Knowing Is Half The Battle

I’m about to drop a major truth bomb on you. Sitting comfortably? Good. here it is:

Writing is work.

Yes, there’s art, yes, there’s craftsmanship to it; but make no mistake it is work.

Say it again:

Writing. Is. Work.

It’s hard work too; anybody who tells you otherwise is probably the same person who says “Oh, I always wanted to write a book or a screenplay – they seem easy enough,” but waffle on why if it’s so “easy” they never bothered to try.  Writing is deadlines. Writing is submissions. Writing is rejection. Writing is redrafts and notes and edits. Writing is being handed your check and shown the door and someone else taking over and rewriting you. It is a job, and some days just getting the job done is the victory.

One question I like to ask the aforementioned who say “I just want to take a year off and write” is this even simpler one; “why”? What’s the end-game with your imagined year-long sabbatical?

Get your book published, obviously. Get your screenplay produced. Get your play performed.

And when that doesn’t happen, what then? Do you take another year off to write another? Or do you chuck it, and say, “this is bullshit”, which it often is (but you get used to the smell after a while).

Believe me, I know of what I speak. I just sold my first book. I created a critically acclaimed book series. I’ve had two screenplays produced, along with a mini series, and been a hired gun on three different childrens’ TV series. That’s my last 18 years so to speak (if you look at iMdb).

What you don’t see are the rejections. The passes. The turnarounds. The rewrites that obliterated my screen credit. The film/TV/comics/novels that didn’t happen.They were all hard soul-crushing, back-breaking work, and they’re all currently gathering dust.

Which brings me … to G.I. Joe.

joe1

Now I’m going to divert from the main thread for a moment. It’s all because of my son, really. He’s at the age of exploration right now which means he gets into everything. And by everything I mean everything. So it was only a matter of time before he discovered what was in those longboxes I had in the living room.

Yep. My comic book collection, which has followed me around pretty much everywhere since 1984, from Toronto to Greensboro, to Brockville, back to Toronto (and through 4 apartments over the space of 12 years) to Niagara-on-the-Lake, to St. Catharines, and finally to NYC.  So it was only a matter of time before grabby hands got his little mitts on them.

The damage wasn’t too severe; some were creased and folded, but I managed to get them away from him before the damage was permanent. And really, I’m not one of those “must remain mint” types. There are 30 years worth of comics squirreled away in those boxes, but today I want to talk about one title specifically.

From roughly 1984-1986 G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (w: Larry Hama for the most part, art: various, including Herbe Trimpe and Marshall Rogers, Todd McFarlane and Andrew Wildman among others) was my favorite comic. It was actually the comic that started me buying comics on a regular basis. More astute readers – ones “in the know” who for their part will agree “knowing is half the battle” – will likely agree that 1984-1986 was the heyday of the toy and comic line. I had a pretty solid collection of the comics – the first 50 issues – but by the time I moved to Brockville in 1986 I was falling out of love with the Joes. I had other interests – music, girls, movies – so the exploits of these Real American Heroes were less important. I still bought the book though mostly out of loyalty, but even then my comics buying had changed and I was gravitating more to Swamp Thing and Hellblazer and The Shadow and Sandman. Judging by my collection as it stood I tapped out around issue 70 , save for a minor buying-binge of issues in summer of 1993. But after I re-sorted them, I realized I was pretty close to completing the set. And I thought to myself; with eBay and other resources, why not finish the  finish the series? So what I did, and over the last couple of months, completed the set. And I then read them, all of them, start to finish.

Reading them through an adult perspective, what was really amazing to realize now is how much of the series was informed by the Vietnam War, and Hama’s experiences there.  It’s hard to remember now but in the 80s Vietnam was everywhere – a decade after the war ended America was finally starting to come to grips with it, and with how it treated its veterans. You saw this in movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, and TV like China Beach, The A Team, and Tour of Duty. Even Magnum P.I. was a ‘Nam vet.

But Larry was the one who introduced me and my friends to Nam, making its most popular character Snake Eyes a vet, along with Stalker and Storm Shadow. And that was a thread that ran through the entire series run, up to and including issue 155, the final issue, in which Snake-Eyes pens a letter to the son of a former colleague planning to enlist in the army. The war was the thru-line of the entire series; it kept on changing lives years after it ended.

It wasn’t always pretty; by maybe 5 years into the run it became formulaic; new characters were introduced, they got a moment to shine, then you never saw them again. A catastrophically ill-conceived crossover with the Transformers in the 90s pretty much killed the series, which limped to its conclusion a year later. The readership, which began as kids in the early 80s were in college now, and they’d moved on. I know I had.

But you can’t fault Larry and his team for the missteps. They had a job to do and that job was to support the toy line. They were handed the characters and story-lines to use, and they did the best they could. The fact GI Joe lasted 12 years is a testament to their great work. It was one of Marvel’s top selling books for a time, and the back issue market was ridiculously expensive.

If you own a copy of this, congratulations on being rich

If you own a copy of this, congratulations on being rich

What it all boils down to is Larry had a job to do and he did it, to the point that when IDW picked up the GI Joe license, they invited Larry back to continue the original line from where he left off at issue 155. With the toy line pretty much dormant he has the freedom to tell the stories he wanted. But that doesn’t denigrate his work on the 80s  run on GI Joe at all. His task was herculean and for GI Joe to remain so good for so long, that takes talent. That takes work.

So what has G.I. Joe got to do with writing?

Because writing is about getting the job done.

It’s about telling a Robocop story that satisfies network and fan expectations, while working in some personal stories into it at the same time. it’s about charting the end of the world in all its ridiculous SyFy carnage while still telling the story you originally wanted to; about a person who devotes his life to crazy conspiracy theories and finds out one of them is coming true in the worst possible way.

It’s about the work.

The reason I’m most excited creatively about Magicians Impossible is because it meets the criteria of a personal project and a mainstream one. It’s got a major publishing house in its corner, it has a great team of editors and designers aboard, and it’s being released next summer.

But it was hell to write. Easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever undertaken. And that was before our child was born, roughly mid-way through the writing. Then it became nearly impossible. I look at that first draft and I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a parent. The quality of writing drops precipitously and never really recovers. Still, I soldiered on, even when in the act of creation I realized what I was writing was not working, that there was a much better way to tell the story, and somehow between the endless overnight feeds and chronic fatigue, I managed to figure out just what the story was about. Even when suffering a major back injury that meant the longest I could sit and type was an hour before the pain became too much, I still wrote. And in the end, Magicians Impossible is by far the best thing I’ve ever written, and the one I’m most proud of.

I did the work because writing is work, and it is my job.

That’s the lesson I take from reading these old comics with new eyes. Because sometimes getting the job done is the point.

Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

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*UPDATE: Someone asked me if I included GI Joe Special Missions (the short-lived spin-off from the main title, published bi-monthly between 1986 and 1989, focusing on stand-alone missions) in my big read-through. Not initially and not as part of the overall run. But after I finished G.I. JOE I decided what the hey, and went thru the 15 or so copies of Special Missions I owned. Boy am I glad I did! G. I. Joe: Special missions are consistently closest to “Classic” G.I. Joe stories – darker, more violent, more intense, more realistic. Plus nearly the entire series was drawn by the late great Herb Trimpe – who for this guy anyway remains the quintessential Joe artist. I’m in the process of tracking down the remaining issues of G.I. Joe Special Missions now.

**UPDATE UPDATE: after some mulling over (and on the advice of a fan) I decided to pull the trigger and start into the TPBs of the IDW continuation of the series, written by Larry Hama, which picks up after the events of issue 155. I have to say this was a great decision. It’s like Larry, free of the demands of introducing new characters and vehicles every couple of issues, is finally getting to tell the GI Joe stories he’s always wanted. Reading these new stories is very much like catching up with old friends. And after the year we’ve had, sometimes old friends are the best ones you have.

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Impossible Winner

So we’re back from Summer, right? Back to work, back to the normal routine, yes?

Then feast your eyes on this:

1

And this …

2

These are the first two cover treatments for my debut novel Magicians Impossible coming from St. Martins Press and Thomas Dunne Books.

When they arrived I immediately gravitated to the first cover – “Smoke-head” as he’s affectionately known. But #2 is quite beautiful if I do say so myself. The decision making process was a tough one, so I put it out to some closer friends and confidants, some industry pros and the like. And in the end we settled on …

3

Which was a little bit closer to the spirit of the book – Harry Potter meets James Bond.

But it was still not … quite … there …

Until …

4

There it is.

Damn. It’s like this book is actually happening or something isn’t it?

Well, it is, which is why Magicians Impossible is being published on JULY 4, 2017, from Thomas Dunne Books;

Jason Bishop’s world is shattered when his estranged father commits suicide, but the greater shock comes when he learns his father was a secret agent in the employ of the Invisible Hand; a brotherhood of spies wielding magic in a covert war. Now the Golden Dawn; the ones responsible for Daniel Bishop’s death and the death of Jason’s mother years before have him in their sights, and his survival depends on mastering his own dormant magic abilities.

Yet  enduring the Invisible Hand’s rigorous training may not be enough to turn the tide. Jason’s first mission ends in disaster and he’s captured by the enemy. Taken to its leader – the enigmatic Red Queen – he’s ready for anything; except the bold claim that the Invisible Hand are the real threat; committed to using mastery of magic to subjugate the world with only the Golden Dawn in opposition. They claim Jason has been fighting for the bad guys all along, and he’s the only one who can tip the balance of a war that has raged since creation.

But in a world cloaked in mystery and magic, whom can Jason trust? The Golden Dawn, who claim to hold the secrets behind Jason’s mysterious lineage? The Invisible Hand, who’ve been more of a family than his own family ever was? One thing’s for certain; the magic Jason Bishop has been struggling to master is telling him not to trust anyone.

Now, I’m going to cop to something here: I was a MAJOR pain in the ass to the publisher, to my editor, to the design team, to my agent. I kept asking for tweaks and changes. This is largely owing to something I discovered about myself years ago; that while I have perfectly realized visions for how I want something to look I’m terrible at articulating what that is. Someone once mentioned Stanley Kubrick was the same way; those legendary hundreds of single takes of Shelly Duvall screaming being case in point.

That said, I apologize for nothing. It’s my book – my first book – and if I don’t fight for my vision who on earth will, right? Right!

You can pre-order Magicians Impossible on Amazon and in Canada at Indigo. You can also pre-order from your local independent bookseller and I strongly recommend you do so if you can. Indie bookstores are the lifeblood of the community. Any bookstore, really, is that and they’re sadly a dying breed. But if you can pre-order please do so. The more pre-orders there are tells the publisher people are interested in this book. That affects, well, everything, from advertising to promotion to publicity.

Anyway, there’ll be a lot more Magicians Impossible stuff on this website soon, including what’s shaping up to be a major design overhaul of the entire place. I hope to be updating a lot more too as the book approaches publication. Then there’ s going to be signings, book tours, and a few other surprises along the way.

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Like a Child

Well, I’m back. To what though, is the real question. Had a glorious 10 days in Canada, crisscrossing the GTA as far north as Muskoka and as far south as Niagara. Saw friends, saw family, and introduced our child to his Canadian heritage. The weather was pleasant and comfortable, and made me question why I live in the humid blast furnace that is NYC June-September (and sometimes May-October). Plus, there’s the whole America Collapsing Under Generations Of Racial Hatred thing. To be honest at one point in our travels my wife joked about not coming back at all, and I was sorely tempted to say “no problem.”

Okay maybe that’s an exaggeration but a year that began with the death of Bowie and continued thru the death of Prince seems hell-bent on taking away everything good and leaving everything bad.

In other words, I’m here to talk all things Pokemon.

Pokemon Go to be exact. Amidst the shitstorm that has been the daily news the past year, it was a bright spot. What’s not to like about people leaving the confines of their home and, phones in hand, tracking down the anime characters of their childhood on their own neighborhood streets?

Well … I hate to be that guy, but someone has to be.

Look, I get it; it’s a game, it’s fun, and what’s wrong with fun? Absolutely nothing. But Central Park has become a mecca for Pokemon Go and it’s absolutely cluttered with slow walking I-Zombies hunched over their phone searching for these characters. They’re looking into their phones when they could be looking at the stars, and that’s the problem isn’t it? Not a Pokemon problem but an overall one with my generation and the generation following unable to give up their childhood. We’re in our 30s and 40s, reading comic books, buying action figures, watching old cartoons, watching movies based on those cartoons. We’re looking to the past and missing the present.

I am as guilty of this as anyone. I mean, look at my cork-board above my desk:

IMG_2457 (1) (1024x768)

Yes, those are 2 GI Joe figures in their packaging – part of the line’s 25th anniversary re-release. No I have no intention of taking them out of the package. Why do I have them there above my writing space where I can glance at them anytime I want? Nostalgia. that momentary thrill I got every time I hit the toy section of whatever department store I visited with my parents back in the 80s. Rounding the corner and seeing all those glorious action figures on pegs, row after row of them, waiting for me to convince/beg/plead with my parents to let me have just one. It’s a silly thing, but the microsecond I get of re-experiencing that thrill fills me with a tiny sense of well-being.

Getting nostalgic is a thing that happens when you’re older. It’s a natural part of growing up. The more serious and complex life gets, the more inclined we are to seek comfort in the past. The past is knowable. It’s predictable. It’s safe. When I was in Toronto did I make sure to swing through my old neighborhood and grab a burger at my favorite burger joint, for old time’s sake? Of course I did!

Also Mike Meyers' favorite burger joint

Also Mike Meyers’ favorite burger joint

But I also remember when my childhood ended. Not by year – when you’re a teen you can’t really call it a childhood, but you are still a child. No, ended when I started college; not being in college, but at the end of my first semester when my parents announced they were getting divorced. I was an adult then, but wasn’t until that news dropped that I realized there really was no going home ever again. And I never did, really. That’s a theme running through much of my work; the character in search of a home. I have one now, with my wife and child but there’s a small part of me  that would trade all I have now to experience those years that were far from golden and only seem that way through the gauzy filter I’ve slapped on my formative years. Even the mid-late 1990s when my life kind of sucked has taken on a mythic tone. There was good stuff nestled amidst the bad, but there always is.

So yeah, the day I found out the future would never be the same as the past I wanted that past back, more than ever. I dug deep, into comic books and movies and TV – not the new stuff but the old stuff. Because it was comfortable. Because it was there. Because unlike my future, I knew how the past ended. Only years later did I realize those entertainments and memories associated with them were my life preserver. But then, when I got on top of my shit, accepted the new reality, and forged my own path those toys were put away.

But does childhood even end now? When 40-something bitch about an all-lady Ghostbusters, when people who are actual adults are running around with their phones to find Pokemon characters, when we’re splurging on toys and trinkets that make us think of a simpler time, are we short-changing the present and future by holding onto the past?

I’m as guilty of this as anybody. I listen to 70s-90s alt rock exclusively, though I do listen to my share of newer artists as well. if I really want to go down the rabbit hole there’s YouTube, which has vintage toy commercials, old After School Specials, music videos, documentaries, home movies. Last year as we prepared for our child’s birth I marathoned my way through The Wonder Years and the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose on Netflix, YouTube, and Crackle; both for completion’s aspects – I missed huge chunks of both series, but because watching them as an adult transported me back to a time I was a child. Mixtape trades on Gen-X nostalgia for the music of its youth. Hell, my next novel, a sci-fi/horror thriller called Underneath, is set in 1988 and features everything from MTV and video stores to mix tapes and John Hughes. You can’t fully leave your past behind. My parents were nostalgic for the Beatles, Woodstock, and their lazy days at the cottage when they were in their 30s and 40s, and more so now that they’re in their 70s. Life moves fast – faster the older you get. Summers used to drag endless; now they’re far too short.

But as my time becomes more precious, I find I have less time for childish things. Having a child is part of that, but I still managed to unload my old Star Wars, GI Joe, and Transformers toys on eBay without so much as a tear shed for those pieces of plastic that provided my childhood with so many fine memories. The time I have not occupied by work and day-to-day maintenance of house and home is spent with my wife and son, creating new memories for all of us.

Though I did hang onto a few choice items for old time's sake

Though I did hang onto a few choice items for old time’s sake

So I hope you enjoy Pokemon and comics and toys and games; I really do. I hope you find them a salve for the struggles of your day-to-day life because while I don’t know your struggles I know they can beat you down and leave you broken. But I also hope they aren’t becoming substitute for new experiences, new joys, and even new sorrows. My son started walking on his own while on our trip, and I’m happy I was able to see it unfold in real-time, not thru the screen of a phone surrounded by Anime characters. I’m only going to get one chance to experience these things for the first time and I don’t want to miss any of them.

I often joke the worst “life flashing before your eyes” would just be your POV of your phone screen. But it’s no joke – I see it in the playground when pushing my son on the swing and I’m the only adult not staring at their phone while their child tries to get their parents’ attention. When my son rolls his ball across the floor to my desk while I’m working, I feel a sense of shame that he’s trying to get my attention while mine is focused elsewhere. That’s why I turn the computer off and get down on the floor with him; because while work will wait, if you wait too long for it, life will pass you by.

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Everybody has one: the Greatest Summer Of Your Life. The one that stands out above all others. I consider myself fortunate that I have had many summers that stand out.

Summer 1986, we’re moving from Greensboro North Carolina to Brockville Ontario. Owing to the fact the school year in NC ends in late May, and the school year in Ontario begins after Labor Day weekend, this means I have a whole three months off. I go to Space Camp. My best friend in the world comes down for a two week visit.

Summer 1994. My first full summer living in Toronto. I have money from crewing music video shoots and a few weeks break and end up spending it at the same best friend’s place while his family is away on holiday. We barbecue, we drink, we hang by the backyard pool, we throw parties, and hit the hay as the sun rises. For three glorious weeks I’m the most relaxed I have been and ever will be.

Summer 1999. The year of Robocop. The year I go pro. It’s a great summer, not because I have leisure time because I most certainly do not. It’s a lot of hard work, lots of writing, but the stage has been set that every season subsequent is me, working from home, writing, and earning a living at it. 17 years later I’m still doing it.

Summer 2015. I become a dad, and while sleep is lacking and stress is high, it’s perhaps the most incredible experience I’ve ever had.

But Summer 2016 looks to be over before it’s begun, because Magicians Impossible is coming in with notes and edits from my editor, and a timetable for completion that means the next three months are given over to that.

Plus, things have been moving at a fast clip on Squadron, the TV series I created in development with Copperheart Entertainment. Copperheart (Wolves, Splice) just signed a co-production agreement with Octagon Films (Vikings, Penny Dreadful) to get the show off the ground and into the air, which means in addition to Magicians, I have a WW1-sized shadow soaring overhead. So June, July, August and autumn look to be filled to capacity.

And that doesn’t include being a work-at-home-stay-at-home-dad.

Good thing I already took my summer vacation.

Back on March 1st when I delivered MI, I decided I was taking a break for a month. My first real “time off” from work in a couple of years. That, and the fact I was still recovering from a serious back injury and I needed time to rest and recuperate and clear my head. And I did just that … for maybe 10 days. The writer’s brain is never really idle; after a couple weeks of rest and relaxation and being “dad”, I needed to start something new. I began outlining my next book project, and outlined and began scripting new comic book project.

Where those two projects will fit in the grand scheme remains to be seen but both are on the backburner while I tackle the Magicians rewrites. And Squadron, well, where that goes is anyone’s guess, but it has the potential to completely disrupt and dominate my life for the next several years.

So there’s going to be something of a slow-down on this website the next little bit, until I get atop all the work stuff. I’m also taking a holiday next month and hauling the family up to Canada for a couple of weeks to make the rounds. There will be updates here and there but of the short and punchy variety, like this one.

But rather than just leave you with “I’m going to be away for a bit, I leave you with this. I’m not one to talk about fatherhood because there’s no shortage of people that do, but I leave you with this thought that came to me on Father’s Day as my wife and I took our son to a nearby park to hear some live music.

When you’re young, your first intro to music comes from your parents. Their music becomes your soundtrack. Long car rides for me are always associated with The Beatles and Stones and Simon and Garfunkel and Gordon Lightfoot and ABBA.

Then, when you’re older and in school, it’s your friends music that becomes yours. You bond over it For me it was MTV and Much Music, Prince and Thompson Twins and U2 and INXS. There’s Top 40 and College radio. That’s your soundtrack.

Then, in your later teens, you want to carve out your own identity. You reject the mainstream and find your own path. Depeche Mode. Sonic Youth. Nirvana. In my case the underground became the mainstream for a brief moment before fading back into obscurity. or maybe it’s you who fade.

Life takes over. Music is not as important. You have a job, and bills, and college loans, and just trying to get by living.

Then, you start getting back into it. You find new music, new bands. The White Stripes. Coldplay. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Or, you dig back to that time music meant the world. You find stations that play the music you listened to in your teens. You find you like the music you used to rail against because it reminds you of those years when you were young and you were looking out the windshield at the road ahead instead of the rear view and the road behind.

Then you find you’re listening to the music your parents listened to because it reminds you of them.

Then you become a parent yourself and your child first experiences the music you listened to. Then they discover their own music. Then the cycle repeats.

Happy Summer everyone. See you in September.

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Worth Repeating

I’m not much for the cottage industry of books by would-be screenwriting “experts” or “gurus” who claim they’ve cracked the code to Hollywood success. 99% of them have never seen a movie produced from a screenplay they wrote, and I’m more inclined to take advice from people who are, you know, successful.

People like the great Billy Wilder. You may not know the name but you must know his work.

Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, The Seven Year Itch, Ace In The Hole (my personal favorite), Irma la Douce, Stalag 17, Ninotchka, Love In The Afternoon

That’s just a sample. Billy knew what he was talking about, and in an interview with Cameron Crowe, boiled down his rules for screenwriting. They’re clear, and concise (like any good screenplay should be), and pretty much apply to any writing – just sub “audience” with “reader”.

I have a copy of this pegged to my corkboard so I’m always reminded what I should be aiming for every time I sit at my desk and make things happen.

Here they are:

  1. The audience is fickle. Grab ’em by the throat and don’t let ‘em go.
  2. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  3. Know where you’re going.*
  4. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  5. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  6. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you for it.
  7. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees; add to what they are seeing.
  8. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  9. The third act must build, build, build in tempo until the last event, and then …
  10. … that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Does your book/comic/screenplay/pilot follow those rules? If not, they probably should. With so much out there to demand your intended audience’s ocular real estate, you really need to grab them by the throat and not let go.

Will following these rules make your book/script/whatever a hit? Probably not. Will it make you a better writer? Absolutely.

So make a copy, print it, post it, and get back to work will ya?

*Emphasis mine. Know. Where. You’re. Going. Probably the biggest failing a writer can make. The path to your ending may change and probably should, but you should always know where you want to land.

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