Category Archives: review

But It’s A Classic! Part I

             I was recently asked by a new acquaintance what I like to read. I find this an exciting and slightly ominous question, because the truth, unhelpful as it is, is that I like to read mostly everything with words, a plot and interesting characters are a bonus. Yay for story! Part of my answer to this question is inevitably classics, those tried and true books that are bastions of the castle that is the written word. She expressed some surprise that I do this of my own volition and not because I have to for some course I’m taking. She is not the only one with this reaction over the years.

            I love reading classics. Not because they’re all good, because some of them suck, but to explore the world of the classic. Why is something a classic, who decides? Mostly I like to witness the trickledown effect in reverse. When you read a classic, a lot of other random pieces snap into place. You understand references and asides in a whole new way, you see previously mysterious influences in books and movies, see how one writer’s words can launch an entire genre, world, or punchline. Some of my favorite books are classics. In what will no doubt be many highly unpopular opinions, I will randomly post reviews of them here. I’ll start with the last classic I read:

               220px-TheSoundAndTheFuryCover

           When I purchased this book, the dude checking me out let me know that the first part is narrated by a mentally handicapped man. GOOD TO KNOW. And thank you, book store guy, for telling me this, because William Faulkner doesn’t bother to until long after the book has landed in a frustrated heap on the floor. Thanks, bro!

            The Sound and the Fury is about the Compson family, a southern aristocratic family in serious decline and spiralling into all kinds of tragedy. It’s told in a few different parts by a few different members of the family, all of whom are not really good or likeable people.

            My biggest beef with this book is that you have no real idea what’s going on until you’re so far into the book that you’ve ceased to care. Stream of consciousness with no context. I get this book is all about ‘form’ and ‘style’ but to me, if I can’t figure out what’s going on, that’s a big fat writing fail. And before you’re like, “dude, it’s stream of consciousness, you’re just too stupid to know how to read that,” I would say, “but I’m not too stupid to know how to read that. Take Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, also stream of consciousness, also multiple perspectives, also all over the damn place, but you can figure out what’s going on.”

            Once I googled it and read a detailed summary of what the book is about, I had a much easier time reading it. The part I did like was the last section from Dilsey’s perspective, who is the Compson’s aging servant. I found Dilsey the most well-rounded character in the whole book, unfortunately she’s last, and not first. Putting Dilsey first to set the scene would have made a huge difference, in my opinion, but hey, it’s a classic, right? What the hell do I know? I give The Sound and the Fury a resounding “meh.” If you do want to read it, do yourself a big favour and go through the Cliff’s Notes first.

Writer’s Digest Conference Part II: Pitch Slam

Ah the dreaded pitch slam. For many writers, this is the big reason to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference and also a truly terrifying proposition. All of that was true for me. There were four Pitch Slam sessions on Saturday of an hour each and you signed up for one of them. There were over sixty agents in a big room sitting at tables in alphabetical order, you had three minutes to pitch your book to however many of them that you could and get feedback and hopefully, a request to see more. The pitch slam is really its own beast. Here’s what I learned from participating in the pitch slam.

Prepare, prepare, prepare! All of those months of preparation I was yammering on about in my last post? This is where it paid off. Write a pitch you feel good about. Tell the agent about your book and get them interested in seeing more. Be yourself. Remember that you are one human telling another human about your book – that is all! You have ninety seconds, so keep it short, the shorter the better, in my opinion. Don’t ramble. There are a ton of great resources out there to help you do this, so google away, little grasshopper! I had a pretty good pitch when I arrived in New York, which I then tweaked a little after the pitch perfect information session and yammering with my fellow writers. I felt pretty good about my pitch and knew it by heart. This is key.

They limit the number of people in each pitch session. I read some horror stories about long lines, agents that were not there and all of this stuff. None of that was true for me. There seem to be a million people when you’re waiting to go in and that is terrifying. It seems like you will never get to any agent, but the room is big and there are a lot of agents. I had a list of ten agents I wanted to pitch and I made it to seven of them, which is pretty damn good. Best advice here came from Chuck Sambuchino – do not stand in long lines. Go to agents that have a short line or none at all. If Chuck is there, he will hustle you to a shorter line anyway. He knows what’s what, listen to him. On average, I had one person ahead of me. Several times I went right up to the agent. Time was not an issue.

When you’re getting ready for this, it’s easy to believe that agents are mean, scary dragon people just waiting to crush your dreams and spit in your face. Maybe, but not any that I spoke with. They tell you way ahead which agents will be there, so research them like a crazy person. Yes, the list changes, yes, there are additions and subtractions, but you need to know who you want to pitch to. Ten seems to be a good number. Anyone I didn’t make it to is getting a query. My strategy was to avoid long lines and also not to pitch my top agents first. This was my first pitch slam, I was nervous and very, very tired. I didn’t want to blow my first pitch on my top three agents. This worked great for me. My ‘last’ agent had no lineup when we first went in there, so I went for him. He was very nice, liked my pitch, asked me some questions that let me know that he understood what the hell I was trying to get across, and guess what? He requested more. First one, bam, feel good, flying for the rest of the slam. That was key for me, to start on the right foot. I tried to set myself up for success and it worked. I pitched seven agents and got five requests. Some of the best advice I read ahead of time was to remember that agents are just people and all that is happening is that you are having a conversation with them about your book. I tried to be happy, friendly, relaxed and normal as possible and it paid off in a big way. The two agents that did not request were just as excellent. One said my pitch was great and sent me to another agent she thought would like it, that agent was not on my list. She requested it. The other agent also complemented my pitch and suggested some comparison titles I hadn’t thought of whose agents I might want to investigate. She also told me that if I wrote anything with a more literary bent in the future to send it her way because she liked how I presented things.

So I got five requests to see my book and a massive boost in the confidence department. No one I spoke to at the conference regretted doing the pitch slam. Even if they didn’t get requests, they got valuable experience speaking about their work in a concise way, and some great feedback. That alone is worth the price of admission.

The X-Files = Awesome

I have a few memories of watching The X-Files when I was young with my mom and my aunt. I don’t really recall any specific episodes, but I do remember liking it, thinking it was both weird and good.

x files

Turns out they have all of The X-Files on Netflix. I came across this at some point last year and started watching it, starting at episode one, season one, and going from there. Since I don’t have cable or anything, this has been an especially fun endeavor for me. Some of the episodes are familiar, but I really didn’t remember any all that well. I must not have watched it regularly and I definitely stopped watching it long before they stopped making it. I’m currently on season 6. My husband, who must have watched it longer and more faithfully than I did, assures me that it starts to go downhill at some point. That might be true, but I haven’t gotten to that point yet. Some episodes are better than others, but I’m really enjoying it, both for entertainment value and as a writer. In honour of the new X-Files episodes that will be coming to television shortly, here are a few things I’ve noticed over the last few months that make this show such great storytelling.

The Main Characters. Ah Mulder and Scully, you are wonderful. These are great characters both individually and together. They each have a deep background that comes in and out of play in their dealings with each other and the various situations they find themselves in. They aren’t standard FBI agents, neither are they a standard man and woman. Alternating the plot between exploring these characters personally and just having them do their job keeps it interesting. They also never get together romantically (so far!) which is frustrating and brilliant. The unique dynamic between these two, where they clearly love each other and yet never become a couple is masterfully executed.

Supporting Characters. Skinner, the smoking man, frigging Krycek, Scully’s family, Mulder’s family are consistent and realistic within context of the show. Scully’s brother Bill might only pop up once in a while, but when he does you know who he is and what to expect. Since the show ran for nine seasons, having these characters come in and out with their own lives, motivations and backgrounds introduce conflicts or help resolve them in ways that seem perfectly natural.

Story Arch. The story arch is what keeps you hooked episode after episode, season after season. There is both a long view and an episodic one. Some episodes are self-contained, 45 minute stories with a beginning, middle and an end that you could probably watch and be satisfied by even if you had never seen the show before. Others play solely to the plots that snake through the entire series and move the agents along their journey through the black world of high level government conspiracies and alien take overs. This satisfies the need for short term gratification and also rewards a longer emotional investment. You stick with it and you’re happy to do so.

Humour. What I didn’t remember, or failed to appreciate at the time, was that the show is funny. For all its darkness, death, kidnapping and aliens, it’s also just funny. Mulder has his quirks and quips and Scully has her reactions to Mulder’s often ill-timed goofiness. Some of the episodes are purely humorous and are really making fun of the show itself which I think is done with grace. When you’re watching and starting to think, okay, this is getting a little ridiculous, there’s Scully who looks to Mulder, exasperated by the absurdity she finds herself in to declare, “but Mulder, this is getting a little ridiculous!” Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Good Actors. I am looking at this as a fiction writer, but of course, The X-Files is a TV show, not a book and props are due where they are due. The actors are great because they own their characters and portray them faithfully every time. I think it helps that they have the same actors play the same characters throughout the series (up to season 6, anyway) which gives you consistency. Also playing the same character for ten years probably gives you a pretty intimate knowledge of that person and that is undoubtedly part of why the show was so successful. David Duchovny is Fox Mulder for me, the viewer. Gillian Anderson is Dana Scully and Nicholas Lea, who is probably a perfectly pleasant human being, is the hated Alex Krycek. Most importantly, and perhaps the secret to their success, you get the feeling that to perform these characters so faithfully over such a long period of time, they must have enjoyed playing them as much as I enjoy watching them.

Since I don’t have cable or satellite or anything, I’m not sure when I’ll get to see the new episodes coming out this month. Maybe they’ll end up on Netflix or I’ll be able to buy them on DVD. In the meantime, I still have a few seasons to go with Mulder and Scully and if you haven’t seen this show since it was on in the nineties, make a cup of tea, suspend your disbelief and prepare yourself for a wild and entertaining ride.