Illiterate in 3 languages…all English

canadianEnglish

“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.

Whiplash and soul crushing (a review)

Whiplash-Movie-Poster-6

Good guys not only finish last, but they also end up in tears, sitting in abandoned hallways, facing a life devoid of love ones.

Or at least that’s the moral of the movie Whiplash, which tells the story of a young jazz drummer (Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller) attending a prestigious music school in New York. Neiman’s lone dream is to become the next Buddy Rich.

(Warning: The following contains teasers of spoilers…tried my best.)

While practicing late one night, Neiman finds he is being observed by Terrence Fletcher (played by JK Simmons), the god-like instructor of the school’s top band, which has won both national and international acclaim. The interaction doesn’t go well.

But the erstwhile Svengali sees something in Neiman and eventually invites him to join his class, which is where the student begins to see the master less as a dedicated and willful but nurturing teacher and more as the manipulative, malevolent force striving for an unreachable ideal.

Perfection or death is Fletcher’s creed, and if you’re not willing to kill yourself over your failings, he is willing and eager to do it for you. You are using up valuable oxygen.

The beast will be satisfied (JK Simmons, Miles Teller)

The beast will be satisfied (JK Simmons, Miles Teller)

Even in the face of this unending physical and emotional torture, which includes an airborne chair, however, Neiman is willing to sacrifice everything to become the Charlie Parker of the drums. And that sacrifice extends to his budding romance as well as his family.

Nothing will stand in the way

Nothing will stand in the way

But even that is not enough for Fletcher and we watch Neiman self-immolate while the monster emotionally fiddles with everyone’s lives. Unsatisfied with Neiman’s ashes, however, the master lures the student back with a siren song of greatness in a move that only the audience can see is designed to destroy Neiman yet again.

Perfection is everything (Miles Teller)

Perfection is everything (Miles Teller)

But just when Satan achieves his final triumph, he is surprised to learn that his fallen Angel has learned a few things. And this is the ultimate Fall of Man of which we hear in poetry.

The final moments of the film are like watching Luke Skywalker take Darth Vader’s offered hand on the catwalks of Cloud City and unite to rule the Empire, destroying both the Emperor and the Rebellion in one moment.

Throughout the film, the heart palpitates until threatening to arrest from the crushing weight of the increasingly up-tempo music (think frenzied, not dancing) and Fletcher’s relentless pounding on Neiman’s soul. By the end of the movie, you will be exhausted and sated by the ecstasy of what has been achieved.

It will only be later, in the calm aftermath of normal life, that you will begin to understand the dreadful cost of that achievement, not just for Neiman but also for humanity.

If the documentary Blackfish drove people away from marine parks, it wouldn’t surprise me if Whiplash drove parents away from music schools.

Simmons won Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe & SAG

Simmons won Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe & SAG

Simmons won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (and Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG) for his performance as Fletcher, although as crucial to the story as his role was, it could be argued he was a co-lead. And although I admit to not seeing the films of any other performers in this Oscar category, I am surprised the award was given to Simmons.

The man’s performance was quite good—he played Fletcher so malevolently, I would probably take a swing at Simmons if I saw him—but it didn’t feel like the character required a lot of the veteran actor aside from pushing the portrayal beyond anyone’s comfort zone.

Where the film definitely deserved its Oscar and BAFTA wins was for sound. The music was amazing and despite being constantly interrupted, it still managed to deliver its power and its physical toll on mere flesh and blood. Each piece became its own rush toward a climax that never arrived, pushing you until your body screamed for catharsis and was instead met with a cut to the next scene. (Editing was pretty impressive.)

Again, however, despite all of these wonderful facets, it was the moral Fall of Man in the face of all this magnificent music that bothered me. For if nothing else, it made me question the purity of artistic expression and whether it was worth the exorbitant cost of another human soul.

The moment of our greatest achievement, writer/director Damien Chazelle tells us, is also the moment of our greatest loss. I find that sad.

Ten books that influenced my life

There is a thing going around Facebook these days—electronic chain mail, really—where friends invite each other to list the 10 books that have stuck with them through life. Thanks (??) to my friend Nancy for inviting me to participate.

shakespeare1

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Since my first introduction to the works of the Bard in Grade 9 (Merchant of Venice) through my many pilgrimages to The Stratford Festival in Southern Ontario, I have been entranced. No matter what is going on in my life, I find solace and refuge in the pages of the Master’s folio. Favourite play: Henry V. My lone tattoo: Julius Caesar V.v.73.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

dune_cover

DuneFrank Herbert

For such a short book—and particularly within such a long series—this is a novel I return to on a regular basis. The story is woven so tightly and yet offers mythic proportions. The language is at once simple and profound…and incredibly quotable. Every time I read the story, I find a new interpretation.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

asimov

Asimov on ChemistryIsaac Asimov

To a budding geek, this book and the next on my list were manna from heaven. Although I was a fan of Asimov’s fiction, I found a home in his look at various subjects in science (and eventually theatre and religion). He explained the universe to me in a way that no one else could and gave me the tools to extend that learning to others (whether they wanted to hear it or not).

Broca

Broca’s BrainCarl Sagan

While Cosmos was the book (and television series) that everyone else was talking about, this was the book that first grabbed my attention. Like Asimov, Sagan had a way of contextualizing science that few others have mastered, offering not just a series of facts, but the stories of the people behind those facts, including the dearly departed Paul Broca. Asimov and Sagan likely influenced my decision to move into science writing.

Wolf

Never Cry WolfFarley Mowat

If not for my abhorrence of discomfort, I would be living on the Canadian tundra today, studying and communing with the wolves. That’s how powerful this book was to me. Many criticize Mowat for fabricating many elements of his non-fiction and particularly in this story, but I don’t really care because he grabbed a young mind (mine) and transported me into the minds of the wolves he studied for the Canadian government. To see these creatures as more than just vicious wild dogs was life-changing.

purple-cow

Purple CowSeth Godin

Drive past enough farm fields filled with cows and eventually you cease to see them. Drive past a purple cow, however, and you stop. In short, the premise of a book of blog entries that challenges the reader to skew their view of the world with an eye to drawing the attention of your audience. Less an epiphany than a confirmation of what I already believed, Purple Cow told me there was merit in my mania.

Natural

Popular Natural HistoryRev. J.G. Wood

Published in 1885 (my edition), the content of this book is not only dated (it includes a discussion of the dodo), it is often outright wrong. But it holds a special place in my heart because I received it from my great-grandmother and it initiated my fascination with antiquarian books, something that continues to this day despite my inability to financially support it. These books—particularly the non-fiction—open a portal into another time and another way of thinking, much as the rest of my book collection will in 100 years.

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The Love You MakePeter Brown & Steven Gaines

The murder of John Lennon in 1980 took what was a passing awareness of The Beatles and turned it into an obsession for me. I had heard the music, I had seen the movies, but I was completely unaware of their context. Thus, the biography of the Fab Four, written by insider Peter Brown (…called to say, you can make it okay, you can get married in Gibraltar, near Spain), blew the lid off my ignorance, pouring kerosene on a flame that has not died in the intervening 34 years.

Elements_of_Style_cover

The Elements of Style – Strunk & White

As a writer and editorialist (I will not call myself a journalist…different craft), you might suspect that this book is close to my heart because it helped me become a better writer. And you would be DEAD WRONG. Just the opposite, in fact.

Instead, this book informed me that my new Editor had absolutely no respect for my writing nor that of my writer/editor colleagues. In our first staff meeting, she cheerfully told us she was looking to make some changes in our magazine and then gave us each a gift of this book. In my eyes, it was tantamount to handing Dostoyevsky a first-grade reading primer and suggesting he rewrite Crime & Punishment in the format of Mr. Whiskers (no self-aggrandizing hyperbole intended). I moved on.

Etymology

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology – Robert K Barnhart (Ed.)

As a word-jockey, history-buff and all-around geek, I can never be sure if my wife’s gift of an etymology book was a reward or a well-disguised pun-ishment (the hyphen should give you a clue as to why she would punish me). Regardless, the book has served me well as I endeavour to sculpt language to fit my needs, crossing words at their roots to develop new varietals that colour an otherwise mundane existence.

Besotted Voce – A few (hundred) words on character voice

Voices-graphic-2

No matter with whom you speak, to an outside observer, the two of you sound different.

I’m not talking about the pitch or timber of your voices—although those likely are different—but rather those other factors that make your speech distinct: cadence, word choice, sentence structure, etc.

For five years, I worked as an editor and writer on a couple magazines in Washington, DC, and over that time, I found that I could tell which of my workmates wrote which articles without looking at their bylines…even without our names, the pieces had our fingerprints all over them.

How Mark Lesney opened an article was very different from the way Nancy McGuire would.

Mike Felton explained his thesis very differently from David Filmore.

And the two Randys were polar opposites in sentence construction: Mr. Frey being pithy, while Mr. Willis would wax poetically at the drop of a proverbial hat.

Some might argue that these differences reflect variations in style, but I believe the situation is less superficial than style. Instead, it reflects who we are as individuals; our personalities, our experiences, our beliefs, and our feelings both emotional and physical. We speak/write as the people we are at that particular moment. I as me and you as you (this sentence screams for a “Goo-goo goo-jube”).

Ideally, this same variety of voice should occur in the fictional characters we create, whether for screenplays, novels, short stories, sketches or whatever.

With all but the shortest lines of dialogue, a reader or listener should be able to tell which lines correspond to the same speaker even in the absence of any overt identifying marks such as the character’s name.

A simple example: Despite achieving the same goal in response to another person, the following lines say them differently:

“You’re nuts.”

“You are insane.”

“You’re one crazy motherfucker.”

“That, sir, is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.”

* silent stare *

With these five lines, we see differences in:

  • Relative status (e.g., tone)
  • Degrees of personal control (e.g., length, use of contractions)
  • Emotional state (e.g., length, word choice)
  • Possibly educational or social background (e.g., vocabulary, use of jargon)

It can be a challenge for one mind (the writer’s) to create several distinct voices. It is a form of consciously willed multiple personality disorder. Thus, early drafts of a literary work may sound flat because too many of the characters are speaking with the writer’s voice rather than their own.

In theory, this is an easy thing to fix during revisions. Simply take the sentence and knowing what you do about your character—his or her emotional and psychological state, status, social and educational background, life experiences, physical challenges—make the line more accurately reflect how the character would speak.

One complicating factor is that a seemingly simple change in response by one character may elicit a change in the response of the dialogue partner(s). I am likely to respond very differently if presented with any of the five reactions above. And thus, the writer has triggered a change-reaction that reverberates through the scene.

A second complicating factor is that the change in dialogue may also need to be paralleled with a change in physical action. A high-status character is more apt to be purposeful in her actions and responses, whereas a low-status character may be more physically erratic or perhaps flinching in his response. And again, the change-reaction echoes through the scene.

This may sound daunting. It isn’t…but it is a lot of work.

The trick is becoming comfortable with the many voices you need as a writer. We all start with our own voice, the omnipotent godhead that creates the fictional universe; but the trick comes in developing the skills to inhabit other bodies, other souls as you create other characters and then being able to shift back and forth as required without going insane (well, not fully insane, at any rate).

My best advice to any writer who struggles with this is not to take yet another writing class, but rather to take an improv class or several. Despite the terror that this advice may elicit in some (most?) of you, I can think of no better way of understanding—and more importantly, exercising—the differences between different characters.

You’ll quickly find improv is not about funny; rather it is about truth. And once you’re comfortable with experiencing the truth of a character, the rest of this is much less daunting.

 

As seems to be a routine now, today’s post was prompted by the amazing words of Marsha Mason and the Why The Face blog she posted earlier today.

PS The magazines from my Washington days were Modern Drug Discovery and Today’s Chemist At Work (because Today’s Chemist in the Boudoir was already taken).

Too many voices (spoil the screenplay)

Superfluous

Congratulations! You have just outlined your next screenplay. Or maybe you’ve written “Fade Out”. That’s quite an accomplishment and you should be proud of yourself.

Go ahead. Take a moment to luxuriate. I can wait.

Okay, now I need you to kill one of your characters…or two…or maybe even three.

What? Oh, I know you’re not writing a thriller, but murder will be good for you. And even if you are writing a thriller, you’ll feel better after you pull the plug on certain characters.

Having written a few screenplays and having read 50X more, one common thread I find is that writers (me included) create too many characters, some of which are completely unnecessary.

Now, I’m not talking about the red-shirted cannon-fodder that fills the background…the cab driver, the concierge, waiter, ex-boyfriend, whatever. No, I’m talking about those characters just below the protagonist, antagonist, side kick/mentor/love-interest who help move your characters through a plot point (or several) and then disappear completely.

red shirts

Let me give you an example from a murder thriller collecting dust on my hard drive…The Children of San Miani.

In my story, a journalist provides a young detective with just enough information to introduce her to the lead suspect, a victim’s rights advocate with a major reason to want the first murder victim dead.

In reviewing my first draft, I realized that the moment the journalist connected the detective and the advocate, he completely disappeared from the story. He became superfluous to (story) need, so I simply stopped talking about him.

This begged the question: Did I need the journalist character at all?

With very little thought, I quickly realized I could accomplish all of the journalist’s plot points without the journalist, either by ascribing his actions to other main characters or to the story itself. And poof, he was gone.

The result was a story that was that much tighter. A story that was a bit less confusing and yet still maintained the mystery I needed for the thriller.

Look at your story. Focus on those second-tier characters.

Are there some that don’t make it to the end of your story; that simply trigger or drive a scene or two forward?

Can those triggers or drives be handled by another character in your story, maybe a main character? Or perhaps those actions can extend the life of another secondary character who just plops into your story from the ether?

In some cases, the answer may be no; that in the grand scheme of things, this character is vital if temporary.

Fine. Keep the character. You are the best judge of what is needed for your story. But I’ll bet at least one character can go.

1248-left4dead-no-mercy-wallpaper-wallchan-1280x960

Show no mercy. Cut the strings. Release the Kraken. (Oops, sorry. Wrong movie.)

Don’t smother your screenplay. By eliminating the unnecessary, people will better understand and appreciate your story more quickly.

And when you may only get one read (if that), the easier you make it on your audience, the better.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, and may be completely superfluous.)

Many levels of review – Part Two

Whenever someone asks me to review their writing, I try to be thorough and look at it from many levels. Yesterday, we looked at how I approach writing from the 30,000- and 5,000-foot levels. Below, we dig deeper.

1000_foot_view

The view from 1,000 feet: Now that I’ve identified the major structural and thematic issues and determined there is a reason to keep reading, I go back to the beginning and really start to peel things apart.

If I have a thing for character—and I do—I might follow an individual character through the story to see if I can reverse engineer the writer’s profile of that character. I am making this sound much more formal than it really is. Basically, what do I know about the character and are his or her actions and reactions consistent with that knowledge given: (a) where that character is now in the story; and (b) where he or she is trying to get or accomplish?

From the plot perspective, I begin to look at individual scenes and ask if the interplay between characters makes sense for their relationship and respective goals within the scene. For that matter, does each character in a scene have a clear goal?

How have the characters within the scene changed from one end of it to the other? Did one start with the upper hand and that power shift somewhere through the scene to the other character? This last point is not a necessity, but is merely one way a scene can experience reversal.

Likewise, is the scene clear with one predominant purpose or has the writer tried to accomplish too much too quickly, muddying the scene and leaving the reader uncertain as to what refers to what?

At a slightly broader level, how do the scenes play against each other? Are there smooth or logical segues from one scene to another, and if not, does the hard plot swing work? Does the scene in question set up a future one or pay off a previous one, and has it done this job effectively?

200_foot_view

The view from 200 feet: Now I really start to get into the weeds, looking at paragraphs and individual lines. From the narrative perspective, does the reader have all the information he or she needs to make sense of the story? Does the scenery or environment serve almost as another character at this point, representing a source of conflict or support for your characters? Again, this last point isn’t necessary, but can be quite effective such as in movies like The Perfect Storm.

Alternatively, has the writer massively over-written the narrative, demonstrating his or her superhuman vocabulary and/or visual imagination at the expense of the story and poor befuddled reader? As a personal aside, this is my greatest sin as a writer…but then you probably already knew that. Can I recommend any broad strokes edits (not copy edits) to help reduce the clutter and maintain the flow for the reader?

If it’s a screenplay, does the writer interrupt the reader too often with small directorial nods to the actors? For example, during a particularly heated scene of dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist, is the writer constantly reminding the actors to furrow their brows or shrug? I try to determine whether these narrative directions are absolutely necessary to get the idea of the scene across.

The problem here is that the regular intrusion of direction takes the reader out of the moment, disrupting the story and the emotional power of the characters. The senses, if only at the mental level, are forced to trip back and forth between things like subtle movements and emotive energy. Thus, in even the most action- or tension-packed scenes, too much narrative can sap the energy of the scene such that the read becomes plodding. By removing these superfluous lines, the reading speeds up and the energy of the scene is renewed.

This brings us to dialogue, which is easily my greatest challenge in screenwriting. I think novel writing gives you a bit more leeway with dialogue but I am less familiar with the medium from a writing perspective.

When I review dialogue, I try to sense how natural the dialogue feels…perhaps even reading it aloud, if I am not certain. Are these sentences that real characters would say and are the lines apt for the character who is saying them? From what I have surmised about the character, would he or she use those particular words in that way or to that purpose? Is the character saying exactly what he or she is thinking (on-the-nose) or is there some sense of subtext, whether known to the character or not?

Similarly, is the dialogue as tight as it could be, saying only what needs to be said and in the best way? Now, please note, I did not say or mean to imply in the shortest way, with the fewest words. People rarely keep their sentences to a minimum, but rather when caught up in the heat of the moment, tend to spew a bit more than necessary. There is a cadence to an individual’s speech patterns, so each of the characters should have their own cadences.

In a conversation between two or more characters, is the subject and banter clear or am I left with some uncertainty about what line corresponds as a response to what previous line or thought. To map it out somewhat mathematically, it might read something like A then A’, B then B’, C then C’, etc., rather than ABC then A’, D then B’C’, etc., where each of the letters and its prime counterpart represent a thought and its response or reaction. By the same token, however, I have to be alert and sensitive to cases where it is perfectly natural for that character to blurt out a series of thoughts and the resulting confusion may be consistent with the plot.

splashdown

Splashdown: Only once all of that has been settled, do I get to the cosmetic aspects of story review. This is where I might recommend copy edits and what have you to ensure the screenplay or novel is clean. This can include looking for stylistic inconsistencies (e.g., capitalization) or spelling errors. Personally, this part bores the hell out of me and I know that for every error or inconsistency I find, I have missed two or three others. As a courtesy, however, I will point out those that I do find and hope someone else catches the rest.

I find that by the time we reach splashdown, writers either love me or hate me…and I am okay with that. Although I prefer the former, I understand the latter and don’t take it personally. Putting your work out there for critique and possible criticism is difficult and not just a little nerve wracking. I applaud anyone who does that almost as hard as I applaud them for having written in the first place.

I just hope that, at the end of the day, I have helped the writer improve his or her work.

(Images are the property of their owners and are used here without permission because it’s more impactful.)