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.

 

1985

In March of 1985, I was living in Toronto. Scarborough, to be exact. We’d been there around three years, having moved there from Edmonton in April of 1982. I was 11 going on 12, and relatively happy with life. I had friends, I had a house I liked in a neighborhood I loved. We even had a swimming pool. Naturally that had to change and it did with the announcement from my parents that we would be moving yet again, this time to a place I’d never even heard of, and to a different country. We would be moving to Greensboro North Carolina.

Up until then, we’d lived in Ottawa, Barrie, Thunder Bay, Mississauga, Vancouver, Edmonton, and now Scarborough. I thought that was just how people lived. The idea of growing up in the same house, going to the same school with the same people for years was as foreign to me as the United States, but we would be making the US our home for the next two years. That was the plan; my dad, an employee of Imperial Oil (that’s Esso in Canada, Exxon in the US) was being loaned out to a company called Gilbarco, a manufacturer of gasoline pumps and dispensers, whose head office was in Greensboro. This assignment was to last two years. At the end of those two years we would be moving back to the same house, to the same neighborhood, and I would be starting High School, picking up where things left off with friends. So I’d be skipping Jr. High in Toronto while attending it in Greensboro. We didn’t even sell our house in Scarborough; we rented it, to the family of one of my classmates. But come Summer 1987 we were going to be back. That was the plan at any rate.

I was actually looking forward to it because of the temporary nature of this move. That it wouldn’t be permanent. My family and I spent our March break that year in Greensboro so my parents could house hunt, and so my sister and I could see the city we would call home for the next two years. It was nice. It was clean, and my parents wisely bribed us with some cool toy purchases, one of which I still have sitting on my office shelf:

Pictured: My bribe

Pictured: My bribe

But I had made some very good friends in Scarborough, some of whom I’m still friends with 30 years later. In the movie Stand By Me, adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) ends his recollection of that summer of 1959 with the statement that he never had friends like he did when he was 12. That pretty much was the case for me. And when you’re looking down the barrel of 2 years away it seems like a long time. In hindsight not so much; and when you’re in your 30s or 40s, that’s definitely not much time at all. My parents assured me and my sister that the two years would pass before we knew it, and we’d be back in Scarborough before we realized it. That also was the plan.

So I’ll admit once we got to Greensboro I was seduced. The climate was warm, if a little dry, and while we were landlocked our condominium complex had a pool, which made the summer heat easier to handle. I was also getting more into comic books by this point, and the discovery Greensboro had a couple comic shops meant the passage of time would be a little easier to handle. There was also the malls (plentiful), the arcades (ditto) and most importantly the toys. There was a Toy City (think Toys R Us without the Giraffe) in the strip mall a five minute walk from my front door, and the day I walked in there and saw shelves laden with toys I didn’t even know existed, well, I figured Greensboro wasn’t going to be bad after all.

Then school started. And everything came crashing down.

***

Let me tell you a bit about Charles B. Aycock Middle School.

Aycock

Short version: I hated it. Long version: I really hated it.

First, it was way on the other side of town. Despite the fact there was a Jr. High close enough to my home in the northern part of town that I could walk to it, being at the tail end of what was known as the Desegregation Bussing era. This meant that kids from the more affluent northern part of town were sent to one of the less affluent schools in the southern part. I absolutely hated this for no other reason that I had to ride the bus there. And for some reason my bus was on a schedule where mine was the last stop to be picked up, and the last one to be dropped off. So in the mornings I had to fight for a seat, afternoons I had to stay on the bus until the very end, and was the last student to be dropped off, close to an hour after school had ended for the day.

Trust me, it was a lot further than that. Memory doesn't lie.

Trust me, it was a lot further than that. Memory doesn’t lie.

[Note that route was the direct one from our house to the school. The route we actually took zigzagged all the way up from the school, though today I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was. It took 45 minutes, that’s all I can remember.]

Second, owing to North Carolina coming in near the bottom of recent national educational standards, the school board decided the best way to correct that was to double down on homework, workload, and classes. We began class at 8:30, and our day was packed. I think we had seven or eight periods, all of which (for me anyway) meant crisscrossing the school, one end to the other. Back and forth, carrying all my books with me because I only had something like 3-4 minutes to get to each class. We got a whopping 30 minutes for lunch, then back into it. As someone who was coming from elementary school in Scarborough where you had one teacher to a Jr. High where you had many, it was like being taught how to swim by being dropped into the deep part of the lake. By 3:15 pm I was exhausted, and still had 7-8 classes worth of homework.

So all of that meant I was not a happy camper. After having what was relative freedom in Canada where I could walk or bike to school – the one close to home – I was bussed across town to a school I hated. And rather than make the best of a bad situation I doubled down on misery. I decided I wasn’t going to make friends, I wasn’t going to join any clubs or extra-curricular activities. What was the point in making friends when we were moving back to Canada, where my real friends were, in a couple years? By age 12 I had gotten tired of saying goodbye to people. Two years is a lifetime to a 12 year-old, but I knew I could do the next two years because I had no choice.

So I got home, got my homework out of the way, and retreated into my comics and toys, and dreaded the next day of school. I lived for weekends because that meant I wasn’t in school. But by Sunday evenings I was back to dreading it. I even had developed something of a nervous condition. That clenching fear you sometime get in your stomach? I haven’t had it since I was maybe 14 but back then I had it all the time, and it all had to do with school.

My parents were worried too. They even talked about pulling me out of school and hiring a tutor, but it was decided that school was just something I would have to endure. And lest it seem like I was living through some Dickensian nightmare, my parents did help by signing me up for karate classes, two nights a week and the occasional Saturday. That went a long way to boosting my overall confidence and helped me work out some aggression at an age when I had a lot of it. They also drove me to the local comic shop once a month so I could buy the latest books, and we went to one of the many local malls once a week or so where I could get a book, see a movie, buy a toy, or just unwind. We also did a lot of weekend excursions to places like Asheville, Winston Salem, Wilmington, and vacationed a bunch of times in Myrtle Beach. Were it not for school I would have to say I really did enjoy North Carolina. But not during school. Never during school.

I also had the radio. I began listening to it obsessively. It was your typical Top 40 radio. That meant Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News, Bruce Springsteen, Duran Duran (who I was already familiar with), and the occasional David Bowie and Simple Minds tracks. It was all pretty generic; you were guaranteed to hear a particular popular song once or twice a day, but as this was before the era of Clear Channel there was just enough eccentric stuff that slipped over the corporate wall to make things interesting like Paul Hardcastle’s “19”  which was, well … this:

So, I had comic books, I had music, and if you know me or my work at all, you can see this as something of an origin story. And hindsight being what it is that’s a pretty accurate assessment, especially when I think of one song, and one person in particular.

***

3:15 pm Monday to Friday was the happiest moment of the week (doubly so on Friday, quadruple so on long weekends and Thanksgiving and Christmas and March Break). That was when the dismissal bell would finally ring, that’s when we’d run to our lockers to drop off what books we wouldn’t need for homework, and that’s when we beat feet to the fleet of busses parked out back waiting to usher us home (in my case 45 minutes later). Our bus driver was a 20-something named Roger. He had a deep southern accent, and referred to everyone – boy and girl – as “Dude”. “Hey dude, what’s up dude, good day dude?” He also had a boom box parked beside him. Monday thru Thursday he’d have it tuned to one of the Top 40 stations because he wisely knew that music would keep the kids on the bus relatively under control. But on Fridays, he’d play some of his favorite tunes to gear us and him up for the weekend. That means I heard this song once a week, every week, from September thru May 1986 when classes ended for the summer.

Now I mentioned the strip mall earlier. The one with the Toy City? That mall also had a movie theater. Not a first run, but not a rep either. Basically once a movie’s shelf life ended, before it was whisked away back to the studio vaults and eventual home video release 9 months later, it stopped in one of those theaters (the other being on the other side of town). Shows were only a dollar, so on many weekends I would go there on a Saturday afternoon, pay my dollar, and go watch a movie. The Goonies, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Back to the Future, Young Sherlock Holmes, Weird Science, Commando – they’d play for weeks, if not months; as long as people kept coming to see them they’d stay – I think I saw BTTF a total of five times before it left that theater.

Anyway sometime in April of 1986, the movie of the week was Pretty In Pink. Like most 13 year old boys I harbored a crush on Molly Ringwald.

Yes. Yes she is.

Yes. Yes she is.

So I went, down the street, to the theater, armed with my dollar, on a Saturday afternoon. I paid, took my seat and watched the movie. I wasn’t too conscious of how many people were in the theater but there was a relatively sizeable group. Anyway after the movie I went outside, and who did I see standing there, also having exited the theater, bur Bus Driver Roger? He was there with what must have been his girlfriend, and she was talking with one of her friends but he saw me and I saw them and I said “Hey Roger.” Hey Dude, was his answer. I went on to tell him I rode his bus and he said “Yeah, dude, you’re the last one to be dropped off. Bummer, huh?” I don’t remember much else of what we said, but I had to ask him and I did.

“Hey Roger, that song you play every Friday when we leave school? What’s it called?”

“That’s Ready Steady Go” by Generation X, dude.”

I told him I liked it a lot, but I never heard it on the radio.

“Then you need to listen to better radio, dude. Not the top 40 crap from Greensboro, but the station from Chapel Hill, dude. WXYC 89.3. Signal is way weak in the daytime but at night it comes in a lot clearer, dude.”

I muttered something like “Yeah, I’ll do that”. Roger left with his girlfriend, I left for home, got to my bedroom, closed the door, turned on my radio and began searching on the FM dial. I landed at 89.3 or thereabouts and could hear some music, but it was faint, with a lot of static. I raised the antenna and it came in a little bit clearer, but nothing great. After dinner I think my parents must have rented a movie because around 10pm I went to my room to read, and listen to music. By now night had fallen and when I turned on the radio the music came in nice and clear. And that was my introduction to the music found Left of the Dial. Bands like The Replacements, REM, Talking Heads, U2, The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division. Thing is I didn’t know their names at the time; just the songs, and over the years (and in some cases decades) that followed I would rediscover them. on Much Music, on CFNY, on MTV, on Spotify. Even recently I’ve found songs I heard 30 years ago but lost, finally unleashing the power of the internet to rediscover them.

***

That was April 1986. Around the same time my dad came home with a surprise. We were moving back to Canada a year ahead of schedule, having just been offered the job of President of Gilbarco Canada. But we would not be moving back to Scarborough; instead we were bound for a town called Brockville that my dad claimed was “near Toronto” (but was in fact 3 hours east of there). Once I finished Grade 7 at Aycock I wouldn’t have to go back there again ever. And when we moved in August that was the last time I set foot anywhere near Greensboro NC. Things changed. Plans changed. But after having survived Greensboro I was better equipped to manage the little curve balls life throws your way.

As for Roger and that bus, the only thing else that stands out was the last trip I took on it. It was the last day of school, we had early dismissal, and I knew it would be my last time taking that ride and that route. With each stop, with each group of kids who god off, I knew that was the last time I was ever going to see them. As we neared the home stretch, and it was just me and Roger I made a request; “Ready Steady Go. Can you play it again?”

And Roger grinned: “Any time, Dude.”

That was the last time I saw Roger, and the last time I rode that bus. 30 years on I do think about those years with a little more nostalgia than I did at the time (the blessing and curse of advancing age I guess). I did hate being there, but in the end it, like most negative experiences, ended up being good for me. And I even managed to make some friends at Aycock. Unfortunately, I can’t remember their names. My time there was too brief, and the span of years since then has grown long.

But Roger? I’m never going to forget that dude, or that song.