School Days

I had planned to end this year’s blog with a more general update on things. What’s going on in my life. What movies I’ve seen. What books I read. The TV I watched, the music I listened to. I’ve also been waylaid a bit, both with family obligations, and with a banger of a head cold that’s kept me out of the loop for a bit. Frankly, I’ve been in a state of near exhaustion for the last month. So I was going to just let 2017 sputter out on its own without me.

Then my sister forwarded the obit.

Let me tell you about John Alexander Ballachey. “JB” as he was known to we students of Brockville Collegiate Institute. JB taught history. He was, I believe, head of the department, but I may be mistaken in that regard. He’d taught at our school since the late 1960s, even teaching history to the parents of some of the kids in my class.

He was an institution.

It sounds cliché to speak of a teacher who inspired you, but in JB’s case this was all true. I’m a huge history buff today and that’s largely due to him. He made learning fun. He didn’t care about dates and events that occurred on them. He wanted you to see the connections. Many times our classes were about what could have happened at certain junctures, as opposed to what ended up happening. What if Hitler hadn’t invaded the Soviet Union. What if the French hadn’t lost the Plains of Abraham? What if the 1980 Sovereignty Referendum had swung in the Parti Quebecois’ favor? It was, in essence, storytelling, based on historical fact. You needed to know your facts with JB and he wouldn’t hesitate to call you out for it. And the thing was, you wanted his approval, that wry grin and winning smile that told you “good job” without his having to say it. I was a fair-to-average student in many regards, but for two subjects; English, and History. I succeeded in history class because JB made it an adventure to learn.

JB wasn’t just a teacher though. He was also a longstanding member of the Brockville Operatic Society, appearing in dozens of musical productions. I appeared with him in late 1989, sharing a scene with him as a reporter in the BOS production of Damn Yankees (with JB playing the team owner). We all had a hoot – him especially. For the week leading up to the performance he’d grill me mercilessly, asking if I remembered my lines (I had, I think, three). But he clearly enjoyed making me nervous, just like he enjoyed all his students. If you encountered him on the street he’d always grin, and ask how you were, even though he knew how you were doing in his class.

He was also encouraging in my burgeoning career as a filmmaker and storyteller. In Grade 12 he happily agreed (despite being busy with teaching) to perform a small role in a 1-act play I directed based on a Woody Allen comedy bit. Despite having only a couple lines he hammed them up like crazy and got the biggest laughs of the show. There was something of a performer in JB, beyond the stage, beyond the classroom. I always felt after the fact that he had no real aspirations for the stage – he really just enjoyed being in front of and around people, be it an audience, be it a classroom of students. Despite having a mild stutter he didn’t blanch, even when he fought for the words on the tip of his tongue.

I don’t think I saw him at all after high school – maybe around graduation or shortly after though I did get to tell him I’d been accepted into film school, which earned hearty, friendly punch to the arm in that guy-ish way. I don’t remember what he said, but I like to think he was proud that I was going out into the world to make history of my own – just one of many kids he taught. I think he was proud of all the kids who passed through his classroom. To teach for so long you found yourself teaching the children of former students might have made you feel your age, but not JB.

JB never left Brockville. I’m told that while he embraced world travel in his later years Brockville was always home. He remained involved in the community, in theatre, and the choir, and made animal welfare his passion after he’d hung up his teaching shoes. I am told though, second-hand, that he did know I was making a name for myself as a writer in the film and Tv biz, and thought that was fantastic news. I’m sure he felt that way about all his former students – the lawyers and doctors, and the ones who went on to teach history themselves.

Looking through his memorial page, I saw a lot of names I hadn’t thought of in more than 25 years. Students, colleagues, parents, children. All who were touched by an extraordinary teacher. You realize now, in adulthood, what an impact your teachers had on you. To me, teaching is one of the noblest of professions – the one that truly keeps the world spinning.

I never got to tell JB any of this, but I’m saying it now for all the teachers out there. I want to say how much you do matter, to every child you teach, to every parent whose child is entrusted to you. And know that, even after those kids graduate or advance a grade and move on, they never do forget how much you meant to them.

Godspeed and good-rest, Mr. Ballachey. You were one in a million.

 

 

Sent from iPad

 

All Is Well As 2017 Dies

On November 11th I had my final author event of the fall at Bakka-Phoenix Bookstore in Toronto. My hometown (or as close to a hometown as I’ll ever have). It was the best attended event yet, owing to the friends, family, and colleagues who came out. I didn’t have time to talk with everyone or to thank them for coming out to support me and Magicians Impossible, but I appreciate each and every one of them.

If you missed the event, Bakka has a limited number of signed store copies they’d be happy to sell to you. There’s also a smaller number of signed copies at the Indigo Bookstore in the Eaton Centre. They make great Christmas gifts, or so I tell everyone.

So, what’s next? For Magicians? For me?

Bakka may represent the end of the fall leg of the Magicians book tour, but I’m in the process of lining up more events for 2018. These will largely be centered around the NY-NJ-CT region, but hopefully we can do some ones a bit further afield. It all depends on the book’s longevity, obviously, but there’s been a little bit of good news coming in on that front I’m not quite at liberty to discuss as of yet.

[Of course, if any bookstores, libraries, schools etc. would like to have me out for something I’m always interested, and you can reach me direct through this website]

As for me, I just finished the first draft of what will hopefully be my next novel a week ago. It was a challenge – maybe even more difficult a book than Magicians was to write – but I’m pleased with how that first draft came together. Right now it’s sitting in the drawer until 2018 when I plan to open that drawer up, pull it out, and start going over it with the red pen.

In the meantime I’m beginning development on a new TV project with some producers I have a long-standing relationship with. That was another reason for the Toronto trip; to sign the paperwork and make the deal real. It too will have to remain on the down-low for now, but it’s a project I’m very much looking forward to doing. It’s based, in part, on my own life, which is probably saying too much already. Rest assured once it’s made public a lot more about what it is will be much more clear, and may even delight some long-time fans of me and my work.

Until then I’m taking a couple of weeks off – now through Thanksgiving. 2017 has been a very busy, sometimes punishing year. between fatherhood, writing this new novel, doing Magicians promo, and inking the TV deal I’m absolutely exhausted. But I won’t be sitting idle during my Stay-cation; I have books to read, movies and TV to catch up on … and ideas to put to paper. The writer’s brain is never completely at rest, and I routinely find my best ideas when I’m not at my desk, working.

It’s been a strange journey, being an author. It’s a side of the writing biz I’ve never experienced before, but it’s been fun having the chance to step out from behind my desk to meet people, to read from my work publicly, to sign copies of a thing that sprung solely from my mind. So much of writing is solitary; even more so when you’ve largely worked in the film and television fields. Just knowing that my book is sitting on bookstore and library shelves continues to amaze me.

And I’m just getting started.

October Song

What a month.

Magicians Impossible hit stores September 12. Today is October 24. Time enough to talk a little more about it.

First up, CALIFORNIA.

Short version: I had a blast.

Longer version: I had a blast.

I also sold some books!

I got to visit (and shop at) some very cool bookstores run by some very friendly people, I got to see the sites, I got to visit places I’ve never visited before, and I of course got to do a LOT of driving. That didn’t bother me so much though; traffic in California is comparable to the sprawl and congestion of Toronto coupled with the nuttiness of New York drivers, minus the sudden unannounced stops followed by the appearance of four-way flashers (the bane of any NYC driving experience).

A few days after returning from California, I had an event at The Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, which went VERY well too.

Reviews also been pretty solid. People have generally liked it, with mostly three, four, five stars on Goodreads and Amazon (and a share of ones and twos) The mixed-negative reviews really don’t bother me though; if anything they make the glowing reviews more legit.

I’ve come to discover that writing a book is like building a house. Your blueprint, your specifications, your taste, number and size of rooms, amenities. It’s decorated and furnished the way you want it. It’s your house, but you did all this work for other people; your guests. They move in and inhabit the house. Some stay a few days, some for a week, some for a month. And they all have a different reaction to it. Some will like the entrance and foyer, maybe it opens up into a spectacular living room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking a lake. They’ll move through the house, room by room. Some will love the kitchen, some will think it needs more counter space. Some think the floor tiles are ugly, some don’t like the drapes. Some find the bedrooms too small, some think the bathrooms could be bigger. But in the end they all stay however long they need to and when they move out they have an impression, and an opinion. They say they liked it, but had a couple of issues. Other really liked it aside from a couple minor caveats, but they would recommend it to other friends. Some love it, and not only would they recommend it to others, they’re looking to re-up for another stay, or if you’ve got another house on the street, want to stay there too. And for some it just wasn’t what they were looking for, period.

That’s book writing. And that’s also book criticism.

An example of this is my current read is Stephen King’s It – a book I first read back in 1989, the same year as the setting of the recent blockbuster film adaptation. I was roughly the age of the characters in the book – the “Loser’s Club” of kids – and back then naturally I gravitated most strongly to the sections of the book detailing that fateful and fatal summer in Derry, Maine. The sections set in the then present-day world of 1985 with the kids all grown up were less than compelling. At that young age I had no inkling of what awaited me in the adult world. The successes, the failures, the disappointments. But reading It now it’s the adult sections that cut much deeper. Maybe because I’ve grown up as well, but all the things the adult Loser’s grapple with are things I or my friends have had to face as well.

A book is probably the most intimate form of entertainment there is, because of the time it demands. It’s not like watching a 2 hour movie or an hour long TV episode (or several, consecutively, if you’re a binge watcher), or listening to an album full of songs. A book will demand hours, days, even weeks of your time. Who you are and where you are in life will have a huge impact on how you respond to something; the fact I’ve had two very different experiences reading It would point to that.

But in the end Magicians Impossible is no longer my book; it belongs to everyone who has bought a copy. If you’re one of them, thank-you.

Now for some random bits of news:

I’ll be appearing at Bakka Phoenix Books in Toronto on Saturday November 11th at 3:00pm. Hometown store, hometown crowd; I’ve spent a lot of money at Bakka over the years, starting with their Queen St. W location in the early 1990s, so I am honored to be appearing there.

For those who missed the NY and California signings, due to time or location constraints, Turn of the Corkscrew, Book Soup, Book Carnival, Mysterious Galaxy, and The Mysterious Bookshop all have author signed copies on hand and will be happy to sell and ship them to you. Presumably, Bakka will as well, after November 11th.

And that’s pretty much it. I’m busy working on my next book, having just passed the 2/3rds mark of the first draft and am hoping to be done that by the time I depart for Toronto. It’s been going … well, though there’s a HUGE story behind it I’ll spin some day. But for now I’m just enjoying all of it; the book, authordom, the whole dang ride.

And the sunsets are nice too …

Why We Write

NOTE: This is an updated version of a post I wrote five years ago, about the writing process, or at least “my” writing process. As we near the release of Magicians Impossible I wanted to revisit this piece, and add some additional flavor. 

I’m not much for talking about my “process”. There are plenty of places you can look to read about “process”, and there are plenty of people who are happy to share what their process is. They’re all interesting and informative, and also contradictory and probably of little use to you. That’s because they’re talking about their process; they aren’t talking about what process works best for you. Some insist on powering through the first draft and revising after it’s finished; others swear by revision as you go. Some obsess on word count or pages per day; others are concerned only with “good” pages. Some brave souls rise at 5am and write for three hours before starting the day proper; others write in the evenings when the day is done. Some say you need to write every day; others say weekends are fine. They’re all right … and they’re all wrong.

So here’s a piece about my process. Please feel free to ignore it.

For me it all starts with the idea. Sometimes it’s a detailed idea; other times it’s just a rough sketch. From there I think about whose story “my” story is; the characters. Male or female, child or adult – I’ll try various combinations and complications before settling on POV. From there, assuming the story I’ve put together is any good, and the characters I’ve conceived are going to be interesting enough to follow, I clear the decks, close my door and start writing. I outline before I draft, I treatment after I outline, I look for leaks and plug plot holes the best I’m able, and once that’s done, I start writing. Because if I don’t, this happens:

Pictured: What happens when you don’t plug leaks, or when your manuscript/screenplay hits an iceberg.

But before I do any of the above … I listen to music. Music may in fact be the most important part of my process. If I haven’t decided on what music I’m going to write to, chances are I won’t be able to do any writing, and what I do write will be shit.

Okay maybe not shit, but difficult.

My favorite approach to this is to assemble a playlist or mixtape to accompany whatever particular project I’m working on. This is music that gets me into “the zone”, but more importantly into the character’s heads. I’ll tailor a playlist to a specific character, and use the songs I choose to illustrate their personalities, their hopes, their fears, their everything. I’ll create several such playlists for any given project, and I’ll listen to them when I’m focusing on a particular character or subplot.

Pictured: my soundtrack

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first I already mentioned; to get into the characters and the world they inhabit. But the second is more basic; to get me going. Because some days you just … can’t … get … into … the writing part of writing.

You have lousy sleep or a lousy day. You’re at one of those points in the story where you’ve lost the plot. You want to do anything but write. Every writer has days like this. But since I started creating playlists those days are fewer and come further between.

That’s where the playlist comes in. Because you’ll sit there and you’ll listen to it, or you’ll throw it on your iPod and go for a walk, and pretty soon the story will come back to you. And once the story comes back to you, you’re able to write it down.

Now, this music doesn’t have to be of the period the project is set in; in fact I’d strongly advise against that. The reason you create a playlist is not to be authentic but to be real. To connect with the characters and the story on an emotional level. So unless you grew up listening to Civil War era grassroots music, using that music to score your Civil War era story is going to make it a dry museum piece. Ask yourself what your characters would listen to if they were alive today (and seeing as they are your characters they are alive). Would they be into rock? Punk? Country? Hip-hop? Put yourself in their headspace and assemble a list of songs that relate to them, their trials, and their troubles. See them as living, breathing people, not just words on the page and an idea in your head. Once they become “real” to you, they will be to the reader.

Some examples: my first (unpublished) novel was a murder mystery set in Renaissance Italy. It was written primarily to 60s British Invasion and 90s Britpop. There are two main characters, each with alternating perspective chapters. One was 50-something, the other a 20 year-old. Any time I was writing for the older character I lived on a steady stream of Rolling Stones, The Hollies, Manfred Mann, and the Yardbirds. For the 20 year-old, it was Blur, Oasis, Elastica, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, and so on.

Squadron, a TV series I’m developing with Copperheart Entertainment, was largely written to early 90s alternative; grunge mostly, but a lot of Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, early U2, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran. I wanted to capture a feeling of excitement in the lives of WWI flyers, all young twenty-somethings taking to the skies to vanquish their enemies. Because a substantial portion of the story deals with the after effects of being the most famous killers in the world, I balanced fast paced rock with more introspective music for the quieter moments.

There are other examples. A suspense thriller I wrote some years back (also unsold – see the pattern?) was scored to a lot of Madchester-era music, which is appropriate given the main character has walled herself off from the world and is living in something of a nostalgia bubble. It made sense for her to be into the music she was into as a teenager, like she never grew past 2000. A thriller I wrote for a prod co about an EMT on the edge had a lot of 70s Punk in the mix – The Diodes, The Demics, The Clash, The Ramones. Music that reflects the thoughts of a main character living on the edge.

And there’s Magicians Impossible.

The Magicians Mixtape (which will be released on Spotify September 12) is pretty eclectic, featuring Metric, The Kills, The Dread Weather, T. Rex, David Bowie, The Jam, The Vaselines, XTC, The Human league … the list goes on. That playlist is distilled from about seven separate ones I created, each focusing on a major character or moment in the story. Because a novel has more working parts than a screenplay or comic book, I needed to go into greater musical depth. The end-result 50 track mix loosely follows the plot of the book and is a great accompaniment (though I recommend you listen to it after reading the book).

That all being said if your particular project is of a period where music – contemporary music – is available, use it. If there’s an emotional component also, even better. The novel I’m drafting right now features music as a major plot point; specifically one-hit wonders of the 80s and 90s. The music the main characters – all teenagers – would have grown up listening to because that was the music of their parents’ generation.

So that’s it, really. That’s my process and it probably only works for me. But maybe it’s worth a shot if you’re stuck on a plot point or something with your story that just isn’t working for you. If you can’t figure out where your character goes next, why not think about the music they would enjoy and the memories that would be associated with it?

In the end, you need to find what works best for you, and stick to that. Don’t let people like me or anybody else tell you what you’re doing is wrong because it’s not wrong; it’s right for you. As long as what you do works for you it’s better to stay on that track than try and write like someone else.

Because they can already do that. Your job is to write like you.

A Long Time Ago …

In case you missed the news, 40 years ago today a little movie called Star Wars arrived in theaters. it was not expected to do well. In fact, George Lucas was so convinced it would be a disaster he fled Los Angeles for Hawaii to build sand-castles with his buddy Steven Spielberg, where they ended up hashing out what would become Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But of course Star Wars did not flop. Star Wars became STAR WARS, and we’ve been living with it for four decades now. In the last two years we’ve seen two new Star Wars movies, and this Christmas we’ll see another. It’s not inconceivable for Star Wars to outlive the generation that grew up with it. It’s a piece of modern myth-making writ large.

Scads of words have been written on its cultural significance but ever person has a different story about the role Star Wars played in their lives. For me it began in 1977 as a 4 year-old whose father took him to an evening show to see some movie a co-worker had told him I would enjoy. He bought me a bag of popcorn and cup of cola and apparently when the Star Destroyer flew overhead in the famous opening shot the popcorn hit the floor untouched and I stared, open-mouthed at the screen for the entire two hours.

I was captivated. And as a child who lived in four different cities by the time Return of the Jedi arrived six years later, Star Wars had become the constant friend in a childhood with not many of the real kind.

After JediStar Wars faded from the landscape and my life. There was a brief resurgence on the 10th anniversary when I picked up a special issue of Starlog magazine, but Star Wars was pretty much dead by 1987, through the early 90s. Then the Timothy Zahn series of Star Wars books arrived. then the Dark Empire comic book series from Dark Horse. the Power of the Force toy line made its debut in 1995 and I was on my second Star Wars kick, which lasted all the way to 1999, and the release of The Phantom Menace.

I have not come to bury the prequels or to praise them either. What I will say once Revenge of the Sith hit theaters that it was pretty much a given Star Wars was finished. there would be the Clone Wars TV series which, despite a rough start, became a genuinely wonderfully realized story. But Star Wars on the big screen; that was done, right?

So we’re living through the third Star Wars cycle and its unlikely to end anytime soon. Sure, a few consecutively crappy films could happen, but if 007  could survive nearly sixty years, Star Wars could last at least to 2037.

For me  Star Wars will not end. That’s because my child, who turns two this July, is approaching the age I was when I first saw Star Wars. I’ve gone back and forth on how to introduce him to the series. By the time he’s four, Episode IX will have come and gone, so he’ll have the entire Skywalker saga at his fingertips. Do we run the series in order – 1-9 – with Rogue One and the hitherto untitled Han Solo movie (and if it’s NOT called Han: Solo they suck)? Do I show him Episodes 4-9 and pretend the Prequels don’t exist? What about Clone Wars and its spin-off, Rebels?

No, I need a plan of attack … and think I’ve found one.

On the day he’s ready, I’m going to ask him if he wants to watch a movie. I’ll put on Star Wars and hopefully he’ll be dazzled by it. But rather than segue right into The Empire Strikes Back, I’m going to let him live with Episode IV for a little while. Let him engage with the story, the characters, let him play with the toys and imagine their own future adventures. Then, when his interest in it starts to wane, I’ll  show him The Empire Strikes Back, and we’ll repeat the process. I want him to be re-introduced to Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids. I want him to gasp at the revelation of what happened to Luke’s father. Then when that’s run its course, Return Of The Jedi.

I want to let him live with those movies as long as he wants to. Then, when he’s losing interest, I’ll ask him if he’d like to see how Anakin Skywalker  became Darth Vader.

We’ll watch the prequels in quicker succession, not because they aren’t as good (I like parts of them I don’t like other parts, and am well outside the demographic when they were released anyway), but because they’re too interconnected.

After that we’ll dive into Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels which, buy the time that wraps up, should segue into Rogue One. By then the current trilogy will have concluded, and with the weight of the entire saga behind us, we can watch those however we want to.

As you can probably tell, I’ve given this a lot of thought.

But as far back as I can remember, my life has been one where stories were shared in a multitude of ways. From bedtime stories read to me by my parents, to my father taking me to see one of his favorite movies 2001: A Space Odyssey when it played as part of a roadshow re-release in the 1980s.

I want to pass these movies on to my child because how stories are told matter as much as what they tell. I want him to cherish these stories, but to also cherish the way he was introduced to a galaxy far, far away.

And because I want him to know that many years before, his dad discovered them at the same age.

 

But we’re hiring a babysitter so we can go see The Last Jedi. Sorry, kid.