Presenting this with (minimal) comment this morning. So many writers look for validation in the wrong places; comparing ourselves to others who are far more popular, or financially successful, or better-looking, or seem to be able to compose aching beauty without effort. This is Amanda Palmer at Grub Street’s Muse and Marketplace Conference, and she just nails the truth. It’s a little over half an hour but if you can even just put it on in the background while you write your TPS report, it is absolutely worth it. (I guarantee you will promptly lose interest in said report and give her your undivided attention.)
That’s my mea culpa for the day. If I had to rank my perceived strengths as a writer in descending order, description would linger odiously in the basement with the lawn furniture and the dresser my wife keeps reminding me we need to sell. I’m good at dialogue, at proposing ideas and batting them around, at the exploration of questions of human nature and our place in the universe, but, ask me to put any of these items in a setting that leaps off the page and I will curl up in the corner of that setting sobbing like an infant afraid of having his wooby taken away. Every time I go back through my novel for revisions and start to think, “hey, this isn’t so bad,” I encounter someone else’s work that blows me back through the wall and turns my confidence to lime Jell-O. I just can’t seem to crack that important element and it drives me bonkers.
I’ve devoted a lot of self-examination to trying to figure out why this aspect is so difficult for me. Some writers seem to be able to do it flawlessly. Within a few short, concise phrases you know exactly where you are – your imagination is triggered and the setting shimmers into existence around you as though you had stepped into the holodeck and announced “Run Program.” Writing, as someone famous whose name escapes me for the moment has observed (I think it was Joyce Carol Oates), is about creating atmosphere. My focus, however, has always been on character, though, and how the characters interrelate, and that usually means dialogue, and lots of it. (And of course, you run into plenty of writing advice that suggests too much dialogue is a bad thing. Can’t win, can’t even quit the game.) In a perfect world, this is how I would describe almost every scene, so I could get on with crafting conversations (from Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett):
A country road. A tree. Evening.
A few more words about Estragon trying to pull off his boot and we’re off to the races. Okay then, you’re asking, why don’t you just write plays then? I’ve written exactly one play, it was called Brushstrokes, a three-act examination of hidden love and the inability of men to admit their feelings tied together with a tenuous nail polish metaphor, and well, the less said about it the better. That’s not to say I’ll never try another one, but in writing it I missed the ability to digress into stretches of narrative, to get into the heads of the characters and figure out what they were thinking. It is not to suggest that novels don’t have to have structure, or limits for that matter, but they tend to be a freer place to play. You can linger on a particular thought, explore its depths and its reaches, without worrying too much about a foot-tapping, finger-drumming audience waiting in exasperation for the next line. It can be rather like the van that took forever to fall off the bridge in Inception without seeming to drag down the pace – again, depending on how you write it. So it helps if you’re really good at that.
Many great writers are poets and can bring that sensibility to details as slight as a flake of ash falling from a burning cigarette, or the single flap of a hummingbird’s wing. My description, by contrast, tends to be simple and straightforward. What you need to know and no more. Here’s an example from my novel:
Splinters of wood and crumbling brick from ramshackle buildings line the pockmarked street. Lampposts bent by storms and vandals stand eerie sentry. The rattle of broken window shutters is this rotting borough’s only tenant.
Dotted by whitecaps, the river is an icy gray. Brine and rotting algae poisons the air. The north side of the city lurks, cloaked, beneath frigid fog. At the end of the jetty, a flat barge with a water wheel at its stern strains against the grip of the ropes anchoring it in place. Creaking twin planks on its starboard side wobble under the boots of passengers laden with sacks and baskets who are shuffling aboard to claim a precious portion of the hard benches in the center of the craft.
A paved drive marked by a trail of brass lanterns on iron posts conducts us through spacious, garden-rich grounds, past a stone-rimmed lily pond watched by a gazebo, once-trim shrubs and dwarf trees grown wild with neglect. The secluded manse that presides is half-hidden by branches yet still exudes wealth and pretense, as if trying to compete with its neighbors. Long thin windows with black shutters adorn the exterior, while a portico supported by white columns protrudes over the front entrance. A terraced second floor is set back on the high roof of the first. A pointless relief of vine-entwined roses on the portico adds to the sense of superfluous money that permeates this place.
There is nothing technically wrong with any of these passages, but poetry they sure as hell ain’t. Even looking at them sitting here out of context I want to rewrite them from word one. One’s spirit crumples into crushed tinfoil at the possibility of being considered a candidate for a Bulwer-Lytton award, or as the latest Eye of Argon. But you do what you can with what you have and keep trying to do better. And though sometimes you gnash your teeth at the raw talent on display in some other people’s mere first drafts, you can’t let that stop you from moving forward.
The mistake that I tend to make and that many others probably do as well is in not having the description of the scene push the story forward in any way. Think of it in terms of the last time you related a funny anecdote to your best friend. You didn’t say, “So, I was at the grocery store. It was a massive, soulless building painted in black and brown and the floor tiles bore the smudges of the soles of a thousand tired mothers dragging screaming children who were unable to comprehend the simple nutritional logic of why it wasn’t a good idea to eat chocolate at every meal.” Your friend is sitting there saying “I don’t care! What happened at the store?!” You want to stage the scene and sprinkle in some color, but putting in that kind of description is like hitting the pause button. It breaks the momentum and adds nothing.
Those who know what they’re doing, even writers who are incredibly journalistic and fetishistic about detail, like the late Ian Fleming, use that information to push the narrative – to tell you about the character they’re trying to sketch in your mind. The sometimes excruciating manner in which Fleming waxes on about James Bond’s breakfast preferences still manages to tell you something important, that this is a man who defines himself very much by his tastes, and he is as much a social competitor with the villains he squares off against as he is a knight trying to slay the fearsome dragon. It works, though, because everyone knows how Bond likes his martini, and “shaken, not stirred” has become entrenched in the zeitgeist (even if Aaron Sorkin insists it’s wrong).
Also, as human beings, we tend to notice individual details rather than the big picture. This is crucial when you are writing first-person perspective as well because you can’t use that detached, “I SEE AND HEAR ALL” narrative voice. When you spot an attractive person coming towards you, there’s probably one specific trait that strikes you first; their eyes, their smile, what have you. And that characteristic will define them in your mind from then on. That girl with the long dark hair, the guy with the shark tattoo on his right forearm. (It does not have to be a visual characteristic either: the girl who sings like a parrot with laryngitis, or the guy who smells like apple cinnamon soap.) The same goes with scenery. The tall building with the broken window on the top floor. The car with the coughing exhaust pipe. If your character has a particular perspective on the world, what they notice will flow organically out of that perspective as well. Mine is accustomed to the peace of a silent forest, so the things she takes note of are what stands out to her as unusual – noise and artifice. If I’ve done my job correctly, that should tell you something about her and how she views the world. If not, then it’s back to the rewrite shed for another round of head-splitting angst and wondering why, despite people telling me contrary and often, I continue, in my own mind, to suck.
Anyone else struggling with this stuff? Let me know. Let’s help each other out.
It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen. Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself. It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader. It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books. But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to). Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement. Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see: Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).
Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art: a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on. The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality. Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you. What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique? When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles. On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned. On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it. My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair. I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow. (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader. I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)
I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree). I’d rather that you cast the part yourself. You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine. In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights. You need to be able to claim her too. With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her. Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie. Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom. Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available. There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better. I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead. (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)
What, then, is the point of the preceding rant? As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say: well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version. Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken. It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.
So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written? Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan. I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:
You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.
Some depressing Graham’s Crackers statistics to start off with. Total posts, March 2012: 26. Total posts, March 2013: 2 (including this one, 3 if you include the piece I did for HuffPo about International Women’s Day). And the frogurt is also cursed.
Yes, I know, oh mighty gurus of blog, you’re not supposed to post about how you haven’t posted in a while. But this is my sandbox and my rules and prithee, I shall beg indulgence while I raise a kerchief to my brow and lament in plaintive tone the lack of productivity shown these past fortnights. It isn’t as though there’s nothing to write about, after all. Nay, verily, my literary cup runneth somewhat over. I do admire though, those who can juggle the heavy spheres of work and family and simply keeping up with the pace of life and still churn out a few thousand words each day. Something one should aspire to as well, if one were not such a piss poor scheduler of one’s time (guilty, Your Honors).
To that end I am raising a metaphorical glass to my friend Tele Aadsen of Hooked for her much-deserved accomplishment of landing a publisher for her memoir. Now, Tele and I have never met or spoken to one another and our interaction has been entirely in reading each other’s writing and exchanging comments and tweets. But ours, I think, is a kinship of letters, of recognizing and appreciating the power of the written word and how we can use it to connect across otherwise impassable chasms of time and distance. Would I, a dude of a somewhat insular urban upbringing in the Greater Toronto Area, have ever assumed that I would have the slightest thing in common with an Alaskan fisher poet? Yet I do, and I’m grateful, and my life is the better for it. Anyway, there was a Twitter hashtag that was trending a few days about people you’d most like to meet, and predictably, the most common answers were celebrity names (Bieber again? REALLY?) Tele’s at the top of my list. Someday soon, I hope – that is, if I haven’t now come off sounding like Creepy Stalker Guy™. If for nothing else than just the chance to say thank you. And get a personalized, autographed copy. It’s not for me, it’s for my friend of the same name.
Onwards and upwards then. Amongst my pursuits I am occasionally fortunate enough to attend digital media conferences. Toronto held its second annual Digital Media Summit last week, gathering a roster of experts and thought leaders from across the industry of ye olde cyberspace – names like Don Tapscott, Erik Qualman, Cindy Gallop, Amber Mac and Neil Shankman among dozens of other luminaries delivering informative addresses to hundreds of lanyard-wearing, smartphone-tapping digital worker bees. I was there on behalf of my employer, of course, but I still view things through the filter of writing and how what they were all saying could be used to further a writer’s reach (who are we kidding – my reach) in this rapidly advancing age. You know, sometimes one can get a bit cynical as one carefully strings his words together and hits “publish” and… nothing much happens. Admit it; on the surface, we’re all happy for the blogger who rejoices “I got Freshly Pressed on my very first post!” while inside we seethe that our own 189 pearls of literate wisdom usually go unnoticed by all but a select (if wonderful) few. If you can take your ego out of the equation, it’s not difficult to understand. Time is precious, an individual’s time is even more precious, and in order for them to grant you even a few seconds of theirs in between bathing the dog and walking the baby, you have to touch them with something that inspires real passion. There was an interesting statistic revealed at DMS that on Facebook, even posts by the most famous, highly-liked brands only reach about 15% of their followers. (That’s why, even though in between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, G+ or whatever else you’re linking your blog posts to you may have a thousand connections, hits on your latest and greatest might not top a hundred. At least, that’s how it works for me.) And just because you get them, it doesn’t mean you’ll keep them. I’ve received a couple of (relatively) huge traffic spikes that have come from famous people tweeting links to my blog. But they don’t last – after a few days the hits drop to their usual, more stable level. Maybe you retain one or two, but the vast majority treat you like a cheap motel along I-75, moving on once the new day has dawned and the open road beckons. And that’s cool. I mean, how many blogs have I looked at once because they posted something I wanted to learn more about only to forget about them thirty seconds after hitting the red X? It’s life, and if you want to be loved, adopt a golden retriever.
Those moments when you do tap into something and really connect with people, well, I suspect there are few varieties of crack cocaine that can measure to the high. Someone at the DMS called them “little pellets of love”; you know, the tiny charge that you get when you open your Facebook and see the little red number in your notification section. ”People are interested in me! Yay!” Same goes on Twitter when we get a retweet, or a new follow, or a reply from a celebrity we really admire, or on WordPress when we get the notification that somebody liked, commented or shared our work. When one finally does cross that fabled Rubicon from giving it away for free to receiving the first cheque for something we penned, does that vindication truly compare to the spiritual fulfillment of knowing that someone, even a stranger, really digs us? I suppose in those cases by contrast when we’ve written something that really pisses people off, the money compensates for the death threats.
What then, is the lesson for today? It’s karma, sports fans. Ya gotta put it out to get it back. And as my learned better half is wont to tell me when I sink into the occasional bout of self-pity, you need to write to touch people, not to prove how smart you are about things no one cares about. You’ll see, I’m sure, when Hooked is released, how Tele does it. Hopefully as I continue along here I’ll get better at it. And we’ll see where the ocean takes us.
Whether by coincidence or not, I’ve come across a few articles recently about the wisdom (or folly) of including snippets of song lyrics in your novel. The consensus seems to be that it’s a bad idea. Allen Klein is dead but those who adhere to his mantra are still far and wide squeezing the vice of legality against the temples of well-meaning, starving scribes who seek to pay a tiny bit of homage to that epic anthem that helped get them through a rough patch of their lives, or, more cynically, want to drop in an overly familiar reference point that will elicit immediate emotional identification without putting in the effort to craft their own.
I get it. It’s difficult, and even a bit scary, to risk originality in a self-referential culture where everything seems to link back to something else like a giant Wikipedia. Going where no one has gone before is even more daunting given that every time you think you’re venturing down a fresh trail, you find someone else’s bootprints on it. There are simply too many of us writers attempting to figure out the human experience. It’s inevitable that more than a few will reach identical conclusions – sort of the thousand monkey/thousand typewriter argument featuring mildly more intelligent monkeys.
In one of my more wrenching experiences as a gestating writer, I lent a draft of the novel that preceded my current opus to my best friend for his feedback. I can still recall with gut-churning anxiety the pregnant pause that hung between us one afternoon when I was forced to ask him the question that chills all writers’ bones as it spills across our lips: “So, what did you think?” I don’t think the word had entered the zeitgeist yet, but his reaction was the equivalent of “meh.” I should point out here that my friend is not evil nor inconsiderate of others’ feelings. But like the most ideal of companions he will never let you twist out in the wind with your pants down if he can help set you right. And his most germane suggestion, while wounding to anyone convinced of one’s own genius as most beginners tend to be (and I certainly was back then), was not only invaluable, but continues to inform me when I compose fiction. Paraphrased, it was simply this:
“Cut the pop culture references.”
Between the tears and the simmering hatred (which quickly subsided – we’re still besties, no worries folks), it was a cloud-parting Voice of James-Mason-as-God moment – and yes, Eddie Izzard fans, I am aware of the irony of using a doubly-meta pop culture reference to illustrate this point – that I could not believe I had not seen before. And it reinforced the notion that you can’t write in a vacuum. Because I never would have come to that conclusion at that time in my life, and yet it was exactly what I needed to move forward and become a better writer. Whether it’s in using song lyrics, referencing TV shows or framing your character’s predicament in terms of how much it makes them feel like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, there are, to me, five main reasons why popular culture should be flung far from the pages of your book:
1. It dates you
And not the good dinner-and-a-movie type either. Pop culture’s shelf life is shorter than that of the mayonnaise you’ve been meaning to throw out of your fridge for the last few weeks. Your bon mot about your hero’s wisecracking best friend being a combination of Sue Sylvester and Honey Boo Boo is going to go way sour long before your book even makes it to the shelves. I remember a few years ago when Desperate Housewives premiered and every entertainment trade paper, magazine and website could not shut themselves up about it; every goddamned article about anything television-related found a way to work in some mention of Desperate Housewives and how it was a divinely inspired paradigm-shifting watershed point in the history of broadcast programming. Ask yourself whether in 2013 and beyond, anyone is going to view a witty Desperate Housewives reference as anything but sad. (Fair warning, Downton Abbey and Girls, it will happen to you too.) You want your story to mean something to people for decades and generations to come – timeless is preferable to timely.
2. It’s meaningless unless your audience gets it
In the realm of stand-up comedy, one of the worst offenders for dropping obscure references is Dennis Miller, with the result that even the most well-read of his audiences will only laugh at his material a fifth of the time (of course, ever since he was reborn as a Dubya-lovin’ right-wing pom-pom waver, he’s been considerably less funny anyway). A reference that a great number may not understand is not the most egregious violation of “good writer etiquette,” but a major beat should never hinge on it. If, at the moment of her deepest anguish, your heroine is compelled to confess that she feels just like Bitsie Tulloch’s Dylan on Quarterlife, that’s awesome for the three people out there who remember that show and completely baffling for everyone else (i.e. 99.9999% of your readers), and thus any hope you may have harbored for soliciting empathy will be lost to the winds like the passengers and crew of Oceanic 815 (see what I did there?)
3. It’s the last refuge of the unimaginative
Licking my wounds back then, I was compelled to ask myself why I was relying so much on what other people had created instead of forging ahead on my own. Writing moments that resonate is a lot like method acting: you have to look deep inside and wrench the truth screaming from your own gut, not rely on what you once heard or saw in something somebody else wrote. And it’s an opportunity that you should never pass up, even if it is intimidating. If you’re running down the field with no one in the way, why would you pass the ball to another guy for the final five yards? You should never abdicate the chance to be creative. If you’re writing about a group of characters who have bonded over their love of a favorite TV show, why not make up your own show? I’ll get you started: every show is about cops, doctors or lawyers, so have your guys quote lines from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. Okay, I’m staking a claim to that one and writing a pilot. “FADE IN: INT. COURTROOM – DAY – CLOSE on SERGEANT LAWYER as he contemplates a scalpel in his right hand and a semi-automatic pistol in his right. CUE the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’” Aw, crap, there’s Pete Townshend’s attorney on line one.
4. It’s giving away free advertising
I’ll invoke the mighty Aaron Sorkin and repeat his maxim that a writer’s job is to captivate you for however long he’s asked for your attention. And we writers are serious bear huggers. We don’t want to let you go. We want you firmly ensconced in our world, and not thinking about TV shows and songs that have nothing to do with the story we’re trying to relate. We certainly don’t want you thinking about other products you might like to purchase. Ever wonder why you don’t ever see commercials for handguns? Because there are enough glowing closeups of barrels and triggers and bullets flying in sexy slow motion, and irrelevant exchanges of dialogue about muzzle velocities and stopping power in movies to do all the advertising gun manufacturers will ever need. Walther probably owes a great chunk if not the lion’s share of the sales of its PPK to James Bond. Sex and the City and chick lit do more for Manolo Blahnik shoes than ten years of paid ad campaigns ever would. (If I can digress further into the cinemarr for a moment, one of the most vomit-inducing examples of this was the trailer for 10 Things I Hate About You – the ad trying to get people to see the movie, oh irony of ironies – which opened with a character saying “There’s a difference between like and love. I mean, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.” Spew.) If that’s truly your wish, then why not just publish a novel full of empty pages stamped with “Your Ad Here”? Or go to work writing advertising copy since it’s probably more up your alley.
5. And it will probably cost you
So not only will you not be paid for name-dropping all these lovely corporations and pushing their merchandise, but you’re just as likely to get dinged by the same people for using their content without the express written consent of Major League Baseball. This is an older article, but a good one from The Guardian where novelist Blake Morrison talks about how much it cost him to include fragments of popular song lyrics in his work. Don’t these people have enough money already without needing more of yours? And what’s worse, the money probably won’t even go to the artist who wrote the lyric in the first place – it’ll get split amongst various anonymous shareholders in the faceless publishing company that holds the rights to the song. If you really, desperately, achingly want to have your character sing “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to the extent that you’re more than willing to cough up whatever atrocious fee you’re invoiced for, Richard Ashcroft isn’t getting a penny, as much as he may be tickled that you quoted his signature composition. It’s going to whoever now controls ABKCO Music, the actual rights holder of that song. The thought of that should turn your stomach enough to lead you in another direction. Here’s a much better thought: Even if you can’t write chord progressions, you can probably make up your own original lyrics. Then one day, maybe someone will want to compose a song using those lyrics, and they can pay you for the privilege of doing so (or, conversely, you can sue their ass off when they steal it without acknowledging your authorship).
Having said all that, let’s make it about me again. Does any of this apply to my novel? Well, fortunately, when writing fantasy there’s less of a temptation to include popular culture since it makes no sense within the context of the story – or worse, pulls you out of the story when a grizzled medieval warrior makes anachronistic mention of the Seinfeld episode about Teri Hatcher’s boobs (argh! Desperate Housewives reference!) That isn’t to say you can’t or won’t slyly drop in semi-clever hints or vague references about the galaxy far, far closer to home. I’ve been pretty good about steering clear of that, with two or three arcane exceptions (in extremely non-consequential passages) that I won’t mention except to say that when you do read the book you get +1 Internets for finding them. I have, however, committed the faux pas of including allusions to songs as chapter titles. Not in all of them, but enough to be potentially embarrassing and/or expensive. So a quick trip to the rewrite shed is in order. But better to do it now than to get too far down the road and receive a sternly worded letter from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. demanding recompense for what is, essentially, a throwaway gag that has no significant bearing on the greater narrative.
The moral? Make your story one hundred percent yours, soup to nuts and credits to navy beans. It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: cheaper, easier and more fulfilling too.
Where do you get your ideas? That’s a question that everyone who fancies him or herself a writer is asked by someone at some point, with either a look of wonder or disgust on the questioner’s face (hopefully, it’ll always be the former). The Muse can be an elusive mistress; Lynda, my writing teacher, once advised that waiting around for her was an exercise in futility as she was more likely to dance just out of reach, laughing at you, and that you had to force her to the table by sitting down and starting without her. In that respect, schedules and deadlines certainly help a great deal, as we all know that the easiest thing to do in the world is not write.
Finding a subject for a blog post is not terribly difficult, even if the writing of said post is. There’s always lots going on in the world that we can comment on. I’m of the “more flies with honey” and “current or future employers might read this” mentality, so I’ll usually stop myself from venting about whatever is pissing me off lately and try to either write something positive or find an optimistic take on a particularly frustrating news item. (On a side note, my wife and I are watching the political drama House of Cards these past few nights and I’m finding it difficult to glom onto completely, for the singular reason that it is an utterly cynical program wallowing happily in the most selfish aspects of government service, and I’m much more drawn to the hopeful take offered by The West Wing. But Kevin Spacey is still awesome.) The blog, essentially, is a snapshot of how you’re feeling on any given day. A novel, by contrast, is a long term exercise in exploring an idea to its every possible limit. But which ideas are more deserving of the in depth treatment as opposed to the casual chat? How do you know which is which?
The summer after my mother died, I chained myself to my computer and started writing screenplays. That was what I was into at the time; for more on what led to this check out this previous post. Like many, my first ventures into serious writing were fan fiction, and in my case, Star Trek fan fiction. Although, I never managed to finish any of it – there’s an old hard drive rusting in a landfill somewhere full of the first chapters of stories about the crew of the Enterprise doing… well, not very much, actually. I couldn’t plot worth a damn at the time; I always figured I’d get to that part later on. What was more of a passion in the teenage years was drawing comic books, even though my artistic skill was minimal. And those were always James Bond stories, because they were easier to plot out. Bad guy doing bad thing, Bond must stop him, there’s a girl, a car chase, a gadget or two. For a high school creative project I wrote and drew a 007-Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover, where Bond is beamed aboard the Enterprise-D to help solve a Romulan conspiracy that involves his old adversaries SPECTRE, and along the way he manages to fall in love with Dr. Beverly Crusher (although in a downbeat ending, they have to go their separate ways). My English teacher loved it, her only criticism that it was a shame that I wasn’t using my own original characters. My rationale (read: excuse) was that using established characters freed you from having to introduce and develop your own, and enabled you to get right into the story instead. I didn’t understand at the time that the key to solving my inability to plot was to instead let the story flow out of the characters themselves.
But back to that summer. By that point I was using original characters, even if the dialogue they were speaking was almost entirely borrowed. That was about the time Pulp Fiction had come out and, as a film student at UWO, you could not take two steps into your classroom without hearing someone invoke the mighty Tarantino. I’d like to think that I wasn’t as obviously pretentious as some of the goatee-stroking, beret-wearing pomposities I sat in lectures with, but my work was just as derivative. My first full screenplay was about a group of kids in film school, with exhaustive, profanity-laden monologues about the hidden sexual themes in Star Wars (which, if you’ve seen Clerks, sort of puts the lie to the idea that these were in any way original characters.) I was still convinced that someday, someone would make this movie and I’d be accepting my Best Original (heh) Screenplay Oscar for it (then again, I was 20, recently orphaned and extremely naïve). Once that one was done, I started another, and then another. But they weren’t anything of note or even interest. I began to realize that they had no lasting value – because they weren’t about anything; there was no there there. And they certainly weren’t in my own voice.
The final screenplay was about a group of four 20-somethings who lived in the same apartment building (cough… Friends… cough). I know, it sounds dreadful, but I really enjoyed spending time with these particular people. As bad as some of those other screenplays were, they were an opportunity to hone my skill; to develop dialogue and subtext, to cut the profanity, to shed the influence of His Holiness Pope Quentin. When I typed FADE TO CREDITS, I realized I hadn’t been able to develop the characters in the way I’d wanted – the screenplay was about 170 pages (most genuine ones top out at 120, maximum) and I hadn’t said everything I needed to with these people. I decided to abandon it at first draft and instead turn it into a novel. And for the next two years I labored on this thing on and off. A great deal of my days were spent thinking about the lives of these people: Bryson Reid, aspiring writer and perpetual smartass, Krista Piper, alcoholic figure skater, Scott Shipley, advertising executive on the rise, and Lauren Devaney, Irish barista homesick for her native land. Part of Bryson’s story involved him meeting an entrancing and successful fantasy author named Serena Lane. And interspersed between the chapters about Bryson, Krista, Scott and Lauren were meant to be “excerpts” of Serena’s bestselling novel. The whole enterprise was designed to lead to a “shocking” metaphysical twist (not in the earlier screenplay version) whereby Serena was the same person depicted in the fantasy portions, who had somehow managed to cross into the real world (and it was the Irish barista, Lauren, who had authored the book in the first place, only to have it stolen by a manipulative publisher who was herself the villainess from the fantasy story and had also escaped from page into reality. “Serena Lane” would turn out to be the name of the street on which Lauren grew up in Dublin.) Anyway, it got up to 350,000 words with no end in sight. As I was writing it, I found I was enjoying the fantasy portions significantly more than the real world stuff. Bryson, in particular, although ostensibly the hero, was fundamentally unlikable and there were times I just wanted to smack him upside the virtual head. But I still felt the need to finish it.
Then one summer, I signed up for a local adult education course called “Crafting a Novel.” Naturally I knew how to write a novel, this was just a chance to meet some people (i.e. attractive, single women) with a similar passion. The first night of that class was a smack to the head much larger than the one I had wanted to give my fictional hero – I knew nothing. And I was crestfallen when Lynda told us that even if we had a book we had been working on for years, we were to set it aside and start a new one. To borrow a phrase from William Goldman, this was the ensuing sound inside my head:
Surely she wasn’t serious? My epic of Proustian magnificence deserved nothing less than endless streams of voluminous praise followed by a seven-figure publishing deal and movie rights! How could anyone dare me to set it aside?
In retrospect, thank frickin’ Buddha, but we’ll get to that.
After picking my jaw up from the floor that night, I decided to think about things a little more rationally. I’d slowly developed this fantasy world and enjoyed playing around in it. Couldn’t I set another story in the same place? And since prequels were all the rage, why not one that took place fifty years prior – something that might serve as a setup to the brilliance that was to follow? That took care of the setting, but I still needed characters and a worthwhile story to tell.
A few days later, I’m in a video game store perusing the PlayStation titles, and I wander over to the PC rack. There’s a game there, probably a precursor to World of Warcraft or something similar, and on it is a bunch of sketches of the characters. One of them strikes me. It’s a beautiful woman holding a mystical staff. It’s nothing terribly original; do a Google Images search for “sorceress” and you’ll see thousands of variations on the theme – some gorgeous, half-dressed knockout hurling lightning from manicured fingers. But something about it strikes me. And I ask myself, what must it be like to be her? Truthfully, the magical babe is a pretty boring staple of fantasy stories, either as a love interest, a physically unattainable spirit guide, or a cackling villainess bent on total domination of both the world and the hero’s crotch. In anything I’d ever read or seen up until that point, she was always treated merely as an other to be conquered or otherwise overcome. (Remember the witch in the first Conan the Barbarian movie? Beautiful and exotic, as befits magical babes, but doesn’t get a name and is in the story for all of four minutes, three of which are spent rolling around on the floor with our favorite muscled Cimmerian.) But if what would go through your head if you actually were a creature like that – would you go around thinking to yourself, “I am so willowy and ethereal and mysterious”? Or would your head be occupied by the same mundane thoughts the rest of us have – what to wear tomorrow, whether you left the iron on, did you feed the cat? After appearing and disappearing at will and turning men into pigs for a few hundred years, would you eventually grow bored with your powers? What could the immortal sorceress who has everything possibly want? Anything at all? Or would she be subject to the same emotional needs and longings as the rest of us mere human beings?
And there was the seed of my new story.
Coming up in future posts – more on creating characters, developing the plot, struggling with description, crafting dialogue, the necessary pain of killing your darlings and how Aaron Sorkin helped me find my voice without even knowing I exist.
I’ve never been good at self-promotion. Perhaps you can chalk it up to formative years surrounded by people telling me keep quiet, don’t boast and give someone else a turn. Like most people, I enjoy attention, but excessive notice tends to turn my stomach inside out. It’s why I had to stop reading the comments on the stuff I submit to Huffington (that and the occasional threat from a pissed off Tea Partier). The problem is that these aren’t qualities that serve one well if one is attempting to establish a writing career. Publishing firms are tightening their belts and seem to expect their authors to do most of the legwork in marketing themselves. You see the results often on Twitter – writers following other writers in hopes of a follow-back, and relentlessly pushing their tomes through tweet after tweet. Seems to work for some; I follow a few who haven’t published a thing yet have managed to build up their own expectant and admiring fanbases. My attitude has always been that quality will find its own audience, but, after blogging for almost two years to a relatively stable but small (yet tremendously awesome) group of supportive readers, it’s clear that my modest approach isn’t working. I need to give you more.
If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you’ll know I’ve made some periodic and cryptic references to a finished novel that has been sitting on my hard drive for far too long. A few years back I sent out some queries for it, received polite rejections all around, and then set it aside for a while. (I had a nice one from a literary agent who represents a very famous series of books, who said that her decision to pass was not a statement on the quality of the writing, which, though it may have been a form letter, was still encouraging to a fragile ego.) About two years ago I went back and rewrote large portions of it while painfully hacking out almost 60,000 words to get it to a publishable length. Perhaps a dozen family & friends have read it from cover to cover; dozens more have seen excerpts and offered suggestions, some of which have been incorporated, while others have been welcomed but disregarded (you have to use your judgement after all). Long and the short of it is that at this point it’s in the best shape I can possibly get it into, at least from my perspective. And I have started sending queries out again. So why have I not shared more about it here?
Well, in a strange way, I have. There is a lot here about the book. And no, you haven’t missed it. Let me explain a little.
We live in a spoiler-addicted culture. Everybody wants their appetite sated immediately; we all want to flip to the last page to see who did it. I went through that phase myself – because I am fascinated by the process of film production (an interest that probably stems from wishing in idle moments that it’s what I did for a living) I devour news about scriptwriting, casting, principal photography, and yes, spoilers. I had to give myself an intervention of sorts this past summer when I ruined The Dark Knight Rises for myself by reading the Wikipedia plot summary before seeing the movie. I realized I’d become what I despised – I’d often railed about being able to figure out the ending of rom-coms simply by looking at the two stars featured on the poster. For Skyfall, I purposely kept myself spoiler-free, and as a result I enjoyed that movie a lot more than I would have had I known how it was going to end. Trekkers have been driven up the wall over the last several by J.J. Abrams’ refusal to offer specifics on the identity of the villain “John Harrison” played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness. Is it Khan? Gary Mitchell? Robert April? Harry Mudd? Ernst Stavro Blofeld? In promoting his projects, Abrams has always embraced the idea of the “mystery box,” never showing his hand until the night of the premiere. And controlling the conversation by keeping it where he wants it, in the realm of speculation, is, if managed properly, a great way to keep interest high. It’s a dance though – give away too much and you spoil it, but say nothing, or remain stubbornly evasive, and people grow bored and move on to the next thing. My more introspective nature simply lends itself better to Abrams’ way of thinking.
I’ll crack open the mystery box a little: My novel is a fantasy. It’s the first part of what will hopefully be a trilogy. The main character is a woman with magical abilities. She encounters a mortal man. An adventure ensues.
Whoa, you’re saying. Back up a sec. This is basically Beautiful Creatures, right?
Argh. As writers we need to support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes, so I’m very happy for Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. We all dream of seeing our epics translated to the big screen and I’m sure they’re bursting with joy at their enviable accomplishment, as would I. But privately I’m suffering a few gutfuls of agita. You can’t help feeling like the guy who was late to the patent office when Alexander Graham Bell released the first telephone, even though our stories are completely different. Theirs takes place in the modern day; mine is set in the past in a fictional world. Their lead characters are teenagers discovering themselves; mine are world-weary adults. And of course the supporting characters and indeed the plot bear no resemblance to one another. But to the casual observer, they’re treading similar boards, and even though I could have written a story about a lawyer or a doctor or cop without garnering so much as a whisper of comparison, I have no doubt that someone will now accuse me of trying to cash in on a trend, particularly if Beautiful Creatures does become “the next Twilight” and thousands of lesser imitators flood literary agents’ inboxes (I’m fortunate I didn’t choose to write about vampires. Luckily, I find them tiresome.) Indeed, witches are all the rage in pop culture at the moment – we had Hawkeye and Strawberry Fields hacking their heads off a few weeks ago and we’ve got Mrs. James Bond, Meg Griffin and Marilyn Monroe bandying their magical wiles with James Franco coming up in March.
Well, it is what it is and no sense sulking about it now.
I’m going to sidestep into politics for a moment. My beloved federal Liberals are conducting a leadership race right now, and candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau has recently fired a shot across presumptive favorite Justin Trudeau’s bow by accusing him of failing to offer up concrete plans. But Garneau (and those who are praising this as a brilliant strategic move) should understand that people don’t respond to plans, they respond to ideas – the why, not the what. Our current PM came to power not because he had a thoroughly researched and scored eighteen-point economic agenda, but because his campaign message was that the previous government was corrupt and he wasn’t. It worked. His two subsequent election wins have been based on similar themes – I’m reliable, the other guys are scary unknowns. I go back to Simon Sinek’s brilliant observation that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. It was the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech. The trick, when it comes to trying to pitch a book through a query letter, is that you’re required to try and hook the agent through what is more or less a 250-word encapsulation of the basic plot. But the plot isn’t why I wrote the book and it’s not why I want people to read it.
For argument’s sake, and I’m certainly not trying to make a comparison here, but let’s quickly summarize the life of Jesus Christ: A baby is born to a virgin mother and grows up to become a carpenter, lead a vast group of followers and spread a message of love to his fellow men. This offends the ruling powers who condemn him to torture and death, after which he is miraculously resurrected. If you had no knowledge of Christianity or the substance of Jesus’ message, you would never believe based on what you just read that these events would inspire a worldwide religious movement that would endure over two thousand years and counting. The plot doesn’t make you want to read the book. You get no sense of the why.
After an enormous detour, we now come back to my novel and its why. The why is here, all around you, in the archives of this site. It’s in my values, the things that matter to me and that I ponder as I type, post and share. My opinions on politics, conservatism, the Tea Party, faith, spirituality, organized religion, charity, economics, ecology, literature, women, love, the loss of our parents, the shifting nature of good and evil, even James Bond, the Beatles and the writing of Aaron Sorkin as a part of the entire human experience – they are all represented in some form or another in my novel. Gene Roddenberry taught me that a great story can’t just be a journey from A to B to C, it has to be about something more. So mine is an adventure story that is as much an exploration of my personal philosophy and observations on the human condition as it is sorcery, chases, narrow escapes, explosions and witty repartee.
It is written in first person, from the point of view of the sorceress. Why did I choose to write as a woman? Part of it was for the challenge, I suppose, to see if I could do it without falling into chick-lit clichés about designer shoes, the appeal of sculpted abs and struggles with mothers-in-law and PMS. But more to the point, if the story is to connect with an audience, its themes must be universal, as must its emotions. Men and women both know what it is like to feel alone, to be consumed by a longing for something or someone you cannot have, and to make any kind of connection, no matter how meagre. We can both crave intimacy so deeply that we don’t care who we receive it from – even if we know we are asking for it from a person who is absolutely wrong for us. My fictional leading lady has tremendous powers, yet she remains vulnerable to the stirrings of a long-closed-off heart and the desire to be accepted, even by a man who despises everything she represents – a married man, to complicate matters further. The evolution of their relationship is the absolute center of the plot, their interactions the driver of all the events that follow. I avoid a lot of the external mechanisms common to fantasy like endless prophecies, quests, magical objects, creatures, specific rules about the casting of spells and complicated mythologies. Sorry, no Diagon Alley or Avada Kedavra or Quidditch or even white walkers, folks. The progression of my story hinges on emotions, personal choices and consequences, not getting the Whatsit of Whatever to the Mountain of Something Else before the next full moon. The people are what matter and everything else to me is background noise.
Does it sound like something you’d like to read? I hope so. I hope if you’ve come with me this far you’ll want to come a little further, and maybe invite a few friends along. Over the next few months I’ll post periodic updates on how we’re doing submission-wise, and maybe a few more details like character names, excerpts of scenes, even (gasp!) the title. We’ll see if we can get a couple more folks interested to the point where we reach critical mass and something truly amazing happens. It’s a story I’ve put a lot of heart into and really want to share in its completed form. But as I said, if you’ve been following this site and listening to what I have to say, you already know much of what you’re in for. Think of it as a buffet table of themed appetizers leading to a sumptuous main course – one that I promise won’t leave you with indigestion.
As they used to say on the late night talk shows, More to Come…
Confession time: I’ve been negligent again. In the middle of my somewhat obsessive trip through Bondage of late, the ever-awesome Samir from Cecile’s Writers was kind enough to nominate me for the One Lovely Blog Award. It’s always terrific to be acknowledged in this way by our fellow scribes; as I’ve observed in the past, what else is blogging or indeed writing but the cry into the lonely wilderness hoping for an answer? Samir and his colleagues over at Cecile’s are really quite amazing; you should check them out, and often – there is always something different to peruse, a new, insightfully crafted exploration of this mad journey of stringing together words to form images and ideas we have chosen to undertake, whether for the love of language, the desire to reach or simply because we were intoxicated at the time.
I’ve also observed that the words matter more than the man behind them, and so in that respect it’s difficult to come up with seven random things about me that would garner any interest beyond that of my immediate family. Most of what I would consider important to understanding who the guy behind the glasses is has already been divulged in the course of the 175 essays that precede this one. But I shall give it the old college try:
1. I have a crippling addiction to red velvet cake. If there is ever an “RV-Anon,” I could easily be its spokesperson. Assuming my arteries haven’t been completely clogged by cream cheese icing first.
2. The only accent I cannot mimic well is Afrikaner. I can usually spout off a few brief phrases before it starts to devolve into pidgin-Australian meets effeminate German.
3. I was once chased away from near the exterior set of Days of Our Lives at the NBC lot in Los Angeles because I was wearing a Universal Studios jacket.
4. Over 90% of my music collection is movie soundtracks – and not those half-assed packages of unrelated pop songs that are released purely for marketing purposes, but genuine orchestral scores.
5. On a related note, when I am really in a serious spot of writers’ block, the album that has never failed to save me from it is U2’s The Joshua Tree.
6. Queries for my novel have (finally) gone out to literary agents. More to come and good news (if any, hopefully) to be shared here first.
7. I currently (for November, at least) sport a moustache. Squint your eyes at my gravatar pic and imagine the horrors.
Writing is about breaking rules sometimes too, and to that end, I’m going to deviate from the last requirement of this award just a little bit. You’re supposed to nominate an additional 15 blogs that you think merit consideration as well. But I find myself unable to do so. For one thing, ashamed as I am to admit it, I don’t read that many blogs that regularly – I have the “fabulous five” that are linked on my front page which I of course recommend heartily to anyone in search of wordly (not a misspelling) fulfilment. I have a few more that I follow and enjoy from time to time. However, stretching the list to fifteen – arbitrarily slapping a few extra names on there just to reach an artificial threshold would be unfair to the authors of those blogs, and would serve, I think, to diminish the worthiness of their efforts. WordPress is a vast and welcoming sea, and the task should be not for me to point you hither and yon based on what could very well be a fleeting fancy of mine, but for you to plunge in without a lifejacket and discover the many sumptuous treasures for yourself. So instead of hyperlinking fifteen blogs, I’m going to nominate every WordPress blogger who dedicates his or her words to improving our human condition, to expressing positivity and hope. To everyone who wants their work to create a smile somewhere out there in the world – to everyone who wants the words they etch in the unforgiving cement of the Internet to be an enduring message of joy and celebration of all we are and all we can achieve.
This award is for every last one of you, and that’s the best part – you already know who you are. You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you.
A great deal of blogging advice says you shouldn’t talk about yourself. I think I’ve been pretty good about staying true to that axiom, presenting my take on world events rather than extolling the mundane details of my boring existence. This is one story about me however that I think is worth telling, not only because there’s a good lesson in it but because it involves my closest encounter with one of the biggest entertainment franchises on the planet – and if that doesn’t grab your interest, then don’t worry, I’ll be back to criticizing Republicans soon enough.
We flash back to an era when Star Trek: The Next Generation was coming to the end of its initial television run and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was taking over as the sole keeper of Roddenberry’s flame. I’d grown a bit disenchanted with TNG as even at that age I had figured out that stories about deus ex machina subatomic particles and other varieties of technobabble weren’t remotely as compelling as the richer, more character-driven pieces DS9 was attempting. The stories were more emotional and more consequential, as the space station couldn’t fly off at the end of the episode as the Enterprise could. Characters had to live with their choices, and their mistakes would continue to haunt them. For a young mind enamored with the idea of making storytelling his life’s pursuit, this was ambrosia. Imagination soared with potential adventures for Captain Sisko and company (yes, nitpickers, I know he was a Commander during the time I’m talking about, but just roll with it, okay?). Fortunately, because of a guy named Michael Piller who was one of the executive producers of the franchise at that point – and had arguably been responsible for turning TNG around after its wobbly first two seasons – those adventures did not have to remain confined to my brain alone.
Breaking into television writing is incredibly difficult because it’s a closed shop. If you have a great idea for an episode of say, True Blood, and mail a script in to HBO, you’ll get it back without it even having been opened. Too much history of litigation brought by angry writers hollering “You stole my idea!” has led to every single series accepting submissions and pitches only through registered agents. Short version – you can’t land a TV writing gig without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’ve had a TV writing gig. When Michael Piller was running Star Trek, however, he enacted an open submission policy. Anybody could send something in and have it considered – didn’t matter if you were a groundskeeper from Bangladesh, so long as you could write in proper teleplay format and enclosed the correct postage, they’d look at it. Ronald D. Moore, who became one of Star Trek’s most prolific writers, working on Next Generation, DS9 and two of the movies before shepherding the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, was discovered in this way. It was possible – you didn’t need an “in” with somebody who worked there, you just had to write something that grabbed them. You had the same chance as everybody else.
Over the summer of 1993, as friends either slung burgers or soaked up rays on cottage docks, I got to work. I researched how to write a teleplay, learned about scene headings, dialogue formatting and stage direction, and started writing. My premise? It had been mentioned a number of times on DS9 that Dr Julian Bashir had been salutatorian in his graduating class at Starfleet Medical, that he’d messed up on a single question on the final that had resulted in him coming second. Obviously someone had beaten him and been valedictorian. What if this person came to the station? And what if it was a woman with whom Bashir had had a romantic history, but their competitive nature had dashed the possibility of a lasting relationship? What if they were forced back together to solve a mystery that threatened the entire station? Once those questions were in place, the teleplay came together fairly naturally. I opened with a scene on the Promenade between Bashir and Lt. Jadzia Dax. Dax is going over some personnel reports with a bored Bashir who is longing for some adventure to come into his life. (For fun, the names of the crewmembers Dax is discussing are all the last names of my closest friends.) Bashir notices a comely figure strolling across the Promenade – his old flame, the valedictorian herself, Dr. Sabrina Keller. Sparks ensue, old rivalries resurface, and eventually Bashir and Keller have to team up to save the station from a rogue comet that plays havoc with the Bajoran sun – a crisis in which all their shared medical expertise is worthless. I type this up in WordPerfect, print it out on my cheap dot matrix printer, bind it, label it and mail it off to Paramount Pictures, 5555 Melrose Avenue. And wait.
Fast forward to February 1994. I’m home from my first year of university on reading week. My family and I are coming home from an afternoon out when I spy a huge envelope shoved in our mailbox – from Paramount Pictures. It’s my original teleplay being returned, along with a pile of resources – the DS9 writers’ guide, copies of two previously produced teleplays and a form letter from Ronald D. Moore inviting me for a pitch meeting. For a 19-year-old Trekkie, the reaction resembles what happens to Louis del Grande’s character in Scanners.
They weren’t interested in purchasing the script I’d sent them, but they felt that I had shown promise and been able to write the characters’ voices well. They wanted to hear more. A few days later, I received a phone call from a very nice lady named April who was Moore’s assistant. She wanted to know if I’d received the material and if I was interested in pitching. I replied, naively and sheepishly, that I was a Canadian student and couldn’t afford to come to Los Angeles. After what I’m guessing was an eyeroll on her end, she explained that they took pitches over the phone. It’ll be a half hour conversation with one of the show’s writing producers during which you’ll present several story ideas. Well, in that case, of course I’ll do it, said I. Just one caveat – I’ll be back at university so here’s my dorm room phone extension. Thank you, said April, and she hung up, and I was left there feeling a bit shell-shocked, and intimidated that now I had to come up with at least five more stories for this meeting. Well, at least I had a whole month this time, unlike the year it took me to come up with the first one. Gulp.
A month fades away. I banish my roommate one night and sit on the bed awaiting this call, story ideas spread out around me, the Beastie Boys blaring from next door. The phone rings, it’s April again, and she tells me I’ll be pitching to René Echevarria, a writer whose episodes of both Next Gen and DS9 have been among my favourites. Echevarria comes on the line, we exchange brief greetings, and I launch into my pitches – beating down the butterflies roaring away in my stomach.
Star Trek has always been about big ideas couched in science fiction premises. The coolest space anomalies and weirdest aliens are meaningless if there isn’t a strong social message underneath. In coming up with my pitches I tried to start with the social message first and build the plot around it. The first story I pitched was about religious prejudice. The planet Bajor, which the Deep Space Nine station watches over, is a highly religious world. What if, I suggested, there was a minority of Bajoran atheists? And a few of them had done something really awful, like blowing up a monastery, resulting in every Bajoran who doesn’t believe in their religion being treated with disdain – the same way some blame every living Muslim for 9/11? Arriving on the station is one of these atheists, suspected of selling out his world to the Cardassians. He proclaims his innocence, and the Starfleet crew, who are secular, are more inclined to sympathize with him than the religious Bajoran Major Kira, who hates this guy sight unseen. A few twists and turns later, it’s revealed – after the atheist is shot dead while affecting a very unsubtle Christ-like pose on the Promenade – that he wasn’t selling anyone out, he was buying time for his family to escape from Bajor. Bajor’s conservative attitudes take another black eye as Kira is forced to reevaluate what she believes.
Echevarria doesn’t waste a beat. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, he says, but for the third season they are trying to reinvent Bajor as a happier, more positive place for the audience to sympathize with and root for, and this would run contrary to that objective. Plus there are a couple of plot holes he doesn’t like. What else ya got?
I move on to my next story. I’d always been fascinated by the concept of the “red shirt” – the nameless, non-speaking security officer who dies and is never thought of again. I opened the story with a shootout on the station, and one of these guys goes down. You are supposed to think nothing of it. But we stay with his story as Security Chief Odo is filling out the paperwork regarding his death. His name is Warrant Officer Charles F. Kensing (deliberate allusion to Citizen Kane, which my film class had screened recently), and as Odo digs deeper, it turns out he wasn’t a random casualty, he was a deliberate target as part of a conspiracy involving Starfleet Intelligence that leads all the way to Commander Sisko himself.
Echevarria isn’t sold on this one either. He doesn’t buy that Sisko would keep Odo in the dark the way I’ve suggested. The entire plot could have been resolved by the two simply having a forthright conversation. Next.
I re-pitch the valedictorian story. I’ve tweaked it since my original script to play up the romance and competition angles, and sharpen the sci-fi mystery element. But it’s still a no-go. Echevarria tells me they featured the valedictorian in a recent episode that has yet to air at the time I’m speaking with him. (When the episode does air, although the valedictorian is female, her name is Dr. Elizabeth Lense, and not only does she have no romantic history with Bashir, she doesn’t even know who he is – and their fairly forgettable encounter is an unrelated B-plot in a story about Sisko and his son Jake building an interstellar sailing ship.)
With his comments about making Bajor a happier, sunnier place, I know he’s not going to like my last story before I even start in on it. It’s a dark tale about a Bajoran militia exercise involving teenage cadets, and Jake Sisko somehow being shoehorned into taking part. Eventually he is forced into killing one of these cadets to save another and grapples with the consequence of having taken a life. I can feel the cringing on the other end of the phone – it just isn’t happening for me tonight.
Finally, Echevarria thanks me for my pitches. He asks a little about me and is surprised when I tell him I’m 19. He also invites me back to pitch again. Clearly he senses that there’s some potential to be harvested here. I’m a bit apologetic about some of the stories that he’s passed on and he laughs it off, saying, and I quote, “you wouldn’t believe some of the shit people pitch.” We exchange goodbyes and I hang up. Looking back on it now I can see how every one of those stories wasn’t ready for prime time, but the experience itself was invaluable. It showed me at a very young age that I could play with the big boys – that my writing was good, that it could stand up to professional scrutiny. And the door hadn’t been closed – they were willing to hear more. I had my “in.”
You may be wondering now, two thousand words on, why I titled the post “Gather ye rosebuds.” As you can gather based on the fact that you’ve never seen my name in the credits of a Star Trek episode, I never took them up on Echevarria’s invitation to pitch again. Not long after this call, my mother’s cancer worsened and she landed in hospital, never to emerge. Star Trek stories were the very last thing on my mind. I don’t blame myself for not ever following up, at least, not to the degree where I mope about it constantly. Life, as John Lennon observed, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. But these days, as I try to build a writing career, I think back to my “big break” and reflect on how I could have made better use of it. Honestly, I was lazy and I chickened out. I made excuses. I could have fought through the grief – used it, shaped my pain into heart-rending adventures for Captain Sisko’s crew. Perhaps. For whatever reason, at the time I was not in the mood to try. So I let the opportunity slip away like sand through fingertips. DS9 is long off the air, Michael Piller has passed on and the open submission policy on television is history. And René Echevarria certainly doesn’t remember me.
As the summer of 2012 draws to a close and new opportunities begin to present themselves, I’m determined to gather my rosebuds while I may, even if they may be fewer. Carpe occasio. That’s the advice I take from my Star Trek experience, and the best advice that the relating of this tale can bestow upon anyone. Don’t chicken out of life. The perfect time never comes. And as they said in Vanilla Sky, every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around. So send that book in. Get your blog going. Publish that article. Submit your screenplay. And if someone gives you a break, grab onto it and push until it hurts, until your fingers are bleeding and your arms are ready to fall off. You have nothing to lose and the world to gain.
What are you waiting for?
For all my pontificating yesterday about our collective duty to be vigilant and responsible in our cultivation of the culture of free speech, I have to confess at being somewhat negligent in another area. Cecile’s Writers, a wonderful blog I follow and which has been very supportive of my writing, was kind enough to nominate me for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Thank you so much! As I’ve said before, what I believe a writer wants more than anything is simply to reach people, and it’s wonderful to see it happening. As I understand it the requirements of this award stipulate that you nominate an additional seven blogs and include an equal number of heretofore unknown pieces of trivia about yourself. Recognizing that one of those is going to be tremendously more interesting than the other, I’ll start with the good stuff, in no particular order:
Nominees I Consider Deserving of the Award:
Her blog is subtitled “me and my battle with words,” but she’s winning it hands down. In addition to her own clever workplace tales and anecdotes about the peculiarities of life, EBW regularly promotes other bloggers and published authors with a selfless enthusiasm and a genuine love of all things written.
Lower 48 liberals whose opinions of Alaska have been formed largely by its former governor-turned-reality-TV-and-Fox-News-annoyance need to read Hooked. Tele opens up a vast, fascinating frontier utterly foreign to lifelong urbanites and reminds us that truth can be found in the farthest reaches of both the seas and the soul.
I have always had a soft spot – pardon the pun – for both rabbits and stuffed animals, and this photo blog depicting the cross-country wanderings of a tiny toy bunny is sweet, endearing and an infallible cure for a bad mood. You never know what Bunny will be up to next!
A recent discovery after she liked a couple of my posts, but as I tend to gravitate towards writing that is positive and upbeat, I’ve become quite taken with the way she’s decided to jump into all that is life and give it a huge bear hug. Her love of Disney certainly strikes a chord with me as well!
I may be somewhat biased because the author is a real-life friend, but his blog is by turns funny, self-deprecating, insightful and thought-provoking. One of his most recent pieces is a surprisingly forthright confession of conflicted feelings about his collaboration on a stage show. It’s not often you find such honesty in an artist’s appraisal of his own work. Evan brings this kind of integrity to everything he pens.
Again, I’ve known the author personally for over twenty years, but he’s always impressed me with the depth of his intellect and his willingness to expose the sometimes ugly veins coursing beneath the veneer of what we like to call free and open societies. Really, though, how can you not be a fan of erudite turns of phrase like this: “The challenge with this formula is that the expectation for [CBC blowhard bloviator Kevin] O’Leary to be controversial appears to trump in this instance the duty to be intelligent.”
7. Everyone I didn’t pick in 1 through 6
There are so many amazing blogs out there it’s difficult to winnow the list down. I reserve the final slot for every person with the guts to put their words out there for the world to see. Writing is one of the most revealing ways in which human beings can choose to be vulnerable – to put part of their soul on display in the hope of making a connection, however tenuous and temporary. Here’s to you, fellow WordPressers, for taking that bold step in the grand tradition of communication, and sharing with us your most precious resource – your ideas. You all inspire me.
Okay, now that’s done, here are seven things about me. Sorry, they are far too boring to be used for purposes of blackmail.
1. My drink is Bailey’s rocks, or a Vesper martini (three measures of Gordon’s gin, one of vodka, half a measure of Lillet Blanc, shaken over ice with a thin slice of lemon peel, and yes, that’s James Bond’s recipe)
2. I won an equestrian show-jumping competition when I was nine, largely by being able to wrangle control of a bucking horse four times my size. Perhaps I was always fated to become a brony in later life.
3. I have performed raps by Pitbull and B.o.B. in a concert venue setting. It was to 200 colleagues and their significant others in a local union hall, but I definitely brought the funk.
4. I once stood closer to Johnny Depp than you are to this screen. He smelled nice.
5. Spoiler Alert! The last word of my long-gestating novel is “be.” Sorry if that ruined it for you, or if those of you expecting something else now hate me with a George-Lucas-raped-my-childhood-like fury.
6. My unabashed fanboy love for his work to the contrary, I have never seen a single episode of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night.
7. I believe that the words matter more than the minutiae about the man.
Thank you again to Samir and Cecile’s Writers for the nomination. As a signoff, there’s a speech Bono gave when accepting a Grammy back in 1993 that got him in trouble with the TV censors, and it captures my thoughts very well. To wit: “I’d like to send a message to the young people of America. We shall continue to abuse our position and f*** up the mainstream.” Yeah, baby.