Knowing Is Half The Battle

I’m about to drop a major truth bomb on you. Sitting comfortably? Good. here it is:

Writing is work.

Yes, there’s art, yes, there’s craftsmanship to it; but make no mistake it is work.

Say it again:

Writing. Is. Work.

It’s hard work too; anybody who tells you otherwise is probably the same person who says “Oh, I always wanted to write a book or a screenplay – they seem easy enough,” but waffle on why if it’s so “easy” they never bothered to try.  Writing is deadlines. Writing is submissions. Writing is rejection. Writing is redrafts and notes and edits. Writing is being handed your check and shown the door and someone else taking over and rewriting you. It is a job, and some days just getting the job done is the victory.

One question I like to ask the aforementioned who say “I just want to take a year off and write” is this even simpler one; “why”? What’s the end-game with your imagined year-long sabbatical?

Get your book published, obviously. Get your screenplay produced. Get your play performed.

And when that doesn’t happen, what then? Do you take another year off to write another? Or do you chuck it, and say, “this is bullshit”, which it often is (but you get used to the smell after a while).

Believe me, I know of what I speak. I just sold my first book. I created a critically acclaimed book series. I’ve had two screenplays produced, along with a mini series, and been a hired gun on three different childrens’ TV series. That’s my last 18 years so to speak (if you look at iMdb).

What you don’t see are the rejections. The passes. The turnarounds. The rewrites that obliterated my screen credit. The film/TV/comics/novels that didn’t happen.They were all hard soul-crushing, back-breaking work, and they’re all currently gathering dust.

Which brings me … to G.I. Joe.

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Now I’m going to divert from the main thread for a moment. It’s all because of my son, really. He’s at the age of exploration right now which means he gets into everything. And by everything I mean everything. So it was only a matter of time before he discovered what was in those longboxes I had in the living room.

Yep. My comic book collection, which has followed me around pretty much everywhere since 1984, from Toronto to Greensboro, to Brockville, back to Toronto (and through 4 apartments over the space of 12 years) to Niagara-on-the-Lake, to St. Catharines, and finally to NYC.  So it was only a matter of time before grabby hands got his little mitts on them.

The damage wasn’t too severe; some were creased and folded, but I managed to get them away from him before the damage was permanent. And really, I’m not one of those “must remain mint” types. There are 30 years worth of comics squirreled away in those boxes, but today I want to talk about one title specifically.

From roughly 1984-1986 G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (w: Larry Hama for the most part, art: various, including Herbe Trimpe and Marshall Rogers, Todd McFarlane and Andrew Wildman among others) was my favorite comic. It was actually the comic that started me buying comics on a regular basis. More astute readers – ones “in the know” who for their part will agree “knowing is half the battle” – will likely agree that 1984-1986 was the heyday of the toy and comic line. I had a pretty solid collection of the comics – the first 50 issues – but by the time I moved to Brockville in 1986 I was falling out of love with the Joes. I had other interests – music, girls, movies – so the exploits of these Real American Heroes were less important. I still bought the book though mostly out of loyalty, but even then my comics buying had changed and I was gravitating more to Swamp Thing and Hellblazer and The Shadow and Sandman. Judging by my collection as it stood I tapped out around issue 70 , save for a minor buying-binge of issues in summer of 1993. But after I re-sorted them, I realized I was pretty close to completing the set. And I thought to myself; with eBay and other resources, why not finish the  finish the series? So what I did, and over the last couple of months, completed the set. And I then read them, all of them, start to finish.

Reading them through an adult perspective, what was really amazing to realize now is how much of the series was informed by the Vietnam War, and Hama’s experiences there.  It’s hard to remember now but in the 80s Vietnam was everywhere – a decade after the war ended America was finally starting to come to grips with it, and with how it treated its veterans. You saw this in movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, and TV like China Beach, The A Team, and Tour of Duty. Even Magnum P.I. was a ‘Nam vet.

But Larry was the one who introduced me and my friends to Nam, making its most popular character Snake Eyes a vet, along with Stalker and Storm Shadow. And that was a thread that ran through the entire series run, up to and including issue 155, the final issue, in which Snake-Eyes pens a letter to the son of a former colleague planning to enlist in the army. The war was the thru-line of the entire series; it kept on changing lives years after it ended.

It wasn’t always pretty; by maybe 5 years into the run it became formulaic; new characters were introduced, they got a moment to shine, then you never saw them again. A catastrophically ill-conceived crossover with the Transformers in the 90s pretty much killed the series, which limped to its conclusion a year later. The readership, which began as kids in the early 80s were in college now, and they’d moved on. I know I had.

But you can’t fault Larry and his team for the missteps. They had a job to do and that job was to support the toy line. They were handed the characters and story-lines to use, and they did the best they could. The fact GI Joe lasted 12 years is a testament to their great work. It was one of Marvel’s top selling books for a time, and the back issue market was ridiculously expensive.

If you own a copy of this, congratulations on being rich

If you own a copy of this, congratulations on being rich

What it all boils down to is Larry had a job to do and he did it, to the point that when IDW picked up the GI Joe license, they invited Larry back to continue the original line from where he left off at issue 155. With the toy line pretty much dormant he has the freedom to tell the stories he wanted. But that doesn’t denigrate his work on the 80s  run on GI Joe at all. His task was herculean and for GI Joe to remain so good for so long, that takes talent. That takes work.

So what has G.I. Joe got to do with writing?

Because writing is about getting the job done.

It’s about telling a Robocop story that satisfies network and fan expectations, while working in some personal stories into it at the same time. it’s about charting the end of the world in all its ridiculous SyFy carnage while still telling the story you originally wanted to; about a person who devotes his life to crazy conspiracy theories and finds out one of them is coming true in the worst possible way.

It’s about the work.

The reason I’m most excited creatively about Magicians Impossible is because it meets the criteria of a personal project and a mainstream one. It’s got a major publishing house in its corner, it has a great team of editors and designers aboard, and it’s being released next summer.

But it was hell to write. Easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever undertaken. And that was before our child was born, roughly mid-way through the writing. Then it became nearly impossible. I look at that first draft and I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a parent. The quality of writing drops precipitously and never really recovers. Still, I soldiered on, even when in the act of creation I realized what I was writing was not working, that there was a much better way to tell the story, and somehow between the endless overnight feeds and chronic fatigue, I managed to figure out just what the story was about. Even when suffering a major back injury that meant the longest I could sit and type was an hour before the pain became too much, I still wrote. And in the end, Magicians Impossible is by far the best thing I’ve ever written, and the one I’m most proud of.

I did the work because writing is work, and it is my job.

That’s the lesson I take from reading these old comics with new eyes. Because sometimes getting the job done is the point.

Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

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*UPDATE: Someone asked me if I included GI Joe Special Missions (the short-lived spin-off from the main title, published bi-monthly between 1986 and 1989, focusing on stand-alone missions) in my big read-through. Not initially and not as part of the overall run. But after I finished G.I. JOE I decided what the hey, and went thru the 15 or so copies of Special Missions I owned. Boy am I glad I did! G. I. Joe: Special missions are consistently closest to “Classic” G.I. Joe stories – darker, more violent, more intense, more realistic. Plus nearly the entire series was drawn by the late great Herb Trimpe – who for this guy anyway remains the quintessential Joe artist. I’m in the process of tracking down the remaining issues of G.I. Joe Special Missions now.

**UPDATE UPDATE: after some mulling over (and on the advice of a fan) I decided to pull the trigger and start into the TPBs of the IDW continuation of the series, written by Larry Hama, which picks up after the events of issue 155. I have to say this was a great decision. It’s like Larry, free of the demands of introducing new characters and vehicles every couple of issues, is finally getting to tell the GI Joe stories he’s always wanted. Reading these new stories is very much like catching up with old friends. And after the year we’ve had, sometimes old friends are the best ones you have.

A Quick One While He’s Away

Yes, I’m still alive.

Yes, I’m still on sabbatical.

Yes, my back is much better, thanks for asking.

Yes, I’m actually on a new project but one I can’t talk about right now.

Yes, I realize that by working on a new project I’m technically not on sabbatical.

Yes I’ll be posting a longer update soon.

TTFN

The Great Internet Detox

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So in December I did what I call an “Internet Detox”. I put my Twitter account on hold. I installed a nifty comment blocker on Firefox that effectively killed the comments section of every website I visit. I didn’t create a Facebook profile.

A month in, I have to say going back to my old internet habits may be impossible. In fact I’m wondering just how little internet one can get away with in this connected age.

I need to keep Twitter because, as the only social media I’m on, I kind of need to have some sort of online presence as a writer (and soon-to-be-published author) other than a lightly trafficked, infrequently updated website. That’s going to be an ongoing battle.

But I realized I don’t need to be online nearly as much. In fact of the many sins one can lay at the feet of the Great God Twitter is that too much connection to the world’s triumphs and tragedy is a net negative. I couldn’t tell you what the key points of outrage were through the last month of 2015 because I didn’t hear about them. The fact that whatever they were have faded from view in the first week of 2016 tells you just how much oxygen outrage sucks out of a room.

The comments are another story. We all know comments, we all despise them yet we all indulge them. And why not. There’s entertainment there, along with outrage and incoherent ALL CAPS rants with lots of exclamation marks!!!!!!!

Out of mind, out of sight.

I now limit my recreational internet to my iPad, with the “reader view” of the Safari browser engaged. Not only does reader view eliminate comments it also un-junks the experience, eliminating the popups and sidebars and links to other articles and content designed to keep you clicking through the website as long as possible to gin up their numbers so they can charge more for ad space.

So, how did it all go? Let’s just say almost three weeks later I still haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet, and still remained spoiler-free. I’m also more than halfway through the big Magicians Impossible rewrite and that’s after one month of a three-month schedule. That includes Christmas and New Years and being a stay-at-home dad.

I often wonder what kind of effect the internet is having on our world and ourselves. There’s been some good, but a part of me thinks it’s been more negative than positive, especially as it comes to political discourse. It’s like we’re living in an internet message board 24-7. That inability to see both sides of an argument, that need to “win” by the number of retweets and FB likes.

So my challenge to you – and a nifty new year’s resolution to boot – is this: I challenge you to detox your internet/social media experience. Shutter those Facebook and Twitter profiles. Leave the phone or tablet at home. Install the comment blockers.

Try it for a week. See how it goes. Maybe go longer; January’s pretty dead work-wise anyway so take advantage of it. You’ll see the difference, believe me. And maybe if enough of us do that we can build a slightly better world in 2016.

Spooktober

Can’t believe we’re into late October already. Since I last checked in I finished the first draft of MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE, MIXTAPE #1 returned to comic book stores, and I took a very much needed break from work to focus on being just “dad”, which has been awesome.

But I’m, back on the clock now, editing Magicians, clearing some old projects off my desk, and hoping to update this website with a little more frequency. To be honest, balancing being a stay-at-home dad with being a stay-at-home writer has been a bigger challenge than I anticipated. Something was going to fall by the wayside, so no surprise it was blogging that took the hit.

So, hopefully you’ll see more activity here soon. And as a picture is still generally considered to be worth a thousand words, here’s a quick 3K

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Yes, that’s 150 signed copies of Mixtape #1, now available through Space Goat Publishing’s official store http://www.merchgoat.com

So … if you’d like a signed copy, there you go!

What Was Going Through My Head

So I’m back.

Yes I took a break from the website thing and had planned on publishing this piece at the beginning of this month (being September) or the end of last month (being August) but life got in the way. I had a major deadline on a Big Project at the end of August, and that was tied into the 10 day business trip I had to take up to Toronto. And no, I’m not saying what the Big Project is because I’m superstitious about that sort of thing, and because we’re so early in that process it’s anybody’s guess where we wind up.

So when teacher/writer Kristen Capaldi tagged me in something called The Writing Process Blog Tour back in August I thought “sure, I can put something together”. And here we are mid-late September and I’m just getting around to it. So sorry for the delay Kristen – but I’m sure this isn’t the first time some has gotten their homework in to you late.

So without further delay: My Writing Process Blog Tour:

What am I working on?

Did you not read my intro? I said I can’t talk about that!

I’m a screenwriter by trade. I’ve been writing professionally since early 1999 and am coming up on 16 years in “the biz”. To put that in perspective if my career was a human it’d be at the age where it’s flipping me off while stealing cigarettes and asking to borrow the car. And one thing my IMDb page doesn’t specify is the pile of projects I wrote and was paid for that were never made and that was AFTER talking them up. So I’m a little twitchy about talking about my film work, but in a non specific-way I’m currently working on:

3 TV series (one limited, three ongoing)

1 Webseries (actually nearing completion)

3 Screenplays (one in rewrites, one underway, another being outlined)

2 Novels (both completed, both in need of rewrites and/or publishers)

3 comic book projects (outline stages on 2, scripting on one)

There’s also Now You Know, a children’s series I wrote five episodes of, which will air (in Canada at least) on TVO in early 2015.

And there’s Mixtape, the first Volume of which just wrapped up. I’ve commenced scripting the second Volume, but you won’t see that for a bit which is why you might as well buy Vol 1.

So yeah, I’m a little busy.

How Does My Work Differ From Others of Its Genre?

Genre is a dirty word in my house.

Having just returned from Canada where I got my start, I reconnected with many friends and colleagues, talked shop etc. And the one constant among all of us working in the biz is diversity of projects. Because in Canada the fact is there’s not much work to go around, and if you specialize in one genre, you starve. I’ve done Sci-Fi, Horror, Comedy, Children’s TV, historical, drama, thriller – a pretty decent body of work if I do say so myself.

Contrast that with America, where you’re pretty much forced to write a “type” of story. If you start out writing horror, be prepared to write it for the rest of your career. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s how careers are made and legends are born.

I waver back and forth on which system is better. If I was just a horror guy I’d probably work more, but only in that genre. Fact is I like experimenting and working in different genres, as much to prove to myself I can do it, as to show to others I can do lots of things. The fact my most acclaimed work is a character-driven comic book series about teenagers and their feelings would seem to bear that out. But my most successful work financially have been in the SciFi genre. Which means if I crack a project about teenagers and their feeling set in a Dystopian future we have ourselves money in the bank.

(And yes, I DO actually have a project about teenagers in a SciFi setting thanks for asking, please see my agent about that)

So how does my work different from others in the “genre”? Because I’m the guy writing. My voice, my perspective – ME.

Why Do I Write What I Write ?

Because it’s my job. People pay me to do what I do and the fact I still am doing it would indicate I know what I’m doing and people are happy with my work. And if that sounds mercenary, it totally is. I do what I do because it’s my job. But that doesn’t mean I do it for money. Believe me I’ve had more projects fall apart than produced, I’ve been ripped off, I’ve frequently been without money more than I have been flush with it. And yet I still drag myself to my desk day after day and write.

As for the “why” … it really comes down to story.

If it’s a personal project, what we call “on spec” it’s because I got the idea for a story and think there’s an audience for it. I figure out what audience – movie, TV, comics, fiction – and either work the story into that format, or maybe pursue an idea that can only be told in a certain way.

If it’s something I’ve been approached to write, it gets a little trickier. Someone has a concept, maybe a logline and pitch or maybe even an outline, and asks you to write it (and offers to pay for your work) you say yes. That said, there still has to be something in the story that appeals to you. It can’t just be a paycheck. You’re going to be devoting most of your waking hours to writing this project, and it could take up a year or more of your life. If you don’t give a shit about anything but the paycheck, it will show up in the writing and chances are they won’t hire you ever again.

You also want to put something of yourself in the story you’re telling. It may be their concept but the POV is yours and that POV is what separates the wheat from the chaff. Write like everyone else, they might as well hire everyone else. But write like yourself you give them something nobody else can; YOU.

Mostly I’m a fan of writing that rings true. That feels like the characters are living breathing people and not words on paper. if there’s one thing I aspire to it’s that truth; that these are lives lived before you read the story. And that’s why I write; because I have these characters and voices in my head and I want to get them out of there

How Does My Writing Process Work?

To understand how my process works, go watch The Good The Bad And The Ugly (aka Brad’s favorite movie). Pay particular attention to the scene between Al Mulock and Eli Wallach that appears later in the film. Tuco (Wallach) is taking a bath in a bombed out hotel (don’t ask). Elam (Mulock) has tracked Tuco down to exact some payback, having been wounded by Tuco before. Elam has Tuco dead to rights, and starts monologueing, telling Tuco how he took Elam’s arm and he taught himself to shoot with the other and so forth. Tuco listens for a moment, then blasts Elam with the gun he concealed beneath the bathtub soap bubbles. Tuco shoots Elam again, killing him outright, and quips “If you’re going to shoot, SHOOT – don’t talk”

Now replace “shoot” with “write”.

That’s my process. Because the world is filled with people who tell you what they plan to write, or are writing, or hope to finish. They talk about it, they blog about it and Tweet about it and you wonder where they’re going to find time to do the actual writing part of it. If that’s what they need to do to finish, great. But I’ve always been the ditch-digger type of writer. I have a story to write and a deadline to meet I put my head down and dig write. No online stuff, no emails, no internet, no anything.

Head down. Hands on keyboard. Write.

Because I write professionally I have the luxury of time to do is, but that doesn’t mean I can allow myself to be sloppy. I keep a regular schedule, 3 hours in the morning, break for lunch and go for a mile-long walk through my neighborhood, return and the next 3 hours I revise what I wrote that morning. Come 5pm I’m done. I switch off completely and don’t think about writing until 9am the next day where I pick up where I left off. I re-read the previous day’s work, make changes and edits, then plunge into the next day’s work.

And no, I don’t write every day. Monday to Friday is good. Weekends are for family and to recharge the batteries so when I plunge back into work Monday morning I can attack it with a critical eye. That’s where I review everything written to date on the project in question, and resume the writing.

I am also one of those writers who still works from an outline, because once I write I don’t like to stop and wonder where I’m going. I have an outline, I can take a detour if I want, but I always try and have a destination in mind. I’m not one for just “jumping in” and seeing where the muse takes me. Plus I’m frequently called on to work on multiple projects with multiple deadlines and an outline helps keep me on track so they’re not all taking the same path. believe me that can and does happen. Character names get mixed up, climaxes become really similar. If I outline I avoid that mess.

One thing I do use that not a lot do though is music, in that I’ll create a mix tape or playlist on iTunes or Spotify geared to whatever project I have going on. Let’s face it; starting every morning can be a challenge, but I’ll load up my songs, all picked because they relate (in my mind at least) to the project I’m drafting. I’ll sit and listen, sip my coffee, and read the work to date and soon enough the words start flowing.

For screenplays I aim for a solid 5 pages a day. For prose, a solid 1000. And by “solid” I mean “good, tight, proofed, edited”. I am free to go over that goal in either case, and can knock out 10 pages of script and 2000 words a day easily enough. But I try and keep a foot on (or at least close to) the brakes and make sure every word, comma, and space are exactly where I want them to be. It saves a lot of work down the line – time best spent revising the story, not correcting errors. To me writing isn’t a race nor should it be, which is why I shy away from the “write a novel in a month/write a screenplay in 6 weeks” challenges that are popular among many. I know a lot of you like them but they just aren’t for me. Write however you feel comfortable, but write. Form a plan and stick to it and if a deadline hasn’t been imposed on you, impose one on YOURSELF.

So this is the part where I’m supposed to tag people so they blog about their process. But because I’m way late in getting this out the door and am sure everybody I could tag has already said their piece. So why not give some of my contemporaries a look (and maybe buy one of their books too while you’re at it):

Kristen Falso Capaldi – writer, teacher and musician.

Ally Malinenko – author of “This is Sarah” and “Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb”

Kate Garrett – poet and all-around badass

Jovanka Vuckovic – Serbian she-wolf, author, filmmaker, editor. A triple threat

David Buceta – Writer/artist/publisher

Ken Epstein – Owner/publisher of Nix Comics

Monica S. Kuebler – Author, spoken-word artist, poet

Susanne Saville – Caffeinated author/Lovecraftian horror