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2532 Words March 30, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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City of Words by Vito Acconci, 1999

Yesterday wasn’t quite as productive as I anticipated.  I went to watch Red Riding Hood — I know — but it’s only because I had a free movie ticket that was expiring in a day or so and would have gone to waste otherwise.  Anyway, review coming soon, but for some reason the movie made me very lethargic and lacking inspiration.

Alas, more writing had to be done.  I powered through yesterday to 2532 words (meaning under 1000 words for a day).  I’ll still take that.  But I really started struggling as I reached the climax of the first chapter.  The wheels were in motion and the story was progressing, but it felt like something was missing.  The prose, the dialogue — none of it was as exciting as I had visualised in my mind.

I started committing the cardinal sin of editing while writing.  According to traditional wisdom, the first draft is supposed to be where you just pour it all out so you can rewrite it and fix it up later.  And it really slowed me down.  And the stuff I was amending wasn’t necessarily making it better.

I have a feeling it’s because I haven’t given enough thought to my protagonist, my narrator.  I’ve spent all my time and effort developing the six or seven other minor characters in the chapter and made them very intriguing people, but I’ve forgotten about the guy the readers are supposed to care most about.

Whatever.  The goal is to just get the first chapter DONE and worry about the rest later.  My guess is it’ll be around 3500 words or so and I’ll have to eventually trim it down to 3000.  Wish me luck.

Writers: Critical or Commercial Success? May 6, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Novel, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary.
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Say you’re hoping to become a writer.

What is it you’re aiming for?  Is it to finish a short story and submit it for a competition or publication in a magazine?  Or is it to write a full-length novel?  Do you want to get published or is it enough that you’ve finished it?

And say whatever you write becomes successful.  Would you prefer that success to be critical or commercial?  Of course, the answer is probably both, but if you only had the choice of one, which would it be?

Actually, let’s face it.  Critical success alone won’t, in the words of George W Bush, “put food on your family”.  If you weren’t already wealthy and were faced with the choice between loads of money and the adulation of other people, I think it’s safe to say most would choose the former.

But say critical success would also bring about some level of commercial success (like many of the literary award winners), not enough to make you stinking rich, but sufficient for a comfortable living (and maybe a little extra).  Would that be preferable to being a massive international bestseller that is widely panned by critics?  Sure you’ll become insanely rich, but you’ll also be the subject of ruthless articles and extreme jealousy from peers, suffer pressure galore from fans and publishers, not to mention you’ll be recognised just about everywhere you go and no longer be able to live your old life like you’re used to.  In other words, you’ll become Stephenie Meyer.

Does that make it a little harder to decide?

[PS: I can’t believe I just missed the advanced screening of ‘Letters to Juliet’ to write this crap.  Hopefully the movie sucked anyway.]

Class with James Bradley, bestseller author of ‘The Resurrectionist’ April 15, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, On Writing.
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Last night for our narrative class we were fortunate enough to have Australian author James Bradley speak to us about his international bestselling novel The Resurrectionist and the writing process.

The Resurrectionist is Bradley’s third book, and it tells the somewhat morbid story of a young anatomist in early 19th century London who spirals into grave-robbing, and eventually, murder.  Inspired by the real life “Burke and Hare” murders, The Resurrectionist was shortlisted for The Age “Fiction Book of the Year Award” and the “Christina Stead Award for Fiction” at the NSW Premier’s Awards.  However, it wasn’t until the book was included as one of Richard & Judy’s Summer Reads in 2008 that it really took off, going on to sell over 250,000 copies and was translated into various languages.

Anyway, the first thing that struck me about James Bradley was how young he looked!  Mid-to-late thirties was my estimate, though I found out from Wikipedia that he’s actually almost 43.  From the parts of The Resurrectionist I had read, I imagined the author to be an old eccentric with silver hair, a hunchback, and possibly a goiter.  For some reason, I always picture authors who write period novels as oldies, especially those that can write elegant prose and seem to have a way with words.

James Bradley

Bradley began his talk by telling us how he came to write The Resurrectionist.  He had been fascinated by the Burke and Hare murders and the period in which they took place (the 1820s), where people lived in crowded, suffocating slums, and life had little value.  Even though the story was set in the past, given the horrors of today’s world, it does have a contemporary edge to it.

In the book Bradley sought to examine two universal themes: (1) what happens to people when they do terrible things? and (2) how much of our past can we truly leave behind?

The most fascinating part of the talk for me was when Bradley discussed his research techniques for The Resurrectionist.  Research for the book was a must, not just from a historical standpoint, but also because Bradley needed to know what corpses and body parts looked like, and how people handled them.  Accordingly, Bradley went to observe dissection classes with medical students, but the staleness of the preserved bodies didn’t feel realistic enough for him.  And so he went and observed live autopsies, and the image of the coroner peeling off the face and removing the brain, he says, is one that sticks with you forever.

I also found it interesting that even writers as successful as Bradley have incredible amounts of self doubt.  He kept saying how horrible he thought his latest drafts are for his new book (he currently has two new novels in the works, Black Friday and The Penguin Book of the Ocean) and how he hates his characters right now, which I thought was rather amusing.

Here are some other writing pearls of wisdom Mr Bradley dropped during the talk:

General

  • Voice is imperative to a story.  Once you figure out the voice, everything becomes easier.  Changing the voice could change the book completely.
  • There are a few things in every story that a writer knows he/she has to get right, and in order for the story to work, needs to get right.
  • Good writing comes from taking risks.
  • Write what you think is interesting.  People may often find what you think is interesting to be boring, so if even you think it’s boring, there’s not much of a chance others will find it interesting.
  • Write honestly — don’t tailor your writing to suit a particular market.  Write what you want and hope it finds a market.
  • Write about what you want and what you believe it.  Otherwise you may lack the motivation to finish it.
  • There is a moment a writer just knows that their book is complete, whether it’s adding a scene, taking out a scene, or something else.

Characters

  • It always helps knowing in advance where a character will end up.
  • Create characters you don’t ordinarily meet in real life, or put characters in situations that they don’t usually find themselves in — but most importantly, make them feel real.

Research

  • Do enough research to make yourself confident enough to write about the subject, but not too much to the extent it restricts what you want to write.  It doesn’t have to be completely realistic — the important thing is to make others believe it is realistic.

Lastly, just a few of interesting factoids.  First, Bradley writes on a computer and not by hand (for those who keep wondering whether writing by hand is always advantageous).  Second, Bradley was a lawyer before becoming a writer (like me!).  Third, The Resurrectionist was rejected by Bradley’s publisher and he lost an agent because of it.  Now, it’s by far his most successful book.  As he told us last night, “You just never know.”

[PS: Ever since I read the first chapter of The Resurrectionist for our class readings about a month ago, the book has been on my “to read” list.  There was something about the detailed yet detached descriptions of very confronting images that captivated me.  After last night, I may have to move it up the list.]

[PPS: For more information on the book, click here.  Also, check out James Bradley’s WordPress-based blog, City of Tongues.]

[PPPS: The Burke and Hare story is being adapted into a new feature film, a black comedy starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the murdering duo, set to be released in 2010.  Interesting they have it as a comedy.  I guess we’ll see.]

Update: Discipline is hard to come by March 3, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Novel, On Writing.
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I’ve been disappointed with myself lately.

A few weeks ago, when my time at work was winding down, I had all these brilliant ideas brewing in my mind.  I’m going to work on this, finish that, get this done, enjoy my time off, apply for some writing gigs, recommence work on my novel, start exercising regularly again, etc etc.

But when the free time rolled around at last, I found myself lacking in motivation.  Well, perhaps not.  Perhaps I had the motivation but just not the discipline.  Rather than do something productive, I end up doing something lazy like watch TV, or watch a movie, or play video games.  The weird thing is, I wanted to do all those things I had planned, but was almost afraid to start them because I knew it would take up time and it would take effort.  It was easier to just put things off for another hour, another day.

So my free week rolled by, and while I did do a few things, such as get the alarm system upgraded, write to movie studios for free invite passes (got one response!), get a dental check-up (unbeknown to me I had chipped a tooth and needed drilling and filling without anesthetic (hurt like a mother), AND had to get a mouth guard made to stop me from grinding my front teeth into calcium powder during sleep), catch up with a couple of friends, read the sale contract my neighbour got me to review, and finish the books I borrowed, etc, I didn’t get to do everything I had planned.

The day just goes by so freaking quickly when you don’t have “real” work.  I do a couple of blog posts here and there and suddenly, the day’s almost over.  How is that even possible?  And if you waste time – any time – it just makes you feel insanely guilty.

I don’t know how these professional writers/novelists manage to work from home.  There are too many distractions, too many temptations, and no one to keep an eye on you.  It’s just so easy to get sidetracked, and the less disciplined you become, the worse it gets.

So today I put my foot down and forced myself to be productive.  So far, so good.  I haven’t bludged one bit yet.  I have finally finished my Taiwan Adventure posts (and created an Index to go with it on the front page), got up-to-date with my book and movie reviews (apart from the movies I watched in the last couple of days at home), and completed my first Bleacher Report National Assignment (yes, I accepted the task from the guys at BR to write on a topic they give me every week which will get a lot of exposure) on the Top 10 Most-Compelling First Round Possibilities for the 2010 NBA Playoffs.  These sports posts are so time consuming because you need to put in pictures and do a lot of research and statistical analysis.  But it’s fun and it’s rewarding, so I’ll keep doing them for as long as I can.

Anyway, I’ll see how I go over the next week or so.  If I can replicate today’s performance I’ll be fine.  Otherwise I may have to force myself out of the house to the university library or someplace else where I can focus on writing.  I really need to get back on track with my novel and the new book idea, and get into the right frame of mind.  I’ve been very lucky to already have a few contacts in the industry that have been terrific and willing to help me kick things off – I just need to take advantage of the opportunities, and remind myself what it is I want to do.

Two Books on Writing for Writers March 13, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, On Writing.
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A post on two books I checked out this afternoon at the bookstore: (1) How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman and (2) Bird by Birdby Anne Lamott.  While both were on writing, they could not be more different in terms of styles and approach.

Note that I have NOT read either book from cover to cover – the following simply contains some of my views on them from flicking through the book, skimming the majority of it (using my slightly faulty speed reading capabilities) and reading in detail only the specific sections that appealed to me.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

how-not-to-write-a-novel1I first caught a glimpse of this book in the hands of some dude standing outside a bank in Dublin of all places.  It sounded like an interesting concept for a writer’s book (if anything, it was catchy), and I was keen to know whether I was committing any of the 200 classic mistakes in the fantasy novel I was working on.

So I found the book rather easily today and had a good look through it.  The book is broken down into various parts, each dealing with a specific problem area, such as plot, pacing, character, dialogue, voice – and goes as far as telling writers how not to write sex scenes!  Each of the 200 classic mistakes were accompanied by a tailor-made example provided by the authors that allow the reader to identify the mistake with ease.  Much of the writing is infused with quite a bit of humour, and the tone is light-hearted, though it can be somewhat condescending at times.  The authors call it ‘tough love’.  They say if you can learn to avoid all the mistakes they listed, you would have transformed yourself from unpublishable to publishable writer.

To be honest, I’m not sure how helpful the book would be to serious writers.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a fascinating read, but the significant proportion of the ‘classic mistakes’ were so blatantly obvious that any writer with a little common sense would not make them (perhaps they just needed to get to 200).  And I say this as a first-time writer who is acutely aware of the fact that he has a long long long way to go before becoming even remotely publishable.

However, that is not to say all of the tips were useless – I did find a few to be beneficial.  Perhaps not in reading what the actual mistake is as such, but rather from seeing clearly why the mistake is bad for your writing.  As a consequence, it will make it easier for you to recognise the mistake in your own writing.  In particular, the bits I found most useful were the examples on sticking to just the relevant details in descriptions and dialogue, and avoiding stock-standard character descriptions and  indistinguishable or faceless secondary characters.  These may have been things I knew were bad before, but now I will aim to target these problems even more in my next draft.

The biggest problem with the book might also be its selling point – most of the time, the book tells you what NOT to do rather than teaches what you SHOULD do.  You might say it’s the same thing, but it’s much easier to point out another’s mistakes than doing it right yourself.  Not making a common mistake does not necessarily make the writing any good.  Furthermore, some of these so-called mistakes may be found in many of the published novels you see on shelves today.

The verdict: A good book to pick up and flick through, especially for novices (like myself), but the truth is it won’t instantly transform you into a publishable author if you weren’t one before.  Many of the classic mistakes are obvious and reading too many in a row can get tedious, so it’s probably better to pick and choose your problem areas rather than go from cover to cover.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

bird-by-birdNow this is a completely different book to the one above.  I first came across Anne Lamott’s gem of a book the first day of a creative writing course I did a year ago.  Since then, I have picked up the book in book stores on several occasions (which killed the need to buy it) and I’ve enjoyed it immensely every time.

This book is less about gimmicks and more about the essence of writing.  It’s written like a memoir, with lots of personal stories, experiences and anecdotes, usually told in Lamott’s trade mark, self-deprecating humour which I find very funny.  You won’t find any meticulously structured tips on writing techniques (though it is split into chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of writing), but what you will get are brutally honest and sometimes profound observations about the craft of writing and the struggles in the life of a writer.

Much of it is philosophical, so how much the reader takes out of it may vary significantly, but personally, I found it more useful than How Not to Write a Novel.  Instead of learning about the types of mistakes that publishers avoid, Lamott tells you to be honest with yourself and write from the heart.  You can tell she believes what she preaches through her writing.  That is not to say there are not any broad lessons to be learnt.  Ones I found especially helpful include:

  • allowing yourself to write shitty first drafts (no one gets it right on the first attempt);
  • knowing its okay to learn about and define your characters as you progress, rather than worry about shaping them completely before you begin writing;
  • ensuring each character has a different voice and distinguishing characteristics, such that they can be distinguished through their dialogue;
  • reading your dialogue out loud (where possible) to improve it;
  • dealing with jealousy (in relation to successful friends and colleagues!);
  • getting help from others, such as finding someone to read your drafts, join groups and networking;
  • how to deal with writer’s block; and
  • the cold hard truth about getting published.

Lamott paints a pretty grim picture about the publishing world.  Frankly, she says, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular, the financial rewards for most are minimal.  However, she continues to remind writers of the beauty and pleasure of the act of writing itself.  For people that tend to get too caught up in getting published, it’s a good book to read to bring you back down to earth.

A problem I had with the book are common with books of this type – you don’t always find the anecdotes and stories interesting and engaging.  Sometimes, you might feel like skipping to the next point, except you’re not sure where the next point is because the structure doesn’t allow it.  So it’s best not to see this book as a technical writing guide, but rather, as something you can enjoy as a piece of work in its own right, though you might be surprised to learn a few valuable lessons along the way.

Another issue one may find is that Lamott’s style is more suited to writers like her who write about characters and relationships.  Accordingly, for someone (like me) working on a fast-paced fantasy novel, the suggestions about letting your characters take complete charge and drive the plot wherever it may go might not always be the most suitable approach.

The verdict: An honest, often hilarious book that speaks to writers’ hearts.  It might not be the book you would choose if you want to learn about the technical aspects of being a better writer, and some people might simply not get her message (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but personally I found it enjoyable.

PS: for those that enjoyed the book, there is a documentary called Bird by Bird with Annie: A Film Portrait of Writer Anne Lamott that focuses on a year in the life of the titular writer.  I haven’t seen it but would be interested to know if it is any good.

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