The D Word

I want to talk to you today about the word that has become very prevalent in our modern era, particularly as it comes to the arts.

Diversity.

But the diversity of which I want to speak of is not about equality, or representation. Because, frankly, there are many, many more people out there writing about that type of diversity who are better educated, better aware, and just plan better writers than I am on that particular topic. Diverse Books is a good place to start.

When we look back at our lives, at the events, moments, and decisions that brought us to where we are today, there are certain dates that stand out where things changed. Where our particular journey turned a corner and embarked on a new direction. Sometimes these changes are forced on us; sometimes they come in the form of a choice.

For me, perhaps the pivotal moment in my life and career came between July 10th and August 9th, of 1998. Almost 20 years ago for those keeping count. That was the month of the Fantasia Film Festival, an off-shoot of Montreal’s long-running fest. It played in Toronto that year thanks to the efforts of Colin Geddes and Julian Grant. I knew both of them vaguely, but when I heard they were bringing the festival to my backyard essentially, I approached them and offered to volunteer my services with anything they needed. So I did, and they happily accepted. Over the month that followed I tore tickets, sold t-shirts, fetched coffee, saw a lot of movies, and met a lot of people.

One of those people I met was Rod Gudino. He’d just started a horror magazine and Julian had graciously offered up space in the theater lobby to sell his new magazine.

That magazine was Rue Morgue.

At this time Rue Morgue was only 5 issues in to a run that’s up to 182 as of 2018. Rod became one of those familiar faces I saw every day, we got to talking about movies and horror movies a lot, and when Fantasia was done we kept in touch, right up to the moment when he asked me if I wanted to come write for the magazine. It wasn’t paid, obviously (that came a few years later) but I enjoyed writing, I liked the Rue Crew and I’d always wanted to try my hand at print journalism.

I’ve written before about this whole experience  on the film-TV side of things, and what developed from it. Most famously, being hired by Julian months later to co-write the Robocop miniseries he was producing and thus kicking off my career as a professional screenwriter. But the other thing that came from Fantasia was that lengthy association with Rue Morgue. And from that association came, well, everything else.

Owing to the up and down nature of writing , there were peaks and valleys in the screen trade. A very good year, a slightly less successful but still very good year, followed by a couple of piss-poor ones, before bouncing back again. That’s the cyclical nature of the business; it happens to everybody. The key to surviving is by branching out as much as you can so you have those fall-backs when a project falls through or is cancelled. For much of the 2000s magazine writing became my lifeline.

Rue Morgue began paying its contributors in 2001 – not a lot, but enough to show the magazine’s stable of writers that their work was valuable, and appreciated. But around the same time I had been amassing my portfolio of work for Rue Morgue and began querying other magazines like Fangoria, Dreamwatch, Starburst etc. and I ended up penning multiple long-form articles for all of them, and that was largely due to the portfolio of work I had from RM, I was able to pitch them on articles, and features, and when I was a roving journalist for several years at the Toronto International Film Festival, amassed a lot of work. the UK mags (all gone now, sadly) paid very well, at a time the Pound was well-over the Canadian dollar value. I earned over $6000.00 Canadian for what amounted to maybe four weeks work, reporting on the TIFF in 2001.

That diversification saved my skin, on numerous occasions. And diversifying was just one lesson I learned from those years that I’ve carried with me since.

It’s no small stretch to see a screenwriter (i.e. ‘one who writes for the big screen’) branch out into TV. It ‘such more common now than when I was starting. Back then TV was largely regarded as a second-string to the theatrical experience; now all the really exciting and interesting stories are happening on the small screen. I wrote my first episodic TV in 2002 and have returned to it again and again in years since, most recently in children’s television.

I’m close friends with both of these puppets.

In 2012 I created a comic book called Mixtape. It achieved some cult status and, I’m happy to say, brought me some actual genuine fans of my work.  It was also recently optioned for development as a TV series. Oh, and guess who they hired to write the Pilot?

No comment

Of course there are novels. Magicians Impossible was published last year from St. Martins Press. It received several starred reviews, and was named Best Debut Novel by both Suspense Magazine and School Library Journal. I just delivered my next novel to my agent, and am outlining a third.

In the financial world you constantly hear how important it is to “diversify your portfolio” – that rule also applies to writing. I feel that my diversification of my portfolio as a writer is what’s enabled me to be a writer, full-stop, going on twenty years. Not only is diversification important to just be considered for the paying work that keeps us afloat, it also makes us better writers than we would be if we’d stuck to just one aspect of writing;

Screenplays taught me how to structure a story, to ensure those Act One set-ups have Act Three payoffs. To juggle plot, story, and dialogue effortlessly.

Comics taught me how to write visually, and how to convey imagery to your artist in as concisely a way as possible while letting them interpret those images.

Journalism taught me the power of words, of finding that killer opening and killer conclusion, and how less is quite often much, much more.

Books taught me how to combine all of the above into narrative. To take the tools mastered in each area of the writing world, and synthesize them into the medium that predates all of them.

I often joke to my employers that when they hire me they’re getting the whole package; screenwriter, author, comic book creator, journalist. That’s not a bad thing; if anything it’s given me an edge over writers who specialize in just screenwriting. What it communicates is that I’ve been successful across the board, that people and companies from a variety of fields and disciplines have produced or and especially paid me for my work. Hiring a writer you don’t know or have never worked with before can be daunting; it’s why you see a lot of producers and publishers keeping the same stable of writers under their roof as long as they can. Familiarity breeds confidence, in the way you take your car to your local mechanic year-after-year – because you trust them to do the job you’re paying them to, and know they’ll do it well.

Networking is certainly important. Promoting yourself, in person or online is a component of thus business that is unavoidable. But to my mind generating a portfolio of work is just as important. Everyone can talk the talk and sell themselves, but if you don’t have the track record of producing results in whatever medium is your specialty, you’re always going to have that hurdle to overcome.

So my advice to any writer out there looking for a little kick in the pants (creatively, that is), try something different. You’re a poet? Great – let’s see some short stories.Novelist? take a whack at a screenplay. Comic book writer? Think of some rhyming couplets. Diversify your portfolio and see what happens – the person you surprise the most may be yourself. And that’s a very good thing.

So yes, Diversity is important, in all walks of life, in all environments. Diversity is indeed strength.

Same goes for writing.

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.

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

Free Stuff!

Pulp Cultured is a great website that takes a daily look at comics, movies, TV, and video games. I know; “there’s hundreds of websites on the internet that do just that, Brad”, you say. And you’re right.

But in Pulp Cultured’s case, they’re running a contest to win one of five signed copies of Mixtape #1 on their Facebook page. All you have to do is “like” the page, share the post, and submit your best playlist…or mix tape if you will.

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Need a refresher on what they thought about Mixtape? No problem –  check out their RAVE reviews of Mixtape #1, Mixtape #2, and Mixtape #3

And don’t forget Mixtape 1-5 are available on ComiXology right now.

Mixtape #2 arrives in comic book stores next month.

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