Slitherers of Costa Rica

Before we left for Costa Rica, my brother warned me about hiking on jungle trails.

“Be careful what you grab when you climb a hill because that may just look like a branch.”

“If you have to step over a fallen log, step with a walking stick first to make sure the only thing under the log is dead leaves.”

“Tap out your shoes before you put them on in the morning to make sure only your toes reach the end.”

Okay! I get it! The creepy crawlies aren’t just beautiful. Can we go now? You first!

Luckily (I guess), the only significant nasties I managed to see on our trip were housed in a serpentarium near Volcan Arenal. And as I suspected, they were quite beautiful.

Seven words

Seven words

The lifespan of a conversation never had

Pain unrecognized invalidated

Anger unexpressed unbearable

Disappointment ingrained unappeased

Sadness unutterable unrelenting

Despair intolerable unfathomable

Acceptance impossible unreachable

Hope unthinkable unrealistic

I am sorry that I hurt you

Seven words


Consciously unconscious

When a writer is on her game, when she has found a creative groove, she writes at two levels.

At the conscious level, she weaves the stories of her various characters and environments into a literary carpet of amazing delicacy. She understands the work won’t be flawless when she’s done, but she knows and is comfortable in the belief that she can surgically pull the extraneous threads later.

This is a beautiful thing. But an even more dazzling spectacle is happening at the unconscious level.

This is the level at which the writer’s subconscious creates delicate near-invisible tendrils of connections between characters and themselves, their surroundings and other characters. It is at this level that amazing nuance and metaphor is added to a story. Without the harsh distractions of planning and plotting (both very important, mind you), the subconscious is free to perform magic that we may not recognize or appreciate until much later in the creative process.

One way you witness this is when you realize that conscious concerns you had before sitting down to write have been miraculously addressed, as though story-writing elves snuck onto our computers overnight.

Interestingly, this is one reason why it’s important to have other people read your stuff. They will see things you cannot. In some cases, it is because of what they bring to the table—their personal biases and experiences. But more importantly, it is because they aren’t encumbered by your blinders.

Other readers see your work more clearly because they are untainted with what comes before and after, whether on the page or in your head.

I witnessed and shared this personally in two reading group sessions where my fellow writers created incredible metaphors that deeply informed their lead characters. Yet, when pressed directly as to whether they were conscious of those decisions, both were the most shocked people in the room.

Both demurred that the incidences were quite accidental, but whereas I might agree that they were unintentional, I don’t believe they were in any way accidental.

We make choices for a reason (or several) even when we don’t know what those reasons are. The truth is our truth no matter how ignorant we may remain to what that truth is. We cannot help but splay that truth across our pages.

To some extent, I think creative harmony lay in not caring what those reasons are. For if we try to dissect them, I fear we run the risk of killing them. It is enough, I think, to let our subconscious guide us while we work consciously.

Let the magic within you happen. Your work will be the better for it.

I never intended to take a photo of someone urinating in a Washington, DC alley way, but am tickled I did...especially as he realizes he's been caught

I never intended to take a photo of someone urinating in a Washington, DC alley way, but am tickled I did… especially as he realizes he’s been caught

Simians of Costa Rica

Perhaps one of my favourite moments on my recent trip to Costa Rica was an evening spent conversing with a howler monkey.

From the balcony of our room in Manuel Antonio, a lone male somewhere in the pitch black of night was letting the universe know he was there. Not to be outdone conversationally, I wanted him to know I was around as well, and so I joined in.

I am confident that some of our hotel mates thought the neighbour a little mad, but the invisible howler seemed to be quite animated about the company. Animated enough that the fearless one in our family, my brother with whom I was travelling, finally asked me to cool it, lest we have someone else sharing our room.

Sunshine Award

Well, aren’t I the lucky fellow?


I have been nominated for the Sunshine Award by fellow blogger Kira Lyn Blue, a self-describe overanalyzer, ninja squirrel wrangler and urban fantasy author. On that last one, I’m not sure if that means city-dweller who writes stories of the fantastic or if she writes stories about urban fantasy’s like clean air, functional infrastructure, no traffic and mayors who govern rather than politic.

Based on her request for more pics and poetry, it would seem that Kira Lyn is a fan of my less pedantic offerings, which is completely acceptable to me. In fact, because my photography and poetry is more of an artistic endeavour, I am highly flattered that she has asked for more.

And, if I understand correctly, the award is recognition for those who positively and creatively inspire other bloggers, so I am doubly humbled by the honour she has bestowed on me.

So, apparently the rules of the game include: posting the logo (lovely it is); linking to my nominator; answering 10 questions (see below); nominating 10 others (including links and comments) and informing them they have been nominated (see further below).

I give you these fifteen—oy—TEN, ten commandments, I mean questions:

Favourite colour: Orange…Hallowe’en is the bomb!

Favourite animal: Ferret…because I think I identify with an animal that can be extremely smart and stupid at the same time.

Favourite number: 13…anything that irrationally unnerves people is incredibly sexy to me.

Favourite non-alcoholic drink: Coffee…although I’ve seen plenty of alcoholics drink it, so I don’t know if it counts.

Favourite alcoholic drink: Beer…preferably porters or stouts.

Facebook or Twitter: Twitter…would have said FB, but liking the discipline involved in 140 characters, only a third of whom are funny

My passions: Humour, love, being…not to be all flower-child, but it took a long time for this answer not to be Nutella (which still runs a close 4th)

Giving or receiving gifts: Always giving…but not above receiving.

Favourite city: Montreal…sorry to my home of Toronto, but we stick-up-the-ass Ontarians need to learn how to relax and stop destroying our frickin’ heritage.

Favourite TV shows: Your Show of Shows, The Black Adder (series), House (the early seasons)

And now for something completely boorish…bloggish!:

Storiesbyfrancis – this woman has a beautiful soul and constantly makes me smile

Drawings, Paintings and Other Art – amazingly delicate artwork that lets the viewer bring their own thoughts to the table

Leanne Cole Photography – stunning architectural photos

Ned’s Blog – Unnervingly amusing and would have been a competitor in a previous life (the bastard!)

Julian Froment’s Blog – his zeal for reading and writing is infectious

Licht Years – incredibly delicate and uplifting photography

Abandoned Kansai – photographing the echoed lives of dead places

Pondering It All – poetry of great simplicity and yet incredible depth

Victoriously – a beautiful woman bravely sharing her personal demons with the world

Honeydobliss – 3 young women pre-emptively taking on midlife crises to do it right the first time(s)

Two’s company, three’s a story

As I read through a lot of early-stage screenplays and stage plays (including my own), I have noticed an interesting trend: Any scene that only involves two characters is boring.

No matter what the posturing, no matter how violent or loving, no matter whom the characters are, a scene with only two characters quickly loses steam for me. The dynamic peters out, and I find a lot of writers try to overcompensate for that by simply making the characters’ gestures larger. As though they believe talking louder to someone who does not speak your language will make you any more intelligible.

I speak for the trios: Turns out there may be some behavioural psychology behind this…at least, if you’re a rock hyrax—no, no, not “Lorax”.

Last week, a research paper was published in the journal Animal Behaviour that looked at the dynamics of triad relationships between these small creatures living in the hills of Israel, and the results were fascinating.

In a dyad relationship (two individuals), the authors say, you cannot make any predictions about the future other than friends will likely remain friends and enemies will likely remain enemies. With a triad (3 individuals), however, a social power dynamic is established that can morph in any number of directions, although some directions are inherently more likely and more stable than others.

The researchers found plenty of examples of the standby relationships, such as the friend of my enemy is my enemy (+ – -) or the friend of my friend is my friend (+ + +), and found that these relationships were highly stable in that they were likely to remain unchanged from year to year for any set of three individuals.

Enemy mine: What was fascinating, however, was that the seemingly unstable and counter-intuitive state of the enemy of my enemy is my enemy (- – -) occurred a lot more often than expected by chance and that it could be quite stable from year to year. This completely flies in the face of the standard that the enemy of my enemy is my friend (- – +).

From a story perspective, however, it can make complete sense. What if all 3 of you are vying for the same objective? As one of the enemies, you have to be constantly wary that any effort to thwart one enemy will provide an advantage to the other enemy.

Friend of a friend: What was also interesting was how gender played a role in the evolution of the unstable triad the friend of my friend is my enemy (+ + -). In females, this triad tended to morph toward (+ + +), while in males, it tended toward (+ – -), suggesting the need for female cooperation in raising young and male competitiveness in breeding. Typical men, eh?

From a story perspective, though, consider the power of (+ + -). What if the friend of your friend pushed them to do something contrary to your desires? This would make them your enemy—whether you’re being altruistic or selfish. A much more interesting dynamic as you may inadvertently push your friend into making a choice between the two opposing forces.

Dynamite dynamics: Regardless of the way your scenes play out, the triad dynamic gives you so much more room to play with emotionally and socially than a dyad. At any given moment, one of the trio can switch poles and the dynamic changes. With a dyad, the sudden switching of poles better have a good rationale in your story or it won’t be believable. That brings me to my next point.

Two characters: Now, before you go out and scrub all your two-person scenes from your screenplays, novels and stage plays (because yes, my hubris states I am that influential), let me remind you I said two characters, not two people.

Environment, situation and unseen third parties can also be characters in a scene between two individuals. It is those subtextual elements that convert a vomitously dull scene into one that sizzles. The challenge is in making sure the reader/viewer knows it’s there through carefully selected word choice and narrative (NOT exposition).

Two friends meet, but one hides a secret from a previous conversation that muddies their exchange in ways unexpected by the ill-informed (- + – or + + -) (e.g., plot to every spy movie ever made).

Two men with diametrically opposed viewpoints have to set aside their differences to deal with an external threat (- – -) (e.g., Hooper’s shark to his Quint is his enemy), which turns into (- + -)).

So, when you find yourself creating a scene with only two people, ask yourself who or what is influencing this scene aside from the two people and remember to incorporate them or it into the dialogue and narrative.

As Jed Barlett said to Sam Seaborn while playing chess in a scene from West Wing, “Look at the whole board.”

Didn't want to play your silly games, anyways

Didn’t want to play your silly games, anyways

Highway 401

Snowflakes hit the windshield / Like a swarm of angry bees

And are swept away as quickly / To make room for their brethren.


Clouds of frozen heaven / Scurry across the highway;

Riders on chaotic steeds / Dancing in a winter rodeo.


The car is buffeted / By the ever-changing winds,

And Zephyr’s howling wolves / Keep back all possible speech.


Ahead in the gloom, / Angry red eyes of devils

Waiver to and fro / Across sheets of black ice.


They slide into earthly clouds / Following well-worn lines,

The desperate marks of earlier travellers / In the uncertainty of the storm.


The normally limitless universe / Is bound on this night

By the visible few feet ahead.

The pathetic beams of headlights / Are white canes for blind drivers

Reaching cautiously into the unknown.

When life interferes

It has been an incredibly slow week on the blog as far as new posts are concerned. But whereas most people slow down periodically to take care of things that distract us from our writing like work, family obligations, vacations, etc, my absence from the blog has had more to do with writing than with not writing.

The past week has been an endless series of projects, all of which require some degree of writing.

Last Thursday, I started the latest of my screenwriting classes and needed to do some final edits before bringing my pages to class to be read aloud. As well, I needed to read the works of other students to get a handle on their work and to offer insights.

Friday brought meetings with potential clients to discuss their web and marketing strategies (and a lovely Indian buffet to boot). And the afternoon was spent doing research for an upcoming article on the anniversary of the elucidation of the structure of DNA (Happy 60th Birthday, DNA!), followed by an evening at baseball (yaaaaaawn) and then drinks with my screenwriting circle. I also picked up a new medical writing freelance gig.

Saturday and Sunday were chock-a-block full of my attempts to live-Tweet two hockey games between my Toronto Marlies and the St. John’s IceCap in the American Hockey League. You want to miss half a sporting event? Try live-Tweeting a hockey game. By the time you look up from your phone, you have another incident to Tweet.

The weekend and Monday were also spent on that freelance writing gig, so I buried my head into the wonders of neuropharmacology and tried to make sense of a chimera of a slide deck, trying to tease a coherent story out of the presentation. Yes, even medical information comes in the form of a story…or at least the better ones do.

And then to rattle my brain a little, I headed back to Art & Fear; a little book on the challenges that present themselves when trying to create art (more on the book in a later post). Step One: Go, create Art. The guilt from the book was enough to make me sit in front of my laptop and churn out 3 more pages for my latest screenplay…a lovely little family drama-comedy set in Eastern Canada.

And so, my poor blog languished in neglect. No doubt, feeling unloved and forgotten.

Not so, my blog, not so.

But you will need to learn to share my attentions with others. It’s all for the best, I promise.

Lucked into a team photo with the Toronto Marlies (me=last person, second row, right)

Lucked into a team photo with the Toronto Marlies (me=last person, second row, right)

Water course

Despite our best efforts to stage life with garden ponds, nature has a way of making them her own in very short order.

I find myself enraptured by the epic stories told in such confined spaces, losing hours of my life in these mythic displays.

(These photos were taken in Montreal; Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica; Kona Kailua, Hawaii)

(Re)Learning to Swim – Art vs Technique

I love to swim. It is one of my favourite activities and one of the only forms of exercise I don’t begrudge, perhaps because I can’t tell if I’m perspiring. I am by no means athletic or proficient with it, but I enjoy doing it and have decent stamina.

Several years ago, a friend of mine decided she wanted to learn to swim. As an adult, however, she was embarrassed that she didn’t already know how, so she asked if I could help her learn the basics. Being a good friend—and not just a little bit infatuated with her—I said sure, happy to help.

A few days later, we got to the pool and I tried to break things down for her. Unfortunately, unlike many other exercises, with swimming you are in water and therefore much of the mechanics are difficult to view directly. Thus, I had to show her the mechanics above water, as though swimming to the ceiling. And that’s when everything started to fall apart.

No sooner did I begin teasing out the various movements in swimming than I realized that I was rapidly losing the ability to swim. Eventually, I just had to thrash about for a bit to remind myself how to do it.

It was unnerving.

I had been swimming (swum? swam?) for so many years that it was just something I did. It was never something I analyzed. You get in the water. You swim. It was muscle memory.

In teaching my friend to swim, I had separated the technique from the art, and for a brief few minutes, lost the art in the process.

The same can happen with writing.

In the earliest phases of our development as writers, it is important to develop a basic understanding of the mechanics of writing and story, to have someone walk us through the process. But at some point, we have to step forward and simply practice our art.

If writing is purely a mechanical exercise, then it is very dry and boring. It lacks the spirit that it needs to live. It is the difference between an animatronic deer and a biological deer. They may look very similar, but one is alive and the other is inert.

As a more seasoned writer, I have found that there will be times where I try to focus on the more mechanical, structural aspects of the stories I am writing. I want to make sure all the right elements are in the right place. But when I read the material over later, it always sounds forced, wooden, bereft of life.

In my effort to teach someone how to write properly—in this case, teach me—I have, however briefly, lost the ability to write. I have sacrificed the art for the technique.

Technique and process are vital, but they are not art. Art comes as you build the spiritual, intellectual, psychological muscle memory to allow yourself to immerse yourself unthinking into your writing and simply allow the story to flow.

As I’ve said before, story before structure. Art over technique.

Do fish ever think about swimming? And if so, do they then sink to the bottom? (Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica)

Do fish ever think about swimming? And if so, do they then sink to the bottom? (Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica)