Mostly Harmless

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

I rarely go back and re-read books. There are just too many books in this world I haven’t read yet to spend time re-reading the ones that I have. Having said that, there are a few I make an exception for.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide tot he Galaxy is one of those books. (The fact that it clocks in under 200 pages doesn’t hurt either)

There are those books in my life that have touched me as a great work of art might make an imprint on you the first time seeing it in all its glory hanging on a gallery wall and you just can’t shake the image that it leaves you with. Or there are those books that you read at a critical stage in your life where they just connected with you at that moment and it becomes part of you. And of course there are those stories that are so beautifully woven that you can spend hours (and maybe this is the writer talking) admiring the craftsmanship and editing that went into pulling it off.

For me Hitchhiker’s has a bit off all of that going for it.

Before I get ahead of myself, perhaps a bit of an overview for those of you who might not be familiar with the author Douglas Adams or his great works of art that is the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy*

In a nutshell Douglas Adams cut his teeth writing sketch comedy and radio plays in the UK in the 1970s and came up with the idea for the story while he lay drunk in a field starring up at the night sky while in Austria. He was reportedly carrying a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, and he had the epiphany that somebody should write a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. He ended up pitching the idea to the BBC as a radio series that debuted in 1978 and second series ran in 1980. During which time the story had been turned into a book and then developed as a mini-series that aired on TV in 1981. It would eventually get the Hollywood treatment in 2005. I first discovered it via the BBC mini-series when it aired on PBS in North America in the early to mid-1980s.

The story involves a hapless 30-something Arthur Dent, who discovers that his friend Ford Prefect is an alien stranded on earth doing freelance work for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ford reveals his true identity to Arthur moments before Arthur’s home is demolished by the town council to make way for an express way, which – coincidentally -is also what the Vogons are about to do to Earth. Ford rescues Arthur and thus they begin their adventures as stowaways on the Vogon ships sent to vaporize earth.

Adams keen sense of humour and biting satire is something to behold. It’s also one of the reasons it’s probably quoted and revered by geeks the world round. I could probably write a graduate thesis on the comedic brilliance of this novel and I’m sure more than one person already has. I most recently re-read the novel this past spring (It took me more than a month because I was SAVOURING IT, not because I’m a slow reader.)

It’s nearly impossible to single out any one line or verbal exchange to sell someone unfamiliar with Adams’ work to sell them on the novel, but Arthur’s reaction to learning what the Hitchhikers’ Guide had to say about Earth is priceless.

Aboard the Vogon ship, not long after the Earth has been vaporized, Arthur has a bit of an existential crisis as he realizes all that he knows is gone and that he is the only known survivor of an entire planet. Arthur demands that Ford show him the entry in the guide on Earth and what it has to say.

‘It doesn’t have an entry!’ He burst out.

Ford looked over his shoulder.

‘Yes it does,’ he said, ‘Down there, see at the bottom of the screen, just under Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple breasted whore of Eroticon Six.’

Arthur followed Ford’s finger, and saw where it was pointing. For a moment it didn’t register, then his mind nearly blew up.

‘What? Harmless! Is that all it’s got to say? Harmless! One word!’

Ford shrugged.

‘Well there are a hundred billion stars in the Galaxy and only a limited amount of space in the books’ microprocessors,’ he said, ‘and no one knew much about the Earth, of course.’

‘Well for God’s sake, I hope you managed to rectify that a bit.’

‘Oh yes, I managed to transmit a new entry off to the editor. He had to trim it a bit, but i’ts still an improvement.’

‘And what does it say now?’ asked Arthur.

Mostly harmless,’ admitted Ford with a slightly embarrassed cough.

Mostly harmless,‘ shouted Arthur

Adams level of absurd humour and comedic timing are impeccable, not to mention his turn of phrase. Adams, during his lifetime** was a notoriously slow writer and had to be locked in hotel rooms by his editor to get him to finish works and as a result we have only a handful of written novels to appreciate his talent.

One of the lines I rediscovered from the novel during my re-read this year was toward the end of the novel when Arthur is learning about the original purpose of Earth from an alien named Slartibartfast.

He gestured Arthur towards a chair which looked as if it had been made out of the ribcage of a  stegosaurus.

Of course most writers would have been content to leave this bit of imagery and move on, but Adams follows it up with a one-two comedic punch. Here’s the whole passage.

He gestured Arthur towards a chair which looked as if it had been made out of the ribcage of a stegosaurus.
 
‘It was made out of the ribcage of a stegosaurus’, explained the old man as he pottered about fishing bits of wire out from under tottering piles of paper and drawing instruments.

I’d be curious to know what novels other people re-read and what they rediscover when they read them.

Do you have perennial favourites that you keep returning to for a fix? Share in the comments.

*The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy actually consists of five books.
**Douglas Adams sadly passed away in 2001 at the age of 49 from a heart attack.

A Voice Silenced – Jay Lake 1964 – 2014

Joseph E. Lake, Jr. / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0Photo Credit: Joseph E. Lake, Jr. / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

I never met Jay Lake, the closest I came was spying him across the lobby at Worldcon in Chicago in 2012. (His Hawaiian shirts are hard to miss). I can’t even say I’ve read his work extensively. Despite having several of his novels lined up on my to-be-read shelf, I’ve only ever read two of his 300+ short stories.

I stumbled upon his story “The Righteous Path” one day in 2009 while reading an SF anthology called Time After Time – Edited by Denise Little. It was one of those stories that make you sit up and take notice. The prose was sparkling, the premise unique and I was just floored. I immediately took to my computer to look him up and write him an email. From that day forward I became a fan of Jay’s and not just for his writing.

On his blog he talked openly of his ongoing battle with cancer (He was diagnosed in 2008) and his writing. He was a generous and giving individual and judging from the outpouring of tributes to him today you know he touched a lot of people over the course of his life.

Jay’s work ethic was something to behold. Even in the face of ongoing treatment he was prolific. It was hard to whine about your own “bad day” when here was this guy dealing with all of this and still making time to write.

Unfortunately Jay wasn’t able to overcome his illness. Toward the end, his updates on his blog became less frequent as the disease and treatments escalated leaving him with little energy to function. When word came last week that he had entered hospice care, we all knew the end was finally near.

It’s always sad when someone so young passes – Jay would have turned 50 later this week. Not only was his life with his family and friends cut short, his voice has also been silenced. I’m thankful for the legacy he has left us and I’m confident that people will continue to discover his writing in the years to come.

When writers die in their prime, I can’t help but wonder what might have been. What else might have they gone on to write? On one hand it’s me being selfish as a reader. Wishing I could spend more time listening to their unique voice, their vision, their dreams/nightmares. On the other hand, it’s me as a writer facing my own fear of not getting an opportunity to share my visions with readers. Jay was only 4 years older than me and much further along in his career. How much time does any of us have in this world to make our mark?

A couple of years ago I saw Canadian musician Rich Aucoin in concert and he performed a song called “It”. One line repeated in the chorus is “We won’t leave it all in our heads”. It made me think that as a writer the challenge is always to get your own thoughts on “paper” and out into the world. It became a bit of a mantra for me. When we die the unfinished stories, the fragments, the works in progress die with us. Our voices are silenced.

Today we mourn the passing of Jay Lake and the loss of his voice and vision.

Some Other Tributes to Jay Lake around the Net:

Countdown to “Second Harvest” Release

In just three days my short story Second Harvest will finally see the light of day. To quote Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead – “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

As my first publication, it’s a memorable occasion. My first draft for Second Harvest was completed back in the summer of 2010 and after a few critiquing sessions it was ready for submission. It took eight rejections over the course of nearly 3 years and lots of polishing in between before it found a home with fledgling magazine Fictionvale. Initially submitted for their inaugural issue, that was published in November 2013, I was asked if I would consider waiting until Spring 2014 and their 3rd episode for it to be published. They felt it would be a good fit with their alternate history / far future theme they had planned for the episode and I agreed.

Second Harvest is one of those stories that doesn’t fit in a tidy little box. It’s got horror elements, historical elements, and yes – elements of alternate history. Traditional alternate history often concerns its self with critical turning points in history and focusing on the “what if” things had turned out differently. My story takes place in a world where some elements of World War I are playing out differently than we know to be historical true but it also includes some “fantastical” elements. All of which is played out on a rural farm in Northern Ontario far from the world stage.

Having read the first two episodes released from Fictionvale, I’m confident it will be a good fit with the rich variety of stories they publish. There is definitely something for everyone in each episode.

I want to thank Fictionvale editor Vennesa G. for helping make my story the best it can be. The time and care she has taken to help me polish the story one more time before it reaches your hands was a rewarding and humbling experience. I truly believe its the best thing I’ve written to date, but have been trying hard to repeat the feat.

I hope you will join me this Thursday May 15th in buying and reading the 3rd Episode of Fictionvale and celebrating my story and that of the other 9 authors that appear in the issue. You can check out the Fictionvale store by clicking here. By supporting the magazine you make it possible for Fictionvale to continue to publish stories of new and established authors.

The cover art for episode 3 was designed by AngstyG and I think it does an amazing job of capturing the theme of alternate history and far future.

Fiction Vale - Episode 3 Cover Reveal

Fiction Vale – Episode 3 Cover Reveal

 

 

 

It’s All About Character

I had two opportunities this past week to listen to people that make a living from their writing talk about their craft and how they got to where they are today. The first was playwright Colleen Murphy (www.colleenmurphy.ca) who was in Sudbury to attend the Play Smelter Workshop May 6th to 10th (http://www.patthedog.org/2014/05/07/playsmelter/) and the second was author Chuck Wendig (www.terribleminds.com) at a writing workshop (May 10th) in Toronto.

Despite the fact that both work in very different mediums, both are storytellers and both had some very interesting things to say about characters.

0887545955_1

The December Man by Colleen Murphy

Colleen started off by talking about her background as a young actor in theatre and how she was always frustrated with the characters she played on stage. She said she quickly tired of being an actor and wanted to be a playwright. She wanted to create the characters whose story was being played out on stage. She talked about where her characters come from, how they are shaped and how they shape the direction of her plays.

Chuck during the course of the day long workshop talked about how its the characters that drive the plot and not the other way around. Chuck talked about how the characters are the architects of the story and that as they move through the story they change its shape and often “find new doors” where you didn’t realize there were doors.

kick_ass_cover_500pxwide

The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig

It’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but for me it was one of those a-ha moments where I realized I had been looking at a lot of my writing through the wrong lens. I feel like I have been spending too much time considering how my characters react to the plot without giving it enough though about their own agency and how their limitations and strengths shape the story itself. The revelation also helped me think about outlines differently in the sense that in the past I would spend most of my time outlining the “plot”. I never devoted enough thought or time to outlining the characters and their push and pull on the plot.

I am not sure if this makes more sense in my head than it does as I type this in my blog. Perhaps it’s the brain fog from a 5 hour road-trip back from Toronto that is not allowing me to be as articulate as I want in this moment. Regardless, both writers were great to listen to and learn from and I am glad I took the opportunity to attend both their presentations. Thanks to both Colleen and Chuck for passing on their wisdom and I hope I can run with it and apply it in my own work.

Penmonkey Gut Check

"Harden the Fuck Up Carebear" - Chuck Wendig

R. Lee Emery from Full Metal Jacket
“Harden the Fuck Up Carebear” – Chuck Wendig

One of the authors I can rely on for a much needed kick in the pants when it comes to writing is Chuck Wendig. Between his blog Terribleminds.com and his collected writing advice – that he has published in a number of books with catchy titles like – The Kick Ass Writer, 500 Ways to Tell A Better Story, 500 Ways to Be a Better Writer, and 500 MORE Ways to Be a Better Writer – I never fail to find something that I can apply to my own writing and situation. Chuck doesn’t sugar coat his advice, he’s like a foul-mouth drill Sargent that isn’t going to hold your hand while he tells it like it is. Picture R. Lee Emery from Full Metal Jacket getting all up in your face. That’s Chuck except instead of a funny hat, Chuck has a killer beard to intimidate you.

Today on Chuck’s blog he posted this:

Time Again For Your Penmonkey Evaluations

I think it’s good to evaluate yourself as a writer sometimes, just to see who you are and how you’re doing — where do you stand and where are you headed? If you’re planning on doing this thing really-for-realsies, sometimes a look at your paths and processes is worth doing.

So, a handful of quick questions. A survey, but informal — no data collection, here.

Answer in comments, if you’re so inclined. If you want to also post at your blog to generate discussion there, hey, go for it. (But please still try to leave your answers here, as well.)

a) What’s your greatest strength / skill in terms of writing/storytelling?

b) What’s your greatest weakness in writing/storytelling? What gives you the most trouble?

c) How many books or other projects have you actually finished? What did you do with them?

d) Best writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. really helped you)

e) Worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. didn’t help at all, may have hurt)

f) One piece of advice you’d give other writers?

Well, despite the fact that he didn’t swear once in that blog entry, totally diminishing my efforts to portray him as a badass, foul-mouthed writer, I thought it a great question and one worth exploring here.

Any other time I would be inclined to spend a few hours mulling over the questions and formulating a carefully crafted answer worthy of a public relations specialist intent on shielding a particularly slimy clients bad behavior, but today I thought I would try to do this reflexively without too much second guessing. Try to get to the heart of the matter without overanalyzing it and attempting to put too much spin on it.

Here goes nothing (and everything!):

a) What’s your greatest strength / skill in terms of writing/storytelling?

I’d like to think my greatest strength in terms of storytelling is my own twisted view on the world and the connections my brain makes. By that I mean the lens through which I see the world often triggers weird and wonderful connections that make me sit up and want to explore. Any writer worth their weight has the ability to string together some grammatically correct sentence that makes narrative sense. For me the magic lies in that writer taking you places you didn’t see coming and perhaps in a small way turning you on to their way of seeing the world through distorted lens. The fact Philip K. Dick is one of my go to authors should say a lot about my mindset.

b) What’s your greatest weakness in writing/storytelling? What gives you the most trouble?
Can I have more than one “greatest” weakness? How about a list? okay I will stick with two.

One, I find I struggle with character description. I am always struggling with finding appropriate ways to tie in description with the story and deciding what is worth describing. I tend to NOT describe characters on purpose to avoid having to address this issue and I know its not cutting it.

Two, I am terrible at plotting and often find myself going in circles in the middle of my stories, especially my longer pieces. I need to get better at either drawing myself a road map or at least pushing through to the end.

c) How many books or other projects have you actually finished? What did you do with them?

I’ve finished between 6-8 short stories that I have submitted all over the place. Finally sold one, but still waiting for it to be published – May 2014. Have another half dozen “short stories” unfinished that are way too long for most markets and need to be fleshed out into either novellas or novels. As for books I currently have one WIP on the go that has been lingering and I need to push through on it. No excuses.

d) Best writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. really helped you)

That’s a tough one. There’s been so many pieces of advice that I have received at different stages of my writing life that have helped me move ahead and have that “ah-ha” moment. I think the best general one that I have gotten was to just write and not worry about if that first draft sucks. I know I held back as a writer for many years, because I often felt that a story had to be perfect in my head before I even put a sentence down on paper. I wasted much of youth not writing because of it.

e) Worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. didn’t help at all, may have hurt)

I honestly don’t recall any terrible advice that I received. Probably because I tuned it out on hearing it and don’t remember. I think “generic” writing advice like “Write what you know” or “Show Don’t Tell” is pretty worthless unless you back it up when giving it to a newbie. Otherwise they are just more confused and afraid to write.

f) One piece of advice you’d give other writers?

A specific piece of advice I like to spout off about is don’t mistake detail for description. I’ve seen too many published authors include “shopping list” style descriptions or detailed descriptions of places, vehicles, rooms etc. that have no bearing on the actual plot or story other than to draw a very vivid detailed picture. If that is your style then perhaps you’d be better suited to writing catalog descriptions and not fiction. Description should be integral to the story and tied in with the action, plot, character development, and any of a 101 other things going on in your story.

Thanks to Chuck for the evaluation. Its good to take a moment every once and a while to ask yourself some hard questions about your writing and be honest with yourself. Even if you’re not prepared to share it with the world.

Last Stop with the Playwrights’ Junction

Last Stop Poster

This past Monday night I sat in the audience at the Sudbury Theatre Centre with my fellow playwrights, family members, friends, co-workers, and the curious theatre going public –  all of us there for the same thing, to hear actors do dramatic readings of our works in progress. A graduation ceremony of sorts, it was the culmination of our twelve weeks of classes, put on for the world to see. (Or at least those souls brave enough to venture out in the -30C temperatures that night.)

Ten minute excerpts from our plays were presented, more or less, in alphabetical order by last name, meaning I was scheduled to go second last. I was surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing, despite being decidedly under the weather. I was fighting both a nasty cold and a sudden stomach bug. As they say the show must go on, so pumped full of over the counter remedies I took my place among the audience and settled in for the show.

It was exciting to watch actors breathe life into the words we had written, watching a line of dialogue get the laugh you were expecting (or not) and just watching the audience soak it all in. Considering the actors spent less than an hour with the pieces in rehearsal, getting a feel for their characters and the piece, they did an amazing job. In my other writing I often read aloud my own work to see how it sounds to the ear, listening for awkward phrasing or flat dialogue. Listening to someone else read your words aloud is an even better way to hear what works and doesn’t.

My piece was somewhat handicapped by the fact that one of the characters, Kari,  has no lines of dialogue and serves as a comic foil to the narrator, Gus.  As with all the pieces, Matthew Heiti, the Playwright-In-Residence and our instructor,  read aloud the stage directions where necessary and in the case of my piece also read aloud my silent character’s actions. The problem with my character Kari is that a lot of his action is happening simultaneously as the narrator Gus is speaking. If it were being acted out the audience would be listening to Gus while watching Kari in the background playing off each other. As it was we had to wait for pauses in Gus’ dialogue to describe what Kari was doing. No fault of Matthew’s or the actors, but I think the structure of my piece meant that the rhythm was off slightly and the audience had to do more of the heavy lifting imagining Kari’s actions and Gus’ reaction to them.

Thankfully the Penn and Tellers of my piece aren’t on the stage the entire time by themselves, and there were other characters that joined them with back and forth dialogue that worked in a more traditional way.

As for the night itself, it was a bitter sweet experience.  Meeting one last Monday night at the theatre with my fellow playwrights and knowing that this stage of the process was coming to an end. I am hopeful that many of us will continue to work on our plays and continue down the road we started. I know personally, I need to take a break to recover (health-wise especially) and look at some other neglected projects (Hello work-in-progress!) before I decide how I want to carry forward the knowledge and experience I gained in the workshop.

The support I received through out the experience was amazing. Sudbury’s theatre community is lucky to have someone as generous and as knowledgeable as Matthew Heiti. I am so grateful to Matt for sharing his time and experience with us. The Sudbury Theatre Centre and its staff were tremendous with their support, giving Matthew the space and the time to host the workshop, as well as providing us with opportunities to sit in on dress rehearsals of their current season for free. Alumni from the previous Junction workshops came out to give us their take on what they have gone on to work on since their experience and to encourage us to continue. Pat the Dog Theatre Creation also leant their support during the process, and actually made the trip from down South to come and see our plays and to encourage us to continue in the process.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have the support of your loved ones when you take on a commitment like this. Without my kids’ and  my wife’s understanding and support I couldn’t have taken such huge chunks of family time away to meet each week, write, edit and go out to see plays. I am sure my kids are looking forward to the novelty of having me home Mondays nights. Thanks family!

Finally I have to thank the other 7 playwrights – Jesse, Jordano, Cait, Marnie, Jan, Line, and Anne for their support and encouragement.They each brought a unique perspective and voice to the table and were supportive in ways I can’t even begin to describe. I wish them all the best of luck in whatever they pursue after the workshop. I know they are all creative talented people and are sure to go far.

If the Sudbury Theatre Centre and Matthew host the workshop again next year, I would encourage anyone locally that is looking for opportunities to write to apply. You won’t regret it. Even if you never considered writing for theatre, look into it. I went in open-minded and learnt so much that I can also apply to my other writing.

It’s been a great experience, one I won’t soon forget, and one I hope to apply the lessons in the rest of my writing life.

 

Goodbye 2013 and Hello 2014

Back in Time
Back in Time by nicholasjon – License:CC BY-NC 2.0

Human perception of time is a funny thing. With the passing of each year, I never fail to wonder, where the heck did the last 365 days go? This past year was no different. In fact the older I get the more time seems to go by faster. Is it because we become acutely aware of how little we have left on this planet? Or is it because so many routine things fill our lives that the passage of time flows seamlessly without big show stopper moments to make us sit up and take notice?

Either way it’s good that events like marking the passage from one year into the next give us pause to reflect on the previous year and try to evaluate its relative worth. Like the Egyptian god Anubis weighing the heart of the deceased in the afterlife, we try to take stock in the previous year and pass judgement on its merit. Did the year live up to our expectations, exceed it, or was it somehow lacking.

From a writing perspective 2013 was a very different year for me in a number of ways. As far as output goes I didn’t feel as productive as I have in previous years. I worked on a number of new short stories, but nothing new made it to market. I did shop around several of my older more polished pieces and was successful at finding a home for Second Harvest. My first official sale! The story will be published in Fictionvale.com this coming March. (Trust me, this won’t be my last post trumpeting that.)

I worked on my novel, but it lacked shape and purpose. My writing group took the time to help me reorient myself and try to focus on some of the big picture items that I was trying to dance around. It was helpful and productive and truth be told, I don’t know what I would do without them. That being said, I still failed to proceed at a satisfactory pace with that project. I recently posted about my determination to fix that here – DIY: Vision Versus Reality.

The other big project I took on this year was signing up for the Playwright Junction workshop this fall. The 12 week course is just wrapping up this month, and we’ll have ten minute excerpts from our work produced as a dramatic reading by professional actors later this month. The course has be very eye-opening and helped me focus on my writing in new ways that I hope to continue beyond the end of the workshop in my writing and possibly in other theatre work.

So where does that leave me? Did 2013 end up where I expected it to? Hardly. I would have been disappointed if it had been so predictable. Was it a successful year, writing-wise? An unqualified yes. Was it as successful as I had hoped? That one is a bit more murky. Less successful on the output front, but more successful in the breakthrough and rejuvenating my writing brain.

So where does that leave me for 2014? I want to become more focused and productive. Basic stuff. Butt in chair – hands on keyboard kind of basics. More time spent free writing from prompts and ideas. A lot of the writing prompts that we used in the playwright workshop forced me to write without thinking and while it was frustrating at times, it was also liberating.

As for projects my primary goal is simple. I have to put up or shut up and finish a draft of the current novel I am working on. That is the big one. No holding back.

My Secondary goals:

  • Finish and submit more short stories to market this year.
  • Explore writing workshop opportunities

I also want to leave room for opportunity to knock. You never know when something that could change your life will present itself and you have to be in a position to capitalize on it.

All in all I am looking forward to 2014 being a fantastic year not only in my writing, but in other aspects of my life as well.

Best wishes for 2014 to everyone.

Enter Stage Right

I know its been dark here at my blog for the past month of so, coincidentally also the same length of time that my son has been back playing hockey this fall and that I have been enrolled in the local playwright workshop hosted by Matthew Heiti and the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Yes, life has been busy.

I’ve finished two assignments for the workshop so far and am about to embark on my final assignment soon that will take me through to the end of the 12 week course. The workshop has been phenomenal not only for getting me writing and thinking about writing, but also for all the creative energy flowing in the room each Monday night. One of the things we do each week is talk about plays we have either seen in the previous week or ones that we have read. Our group is fairly diverse and each person brings a lot to the table in terms of perspective, creative energy and passion for the stage and written word. Our instructor Matthew is a generous and patient teacher, and he’s wonderful at sparking our imagination and sharing his passion for the stage. He’s given us access to a small library of Canadian plays he’s amassed and is encouraging us to read one or two plays a week to motivate us and expose us to what else is out there.

Matthew just launched his first book “The City Still Breathing”, published by Coach House Press last month as well as had the world premier of his play “Mucking in the Drift”  this past week at the Sudbury Theatre Centre which runs until Nov 10th. I had the pleasure of seeing the play opening night with my wife and it was great time. The principal actor – Daniel Roberts plays Bert Pilgrim, a 110 yr old man who has become unstuck in time and travelling through his life looking for that one moment that his whole life hinges on. Both Pilgrim’s name and being unstuck in time is a nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s  Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse Five. Set largely in the 1930s and 40s when Sudbury boasted a huge baseball league, Bert and his brother Max get recruited by a slick company man that works for the mines and is looking for talent.  Actor Roberts does a fantastic job voicing the various characters and his transitions from an old man to a spry 18 year old is a wonderment to behold.

Bert is joined on stage by the “Organ Player”, played by Scott Pietrangelo, who serves as straight man, folly artist, musical accompaniment through out the play. While the Organ Player has no dialogue (at least until the very end), he is anything but silent.

While featuring a lot of local references, it also contained universal themes about being the underdog (both the city and Bert) and about losing your history (both the city and Bert). The Sudbury audience ate up the local references, but I felt the play would work well  in any blue collar town and clearly played well with baseball aficionados of all stripes.

I’ll post more about my experience in the workshop soon, but I’ll leave it there for now.

 

New Chapters

A Shinny Big Nickel
A Shiny Big Nickel by BigA888 (via Flickr) Some Rights Reserved

Seven years ago this week I moved my young family (my son was 2 1/2, my wife was 8 months pregnant) to Sudbury, Ontario (aka The Big Nickel) to start a new chapter in our life. Toronto and the surrounding area had become virtually unaffordable to live (especially with a growing family and one income). Sudbury offered a new job and a chance at one day owning a house. I left behind nearly 20 years of memories, friends and connections. Among those friends were many close writing friends that I had grown to rely on for advice, support and critiques.

Learning a new job and coping with a newborn left me exhausted. Although I continued to write, it wasn’t until I had been living here for the better part of 2 years that I began to reach out to other local writers.  Between the Sudbury Writers’ Guild and the local Sudbury Region NaNoWriMo group that I began to cultivate a close knit group of writers that I could once again count on.

From that NaNoWriMo group in November 2008 a core group of writers began to coalesce into its own critique group. While it went through several iterations since its humble beginnings in late 2008, always at its core was Stephanie aka Steph.  In the past 5 years I have come to count Steph as formidable writer and a close friend. She’s challenged me and the other writers in the group to up our game at every turn, all the while discovering her own voice as a writer.

I owe a lot of where I am as a writer to Steph. The reason I am singling her out here and not one of the many other writers that have influenced me over the years, is because Steph has started a new chapter in her own life this week. Late last night Steph boarded a plane, leaving this sleepy Northern Ontario mining town behind for a new beginning  in Vancouver.

Goodbye - (If you get this reference then you must be nearly as old as I am!)

Goodbye – (If you get this reference then you must be nearly as old as I am!)

Myself and the rest of our writing family said our goodbyes to Steph earlier this week and while we were sad to see her go, we couldn’t be happier for this new chapter she is beginning. Just like the time was right for me and my family when we moved north to Sudbury 7 years ago, I am certain this is the right move for Steph. While 3000+ km  may separate her and the rest of her ‘old’ writing group, thankfully we have the internet to keep in touch.

To Steph: I wish you all the best in this new chapter in  your life and I look forward to flying to Vancouver in the near future to attend one of your book signings. 😉 Thanks again for your continued friendship and your parting ‘advice’ to “Keep writing”. I will.

You can check out Steph’s blog here – What I Write

 

 

DIY: Vision vs Reality

I have a confession to make. My current novel is woefully neglected and I’ve been trying to map out a path forward for some days, weeks, months now. This not to say there hasn’t been ANY progress, but the progress has been glacial. I’ve solved a few critical plot points and even did some much needed outlining. New words on the other hand have been slowed to a trickle.

I can stand here and make excuses till the proverbial cows come home, but it ain’t going to cut it. I’ve been writing long enough to know that the only sure fire cure for finishing a piece is sitting down and writing. So why then haven’t I done just that?

(For the record what follows are not excuses per se, but rather analysis of my mental state. Just so we’re clear…)

I had a lightbulb moment sometime last year when I realized that procrastination wasn’t a sign that someone is lazy, undisciplined or lacking in motivation. Procrastination can be as simple as an in ability to make a decision and move forward. While my current situation doesn’t feel like full blown procastination, it does have its roots in my inability to move forward.

Earlier this year my wife had some time between contracts and decided that it was the perfect time to give our kitchen a makeover. Not having a lot of money we decided the best course of action was to paint our 35+ year old cupboards and replace the hardware. She had seen examples online of people’s similar makeovers and was taken by how well they turned out. In a heady rush of optimism we bought all the supplies, consulted the various home hardware gurus (who are so willing to tell you they did the same job themselves and how easy it was). Then we waited. And waited. Next thing we knew my wife had got a call back for another contract and the project went on the backburner. It wasn’t until that contract finished did we sit down and discuss our lack of progress.

As it turns out I was deferring to her to start the project. My excuse for not encouraging her was that I couldn’t see her vision of how she wanted to transform it. Her excuse that was she was afraid to start the project because it was daunting and that once she started there was no turning back. For better or worse the cabinets would be forever changed. In the end it worked out and while there was a steep learning curve and many delays due to other commitments, but it got done and was worth it in the end.

Pardon my inelegant metaphor, but writing is a lot like a DIY home renovation. You see other people doing it, your motivated to do it yourself. The process looks challenging, but the end result looks so satisfying. Then you commit and you feel overwhelmed, like you don’t have the skills or the tools to pull it off and that you should have just hired professionals. Except in writing, unless you’re having someone ghost write your memoir, there are no hiring professionals to do it for you. It’s DIY by definition.

So where does that leave me on my current novel? I have the vision of what shape I want this project to take, so no excuses there. I may think I don’t have the tools I need to get the job done, but until I try and find out that I am lacking something, I won’t know. It comes down to that underlying fear of FAILURE. Of messing it up, so royally that you end up questioning your command of the English language. I know that’s an irrational fear. I know its a fear driven by not having successfully completed a project of this magnitude before.

This project has its roots in an idea I started in 2011 for NaNoWriMo. I didn’t start working on it seriously until last year, but even then its been fits and starts. At my age, I can’t afford to be wasting time spinning my wheels on projects. I need to be completing projects and moving on. I get that this will be my FIRST novel and whether it survives revision or ends up in the trunk remains to be seen, but regardless I need to move it forward.

So this is me working it out in my own head and putting it out there in the world that I need to make this happen. I need to commit to the process and dive in and not come up for air until its done. Whether it matches my vision or not, I need to get to the end before I can judge the outcome.

Wish me luck and don’t be afraid to ask me how’s the novel coming. See you on the other side.