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.

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.

The Dog-end of a Day Gone By

To call 2016 challenging is to undersell it. It was certainly the most difficult year I’ve endured, and that’s just on a personal level. Caring for a 1 year-old while managing a career as a writer is no easy task. There have been frayed nerves, sleepless nights, and the ever-present worry that this is pretty much it for me and my career; that I can’t do both those things without failing at one of them. And yet, I’m still here, you’re still here, and we need to be because 2017 will probably be worse. It’ll take away people and things we love, the bad guys will keep winning. This is the beginning of the winter George RR Martin’s Stark family keeps telling us is coming.

But it’s important not to give into that despair. You have to fight, you have to strive, you have to marshal resources and press on. Because capitulation is not victory. It will feel like it for a while, but those things you’re trying to hide from will find you eventually.

Think of it this way; we all have some sort of comfort food. Some meal that you love, less because of what it is than what it represents. For me, it’s the traditional roast beef diner my grandmother used to make. The roast was always a little dry, the gravy a little starchy, but I’ve spent the last twenty-three years trying to re-create. But that really isn’t the point; the point is when I do make it, I get a minor taste of what that meal represented; the closeness of family, the smiles, the laughter of people now long gone. There’s warmth to it, and sadness. It’s nostalgic, the comfort meal.

As Michel Houllebecq wrote;

Nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics — it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we’ve lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful.

That’s comfort food; and art can be comfort food for the soul. Books, movies, TV, music … those perennial works you return to over and over again, not because they remind you of happier times, but because they remind you of a time in your life that you survived. So in the spirit of the season, here are some of my artistic comfort foods.

  1. Bond. James Bond.

bond

I grew up with James Bond; the Roger Moore ones specifically, because they were the first ones I saw. I remember how a Bond movie would often be the ABC Saturday night movie; the World Premiere of Moonraker or something Over the last month and a bit my wife and I watched (in reverse order for some reason) the Moore Bond series, and the Dalton ones. We’re now into the Brosnan era. There’s just something about them that gives me a warm feeling, and that, I think, has been their success; by offering us what we want while tweaking the formulas ever so much. From Octopussy on I saw every Bond in the theater, including Never Say Never Again, though I shamefully confess I missed Spectre, being a newly minted parent my movie watching was pretty much impossible. To this day remains difficult – last I saw in the theater was … actually, I legit can’t remember. It was summer, I know that. Maybe X-Men Apocalypse (which was terrible by the way). Did I mention the year that was has been rough? Well, yeah. No time for movies.

2. High. Degrassi Jr. High.

degrassi

Not much time for TV either, though one seminal series turns 30(!) next year. Yes, on January 18, 1987 a little Canadian TV series called Degrassi Jr. High made its debut on CBC. My friends and I all mocked it, for its cheesiness, for its obviously plotted by adults for kids aesthetic, for the Canadian-ness of it (growing up in Canada in the 1980s it was anything but cool). But we still watched it – I know I did, mostly because it was filmed in, and set in Toronto, which I loved, and I would just groove on the scenery. When the final TV movie “School’s Out” aired five years later, I think everyone in school must have watched it because the next day all people could say was “You fucked Tessa Campinelli?” Over the following years it aired in reruns, was relaunched as an enormously successful show called Degrassi that’s still going strong. But now, 30 years on, it’s become comfort TV, for me anyway, because of the cheesiness, because of the plots, because of the amateurish nature of using non-actors. It even makes a brief cameo appearance in my next novel. Those kids are all in their 40s now – and I’m sure the ones who grew up not watching it but actually watching in secret still remember the theme song.

3. God Save the Queen
queen_band_members

If you know me this will come as a shock, but I grew up listening to Queen. First instance was when we moved to Scarborough Ontario in 1982, and at my new school, had to participate daily in a thing called the Health Hustle. Let me back up; by Age nine I was used to starting over in a new school. I’d lived in Mississauga, in Vancouver, in Edmonton, and now Scarborough. First days in a new school were always weird. Being the new kid, for one, being the kid who had no idea in hell what he was in for was another. So on my first day at North Bridlewood public School, around 11am an announcement came over the PA telling the children it was time for today’s Health Hustle. This was an initiative from the Ontario Public School board dating back to the early 70s, to include mandatory physical activity for school children (recess twice a day was not enough apparently). So when the announcement came we were marched to the gym, where a teacher led us through the health hustle routine of jumping jacks and running in place. I had no idea what or why it was, but there was music on the PA, and that year the music was Queen. We Are the Champions, and We Will Rock you in particular (along with some other songs and bands I’ve forgotten, though I think bad Leroy Brown was one of them). That was my intro to Queen, though they would pop up periodically through my life in the next decade, especially as Much Music arrived on the airwaves. I even remember the day Freddie Mercury passed away. They were always bigger in Canada than they were in the US, which is why when Mike Meyers paid tribute to them in Wayne’s World the next year, Bohemian Rhapsody climbed the charts once again. Incidentally Meyers grew up in that same Scarborough neighborhood, and was a friend of one of my friends’ sisters. To this day a Queen song takes me back to those years and memories.

Just don’t ask me to do the Health Hustle.

4. Stand By Me
sk

People ask me who my favorite author is, I typically say Joe R. Lansdale because he’s awesome and everyone should read his books. But for various reasons Stephen King holds a special place in my heart and it was seeing Stand by Me in the theater that summer that prompted me to seek out Stephen King’s books – specifically the novella The Body, which the film was based on. I remember the surprised gasp that tremored through the theater when “Based on a novella by Stephen king” appeared on screen as the end credits rolled. That Stephen King? It bore some investigating, and I did, scoring a used paperback of Different Seasons the novella collection containing The Body (and Apt Pupil, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and the lesser-known The Breathing Method). I read The Body first, and was shocked by how dark it was. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was mournful in a way the movie wasn’t. The sadness at lost friends, and lost years, suffuses every page of The Body, and in the years since I think I may have read it every year or two. I get older with each read, but Gordie LaChance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio remain the same age I was when I saw Stand by Me. As a father to a young boy, it resonates even deeper now. Revisiting The Body is like revisiting old friends; ones you’ll never forget.

5. The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of …

sandman-covers

Of course I can’t leave 2016 without mentioning comic books. My career as a comic book creator has been on hold ever since our child was born, and I descended into the world of Magicians Impossible, but I hope to get back into making comics in 2017. To prepare for that I’ve been rereading several seminal titles, the greatest of which, to me, remains Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Everything’s been written about Sandman, its influence, its importance, over the last twenty-five, almost thirty years so what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Nothing. But for me it’s as unique as it was when it first appeared; both cosmic in its scope and intimate in its reach. I’d read periodic issues of it when they first came out, but it wasn’t until 1999, when I became a screenwriter by trade, that I had the money and the time to collect the trade paperbacks, and read them from start to finish. Maybe it’s the fact that it told a complete story. Maybe because every turn of the page felt strangely familiar. Reading it now it’s like an artifact from an earlier age, where my career as a writer was just beginning. But mostly because this story, like all stories, mattered to me, and had the power to change myworld, starting from the smallest speck of dust.

So, as we close up shop on 2016, I encourage each and every one of you to indulge in a little comfort food over the holidays. Listen to that album. Watch that movie. Re-read that book. Get some rest, see some family and friends. And when 2017 arrives, be prepared to fight your hardest for those people and things that mean the most to you.

UPDATE:

January 12, 2017 (Addendum)

There’s one more bit of comfort food I have to add, and it’s this …

Netflix has every Star Trek series available to stream, and I’ve begun what looks to be an epic re-watch of the Original Series. It’s been years since I watched any of these episodes, and i’m reasonably certain that, despite it being my favorite of the Trek series, I actually haven’t run the entire series. There’s episodes I’ve seen, ones I remember vividly (working a summer at a Star Trek exhibit in the mid 90s will do that to you), but many I have never seen or have no recollection of – mostly season 3 episodes, natch. So It’s going to be a fun little ride the next while. Lord knows I’m going to need the distraction.

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.

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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.