Keep watching this space …
I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years. The official anniversary would have been February 2 or 3 of this year. That was the start. I haven’t held a regular “day job” since. I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been anything else. My cumulative school years, from preschool and kindergarten through college were 18 years. In all that time I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing, which is writing.
I was going to do one of those “What I have Learned In 20 years Of Writing” posts, but instead, I want to bring you something called “Things I Wish I’d Done Differently”. So on that note:
- I would have traveled more
When Robocop went to camera I was paid my production fee, aka the balance of money the production owed me my writing. This was in the form of a Very Large Check With A Lot Of Numbers on it. All in one big lump sum. I did the sensible thing and banked it all, knowing I’d have to manage that money wisely, because by that point my next paying gig hadn’t materialized. But if I could do it over, I would have earmarked some of that money, renewed my passport, and trekked to Europe for a few weeks. That was one golden opportunity I had that I passed up. Because then, as now I was always worried that my good fortune was one bad day from ending forever.
- I might have taken that day job after all.
My then writing partner took a day job at a local comic book store a couple of years after Robo. Both because money was tight and he needed a little more but also because he’d always wanted to work in a comic book store, to get some experience on a ground level of the comics biz. I kind of wish I’d done something similar – comic book store, bookstore, video store. At that time I didn’t need the money, but could have easily managed my writing at the same time. While the freelance life has forced me to hustle like crazy for work, having a bit of a reliable source of income might have made it all a little less stressful.
- Those Big Life Decisions would have been made sooner.
I’m a procrastinator and a time delayer. I hate making BIG DECISIONS when times are uncertain. But if I had that do-over I would have gotten married sooner, and started a family sooner. When I got married, it was only a couple of weeks after the honeymoon that the economy crashed and times were tight. We managed okay, but there was a significant drop-off in work on my end. The birth of our child was a happy moment, and even then in the lead up I worried we weren’t ready, that we didn’t have enough money. But believe me when I say there’s never enough money and you never really are ready.
- I would have diversified earlier.
I had ideas for novels and comics well before I made by debuts with both. I spent my focus on film and TV writing because that was where my main interest lay, and where the money was. But I wish I’d knuckled down on the comics and novels earlier because I feel both of those made me a much better writer.
- I would have mastered the art of surrender sooner.
I know the adage of not giving up on your dreams. It’s drilled into you. Rejections, passes, dropped by agents, fired by producers. It’s all happened to me. And I’m not saying if I had a do over I’d walk away from this profession at all. But what I would NOT do is make it the be all/end all of everything. Sometimes walking away just means taking a step back from the fire. It means taking that vacation. It means realizing that this project you’ve invested a lot of time and effort in really isn’t going anywhere. It would also mean not swallowing the many lies spun by the snake oil merchants out there. If it seems too good to be true that’s because it is.
- I would have realized experience is greater than things.
I own a lot of books. And movies. And CDs. Because I didn’t travel much in those earlier years I spent my leisure money on those things. I couldn’t afford Hawaii or wherever, but I could afford that three disc special edition. And now I’m just trying to get rid of a lot of them. Take books. Of all the books I own that I’ve read I very rarely have given them a second read. So in the last move I culled maybe 20% of them. I know the bibliophiles out there just screamed in horror, but to them I ask: what’s more valuable; the book, or the story that book contains? Once you’ve read it, do you still need it? This year I’ve really embraced all my local library has to offer. eBooks. Borrowed books. As of this writing I’ve read 35 books, graphic novels, etc all thanks to my library. Varying degrees of difficulty, but the point is I’ve read them. While I still buy books movies music et al it’s to a lesser degree than before. I’d rather save my money for experiences, even if they’re the local variety.
- I would have trusted my gut more, personally and professionally.
Holding onto relationships, be they personal or professional well past their expiry date helps nobody. It hinders you. When those relationships turn toxic as in “this person is working behind the scenes against me” its best to sever ties immediately and without preamble. I’ve ended more friendships than the ones I’ve maintained. I’ve severed business relationships just as fast, especially when I realize that there’s no more opportunity in it. Of course I’ve done these well after the point I was aware I should have but held onto because I’d convinced myself a toxic relationship was still a relationship and better to have that than to have nothing. I was wrong. You’ll lose months if not years trying to be something to someone you aren’t. All that does is make you miserable.
- I would have tackled those passion projects sooner.
Mixtape was a passion project. Magicians Impossible was also a passion project. And to read both you can kind of tell that. Not that I feel my film or TV work have been sub par because people keep paying me to write for them on the basis of that previous work. But the projects that came from a place of personal memory and personal pain are the ones I feel are the best of my work. I wish I’d spent more time nurturing projects like those over the ones I was being paid to churn out (i.e. the ones that, if and when they finally saw life on screens big and small, bore such little resemblance to my work it was like I’d never done the work at all).
- I would have worked less
You read that right. I used to be the write every day type, and I did. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, for years. And all it made me was miserable. It actually had a detrimental affect on my overall health, and was at the orders of my doctor as well as my family that I take time off. My first “vacation” in that regard was over 2 weeks in 2001 where I got out of town and just read, relaxed, hiked, swam. Didn’t think of work at all. And when I returned to my home and my desk I found the world had kept turning, that nobody I worked with had begrudged me the time off. It made my work on resuming so much stronger because I’d had distance from it.
- I would have done most of it pretty much the same way.
In that first year of writing, I had an potential opportunity to move to LA, to join the staff of a then moderately successful genre show. And I seriously considered taking the offer. What held me back were a couple things. One, I didn’t think I was ready. I was still new, still green, and felt that I would have been one titanic screw up to being fired. Of course, who knows? I could have flourished down there. But to do so might have meant all that I have done in the last 20 years might not have ever come to pass. I might not have written that comic book or those novels. I definitely wouldn’t have met my wife. I wouldn’t have my son. I might have been astonishingly successful down there but I don’t know if I would have been happy.
So on reflection, my life and career have been okay for the most part. I’m both very lucky to have made it this far, but I’m not ashamed to admit it’s also because I do have talent with the written word. Luck and chance opportunity might get you in the door, but if you can’t step up, knuckle down, and do the work, they’ll show you that door again just as quickly. I’ve had up years, I’ve had down years. I’ve come close to quitting many times. But I’m still here, and fate willing, will still be here doing what I’m doing for the next twenty.
Which is why, after a nice little break I’m back at my desk, and back on the clock. I have one manuscript to red-pen, and another to finish outlining. I might even find time to take a vacation again too.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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:
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.
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.