Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I'm a pop culture junkie. In particular, I've always loved television. Since I was a child, I've wanted to be involved in the television industry.

Now that I am fully focused on writing, one line of development involves creating a few spec scripts for television shows. Spec scripts are done completely on speculation--hence, the name. There isn't a producer or showrunner asking me to write for a particular series. I'm writing on my own initiative. The idea behind spec writing is that, if it gets in the right hands AND it generates interest, the writer could land an agent or a specific assignment. (Rarely is a spec script purchased and produced.)

Reading about the entertainment biz, I've come across many experts who think writing spec scripts is a waste of time. Others aren't quite so negative, but they're not exactly encouraging either. Still, I know the process is important for me. I can concentrate on dialogue, plots, format and structure while working with established characters.

While at the cottage, I began writing an episode of "The Big Bang Theory". I love the show, the distinct characters and the fast-paced dialogue. What began as a stereotypical, but amusing sitcom about nerds and a hot chick has evolved into often hilarious entertainment, the kind of viewing I welcome on Monday evenings. Since three of the characters are physicists and one was an engineer, there was a fair amount of research required to make the banter between them funny and authentic. I also had to do my homework on "Star Trek", "Battlestar Galactica", iPhone apps, videogames and comic books.

This week I returned to my draft, did a great deal of revising and completed a script for which I feel satisfied. I got goosebumps reading through the scenes because I could hear the actors' voices and see the script being played out. I'll wait a week and then go back to see if another round of revisions is warranted, but the writing feels complete and I'm thrilled with it. The process was a genuine pleasure.

Now I've got to begin a new spec script or return to one of my other writing projects. It feels great to finish something, but there is always more to do!

Monday, October 26, 2009


I spent the weekend in a class, sitting beside a bird. Although the bird only made it through the first day, I remained—get ready to groan—unflappable and hung in there for Day Two, a sixteen-year-old boy my new seating partner. More on the bird and the kid later.

I’m skeptical of touring workshops that purport to teach you how to write a novel, how to get your book published or how to succeed as a screenwriter.

And if I’m skeptical of the workshops and the presenters, I’m even more judgmental about the people who attend. These are the wannabes. The ones searching for a magic formula.

Why do I think that? As an educator, I’ve attended plenty of professional development workshops. While a few were complete wastes of time, the majority provided me with insight and strategies that improved, or at least informed, my teaching practice. Other perspectives made me evaluate my own.

However, I’ve got it in my head that writing is an art, a delicate talent that must be developed from within. Nothing wrong with that. My resistance to workshops about writing comes from arrogance. Yikes, I don’t think I’ve ever described any part of myself that way. Meek, humble, sure. Arrogant?! But that’s what it comes down to. It’s a you-can’t-teach-me-anything-because-I’ve-got-it-all-in-me-somewhere (maybe hiding under my pinky fingernail) stance.

Rubbish! Good thing I ignored that kind of thinking and impulsively signed up for a two-day course on the film business. I noticed a full page ad in Script magazine, signed up online and then spent a few days regretting the decision. (It wasn’t all arrogance. With no income at the moment, charging $400 bucks brought on dizziness and nausea—basically, a starving artist’s hangover.) Despite my hang-ups, I’d enrolled and I was too cheap to back out, knowing some guy could enjoy a steak dinner with my hefty cancellation fee while I spiced up my oatmeal. Ooh, nutmeg!

With cautious optimism—funny how I can temporarily quell doubt when I’ve poured money into something—, I spent the weekend immersed in Dov Simens’ 2-Day Film School. I slept on a friend’s (too short) sofa in Vancouver so I could arrive feeling refreshed for both days of the conference. Sleep is a broad term in this context. It was more tossing and turning and listening to snores break the sound barriers from the other room. (I suspect that my friend may be the primary reason there are a dozen coffee shops within a three-block radius of his apartment.)

The workshops ran from 9-6 on Saturday and Sunday. Breaks were few—and short. I’d proactively flung a bottle of Tylenol in my backpack, but didn’t need to dig it out. There was a lot to learn.

Dov Simens is one of those speakers who flaunts his ego. He yells, swears, comes off as an a-hole. He lets us know he’s wildly successful. (“My wife and I are living off the bonds from our bonds.”) Money is sexy. Then he inserts an tender anecdote about loving his wife or asserts that he will give all of the profits from his next mega, sure-fire project to the people of Darfur. Just enough sweet to counter the schmuck. He’s built his persona. Most of the people in the room were captivated. I spent much of the time viewing him as a character study and watching his students’ reactions. That alone justified the course fee.

This is the morning after and I’ve got much to review from my notes. I gained a clearer picture of the film business and screenwriting’s place within it. He gave me another perspective on screenwriting and trying the get your work read. Much of what he said about writing conflicts with much of what I’ve read—everyone seems to have a different take—but that’s a good thing. I now have more to think about.

So,…back to the bird and the boy. What was a bird—a blue-and-yellow macaw, I believe—doing in a crash course on show biz? Trying to get noticed? If so, mission accomplished. Saturday morning, I staked out my spot in the back row with no one sitting on either side of me. By the time the class commenced, the lecture hall filled to near capacity. Still, a space remained on my right. A little extra room to stretch out! Then, at 9:40, a gentleman appeared with an animal crate and, of course, he chose the vacancy beside me. I love animals and the bird looked cute in the cage. However, within five minutes, flapping began, just inches from my head. Yep, Polly was on her perch, on her master’s left shoulder.

To be fair, Polly—not her real name—was well-behaved for the most part. But the flaps, and faint clucking noises did not come with predictability. I found myself tense—remember, lack of sleep may have played a part—and distracted. At the first break, a full three hours in, I moved down a row, spending the rest of the weekend beside Doogie Director.

There were moments that I felt like the lawyer in that new TV sitcom, “Community”, who faces loopy profs and odd classmates when ordered back to community college. That was a good thing, color commentary to keep me alert and inquisitive. And the play-by-play analysis, the substantive part of the course, turned out to be something I’m glad I didn’t turn my nose up to. I’ve still got that credit card charge to fret about, but that’s six weeks away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I'm home! I did the 4,500-kilometer trip in three days--a record. The first night took me to the Lake Superior area of Ontario with lots of tiny, dingy motels. I could have stopped at one, but I pulled over at a car lot in Nipigon. (If I'm sleeping in the car, car lots are great because I don't stand out when I'm surrounded by other vehicles.) Well, it was very cold so I got back on the road after two hours and drove through the night, remaining vigilant for moose and other wildlife. (“Moose on the Loose” at “Moose at Night” signs pop up every five minutes on the route and I drove under the speed limit, ready to brake or swerve should a critter appear.)

For the second night, I was in the middle of Saskatchewan and stopped in three towns, looking for a cheap motel. The first town had the most disgusting looking hotel I've ever seen--worse than The Patricia on Hastings in Vancouver’s skid row area, a hotel an L.A. travel agent unwittingly booked me into during my first visit to the city. There was no room at the inn at the next two stops. I parked in an auto body lot, spitting distance from an incredibly active nighttime railroad track, and tossed and turned from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. when my dog Lincoln decided it was time to throw up. (I learned from the trip to the cottage and got him out of the car on time.) At some point in my "sleep", I mysteriously managed to break a middle toe which swelled up. Plenty awake, I washed my hair using a water bottle and hit the road again.

That's when I realized I had a shot of making it home in a three-day marathon. I was a crazed driver! Construction work in Calgary--at both ends!--and around Banff put me on edge--the dogs might say over the edge--and getting stuck behind camper vehicles for long stretches through the Rockies made matters worse. I had given myself a couple of hours leeway to catch the final ferry home (9:15), but that time seemed to be ticking away.

Thank goodness for the Coquihalla Highway which runs for nearly two hundred kilometers between Kamloops and Hope, B.C.! It is like a raceway. Cars whizzed past me when I was doing 130 (or more). Bring on more of our own Autobahns!

Despite my fretting, I realized I had a (remote) shot of making the 7:25 sailing. Drawing on my newly acquired race driver experience, I zigzagged through traffic as I neared Vancouver and got to the terminal three minutes before the cutoff. What a bonus to arrive home a day early!

I am feeling surprisingly alert today and the dogs are relieved to be home, reacquainting themselves with their favorite lounging spots. My butt feels bruised from such long periods of sitting and I have officially ruled out truck driver as my next career. Now I have nothing left to fall back on if I can’t make it as a writer. I have no choice but to write!

Monday, October 19, 2009


I recently wrote about my writing schedule being out of whack due to relatives sharing the cottage space with me. I could have—and five years ago, would have—used that as an excuse to set the writing aside. I am not the only aspiring writer who tends to embrace the excuse.

I would have three novels out this year, but the dogs need lots of walks.

I can never get to my screenplay because there is so much laundry to do. And dusting!

I have the greatest ideas for a series of essays—if only I had there weren’t construction going on next door.

I have eliminated my Number One Excuse, my day job. That also severely cuts the cash flow. Thus, I cannot afford to allow excuses to stifle my writing. Each excuse is a problem that must—must!—be solved. It is the starting point in what separates wishful writers from successful writers.

I am proud to note that I worked through the problem of sharing my living/working space for a few weeks. I found other places to write, going to a few local cafés more regularly, staying longer at the library and working in the cramped back bedroom with the door shut. Not every work setting has to be inspiring. Sometimes all the inspiration must come from within. (Fear of a life of poverty adds some kick as well.)

This is a turning point in my writing. I will face obstacles many times as I continue to pursue writing. I know I can—and will—overcome them.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


With a few stalls along the way, I have spent the past two months steadily plugging away on a novel for adult readers. I’m in the middle of the story and I seem to be stuck. It is not cause for panic or despair yet. Concern? Sure.

I love reading interviews and attending author readings to learn about their writing process. What I have learned is there is not a right way to write—although some authors give me the impression that they are so married to their chosen process that they feel it is only way, not just for themselves but for others.

Maybe it’s because I’m a tangential thinker with adult-onset Attention Deficit Disorder, but I believe the process has to feel organic to the writer and to his or her particular project. Process can change—sometimes must change due to unexpected factors—along the way. Often (note, not always) when I write, the characters come first. Then a problem comes to mind and I jump into writing the first draft. When I try to be more disciplined and outline the story, I often feel the energy drying up. For me, the journey is led by the characters and changes course from my initial, loosely conceived vision.

The genesis of this project came during my four-day drive across the Canadian Prairies and Northern Ontario. I kept my microcassette player on the dashboard and recorded the flurry of ideas as they came. It was an exciting process that fit my circumstance and I couldn’t wait to sort through the ideas once I could sit down at the cottage and open up my laptop. Not all the ideas were great; after all, I forwent hotels and “slept” in the car. Catnapped might be a better term.

For this novel, I even knew the ending and the basic story progression before I began. I thought I was ahead of the game and would skirt any of my typical feelings that the story was dragging in the middling section. Alas. Despite a little more forethought in planning, I am in familiar, unpleasant territory where I am trying to regain story momentum. I think this is the point where some authors abandon a project or shelve it for years.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


When you’re writing full-time, people tend to think you are always available. Granted, I have more flexibility than most workers, but the work still has to get done. If I don’t write, the opportunities for payment do not come.

I have relatives staying with me for three weeks. Or maybe I’m staying with them. It’s a family cottage—no reservations, no exclusive bookings. That’s the way it should be. However, the whole writing routine is out of whack. I hadn’t realized how critical that first chunk of writing is each morning. I had gotten into a routine of starting a pot of coffee, letting it brew while I walked the dogs and then sitting down at the dining table to begin the day’s work as I periodically glanced at the peaceful river view. While it was an hour of writing at most, it set the tone for the day.

My start is delayed now as breakfast television takes over the main living quarters. I try to write in my tiny bedroom, but looking at wood paneling is not as inspiring as the river, lined with trees in the midst of a color makeover. And “Today” blares through the thin walls. (One of my relatives is hard of hearing.) I have asked myself why background noise at home is distracting while din in a café makes writing feel less solitary and I suspect it comes down to expectations. In a home environment, I expect to have some control over sources of noise; when I venture into a public venue for writing, I know I won’t be alone and the people and bits of their conversation may actually lead to a writing spark.

By the time I have my shower, leave the cottage and drive to a more focused writing site, two hours have ticked by. Often, that is when the writing for the day starts. I never seem to catch up.

One more week to go. In the meantime, I’m trying to shorten the morning delay and fitting in extra writing after 11 p.m. The office, it seems, is never closed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I submitted a cover letter, writing sample and synopsis of my short story collection about two months ago to my publisher of choice. Since I hadn’t heard anything, I assumed a rejection letter would be waiting for me when I retrieved my mail upon returning to British Columbia. Last night, however, I checked my emails and there was one from the editor with whom I worked on my first novel, Fouling Out. She apologized for the delay in contacting me and noted that the publisher has never published a collection of short stories for tweens and teens. (Indeed, it is hard to find any publisher that with that kind of book. The closest I can find is the Chicken Soup for the Soul books that appeal girls. Nothing for boys.) The brief email went on to say that the editor loved the title and would like to read the entire collection.

This news does not guarantee a green light for getting the short stories published, but it is exciting to know that the possibility remains alive for a riskier (read, not market tested) project. As I am flitting about in developing several other works at present, the news provided an instant spark to keep going. Feedback for a writer is infrequent, particularly for someone like me who does not share any work in progress with anyone. Any spark of interest helps reignite the belief that I am on the right track and that a writing career remains a legitimate dream.

Monday, October 12, 2009


It took an hour to drive to downtown Ottawa before traipsing into the city’s main library branch and settling into a well used study carrel, one that could stand a thorough scrub down. What amazes me about libraries is that, no matter how big and how many seating areas, they always feel near capacity. Libraries welcome everyone and create a wonderful ambiance for building characters for a current or future writing piece.

As I searched for a carrel with an electrical outlet for my laptop, I came across a twentysomething Arab fellow on the stretching on the floor between bookshelves. That was a first! He later walked by, supporting himself with a cane. In the carrel on my left was a teenaged girl frantically scribbling notes in green ink into a spiral notebook. Apparently, my unpacking my writing gear was louder than she could tolerate; she departed within five minutes of my arrival. To my right is an elderly Japanese man who began shuffling through a plastic bag as soon as he sat down. As he set down a flattened cereal box, I thought he was settling in for a peaceful lunch, but he pulled out a dozen tiny sharpened pencils, opened a book about Central America and began copying the text onto a small notepad. There’s a story there.

I am in the middle of a wall-lined row of eighteen carrels. Two-thirds are occupied. It is a fairly accurate slice of the city’s demographics in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and, from initial appearances, income levels. I can’t get this at the cottage or at my rural home in British Columbia. Although all is relatively quiet as I work, I feel fully immersed within society.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


If I spent as much time writing as I did seeking the perfect venue for writing, I might have finished Parts II-V of the War and Peace sequel series by now. An exaggeration? Maybe not. I am the guy who drove 4,600 kilometers for a change of scenery.

I have staked out a few areas in the Ottawa Valley that allow me to settle quickly into an hour or two of writing. (The undiagnosed ADHD means that I have to move on to the next site…after a lengthy break.) My most frequent nook is a study carrel in the Arnprior Library. Laptop users vie for one of four key spots and sometimes I arrive too late, having to settle for plugging my laptop in and winding the cord strategically to allow me to sit in a chair between book stacks. It’s all good, except for a few recent visits when the air conditioning continued to blast cool air despite the passing of the recent heat wave. For a town of 7,500, the library was open long hours in the summer. Unfortunately, this week is the start of its regular, reduced hours with the facility not opening until noon.

There’s a quaint coffee and scone shop in the historic downtown section of Arnprior that I’ve recently added to my list. It has exactly what I need: plenty of electrical outlets, strong black coffee and just enough comings and goings to offer a bit of people watching. It is never so crowded that I feel I have to give up my prime table. Bad for business, but good for writing.

Yesterday, I ventured to Renfrew, a larger town of 8,000, to test out its library. The building is old and seating space is limited. I managed to get an hour and a half of work done, typing away in one of four comfy chairs in the Reading Room. I doubt I’ll make a repeat visit as I can imagine times when no space is available.

This morning, as I await the later opening of the Arnprior Library, I’ve taken my laptop outdoors, sitting on the cottage deck. The gentle lapping of the river water provides a calming background acoustic. My dogs, Lincoln and Hoover, dash about on the beach and behind the cottage. As it’s early September, the kids have all gone back to school and most of the cottages are vacant on weekdays so I don’t have to block off all possible exits from the deck in an effort to contain the dogs. They are happy and I am feeling productive. The only thing that could ruin this perfect little writing moment is Hoover reappearing, covered in burs and smelling like he found a dead fish to roll in. It’s happened before and he hasn’t sped across the deck in awhile.

I’m thinking it’s time for an unscheduled writing break.