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Mikka

Mikka, February 2013

And just like that, the Most Beautiful Dog was gone.

Not only was Mikka beautiful, he was the Pointiest Dog: a smallish Karelian with a blaze of white running down his narrow muzzle and a peculiarly foxlike turned-up nose. His Spitz tail was a silly, spring-loaded curl that bobbed from side to side as he trotted along the street. His stare was hypnotic, and usually employed in winning treats from us or from friends or little old ladies at the park.

He was a Juggling Dog, too. When Sean and I first met the boy, we watched him fling a toy in the air, bounce it off his nose, then go bounding after, and we were ready to take him home right then and there. Mikka never saw the point of playing fetch (and let’s not even talk about agility games), but give him a good squeaky ball and he was hilariously happy on his own.

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The return of Script Frenzy

It’s almost time for another Script Frenzy, the worldwide writing challenge that goes on for the entire month of April. Last year, I “won” by hammering out over a hundred pages’ worth of first drafts for Alba Salix, a huge step in bringing the series to fruition.

Yes, Alba is now in production. We have a great cast, drawn from the friends and acquaintances I’ve made in community theatre over the past few years, and a couple of weeks ago they reunited to hear our pilot episode and read through the next two scripts. I’m incredibly grateful to them all for their time, versatility and enthusiasm for the project! We may even be able to record the rest of the episodes in a proper studio, rather than a dining room lined with mattresses and blankets.

Post-production on the pilot was lengthy but fun, and involved a good deal of me smashing and banging things in the basement in front of a microphone. I didn’t have a good gauge of how many words the episode should be, but I’m aiming for an even 28 minutes, which it turns out means about 5,200 words. We ran well over that mark, which meant having to trim pretty much everything that wasn’t essential or at least amusing, a really useful exercise in tightening up a script.

I can still hear holes, though: missed opportunities for jokes, dialogue that’s too on-the-nose, scenes that lack focus. Being able to recognize those is a big help in punching up the newer scripts. My rough estimate is that Episodes 2 and 3 are nearly 50% funnier as a result. And having listened to the piece literally dozens of times as I assembled the dialogue, music and effects, I can now hear all the main characters’ voices as I write further episodes.

All of which brings me back to Script Frenzy. I’ll be working on some new Alba stories this coming month, and possibly some sketch comedy if I feel like a change. There’s even a vague and nebulous show concept codenamed “Frequencies” or “the 1980s show” that’s been rolling around in my head for a long time. I don’t know where it’s going exactly, but it’s dawning on me that the best template for it is something like The Great Eastern, one of my favourite CBC shows, which aired in the late ’90s and purported to be from Newfoundland’s own public broadcaster, the BCN.

Along the way I’m hoping to get some blogging done too. This site has been pretty quiet for the past few years, but as I get time I’ll share some of my experiences and wild-eyed theories around the writing process. And I’m hoping to get to more Toronto-region Frenzy events too.

Time to tidy the house and get ready to buckle down. April is going to be fun.

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Becoming a dog person

From: Sean
Subject: Uh oh

I sort of fell in love with Mikka today…

So began the email from my partner Sean, who had been volunteering at the local Humane Society for less than a week.

Up until that point, I’d never been much of a dog person. I’ve always enjoyed the company of friends’ dogs, of course, but taking care of one seemed like far too much to handle. But with Sean’s new-found interest in dog behaviour and training (also the reason for his volunteering), as well as his freelance schedule, it seemed like we might be able to make it work.

Mikka in the park

And so, a few days later we brought home Mikka, the energetic young Karelian Bear Dog. (It’s a Finnish breed, and strictly speaking, his name should probably be Mika, roughly equivalent to Mike. I’m guessing the extra K is there to make it look “more Finnish”.) He was about a year and a half old, so I’m considering today, his six-month anniversary at our house, his birthday.

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Once upon a time

Work on Alba Salix continues. We’ve had a couple of test readings so far, which have been really encouraging. Four episodes of the first six-episode “season” are awaiting rewrites, and I’m bashing away at the outline for a fifth. We’re aiming to record in September and launch some time over the winter. And there are enough storylines in my head for a second season.

Along the way I’ve been learning a lot, like the art of intertwining various subplots. Not only does it add interest, but it’s practically essential to provide something to “cut away to” when it’s time to jump ahead to the next plot point. Otherwise, you’ve got to either add a music cue, or indicate through dialogue or narration that time has passed, or some combination of these. The result usually feels a bit sluggish and old-fashioned.

Another lesson: the first moments of a series should give a good idea of what the show’s going to be like as a whole. The first draft of the Alba pilot originally opened with a “once upon a time” intro that gave Alba’s backstory. As a twist, it intertwined three different tellings of the same story, but 1) it was slow, 2) it wasn’t anything like the rest of the episode and 3) it was confusing as all get-out, especially since all these characters were unfamiliar. Furthermore, Lila, one of the main characters in the fairy tale, didn’t appear anywhere in the rest of the episode, leaving the listener to wonder when she would return.

Much better to start with the action – specifically, an actual medical case. Here are the original opening and the new one.

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Return to radio

It’s been about 12 years since I was last on the radio, but I still have dreams about it from time to time.

I learned a lot in my five years at CKMS-FM, the campus radio station at the University of Waterloo: how to salvage old, disintegrating reel-to-reel tapes; how to make musical sounds by feeding back the output of DAT machines; and how not to conduct an interview. I hosted a regular music show, assembled audio art pieces for Frequent Mutilations, and co-produced Philler (an “experiment in audio landfill”) with Adam Thornton.

I miss it sometimes. I discovered a lot of music browsing through the dusty vinyl in the library and puttering around in the back studio. And assembling each show, whether it was a late night music program or a weird mishmash of sketch comedy and sound collage, was a new puzzle to solve.

Attention Surplus It’s been nice, then, to get into podcasting at last. Since late February I’ve been producing Attention Surplus, a half-hour chat about purpose, passion and action hosted by my partner, Sean Howard, and his colleague Eric Portelance. And of course, I’ve been writing radio plays.

I’ve posted here previously about Niagara, the science-fiction comedy I’ve been working on. A few months ago I realized it might be a bit of an ambitious project to start out on, and accordingly I came up with what I thought would be a much simpler series to produce – shorter episodes, smaller cast, episodic rather than a serial format. Of course, it’s turning out to be very nearly as complicated, but it’s been great fun to write all the same.

In April, I heard about Script Frenzy, a sister event to National Novel Writing Month, and gave it a go. By month’s end, I’d written 119 pages, comfortably exceeding the 100-pages required to “win”. Having a purely numeric goal turned out to be quite freeing – a great exercise in letting first drafts suck as much as they need to. The episodic format has been a great help too, freeing me of the need to maintain a carefully plotted arc through the whole thing, but also allowing me to compare the dramatic structure of several self-contained stories.

Alba Salix, Royal Physician The series will be called Alba Salix, Royal Physician – kind of Scrubs meets Shrek, if you will. Or Gregory House as a witch. So far, three of the half-hour episodes are at the second draft stage, and several more exist as outlines and partial scripts. Our first reading a couple of weeks ago went splendidly, and I’m hoping to cast and record a “season” of roughly 6 episodes over the summer. Stay tuned!

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Niagara notes

Still working at those scripts. Episodes 1–3 are in their second drafts, and I’m at work outlining the next few.

Just as a very oblique teaser, here are a few topics I’ve been looking up online as research, either for fact checking or inspiration:

  • Plumbing how-to videos
  • Niagara Falls daredevils
  • Testosterone
  • List of nearest stars
  • Dandelions
  • The House of Commons schedule
  • Michael Cowpland (founder of Corel)
  • The ROM galleries
  • Niagara Parks Police Service
  • Dramatic Arts at Brock University
  • The Canadian Top 40 from 1982

Some will make it in as background details, some were dead ends.

And below are some of the notes I’ve made for the series. I like to have some rules to go by, so I’ve chosen a fairly strict structure, and jotted down a bunch of parameters and reminders to myself, based on all the things I’ve found enjoyable or frustrating in other audios over the years.

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Niagara

Petra

Emma and Bruce

Dayle

Meet Petra and her family.

Petra was a singer back in the ’70s and ’80s, but these days she works at a bed and breakfast near Niagara Falls. This weekend her kids are dropping by: quietly neurotic Emma and bratty, flamboyant Dayle, as well as Emma’s boyfriend Bruce. And she’s got a couple other guests who might be giant bugs from outer space.

I’ve had a bunch of stories simmering on the back burner for a long while, mostly in the science fiction-comedy vein. As I’ve alluded to in previous years, I’ve been flirting with presenting them different forms, mostly radio plays, online video, and comics. As they’ve percolated, I’ve discovered I don’t have the patience for prose – I’m all about the dialogue. I can draw well enough that I don’t cringe at my own work, but I’m too slow at it to do more than a couple pages. And video – let’s not even go there.

So it’s back to audio plays, delivered via podcast or download. I’ve always loved the form, and had the chance to produce some during my time in campus radio, but until recently I really didn’t have a clue how to use it to tell a story – or to tell a story in any medium, for that matter. And now, it’s all starting to come together at last: plots, background, character arcs, dialogue. The first three-episode story is plotted out and this week some friends came by for a read-through of the first two draft episodes. The thought of actually recording and producing them is a bit daunting at this stage, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

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Life in the valley

Evergreen, where I work in Communications, has now upped stakes and moved to a brand new office at Evergreen Brick Works.

Lower Don Trail

This is my new commute (via my preferred biking route, Beechwood Drive).

The Centre for Green Cities

And this is our new office, still under construction but taking shape fast.

A century ago the Don Valley Brick Works began churning out the bricks that built a good part of Toronto. After it shut down in the 1980s, the city and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority filled in the yawning open-pit clay quarry and eventually created a naturalized park in its place. The factory buildings, meanwhile, lay abandoned and became a magnet for urban explorers (try looking up “toronto brick works” on Google or Flickr).

Over the past few years Evergreen has been restoring the old buildings to create what we’re calling a “community environmental centre” – a place for urban-dwellers to get in touch with nature, as well as an event venue, a destination for schools and families and a hub for like-minded organizations. There’s art popping up all over the site: giant flowers bursting from windows, historic photos, diagrams from our patron saint scientist, geologist A.P. Coleman (1852-1939) – there’s even a sculpture of Coleman’s muddy boots.

Grand Opening is this weekend, with the ceremony and tours on Saturday, and a big Community Festival on Sunday. Be there!

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Report on an unknown sea cucumber

Magnification of the Mandelbrot setBack in high school, I played around with fractals, after finding a writeup about the Mandelbrot set in a back issue of Scientific American. The article had loads of dazzling colour renderings, the likes of which would grace psychedelic CD covers a few short years later: spidery frost patterns, seahorse-like whorls, lighting licking around tiny replicas of the snowman-shaped set.

All that colour and infinite detail came from a mind-bendingly simple equation, calculated over and over: zn+1 = zn2 + c. The article provided a snippet of pseudocode, which I compiled in C and ran for days on end on the family PC/AT, pumping the raw results through DeluxePaint to colour them. (Later on I added a pause function so my mum and dad could use the computer again.)

It was a window into a mysterious mathematical world: look at the latest image and pick out an interesting looking bit, work out its co-ordinates, and start up the calculations again, and a day or two later, enjoy the results. There was no end to its detail no matter how much you zoomed in on it, and always with those circles upon circles. Similar but never the same: a fractal.

I hadn’t thought much about the Mandelbrot set until a few days ago, when I happened on a link to the Mandelbulb, a recently-discovered 3-D analogue to the old-school set.

It’s… a little creepy.

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Drawing blanks

Drawing A Blank coverTo summarize the summer:

We released the first full-length Flickershow CD, entitled Drawing A Blank. Ten songs; I played bass, sang harmony, did arrangements and other odds and ends. We’re quite proud of it, and the CD release party was a blast. There’s a link to buy it online from our website, and it’s also available through that music store Apple runs. Things have been a bit quiet since the CD release, since Julian’s just got married (check out their awesome first dance on the YouTube) but there will be gigging in the new year, and with luck some out-of-town gigs in the spring.

All other music ventures have been on hold, meanwhile. I’m starting to plot my return to action, but it’s been nice to take a break for a few months and mess around with other things like writing and drawing (including the cover art for our CD) and catching up on comics.

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