True Indie

It’s strange when your idols become your colleagues, and become your friends. Such is the case of legendary filmmaker Don Coscarelli, whose notable work includes Bubba Ho-Tep, the Beastmaster, and a film series of note called Phantasm.

I first met Don in 1998 at a screening of Phantasm Oblivion. We hit it off and the next year when out in LA he graciously invited me and some friends out for lunch. He even brought The Tall Man himself, the legendary and much beloved Angus Scrimm.

But it was in 2002 that Don had an immeasurable impact on my life when he made Bubba Ho-Tep as it was because of Bubba that I met my future wife. We’ve been together 16 years now, and have a now 3 year-old child.

Last time I saw Don was a year ago while on the west coast leg of the Magicians Impossible book tour. He met us for breakfast in Manhattan Beach and seemed absolutely delighted that a weird little movie about a geriatric Elvis fighting an Egyptian mummy could lead to a marriage, and a new life brought into this world.

But that’s not why I write this. I write this, because at that breakfast Don mentioned he’d been approached by St. Martins Press – my publisher, incidentally – about penning a memoir. A year and a bit later that memoir has now been published.

I just finished reading True Indie, and have to say it is easily one of the BEST books I’ve ever read about the trials and tribulations of being an indie filmmaker. As well as being an amazing filmmaker Don is one of the greatest raconteurs I’ve ever known, and this book is loaded with stories I’ve never heard before. It’s also one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read – a story about hard work, and dedication to your craft, and the strength you draw from your friends, colleagues, and family. Don is a true original, and I urge everyone with an interest in horror and film-making to grab yourself a copy … or face the wrath of The Tall Man!

You can purchase TRUE INDIE here:

Strange Magic

 

Magicians Impossible was published one year ago today, on September 12, 2017. It was quite a year, and quite a learning experience. These are just some of the things I discovered in the year since my first novel was published:

Not everybody will love your book …

This is a fact. Going by Goodreads’ own metrics, about 85% of the 800 or so people who read and rated Magicians Impossible liked it. Overall it’s at about 3 and a half stars out of five. Not bad numbers – and frankly, ones any movie producer would kill for, review-wise. But of course not everyone liked it. Some outright hated it. That’s fine though. It comes with the territory. If everyone loved it and it was getting nothing but 4/5 and 5/5 you could bet something was up because no book ever gets 100% universal acclaim.

… but some will.

I’ve had several people write to me to say they hadn’t enjoyed a book as much as they have Magicians Impossible. Some said it broke them out of a book-reading rut. Some found it the perfect escape for a period in their lives when they were struggling. All of them want a sequel (that’s St. martins’ decision, not mine, sorry). And the positive reviews have far outnumbered the negatives. So for every negative there’s bound to be more than a few positives, which are great odds.

Social media is a horrible time-suck but you need to do it.

I know I complain about social media a lot, but for an author you really need to be on it. I know from fact that many people who bought Magicians did so because they heard about it on social media and if I hadn’t made repeated mentions of the book, where to buy it, and where I would be appearing, those copies wouldn’t have been sold. But it helps to use your social media judiciously and not just be a “buy my book please” type of writer. Save that for your personal website. Also, please buy my book:

Your publisher will get your book into stores. The rest is on you.

St. Martins did as good a job as any to get the word out about Magicians. They sent out galleys, they hosted giveaways, they beat the drum. They did everything they could for it, but mine was only one of hundreds of books they needed to get the word out on that month, and after a certain point, it’s on the author, and the book to sell themselves.

Just when you’re feeling your worst someone will write to you and tell you they liked your book.

The life of a writer is an up and down one and I’m not just talking about earnings. It’s a rough ride, a tough job. You feel every negative review or comment or critique and you can’t help but take criticism personally. But then you’ll receive an email, or read a review where someone absolutely LOVED your book. And it makes a difference, believe me; not just the review itself, but one that’s posted on Amazon or Goodreads that others can read when considering whether or not they want to buy your book..

Just when you’re feeling pretty good about yourself, someone will tell you how much they hated your book.

Self-explanatory.

The things one reader hates about your book/your writing will be the same things another loves.

It’s true. I could do a diagram of positive to negative critiques and they’d probably even out. Someone loves your main character; someone else hates him. Some think the story is too fast-paced; other think it too slow. It has a great ending, it has a lousy ending, packed with brilliant writing, or just absolutely terrible writing. Without fail, for every praise-worthy review your book gets there will be one that says the total opposite. You aren’t going to make everyone happy with your book or your writing … so don’t try to. Art is at its worst when it tries to please everyone; inevitably it ends up pleasing no-one.

Take your work seriously.

Want to be considered a professional? Act like one. Set a schedule and stick to it. Doesn’t matter if it’s only 30 minutes a day, or only on weekends. Just do it. And while some writers delight in being confrontational online (because those are the posts that attract the precious clicks) remember that you are representing your publisher as well as yourself. Don’t get carried away with online drama and never, EVER reply to a bad review of your book.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Writing is make-believe – it’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not, why are you bothering? Because – and this may be surprising – there are much better, more reliable ways to warn a living than by being a writer.

The only person you’re in competition with is you.

It’s easy to look at other authors – some you know personally, some only by reputation – and compare their successes with yours. Some make the bestseller lists, some don’t. Some win all the awards, the rest won’t. Some attract a massive fan base; others will struggle to get anyone to pay attention. But really there’s only one person you’re in competition with and it’s the face staring back at you from your bathroom mirror. Because every best-selling and award winning writer began where you did – unknown, just starting out, hoping someone somewhere likes what it is you’re doing.

Being a successful/published/award-winning writer will not make you happy … if you aren’t happy already.

The things that make me happy – truly happy – boil down to two people who I share my life with. First is my wife, who’s supported me and encouraged me and believed in my when I wouldn’t believe in myself. The other is my son, who looks at me like I’m some magician every time I fix one of his toys, or take him to a museum, or just surprise him with a new book. They’re why I do what I do. They’re what gets me up in the morning, sits me at my desk, and makes me type out words. If you’re not happy in your life without writing, you never will be happy writing and that will show in your writing.

So write, but be happy.

Otherwise what’s the point of any of it?

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s December 1993. I’ve just returned a car-load of film equipment to the Film Building at my university, where I’m a student. I’m in a contemplative mood this day and with nothing else on tap for the afternoon, decide to take a little drive.

The car is mine. I was home for my mother’s birthday at the end of November and decided to drive back to school seeing as I’d be coming back after exams a few weeks hence. I’m renting a house in the city’s west end with five other film and theater students so I have free parking for the month.

I drive without any real destination, but when hunger pangs hit I decide to drive up to my old neighborhood – the one I lived in ten years before, which would become, in my memory anyway, the happiest time of my life. There’s a burger joint near there I used to frequent, one of those old-school 1960s establishments that hasn’t changed in the fifty years since it was started. I go and grab my favorite meal – steak on a Kaiser with pepper and a little bit of BBQ sauce, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

I park, I eat, then I keep driving, the car smelling of my lunch. I drive north. I cruise past my old house; I swing through crescents and side-streets where I used to play with the other neighborhood kids. I swing past the house of my best friend, who’s still living there, but is at work that day. The memory tank has been refilled, but I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

I pull over and park at the edge of the local park, get out, and climb a slow sloping grade of landfill that’s been turned into a hill. We used to just call it the “toboggan hill” because that’s what we did on it in the winter. There’s a bench and a couple lonely pine trees at the summit, and when you sit there you have a view of the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, and elementary school below.

This was my old school. The one I attended for only a few short years – April 1982- to June 1985 – but it still looms large and casts a long shadow over my life then. 1993 has been a rough year for me, and December of that year marks the one year anniversary of my parents announcing they were separating. I’m so devastated I nearly flunk my first year of university, but I manage to pull my grades out of a nose-dive and pass. Barely.

So that’s my frame of mind as I sit on that bench and stare out over my old school. It’s just before 2:00pm. I know this because the recess bell rings a minute or so later, and the kids come streaming out. To play four-square. To throw the ball around. To jump rope and play on the playground equipment – the same I played on ten years before.

What does all of this have to do with GI Joe? Everything.

It’s April, 1982. We’ve just moved to this new city. Moves have been a fact of life for me. By 1982 I’ve lived in six different cities. I just turned 9 years old. By this point I know the drill; my dad comes home to say “we’re moving again” because he got another job transfer and promotion to go a long with it. A move means excitement and sadness in equal measure. Excitement because it’s a new city, a new house (our new one will have a swimming pool), and new friends. But a move also means saying goodbye to old friends. In this pre-internet era, goodbyes really do mean goodbye. It means never seeing those familiar friendly faced again. You move away, they move on, and pretty soon you forget what they looked like.

We move just before Easter, which means I and my sister are starting at our new schools nearly through the end of the year. I have two months of Grade 3 and then summer. Will that be time enough to make friends? So the spring as I remember it is cold, dark, and lonely.

I can’t remember the actual date, but the specifics of it, I’ll never forget. It must be some afternoon after school I first see the commercial. It’s slick, animated, and trumpeting what looks like a new cartoon series. But it’s not a cartoon series, yet. It’s not a movie either. It’s this:

Now let me paint a picture for all of you here in the year 2018. In the 1980s, things were slower. The pace was different. Your average hour long TV show ran 52 minutes. There were only a handful of TV channels. Music was on the radio. There was no MTV outside of a few small outlets in the US. If you wanted to go shopping, you went to a mall. Movies? The theater.

And Star Wars movies were released 3 years apart. Three years to a 9 year-old may as well be a lifetime. But fortunately you have the toys – the action figures, the vehicles, the play sets. You have the comics and newspaper strips – al of which is designed to keep you interested in the property until the next installment.

But there was something else these little pieces of molded plastic were important for – something the designers didn’t anticipate. They were how you made new friends in new cities. Just the act of bringing a Star Wars toy to your new school was enough to get other kids to come over and talk to you. Several friendships (short lived ones, but friendships nonetheless) began that way. I’d bring a Bespin Han Solo or Hoth Luke to school; some kid would ask what other Star Wars toys I had. I’d tell them, they’d tell me theirs. They’d invite me over to play, and vice versa. Toys were how you got to know others. They were how you found your new tribe.

By the time I moved  it had been two years since The Empire Strikes Back. Five since Star Wars. Time moves slow as a child but it moves really slow when you’re a Star Wars fan. You need toys to fill the gaps between films. Between Star Wars and Empire alone there was Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole. Between Empire and the third installment due next year – Revenge of the Jedi – there’s been Smurfs, and Indiana Jones, and a lot more I’ve forgotten. But they’ve all been peg-warmers and gap fillers. By 1982 nobody is playing Battlestar Galactica. They may still be playing Star Wars, but the wait between films is so long to a 9 or 10 year-old. You need something else.

Something different.

And so it was, one evening in April, when my mother was taking my sister to the local mall to do some clothes shopping one evening after school sometime in April. I begged off to browse the toy aisle, and when I get there the first thing I noticed were the colors of red, white, and blue on the floor display.

GI Joe: A Real American Hero.

The packaging was the first thing that lept off the shelf at me. Whereas the Star Wars figures featured the toy in a plastic bubble and a photo of that character (no matter how minor) from the movie, these featured a beautiful painted image of the character in action. The back of the card featured smaller paintings of the other figures in the line, and below those, a file-card with the character name, code-name, rank, specialty, and place of birth. With nothing else to go on but the packaging you had a psyche profile of what that character’s personality was like.

I begged my mom to buy me some. She ended up relenting and getting me three: Breaker, Grunt, and Snake-Eyes. I took them home, took them out of their packages, and plated with them until bed-time. But the real fun came the next day when I snuck Snake-Eyes into my book-bag and took him to school. Come morning recess, I brought him out and it was like moths to the flame. None of the other kids had seen a GI Joe up close before, though they had seen the commercials. So here was the new kid with the hottest new toy. And from that moment, friendships were born.

That was just the beginning though. See, I didn’t really get “in” to GI Joe beyond those first three figures. They were just three tots if many, and my heart still belonged to Star Wars.

In 1983, we were on vacation in Vermont, and on the first day I broke my leg skiing. That vacation became a three-month odyssey of traction and body casts and being stuck at home. And while some school friends did visit me (and I did have a tutor so I could keep up with school) it was a very lonely time.

Then my dad came home from work one night with a gift for me. Well, two gifts anyway. One was a new GI Joe called Snow-Job, the other was a snowmobile called the Polar Battle Bear.

Which I still have, by the way.

Maybe he picked those because he knew our ski vacation had been cut short and I blamed myself, maybe it was just because he wanted me to have some fun while I was bedridden, but it did the trick. By the time the cast came off I had acquired more GI Joe toys. I. Was. Hooked. By the time September rolled around Return of the Jedi had come and gone, but I was fully on the GI Joe train. Joe became the linkage to my friends, and their interests (including the aforementioned best friend who I met that September because he was talking about James Bond, another of my childhood touchstones).

And for a GI Joe fan the hits kept on coming. That September saw the release of the 5-part miniseries A Real American Hero, which aired on a local station after school Monday-Friday. That Christmas I added a whole slew of new GI Joe toys to my collection – the MOBAT Tank, VAMP Jeep, Dragonfly Copter, the Headquarters Command Center, and more figures. Joe became my life, but in no bigger way than the following summer when visiting some old friends out west who introduced me to the Marvel comic.

The first issue I ever bought. Still have it too.

That span of years, from 1983-1985 were some of the finest of my life, and it was largely due to those little plastic men and women.

Then, everything changed.

[To Be Continued in Part II]

The D Word

I want to talk to you today about the word that has become very prevalent in our modern era, particularly as it comes to the arts.

Diversity.

But the diversity of which I want to speak of is not about equality, or representation. Because, frankly, there are many, many more people out there writing about that type of diversity who are better educated, better aware, and just plan better writers than I am on that particular topic. Diverse Books is a good place to start.

When we look back at our lives, at the events, moments, and decisions that brought us to where we are today, there are certain dates that stand out where things changed. Where our particular journey turned a corner and embarked on a new direction. Sometimes these changes are forced on us; sometimes they come in the form of a choice.

For me, perhaps the pivotal moment in my life and career came between July 10th and August 9th, of 1998. Almost 20 years ago for those keeping count. That was the month of the Fantasia Film Festival, an off-shoot of Montreal’s long-running fest. It played in Toronto that year thanks to the efforts of Colin Geddes and Julian Grant. I knew both of them vaguely, but when I heard they were bringing the festival to my backyard essentially, I approached them and offered to volunteer my services with anything they needed. So I did, and they happily accepted. Over the month that followed I tore tickets, sold t-shirts, fetched coffee, saw a lot of movies, and met a lot of people.

One of those people I met was Rod Gudino. He’d just started a horror magazine and Julian had graciously offered up space in the theater lobby to sell his new magazine.

That magazine was Rue Morgue.

At this time Rue Morgue was only 5 issues in to a run that’s up to 182 as of 2018. Rod became one of those familiar faces I saw every day, we got to talking about movies and horror movies a lot, and when Fantasia was done we kept in touch, right up to the moment when he asked me if I wanted to come write for the magazine. It wasn’t paid, obviously (that came a few years later) but I enjoyed writing, I liked the Rue Crew and I’d always wanted to try my hand at print journalism.

I’ve written before about this whole experience  on the film-TV side of things, and what developed from it. Most famously, being hired by Julian months later to co-write the Robocop miniseries he was producing and thus kicking off my career as a professional screenwriter. But the other thing that came from Fantasia was that lengthy association with Rue Morgue. And from that association came, well, everything else.

Owing to the up and down nature of writing , there were peaks and valleys in the screen trade. A very good year, a slightly less successful but still very good year, followed by a couple of piss-poor ones, before bouncing back again. That’s the cyclical nature of the business; it happens to everybody. The key to surviving is by branching out as much as you can so you have those fall-backs when a project falls through or is cancelled. For much of the 2000s magazine writing became my lifeline.

Rue Morgue began paying its contributors in 2001 – not a lot, but enough to show the magazine’s stable of writers that their work was valuable, and appreciated. But around the same time I had been amassing my portfolio of work for Rue Morgue and began querying other magazines like Fangoria, Dreamwatch, Starburst etc. and I ended up penning multiple long-form articles for all of them, and that was largely due to the portfolio of work I had from RM, I was able to pitch them on articles, and features, and when I was a roving journalist for several years at the Toronto International Film Festival, amassed a lot of work. the UK mags (all gone now, sadly) paid very well, at a time the Pound was well-over the Canadian dollar value. I earned over $6000.00 Canadian for what amounted to maybe four weeks work, reporting on the TIFF in 2001.

That diversification saved my skin, on numerous occasions. And diversifying was just one lesson I learned from those years that I’ve carried with me since.

It’s no small stretch to see a screenwriter (i.e. ‘one who writes for the big screen’) branch out into TV. It ‘such more common now than when I was starting. Back then TV was largely regarded as a second-string to the theatrical experience; now all the really exciting and interesting stories are happening on the small screen. I wrote my first episodic TV in 2002 and have returned to it again and again in years since, most recently in children’s television.

I’m close friends with both of these puppets.

In 2012 I created a comic book called Mixtape. It achieved some cult status and, I’m happy to say, brought me some actual genuine fans of my work.  It was also recently optioned for development as a TV series. Oh, and guess who they hired to write the Pilot?

No comment

Of course there are novels. Magicians Impossible was published last year from St. Martins Press. It received several starred reviews, and was named Best Debut Novel by both Suspense Magazine and School Library Journal. I just delivered my next novel to my agent, and am outlining a third.

In the financial world you constantly hear how important it is to “diversify your portfolio” – that rule also applies to writing. I feel that my diversification of my portfolio as a writer is what’s enabled me to be a writer, full-stop, going on twenty years. Not only is diversification important to just be considered for the paying work that keeps us afloat, it also makes us better writers than we would be if we’d stuck to just one aspect of writing;

Screenplays taught me how to structure a story, to ensure those Act One set-ups have Act Three payoffs. To juggle plot, story, and dialogue effortlessly.

Comics taught me how to write visually, and how to convey imagery to your artist in as concisely a way as possible while letting them interpret those images.

Journalism taught me the power of words, of finding that killer opening and killer conclusion, and how less is quite often much, much more.

Books taught me how to combine all of the above into narrative. To take the tools mastered in each area of the writing world, and synthesize them into the medium that predates all of them.

I often joke to my employers that when they hire me they’re getting the whole package; screenwriter, author, comic book creator, journalist. That’s not a bad thing; if anything it’s given me an edge over writers who specialize in just screenwriting. What it communicates is that I’ve been successful across the board, that people and companies from a variety of fields and disciplines have produced or and especially paid me for my work. Hiring a writer you don’t know or have never worked with before can be daunting; it’s why you see a lot of producers and publishers keeping the same stable of writers under their roof as long as they can. Familiarity breeds confidence, in the way you take your car to your local mechanic year-after-year – because you trust them to do the job you’re paying them to, and know they’ll do it well.

Networking is certainly important. Promoting yourself, in person or online is a component of thus business that is unavoidable. But to my mind generating a portfolio of work is just as important. Everyone can talk the talk and sell themselves, but if you don’t have the track record of producing results in whatever medium is your specialty, you’re always going to have that hurdle to overcome.

So my advice to any writer out there looking for a little kick in the pants (creatively, that is), try something different. You’re a poet? Great – let’s see some short stories.Novelist? take a whack at a screenplay. Comic book writer? Think of some rhyming couplets. Diversify your portfolio and see what happens – the person you surprise the most may be yourself. And that’s a very good thing.

So yes, Diversity is important, in all walks of life, in all environments. Diversity is indeed strength.

Same goes for writing.