Cruising Down Sunset

A third event has been added to the West Coast leg of the Magicians Impossible Book Tour, and it’s one I’m very excited about.

That’s right; I’ll be appearing at the legendary Book Soup Bookstore on the equally legendary Sunset Blvd.I’ll be there Tuesday, September 26th at 7pm to read from, answer questions about, and sign copies of Magicians Impossible.

Another cool thing about this event? Book Soup is right across from a music establishment of some note. You may be familiar with it:

As a big music geek you can bet I’ll be taking some pictures of the Whisky too.

If you’re in LA and are planning to come out to the event, I’ll see you there. if you can’t make it but still want a signed book, you can pre-order your book here.

More events and details to come!

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.

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.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Everybody has one: the Greatest Summer Of Your Life. The one that stands out above all others. I consider myself fortunate that I have had many summers that stand out.

Summer 1986, we’re moving from Greensboro North Carolina to Brockville Ontario. Owing to the fact the school year in NC ends in late May, and the school year in Ontario begins after Labor Day weekend, this means I have a whole three months off. I go to Space Camp. My best friend in the world comes down for a two week visit.

Summer 1994. My first full summer living in Toronto. I have money from crewing music video shoots and a few weeks break and end up spending it at the same best friend’s place while his family is away on holiday. We barbecue, we drink, we hang by the backyard pool, we throw parties, and hit the hay as the sun rises. For three glorious weeks I’m the most relaxed I have been and ever will be.

Summer 1999. The year of Robocop. The year I go pro. It’s a great summer, not because I have leisure time because I most certainly do not. It’s a lot of hard work, lots of writing, but the stage has been set that every season subsequent is me, working from home, writing, and earning a living at it. 17 years later I’m still doing it.

Summer 2015. I become a dad, and while sleep is lacking and stress is high, it’s perhaps the most incredible experience I’ve ever had.

But Summer 2016 looks to be over before it’s begun, because Magicians Impossible is coming in with notes and edits from my editor, and a timetable for completion that means the next three months are given over to that.

Plus, things have been moving at a fast clip on Squadron, the TV series I created in development with Copperheart Entertainment. Copperheart (Wolves, Splice) just signed a co-production agreement with Octagon Films (Vikings, Penny Dreadful) to get the show off the ground and into the air, which means in addition to Magicians, I have a WW1-sized shadow soaring overhead. So June, July, August and autumn look to be filled to capacity.

And that doesn’t include being a work-at-home-stay-at-home-dad.

Good thing I already took my summer vacation.

Back on March 1st when I delivered MI, I decided I was taking a break for a month. My first real “time off” from work in a couple of years. That, and the fact I was still recovering from a serious back injury and I needed time to rest and recuperate and clear my head. And I did just that … for maybe 10 days. The writer’s brain is never really idle; after a couple weeks of rest and relaxation and being “dad”, I needed to start something new. I began outlining my next book project, and outlined and began scripting new comic book project.

Where those two projects will fit in the grand scheme remains to be seen but both are on the backburner while I tackle the Magicians rewrites. And Squadron, well, where that goes is anyone’s guess, but it has the potential to completely disrupt and dominate my life for the next several years.

So there’s going to be something of a slow-down on this website the next little bit, until I get atop all the work stuff. I’m also taking a holiday next month and hauling the family up to Canada for a couple of weeks to make the rounds. There will be updates here and there but of the short and punchy variety, like this one.

But rather than just leave you with “I’m going to be away for a bit, I leave you with this. I’m not one to talk about fatherhood because there’s no shortage of people that do, but I leave you with this thought that came to me on Father’s Day as my wife and I took our son to a nearby park to hear some live music.

When you’re young, your first intro to music comes from your parents. Their music becomes your soundtrack. Long car rides for me are always associated with The Beatles and Stones and Simon and Garfunkel and Gordon Lightfoot and ABBA.

Then, when you’re older and in school, it’s your friends music that becomes yours. You bond over it For me it was MTV and Much Music, Prince and Thompson Twins and U2 and INXS. There’s Top 40 and College radio. That’s your soundtrack.

Then, in your later teens, you want to carve out your own identity. You reject the mainstream and find your own path. Depeche Mode. Sonic Youth. Nirvana. In my case the underground became the mainstream for a brief moment before fading back into obscurity. or maybe it’s you who fade.

Life takes over. Music is not as important. You have a job, and bills, and college loans, and just trying to get by living.

Then, you start getting back into it. You find new music, new bands. The White Stripes. Coldplay. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Or, you dig back to that time music meant the world. You find stations that play the music you listened to in your teens. You find you like the music you used to rail against because it reminds you of those years when you were young and you were looking out the windshield at the road ahead instead of the rear view and the road behind.

Then you find you’re listening to the music your parents listened to because it reminds you of them.

Then you become a parent yourself and your child first experiences the music you listened to. Then they discover their own music. Then the cycle repeats.

Happy Summer everyone. See you in September.

The Last of the Rock Stars

I hadn’t listened to him in years.

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

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

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

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

And then it hit me.

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

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

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

He was everything we thought a rock star should be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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