Illiterate in 3 languages…all English

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“That which we call a rose, would by any other name, smell…”

William Shakespeare, Bad Line Break theatre

As many of you know (or have quickly surmised), I am Canadian, and more specifically, Anglo Canadian. Unto itself, that’s a pretty cushy thing to be in this country.

In choosing to live as a writer, however, I added an otherwise unnecessary twist to my life—I forced myself to learn English as a second language.

Wait. Didn’t you just self-identify as an English-speaking Canadian?

Yes, I did. But I’m a Canadian English-speaking Canadian.

And one of the first things you realize when you become a Canadian writer is that you will probably starve for lack of work.

Now, I’m not knocking Canadian writing, whether fiction, for film and television, journalism, what have you. It is easily some of the most beautiful writing available in the English world. But it is often written to (if not for) an incredibly small market, and opportunities to succeed are therefore often few and far between.

If feels like 8 writers encompass the entire Canadian television landscape. And name a Canadian movie. (I’ll wait.)

Nope and nope.

Nope and nope.

Okay, now name one not directed by David Cronenberg or Denys Arcand.

I was once offered a job as the Editor of a Canadian biotech magazine—yes, I used to be even more nerdy—for $30kpa. And yet, already on my resume was a job working for an American biotech mag that started around $65kpa.

Bottom line is thank goodness for my passion to write, because my passion for money has taken a beating.

(Side note: This was a choice I made and for which I take full responsibility. I don’t mean this to be a “life is so unfair” rant.)

What this has meant, therefore, is that to make it as a writer, I have had to learn English as a second language. In this case, American English.

Recently, the BBC published a short article that tried to explain Canadian English within the context of its British and American counterparts. Rightly, the author noted that the differences were more than a matter of spelling (e.g., centre v center; honor v honour). Rather, the differences also manifested in idioms, speech patterns and word choice.

As long as everyone's having fun

As long as everyone’s having fun

As with most Canadians, I had a bit of a leg up on learning American as our proximity to the border (mere kilometres and even fewer miles) means we are inundated daily by American film and television programming. But I also had the additional benefit of having been married to an American, and a Southerner to boot (more on “boots” later).

Where I would recommend taking the 401 across north Toronto, Leela would suggest taking 66 from Fairfax into Washington. Luckily, we were both practical enough to set aside arguments about whether we needed to go to hospital or the hospital.

All this to say that although the differences between Canadian English and American English can be subtle, they can easily explode before the eyes of the unsuspecting.

Writing for an American biotech magazine and working with American editors was something of an ESL boot camp. And over the intervening 15 years, I like to think I honed my American skills to the point where you suspect I am from Minnesota or Western New York (hello, North Tonawanda).

In fact, I’m going to rely heavily on my multi-Angloism as most of my writing, whether for money or in my screen- and novel writing, is aimed at American audiences. And although my primary goal remains writing the best story, my secondary goal is writing it in the most innocuous way. I don’t want my writing to “read” Canadian.

Versus

Truth be told, I don’t want my writing per se to be noticeable at all. If it is, I’ve taken the reader out of the story.

This is not to say that I want my stories to be bland, but rather that I want all of the art to be in the story itself, rather than the more mechanical aspects.

In my Canadian stories (so far a sitcom pilot and screenplay), which are set in Canada, involve Canadians and target Canadian audiences, I write Canadian. For pretty much everything else, I write American.

Should I start targeting British audiences, then I’ll spend more time learning British English, and make fewer spelling changes.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to bounce back and forth between the multiple Englishes like a character out of Monty Python.

What’s it aboot?

Anyone can make fun of how Canadians communicate (or don’t). Goodness knows Canadians do. But I have to admit that I struggle with the whole “oot and aboot” phrasing that American audiences in particular seem to see as a Canadian phrase.

It’s not that I think we pronounce these words correctly so much as we don’t say “oot”. Rather, we say “oat”.

As I mentioned, I was married to a Southerner, and one day, we had a lengthy conversation about the word “South”. Try as she might, Leela could not get me to pronounce the “ou” without it taking on a surreal emphasis akin to “owwwwwww”.

Instead, I would say “Soath”. And instead of “about”, I would say “aboat”. And as I made a point of listening closely to Anglo-Canadians speak, I never heard a single one say “aboot”. It was always “aboat”.

That being stated, I will totally cop to “eh”. It’s us. End of story.

Toronto Screenwriting Conference – Day Two Highlights

Personal highlights or take-aways from Day Two of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference:

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Darlene Hunt – Masterclass (creator, showrunner for Showtime’s The Big C)

Take your time responding to questions: When someone is asking you about a specific line or scene, whether in meeting on or set, give yourself time to think about it, because you may not remember exactly why you wrote that scene that way. At the same time, even if you can explain why you went that way, make sure you remain open to new interpretations or new ideas that may work better.

Bob Kushell—Anatomy of a Pilot (creator of BBC series Way to Go)

Pilots suck: All pilots suck to one extent or another and he explains why using the analogy of an approaching tornado. You’re living your life when suddenly you hear that a tornado is coming. Quickly, you run into the storm shelter with several other people and try to prepare for the coming storm. At the same time, as each of you goes about your tasks, you remind one of the people about that time she ran over your cat, which is why you don’t like her. But hey, you love the fact that another individual’s here despite those awkward feelings after that drunken fling at the cottage. Oh, but you still need to prepare for the coming tornado.

Within an ever-shortening time span (now around 21 minutes), you need to fill in useless backstory that everyone in the show should know (it’s their backstory) and still manage to tell a coherent plot that somehow illustrates the show’s premise.

Penny Penniston—Not Just Talk: How Writers Think About Dialogue (professor at Northwestern University)

Dialogue is not conversation: If words were keys on a piano keyboard, then the difference between conversation and dialogue is the difference between noise and music. Dialogue is precise and crafted, gives voice and describes themes. It gives clear direction to the artists interpreting it and a chance for them to show off. And like learning to play music, learning to craft dialogue takes practice to develop muscle memory, but at the same time, understanding the theory behind dialogue will allow you to step back from your work and find the good and bad things about it.

Aaron Korsh – Masterclass (creator and showrunner of USA Network’s Suits)

Understand your scene’s goal: Reading a scene out loud can be very helpful when it comes to determining if it’s working, as some scenes may read well, but something goes wrong when it becomes audible. And if the scene isn’t working, it’s often because you haven’t really established what the scene’s dynamic or purpose is.