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Irritating Authorial Hiccups August 22, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing.
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I’ve been reading a fantastic book called Lives and Letters by Robert Gottlieb to review for a trade publication.  It’s a collection of insightful and wonderfully written ‘profiles’ (some are closer to reviews of biographies) of a wide array of celebrated entertainers, artists, writers and public figures over few hundred years.

Gottlieb is the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, the president and editor in chief of Alfred A Knopf and the editor of The New Yorker (!).  You don’t get a resume more impressive than that.

My review of this book for this blog will be coming in a couple of weeks, but I feel like I’ve already learned a great deal — not just about the people profiled in the book, but also in terms of writing and editing skills.

I was reading the profile of Elia Kazan (one of the best known directors of the 50s and 60s) and in it Gottlieb criticises a particular book that is peppered with ‘irritating authorial hiccups’.


  • It must be said
  • Be that as it may
  • It is not too much to say
  • If you will
  • Frankly
  • Of course (which Gottlieb calls ‘the lazy writer’s crutch’)

Reading that list made me sweat because I’m certain I use those terms all the time, especially the last two.  And in a way (is that an irritating authorial hiccup too?), I suppose he is right in that they are not really necessary and can come across as lazy and too ‘loose’, especially in what is supposed to be a well-crafted piece of writing.

On the other hand (what about this one?), I think whether such terms are appropriate may depend on the type of writing it is and the audience it is intended for.  For instance, I like this blog to be conversational, informal, kind of chatty — and I think some of these ‘hiccups’ may help achieve that purpose.  Then again (this one too?), I could be way off the mark and it might be that this type of voice is achievable without these lazy crutches.

The bigger question is whether the terms (when repeated regularly throughout a piece of writing) are irritating only for experienced writers/editors, or do they annoy the casual reader as well?

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!

Things I Learned in Writing Class this Semester (Part III) November 30, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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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.

Things I Learned in Writing Class This Semester (Part I) November 22, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing, Study.
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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!

500 Posts! August 2, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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Can you believe it?  This is my 500th post!

I started this blog on 11 January 2010 while I was (supposed to be) studying and bored out of my mind.  18 months, 420,000 hits and 1,200 comments later, I’m still studying (albeit a completely different field) — but the crucial difference is that I love what I’m doing.

Anyway, after a lengthy semester break (where I naturally did less writing than I intended do) I attended my first post-break class tonight.  Editing.  I took the elective because I thought it would be helpful for my writing (and in case I wanted to pursue a career in the publishing field).  So far, no complaints.

It was a little depressing to learn just how rough it is these days to crack into the publishing world, and how tough it is even if you do end up selling that first book (ie for most people there’s little money but lots and lots of pressure and stress), but the class was informative and fun.  We learned about the publishing hierarchy and the publishing process (I had no idea!).  We were getting real world and practical advice as opposed to merely theoretical advice.  Plus the readings have all been excellent pieces.  I never thought I’d say or admit this, but I’m enjoying studying.

On the writing front, not much progress on the novel(s), sadly, but I am finally making some progress on the non-fiction writing, getting my reviews and article ideas out to publications.  Still lots more to do, but it lLooks like I’m going to have a busy 6 months coming up.

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