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Archive for March 2006

A night of schmooze

I spent last night at the latest Montreal Film Group (MFG) soiree, meant to be an evening of informative presentations by film-related organizations. The room was packed, and I met several people. It was impossible not to, even for me.

At the same time, the size of the crowd proved a disadvantage. About half the attendees showed up to socialize, and rudely yammered on during the presentations. Granted, most of the presentations could be summed up as “Hi, I’m Jane. Go to our Web site for more information.” But show some courtesy, people.

I think Ezra and Val have reached a fork in the MFG road. With more than 500 members to manage, they will have to decide to take their group along the path to social club or helpful organization, or at least they will have to define the events more precisely. I would not have wanted to speak last night, and the noise bothered a few of the people onstage who did.

I met several people from Alex’s parties, including Doug Taylor and the seemingly omnipresent Elana.

I ran into Josa again, and she remembered my name – my last name, not my first name, which was on my nametag. In one of those degree of separation deals that seems so out there until you realize that only 274 anglos still ive in Montreal, I chatted with Geoffrey Uloth.

Geoff works the IITS/AV counter in Concordia’s CC building. For the two school years previous to this one, for which the Journalism Department moved into new quarters, I taught my courses in the CC building and twice a week, I would borrow a projector from Geoff. I had no idea he was a filmmaker until last night.

That’s a nice coincidence, but the twist is that Elvi’s band, the Disciples of Ursula Big Band, contributed to the soundtrack on a film by Geoff’s twin brother David.

There. Now that story is all O. Henry on your ass.

I met several new people as well. I kept bumping into Ridge, an Aussie who was clearly having too much fun working the crowd. Another gentleman, Emru, has a life that parallels mine. He’s a freelance journalist and editor, runs a hobbyist history Web site, and blogs (all his links are available there). Who knows, he might turn out to be a friend.

Most intriguingly, Phillippe came over to chat as my evening wound down. He’s looking for a collaborator on a screenplay. His pitch seemed right up my alley, setting-wise, and I can only hope that he’ll appreciate the upcoming revision of “Sheep’s End” as a writing sample.

Netsurfer and other briefs

I’m working at a good clip, on “Sheep’s End” and on stories for one of Alex’s projects.

Out of the blue last night, I and the principals of Netsurfer received a long e-mail from Arthur. I’m not free to reveal what he wrote, but he did explain what he’s been doing: working on a hardware start-up. The device will hit the market in a month or so.

That doesn’t really explain his total lack of communication, but at least we know he’s not a strung-out junkie. And Arthur reiterated his desire to keep NSD going – although not, it must be noted, for the first time. He’s independently considering the same options I did back in January. (Search for “Netsurfer” in the nifty new Google search form at the bottom of the right sidebar to find those options.)

I have lots going on this week, other than the screenwriting stuff.

I also have some tests and assignments to correct and Child Two is having a sleepover birthday party Saturday night, but the big event is the annual Irrational League fantasy baseball draft Friday night. More on that in a subsequent post, along with a new list of only the finest baseball links.

In the meantime, let me sate your appetite for all things Webs with a photo of Child Three:
Elvi bought that hat in San Antonio, where she recently attended an industry conference.

Oh, and the kids and I will be in Houston for Passover, possibly with the wife, too. And you may find it amusing that we managed to destroy our central thermostat while moving a couch, so the house is alternatingly steaming or freezing for now. We got our newer van back yesterday (the starter had shorted out and burned wire insulation) so a broken thermostat only seems fair and balanced on the consumer karma scale.

It can’t be that hard to wire a new thermostat, can it?

Wow, writing

I spent the whole day on a new draft of “Sheep’s End”. It’s a particularly hard task. Reviews have ranged all over the map, so I’m not sure What really does need to change. Readers did reach more or less a consensus on a few items, so I can focus on those.

I need to start off with more action. The first draft languished in character through most of the first act. The script lends an opportunity to a burst of action at the beginning – two opportunities, in fact. I can choose action that reveals more of the character of the lead, or a different action sequence that reveals plot. The choice is clear (the first one).

The lead, Hawthorn, needs to be less subtle. He’s not a man of many words, but that leads most readers to assume he’s a man of not much drive. That distinction requires less subtlety, I suppose, but I can’t help looking down my nose just a little bit at readers who don’t perceive that distinction.

Similar critiques follow Hawthorn’s decision to invest himself in the plot. Several readers failed to notice his motivation. It could be clearer.

The first thing I’m doing is transcribing the first draft back to an outline, which lets me better analyze the story and motivations of each scene. Once that’s fixed, I can go forward and make sure each scene hits its note, accomplishes its goals.

There’s a success in here somewhere. I just have to carve it out.

Vans across America

In the summer of 1997, we moved back to Montreal, with our California girls, Children One and Two. We didn’t want to take our fleet of two Hondas.

We decided to buy a minivan and drive across the US, to make a vacation of our journey back. We found a nice 1994 Voyager, which we snapped up under circumstances I cannot relate under penalty of emotional pain.

Our route in August included highlights such as Donner Memorial State Park, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Dinosaur National Monument, and the airshow at Oshkosh.

We made sure to film fields of corn in every state and province on our route, but unknown to us, the mic on our video camera had expired early on, so my witty cornfield commentary was lost to the ages.

Elvi banged up the front of the van on a concrete divider that first winter back. The replacement bumper drooped because it was crammed in with brute force rather than proper fit, although. We were never able to get it fixed.

If you know anything at all about Chrysler’s Dodge/Plymouth minivans in the 1990s, you know they suffered transmission problems. Because our Plymouth Voyager was American, Chrysler chose to honour the warranty only in the US. We found a garage in Burlington to do the work. I drove it down and took the bus back. I hitched a lift down to pick it up with Judi, then the editor of Netsurfer Science. She lived in Ottawa but offered to take me. I rudely slept all the way down.

That was the second transmission. The third transmission we had to pay for ourselves, but at least we were able to use a mechanic within walking distance. That Voyager continued to have expected minor problems throughout its life with us.

My beloved father-in-law passed away suddenly a few summers ago. My mother-in-law does not have a licence, and Elvi, as the only heir who could use his compact car (I forget exactly what it was), brought it home for us to use as a second vehicle. Allow me a touching moment: the last time I spoke to my father-in-law was in that car as he drove me and some subset of my kids back from his house.

We had his car until that winter, when Elvi in low visibility drove up a concrete partition and flipped it onto its back.

The following summer, the brakes failed on the van as Elvi was driving it in for repairs, which resulted in a properly fitted bumper this time.

In 2004, we got our hands on another minivan, a hand-me-down from Elvi’s sister and her family. It was a 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan. Elvi drove it back from California with Child Three and her aunt.

The second van was sneakily reliable for nearly a year. We took both vans to a birthday party for my uncle in upstate New York last summer. I drove the newer van, Elvi the older. About halfway to the border, something started rattling under the hood. I almost made it to the border, although that point didn’t matter. The crankshaft had cracked, which screwed up the alignment of the cylinders, which destroyed the engine block.

Other than that, the newer van has performed adequately, although it has suffered three minor collisions. A neighbour gently dented the lower side door, as he tried to pass on the right while I was pulling right turn into our driveway. A friend rubbed a concrete pole as he pulled our borrowed van into a gas station. An anonymous gentleperson dented the fender in a minor hit and run in the parking lot during Child Three’s hockey practice.

These past few weeks take the cake, however. The older van started groaning – it apparently has a cracked engine block.

How do these things happen? I’m not a car maven, but I make sure my vehicles get regular maintenance by paid professionals.

Yesterday, Elvi lost a plastic card worth $50 in gas inside the newer van’s dashboard. It actually fell inside behind the cup holder. Granted, that’s only $50, but it’s not worth paying somebody for the time to retrieve it. Moreover, that’s the least of our problems. This morning, this newer van started smoking and smelling like plastic, and finally refused to go or start.

I figure that the gas card shorted out something crucial and then melted – but that’s just a hunch. The folks who get paid to figure these things out haven’t yet, other than to confirm that it’s an electrical problem and that something burned. We get to pay them to pull apart the car looking for the elusive malfunction.

It was the older van’s demise that prompted me to blog about my vehicles. This new problem with the newer van, one that has left us without wheels and dependent on the mercy of friends, is the icing on the cake.

I can quit you, Chef

I don’t usually watch “South Park”, not because I don’t appreciate it, but because I don’t watch a lot of TV. I couldn’t tell you when the show airs.

Last night, I had the TV on as I cruised the blogosphere on my laptop, and the only watchable channel I found was Comedy Central – lo and behold, there it was.

My cultural awareness is vast and ever-expanding, so I knew that Isaac Hayes (Chef) had left the show in an apparent fit of righteous indignation over its religious “intolerance and bigotry.” Hayes is a Scientologist, and conventional wisdom has his departure linked to last fall’s “Trapped in the Closet” episode, which mocked Scientology and adherent Tom Cruise.

Comedy Central had scheduled a rerun of “Trapped in the Closet” for last night, but pulled the episode for reasons most entertainingly left to conspiracy fans to guess at.

The network broadcast a replacement episode that seemed awfully topical. Chef returns from a stint with the Super Adventure Club, which held some thinly veiled Scientology precepts – plus pedophilia. Chef’s dialogue was obviously spliced together. Chef himself had been brainwashed by the club. And in a grand and grotesque send-off, Chef falls off a cliff, gets impaled on a tree, and is eaten by a grizzly and a cougar.

This episode, it seemed to me, was slapped together in a week with snippets of past Chef dialogue. My hunch was right.

Bonus horrible critique:

“By the Book” treatment critiques are dribbling in. Women seem to like it, but have problems with the characters. Men seem to like the characters, but have problems with the plot. It does need more plot, but I’m going to set that aside and turn back to “Sheep’s End” for now.

Here are some snippets from one reader (edited):

It’s a total mess my friend. You have some interesting characters, with no real story, pushing them forward. And they have all these characteristics that add up to nothing and bog down the read, plus I don’t know what kind of story it is. If I were you, I’d start over.

Yeah, that was a guy.

I claim this phrase in the name of Webs

Marior asked if we could write a line or two for the teens in “Time and Space”. Nearmiss feels like crap, so I took a whack at it, much to everybody’s delight.

One of the teens says, “Dude, we no longer worship your non-leet skillz.”

Both Nearmiss and Marior asked me what “leet” is, but I’m guessing most of you online addicts know that it derives from “elite” and is usually spelled “l33t”.

I wrote Marior, “The jargon is called leet-speak, and it’s used by online gamers, although it’s entering the vernacular of Generation X-Game.”

There’s my claim: Generation X-Game. The current teen and post-teen skater/gamer/punk/l33t generation. It’s original, according to Google. Now, watch it blossom.

Bonus “Time and Space” news from Marior:

First day of shooting seemed to go off without too many problems. Thank God. I think it won’t look too bad.



Where do I get my ideas? Let me follow the same thread as last post, and look at my last three features.

“101” is obvious. That story has been my hobby since 1998. “Sheep’s End” grew out of an adventure I created for some role-playing friends. “By the Book” comes, in theme, from something I wanted to say. The plot is nothing special: a family breaking up.

Find a conflict and build around it. That’s the basics.

Keep a journal or at least a pen on you at all times. I have notes on notepaper, checkbooks, (paper) napkins, etc. You’re bound to think up a decent idea at some point, even if it’s only a seed that leads to a much different idea.

Not feeling creative? There are stories all around you. Pick up a newspaper and mine it for ideas. Try your hand at your own version of Shakespeare or Jules Verne or myth or fairy tale. I bet I would run out of fingers as I count film adaptations of “King Lear”.

Some writers are bursting with ideas, fraught with so many ideas that there’s no way they can use all of them. Others only come up with enough to match their needs.

Yet others go into a little bunker, sit down, hand over a credit card, jack themselves in, collect free-roaming particles of noetic thought, then go home and write it down.

The trick is not in the ideas, the trick lies in the execution.

Bonus moment of comedy for the day:

Q: What do you get when you cross a grade-school production of “Grease”, wireless microphones, and an incompetent soundboard operator?

A: Over the speaker system, you hear a cast member go to the bathroom during act two.

Showing off, finally

In the coming days, I’ll answer Naila’s follow-up question on how I come up with ideas, continue the car saga, and bring an ugly critique to your attention. For now, however, I want to share a CSS discovery that took me an hour to figure out.

I’ve never been happy with the script pages CSS code that I use here. It relies on lists and that’s a kludge. I had to do the same sort of thing as I create pages of excerpts from Alex’s upcoming book on TV writing.

The key is the lack of space between the character name slug (centered, all caps) and the dialogue that follows (margins, left-justified).

I struggled for a while with
tags and span tags. Finally, I had a real eureka moment.

These are the styles I designed:

.pages {
font-family:Courier, “Courier New”, monospace;

.char {

.dial {

The left and right margins can vary in size and units. The magic is in the margin-bottom declaration of the character slug (class=”char”) and the margin-top declaration of the dialogue (class=”dial”) style. If either of these declarations doesn’t equal zero, the magic does not happen.

Now, here’s what the code looks like in action:


Hey, I called the other night…

Oh, my God. He knows! Jill tries to cover:


Yeah, I accidentally kicked the plug out. I’m such a klutz.

That’s elegant, if I may say so myself. If only I could solve story problems as gracefully.

(I changed the name of this post by adding the “finally”. Blogger has been misbehaving and munching posts instead of accepting legitimate HTML for the < and > symbols. Bad Blogger!)

Story-writing interlude

Please bear with me as I interrupt my car rants to answer a question about – gasp! – storytelling.

Naila asked, “How do you get started, writing, when you have an idea?”

I’m going to limit my answer to writing stories for the screen, since that’s what I’ve been doing lately.

My first encounter with people who wanted to write screenplays was an eight-week screenwriting course offered through the Quebec Writers Federation, with playwright/screenwriter David Sherman as the instructor. There were 13 of us in the course, and the broadest stroke I learned there was what makes a story.

Many of the students did not know how to construct a story. What they came to class with were settings.

And that is my step one – fundamental, but no less explicit for it. Make sure you have a story, and not just a setting. What happens? Once you decide what happens, you can decide where it happens.

There are a couple of ways to look at what happens, however. There’s plot and there’s theme. I don’t have a hard and fast rule on which comes first. Of the last three features I’ve written, “101” and “Sheep’s End” started with plot, “By the Book” started with theme. Once I had the plot of “Sheep’s End” down, more or less, in my head, I began the hang a theme on it. “101” grew a theme as I wrote it, and it suffers as a result. I won’t rely on that method again.

Once the story is roughed out in my head, I rough it out on paper. Read five technical screenwriting books and you’ll get five ways to structure a story. Any structure will work, as long as it has a beginning, middle, and end. That’s universal. That’s what makes a story a story.

I always seem to think of the end first. Many writers invent the characters and let them take the story where it goes. Not me. I need a goal. I invent the ending first, then the beginning, and then the infamous second-act journey, the middle.

With the idea bubbling in my head, pen hits paper – literally, since I work in longhand initially. Again, I took three different approaches on my last three scripts.

With “101”, I tried to follow Syd Field’s three-act structure. First, I wrote out scenes on index cards. That gave me a way to gauge the story as it grew. I could shift and change scenes as needed. That worked well enough.

For “Sheep’s End”, I followed the structural advice found in Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey“. I had some fun with that as I played with his theories – for example, having my heroes enter a cave when Vogler discusses metaphorical caves. I also used index cards for this.

I did not use index cards for “By the Book”. I outlined scenes on a notepad. I think I prefer that method. The index cards seem disjointed. I don’t think it matters either way. In terms of structure, the eight-sequence structure as digested by Warren Leonard. I departed from that structure freely when I needed to, but his method helps break down an outline into manageable chunks.

Once I have an outline done, I start writing, eventually. I’m a great editor, but I’m horrible at editing myself. I need to forget about something before I come back to it, so I try to set aside an outline for weeks or months before I come back to it. That doesn’t always work, because my stories incubate even when I don’t look at them. I’m constantly jotting notes down for all of them – but even that is helpful. The earlier in the process you can improve the story, the easier it is to do.

By this time, I’ve typed the outline into a text document on my Mac. I type the scenes directly on the computer.

“By the Book” is the only screenplay for which I’ve written a treatment. A treatment is not easily defined. I’ve seen treatments five pages long, but James Cameron’s treatment for “Titanic” is said to have run 75 pages. For my treatment, I followed Alex Epstein’s example. One of the benefits of working for him is what I get to read.

I can best describe my treatment as a screenplay without the dialogue. I write down the actions, the motivations, the reactions. I wasn’t sure how long it would be, but I got to 30 pages using screenplay format. I’m confident that once I detail it and add dialogue, it’ll reach 100 pages. At least, that’s what I’m expecting.

Here’s a small sample of the treatment, so you can see what I mean (Daniel=father; Emma=mother; Mel=boarder; Peter=a fraternal twin, one of three kids):

  • Daniel leads a family meeting. It’s an interrogation of the children, with Emma but not Mel in attendance.
  • Daniel carefully asks the children who used his tools. Too quickly, Peter says, "Not me." The boy's obviously lying. Daniel gives Peter three chances to tell the truth. The boy won't own up.
  • Daniel sends Peter to his room.
  • Peter wails. Emma wants to go to him, but Daniel forbids it.
  • Out of sight of Daniel and Emma, Mel sneaks out of her room to go to comfort the boy.
  • Daniel pauses to gather strength. He lays out his plan for the day, which concludes with a pick-up basketball game that night.
  • Emma forgot to tell him about plans she'd made in his absence for a potluck dinner with some friends from church. Emma had promised the dinner a pot of Daniel's chili.
  • Daniel takes this in stride.
  • Emma says she was about to go out and get him the ingredients, but they can cancel if he prefers. Daniel agrees to her plan: it’s not too much of a hardship to cook and do work on the house at the same time, so long as the kids stay out of trouble in the kitchen.

That will obviously expand as I add dialogue and more detail.

Bonus comment on “Sheep’s End”:

The “Sheep’s End” screenplay received a pleasantly positive critique from a reviewer steeped in literary criticism. She used the word “leitmotif” and compares “Sheep’s End” to the work of German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. Pretty good for a piece that uses the word “ass” 17 times, don’t you think?

The California years

I have a headache, Child Three is home with stomach flu, and I’m up to page 27 of a total of probably 30 pages finished with all 29 pages of the “By the Book” treatment, so I can afford a blogging break.

In California, Elvi drove a Honda CRX. Once Child One became a reality, we needed something bigger, so I finally fulfilled my dream. I got myself a used silver/gray Honda Civic sedan (fourth generation). (There will be a photo of blog pioneer Justin Hall’s ’88 Civic up there once Blogger returns to full functionality.)

Other than an electrical problem that I had repaired, this car worked like it was supposed to, and that’s all you can ask for. Toward the end of my time with it, a black widow spider built a web under the block and laid her eggs there. That freaked me out.

The left rear corner of the car had suffered damage when an agressive woman rear-ended me as I slowed to turn into the pediatrician’s complex with Child One. She had the gall to get out of the car and yell at me for slowing down on a street, as if I didn’t have brake lights or a turning signal. I got a generous settlement from the insurance company, but didn’t fix the car.

I sold the car in 1997, before we moved back to Montreal. Given what I paid for the Civic initially, and subtracting the insurance settlement and the $700 I sold it for, it had cost me about $300 to “rent” it for three years.

I was going to use this post to segue into the minivan era, but my head hurts too much. More next time.

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