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Book Review: ‘Naked’ by David Sedaris June 29, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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For me, David Sedaris is the master.  When it comes to the type of comedic writing I want to be able to emulate, there’s nobody better than him.  Having attempted (well, attempting) comedic writing myself over the last few months, I am discovering first hand just how difficult it is to make writing amusing.  And Sedaris’s writing is not just amusing — it’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but at the same time it is incredibly clever and somehow manages to maintain an air of sophistication.

In my efforts to be more Sedaris-like in my own writings, I sought out one of his earlier books, Naked, published in 1997.  Like the other Sedaris book I read, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (review here), Naked can be classified as a collection of ‘personal essays’ of varying lengths.  Each essay covers an aspect or person of Sedaris’s life, from early childhood to adulthood, and are filled with outrageous characters (many of which are in Sedaris’s family) and anecdotes.

Titles of some of the my favourite essays include ‘A Plague of Tics’ (about Sedaris’s obsessive compulsive tendencies as a child), ‘Dix Hill’ (when Sedaris worked in a mental hospital as a teenager), ‘I Like Guys’ (where Sedaris discovers his homosexuality), ‘The Drama Bug’ (when Sedaris became a theatre fanatic and spoke in Shakespearean for months), ‘Planet of the Apes’ (about Sedaris’s hitchhiking stories), ‘The Incomplete Quad’ (where Sedaris shared dorms with quadriplegic students for free housing), and ‘Naked’ (about Sedaris’s experiences in a nudist colony).

Yes, as the above suggests, Sedaris is a weird, neurotic, somewhat disturbed guy, but he embraces it with a bizarre sense of self-righteousness and humility.  His stories are hilarious because they are so brutally honest, and each joke almost always provides some kind of insight into human nature.  And every now and then he would surprise you with a dash of poignancy, like the piece on his mother’s passing from cancer (‘Ashes’).

Sedaris weaves his internal thoughts, the anecdotes, the stories and the characters together effortlessly with elegant, clean prose, marvellous dialogue (some of which are really mini-soliloquies), astute observations and crafty storytelling.  The thing that amazes me most about Sedaris’s writing is that he knows exactly what words to use to convey the image he wants you to form in your mind.  His descriptions are brief but on the money just about every time, and he can give you a pretty good idea of what a person is like in a just a couple of slabs of dialogue.  He brings his characters to life in a way that few writers can.

I didn’t necessarily like every piece in the book, though that being said, each piece had its moments and I absolutely loved around half a dozen of the 17 essays.  I am certain that I will read his work again (and hopefully sooner rather than later).

4.5 out of 5

Becoming a ruthless killer…of words May 31, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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It’s getting down to the business end of things.  The due date for my novel project is just around the corner and I have buckled down for the home stretch!

The novel itself will not be complete (the project only requires a certain number of words) but what I submit will have to be high quality, polished stuff.  And so I have essentially stopped drafting new chapters and am solely focused on reshaping and reworking the existing ones.

On top of that, I have to start trimming the words down to a manageable size.  I’m about 10,000 words over what I should have, and it’s going to be brutal.

Yesterday I commenced what I thought was a murderous rampage through my draft manuscript.  I deleted whole chunks, moved others, rephrased and slashed words and sentences here and there.  I thought I was on a roll.  But when I checked the word count at the end of the day, I had only cut a few hundred words!  It may have had something to do with me adding a little too much new material.

The good news is that I can simply cut entire chapters for the submission.  Find the ones that aren’t working yet and just take them right out.  Get back to them later.

The best advice I received from all the  workshopping I’ve done recently is that for comedic writing (which is what I am striving for here), the best way to go about it is to gather a whole bunch of stuff, find out what works and what doesn’t, and just keep the best bits.

For some reason I was under the assumption that brilliant comedic writers struck gold every time — and some of them probably do — but there’s bound to be certain passages that don’t work and some that work better than others.  The key is finding out which ones.  I find reading the writing out loud really helps — in identifying the strengths and weaknesses, separating the interesting from the boring, and assisting with the rhythm and comedic timing of the jokes and punchlines.

Oh well, better get back to it.  Time is running out.

Movie Review: Just Go With It (2011) May 6, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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It seems like it was so long ago that I was an Adam Sandler fan.  I loved his crazy, stupid movies.  No matter what anyone says about them, they were (for the most part) hilarious and unique in that Sandler-esque kind of way.

These days, frankly, Sandler’s movies suck.  They’ve become predictable, formulaic, and not very funny.  I feel like he is undergoing some kind of mid-life crisis, for some reason always trying to make his films have a proper storyline and some kind of message about life.  That’s not his forte.

And so it was with reservations that I went to see Just Go With It, a ‘romantic comedy’ about a plastic surgeon who pretends he is married to lure chicks, kind of like that episode of Seinfeld where George gave it a go.  And just like George in that episode, the scheme backfires when he meets the woman of his dreams (Andy Roddick’s SI model wife Brooklyn Decker), and must now continue to pretend he is temporarily ‘married’ by getting his assistant (Jennifer Aniston) to act as his wife.

You don’t need me to tell you where this movie heads and how it ends up.

As I mentioned above, Sandler doesn’t make good movies anymore (his best efforts these days are, I would say, ‘average’ at best).  Jennifer Aniston almost never makes watchable movies.  Throw the two together and it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Fortunately for them, there were a few good moments in Just Go With It, but none of them involved Sandler or Aniston.  The real stars of the film were Bailee Madison (who plays Aniston’s quirky daughter) and Nick Swardson (who is more hit and miss but has some good moments as Sandler’s cousin).  And Brooklyn Decker was surprisingly adequate as the fake love interest, demonstrating not only that she can act but also that she possesses decent comedic timing.  There’s also a supporting role with Nicole Kidman that I didn’t know about, but she wasn’t as funny as she could or should have been.

But ultimately, Just Go With It is probably exactly what you’d expect it to be — two big stars, an initially interesting premise, a predictable plot and a few good jokes, but far too many bad ones.  Potentially worthy as a DVD rental on a rainy night if you are in the right mood, but otherwise don’t waste your money.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Scream 4 (2011) April 21, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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The original Scream was a relevation for horror fans, and a pretty darn funny one at that.  The two sequels that followed were okay, in my memory a complete blur, most probably because they were basically variations of the first film.

Hard to believe, but Scream 4 comes 11 years after the third film, which to me suggests ‘reboot’ or a ‘homage’ as opposed to genuine sequel.  The core cast from the first three films are still alive and kicking — Neve Campbell returns as Sidney Prescott, and Courteney Cox and David Arquette return as Gale Weathers and Dewey Riley, respectively (now married, though in real life they are separated — must have been awkward).  The fresh blood comes from the up-and-coming Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere, but there are also plenty of cameos, from Anna Paquin to Kristen Bell.

I must admit, given that this film was directed by the great Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson (who penned the screenplays of the first two in the series), I expected a lot more.  The premise could not have been less uninspiring — Sidney Prescott returns to Woodsbro years after her brutal encounters as a part of her book tour.  Of course, the ‘Ghostface’ killer returns and starts killing people all over the place, and there seems to be a pattern that matches the original killings.  Who could it be?  What horror film conventions will be adhered to or broken this time?

On the bright side, Scream 4 does contain some clever moments and witty remarks — the ‘film-in-a-film’ idea is not a novel one but I enjoyed the way it kick started the film, and the whole social networking/instant feed concept was intelligently mixed into the plot to give it a contemporary flavour.  But on the whole, Scream 4 felt like absolutely nothing new.  The people are older but that’s about it.  If you’ve seen any of the first three films you’ll probably get a good dose of deja vu, except this time the jokes are more stale and the frights are less scary.  The sharp edge of the original has dulled over time.

In fact, it would be a stretch to call Scream 4 a true horror film — it’s more comedy than anything else, except it’s not that funny; even as a parody it’s not particularly effective.  It was like an old dog desperately trying to perform old tricks — very good tricks, but unfortunately we’ve seen it all before.

2 stars out of 5

It really helps to read writings out loud April 18, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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The other day I finally got to workshop a chapter of my novel in my creative writing class.  I was a bit nervous (as I always am when getting other people to read my writing), but this was a little different.

This was a genuine first draft, and it wasn’t the type of writing the class was seeing.  The style was chatty, colloquial, and very light on description.  There was a lot of telling, not a whole lot of showing.  It was my attempt at something new in order to try and establish the voice, the most important part and what I’ve been struggling with.

If I learned one thing that night, it’s that reading your writings out loud really helps.  As I said, this was a first draft, but I did have a read over it to correct typos and spelling/grammatical errors.  But I read it over in my head, and to me, it all sounded fine.  I thought it was good enough.

When I read it out loud in class, however, it was a different story.  The story itself was not problematic but there was something about the rhythm to the narrative and the voice that were just a little…off.  There were moments when it sagged, when it didn’t sound right.  It was a flaw my lecturer picked up and said it was particularly important in comedic pieces (which this was) to have the right beats.  I hit some and missed some in this draft.

There were various other tips and recommendations from my classmates (including, of course, trying to ‘dramatise’ the ‘telling’ a bit more), but this was one thing that stood out the most.  Reading my writings out loud helped me to capitalise on the problem immediately.

From now on, that’s what I’m going to do with every draft and redraft.  Read it out loud and see how it sounds!

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