I’m still here, I really am

February 28, 2013 in Blogging, Misc by pacejmiller

Man I feel like an In-N-Out Burger

Man I feel like an In-N-Out Burger

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and I just want to assure everyone that I am still here with a quick post.

In short, it’s been hectic. All plans and dreams of settling into a routine have been trampled, spat on and stuffed into closet of dirty wet rags. The major culprit is this freelance gig that’s been tearing me apart! It was supposed to be an easy proofread for a government tourism booklet — at most a light copyedit — but instead it has become a full-scale rewrite and retranslation that’s taking me far longer than I could have ever expected. I’m nearly there, but not quite there because there are always potential spanners when it comes to government agencies. You know how it is, and if you don’t, you should.

The other thing was the Oscars on Monday (Taiwan time), for which I was very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to participate in a one-day gig helping out as a translation/film consultant for the local TV broadcast. It was a long day but it was fun and exciting, and I got to meet a lot of wonderful people, all of whom I hope to cross paths with again soon. I’m going to write up a post on that experience pretty soon along with my thoughts about the Oscars in general (including host Seth MacFarlane). It’s gotta be done.

Anyway, much of the time before that day was spent trying to catch up on the movies nominated for the Oscars, in particular the best picture titles. I never ended up getting through all of them, but I still intend to do so. There’s only Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild left for best picture, but I’m also hoping to be able to get to The ImpossibleThe Master, Flight, Moonrise Kingdom and The Sessions as part of my Oscar movie blitz. I’ll be reviewing all of them, along with the other nominees I’ve already seen, such as Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln and The Invisible War. I’ll get there…someday.

Work has also been somewhat of a nuisance because I’ll be very busy here for the next couple of weeks. It was unavoidable and certainly foreseeable, but still, it sucks feeling like you’re running on adrenaline most of the time.

That’s all for now, but as a butt-groping, nanny-impregnating governor once said, “I’ll be back.”

Movie Review: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

February 20, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The Die Hard franchise has been on progressive decline since the 1988 original, which I still believe to this day is the best action movie of all time. The 1990 sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, is a surprisingly excellent action flick in its own right, while the 1995  Die Hard With a Vengeance is a prime example of a fantastic franchise reboot. All three can be considered action classics. The series took a bigger step back with 2007’s Die Hard 4.0 (or Live Free or Die Hard), where the 12-year gap had an unwelcome effect on the now-iconic John McClane, though it was still a relatively good movie. And now, the fifth and newest addition, A Good Day to Die Hard (let’s call it DH5 for simplicity sake), has fallen off the wagon and taken this great franchise down into the pits.

DH5 is not horrible by typical modern action movie standards, but it is a smear on the Die Hard franchise whichever way you look at it. In this one, John McClane (Bruce Willis) heads to Russia to “rescue” his son Jack (played by Aussie Jai Courtney), who has been arrested for a murder linked to  an imprisoned political prisoner. Mayhem ensues, and this time the McClane father and son duo team up to annihilate the bad guys.

I’m not sure what they were trying to achieve with this plodding effort, which has a lot of guns and explosions and cars flying all over the place, but not much real tension, humour or genuine excitement. Perhaps they were trying to emulate the awesomeness of Taken or the Bourne series (ie, an unstoppable good guy beats up a lot of bad guys), which I believe is a huge mistake.

The earlier Die Hard films featured a reluctant, vulnerable McClane caught in situations he didn’t want to be in, which is why they were so full of tension and nervous energy. In the last two of the series, however, John McClane has ceased to be the old John McClane we know and love. He has become the “new” John McClane, some kind of hardened superhero who never gets rattled or hurt no matter how many times he is tossed around in moving metal, beaten up or dropped from ridiculously high places. He has too much cache from past experiences to be vulnerable. He’s like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable without the fear of water.

As a result, the DH5 is generally predictable (even with the twists) and frequently lame. Even though there’s all this stuff happening on the screen, there’s just no excitement because you know he’s John McClane and John McClane can never be beaten. Worst still, this new McClane has no special hand-to-hand combat skills like say a Jason Bourne or Bryan Mills — he’s just a guy who likes to fire a lot of guns and doesn’t get hit himself.

Part of the problem is the direction of John Moore, who was previously at the helm of Max Payne and the remake of The Omen in 2006. We also had the “new” John McClane in DH4 (directed by Len Wiseman from the Underworld series), but that film was still pretty good, so some of the blame has to go to Moore, who let his foot off the gas pedal too often and relied far too much on obvious digital effects in many of the action sequences.

The biggest culprit is likely the script by Skip Woods (Swordfish, Hitman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The A-Team), which is not very good at all. The dialogue is horrendous in both English and Russian and the attempts at creating some sort of father-son dynamic between the McClanes come off as clunky and out of place, largely because it feels so obligatory. McClane’s wry humour and one-liners, one of the defining traits of his character, is almost non-existent as well. Don’t get me wrong, there are efforts to lighten the mood, but they rarely felt like they meshed with the flow of the film.

The Die Hard franchise has always stretched the bounds of craziness, but a lot of what happens in DH5 is just plain lazy. Why don’t people bleed to death from untreated gun shots and puncture wounds? Why do Russian people who generally speak Russian to each other feel the need to squeeze in a sentence of English every now and then? Why do they suddenly start speaking completely in English  towards the end? Why do some of their Russian accents even start disappearing? Why does Jack McClane have to say his dad’s name, “John”, at least once every sentence? We know his name is John; we’ve known that for the last four films! Who the heck talks like that?

Bruce Willis is still good enough to pull off John McClane, but I can’t help get the feeling that he’s growing a little weary and is ready to pass the baton to Jai Courtney, who is physically imposing but looks more like a bad guy than a good one (he was the bad guy in Jack Reacher and felt much more convincing). The rest of the cast is predominantly Russian and none are memorable. None even come close to possessing the charisma of a Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman from the original) or even a Simon Peter Gruber (Jeremy Irons from the third film), let’s just put it that way. That’s another problem to add to the list — lame antagonists.

When all is said and done, DH5 is actually a passable action film by ordinary standards, but a criminally bad one when measured against the lofty bar set by the earlier entries in the same franchise. It’s a real shame because I think they could have done much much better, especially if they are considering bringing together John McClane and both of his kids (that’s Jai Courtney and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the latter of whom has a cameo in this one after appearing in DH4) in a sixth and potentially final Die Hard film.

2.5 stars out of 5

Freelancing is lancing my free time

February 19, 2013 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Parenting by pacejmiller

Anyone recognise where this is from?

Anyone recognise where this is from?

You may have noticed that things have been a little slow on this blog lately. It wasn’t supposed to be. In fact, I was supposed to be posting up a storm over this recent nine-day Lunar New Year break in Taiwan. Instead, I took up a freelancing gig, and it’s been killing me. Killing me, I tell ya. As the great Tommy Wiseau would say:

Freelancing jobs are always a dilemma when you also have a full-time job. On the one hand, it’s nice to get a bit of extra cash, but on the other, you are voluntarily adding all this pressure on yourself and destroying whatever free time you might have. When you have a one-year-old baby to look after like I do, free time is more precious than diamonds, and if you’re not desperate for money it’s always tempting just to say, “No thanks, I’d rather sleep, or read, or watch The Walking Dead or a movie, or exercise, or play video games, or do whatever the hell it is that I’d rather be doing.”

This is why I’d actually been turning down quite a few freelancing opportunities as of late, though this new one that I took on was from a regular client that paid relatively well and was a good opportunity to establish more crucial contacts. Freelancing, as I learned from that ultra-successful, US$600K-a-year  freelance writer Robert W Bly (I reviewed his freelance guide here), is all about connections and getting repeat business. You can be the best freaking writer in the world, but you’re not making any money if people don’t know who you are. That’s why there are all these horrible, horrible writers and editors earning great money doing freelancing full-time, while decent or even very good writers and editors prefer to work in steady jobs and not worry about where their next paycheck will come from.

As usual, I have underestimated how difficult this current freelance gig would be. When I first saw it I estimated roughly four days — mostly during my “spare” time at work. Instead, it has killed almost all my free time from the Lunar New Year break and I’m still not finished. Part of the problem is me being slow and too meticulous and distracted with other things, but it’s incredibly frustrating nonetheless. This one gig has essentially derailed the longest holiday I’m probably going to have this year. It’s also set back my plans to start exercising regularly again by at least another week (I really need it too, after eating like a pig over the break). And don’t even get me started on the PS3 games I’m supposed to be playing. I have literally not switched on my PS3 since finishing Sleeping Dogs in late November. Meanwhile, my food and movie blog posts continue to pile up. At this rate, I’ll never get back to working on what I really want to take another stab at — my novels.

It has me wondering whether I’ll ever take on another freelance case. Well, I’m sure I will, and I’m sure I’ll be bitching about it like I am now once I do.

Movie Review: This is 40 (2012)

February 14, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I am admittedly not the biggest fan of Judd Apatow, pioneer of the dreaded dramedy (I’m sure it’s been around a lot longer but he really made it a popular trend). I think the majority of his “classics”, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are somewhat overrated. It’s not that they are bad — they are actually quite good; it’s just that I don’t think they are as magnificent as everyone says they are.

This is why it surprises me to say that I loved This is 40, which I think is Apatow’s best effort to date. Part of it might be due to my minor man crush on the affable and always-dependable Paul Rudd, but I also firmly believe it is the most consistently funny and least hit-and-miss of Apatow’s catalogue of films. Or perhaps it’s because, as a fellow husband and parent, I can relate to the jokes better. Whatever it is, I had an absolute blast with this one.

The film’s central characters, married couple Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann), are an upper-class family with two young girls, the older one of which appears to have hit puberty. They apparently appeared in Knocked Up and this is supposed to be an offshoot sequel of sorts, but yeah, I don’t recall them either.

Anyway, they appear to have it all but the facade has plenty of cracks in it. They have every reason to be happy but Pete and Debbie are always bickering over the little things, and the children often drive them crazy. Pete, who owns a small record label, is constantly giving money to his dad (Albert Brooks) behind Debbie’s back despite struggling himself, while Debbie, who is in denial over turning 40, suspects an employee at her boutique store, Desi (Megan Fox), is stealing from her.

It sounds like a little suburban drama but This is 40 has a lot of hilarious scenes and nifty touches that are brutally, cringeworthyly honest and absolutely rang true to me. Some of it is exaggerated for effect, though on the whole this was still more subtle than most of Apatow’s other films. Apatow’s best work is usually drawn from experience, and let’s face it, the majority of jokes in this film probably came directly from his personal life.

Like most Apatow films, however, this one is overlong at 133-minutes (100-110 minutes would have been perfect), which is accentuated by a drawn-out third act that doesn’t quite know how to conclude. Not surprisingly, it is when the film ventures into “serious drama” territory that it begins to sag, though thankfully there wasn’t a whole of that throughout the rest of the film.

Paul Rudd continues to be a legend and makes Pete a pretty likable guy too, albeit in a Homer Simpson kind of way at times. Leslie Mann got a bit grating on occasion with her whining, but I like to think it’s more her character than her. And Albert Brooks is awesome. Megan Fox, on the other hand, was unexpectedly adequate. Lots of cameos and small roles from famous names, including Jason Segel as a fitness guru, John Lithgow as Debbie’s dad and Chris O’Dowd as one of Pete’s employees. Melissa McCarthy (the scene stealer from Bridesmaids) also has a small but hilarious role as a mother whose kid bullies Pete and Debbie’s daughter.

I have heard some critics dismiss the film simply because it’s about the problems of “rich white people”, as though that’s some sort of sin. So rich white people can’t have problems? Must all movies be about people who ought to be more miserable because they are not rich or white? Give me a break.

In the end, though it is far from perfect, This is 40 is by far my favourite Judd Apatow movie to date and quite possibly my favourite comedy of 2012.

4.5 stars out of 5

‘The First Five Pages’ by Noah Lukeman — review and summary

February 13, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews by pacejmiller

five-pages1

I’ve already reviewed Stephen King’s On Writing (here) and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (here). The third book that makes up this holy trinity of writing bibles is Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.

As the title suggests, The First Five Pages is all about how not to get rejected by literary agents, editors and publishers. It’s a comprehensive technical bible that covers everything from simple things such as your manuscript’s presentation to more complex issues such as tone, pacing and characterization. In a nutshell, this is a no-nonsense book that gets to the point with clear, concise writing and helps writers through concrete guidelines and suggestions.

At just 200 pages or so, it is a nifty little guide that deserves — and probably requires — multiple readings if you are serious about getting published. A couple of times before you start writing (if you haven’t started already), once after the first draft has been completed, and probably another before you send it off to an agent or publisher. It won’t guarantee anything, of course, but it can certainly reduce the likelihood of your manuscript getting rejected. As Lukeman says up front, agents are usually swamped and look for anything they can do dismiss a manuscript, so why not eliminate as many excuses as you can?

This is one of the most useful books on writing I’ve ever read. On Writing offers a lot of solid advice on an overall level, while Bird by Bird is more of a spiritual journey littered with practical tips. The First Five Pages, on the other hand, is all business. There are moments of inspiration, but for the most part, this is all about making your manuscript better from a technical perspective.

Each chapter begins by identifying an issue or a specific problem, followed by solutions, examples and end-of-chapter exercises. Some of the examples may come across as a little too obvious, but I guess that’s what you need to illustrate a point, especially if the book is meant for a wide audience ranging from novices to experienced writers.

Anyway, I cannot recommend this book enough. Read it, digest it, and get to work.

5/5

Highlights

The book is divided into three parts: preliminary problems, dialogue and the bigger picture. Cleverly, this is also the order of the criteria that Lukeman, a New York City literary agent, uses to review — and eliminate — manuscripts.

Set out below is a brief summary of each chapter and what I learned from them (partly so they can jog my memory):

PART I

1. Presentation

It’s crazy that presentation is the first thing agents look for to dismiss a manuscript. On the other hand, whether a manuscript conforms to industry norms and requirements is indicative of the amount of effort a writer has put into selling their work. Lukeman notes that many writers spend years working on perfecting their manuscript but can’t even be bothered spending a few hours to make sure their manuscript has the right spacing, margins and format (I won’t bother putting down what the conventions are, but there are plenty of places to look).

Specific suggestions include:

  • research to find the right agent or editor for your genre
  • personalize your query letter and be specific and why you are contacting that particular agent or editor
  • be careful with punctuation, such as question marks, exclamation points, paretheses and semi-colons — misuse from a cursory glance could land your manuscript on the rejection pile immediately

2. Adjectives and Adverbs

A favourite topic for all writing guide books. Knowing when to use adjectives and adverbs is key. If you don’t know that adverbs (words that usually end with -ly) are bad, you probably need a lot of help with your writing. And the right noun/verb that encompasses the meaning you are looking for is preferable to using a bunch of adjectives to describe a plain noun/verb.

Specific suggestions include:

  • cut usage of adverbs and adjectives or strengthen words so they don’t need them
  • replace common adjectives with more unusual ones
  • substitute adjectives with similes, metaphors and analogies

3. Sound

This is all about how a manuscript reads, how it sounds when you read it aloud. It’s about the rhythm, the echoes, distasteful consonants and vowels. A poor sounding manuscript reflects bad sentence construction, but may also be a symptom of poor alliteration usage and awkward resonance (eg, mix of long and short sentences).

Specific suggestions include:

  • ask a trusted reader to see if the manuscript “sounds” wrong or strange
  • read your manuscript aloud
  • simplify and cut out repetition and poor sounding sentences or words

4. Comparison

This chapter covers how to use similes, metaphors and analogies, and explains how poor usage and overuse can be bad, while good usage can elevate the quality of a manuscript.

Specific suggestions include:

  • decide whether the comparison is appropriate and cut those that don’t work well
  • avoid cliched comparisons and stick to precise ones
  • improve your vocabulary so you can better find the right word in the right situation

5. Style

Common problems with style include writing that is too archaic, too florid, too minimalist, too academic, too clipped or too protracted — it’s about writers trying too hard hard to be distinctive or different but simply end up coming across as too self-indulgent. It’s a problem I see a lot even in published “literary” books, where the writing feels more about showing off the author’s skills than telling a story.

Specific suggestions include:

  • ask if the style of the writing is appropriate for the story — a style should complement a story, not fight against it
  • pretend you are telling the story to friends
  • insert slight twists for ideas that feel recycled or repeated

Part II

6. Between the Lines

The fact that a whole part is dedicated to dialogue illustrates just how important it is. This section covers problems with dialogue that are identifiable simply from a simple browse, which are: poor use of identifiers (ie, attributing dialogue to characters), spitfire dialogue (chatter that is too rushed and has no breaks), interrupted dialogue (too many breaks between  dialogue) and journalistic dialogue (tendency to quote characters instead of letting their dialogue flow).

Specific suggestions include:

  • identifiers simply need to do their job (ie, let us know who is talking) without getting in the way — “he said” or “she said” is often good enough (and better than “said he” or “said her”)
  • learn to appreciate how dialogue affects pacing and progression (see below)
  • let characters speak for themselves in their own voices

7. Commonplace

Everyday dialogue like “hi, how are you” and “fine, how are you” are easy to spot and can lead to a manuscript being dismissed as being amateurish. You may think it adds realism but in reality such dialogue just bores the hell out of everyone. The solution is simple — avoid it and cut it if it’s already there.

8. Informative

Informative dialogue is used essentially to convey a piece of information or background facts that the writer could not get across otherwise — eg, “You are having an affair with Tina, my best friend!” It may get some information across, but the dialogue ends up coming across as fake, odd and contrived. Again, the solution is rather simple — avoid and cut.

9. Melodramatic

This type of dialogue also comes across as fake because it is too exaggerated. Lukeman advises writers to identify their melodramatic dialogue, step back from it, and try and build dialogue that is not constantly dramatic but has a build up and a letdown, an arc and contrasts. Look for areas where you may be compensating for your lack of drama in the narrative with dialogue.

10. Hard to Follow

Lukeman says dialogue that is hard to follow will always inevitably lead to the dismissal of a manuscript. Common problems include writers trying to capture a certain twang or accent, lack of identifiers or cryptic dialogue. The solutions are quite straightforward as well — avoid trying to capture accents and use your identifiers properly.

Part III

11. Showing Versus Telling

Ah, the good old dilemma. Most people who have studied writing or read books about writing would be familiar with this already. Writing is generally better when the writer shows you instead of tells you, eg, instead of telling you someone is a thief, show them pick-pocketing, etc. On the other hand, Lukeman also warns against too much showing because telling still has its place in the narrative. He recommends writers identify places in their manuscript where showing should replace telling and then try and dramatize the scene with descriptions and actions, remembering at the same time to leave a bit of ambiguity and mystery for the reader.

12. Viewpoint and Narration

This is another amateurish mistake, when writers fail to maintain consistency in the narrator (eg, first person, second person, third person, etc) and having viewpoints jump from character to character when utilizing third person. Even when the narrator is supposedly omniscient it comes across as awkward and odd. Other common problems include a narrator with no originality or voice or a narrator who knows things they cannot possibly know.

13. Characterization

Problems include:

  • poor usage of character names (eg, switching between first and last names, nicknames, etc
  • use of cliched or exotic names that don’t fit
  • launching into the story without establishing characters
  • cliched character traits
  • introducing too many characters at once
  • confusion over who the protagonist is
  • extraneous characters
  • generic character descriptions
  • characters readers won’t care about
  • unsympathetic protagonist

Solutions are pretty self explanatory.

14. Hooks

The hook is what grabs the reader’s attention and compels them to read on. But Lukeman warns that the hook is more than a marketing tool and might consist of more than the first line — it could be the entire first paragraph, first page, or even the first chapter. The hook needs to be consistent with the rest of the writing and not be disproportionate with what follows. Using dialogue to start off is also best avoided.

15. Subtlety

A very underrated quality for a writer. Lukeman believes that less is always more when it comes to utilizing subtlety and achieving subtlety comes from confidence. Some of the problems can be solved by cutting extraneous text that comes from a desire to spell everything out for the reader, but it is about being able to spot the problem areas and making sure things are not too neat and tidy.

16. Tone

Tone is about intentionality and is the voice behind the work, the driving intention behind the style and sound. The three are intertwined but must work together in order to work. The tone of your manuscript should be a conscious choice and Lukeman admits there are no easy solutions. Best to show your work to someone else to see if they feel the tone doesn’t work. It is an advanced technique that takes time to master, he says.

17. Focus

This is about staying on track with your writing and not losing the focus of the story. Often a story drifts from the path you have set it but you must make sure what you set out to achieve in the beginning is resolved by the end. Lukeman says each chapter must be thought of as its own complete unit — the length is not important as long as it accomplishes what it set out to do. An unfocused manuscript may have subplots that are not resolved, a lack of continuity, and could go off on tangents and feel like it’s rambling. However, he warns against being too focused — if everything is too rigid, too neat and too perfect, then perhaps you have been too focused.

18. Setting

Setting is often ignored but can “add a whole new dimension to a text, a richness nothing else can”, according to Lukeman. Problems include writers who make no attempt to create a setting whatsoever to writers to spend too much time describing the setting.

Specific suggestions include:

  • adding small but vivid details to the setting descriptions
  • draw on all five senses when bringing a setting to life (especially smell, sound and lighting); climate can also be important
  • most importantly, have characters interact with their settings
  • great settings go one step further and make an impression

19. Pacing and Progression

This is the last thing editors might look for and might not be discernible until they’ve gotten through a sizeable chunk of your manuscript. Lukeman describes novels that are too slow and those that are too quick, neither of which are recommended. He reminds people that pacing and progression are cumulative things and therefore hard to self-edit.

If the manuscript reads too slow, then:

  • try and create scenarios where even you, as the writer, would be interested in
  • create more stakes and raise the stakes
  • look for sections that can be shortened
  • replace telling and description with drama

On the other hand, if the manuscript reads too quickly, then slow it down and try to give it a foundation and make the story come alive. Dialogue is often identified as one of the reasons why manuscripts can read too quickly.