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.

The Last of the Rock Stars

I hadn’t listened to him in years.

I knew his music – everyone knew his music. I had some of his songs in my iTunes library. Occasionally they’d crop up when I shuffled through my 80s playlists. And I still have the copy of Purple Rain (on vinyl) I got for Christmas 1984. He was like a relic of that childhood long gone.

After losing Bowie in January we all thought that was it; the One Big Death we’d have to face this year. Then they all started dying. Maurice White. Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey. Not even a third of the way through the year 2016 was becoming the Year Everyone Died.

Then came April 21. We’d just lost a genuine piece of Rock Royalty.

Shock gave way to sadness. And confusion. Not so much “why him, why now?” but “why is this one so hard?” I may have owned Prince Songs, but I owned Bowie Albums. More than a dozen. But Prince’s death was hitting me in a way Bowie’s did not. And I couldn’t figure out why.

And then it hit me.

1984. The year of Purple Rain. You couldn’t escape him. Not on MTV, not on the radio. Not even in elementary school. He was an androgynous alien dropped into white-kid 80s suburbia with the impact of one of those atomic bombs the Soviets were threatening to drop on us at any moment. Like it must have been for a different group of kids a decade earlier when Ziggy played guitar.

1984. Reagan’s America. Mulroney’s Canada. Thatcher’s Britain. Growing up then we knew we were living on borrowed time. We weren’t going to see 1990, let alone 1999. There was even a TV movie about it the previous autumn that burned its nightmare into our impressionable brains. We could look around our clean, tree-lined suburb and picture the devastation of the mushroom cloud.

Then he arrived. Not in a spaceship – on a motorcycle. He was different. He was weird. You could look at him, you could study that Purple Rain album cover or that video for When Doves Cry and wonder … who was this guy? Was he black? White? Was he even a guy? We didn’t know – all we knew was Let’s Go Crazy was rock and roll distilled into its purest essence jabbed through our sternum to roar through our veins and feed our impressionable young minds.

He was everything we thought a rock star should be.

He got me through some rough times. A move to a country and a city and a school I couldn’t stand. Where I’d feign sickness just to avoid one day of it. Where some days I’d make myself too sick to leave the safe confines of my home. But any time Raspberry Beret or Kiss popped up on the local top 40 station the clouds would part for a glorious moment and I’d feel whole again.

I moved. I moved on. We all did. By Batdance we wondered if it all hadn’t been a joke. We found Grunge and flannel and angst. Prince went on doing what he was doing only he wasn’t calling himself Prince anymore. He was always there, making music, touring, making news from time to time. We thought he’d be with us forever, in the background, occasionally popping up on our radar when we’d hear I Would Die 4 U blast from an anonymous radio. And, of course, we did make it to 1999, and you couldn’t escape that song written and released 20 years before. It was like despite all our fears of our impending nuclear obliteration Prince knew in the end we’d be alright.

When he performed at the Superbowl, I watched. We all watched. I still knew the words to every song he performed. You didn’t have to own his albums or listen to his music with frequency to know those songs. They were etched into our 80s kid DNA.

Now he’s gone, and we mourn him and celebrate him, but deep down we realize all our rock stars are leaving. There will never be another Prince or a Bowie. Music isn’t valued anymore. Money (and the lack of it) is the motive. So is social media outreach. So are Facebook likes. Rock and roll is fading from the airwaves, like a weak radio signal as you drive out of its radius, flickering out before going to static. Alternative rock is too fragmented to make a difference. Rap and hip-hop have gotten boring. Pop is disposable more than ever. We’re living in the future Warhol predicted. Everybody’s famous; especially the ones who don’t deserve to be. Our 15 minutes are almost up. Our rock stars are dying off. Soon our radios, our Spotifys, our streams will be filled with the voices of ghosts.

We mourn him because he was the last of the rock stars – the genuine, no-holds-barred, unapologetic rock star. No-one who came after could come close. By the late 80s earnestness was in. By the early 90s nobody wanted to claim the title. And by the time the new century rolled in everyone wanted to be a rocks star but the ship had already sailed.

I realize now that I mourn Prince because with his passing, that small, too-brief piece of a childhood he provided the soundtrack to is gone with him.

Until I put on Purple Rain, and it comes roaring back on the wings of crying doves.

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Haunted When The Minutes Drag

I moved around a lot as a child. By the time I was 12 years old I’d lived in 8 different cities and two different countries. I got very used to (and very good at) making new friends and even better at saying goodbye to them. In fact, my entire childhood is pretty much compartmentalized, with memories tied to a specific place and time, and those memories extend to TV, music, movies, comics and so forth.

For the longest while I thought this was normal; that everyone moved with the frequency we did. Then I later realized that my life was the exception; my friends were kids born in their city or town and grew up there and would very likely remain there for. They were lifers; I was just a face and a name passing through, staying put for a short time, then one day I was gone and my face and name would fade from their memories. I doubt many, if any of the people I went to school with in Vancouver or Edmonton or Greensboro remember me at all. I was the anomaly, not them, and while I once liked the excitement of new cities, new homes, and new schools, over time I came to hate those moves. I came to hate having to say goodbye. I wanted stability. I wanted a sense of place. I wanted a home, not a house.

Pictured: the writer as a brooding young man

Pictured: the writer as a brooding young man

I bring all this up because I’m at work on my next project, a novel largely inspired by the years I lived in Brockville, Ontario (roughly 1986-1992). While wholly a work of fiction – it’s a horror/sci fi/mystery hybrid – it’s still drawn from the reservoir of memories of my years in that town. It’s about many things I experienced there, and after I left. Mostly it’s about saying goodbye.

It’s been quite the experience so far. Like opening old wounds. Sure, you remember the good but to create real drama you have to zero in on the bad. I’m taking my mind places it hasn’t gone since, well, since those darker days. It hasn’t been pleasant, but it’s been necessary. Both the good and the bad have given me fuel, but so have the mundane moments; shooting pool, hanging out at the arcade, renting crappy horror movies form the local video store. Those moments that seem inconsequential at the time that take on mythic importance so many years later.

When I lived in Brockville I hated it, but I think every teenager hates where they grew up. It was boring, it was stale, and I felt trapped. Even when I got my driver’s license and my first car I felt tethered to home like I was attached by a big elastic. Just when I thought I’d achieved freedom there was something to snap me back. Had I lived someplace exciting like Toronto or New York I’m sure I’d have things to complain about them too, but age changes things. Your memories of that “miserable” time become more golden. You realize that, while they were far from what some would call “the best years of your life” they were special, they were meaningful, and they mattered because they made you the person you are now. Your work ethic, your personality, all of it formed in that blast furnace called High School. It was when you made the decision, conscious or otherwise, to be the person you wanted to be.

Unsurprisingly, if you know anything about me, music has been a great gateway to those years and memories. The infamous box of old mixtapes that inspired Mixtape have come in handy here, as have the assorted yearbooks, photo albums, magazines, notebooks and so on that have been following me around for almost 30 years. Unlike Mixtape, this new project has that element of the fantastic that hopefully means a wider audience than the ‘musical memoir’. It’s very different from Mixtape but shares a lot of its DNA. If you take the cast of my comic and all of a sudden dropped them down into Invasion of the Body Snatchers you essentially have this new thing. Like Mixtape, it has unlocked old memories and opened old wounds. Much of my dislike of those years is because that was the period my parents’ marriage hit the rocks. It was not a happy time. There was yelling and arguments at the dinner table, on outings, even on one infamous birthday celebration (mine). I couldn’t wait to get out of there and when I did I never looked back or went back.

For a while, anyway.

In college when people asked me where I was “from” I never had an easy answer. “Directly” you could say “Brockville” but it wasn’t where I was “from”. When you lived in 8 cities over 12 years you can’t say you’re really ‘from” a certain place. I still saw people from Brockville, and remained friends with them through some of college but we were all moving in other directions. New friends, new horizons; those old familiar faces reminded you of the person you were not the one you wanted to be. So for a very long time I buried Brockville and those years deep, until a good fifteen years had passed since I said my formal goodbye. That story has been documented elsewhere so I won’t bore you. I will say that once I started to plumb the depths of my experiences growing up I became a much better writer. I had a POV, I had a story, I had a voice that was unique yet familiar. My experiences weren’t so different from many others whether you were from Providence, Rhode Island or Buenos Aires, Argentina or Monroe, New York.

One of the great tragedies in life is that we grow up thinking we’re alone and that nobody anywhere understands our problems or what we’re going through, only to learn well after the fact that on every street, in every school, in every town small and large there were people our age going through the same things we were. You can’t help but be haunted by your past and the memories you have of that long ago and far away land. Whether you realize it or admit it, it’s a part of who you are. And I think by embracing the past, warts and all, you stand a much better chance of navigating the present.

If writing is therapy I suppose this new project is mine. Especially being a father now I’m trying to come to terms with the person I was versus the one I am right now and the one I hope to be. To teach my son how to be a better person than his father is. To show him that despite a world that seems dark that there are joyous moments to behold. That even when he’s upset or unhappy and wishing he lived anywhere but here (wherever that will be), that in time it’ll be a lot easier to remember the good moments than dwell on the bad.

So that’s it. Now take care of yourselves. I have a novel to get back to.

Pictured: that moody young man discovering his muse

Pictured: that moody young man discovering his muse

A Quick One While He’s Away

Yes, I’m still alive.

Yes, I’m still on sabbatical.

Yes, my back is much better, thanks for asking.

Yes, I’m actually on a new project but one I can’t talk about right now.

Yes, I realize that by working on a new project I’m technically not on sabbatical.

Yes I’ll be posting a longer update soon.

TTFN

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.