Priorities, discipline, efficiency — and a fresh start

February 10, 2014 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing by pacejmiller

fresh-start

I don’t need you to tell me that I suck. That’s why, starting from today, I’m going to be a new me. I had actually intended to write this post about a week ago, but instead I continued on my lazy, uninspired ways, yet another reason why I suck. But suck no more. The power of Christ compels you! Be gone, undisciplined self!

Shortly after I started my current job two years ago, I knew I would have a fair bit of time on my hands during the week. I started dreaming of wonderful writing experiences, magical ideas and just a truckload of awesomeness heading my way. Two years later, I’m still in the same position, with nothing but a sore ass to show for it. To be fair, two kids is no joke, and often I find myself just wanting to chillax and watch YouTube videos at work. The days, however, a rolling by too fast, and I was stunned to realise this weekend that we are almost 2 months into 2014.

I’ve developed some bad habits. I’d like to blame other people for how lazy and unmotivated I’ve been (lots of targets at work), but the truth is I’ve got no one to point the finger at but myself. I’ve been distracted and zoned out like Walter Mitty, dreaming of wild fantasies and unrealistic expectations instead of going out and accomplishing them. My focus isn’t where it should be. I’ve been disciplined when it comes to this blog, my work (day job and freelance, relatively speaking) and my exercising (for the most part), though for some strange reason I can’t seem to apply that same discipline to thing I want it to be applied to most — my writing.

I’ve figured out that it’s not that I’m afraid of failure or anything like that. It’s not that I don’t want to put in the work. It’s just that I have my priorities all messed up. I recently wrote an article on Elon Musk, the 42-year-old billionaire who co-founded Paypal and runs visionary electric car company Tesla Motors. His first ex-wife, Justine Musk (nee Wilson), is a Canadian-born author who bore him five boys — twins and then triplets! Despite having to look after 5 boys (OK, so they were rich enough to have lots of help, but still) and having to overcome depression and the SIDS death of their first child, Justine still managed to have three books sold to Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Now that’s impressive, and there are many more similarly impressive stories out there to make me want to stick my head up my butt in shame.

From now, I’m going to get my priorities straight. It’s not necessarily about sacrificing other things I want to do — rather, it’s about doing what I should be doing and looking towards the long-run as opposed to immediate gratification. I’m also going to be disciplined and stick to it. And I’m going to be efficient. I used to think multi-tasking was the shit, but I’ve come to realise it’s just…shit. If you really want to do something well, focus on what you need to do, zone in, and get it done before moving onto the next thing.

OK, no more writing about wanting to write. My fresh start starts…now.

My 2014 Reading List!

January 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews by pacejmiller

books

Finally, I’ve accomplished something I set out to do. 2013 was a big year of reading by my pathetic standards. As a father of two young’ uns working a full-time job plus freelancing on the side and loads of TV shows and movies to watch every night, reading time is hard to come by, but I set a goal to read 20 books last year and I did it, finishing with an overall total of 23.

It was a healthy diet of books for review I received from a trade publication, a lot of sports biographies (went through a binge phase), some recommendations, a few writing manuals and a few bestsellers. They were (in reverse chronological order): And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Housseini, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Theft Law in the Information Age by Stuart P Green, Party Time: Who Runs China and How by Rowan Callick, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Justice by Michael J Sandel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty, The War for Late Night by Bill Carter, Cybercrime in the Greater China Region by Lennon Yao-chung Chang, Dream Team by Jack McCallum, Inferno by Dan Brown, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill, Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott, and Fifty Shades Freed by EL James (I had read the two books in the series the year before).

To avoid disappointment, my goal is to hit 20 books again for 2014, and I’ve already got a preliminary reading list at hand. This year I hope to get to more fiction and classics, and I intend to read a couple of fantasy and horror classics to get myself in the mood for my own fantasy novel. I’ve also dedicated some time to non-fiction as well as spiritual learning by setting aside a few pro-Christian and anti-Christian books, just to balance things out a little. There will likely be more additions as I receive them in the mail for review and other bestsellers and recommendations that come up throughout the year, but for now, this is (in no particular order) my reading list for 2014!

Stoner, John Williams

Simply Christianity, John Dickson

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan

Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman

My Story, Elizabeth Smart

Sycamore Row, John Grisham

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

All That I Am, Anna Funder

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Magician, Raymond Feist

The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks

Dreams from My Father and/or The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama

Can’t wait to rip into them.

No more excuses

October 16, 2013 in Blogging, Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

no excuses

I was surprised to see that it’s been about a dozen days since I last posted. And is it really October already? Time flies when you have a full plate.

The last couple of weeks have indeed been hectic but have also allowed me to put things in perspective. My elder son contracted some crazy contagious virus again at daycare and I had to take a few days off work to look after him because we had to segregate him from my younger son to prevent contamination.

Spending so much time with him has been exhausting and great at the same time. He’s really become obsessed with basketball (“ba-ke-bo”, he calls it) and we went about four days straight to practice at nearby courts, sometimes for as long as two or three hours. We would then follow that up with a stroll to a mall in the afternoon and then games at home after a shower. My wife has her hands full with the three-month old so most of the time it’s just me and him.

Kids really are amazing creatures. Maybe it’s because I recently read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck (which I am in the process of reviewing) which is all about living up to your potential by equipping yourself with the right frame of mind. My son has that eagerness and fearlessness right now; he’s curious about everything and once he becomes fascinated with something he can work at it for hours and hours without getting tired or losing interest. He just wants to learn and grow, whereas most of us grownups just want to get by, or worse, achieve something without genuinely putting in the time and effort.

Initially I thought taking a child who hasn’t even turned two to play basketball would be a waste of time because the ball was nearly as big as him and he couldn’t even hold onto it properly. Besides, I wanted to play myself and didn’t want to share the ball. But he chased me around and whined and he whined until I gave the ball to him, and then he began trying to imitate me bouncing the ball off the ground. He stumbled and fell at least a dozen times, scraping both knees until they bled, but he wouldn’t let me take the ball off him or show him how to do it. He wanted to learn for himself.

Amazingly, by the end of that session, he had learned how to bounce the ball with his hands a couple of times. It was only then that he would let me teach him to try and bounce the ball with his fingertips rather than slapping it with his palms. He continued practicing for the next couple of days and got better and better at it, and he even learned how to throw (toss is probably more accurate) the ball further than before. And he was so proud that he had improved.

Unfortunately, he hurt his finger a little bit practicing one day and got scared of bouncing the ball, so I went and bought him a smaller and softer ball to practice with. He’s also become obsessed with watching basketball highlights on TV and loves flipping through books or magazines with basketball pictures. It’s the kind of childlike wonder and passion I wish I had. Not knowing — not believing — that there is a limit on what you can achieve must be a marvelous feeling.

Speaking of passions…I recently celebrated my birthday, and the sinking feeling that I’m not moving forward with my writing is starting to scare me. I’m still writing every day, usually on things I don’t mind writing about, but not on the things I should be writing about. There’s still that fear of starting, that fear of failure, that fear of not being able to do something as well as you imagine you could.

So I’ve been coming up with a lot of excuses. I need to exercise (I do, but maybe not as much). I need to watch TV (which is only true in the case of Breaking Bad, and that’s over now, and the new seasons of The Mentalist and Homeland and Revenge haven’t been very good, though The Walking Dead seems promising…but I digress). I have too many blog posts to catch up on (that is true, but they can wait). I have too many freelance cases to do (I have some, not too many). I have to play Candy Crush, Scramble with Friends and Plants vs Zombies 2 (I don’t). Anything but writing the epic novel or screenplay I have been planning to write for years.

A few weeks ago the names of a couple of my old classmates from my 2010-2011 writing course popped up. I was ecstatic to see that they had each published their own novels, some of which were actually projects they were working on in the course we did together. But at the same time it made me sad and ashamed to realize that I’ve barely touched my own in-progress works. And even with two kids and a full-time job, I probably still had more free time than them.

It’s not just writers either. People all around me are going after what they want. I have friends — some of whom I would never have pictured doing anything — running or trying to run their own start-ups and businesses. Studying things they would like pursue a future career in. Taking risks, chasing dreams — or even just doing something they enjoy more.

I have the time to do it too because of flexibility at my workplace. About three weeks ago one morning I was really pysched for some reason and started writing a screenplay. I got a couple of pages done — it wasn’t particularly good either, but I loved the thrill it gave me. I thought the momentum would carry on naturally and I would keep working on it every day after that, but I haven’t touched it since. What it’s telling me is that if I really want to do something I need to keep at it and don’t think it will come easily. Persistence!

This is on the fringe of relevance, but I will mention it anyway. Last Sunday was one of the most exciting days of my life. I went to watch the Indiana Pacers take on the Houston Rockets in Taipei — courtside — and the experience blew me away. I’ll blog about this soon, but what I want to mention is a former Pacers player I saw sitting in the stands. I was surprised to see him there because this player has not played in the NBA since 2008. He was a promising talent who was selected in the first round of the draft, but his on and off court attitude and drug use pushed him out of the league in a hurry. After playing overseas for a few years he’s still looking for a chance to get back to the NBA, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 now and couldn’t even get an opportunity in the NBA Summer League this year. I looked him up on Twitter and it seems he is full of regret over blowing his past opportunities and taking the people who genuinely cared about him for granted. Now that he’s finally grown up and ready to play the opportunity is no longer there.

I guess this is a roundabout way of saying I don’t want to look back years from now and regret having squandered an opportunity to go after what I want when I have the time and energy to do it. So this is it. It doesn’t mean I can’t still do the other things. It just means I need to get down to doing what matters. No more excuses.

Translating Subtitles and Screenwriting

August 21, 2013 in Best Of, On Writing by pacejmiller

dignity-of-the-retarded_786_poster

I broke my promise to post at least once a day the last few days because I took on an emergency freelance case translating subtitles for a Taiwanese film trying to make a film festival deadline. It was a brutal grind, a 110-minute film with around 14,000 Chinese characters to translate within basically a 24-hour deadline.

On some level, I quite enjoyed the experience. When you love movies as much as I do, translating film subtitles is actually quite the dream job, as long as the deadlines aren’t so tight. The pay isn’t great (as with most jobs in Taiwan), but if I could do a couple a month it would be fine and an acceptable supplement to the income. That said, I do realize that if this really happened I would probably get sick of it in a hurry.

The act of translating subtitles is an art in itself, and the choices that translators make are capable of dramatically impacting how the film is received by the audience.  It’s more than simply grabbing the script and doing a direct translation, as I thought it entailed in the beginning. It’s all about interpretation.

This, for example, is pretty good, in my humble opinion.

Context is crucial, so it’s important to actually watch the footage to see how the characters deliver the lines and how they interact with each other. Apart from being factually accurate, the getting the tone of the conversations right is also important, which is why word choice must be carefully considered.

On top of that, there is the length of the sentences. Some projects have a limited character length per line, but even if there isn’t, it’s always a good idea to keep the lines short and snappy, without losing their effectiveness. There is nothing worse than a line that is too long for audiences to read in time. We’re not all speed readers.

Further, there is the problem of local cultural references and word play, which elevate the difficulty to another level. Do you offer a brief explanation in parenthesis, as I have seen done before, or do you come up with a completely different line that is as close to the meaning as possible for the target audience of the language you are translating it to?

However you approach it, translating subtitles is a thought-provoking process that tests not only language but also problem-solving skills and creativity. In that sense, I’ve come to realize that translating subtitles bears parallels to the act of screenwriting itself. It’s essentially like editing a screenplay that has been written in another language. In fact, I am almost treating my translation projects as screenwriting exercises, which will put me in a good position if and when I start penning my own screenplays (soon, I hope).

The bigger question is, what will this screenplay (or these screenplays) be about? I have no idea, and that is the real problem. I envy writers who have the audacity to think big and have the ability to come up with original and complex plots with confidence. A lot of the Hollywood tripe that gets churned out these days instills optimism, but at least those writers are getting stuff done, unlike me.

The key, of course, is practice, and plenty of it. Don’t be afraid of what people will think and write under the assumption that no one else will see it. Write lots of bad screenplays and good ones will eventually start to emerge. On that note, I will conclude with this awesome video from Paul Haggis, who wrote/adapted Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Casino Royale, and Quantum of Solace. His latest film (writer and director) is Third Person, a romantic drama starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody, Maria Bello, Kim Basinger and Casey Affleck. It has a release date of September 2013.

Writing fiction after all that non-fiction is really really hard

August 1, 2013 in Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

once upon a time

I have recently developed a very real fear that I may never be able to write fiction again.

They say writers need to write, and over the past year all I’ve been doing is reading and writing non-fiction, almost exclusively. At work every day I write news, and in my spare time I write on this blog, which essentially comprises film, restaurant and book reviews these days, or my sports blog, which is, well, all about sports.

My reading habits have also veered towards non-fiction. Browsing through my book reviews this year I see (chronologically from the start of the year):

- Fifty Shades Freed by EL James (fiction) — the final book in the Fifty Shades Trilogy and probably the worst book I have ever read, fiction or otherwise. I think it barely counts as a book, let alone fiction.

- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (non-fiction) — the legendary writing book, part memoir and part writers’ guide.

- Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill (fiction) — a collection of short stories about Japan.

- The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (non-fiction) — another seminal writers’ book about staying out of the rejection pile.

- Inferno by Dan Brown (fiction) — no introduction necessary, though again, some would argue whether Brown’s writing classifies as fiction given that it is dominated by Wikipedia-like entries about history, architecture and artworks. And the quality of the fiction writing is, let’s just say, somewhat lacking.

- Dream Team by Jack McCallum (non-fiction) — a riveting account of the one and only 1992 Dream Team.

- The War for Late Night by Bill Carter (non-fiction) — the fascinating account into the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno late night television feud of 2010.

- Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (non-fiction) — Phil Jackson’s account of how he won his 11 NBA championship rings as a coach and 2 as a player.

- The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (non-fiction) — the writing bible.

- The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith (non-fiction) — the controversial book about Michael Jordan and the tumultuous 1990-91 season of the NBA champions Chicago Bulls.

- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (fiction) — the classic novel about a man whose youth and beauty was preserved by a magical painting.

- Justice by Michael J Sandel (non-fiction) — an engrossing philosophy book about morality and the right thing to do.

By my count that’s 8 non-fiction books and 4 fiction books. But one of the fiction books is Fifty Shades and another is Dan Brown, so they don’t really count. And of the other two, one is a short story collection and the other is a classic novel written in the 19th century (which can be helpful but not that helpful).

It’s not that you can’t be creative with non-fiction writing, it’s just that the parameters are defined and confined by the facts you have to convey. With fiction writing it has to all come from your imagination, and that’s where I feel as though my brain has been reprogrammed and all that creativity I once had (however little it may have been) has been sucked out of me completely.

If I had to sit down and write a short story or screenplay right now I wouldn’t know where to start. In fact, just the thought of the possibility of getting back to working on my novels or screenplay makes me nervous, and scared — which probably explains why I have set myself the long-term target of completing all my backlogged blog posts before commencing any “proper” fiction writing. It’s pathetic, I know, but at least I am clearing out my backlog.

To lubricate my ride back into fiction, I am going to try and re-enter the land of fiction. Classics are good, but right now I’m thinking something less challenging, like commercial fiction. I’ve started reading Gillian Flynn’s acclaimed Gone Girl. I’m only about a fifth of the way through but it’s already shaping up to be one heck of a cracking read. It’s one of those books that grips onto you with characters that ring so true you feel like you know them. Apparently Ben Affleck has signed on for the film version, to be directed by David Fincher, so his head keeps popping up in my mind. (And Rosamund Pike has reportedly been cast as the other lead).

I still have some other non-fiction books I must get through, including parenting books on baby sleep (it’s gotta be done) and a couple of book reviews for publication. But my focus for the rest of the year will hopefully be on fiction. I have lined up The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and Anna Funder’s All That I Am, and I intend to get through them all before December 31. I don’t know how, since having a job with two kids under two means I pretty much only have time to read while travelling to and from work and just before bed — but I’m still going to try to reach my New Year’s Resolution goal of 20 books for the year.

And before you start being a dick, give me a break; that’s very good for me already.

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