Blog: entries tagged with "writing"

On a Boat

I’m not terribly good on boats.

I’m pretty sure my partner Sean still has my claw marks in his arm from the time we got stuck in a storm on a friend’s sailboat. I’ve been on ocean ferry rides where the pain and nausea sent me fleeing for the relief of a Gravol-induced stupor.

So when the hosts of my favourite writing podcast, Writing Excuses, announced that their Out Of Excuses Retreat was going to move to a cruise ship this year, I was just a little bit crushed.

My Writing Excuses Retreat 2015 badge

I’ve listened to the show for years now, and I can’t think of a single show, book or website that’s taught me more about the craft of storytelling. The four hosts (Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells) tackle pretty much every topic a speculative fiction writer could ever want, and all in concise, focused episodes — “fifteen minutes long,” as their tagline says, “because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.”

I’d wanted to attend their retreat since its first year, but could I handle the water? I did a bit of research and heard a lot of reassurances about the smoothness and stability of cruise ships. The end to my dithering came swiftly as the guest instructors were announced: Nalo Hopkinson! Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman! Daniel José Older! All right, twist my arm, I said, bracing myself as I put down my money.

Well, I’m back, and of course I needn’t have worried. The trip was awesome.


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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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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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Who roundup

Tenth DoctorI’ve been paying a good deal of attention to the revival of Doctor Who and its various spinoffs. It hasn’t all been brilliant - some has been downright terrible, in fact - but I keep on watching just to see how it develops. I guess I look at it as kind of a controlled study: seeing what happens to the show under different production teams (it’s been through lots, over its almost thirty seasons), what happens when they go for a completely different tone and audience (as with Torchwood, its supposedly more “adult” spinoff), and how they face other challenges along their way. So here are some of my impressions so far, drawn from the big jumbled stack in my brain.

Part one: the TV series proper. Spoilers ahoy!


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A new start

Last night we had one of our coffee chats, for the first time in months. There are about half a dozen of us, including everyone in the house, and we get together to talk about life and issues and philosophize a bit. And since the office where most of us work now shares a building with a coffee place, we’ve got a great place to do it. The talk last night centered mostly on “truth” and “letting go of things”, and it really was refreshing.

MapAmong other things, I think it jarred something loose in my brain, something that had been blocking my writing on this on-again, off-again audio play podcast. It’s been percolating for months now, if not longer, and I think I’d grown very attached to a certain arrangement of the characters, a certain approach to the story and the world… and I think I’d set it up to be too big a deal, way more work than it had to be. As usual, I was trying to run before I’d even got the hang of the crawling thing.

The main viewpoint character, for example, was originally an amalgam of several cool, funny people I know. But I wanted to get her right, to make her believable / cool / funny / worthy / whatever. I couldn’t get into her head, into her life. I couldn’t get her or any of the other characters to sing.

So I tossed out all my notes for the characters, along with Aborted Episode One Draft, Version Eight. The characters and their roles have shifted several times along the way, but this was the biggest shift yet.

The premise still holds: it pretends to be a real podcast about life in Toronto, but it’s a fictionalized, slightly fantastic Toronto. And podcasts tend to be personal things, so I’m making it a lot more personal. I’ll host the thing (in character), and there’ll be more room for music and commentary on local issues.

Tigs, sound engineerI realize part of me was worried about seeming egotistical, since I’m already filling so many roles (writer, lead, engineer, composer, producer, director?)... but deargod, why? This isn’t a big show on stage or radio. If I think of it instead as just a fun little project, a way of learning all those different roles, a seed that can grow into something bigger, involving more people, everything snaps into place. I get to play with new voices, new aspects of characters. I don’t have to worry so much about it being “good enough” to drag other people into helping.

It’s fun again.

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RTD Drinking Game

Russell T. Davies is the man the BBC turned to to kick-start and produce the new Doctor Who series. From the start, everyone involved in the program showered him with praise, calling him “brilliant” and “a genius” and “the best TV writer in Britain today”. But his Who episodes have been generally the weaker ones. I think of him as a bit like (former Who script editor) Douglas Adams - bursting with neat ideas but seemingly unable to string them together into a coherent, satisfying plot.

So, here’s the first edition of the Oh No Not Another Russell T. Davies Episode Drinking Game. Contains spoilers, of course. Suggestions welcome.


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