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.

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.

joe1

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.

Christmas Wrapping

This is a public service announcement of sorts.

We’re five days away from The Big Day, and time’s running out to nab that special gift for that special someone.  Of course, you all just wish that Mixtape #1 was in your hands already, but you’ll have to wait for that (though its February launch makes it the ideal Valentine’s Day gift – Hint Hint).

But there are several items I can recommend to anyone looking for that music or comics fan in your life.  These are the books, DVDs and otherwise that were an inspiration, a research aid and just plain instrumental in getting Mixtape off the ground.

Mixtape was already “in the can” when I picked up this anniversary edition, yet I consider it essential to understanding Mixtape;  In fact, it encapsulated what Mixtape is really about – the passing of an era .

Internationally, Canadian indie rock has traditionally gotten short shrift — sad but true.  There was a brief moment when bands like Sloan or Jale were getting college radio play in the US, and The Tragically Hip (or “The Hip” as we Canucks call ‘em) seemed on the cusp of breaking out internationally, it never happened.  To wit: look up any 90s era alternative rock compilations.  You’ll see the USA and the UK  well-represented, but nothing from Canada. No Thirteen Engines, no Pursuit of Happiness, Grapes of Wrath (a mistake Mixtape will not make — as you will see in Mixtape #3).

Why is this?  It’s a mystery, because the span documented in Have Not Been The Same contains some of the greatest music of the last 25 years.  And to be a teenage growing up in that era, you didn’t realize (or care) that the “scene” was a totally Canadian one.  We didn’t have MTV in Canada – we had Much Music, which was probably the best promotional avenue bands had (thank CanCon rules for that), and in a pre-internet world, you either read about bands in magazines, or watched videos on TV (MM’s City Limits was essential viewing for a teenager in love with Alt-Rock — assuming you were willing to stay home on a Friday and watch from midnight to 2am).  But what importance HNBTS has towards Mixtape is how it documented the rise, peak, and fall of an era that had all the right elements at play, and how that era could never happen again, in today’s climate.  Much Music doesn’t play Videos anymore (ditto MTV), and music has become so fragmented that small niche trends and genres are able to sustain themselves without radio or TV play.

But, for a short period, you couldn’t escape this music, and you were glad it kept you captive.  And this hefty 700 page book held me enthralled for the month it took me to read it.  If you are a music fan (or know one) the tree will be a little bit barren if there isn’t a copy of this book underneath it.

The genesis of Mixtape came when I was packing my things to move to the USA.  This involved sorting through boxes that hadn’t been opened in a good number of years – since High School in some cases.  Among the many things I uncovered were many comic books, and many mixtapes.  And so, rather than packing things, I spent my time listening to these tapes, and reading comic books, and saying to myself “self, there’s a story in this somewhere”.  By the time I moved to New York, the idea was already simmering – I knew I wanted to write something about music, and how important it is to a teenager.  I also wanted it set in the 90s.  I didn’t have a format – a movie like Dazed and Confused?  A TV series like The Wonder Years?  I was stuck – until I was browsing the racks at Midtown Comics and saw a hardcover collected edition of a series called Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly.  Local follows Megan McKeenan, a young adult, over the span of a dozen years, as she moves from city to city, ranging from Portland Oregon to Chicago Illinois, to Halifax Nova Scotia, and to my old stomping ground of Toronto, Ontario.  I’m a fan of Brian’s from his amazing DMZ and Northlanders series, and naturally scooped up Local, and by the time I finished reading it, I knew what that “90s era rock and roll story” was going to be.

Local is amazing and every time I get stuck on scripting Mixtape, I crack it open for a good dose of inspiration.    By the time I finish just one story, luxuriate in Ryan Kelly’s beautiful artwork and Wood’s often haunting prose, it forces me to do better.

[Also be sure to check out the Wood-Kelly series’ The New York Four and its sequel The New York Five]

Yeah, I’ve written about Degrassi before but it bears repeating; watching the entire run of Degrassi Jr. High and Degrassi High on Hulu was an eye opening experience.  The two series spanned 1986-1992, and followed a large group of Jr High and High School students and they dealt with the pains of growing up.  The cast remained largely static (a couple of whom ended up attending the same Film School at the same time I did) – some moved to the forefront, others faded into the backdrop.  But to watch these two shows, five seasons worth, to see these kids age from awkward twelve and thirteen year olds to awkward seventeen and eighteen year olds, is, twenty plus years later, an oddly moving experience.  To see them with braces and acne, and bad 80s hair (and worse 80s fashions), and to rectify it with the fact that this generation is all approaching 40 years of age, gives this era a “trapped in amber”  sensation.  In addition, the filmed in Toronto as Toronto aspect provides a nice snapshot of that city in the late 80s, and shows you how much that city has grown and changed in the years since.  Both series are available on DVD

Here’s one little-known fact about Mixtape.  In fact I don’t think I shared it wuith anybody before, so consider this my Christmas gift to you.  An early, early version of the story was manifest in what was ging to be a YA novel I was outlining in April of 2007.  The title was ‘Daydream Nation” cribbed from the Sonic Youth album.  It was going to be the story of Brian Squares, a 40-something office worker who connects with an old High School friend — now a physisist who  works for a hi-tech think-tank.  And over drinks, Brian laments that his life didn’t turn out how he thought.  That his dreams crumbled because of his failure to pursue them.  How he’d give anything for just a taste of 1990 again.

And Brian’s friend asks him: “What if you could?”

You see, it turns out that buddy has found a way to travel back in time, to experience a period of your life – basically by inhabiting your body at an earlier point, and experiencing it again (think Quantum Leap, only you’re leaping into a previous period of your life).  Naturally, Brian takes the plunge, and is back in the halls of his High School, jamming with his garage band, and dating his High School flame.  Of course, he becomes addicted to these leaps, and when he finds out that, despite all of his scientist pal’s claims, that he can alter the outcome of events, sets out to make things “right” (including stopping the murder of a classmate).  I must have outlined a good thirty pages of the book (all of which are copyrighted, so if you’re thinking of stealing this idea, please do; I could use the money), but it never progressed beyond that stage, because Alex Robinson wrote and illustrated  a GN called Too Cool To Be Forgotten.

TCTBF is about a middle aged man who undergoes hypnosis to try and quit smoking, and wakes up back in 1985.  He re-experiences High School – the good and the bad of it – and the real reason he’s travelled back to this era is as unexpected to him as it is to us.  TCTBF is so fricking GOOD that it put Daydream Nation on the backburner, and over time I came to realize I wanted to tell this story about the 90s without the Sci-Fi aspect.   So while Daydream Nation faded away (or at least was placed in the “future projects” drawer), Mixtape is what resulted.  But TCTBF is a must read, and I’m glad I did just that.  Also be sure to check out Alex’s epic “Box Office Poison”, a massive, multi-character tale about life in the frightening post-collegiate era – an era that, with a little luck, we’ll see the characters in Mixtape experience.

So with this blog post , my Christmas holiday can begin.  Happy Holidays and I’ll see you in 2012, when the build up to Mixtape will begin in force.