Step up to a breathtaking view

Montmorency Falls

Taller than Niagara, the Falls carve into the countryside

Less than half an hour from Quebec City by car, Montmorency Falls offers not only a spectacular view of a natural wonder, but several opportunities to actively participate in that wonder.
After paying $12 to park your car (or park outside before the gate and pay nothing), you quickly come face-to-face with the white wall that is the falls, plunging 83 m (272 ft)—higher than Niagara Falls—to join the St. Lawrence River. (Several tour bus lines also visit the falls.)
Upon entering the tram station and gift shop area, you have the option of paying another $12 to take the tram to the top of the escarpment ($14 round-trip) or wandering along a bridge and path to the base of the falls where you are bathed in spray. Here, you are faced with the question of whether you want to climb 487 steps and save yourself some money.
This is not for the weak-of-the-knees, although there are several rest areas along the climb to catch your breath and take photos. To give some sense of the undertaking, I am about 280 lbs but walk quite often, and I was winded and my legs tired upon reaching the summit, but quickly recovered.
Once at the top, you walk along a short trail to reach the bridge that spans the top of the falls with the river on one side and a sheer drop on the other. From here you have a spectacular view of the falls and even Quebec City, and I am happy to report that the bridge is very sturdy, placating those of us who fear heights.
A recent addition to the falls is a dual zipline that allows those brave few to slide right across the face of the cascade. I got nauseous simply watching other people experience the adventure.
And when you get back down to the bottom—my friend and I took the tram down—you can check out the small gift shop and snack counter. Given the stair climb, we think the site is really missing out on an opportunity to market “I survived” t-shirts.
The experience is definitely worth the trip out of town and will give you something to talk about for quite some time (especially if you climbed those ruddy stairs).

The word was cat – an exercise


“Cat killer,” Anthony thought to himself, ruefully. He was now going to be forever known as the cat killer of Borden Street.

To be fair, it was an accident. At worst, negligent manslaughter. Catslaughter?

Yes, if Anthony had gotten his car tuned up as he’d been promising himself for weeks, he might have noticed the strange sound emanating from his motor. But a “rowr” sounds an awful lot like a “rawr”, so it was hardly his fault.

Why would a cat crawl on the engine block in the first place? And it’s not like Anthony held its tail against the fan belt.

No. It was a mercy killing. Clearly, living in a house with 17 other cats had taken its toll on Snowball. She had lost the will to live and decided to end her days.

It was Old Lady MacGillvary’s fault. Nobody needs 18…17 cats. A sign of mental defectiveness on a grand scale.

Hell, Anthony was lucky it wasn’t the old woman herself who flung around his engine like a piñata on heroin.

Anthony liked cats. Well, he tolerated them. He’d never killed a cat before. Two dogs, a ferret and a budgerigar, sure, but never a cat.

It was a bad year for pets in his neighbourhood.

As he recalled, the Great Dane was an automotive accident, his hood still bearing the scars, and the chow was proof that you shouldn’t buy electric garden lamps from a guy in a van on the highway.

The ferret shouldn’t have been loose while he mowed the lawn, and why the bird was anywhere near his barbecue while he was using his leaf blower is anyone’s guess.

It had gotten so bad that Anthony had to beg off a trip to the petting zoo with his nephew for fear of dropping a horse on the kid.

You’d think Anthony’s job as a taxidermist would come in handy here, but apparently a stuffed pet is considered poor compensation for a loss.

The point was moot where Snowball was concerned. All the King’s horse and all the King’s men, you know?

Oh well, Anthony shrugged, no use crying over eviscerated Persian. If he took the highway to work, most of the fur would probably fall out and cooked flesh is so much easier to extract from metal.

Anthony turned the motor over, listening for the familiar “rawr”, and then put the car in reverse.


(Ab)Use your imagination


Four more reps! C’mon, you can do it. Three more reps! Don’t quit now. Two more reps! You’re a champion. One more rep! Almost there. Annnnnd, you are done. Way to go!


As you may be able to tell, I recently started a fitness routine, a boot camp if you will. The nice thing about it is that I can still eat and drink whatever I want and the only reason I break into a sweat is because Toronto’s experiencing a nasty heat/humidity wave.

Just over a week ago, I started a screenwriting boot camp of sorts called Screenwriting U, which is designed to teach you how to create the most stunning and saleable scripts that Hollywood will eat up. (My apologies if this sounds like an infomercial.)

All I know right now is the program—the ProSeries—is kicking my ass.

For the next six months, I will have an assignment practically every day (including weekends) that is designed to push me to excel at EVERY aspect of screenwriting; e.g., concept, plotting, character, conflict, narrative, marketing.

I won’t go into any detail as to what we are doing—that would be improper and unethical as the fine folks at Screenwriting U have to make a living—but I can tell you about the outcomes.

At the moment, we’re working on concepts.

Once most of us come up with a concept that really interests us, we typically start writing right away, whether actual dialogue or mapping out plot points. We’re excited. We want to see our amazing idea come to life. Tomorrow is too far away.

No such luxury here.

In the true Full Metal Jacket sense, the instructors are making us break our ideas down to build them back up. And once we’ve done that, we do it again. And again. And again. Each time with a slightly altered method and/or goal.

In nine days, what was six interesting ideas (to me, at least), has become 30 new ideas, some of which are completely lame whereas others are pretty damned good, and more importantly, a hell of a lot more solid that the originals.

It’s a brainstormers wet dream and nightmare all rolled into one.

No matter how thoroughly I think I have developed an idea, just a little more time (or time away) shows me that I can go a little further with the idea or take it in new directions. As with the writing process itself, it is the permission to fail spectacularly with an eye toward finding something truly amazing.

And like physical exercise…what, I did that once…it is painful as hell in the early going, but it does get easier. And when it gets easier, I’ve got to make it hurt like hell again. I’m building imagination muscle memory. I’m making these thought processes second nature.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go change…oh, wait, that would be telling.

PS Hal Croasmun, our drill sergeant, is nothing like the guy in Full Metal Jacket, unless you wanted to imagine verbal enthusiasm replacing verbal abuse.

(First image is used without permission because I like to push the envelope, or any other piece of stationery, for that matter. Clip art below clipped without permission.)


(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)

The word was “wine”

As I mentioned earlier (in Thoughts on Thinking), I like a little writing exercise that involves sitting in a bar or restaurant with a notebook and just writing something at random that starts with a word I see nearby. No plan, just writing.

I haven’t done much of this recently–too much “planned” writing–but here is one I did a while ago.


“Wine?” Henry asked as he nervously fumbled with his keys.

Jeanine had only been in town for three hours and already she was beginning to regret her decision.

“Why did I come here?” she admonished herself quietly. “He’s not interested in me. He was just being polite.”

Jeanine had only worked at the peanut plant for three weeks, but since day one she had felt like an outsider; like nuts just weren’t her thing. Henry, however; he had nuts written all over him. In fact, he had the biggest nuts contract in the company. That’s why Jeanine had agreed to come to dinner. She knew he could teach her a lot about nuts.

Suddenly, she realized that he hadn’t continued talking.

“I’m sorry, Henry,” she said in a barely audible, embarrassed whisper. “I must have faded out on you.”

He smiled at her, but there was a sadness behind his eyes. “That’s okay,” he said. “I just wondered if you’d like a glass of wine before we headed off to dinner.”

As he spoke, she watched his lips move, but somehow it was all disconnected; as though the sounds were coming out of a television playing in another room. “Sure,” she mustered. “That would be nice.”

For an almost imperceptible moment, Henry’s gaze hung on her and then his shoulders drooped as he took a shallow breath and rose from the edge of the couch. “White okay, or do you prefer red?”

“White’s fine,” she said. White’s always fine, she thought. She’d stopped drinking red some time ago. The tannic acid left a sour taste in her mouth these days. The oaky smell brought up too many painful memories.

Henry had moved to the kitchen and Jeanine could hear the fridge door open momentarily before sliding shut with a dull pfft. “It’s like you knew my preference,” Jeanine called from the couch, trying to sound lighter than her mood dictated. “But I don’t remember that question being on the job application.”

“I always like to keep a white wine in the fridge. Just in case,” Henry replied. Jeanine couldn’t be sure if he’d missed her little joke or was just ignoring it. Either way, she was glad he hadn’t tried to reply in kind.

Henry re-entered the living room with two large tumblers of wine. A Riesling if Jeanine’s nose still held. “Sorry about the glasses,” he smiled. “I guess you can give the boy a corner office, but you can’t make him shop.”

Jeanine just smiled, as Henry gave her a glass and raised his own. “Here’s to new beginnings,” he toasted. Jeanine hadn’t even realized that she had inhaled, however slightly, but Henry’s demeanor changed instantly.

“Look, Jeanine,” he started, putting his glass on a coaster without even taking a sip, “if this makes you feel awkward or uncertain, please just say so. No hard feelings.” He tried to smile, but his hands instinctively reached for his keys, giving away his unease.

“Shit, I’m blowing it,” Jeanine thought to herself. “No, Henry, please,” she said aloud. “I’m sorry. You asked me over for a drink and for some dinner to discuss work and here I am off in a fog. It’s my fault.”

Unsure what to do or how to approach her, Henry rose and walked across to the stereo to adjust the music level. It gave him a half-second to think. For the company’s biggest sales guy, Henry berated himself for his inability to function one-on-one with people.

Sales was easy. It was getting outside of yourself and being the professional. An actor as much as a sales person. But people? Individuals? Women? They made Henry nervous, for some reason.

It wasn’t Jeanine, but she didn’t know that.

“I’m really glad you asked. I really want to learn more,” she said rapidly to fill the void. Suddenly adding, “About the company.”

“Oh Christ,” she thought. “You sound like a ruddy schoolgirl. Calm down.”

Henry turned back and smiled. “Of course,” he replied, at a loss for what to say next. “I just wanted to make sure you were comfortable. You’ve only been with the company a few weeks and I ask you if you want to see my portfolio. A girl might get the wrong idea, but I want to assure you that this salesman is an honourable one.”

She smiled despite herself. “An honourable salesman?” she laughed. “A bit of an oxymoron, isn’t it?”

It was Henry’s turn to laugh. “Oxymoron,” he repeated. “I’m impressed.”

“Hey, they may not teach us much at York University,” she said mock defensively, “but I came away with a good vocabulary.”

Henry held up his hands in submission. “I surrender. I’m just a poor Ryerson grad. I don’t even think we were taught the word ‘vocabulary’.”

That seemed to have broken the ice a little and they both sat there, quietly, noses into their wine glasses, surreptitiously surveying their companion.

Jeanine was 35. A blonde by birth, a brunette by practice, she had long ago given up any hope of ever getting control of those odd silver hairs that forced their way through into the sunlight every few weeks. And given her fair complexion, sunlight was one thing she avoided religiously.

She was of middling height and had once heard herself described by her art history professor as a cross between Rubens and Botticelli. Unfortunately, she sucked at art history, so she was never sure if she should be flattered, embarrassed, or angry. In any event, she was happy with her figure, even if it was a little over-exuberant in a bathing suit.

And it never seemed to get in her way when it came to sex. By no means easy, she flattered herself, she was playful and for that very reason, had to be careful about her drinking. Everybody, it seems, loves a happy drunk.

Henry was 43 and to ask him, he’d earned every one of those years. In fact, in his eyes, he should have gotten double credit for ten of them; the ones he’d spent married. He’d married shortly after leaving college to begin a career as a traveling salesman. And cliché as it might seem, that’s exactly what led to his first divorce. And ironically his second marriage. Well, that and a ruptured condom.

Henry and Sarah, his second wife, had left on relatively amicable terms about four years ago. Together, the happy couple had produced a beautiful son, a mortgage, two ulcers, two very wealthy lawyers and for Henry, an entirely new appreciation for how much shit you can pile into a Mazda Miata. They’re roomier than you might think.

If you asked him, Henry would be just as likely to blame his salt-and-pepper mane on a decade of liquid lunches as much as his history with women. Oh, it’s not that he didn’t have definite opinions on his ex-wives, but he was too much of a realist to believe that all of life’s problems were their fault. The wine belly—if one can have a wine belly—was the other clue.