Graeme

Writer's Blog

A place where I write about the writing life and writing projects in progress
 

October 01, 2009

  • Writus Interruptus
  • Ever notice how, just as you’re onto a really good idea or making a bit of prose finally work, suddenly the phone rings, someone comes in the room or you realize you have an appointment and you suddenly have to stop?

    I hate that.

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    September 29, 2009

  • Proof Of Life
  • Yesterday I received proofs for an essay collection I co-edited for Mad Norwegian Press. The book isn’t being published til April at this point, but it’s still exciting to see the 160,000+ words of hard work I helped put together suddenly nicely laid out. Even if Lars’ laser printer doesn’t handle Quark Xpress all that well.

    I remember the first time I received proofs—it was my short story in the Doctor Who anthology Short Trips and Side Steps and it was a massive rush to suddenly see yourself in the familiar typeset used for all sorts of other Doctor Who books.

    That lasted for about five minutes. Usually the proofs are the stage you go “What the hell have they done with my work!?!”

    This is particularly true with the Doctor Who short fiction I’ve written. For example, with Short Trips: Transmissions I had several sequences written in screenplay format, written in Courier font and with all the indenting and justification that format entails.

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    I figured that was going to be a hard sell but I hoped to at least preserve some semblance of that format by doing those sequences in Courier. When the proofs came back however, the text was not only not rendered in Courier but the formatting was mangled beyond belief with all the stage directions in nigh-unreadable small caps. Generally all the screenplay formatting was ignored.

    image

    I pleaded for Big Finish to use Courier but I was told “[Big Finish] only allow one font. Just one. It saves money apparently”. “How is it expensive to use the most common font in the world?” I asked but received no reply to that question. Fortunately, editor Richard Salter was able to prevail on Big Finish with all my other requests to render the text in something probably not approximating screenplay format but at least a damn sight better.

    With the proofs I got last night, there’s some formatting glitches and stuff to be corrected—pretty normal really. But I have to now read 300 pages to find them…

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    September 19, 2009

  • Feedback Loop
  • Mark Evanier has been discussing on his blog (in this item and this item) about an article written by Josh Olson (A History of Violence) called, pithily enough, “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script!”. The three, taken together, are an interesting meditation from the professional side about would be screenwriters asking for feedback.

    Of course, not being a professional, my take on this is somewhat different. But I’ve only ever asked maybe a handful of professionals to read my scripts. I’ve always been solicitous about it, though, asking permission and being quite clear that there was no obligation for them to do so and making it quite clear it was at their convenience, if it happened at all. And one writer I asked was already sending me, at the time, drafts of his scripts so I thought it was okay to at least ask. (The pro said yes and never read my script. I never bothered him about it.) And I’ve tried to thank the people afterwards for their time.

    But I think something people forget, and something made clear here, these people are doing you a favour,  And it only takes one person to sour a pro writer for the rest of us.

    There is one thing in all of this I take exception. Mark Evanier writes:

    But another is that most people never really do anything with the scripts they ask you to read. Many do not even rewrite based on any story input you might give them. What they want to hear is, “This is great, I’m sure you can sell it.” Or better still, “This is great, I’ll help you sell it.”

    I think Mark is right in that every aspiring writer hopes that by showing their work to someone else will find an advocate who will get them ‘in’. Which is a fallacy. Most pros are busy hustling their own good work. I think what bugs me more is that he thinks no one takes on board the input of others. I do. All the time. It’s why I ask for it.

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    September 17, 2009

  • Lose the Ducks
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    One thing I found it a lot harder to do when I was younger was take notes on my writing. I remember once when I was 19, I wrote an editorial for a student paper I worked on and wrote an introductory paragraph about where I was, which was, at the time, sitting by a pond with some hungry ducks. I wrote about the boldness and peculiarity of the ducks. The gorgeous weather. The serenity of it all.

    My co-editor looked at it and said, “Lose the ducks.”

    I was not having an easy collaboration with this person already and so I dug in my heels and refused. I thought it was beautiful writing, wonderful, sensitive and pastoral. I thought it was the best thing I had ever written.

    “It has nothing to do with what you’re writing about.” My co-editor told me. “Cut it out.”

    Eventually—after a conflagration the likes of which the world has never seen—I backed down and I cut the paragraph. And my co-editor was right. It was totally extraneous and useless. Camille, if you’re reading this, I apologize.

    As time went on, “it’s a duck paragraph” came into my vernacular. It’s when there’s a lovely piece of writing that has absolutely nothing to do with the piece whatsoever. It’s something that should be cut forthwith.

    Recently, I finally took on board someone’s note about a script I wrote. I had written the script with a certain structure. They thought the structure got in the way. I was hesitant because I thought the structure was unique, but decided to give it a try. They were right. It works better and has more immediacy.

    Even now, I still like ducks a little too much.

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    September 15, 2009

  • Optimal Conditions
  • It was at a job interview, of all things, where I was asked, “Under what conditions do you prefer to write?”

    A good question. In a job context, the answer is “any conditions, really.” And I’ve written as a communications professional in a cubicle, an office, in the board room, on a yellow legal pad and on my computer.

    But when I’m writing on my own dime, that’s different.

    As has been previously established, I love writing in longhand. One of the reasons I love that is that it enables me to write anywhere but at my computer. The truth of the matter is I am easily distracted and a computer, with its shiny bells, whistles, websites, access to pictures of Melanie Laurent, etc. just generally gets in my way (at least when I want to write. The truth is a lot of writing is simply not writing and then it is useful—but that’s another blog entry…).

    I tend to decamp somewhere else. Sometimes it’s another room in my house. Often it’s Starbucks.

    My love of writing in coffee shops developed at the same time as my love of writing in longhand. You would think, distracted creature that I am, I would find a busy cafe full of people the ultimate in being disturbed but on the contrary, I find I can tune everything out in a neutral environment and just write. And when I get bored, I have people watching or other things.

    I have a friend who was even more hardcore about this than I am. He took his pad of paper and writes while he’s walking—in parks late at night, in art galleries wherever. (I can’t remember but I think he even does this while listening to music). I envy him his portability. Once he was walking a Doctor Who audio play in a park late at night when a police officer asked what he’s doing. My friend said, “I’m writing Doctor Who.” The copper let him go on.

    imageFor me, it’s coffee shops all the way. When I lived in Toronto, I often went to an amazing coffee shop not far from my work and my home, called F’Coffee (my all-time favourite name of a cafe). It had great ambience—totally eclectic furniture in a large airy space—and they made the best cream cheese and smoked salmon bagel on earth. I miss Toronto for that a lot, though Ottawa has the similarly neat Cuppapedia. The rest of the time, Starbucks does it for me—I’m addicted to Skinny Vanilla Lattes (another topic on their helpful or less helpful influence) and I find it distracting to ponder the lives of the University of Ottawa students working as baristas.

    But only occasionally. Because I’m there to work.

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    September 10, 2009

  • Behind the Screen #1: John Irving’s The Water-Method Man
  • imageThis is the first in what might be an irregular (or non-existent) feature of this blog to show an excerpt of a person’s writing (in prose, in comics, in film or TV) and discuss the techniques they’ve employed.

    Here’s a passage from John Irving’s 1972 novel, The Water-Method Man. It’s the story of Fred “Bogus” Trumper and his various journeys as he, like a superball, sort of bounces off adulthood every time it comes too close. It’s a great novel—much shorter than Irving’s later tomes and yet the world built in the book is brimming full of life.

    This passage is a very ordinary one but for some strange reason it resonated with me. In it, Bogus Trumper, fresh from surgery to his penis, has decided to abandon his girlfriend, Tulpen after she talks of wanting to have kids. He decides to go to Maine to visit his best friend Couth, who is now married to Bogus’ ex-wife Biggie, and Bogus’ son Colm. Bogus has brought a goldfish in a cereal bowl for Colm. Here’s John Irving’s description of Bogus’ trip from New York to Maine.

    It was a long bus ride to Maine. The pit-stops were endless, and in Massachusetts it was discovered that a man in the rear of the bus had died; a quiet sort of heart attack, the other passengers assumed. The man had meant to get off in Providence, Rhode Island.

    Everyone seemed afraid to touch the dead man, so Bogus volunteered lug him off the bus, though it nearly cost him his prick. Perhaps all the others were afraid of catching something, but Bogus was more appalled at the fact that the man was unknown to everyone around him. The driver looked in the man’s wallet and discovered that he lived in Providence. The general reaction that it was more bothersome to have missed your stop than to have died.

    In New Hampshire Trumper felt compelled to introduce himself to someone and struck up a conversation with a grandmother who was on her way home from a visit with her daughter and son-in-law. “I guess I just can’t understand the way they live,” she told Bogus. She didn’t elaborate, and he told her not to worry.

    As I said in a column I wrote about Irving in 2005, one of the great things about Irving’s writing is that he “knows, like any good storyteller, that giving proper attention to the seemingly mundane adds richness and adds verisimilitude.” And this passage illustrates that beautifully. So many writers would just say simply, “the journey from New York to Maine was uneventful.” But we don’t live our lives that way, and neither do John Irving’s characters. Even in the mundane plane of travelling on a bus there’s little incidents, small conversations, odd moments that unfold. There’s a dead man to deal with—not as a plot point but simply as a part of the trip—and there’s a vague conversation with an older woman. It’s at once odd but real.

    At, the same time, the minor incident illustrates something about Trumper’s character. Bogus is annoyed at the other passengers not knowing anything about the driver and yet, at this point in the novel, Bogus has, once again, abandoned everything to do with his life to retreat once more. He’s no different than the people on the bus who want nothing more to do with the dead man.

    I love Irving’s writing because it works at all these different levels: on the one hand, there’s a three paragraph description of a trip filled with incident that never seems dull in the slightest, but rather, it makes everything seem more realistic. On the other hand, these incidents say something about the central character and his interaction with the world, even unconsciously.

    And the kicker? John Irving was 29 when he wrote this. There’s a part of me that wants to hate him more than anything.

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    September 05, 2009

  • Lost In Austin
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    Yesterday morning I woke up to find not one, but two rejection letters in my mailbox. This spring, I spent the better part of April and May writing a 160 page opus to send to the screenwriting competition of the Austin Film Festival. I was proud of my mock-documentary-stroke-science-fiction film. I thought the ending was one of the nicest things I’ve written in ages. I was thrilled to finally finish in idea I’ve had in my head for the better part of five years: to do a Ken Burns style historical documentary about something that actually doesn’t exist in our world. It was, consequently, one of the hardest things I’ve ever written.

    Sadly, the people judging the Austin Film Festival screenwriting competition didn’t agree with my assessment of it.

    The thing is, I’m not writing this for the sake of creating a self-pitying screed. Rather to simply reflect on the nature of rejection and being a writer. The truth is, in my line of work, to do paying writing that gets me noticed…well, the odds are, frankly, against me. Anything I write, no matter how good, stands a strong probability of being rejected. There are so many variable: other people’s work is simply better. The concept isn’t executed quite right. There isn’t the money to do it justice. It’s the right idea at the wrong time. The people reading it are numskulls.

    And, of course, what you produced simply might not be very good.

    I have a friend who was always ahead of the curve in his career in screenwriting. He wrote a script about a priest detective and a woman who investigated a mystery that led to the discovery of a conspiracy to keep quiet that Mary Magdalene had the child of Jesus. Unfortunately, he wrote this in 1996. When Dan Brown got there in 2003, he had better luck. Sometimes the timing is all wrong.

    I pitched to write Doctor Who novels twice. Both times were unbelievably close…but ultimately failed. The second time, Richard Salter and I pitched a unique idea for a Doctor Who book: a story which featured no science fiction elements except the Doctor set in contemporary London—Doctor Who as crime / contemporary thriller. Everyone said the pitch was solid but everything was against us. The proposal had gotten the thumbs up from the BBC’s reader but had been lost in the mail (or was never mailed) to range consultant Justin Richards—something we didn’t discover until almost a year later. By this time the BBC’s range of Doctor Who books had contracted from 22 to 11 a year and Justin told us that if the shrinkage of the line hadn’t happened he’d be tempted to publish a book so experimental, but the order of the day was to now play it safe. Sometimes it’s bad timing and bad luck.

    Sometimes it’s not what they’re looking for. I’ve had that happen a lot. And sometimes it’s just not good enough. I’ve had that happen too: The first time I pitched a Doctor Who book to BBC Books, the editor Steve Cole told me he thought I was a really good writer and that he really liked my proposal… “Just not enough to publish it”.

    If all these things are stacked against you, why keep on doing it? It’s a good question. I have to admit that it’s the fear of rejection that has kept me doing most of my writing within the anonymous world of corporate communications work—I hate the idea of sending things I put so much energy into the void and get told ‘no’ because the odds are against me. My friends who are successful at this business are the ones who have just kept at it, used the rejection as a teaching tool and gone on. And eventually they’ve beaten the odds.

    Next week, now that it’s out of competition, I’m going to give the script I wrote last spring to some friends who produce films and see what they think. It’s a good script and could be used to make a reasonably cheap indie SF film. Maybe they’ll say no. Maybe they’ll like it but can’t afford it. Maybe they’ll love it. One thing’s for sure, it’s not going anywhere just sitting on my hard drive.

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    September 02, 2009

  • Writing In Pen
  • I do something which I think hardly anyone does anymore. About 90% of what I write is done in longhand, using a pen and a top-coil office pad: articles, letters, reviews, short fiction, even screenplays.

    This happened because I discovered I preferred writing anywhere but my office space (at home or at work) and I have a longstanding hatred of laptops. Not because laptops are evil or anything—it’s just that I prefer typing on a full-size keyboard and could never feel comfortable with the condensed version on a laptop.

    More than that, there are two benefits I find to writing in longhand that I can’t get out of typing. The first is speed. You see, I can type between 90-100 words a minute when I’m concentrating, and around 100-120 words per minute when I’m just not bothered. I’m a scary-fast typist. But I type faster than my thought processes and I often spend a lot of time stopping, going back, retyping, going back retyping again. (And that’s ignoring typos). Writing in longhand is easier for me because I’m thinking at about the same speed I’m writing. If I think of something to add I just write it in the margins or insert it above. The result is that I feel more comfortable as I try to rough things out

    That’s the other, and possibly chief benefit: writing in longhand enables me to do the equivalent of a quick charcoal sketch of something. I come out with a rough layout of what I want to write. I can then use the process of typing it as a means of refining it, editing the text I’ve written as I go along. Some people would find that frustrating but I actually find it remarkably helpful to my writing process. I’ve done all the heavy lifting at the handwriting stage. Now I can figure out the trickier bits—the prose, the pacing, the overall structure.

    Just for the fun of it, I thought I’d include a sample of a handwritten draft and the end result. This is a review of the new Doctor Who DVD Attack of the Cybermen which was published in a recent issue of the Doctor Who fanzine Enlightenment. I’m not going to transcribe it so you’ll have to strain to read what passes for my handwriting (or hand printing as the case may be). Click on it to enlarge it:

    Here’s the final version, as published in Enlightenment:

    As you can see, the draft I’ve handwritten really is nothing more than a rough sketch, with all sorts of blind alleys—the first paragraph is completely excised in the final version—and rephrasing and fine tuning. At the same time, the general thrust is pretty much the same.

    For years, the hardest part about writing for me was getting the basic thing down because I would revise as I wrote and I would get tremendously frustrated. Writing in longhand gives me the headspace to do the thinking it out and then I use the process of typing for the refinement of prose. As a result, I hardly ever type anything ‘cold’ anymore—the only time I do is if I’m really pushed for a deadline. The majority of typewritten writing I do these days is on e-mails and, now, blog entries!

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    September 01, 2009

  • What this is all about
  • The designer of this here website, Christine Turner, in testing out the functionality of this section posted a answer from the FAQ section of the original website to the question “Why do you do a column? Why not a blog?” Which was funny because it was true. Up until now I’ve been resistant to write any kind of a blog because as I wrote in that document:

    I’m not a fan of blogging. For me, a column is very deliberate exercise in writing. There’s a craft involved in how one expands upon a particular theme. Blogging, to me, seems like the exact opposite. It goes against all my writerly instincts and my sense of personal space.

    I’ve moved a little on that position since I wrote that in 2003. I think there’s some merit to the immediate, off the cuff, straight shooting style of blogging—writing with minimal filters. I still don’t want to have a talk-about-the-minutae-of-your-life-and-opinions-to-the-entire-Internet kind of blog. But I’d like to do something with that kind of style about a specific topic: namely, the art of writing.

    I love writing. It’s an artform and a craft that has all sorts of elements to it that fascinates me. There’s the art of creating prose that’s economic and evocative. There’s the puzzle-solving of creating a clear narrative where everything works properly. And there’s the ephemera that makes it all happen: the right ambience, location, mood that helps the process along.

    I want to blog about that. It’s an ongoing journal on why and how I write, with the opinions of other writers thrown into the mix. And I hope that you’ll respond to it, so we can all improve our understanding of this funny little creative process of putting words in the right order to create worlds

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