and is out to destroy his nemesis Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and all those who stand in his way, including Harry’s best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson).  With only half of the book and 146 minutes to play with, Yates has created a finely paced film that is more in-depth than the previous efforts.  There is more time for character development (particularly the relationship triangle between Harry, Ron and Hermoine), and thankfully, the once-were-babies actors have developed into fairly decent thespians.  Radcliffe, Grint and Watson all put in their best performances of the series.

The action sequences are also as good as anything we’ve seen before.  Of course, there’s the marvellous special effects, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that, unlike the previous six films, this one takes place almost entirely outside of Hogwarts, giving us a glimpse into the other parts of the Potter universe.

On the downside, truth be told, there really wasn’t a need to break the story into two parts.  HP7 (the book) was not even the longest of the series, and could have easily been squeezed into a single film with a 2.5-3 hour running time.  This would have meant a faster, more exciting film than what we’ll end up with, without the boring bits in the middle.  Speak of which, there were a few slow parts.  When I read the book, I remembered there was a long chunk where the kids were wandering around the countryside not knowing what they should be doing — I found that a bit slow in the book and it wasn’t that much better in the movie.

Moreover, non-fanatics ought to brush up on their knowledge of the series before watching the film.  If you go and watch the seventh film of a series without having watched any of the preceding six, then you deserve to be confused.  However, even as someone who has seen all the movies and read all the books, I had trouble remembering certain characters and their complex histories.  Bear in mind, the last book was released 40 months ago and the last movie 16 months ago.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!

But perhaps the most disappointing thing about HP7 is the ending, which I suppose was impossible to please fans anyway.  It ends on a relatively tame note that felt somewhat anti-climatic — even though it does promise A LOT for the next one.  For me, it felt kind of empty having gone through 146 minutes and not having even touched any of the really good stuff in the book.

When it’s all said and done, HP7 is another fine addition to what will already go down in history as an excellent, consistently high-quality film series.  It gives the fans what they want, which is lots of Harry and his world, with a bold promise of better things to come.  It is difficult to rate it as a standalone film because it isn’t, but taking all things into account, HP7 is still a enjoyable ride.

3.75 stars out of 5!

PS: Did I mention I’m so glad this movie was only released in 2D?

Things I Learned in Writing Class This Semester (Part I)

November 22, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller


My blistering year of writing and learning has finally come to a close.  Now it’s time to reflect.

Contrary to what a lot of people say, writing courses can be helpful for budding writers.  It’s not necessarily just learning the technical skills (which are of course important) — there are also many aspects of the business you can be exposed to.  This term, I did quite a bit of non-fiction and journalistic writing, as well as editing, subjects I originally thought would be quite dry — but it’s turned out to be the complete opposite.  As Cosmo Kramer once said, “I’m loving every minute of it!”

Here are some things I learned this semester (in no particular order):

Get a good editor

If my classes have taught me anything this semester, it’s that getting a good editor is one of the most important things a writer should put at the top of their list.  Even the most brilliant writer can use a good editor because editing is a different skill.  It’s not just picking up the typos and the spelling and grammar errors — everything from word use, dialogue, characters, structure, tone, style, voice — everything you can think of, can benefit from having an editor cast their eye over it.

I used to think if I spent enough time on something by myself, locked away in a room somewhere, I’ll eventually get it perfect.  Now I realize how silly that was.

Writing is all about structuring

I’ve never had much of a problem coming up with ideas and racking up the words, but what I found out the hard way this semester was how important structure is to writing.  Sometimes, just moving a few words or sentences around will completely change the shape and tone of a paragraph, or even the entire piece.

I used to think as long as you get whatever you want to write out of your system then everything else will take care of itself, but that cannot be further away from the truth.  Now, especially for non-fiction pieces, I spend most of my time figuring out how I will structure the writing before I write a single word, and then hours and hours restructuring it after I’ve written everything.

My main problem is that I waste too much time procrastinating over the structure before I start writing.  Sometimes you just need to get it all out and then trim it back and mould it into shape.  But then again, if I don’t structure it enough beforehand, I don’t know where to start when staring down at 6,000 words and knowing that I have to cut it down to 2,000!  It’s a dilemma.

Writing a good first draft is important

People say the first draft is almost always shit, but it doesn’t really matter because you’ll fix it up anyway.  The key objective is just to write it out so you have something tangible to work with.  I’ve discovered this semester that this is not necessarily always the case.  Writing a good first draft, while not imperative, is highly beneficial.

Once the first draft has been written, I find it very difficult to decide what to cut out, what to add, what to replace.  Clearly, the better the draft, the more difficult it is, but even crappy first drafts can get a little tricky.  It’s not easy coming up with a different way to say or structure things when it’s already laid out right there in front of you, especially if there’s nothing visibly or obviously defective about it.

So I say put in a bit more effort into that first draft, think it through more.  In my opinion it’s worth it.

More to come!