Comfortably Numb

I’m not much for posting state-of-my-life stuff online. Not my thing, never really been my thing. I figure you’re here to .. um, why are you here?

Well it’s been a rough week…

On Jan 31st I pulled a muscle in my back. One of those “oh shit I shouldn’t have done that” moments – picking my son up off his playmat. And sure enough I was proven right. The next day I was sore. Really sore. By Tuesday I couldn’t get out of bed without help. By Wednesday I was done. Finished. Not with the pain – with suffering it.

I’ve had back problems for years, ever since a the handle on a banker box full of books tore as I was lifting it down off a shelf at my old apartment in Toronto. Rather than let it fall I tried to stop it. That sudden sharp pressure on my back tore a muscle and sent me collapsing to the floor in agony. I must have lay there for 20 minutes before I could get to my feet. And of course there was no aspirin or Advil in the apartment, meaning I had to walk to the nearest drug store many blocks away. It was excruciating. Thinking back on it now it felt like two China plates in my back rubbing together. I made it to the drugstore and back with Advil, heat pads, and Bengay. I self-medicated, I took things very easy, and after a week it cleared up. But for the next year I’d get twinges of pain here and there and if I wasn’t careful, would re-injure it.

That was maybe 12 years ago. And I’ve had on and off pain since. Getting older sucks. Lifting with your back also sucks. I pulled a muscle the day we left for a 10-day Scandinavia trip and had no choice but to take an asprin and fly for 8-10 hours.

But this time it was different. Because I’d been suffering back pain for seven months, starting with the birth of our child. Because baby needs to be carried, lifted, put down, changed, played with, you never get that break. And of cause there’s the matter of the following:

Stress. Depression. Anxiety.

They’re real and while they may not kill you they sure as hell can incapacitate you. Nothing humbles you more than needing your wife’s help to get into and out of bed. And to be frank it’s been that way for a while – that stress. It probably didn’t show up in any previous posts because I’m a dude and guys don’t talk about their feelings. But that day to day feeling, like my head’s been in a vice and someone’s been slowly tightening it on me? I’ve been living with that for some time. I’m generally a pretty chill guy. I will get pissed off on occasion but that fuse has been a long one. But since work intensified and I had a baby to feed, clothe, care for simultaneously, that fuse had gotten shorter to the point that something would set me off:

Every. Single. Day.

Not an exaggeration either. It was that bad. And all that stress, that anger, that anxiety contributed as much to my injury as the actual injury.

The good: obviously something needs to change. I know that now. And taking time off to just focus on healing was the best thing I could do. Which is why once I deliver this manuscript I plan on taking a break from work. I don’t know how long this break will last, but it will be lengthy.

There’s a school of thought that if you’re a writer you need to write every day. I’m here to say that’s bullshit. You need to take care of yourself every day. Do that, and the words will flow. Fail to do that, those words will stop flowing whether you want it or not.

It’s been a week now, and the pain is slowly subsiding, mobility is improving, and each day I’m feeling incrementally better. I managed to knock out 2000 words today and am getting back on track. But things are going to be quiet around here for a little while as I focus on the important stuff and less on blogging. So, take care of yourselves and I’ll check back in sometime soon.

The Great Internet Detox

sorry-no-internet-today-1

So in December I did what I call an “Internet Detox”. I put my Twitter account on hold. I installed a nifty comment blocker on Firefox that effectively killed the comments section of every website I visit. I didn’t create a Facebook profile.

A month in, I have to say going back to my old internet habits may be impossible. In fact I’m wondering just how little internet one can get away with in this connected age.

I need to keep Twitter because, as the only social media I’m on, I kind of need to have some sort of online presence as a writer (and soon-to-be-published author) other than a lightly trafficked, infrequently updated website. That’s going to be an ongoing battle.

But I realized I don’t need to be online nearly as much. In fact of the many sins one can lay at the feet of the Great God Twitter is that too much connection to the world’s triumphs and tragedy is a net negative. I couldn’t tell you what the key points of outrage were through the last month of 2015 because I didn’t hear about them. The fact that whatever they were have faded from view in the first week of 2016 tells you just how much oxygen outrage sucks out of a room.

The comments are another story. We all know comments, we all despise them yet we all indulge them. And why not. There’s entertainment there, along with outrage and incoherent ALL CAPS rants with lots of exclamation marks!!!!!!!

Out of mind, out of sight.

I now limit my recreational internet to my iPad, with the “reader view” of the Safari browser engaged. Not only does reader view eliminate comments it also un-junks the experience, eliminating the popups and sidebars and links to other articles and content designed to keep you clicking through the website as long as possible to gin up their numbers so they can charge more for ad space.

So, how did it all go? Let’s just say almost three weeks later I still haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet, and still remained spoiler-free. I’m also more than halfway through the big Magicians Impossible rewrite and that’s after one month of a three-month schedule. That includes Christmas and New Years and being a stay-at-home dad.

I often wonder what kind of effect the internet is having on our world and ourselves. There’s been some good, but a part of me thinks it’s been more negative than positive, especially as it comes to political discourse. It’s like we’re living in an internet message board 24-7. That inability to see both sides of an argument, that need to “win” by the number of retweets and FB likes.

So my challenge to you – and a nifty new year’s resolution to boot – is this: I challenge you to detox your internet/social media experience. Shutter those Facebook and Twitter profiles. Leave the phone or tablet at home. Install the comment blockers.

Try it for a week. See how it goes. Maybe go longer; January’s pretty dead work-wise anyway so take advantage of it. You’ll see the difference, believe me. And maybe if enough of us do that we can build a slightly better world in 2016.

Keep The Car Running

Happy December everyone. I say “Happy December” because I’ll be too busy to say “Merry Christmas”. I’m mired in rewrites on Magicians Impossible, which is due at my publisher’s on March 1st – three months from, well, NOW.

It’s going pretty well so far. Second drafts aren’t necessarily easier than first drafts, but I enjoy them more. If I’ve done my job on the first draft, the second can be a lot more fun. That’s because you’re whacking away with hammer and chisel, finding form in the formlessness of your first draft. That is if you did the first draft the way you should.

Your brain has two hemispheres. The right hemisphere is art/imagination. The left hemisphere, logical/analytical. This illustration sums it up beautifully:

image

When writing a first draft you want to be firmly in the right hemisphere. You want to splash color, you want to make music, you want to create. You don’t want to think about word count and page count. You want to express yourself.

When writing the second draft, you want to use the left hemisphere. You want to focus on words, on sentence structure, on page count, on word count. You want to edit, cut, revise. You want to deconstruct and rebuild.

What you don’t want to do is write your first draft with the left brain. You don’t want that kind of control over your imagination. You want to fly but the left brain grounds you with a weight tied to your leg. You can take halting, brief flight, but you can’t soar.

That’s why I don’t do NaNoWriMo or ZD30, as elaborated on in a previous post. Because they force you to use the left hemisphere over the right. To focus on stuff like page count and word count. That’s not how you create. That’s not how you fly.

But, as I work my way through a 127,000 word draft that’s going to take some heavy editing, it’s the below scene from Season One of THE WIRE that best sums up the editing process. Time consuming. Painful. And no small amount of profanity:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vx0xulrOsgQ&feature=youtu.be

So I’m off to the races. I may check in at the end of the month with some year-end wrap up. But for now, Happy December.

 

WhyINoNaNoWriMo

It’s November which means two things if the internet is any indication:

  1. It’s Movember, where men are supposed to grow mustaches to show awareness for and raise money for men’s health.
  2. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing month, where you’re supposed to bang out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, presumably while growing a moustache (if you’re a man anyway).

Someone asked me if I was participating in either. I replied in the negative. One, because I’ve already grown my facial hair for the year and was not about to shave it all off and start again. And as a man in his early 40s, I’m well aware of men’s issues. Also my back hurts.

Regarding NanoWriMo however, it was also an emphatic no, because, and here’s where I alienate everyone out there who does NaNoWriMo, because I don’t see the value in it.

Oh stop it ...

Oh stop it …

I write for a living. Mondays thru Fridays and occasionally on weekends (though I like to keep those free for revising what I did the five days previous and for spending time with my family). So I wouldn’t benefit from trying to bang out a novel in thirty days, because I’m already at work on several things with a deadline and people are paying me to do that. They wouldn’t appreciate hearing I was taking a month to work on something not at all related to what they expect me to.

Another reason: Magicians Impossible, which is the novel I’m already writing, the one coming to fine bookstores everywhere from St Martin’s Press-Thomas Dunne books in 2017. The first draft of that took me three and a half months, and ended with a roughly 132,000 word draft. That was finished mid-September. I took a break from it for a few weeks, then just after Columbus Day, printed the whole thing out and re-penned it; a task which took me to, well, right now. The next few weeks will be occupied by plotting and outlining the changes, collating my notes on the draft, so on Monday November 30, I can commence the rewrite, in order to deliver my draft to my editor on my contracted delivery date of March 1st.

Amidst all of this I’m in revision mode on 60 Squadron, the TV series I’m developing with Copperheart Entertainment. There’s also the matter of Starseeker, another television project I’m working on for Little Engine Motion pictures, which is now being shopped around. So that fills the day.

And, of course, Dad life; as a stay-at-home dad AND working writer that’s like having two concurrent full-time jobs. Baby needs to be fed, changed, and played with. So again, no time for NanoWriMo

And even if I did have the time for it I still probably wouldn’t do it. The idea of writing for a page count/word count is antithetical to everything I believe a writer should focus on. And I say this having been that guy who once obsessed on:

  1. Page count
  2. Word count

When I began this writing journey in 1999 I wrote faster than I do now largely because I had no choice. On RoboCop: Prime Directives we had a punishing deadline LINK and had to adjust schedules accordingly. That meant a new 95 page screenplay every 2 weeks. So, 45-50 pages each between me and my partner on it meant I had to knock out 7-10 pages of script a day, and him likewise so by Tuesday-Wednesday we had an assembled draft. Two days and sleepness nights later we had a polished draft to deliver. On the weekends, we crashed. On Monday the process started all over again.

Subsequently I’ve had much more time to write screenplays, on assignment or on my own, but in general I stick to 5 GOOD pages a day. That’s written polished, rewritten some more. 5 pages a day gives me a 100 page draft at the end of the month, followed by a couple more months of rewriting before I’m ready to show it to anyone.

[Not: in the spirit of NaNoWriMo there’s now ZD30, where you’re supposed to write a feature length screenplay in 30 days. This is something I’ve been doing for some time now.]

With prose, on Magicians my goal was 1500 words a day. I had considered 2000, but given my son was due to be born midway through the drafting I knew those 2000 words a day would take a hit after the birth. 1500 made more sense to me; I knew that – good day or bad – I could hit that 1500. And with the exception of the 36 hours I spent at the hospital while my wife was in labor I wrote 1500 every day. I actually finished the draft only two weeks over schedule I’d set when beginning. Partially because a baby occupies more time than you could ever imagine possible, but also because I’d miscalculated how long the first draft of the manuscript was going to be. I’d guesstimated it would be 90-100 K words when in actuality the first draft clocked in at 30-40K above that. But that’s where revisions come in – I’d rather have material to strip away than have to write more of it.

So that’s where strike one of NaNoWriMo comes in for me – 50K is probably too short for a first draft of a novel. It’s always better to chuck expectations, put butt in chair and write freeform than just to hit an arbitrary number of words.

True

True

Strike Two is because NaNoWriMo encourages you to update progress, to compare yours with other participants, and to write, damn it. But to me writing isn’t about the actual writing; the physical sit your butt down and pound keys. The best writing – to me – comes when I’m away from my desk. That’s where the ideas come. Going back to the 5 pages/1500 words model. On a good day I can make that goal by noon (starting your writing day at 6am helps). So what do I do the rest of my day? Before parenthood I’d go for a nice long walk, lie on the couch, listen to music, watch a movie, read a book. But the day’s work is never that far from my mind, which is why after a break, I go back to my desk, and read what I wrote that morning. I make edits, notes, changes, so by 5pm I’ve made my goal, revised pages, and ended up with something that hopefully won’t require much in the way of rewriting down the line.

I think if your primary focus is meeting that deadline, of making your page goal, then you aren’t writing – you’re typing. And anyone can do that. It makes reaching that magic number the reason to do it; not telling an actual compelling story. It’s about typing The End, not actually making the journey worthwhile.

Strike Three gets into much more philosophical territory. And with apologies to Frank Capra, I like to call it “Why We Write”.

If you’re a writer, or a NaNoWriMo participant (or both), have you ever asked yourself why? Why write? Is it because you have a story to tell? Is it because you get paid to do it? Is it because you have all these ideas and characters and voices in your head? Is it because you hope your manuscript will attract the eyes of an agent, then a publisher, then millions of readers round the world?

Why do it?

You’re only setting yourself up for heartbreak, you know. The odds of success – of publication, or production – are not in your favor. The fact I’ve been able to eke out a living doing what I do is a minor miracle, believe me. I’ve been without money much more often than I’ve been with it. And achieving success in the creative field has become more difficult with the advent of the internet where everyone expects you to do what you do for low to no pay. That book you toiled on thru NaNoWriMo and countless days and weeks and months of revision? If you’re lucky someone will buy the self-published version you release for Amazon Kindle for a whopping 99 cents.

Writing is a marathon. It isn’t a sprint. It’s hard work. It’s working when you’re tired, when you’re exhausted, when the ideas are flowing like molasses in January but your deadline is fast approaching.

It’s about constant motion. That’s not the same as ‘write every day’. It’s about constantly flexing that writing muscle. You do that through observation of human behavior. Through developing ideas. By reading books, of watching movies and TV. By travelling outside your comfort zone and finding something to write about.

I write because I have a story I’m trying to tell. After twenty years I haven’t managed to tell it, yet. But I’m trying to get there. I probably never will achieve that perfect moment but that’s why I keep pushing; because The End is not the goal –getting there is.

Very true

Very true

 

Everyday is Halloween

I realize I don’t write much about writing like a writer is supposed to. As someone who’s written movies, TV, comics, and now a novel you’d think I’d have lots to say. And I do have lots to say; I just choose not to say it. While I am happy to answer questions people have about my process, writing about it unprompted is just something I don’t do. I figure there’s already too much white noise from writers blathering on about their craft that the world doesn’t need another noise maker.

That said, there is one question I do get asked a lot, especially when people find out I’ve been doing what I do professionally for what will be 17 years this January;

“How do you make a living as a writer?”

To which I reply; “Well, it’s not much of a living.”

Then I answer the question as honestly as possible;

“By not doing it for free.”

That’s it.

No matter your level of experience, if you’re a writer, if you’re any kind of artist, you should get paid for the work you do for people because it is work. Hours, days, weeks, months, if not years of your life consumed by your art. You won’t get those hours back. And if someone is asking you to essentially sign over those precious hours of your limited and ever dwindling lifespan to write for them, they damn well better make it worth your while. Writing a review, penning a magazine piece, writinga screenplay – you have to be paid. That’s pretty much my mantra:

Writers. Get. Paid.

Or to put as The Joker so eloquently did in The Dark Knight (after killing a dude with a pencil, get it? A pencil) “If you’re good at something never do it for free.

And you wouldn't disagree with a psychotic clown

And you wouldn’t disagree with a psychotic clown

But Brad, you say; What if there’s a really great opportunity but not a lot (or any) money? What then? To which I answer: “They can still pay you without paying you.”

Then you get confused.

Then I explain.

For a month in 1998, I lived at a movie theater. The Bloor Cinema to be exact, as I was volunteering to help run that year’s installment of the FantAsia film festival. I won’t bore you with the details, but I did write about the pivotal experience here  as it was one that literally changed my life.

During this film fest I got friendly with Rodrigo Gudino. He was just at the start of a very long and very distinguished career as a writer, filmmaker, and creator and editor of a genre magazine of some note.

ruemorgue_magazine_logo_01_lg

Julian Grant, festival programmer and friend of the magazine, had graciously offered space – for free – in the lobby for Rod to flog Rue Morgue which, IIRC, was only 5-6 issues in (currently RM sits at #161). But back then it was just this small, cool, well-written horror magazine still finding its audience. Anyway Rod and I spent a lot of time in that lobby between screenings, talking horror and movies, and when the festival wrapped, Rod invited me to write some movie reviews for Rue Morgue.

These would be unpaid reviews.

This was because, at the time nobody – not Rod, not publisher Marco Pecota, was making any money at it. They were both living at the magazine’s offices (which were owned by Marco’s family). Food and expenses were covered, but any dollars the magazine made – which were few – were rolled right back into producing the magazine. There was no money – let me repete that; There Was No Money. It was a genuine labor of love for Rod and Marco and for the small group of contributors who, to this day, Rod, and ubsequent editors Jovanka Vuckovick and Dave Alexnder would proclaim without prompting were the real backbone of Rue Morgue.

My first published piece as a magazine writer appeared in the November-December 1998 issue of Rue Morgue, issue #8. It was a review of Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, and appeared on the same page as my then writing partner Joe O’Brien’s review of Evil Dead 2, and Rod’s review of the Canadian thriller Trail of a Seriel Killer, whch was actually co-written by Joe, and starred Michael Madsen as “FBI Agent Brad Abraham.”

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And for the next nearly 10 years I stayed at Rue Morgue even when my career as a screenwriter took flight. I stayed because I enjoyed the work, I liked the Rue Crue, and I just enjoyed being a journalist even though I wasn’t being paid to. I became RM’s man on the ground at the Toronto International Film Festival  from 1999-2002. As by then I’d become a full-time screenwriter, I had the time to spend the week at screenings and interviews and roundtables. I got to see movies before they were released, I got to meet and interview filmmakers known and (then) unknown. People like Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Don Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm, Bruce Campbell, the Hughes Brothers, the legendary Ray Harryhausen, and the even more legendary Roger Corman.

And one of my featured cover stories, I might add

And one of my featured cover stories, I might add

Now I wasn’t paid for these interviews, reviews, or screenings either – well, not if you consider money being the only way to be paid. I was paid in experience, but also in access. To meet people I’d idolized my entire life in some cases. To ask them the questions I always wanted to.

And it wasn’t long before I started getting paid in dollars too.

In 2001 the screenwriting life hit a speed bump – a big project I was working on was canned after delivering scripts, and while I was paid for my work on that and wisely banked the proceeds, I had nothing lined up in the immediate future. I needed to find some way to make rent without having to go back to the 9-5 day job. By then I’d amassed a number of credits with Rue Morgue and while I hadn’t been paid for them, they had been published, and to some acclaim too. So, I selected my best pieces, and using them as a portfolio, began soliciting magazines that did pay.

And in the end, Dreamwatch Magazine rode in to the rescue.

Rule Britannia!

Rule Britannia!

The early 2000s ended up being the twilight years for genre magazines. The internet was around, but people still largely got their interviews and news from publications like Starburst, and Starlog, and Dreamwatch. The editors of DW looked at my portfolio, liked my writing, and when I mentioned I was covering TIFF that year, asked me to be their correspondent. 2001 was a particularly good year for horror-sci fi at the festival – it saw the premieres of the Hughes’ Brothers’ From Hell, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf, and Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone among others. At the end of the fest I had a good ten feature articles at 2000-2500 words apiece on average to file for Dreamwatch.

Oh, they paid. In pounds sterling. That’s 10p a word, but when you factored in the exchange rate on a then-weak Canadian dollar, when it was all over, I banked nearly eight thousand dollars for what was essentially ten days of work.

And right around the same time, Rue Morgue had grown successful enough that we started getting paid for our work there too. Again, not huge dollars, but enough for Rod and the others to say “thanks” to all the contributors who’d worked for them out of that love of the genre, and of seeing our names on the masthead and in print. We’d all done our part helping build the Rue Morgue brand, and making it the success it is today. You won’t find Starburst or Dreamwatch or Starlong around anymore, but you will still find Rue Morgue. Part of why it has remaned standing is on the strength of its writing; a tone and standard first set in 1997 with Rod’s mission; to explore horror in culture first, entertainment second. And they still do to this day.

But by 2002-2003 I was feeling burnt out. I’d contributed to every issue since #8, but wasn’t having as much fun. It felt like work. Reviewing films was a chore, and I felt like I was running out of things to say. I decided I was going to end my RM run that summer and had filed what I thought was my final piece. It seemed a good time to leave. But I still stuck around some years though less frequently.  An “occasional contributor” Rod caled me, and despite wanting to move on Rod, and Jovanka, and Dave still called me up and asked if I could go interview someone, see a screening, review a book. They like me, and liked my writing, and wanted me to stay in the loop in some capacity.

The mag went through changes, hired new staff and while I don’t want to say they never were more than professional the vibe had changed. I was no longer a part of it but I did feel like I had done my part in those early no paid years to help make RM an institution and one of the few genre mags still standing. But I’ve always been the guy who leaves the party early, and I was more preoccupied with telling my own stories rather than listen to people tell theirs.

But I learned a lot in those years, and a lot of those skills I picked up – economy of writing, making your points clear and concise – proved a boon to my film and TV and now literary work.

So yeah, writing for free can be a good thing. And a good thing to leave behind.

So that’s my story. And to reiterate, you should always be paid when someone asks you to create something for them. If they have the money to produce their book, magazine, movie, TV, whatever, they should have the money to pay you. Hell, if they rent office space and pay a staff, they damn well better have money to pay you.

But you’re ultimately the one who has to decide whether anything is worth your time, and how you should be compensated. A movie ticket may be enough, building your portfolio of work is  also a given. But in the end it’s your ass in the chair. And just because they aren’t offering money, they damn well better be offering you something to make that time worth spending.

Because it’s your time, not theirs. And you won’t be getting that time back. So make every minute of it count.