Con Report: Ad Astra 2016 – Part I

The annual Ad Astra convention in Toronto* is one of those local SF&F conventions that I have been attending off and on since early 2000s. After I moved North ten years ago, its gotten a lot more challenging to attend, logistically, financially, and  requires a time commitment from both my work and family for me to attend. I was undecided about attending this year’s convention (Apr 29 – May 1st, 2016) for a while due to all those factors, but in the end decided I had to go.

There’s something to be said for devoting a weekend to talking about the craft of writing and geeking out over books, authors, and all stuff science fiction and fantasy related with old friends and people you just met.  I find it reinvigorating and gets me excited all over again about writing. Especially my own writing.

This year I didn’t go so much for the Guest of Honours as I did the panels. That’s not a slight on any of the guests, they had fabulous GOHs in Tom Doherty of Tor (Publishing), Jack Whyte (Author), Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savoy of ChiZine Publications (Editors/Publishers), and Catherine Asaro (Author / Musician).

Despite the schedule not being released until the week before the con, the panel descriptions were available a month or more ahead of the convention and helped solidify my decision to go. When the schedule was finally released I had a number of conflicting decsions to make and one of the panels near and dear to my heart was being held from 2-3 pm on the final day of the con when I had planned to travel home.

Below is a run down on my weekend and a brief glimpse at the panels and what I thought I got out of them.

Friday – April 29th, 2016

I arrived at the hotel around supper time, checked in and dealt with a few irregularities with my room (AC was not working) and ran to meet fellow writers from Sudbury for dinner in the hotel bar. We compared notes on our 1st and 2nd picks for the weekend and tried to figure of which ones we had in common. After supper it was off to our first panels of the weekend.

7 pm – Gateways to Science Fiction and Fantasy

What draws writers, and readers, to science fiction and fantasy in the first place? For some it’s their childhood reading tastes; for others, it might be RPGs, a movie, a tv show, or a specific book or author encountered as a teen or adult. Does how you came to the genre affect what you expect of it?


Panelists:
JD Deluzio, Robert Boyczuk, Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Simon McNeil

I was curious about this panel for a couple of reasons. Firstly, one of the writing associations I am involved in locally is a mix of writers from all genres and only a handful of us are SF&F writers. We’re having a discussion in May on what got us into the genre and I thought this panel might help spark some ideas to discuss and recommendations to make to the non-genre readers in the group.

The evidence of the greying of fandom was evident in the audience for this panel with most of us in attendance being north of 40 and probably the majority was closer to 60 if I had to guess based on the comments. One of the moderators was born in late 1970s which made him probably the youngest of the bunch.

Interestingly enough the panellists and audience members fell into one of three camps, although there were some overlap in how they came to SF & F., Either their parents were fully supportive and they read to them from classics like Tolkien  or their parents were indifferent/hostile toward genre and frivolous things like reading comics/watching tv which encourage them to seek it out more. Other people were drawn to it either through a love of space exploration of the 1950s through 1970s and its representation in pop culture of the time. Several panellists and audience members, myself included mentioned getting hooked on Lost in Space and Twilight Zone.

When the conversation turned to getting other people involved in SF&F the suggestion was don’t try to immediately introduce them to the “classics”. Chose something contemporary. One suggestion was Robert Charles Wilson. Another was Robert Sawyer. Both Canadians of course.

There was some discussion about people already reading SF&F and not even realizing it – i.e. Hunger Games. There was also discussion about mainstream culture erasing labels of genres. The conversation also drifted to introducing our own kids into the genre and where to begin. It gave me pause to think about the direct and indirect influences I expose my kids to and that I have opportunity to make a more conscientious effort in that area.

8 pm – The Medium is the Message – Plays, Screenplays, Novels and Other Media

As a writer, you may have considered writing that novel. But what about that screenplay? That play? That board game? That web series? How can you make a living as a writer or create that great work of art while thinking outside the box of simply words on a page? This panel is about transitioning between various mediums to create the universe that lives in your mind, some of which you maybe never even considered, and how to approach each one differently.

Panelists:

Jen Frankel, Leah Bobet

I was interested in this panel for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I took part in a playwright workshop a few years back and was curious to see other people’s experiences in applying their love of SF&F to other media.

Both Jenn Frankel and Leah Bobet were knowledgable and entertaining speakers with a variety of experience in other mediums. Leah has experience in video games, comics, and art installations in addition to her novels. Jenn has experience in theatre and TV production.

It was interesting to hear their experiences, but I found I was looking for more pointers on how to develop your work in other mediums. I asked them about developing works for other mediums and how does one break into that medium. My point being that its hard enough to get traditionally published, so for a writer to invest time and energy into developing say a play or screenplay without knowing the business side of the industry seems like a very big gamble. The response I got was a combination of  its who you know and that it all depends on who you came up with in the writing world. Encouraging and discouraging at the same time.

One audience member with some theatre background was more helpful in the practical pointers and gave me some suggestions after the panel for which I was thankful. Sorry I never got his name. Good panel over all and don’t regret sitting in on it for a minute.

9 pm – Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction Launch Party

9 pm –  Robert J. Sawyer Birthday Party

These were two separate events that I wanted to pop into that started at the same time. I showed up to wish Rob Sawyer a Happy Birthday and to snag a piece of very delicious cake. Was that maple flavoured icing?  I managed to miss the signing of Happy Birthday (I assume everyone sang?) As you would expect Rob Sawyer has a sizable number of friends and fans so the room was quite busy so I didn’t stay as long as I might have.

I made my way down the hall to the Clockwork Canada launch party where I was just in time for the readings to begin. Editor Dominik Parisien was talking about the anthology and his vision for it before introducing the 4 authors he had on hand to read from it.
Charlotte Ashley,  Kate Heartfield, Kate Story, and Claire Humphrey each read a portion of their stories and I was hooked by each of them. The collection is a blend of steampunk/alternate history in a Canadian setting. Of course I bought a copy and had the authors sign their stories. I look forward to reading the collection. IF you are curious about it Tor.com had a favourable review of it the week before it was launched here – http://www.tor.com/2016/04/29/book-reviews-anthology-clockwork-canada/

Up next Day 2 – Saturday at Ad Astra

 

Sarah Connor and the Strong Female Character

Terminator (1984)

Terminator (1984)

I had the opportunity to rewatch the original Terminator (1984) with my son last night on Netflix. He’s getting to that age where he’s mature enough and patient enough to sit through “classic” grown-up films that I enjoyed and form part of my pop culture DNA.

The point of my post, was not so much my son’s reaction to the movie (which was interesting in itself), but rather my own thoughts about  Sarah Connor and the role of the strong female character.

OLD MAN ALERT: I first saw Terminator in probably the summer of 1985 or 86 when I was a teenager. It was a year or two after it had been in theatres when it showed up on a FREE preview weekend of The First Choice movie network on pay-TV in Canada. I sat mesmerized watching it late one night, riveted by the action and Brad Fidel’s score. Since then I have probably watched it a dozen or more times and have probably owned it on everything except LaserDisc and Betamax(Yes it was released on both those formats.)

We’ve all come to view Sarah Connor in general, and Linda Hamilton’s version in particular as the definition of a strong female lead. There is no denying that she’s all that, but oddly I think that when you ask most people about Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor they picture this:

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

And not this version below:

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator (1984)

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator (1984)

Obviously the first one looks more “badass” than the other, but the second one is no less strong a female lead than the other.

In the original film, Sarah is a young waitress working a thankless job at a local family diner and sharing an apartment with her friend Ginger. Just a girl in her 20s trying to figure out her place in life. She’s caught up in this unbelievable and traumatic experience  as she targeted by the Terminator that will stop at nothing to kill her. (Spoiler Alert!) Sure she triumphs in the end , but through it all she reacts as many of us might; with disbelief, shock, tears, fear, and anger. You know normal human emotions given the circumstances.

Sadly, it’s not just Sarah’s reaction in the circumstances that makes her a “strong” female character, but rather our own low expectations of female characters in similar circumstances. The fact that she perseveres and goads on a critically injured Kyle Reese in the final battle is due to the fact that the director and writer Cameron has allowed her character to go through those events and survive.

Having all the answers and being tough as nails is one way to have a “strong character”. Another more realistic way is to allow them to be human, show emotion, and have weaknesses, and STILL triumph. This applies to both male and female characters.

Not to steal away from Sarah’s character, but take a moment to contrast the two male lease, the Terminator and Kyle Reese. While the Terminator can rely on his virtually indestructible nature to survive, emphasized by Arnold’s hyper-masculine body builder physique,  Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and his “average” male physique by contrast  must rely on the strength of his wit and loyalty to John Connor to survive. Even though human and weaker physically, Reese is a stronger and well rounded character as we learn what motivates him and his passion to save Sarah.

Cameron has been held up as one of those pioneering writer/directors in Hollywood that instead of trying to turn women into male action heroes, wrote women characters that were true to themselves and their femininity and still saved the day. Thankfully we’ve had more creative people, both male and female come up through the ranks in the last 30 or so years that also believe in creating believable female characters that carry the story on their own.

In Equality Now speech, May 15, 2006 Joss Whedon related a story where he was asked “So, why do you write these strong female characters?” again and again by reporters during press junkets.  His variety of responses were thoughtful and revealing, but he ended the story in frustration and his final response was “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

I try to write strong characters in my own stories regardless of whether they’re male or female. In my story “Second Harvest”, Charlotte is young nurse serving with the Canadian Army in World War I and has seen a lot of horrible things. Not just the horrors of war, but also what the doctors and scientists have done with the bodies of the dead in the name of science and winning the war. She’s basically had a mental breakdown and has been discharged and returns home, where she has to confront her role in the war. I think through it all her humanity is what carries her forward. She has a compassion for those that have suffered at the hands of others during the war and eventually wants to balance the injustice.

Maybe, it was seeing characters such as Sarah Connor as an impressionable teen that helped shaped my views in some small way. I just hope I can continue to carry the torch forward in my own writing when it comes to writing believable and strong female characters.

I leave you with a quote from J.J. Abrams another director/writer from my generation that sums up what I’m trying to say.

I don’t try and write strong female characters or strong male characters, I just try and write, hopefully, strong characters and sometimes they happen to be female.

J. J. Abrams

Writer: Level Up!

Writing is a long journey and as a writer it helps to stop and get the lay of the land every once in a while. To pause and look back and to see how far you’ve come, but also l to look ahead at that next summit, catch your breath and say”Let’s do this”.

Portrait of the writer as a young man.

Portrait of the writer as a young man.

I’ve been writing all my life. Most of it spent wandering aimlessly hoping I would hit upon some magic formula for success. (What can I say I was young and naive)  I wasted much of my youth thinking I had all the time in the world to write and that someday I would REALLY crack down and take it seriously. It wasn’t until my wife and I were expecting our first child 12 years ago that I committed myself to this path that I am on now.

I realized then that if I didn’t double down and make an effort that I risked losing my writing to the demands of parenthood and family life. It would be far too easy to say – “I’ll pick it up again when my kids are older and I have more time.” Of course there never is enough time. You have to carve that time out of everything.

I became active in writing groups, both while I was living in Toronto and now here in Sudbury. I attended workshops, read books about writing, and most of all took the time to write. Ever so slowly, its been paying off. My writing has steadily improved and just last year I sold my first short story, Second Harvest to Fictionvale.com.

Back in 2011 one of my writing buddies – Stephanie Charette applied to and attended a workshop called Viable Paradise at Martha’s Vineyard. The workshop is a week long intense session with professional writers and editors in science fiction and fantasy. Here’s how they describe the workshop:

Viable Paradise is a unique one-week residential workshop in writing and selling commercial science fiction and fantasy. The workshop is intimate, intense, and features extensive time spent with best-selling and award-winning authors and professional editors currently working in the field. VP concentrates on the art of writing fiction people want to read, and this concentration is reflected in post-workshop professional sales by our alumni. ~From Viable Paradise website.

Stephanie came back from that workshop a changed person.  She encouraged me to apply practically the minute she stepped off the plane in 2011. I wanted to attend, but I somehow had excuses for not applying each year. Too busy with work. Too busy with family commitments. I can’t afford the money this year. I can’t get the time off work. “Next year I’ll apply” I said. For three years. 

Then 2015 came around and I looked up at that next summit and said “Let’s do this!” My family was on board and I was finally in a position at work where I could manage the time off. I enlisted the help of my writing circle of friends both to be my cheer leading squad and to help me whip my application into shape.

I submitted my application a few weeks before the application period closed and waited – until yesterday when I got the word.

I have been accepted! Look out VP19 here I come! (Well, in 4 months anyhow)

Scott Pilgrim Levels Up

Scott Pilgrim Levels Up

I suddenly feel like I have levelled up as a writer. Ready to take on this challenge. (Okay maybe the true Level Up won’t come until AFTER the workshop, but you know what I mean.)

Thanks to everyone who has supported me along the way on this journey, I couldn’t have done it with out you. I’m looking forward to this next chapter in my writing life and more than just the new skills I will add to my tool kit, I am looking forward to the new friendships and personal connections that will flow from it.

 

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.

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