Goodbye 2013, there’s gonna be some changes around here

December 31, 2013 in Best Of, Blogging, Misc

taipei 101 (500x333)

True story: I didn’t even know that it’s New Year’s Eve today until someone asked me what my plans were for tonight. Such is the cloudy mist of routine, exhaustion and apathy that surrounds me these days when it comes to figuring out what is happening outside the bubble of my existence. It felt like yesterday when I said goodbye to 2012 and ushered in an endless list of things I want to accomplish for the upcoming 12 months. And just like that, 2013 is now about to be over!

It’s been a strange year, to say the least. Up at the top of the list is the welcoming of my second child, the absolute highlight of 2013. It’s a different experience when you have a second one. In some ways you care less, and in other ways you care more. I’ve been fortunate enough to be blessed with a healthy boy, a very good boy, one who shits on the notion that “having one child is like having one child, having two children is like having 10.” On the other hand, his elder brother is growing to be quite the handful, so I suppose things even themselves out.

Family has been a gift this year and through all the trials and tribulations I’ve come to appreciate them more than ever, even when my parents are doing their best impressions of Frank and Estelle Costanza.

You know, it’s interesting. Whenever I used to think about who I would step in front of a bus for, there were always people I’d say “yes” for, though there would always be a question in the back of my mind as to whether, when push came to shove, I’d really be able to go through with it. When it comes to my kids, however, it’s a resolute and unequivocal yes. Not even a hint of hesitation. I guess that’s what unconditional love feels like.

While I miss my dear Sydney friends, many of whom I was lucky enough to catch up with during my most recent visit, the friends I have made in Taiwan have been awesome and play another part in my comfortable existence here, complete with regular movies, all the latest TV shows, the occasional book (btw, I smashed my goal of 20 books this year by going for 23), every Pacers game (yay!), and lots of great food and exercise. Oh, and evidently, blogging. But as I have said many times this year, comfort has been a double-edged sword that has sapped me of my career motivations.

That’s where I have to make some changes, man, for 2014. For real. Time to ramp things up and cast aside the distractions. And to be fair, a lot of my distractions are distractions because I allow them to be. That’s it! I’m clearing the plate and licking my chops. Next year, writing MUST be at the forefront of my priorities. Books must be completed. Screenplays must be attempted. Stuff needs to get done.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Now go and enjoy your 2014.

No more excuses

October 16, 2013 in Blogging, Novel, On Writing

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.

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

August 1, 2013 in Novel, On Writing

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.

Getting back into writing with baby steps

July 18, 2013 in Blogging, On Writing

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You may have noticed, dear reader, that I have been blogging up a storm lately. Contrary to my best laid plans, however, I do not have extra time on my hands.

I’m on paternity leave this week with the birth of my second child, but most of my spare time has been gobbled up by my ill firstborn, who contracted the cumbersome foot and mouth disease from daycare. It’s an awful affliction that can worry parents to death and requires around the clock monitoring and care. Even with the benevolent assistance of my parents, I am now far more exhausted than before I commenced this so-called “break”, and a part of me looks forward to returning to the office for some much-needed rest (and it has not escaped me how messed up that is).

The reason I have been writing — and reading — like a demon these last few days is because I’m finally starting to rediscover my passion again. I’m not forcing myself to read or write, like I had been at times earlier this year. Admittedly, it felt like a chore and I made excuses to avoid it. But now, I’m doing it because I want to, and I’m enjoying it immensely too. I’m hoping this is a sign of things to come (you stupid, stupid jinxer).

I don’t want to speak too soon. This recent change in attitude could be because I don’t have to write monotonous articles daily for work, or it might be because becoming a father to a new son has given me a sudden burst of energy. I’d thus like to keep taking baby steps rather than proffer some grand declaration. I talk a good dream like every aspiring writer, but lord knows how many promises I’ve broken to myself when it comes to actually getting something done, especially in the last couple of years (too many dick moves on my part, I know).

It seems a stable family life and a cruisy, stress-free and relatively simple job have robbed me of my desire to pursue the goals I once had. And while I despise myself for it I found the drudgery and banality of everyday life too taxing to overcome — at least on a consistent basis. There were days where I’d be productive at work, and by that I mean complete my professional writing assignments quickly (I use the term “professional” loosely here) so I could spend the rest of my day on my own writings, but such days were becoming a rarity. Instead, I wasted most of my downtime at work on junk like Candy Crush, YouTube videos, Grantland podcasts and sports news. It certainly doesn’t help when just about everyone else around you is doing something similar, fuelling a vicious vortex dragging us all deeper and deeper into a depressing realm of utter indifference.

We often don’t realise what we had until it’s gone, but in this instance I am acutely aware that the abundant free time I have during work hours is a rare opportunity. I’m not going to be in this job forever and there might come a time in the near future when I have to take up a more demanding role, and the last thing I want is to look back at this period regretting how I had wasted it (pretty much how I have viewed each preceding period In my life, sadly).

There’s nothing more euphoric than the feeling that you are actively pursuing a goal and you are putting all your heart and soul into achieving it. It’s something a few of my friends back home have been doing and I’ve been following them from afar with a mix of pride and envy. They’ve probably had far more setbacks than victories, but it’s their passion and drive that impress me the most. I want to feel what they’re feeling. Whether I eventually reach my goal is irrelevant, as long as I can tell myself, honestly, that I did all that I could.

So I am hoping that this minor revival means I am slowly turning the corner and that I will rededicate myself to improving my writing with a steady diet of reading, blogging — and once I get my confidence back — novel and screenwriting. For now, I just have to keep reminding myself: baby steps, not dissimilar to this.

Reading ‘The Elements of Style’ by Strunk & White

July 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

elements

Just about every book on writing I have come across mentions The Elements of Style as a must-have. It’s not even a debate.

Earlier this year, I finally got around the reading the latest edition (4th — published in 2000) of this tiny little book, all 105 pages of it (including the index), and I too was amazed by how much it has to offer to novices and experts alike.

The original version was written by William Strunk Jr for his students in 1918, nearly a century ago, and a revised edition for publication was released in 1935. Strunk died in 1946, and one of his former students, EB White, was commissioned to expand and modernize the text, resulting in the official first edition of The Elements of Style in 1959. I bought the 4th edition about five years ago.

One of the reasons the book has endured is its simplicity and straightforward nature. Strunk is, evidently, really anal about the English language and probably wrote the book to vent all his pet peeves. And he had enough to fill up a whole book!

The first section is about the elementary rules of usage, some of which are fundamentals of the language and others are strong preferences. Ever been confused as to when to use an apostrophe or a colon? This book has the answers. Even if you think you know it all, chances are you’ll still learn a thing or two, or at least be reminded of what is considered “good English.”

The second section is the elementary principles of composition, which is more about recommendations for good writing, such as using the active voice, avoiding loose sentences, tense usage, using specific language (as opposed to vague) and omitting needless words. Much of it is opinion but Strunk and White generally make a strong case as to why you should listen to them. I learned a lot in this part of the book because I have a penchant for convoluted sentences, vagueness and pointless words.

Section three is a short section on form, including the use of colloquial terms, quotations, references and titles, etc. Again, most of this is a matter of opinion, but I personally thought the suggestions made perfect sense.

The fourth section is the juicy part of the book — Words and Expressions Commonly Misused. Starting from “Aggravate/Irritate” and ending at “Would”, Strunk and White run through this useful alphabetical list with laser precision. For example, they advise always shortening the phrase “as to whether” to just “whether”, changing “different than” to “different from”, and explain why the words “flammable” and “inflammable” are often confusing. And I was embarrassed to discover that “unique” means “without like or equal”, and hence there are no degrees of uniqueness (such as “quite unique”, “very unique” or “most unique”).

Do you know the difference between “imply” and “infer” or the difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated?” What about “tortuous” and “torturous”? The list goes on and on, and I’m sure I’ve already broken quite a few of Strunk and White’s rules in this post.

The final section is a general guide on style, which is less specific but helpful nonetheless for those aspiring to be better writers. The book finishes off with a glossary that explains all the stuff I have no idea about, such as what is a “transitive verb”, “pronominal possessive” or “modal auxiliaries.”

The problem with the book, if it can be called a problem, is that it was written so long ago many of the cardinal sins listed have become accepted through common use. For instance, the term “hopefully” is supposed to mean “with hope”, but these days most people use it to convey “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.” Strunk and White call it “wrong” and “silly”, but sometimes that’s just the way language develops over time. Other suggestions, such as substituting “use” for “utilize”, I might ignore, because I think word choice affects the flow of a sentence and sometimes “utilize” provides the rhythm I’m looking for. It’s a matter of opinion and I didn’t always agree with theirs — though it did not hurt to think about it.

Despite its flaws, The Elements of Style is a book I’ll be flipping through regularly from now on. I’ll probably also read it cover to cover once every couple of years as a refresher. Even if I don’t, I’ll keep it somewhere handy and accessible. I’d recommend everyone else to do the same.

 
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