Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Learning my place

Okay. So I'm not an actor. I may have appeared in a couple of school plays long ago in my childhood (and even sung a couple of songs in one) but my recent participation in the creation of a "pitch" video has confirmed that I have no theatrical talent.


My colleagues Nancy Lynch and Gary Belding asked me recently to take part in the recording of a "pitch" video to be sent to a funding body to seek financial support for our Abigail Massey web-series project. As part of the Creative Team for the proposal, I was kind of obliged to contribute my face (and my voice) to the endeavour.

Oh my. Gary made me feel better as we rehearsed our parts -- he seemed to bumble and stumble as much as I did. Then, the camera turned on and, well, so did he. He did his entire two-minute bit in one take! Not a stumble, not a bumble, not even a pause for thought. He was smooth, professional, convincing. His delivery sounded unrehearsed and natural.

Nancy was just as good. For a person who describes herself as a writer/director, she sure can deliver her lines with conviction and power.

And then there was me. I think the raw footage has more of me saying "Can I try that again?", "Let's do that over", "Sorry", "Oh crap", etc. than my actual lines. To be honest, I finally had to release myself from the requirement of actually saying the lines of the script, satisfied instead to convey the gist of the message. Even then...

I'm happy to say that Nancy, Gary and our videographer, Joel from East Lens, were all very patient with me and never once lost their cool. Wore down their batteries, for certain. But never lost their cool.

And I'm even happier to say that our editor, Tom Belding, managed to weave a remarkably effective pitch video despite the mess I, for one, delivered to him. It's nice to work with such pros.

And it's nice to have the final proof I needed to convince myself that I am a writer, not an actor, and that I may be able to create the dialogue for our web series but I should never attempt to deliver it on camera.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

On (auto)biographies and the challenge of writing

Writing a biography -- or, better still, an autobiography -- seems to me to be a particularly challenging task, one not to be taken on lightly.

I was once offered a contract to write the biography of a fairly well known musician from the 1960s who had gone on to enjoy an interesting, comfortable life, made possible by the seemingly endless royalties earned by a single song he wrote at the start of his musical career. I met with the man on several occasions to discuss the project but, in the end, circumstances and, I now realize, fear forced me to turn down the contract and move on with my own, less interesting, life.

The man was a wonderfully talented writer in his own right (I mean, after all, he did pen one of the most enduring pop songs in history) and I convinced him that, rather than paying me to write the story of his life, he should take on the project himself. In other words, I told him that the biography I was being asked to write should actually be an autobiography, that he would write himself.

I'm sorry to say that, since those conversations more than a decade ago, the autobiography has not, to my knowledge, appeared. I am also sorry to have to admit that, while I still believe he was capable of writing his own story very well, my decision not to accept the contract may have been driven by my own fear of the challenge of writing a biography.

It is not a simple undertaking. It requires skills that, while related to those required to write a novel, are unique and special. Skills that I'm not sure I have.

The challenge of writing an effective biography/autobiography is, to my mind, the challenge of cultivating a series of true incidents and real people (whose only relation is that they interact with a single individual) into a coherent story, one that captures the interest, has an element of cohesive drama and actually leads the reader from beginning to end.

For the musician, that cohesive thread was the song itself, the events that led to its creation, the developments that permitted it to become popular, the good fortune that allowed the musician to retain his rights to it and the positive impact it had on the rest of his life.

But, as I told him in one particularly difficult discussion, his life story seems to lose its allure as a saleable narrative once the song has become a bit and his life a comfortable one. In other words, I told him, you may have lived sixty plus years to date but your biography would probably come to an end when you were still in your early 20s. Everything that followed was just a happy footnote.

I write all this now because I have recently been introduced to two fairly new autobiographies that have brought it all back to me.

The first, Scent From Above, is a privately published "mystical memoir" by local New Brunswick professor and personality Pat Post (writing under her birth name Rosalie Lawrence). I was interested in this book for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were the facts that I know Pat, that she self-published the book and that she has significant connections to McAdam, New Brunswick, in whose past my own Abigail stories are set.

Scent From Above is a remarkable book. Once you get past the first several pages (which I admit took me three or four tries) and start to get a handle on the "mystical" aspects of the story, you can't help but become deeply engrossed in the story of young Patti Post, a charming, often challenging orphan adopted by a flighty ingenue-like mother and a rough-edged father.

Patti's early life was not easy and was made even more difficult by the fact that she both remembered her past lives and could "experience" scenes from the earlier lives of those around her simply by breathing in their aroma. As her parents try to deal with their daughter's eccentricities and fragilities as well as their own demons (not to mention a rebellious adopted son), Patti struggles to find a place for herself in the lonely, often foreign world of rural New Brunswick in the middle of the 20th Century.

The book has moments of great beauty and scenes of extreme sadness. The author manages to make the "mystical" parts of the story believable and, even more importantly, integral both to the character and the narrative. It's not the most upbeat tale ever told but Post/Lawrence has successfully created a sympathetic character and a fairly compelling narrative.

If there is one weakness to Scent From Above it is the lack of a cohesive motivating force that links all of the various vignettes together. The book's climax, while interesting enough on its own, is not as strongly linked to the book's opening and rising action as it could be. Without including any spoilers here, I would say that, while it is clear at the end that the events at the climax of the book were very important to the character, it is not clear from the beginning that the character's life is building toward that climax.

As I said, writing an autobiography is not easy for precisely this reason -- we don't live our lives building toward a single climax in our personal plot; we try to find meaning in the events as they take place in their often random, uncaring way. Post/Lawrence's fault is, in fact, that she is perhaps too honest in her retelling, that she refuses to reshape/rethink the early events in her life to create a suspenseful narrative build-up to the climax of the story.

At the other end of the spectrum is Alan Cumming's memoir, Not My Father's Son. Cumming, a well-known actor of Scottish origin who currently stars on television in The Good Wife, uses his recent appearance on the British TV show Who Do You Think You Are and the stunning revelations it brings as the catalyst for a review of his life as the son of an angry, abusive father.

I received this memoir in audio-book format as gift for Christmas and we listened to the first half of it on a recent drive home from Halifax. I'm sorry to say, however, that I found this book to be significantly less effective than Rosalie Lawrence's memoir, even if it is read to me quite evocatively by the author.

Far be it for me to belittle the suffering of any person who has endured the horrors that Cumming recounts but Not My Father's Son feels a little too contrived, a little too "cultivated" to ensure that early events in Cumming's life (and his experience and interpretation of them) build with appropriate coherence and drama toward the climax of the book.

The book has the over-produced feeling to it of a television melodrama (or, to be honest, of a reality TV show like Who Do You Think You Are). Things fit together a little too well; Cumming's own remembered responses to situations early in his life match a little too perfectly with the needs of the later part of his story.

I write that with a great deal of hesitation. The story of Cumming's early life is stunningly horrific and I don't want to be read to be undermining what he went through in any way, shape or form. The fact that the early violence he experienced at the hands of his father had a significant impact on his adult life is both understandable and tragic.

But, as an autobiography, Not My Father's Son comes across as a little too well-orchestrated, well-integrated. It could do with a little bit of the loose association of characters and events that pervades  Post/Lawrence's memoir.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

I blame my sister (I really do)

The story as it appears in the print magazine of Created Here
It's a funny feeling to be asked to write an article for a magazine basically about yourself.

New Brunswick's cool new arts magazine, Created Here, recently made just such a request of me and, I'll be the first to admit it, I struggled to find the write tone in which to write the article. I didn't want to be too over the top and come across sounding vain but I also didn't want to err on the other side and come across as a falsely modest person.

I decided that the best way to approach the task was to tell a story. I am, after all, a story teller and it seemed appropriate to tell the fun, sometimes silly story of how the Abigail Massey stories came to be. Hence, I came up with the opening line (borrowed from countless other written works), "I blame my sister".

It turned out that I actually had fun writing the article for this magazine. Marie-Hélène Morell, the creator, publisher and editor of this fine publication, was easy to work with, clear in her instructions and requirements, quick in response to my questions and gentle with her editing. I think the final product turned out to be pretty good.

Even more impressive, however, is the beauty of the layout of the article, the way she has incorporated photos and drawing into the composition in a balanced, attractive way. I think the Created Here spread gives much deserved prominence to my sister Lynn's fantastic illustrations and the McAdam Railway Station comes out looking pretty darned good!

My copy of the magazine arrived just before Christmas so it turned out to be something of a wonderful holiday surprise. Thanks MH!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A once in a lifetime opportunity

One of the biggest challenges facing struggling authors these days is how to promote their writing. The growth of accessible, high quality self-publishing and professional printing services has made it easier than ever for writers to put their work out there, even without a contract with a big publishing house, but writers often face huge barriers in attracting readers to take an interest in their work.

I myself have tried to make liberal (and efficient) use of social media (mostly blogs like this one, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube) to get my writing out there but the impact has been somewhat limited. I have had better luck generating local media attention and having articles in local newspapers and reports on local radio and television help promote my books.

But even that is hit and miss. The media may cover your work once, especially if there is a significant issue of local interest attached to it, but they are rarely willing to come back to you time and again as each new book hits the shelves.

Imagine, then, how awesome it would be for a writer to be invited... INVITED... to appear on a immensely popular national TV show, starring one of the country's favourite personalities?

I was honoured and humbled to have just that happen to me recently.

As you probably already know, my Abigail stories are written and sold to support the restoration of the historic McAdam Railway Station and Hotel, located in Southwest New Brunswick. So, when CBC's comicumentary Still Standing decided to focus on the Village of McAdam as one of the communities that is still standing after all these years, I was invited to participate.

I had a blast working with the folks at Frantic Films, who produce the show, and the crew from CBC, including host Jonny Harris (of Murdoch Mysteries fame) as well as writers Graham Chittenden and Fraser Young, when the episode was filmed in February.

And I was absolutely psyched/amped/stoked/excited when the broadcast date finally arrived this past Tuesday.

The episode was awesome. Funny, informative and affectionate, beautifully constructed to tell the story of McAdam and its Station while providing hope for the future. And I was delighted to see that I was given ample screen time, with the story of my Abigail books told clearly and concisely.

This is the kind of exposure (on national television, no less) that an author would die for. I know just how lucky I am and I am already seeing the positive impact of that exposure. I have been stopped on the street by people who saw the Still Standing show. I have received emails and tweets from several people across Canada enquiring how to obtain copies of the books.

The social media coverage of the show has been significant and the reaction universally positive, with literally hundreds of people declaring that they must, absolutely MUST visit the McAdam Railway Station and, more importantly, that the Station must be preserved.

If you didn't get a chance to watch the show, you can stream it from here. If you want more information on the station, visit the McAdam Railway Station's website. For more information on the Abigail stories, visit the Abigail website.

I am grateful to the good people at Frantic Films and CBC for this amazing opportunity and, even if it doesn't make me a best-selling author, Still Standing has given me the absolute thrill of seeing myself and my work receive national attention.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A stunning, heart-in-throat moment

Mark and Jonny

Picture this. I'm on my lunch hour. I've just visited my local library to check out its permanent book sale and I stop on a bench outside the building to check Facebook before heading back to work.

My FB feed tells me that the CBC TV show "Still Standing" has posted a new 90-second trailer advertising the new season that launches tonight (June 14). I click on the video and attempt to watch it on the tiny screen of my BlackBerry Q10.

Great video. Fun, action packed, with some wonderful images. Then, out of the blue, there's me. Yep, that's right. Me. Sitting at the lunch counter in the McAdam Railway Station and Hotel, talking to "Still Standing" host Jonny Harris. Just a split second image but it's me nonetheless. No doubt about it.

Wow. What a feeling. I've been on TV before, sure, but this feels different. This is an advertisement for a national TV show that is gaining in popularity. Who knows where the 90-second spot will run? Who knows how many people will see it (and me)!

Just me and the Abigail books
So my stomach is in my throat and I'm totally excited and then... boom... there I am again! Me, standing with all of my Abigail books in my hands, smiling at the camera. Another split second, sure, but clearly me. Again.

I am so pumped. I have already shared it on FB and gotten some likes and some congrats from others and I am so totally thrilled. I just wish I could find the video online so I could link to it here and share it more widely!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Thoroughly modern me

Sometimes as I try to become a modern writer I have to laugh at myself -- sure, I'm on Facebook and Twitter and Youtube and here on Blogger but, honestly, do I really think I've mastered the technology to the point where I can actually be creative, even avant garde with it?

My writing partner, Mary E. O'Keefe, and I are putting the final touches on the six new stories that will make up Abigail Massey at McAdam Station, Volume 5, set for publication this fall. As usual, we've had a lot of fun with the project, bouncing first story ideas then story drafts off each other as we try to produce the best new tales of McAdam Railway Station that we can.

And we've come up with some really interesting new material -- a couple of new characters with fascinating back stories, some exciting and heart-warming new stories and, yes, even an attempt to be cutting edge with the final story in the book.

The first fun idea we came up with actually came from my partner. When I told her I was struggling to come up with something really unique for the sixth story in the collection, she suggested I consider writing the story from several different points of view. Abigail stories, she pointed out, are always told with a third-person limited narrator, from Abigail's point of view -- why not tell a single tale from the points of view of several characters?

She mentioned several examples from literary and film history (The Sound and the Fury, for example) to illustrate her point.

I liked the idea immediately and set to writing. And I came out with a pretty fair story -- a story in which conflict arises between Abigail and Martha, in particular, in relation to the differences in how they experience and understand several events in their lives.

I wrote the original story from Abigail's point of view, then the same story from Martha's point of view. Mary agreed to write the story once again, this time from Jenny's point of view. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Well, it does until you realize that the original Abigail story is already longer than any other Abigail story I've written (with the exception, of course, of the Christmas novella) and the Martha story is almost as long. Add in Jenny's point of view and you will have basically doubled the length of the book.

Wow. That's maybe too much for one collection of stories. And the first five stories in the collection were written specifically to lead in to the final tale so it's not as if we can just leave one out to shorten the book

In other words, unless we want to produce a book that is too big to sell for the price at which we are aiming, we need to find a solution.

We tried to cut each version of the story down a bit. It helped. But not enough.

So, trying to be ultra modern, I proposed another solution: what if we printed only the Abigail version in the book, then put a note at the end of the story that says, "To read Martha's side of the story, go to and, to hear Jenny's version, visit youtube"?

You know, multiple platforms for different versions of the story. Use one medium to draw readers to the other media. Who knows, maybe Miss Pierce can tweet her response to the entire thing?

See what I mean? I'm already laughing at myself. How silly is this proposal? Especially considering the fact that a good portion of our readership are older people who might not be particularly savvy about using social media. Talk about alienating your audience!

Or... could it work?

Monday, May 30, 2016

There is no "I" in "Memo"

When you can write reasonably well, you often find yourself in some demand at work, at least if you work in an office-type environment. It would seem (editorial comment warning) that our educational system's focus in recent years on science and engineering at the expense of the arts has resulted in a world where the ability to string words together intelligently, logically, clearly and with some panache is becoming more and more rare.

So I am constantly being asked to review this memo, revise that letter, write an article for the newsletter or "take a look at" whatever document might be passing through the hands of my colleagues and supervisors. As a result, I've been faced with some interesting writing challenges, the most common of which being the task of finding a way to completely rewrite a boss' unintelligible gibberish without upsetting him or her or making him or her feel stupid.

My worst experience came when a very petulant supervisor brought me an extended document, told me it had been written by some other person and asked me to rewrite it on an emergency basis. I went right to work on it and, let me tell you, it was indeed a disaster: unclear, poorly argued, poorly structured and with numerous grammatical and spelling errors. When my supervisor came back 30 minutes later and saw the document bleeding the red of "Track Changes" on my screen, he freaked out. It turned out he had written the document himself and had given it to me thinking it just needed a minor refresh. My relationship with that supervisor was never the same and I eventually had to leave that job to escape his vindictive behaviour.

My most interesting and, honestly, most fun experience came just last week. Friday afternoon, 15 minutes before the end of the work day, my supervisor came to me with a memo he had written on behalf of his boss' new boss. The memo was quite well written -- it was intended to introduce the boss' new boss to her colleagues and did a nice job of it -- but the boss' new boss had apparently objected to the use of the word "I" in the memo. Apparently, this particular senior administrator does not like to use the first person singular pronoun in memos of any kind.

My task: in the remaining 15 minutes of the work week, could I revise the four-paragraph memo so that the word "I" no longer appeared in it and yet it still did its job and made sense?

Do you know how hard it is to write a memo introducing oneself without using the first person singular pronoun? It's hard, let me tell you.

I ended up using a number of "it"s, a couple of "me"s and a bunch of alternative sentence structures that permitted me to make anything but the boss' new boss the subject of a sentence. And I got it done. In ten minutes. I was pretty proud of myself. The memo read well and only a very attentive reader would notice the lengths I went to avoid using the word "I".

My supervisor and his boss agreed that, as a result of the great job I had done on this memo, I deserved the rest of the day off. Nice guys, my bosses!