Thursday, October 22, 2009

Austin Film Festival

I've been trying to summarize the Austin Film Festival in under 20 pages. Alas, my writing skills have failed me. So, instead of making you wonder about the great a time I had there, I decided to post my top 10 list of why the Austin Screenwriters Conference is worth its weight in gold.

10. The hotel it was hosted in is amazing. The Driskill is an 19th century hotel - akin to one of the old CN hotels (now mostly owned by Fairmont). My room was spectacular -- with stained glass windows, high ceilings, and even a library with (real!) books.

9. The Pitch Contest was more than I could have hoped for. It wasn't a "competitive" contest in my mind. The real value of participating was obtaining feedback from working screenwriters on my verbal pitch. Even more impressive, a few hours after my session I ran into both my judges again -- and we chatted for another 20 minutes about my concept. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and thoughtfulness, not only to me but to a wide range of other people -- including those who have never pitched before. I was happy to learn that I pitched well (comes from being a consultant) but need to learn to communicate the key movie elements of a Fantasy concept better -- and more visually. It was extremely valuable advice, and has already impacted how the Summer of Flight screenplay starts. I've added a new scene which makes the whole movie flow better. Thanks guys.

8. The Panelists were varied and thoughtful. A range of screenwriters (and agents, managers, and development executives) representing big-blockbusters and others of smaller, more character driven stories were represented. I got to meet the person who wrote the Pirates of the Caribbean Movies (and Shrek), the writer of X - Men, writers on Star Trek, and one of the Producers of Lost. Oh, and Mad-Men. At the same time, I spoke with a representative of Flower Films, and a woman who is currently working to develop small (Under $5 million) movies in partnership with Essence Magazine.

7. One of the movies screening was called Tales from the Script and was well worth seeing. It was an excellent documentary of interviews with working screenwriters. I was lucky enough to have breakfast with the screenwriter, who also has a companion book (with the same title) coming out from Harper Collins next year. I saw the ARC, and look forward to buying the book.

6. The Apollo 13 Retrospective was incredible. I was amazed at this. In addition to the screenwriters, and Ron Howard, the AFF brought in Captain Jim Lovell who commanded the mission, and several other NASA folks, who all participated in a Q&A after the movie. Additionally, before the screening, they showed real footage from the Apollo 13 mission -- things I've never seen before. This was priceless to me.

5. People talked to me. This may seem funny, but I mean it with great sincerity. I thought the World Fantasy Writers Conference was nice because many attendees are working writers -- and it's a great way to learn about publishing -- but in Austin, even though I didn't know anyone, I had the chance to just go up and say hello to people (including Ron Howard!) and say hello. Additionally, people just chatted with me. Unless you know an editor at WFC, your chances of talking to one is slim. Here, I spoke with several development executives (of well reputable companies), not to mention agents and mangers.

4. I learned more about the business of screenwriting in 4 days than I would have in 5 years. For instance, I now know the difference between agents and managers -- and why query letters (which are bread and butter in publishing) don't really work for film. I also learned exactly what happens when you go into a "pitch meeting" and what a bunch of standard phrasings mean (which my brother corroborated once I told him...but never would have thought to ask about otherwise). I also learned from an Agent/Client panel exactly what the relationship is, and how it differs from a similar relationship in publishing. Every single thing I learned was fascinating, and pretty much every question asked received a thoughtful response.

3. The Roundtables are priceless. These are 1.5 hour panels, where you sit at a table of 10, and 1 person is the speaker. Three times during the panel, the speaker changes. At the conference, there were a number of roundtables -- with directors, producers, executives, writers, and writer/producers. I attended the one with executives, and found them all willing to demystify how they work.

2. The atmosphere is collegial and positive. Part of this is the unspoken rule that you shouldn't ask anyone to read your script. The idea is that over time, you will build relationships and people will then ask you what you write. There were several examples of just this kind of thing happening. With the unspoken rule in place, I found that everyone was very willing to answer questions, give advice, and provide their own stories -- because there was no pressure on them. Both participants and panellists could just enjoy and spend the time learning from each other. One panelist even mentioned that he now comes back every year to remind himself of when he was on the other side. In other words -- people were there to inspire you. They were brutally candid at times, but always positive and thoughtful in their responses to questions.

1. I met Ron Howard. How much more inspirational can you get? Okay -- I couldn't get up the nerve to ask for a picture with him (didn't want to look silly) but I did get the below candid shot.

1. People treated everyone like screenwriters. Okay, so I have two items marked Number 1. Sorry. But really, this was also something that really struck a cord. Every person who attended was treated as a professional -- even the high school students who were on special passes. Part of this may be the fact that many attendees are also independent producers, but part of it goes back to the collegial atmosphere. One of the funniest things I heard someone say at the convention was the following:

  • Agent: You should always be on the lookout to meet agents
    and managers. It's never to early to build relationships.
  • Attendee: Even if you haven't written anything
  • Agent: Okay -- I admit, I did make some assumptions. (i.e.,
    she expected everyone in the audience
    to have already written

So -- Overall, Austin was incredible. I have already told my brother it would be worth his time to attend next year. It is a very pricey conference to attend. ($650 for the Producer badge -- although only $495 if ordered before the New Year). However, this badge -- if you can afford it -- is worth every cent as it gets you into all the private parties where you can meet a lot of the special guests. One thing I can say. While the hotel is lovely -- you don't need to stay at the Driskill. Save the cost of the hotel and put it into the badge if you need to make a choice

I haven't quite committed to going next year -- but I would say the likelihood of my attending is very high. As in almost guaranteed. It would take a lot for me to miss it.

It will all depend on how things go for the rest of my writing retreat. Which I am now on -- on the sunny shores of Honolulu, Hawaii. Ahhh. The warmth is spectacular. I am finally getting the summer Toronto never had.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I initially decided to write the Summer of Flight screenplay so that I could get another script done fairly quickly. Since the first was written from a comprehensive treatment -- and was quick to write -- I assumed a second, based on the book, would be the same.

Additionally, I thought that writing the screenplay would help me determine if the plotting of the novel worked - because I find plot holes to be far more visible in a movie.

I have found both of these assumptions to be true. I wrote 56 pages of the script in 4 days (with a couple of days spent doing other things) -- of these, the first half flowed very easily, just as expected. Then, yesterday, I had a revelation.

As I was writing one of the turning point scenes, I realised I had done something ridiculous in the novel. In this particular scene, one of the characters didn't appear. Why? That is a question I asked myself.

"He really should be there," I said. "By not being there, why would the main character trust him later?"

"But that would complicate the story," I argued. Oh. OH! That's a good thing.

Needless to say, I think this is the reason I've been unable to write that final missing middle chapter. My brain was telling me it wasn't right. The script made the problem blindingly obvious.

So, what does this mean for the story? Well, 4 chapters of the novel need to be re-written (to include said character), including the missing chapter. For the screenplay, I've plotted out the revisions, and now need to make them. Once done, I should be back on track again.

Fortunately, the changes don't affect the end of the book. It just makes the middle more interesting.

What it does mean is that I am not going to meet my self imposed deadline - but I believe both the novel and the script will be better for it. And truthfully, I planned next week as a buffer week, so my overall goals shouldn't be affected. I hope.

So, what was the purpose of this post? To say that whatever else I realised this week -- the script is doing exactly what I hoped it would do: pointing out the flaws in the story.

That's not to say my test-reader won't find plenty more ...

Now? It's off to Austin!

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Successful Day

Today, I had the best writing day of my time-off so far -- writing 20 pages of the movie script.

Even better, I am quite happy with how it is coming out. I've had to change a few things -- because a movie is different than a book -- but so far the story is coming along quite well. Thank goodness for that.

Tomorrow, I am going to see the premiere of my brother's movie "Kissed by Lightning" - I believe it is his first film with official "Producer" credit. I can't wait. Tonight - it's the premiere of Where the Wild Things Are ... mostly because it looks lovely.


Where the Wild Things Are was as lovely as I'd hoped. It was visually spectacular - and a brilliantly written movie. It was understated, yet right on the mark. And the boy playing Max was spot on.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Preparing for Austin

In twelve days, I leave for Austin, Texas, where I'll be attending the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting Conference.

Funny how time can sneak up on a person. I first decided to go to Austin in December 2008, before I even knew that I would have three months off work. I made the decision to go because I was at the point where I had to decide whether I was going to give screenwriting the same effort as fiction.

Now, you'd think this would be a no-brainer, but I fell into trying screenwriting without any intent to do so on my part. Back when I was at Simon Fraser, I script read for a couple of small studios in Vancouver. I did it more for the reading material than for the $30 a script I was paid.

Fast-forward three years. I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea. It wasn't a book. It wasn't a short story. It wasn't an anthology. No, it was a movie. Loud and clear. I mentioned the idea to my brother (who liked it), and then promptly forgot about it for another couple of years ...until my brother told me he wanted us to enter a small pitch contest run by the Vancouver Film School. I said, "Sure."

I wrote a 1 page pitch, expecting nothing to come of it. Six weeks later, my brother calls. "So, we made the second round," he said.

"Really - what does that mean?" I ask.

"It means you need to write a treatment."

"What's a treatment?"

...can you see where this is going? I ended up writing a 25 page treatment (in a weekend), which eventually made it to the final round - where we got to practice pitch to a (known - I checked) Hollywood Agent.

Nothing like getting in over my head. I think I was too dumbfounded by the whole experience to be nervous. Fortunately, it went well. If I had had the script done, I could have sent it to him...but I was a long way from that point. ::chuckle:: We also made the top 12 of the Toronto International Film Festival Pitch Contest with the same pitch. Not bad for my first movie-concept.

It wasn't until I wrote the script (three years later), that I realised how much I liked screenwriting. Of course, by the time I sat down, I knew the story like I know my own history. I wrote the draft in 4 days. My brother has gotten some good industry feedback on the script, now he just needs $10 million to produce it. Believe it or not, I fully expect him to get it too - although who knows when that will be.

I wasn't about to wait. I told him while he got dibs on the first movie, the second was mine to do with as I pleased. Of course, saying that made me realise I really wanted to write another script. I had so much fun with the first, I was desperate to do a second. That's what prompted the very real conversation with myself (don't all writers talk to themselves?) about whether screenwriting was as interesting to me as writing fiction or editing anthologies.

My answer was yes.

Which is why I decided that I needed to figure out more about screenwriting than talking to my brother, reading scripts, and working on consulting projects for the industry as a part of my day job could give me.

That's when I decided to go to a convention.

My first real convention for fiction was the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal (2001). A better place to meet industry participants (i.e., writers, editors, agents, etc.) you've never seen. Not if you write Fantasy, that is.

I decided to find the equivalent for screenwriting. What I found was The Austin Screenwriters Conference.

I said if I finished the first draft of Script #2, I could go without regret. After all, finishing #2 would prove I was dedicated.

Side Note: the aside to write television show pitches doesn't count as dedication...I did that because it was fun. I fully expect zilch to come of it. What do I know about TV after all?

Of course, I don't have Script #2 done yet. I am at least 85 pages away from the end (assuming a 90 page minimum as it's a feature).

Well - I have 12 days. I wrote the first one in 4. I imagine even with going home for Thanksgiving, I'll have 7 full days to get it done. 7 days. It should be a cinch ::cough::.

If I am dead in a week, you'll likely know why.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Writing Retreat Results

There is no better weather for a writing retreat than rain ... and it did.


Fortunately, we were in a nice warm cottage, complete with hot tea (in many flavours) and good food. We also had intermittent internet, which was nice as it let me start this blog.

Overall, the weekend was a success, mostly because my only goal was to relax.

I had no writing goals for this weekend. Following a crazy run up to taking my leave, I expected to need at least a week to recover and transition my brain to fiction from consulting. With Canadian Thanksgiving next weekend, I realised I would not really get into the thick of writing until I got back.

So this wasn't a 12,000 word weekend (which I have done before) -- but I still made some nice, if unexpected, progress.
  • I wrote the opening chapter of Book 2. (3,000 words). This was not in the cards for the weekend, but maybe the fall weather had something to do with it. Fortunately, this chapter won't likely be affected by any edits to Book 1.
  • I wrote three pages of the Summer of Flight screenplay - always good, since I want this drafted before the 20th.
  • On the way home, I had a long conversation with my writing partner about our joint-project. We spent most of the time on character drivers, and continuing to plot out the first few scenes to a greater level of detail. The book concept is really starting to gel - although we have a number of key decisions yet to make. I consider this great progress, since we don't have a defined timeline for getting this done.

Now I am back home (for a few days at least). On Friday I head to Windsor for Thanksgiving.

Friday, October 2, 2009


I got words written today. The words were all over the map – on three different projects – but they were words. My bet is that this reflects the fact I am still in work brain (i.e., multitasking brain).

The most important breakthrough of the day was defiantly simple though. There I was --sitting, fiddling with a page of writing -- when all of a sudden I got hit in the head by the title of Book 2.

You have to understand. Ever since I realized this could be a series of four books, I have been trying to come up with a title for Book 2 (and Book 3, and Book 4). Nothing I could come up with was good. Nothing resonated when standing next to Summer of Flight.

I wanted to keep with the season theme (at least for the draft titles) but everything I came up with was blah. They all sounded contrived. Until one hit me -- and I fell in love.

The working title of Book 2 is … Shadows of Autumn.

What do you think?

Goal Setting

I am at a friend’s cottage this weekend. I love my friends, because a writing retreat is exactly what I need to get my brain to switch gears. Fortunately, my friends are also writers, so they are also keen on getting a weekend away.

I am writing this blog entry from a comfy chair, as the spotty internet might mean I can’t post until I get back.

As day two marches onward, I thought it might be nice to state my goals clearly here. After all, if I set goals, I can be held accountable for them – if only to myself.

Thirteen weeks. What can I do in thirteen weeks? Hopefully a lot. I am a bit of a blitz writer after all – I think my best weekend was around 12,000 words. No, that’s not a type-o. Technically I’ve done more than that, but we aren’t talking proposals or work-related reports here – just writing.

Goal 1: Finish the Draft of Summer of Flight.

With only a few thousand words left before the first draft is officially done – this is the most achievable goal on my plate. Of course, the truth is that I’ve already finished the draft – I just need to go back and add a few important scenes in the middle. I’ll get there.

Mind you, I also have to make the book good, write a query letter and synopsis, and hopefully send it out to agents. I likely won’t start submitting until I get back from Hawaii (since I want to be conveniently located if an agent is interested), but I do want to be ready.

This goal of course is also flexible based on the interest of my first reader. If she says the draft is awful, I will believe her, and will take the time to make it work. And since this is the reason I got the grant, if it is awful - rewriting this will be the only thing on my plate. After all, I need to prove I can accomplish my task.

Goal 2: Finish the Screenplay.

When I decided to go to the Austin Screenwriters’ Conference this year, I bribed myself. I said if I got two finished scripts done, I could go. The first is done and polished. The second is a handful of pages in. But I promised – so I will deliver. Mind you, I am cheating a bit – I am writing a screenplay based on the book. I figure this gives me two benefits:

  1. I know the story, so don’t need to write a treatment; and
  2. I will no doubt find all the plot holes by writing the movie, than I might have found otherwise.

I also don't expect this one to take very long. My first draft of The Santa Quest was written in 4 days - I figure even if this one takes 5, it should fill a nice niche in my schedule. ::chuckle::

Goal 3: Write the Sequel to Summer of Flight.

This is my November plan. Assuming all goes well with the first book, I will be able to turn my attention to Book 2. I picked November for this because I will be on my own in a different time zone, and won’t have too many ways to procrastinate. Sure, I will be in Hawaii in the fall (while writing a book about Toronto in the fall) but hey – at least I will be lovely and warm and writing in one of the most inspiring places in the world. I will be there from Oct. 31 – Dec. 2, 2009 – in case anyone is wondering.

Considering it is freezing here, I think I am making a good decision.


So those are the big goals. There’s nothing there that isn’t doable – and doable in three months. I figure the screenplay will be the easiest, and editing Summer of Flight the hardest. But that’s okay. I’ll get there.

I also hope to get some work done on a collaborative project – but that’s more fun than anything. A friend and I are working on a book with two very different points of view – with each of us writing one. It may be a disaster, but it will be an adventure at least.

I could also do some work on my Napoleonic sea adventure fantasy novel – but that’s probably the least likely. I have some ideas floating around, but I imagine I won’t write that one until after I go on my tall ship adventure trip. Still, in the interest of full disclosure, I figure that I’ll mention it.

It will be interesting to see what happens. After all, things can always change.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Today is the Day.

Three months.

When I first received the letter saying I had received a Canada Council for the Arts grant, I was flabbergasted. After all, it was my first application to the Council's Emerging Writers program, and I really didn't expect anything to come of it. I assumed that:
  1. They wouldn't accept an application to write a fantasy novel;
  2. They didn't know me from a hole in the wall; or
  3. The Assessment Committee would hate the sample pages I sent in.
The letter proved that the CCA is far more accepting of genre work than I had ever guessed, that it didn't matter that I really wasn't anyone important, and that apparently my sample pages had some merit -- enough so that the Committee thought my efforts were worth supporting.

External validation. Sure, it wasn't an agent saying it -- or an Editor. But it was a group of three people who are industry professionals. Three people who saw something in what I was writing and said, "Yes - let's support this."

Wow. How awesome is that?

Even better, the company I work for has also been great. My boss, who I adore, has never asked me to change my leave, despite the fact my loss for three months will not doubt cause her extra pain and suffering (or not -- I can hope things go perfect in my absence). Truth be told, I couldn't have picked a worse time to go if I had tried -- and still I have her full support. That means a great deal to me.

So, for eight months I have been waiting -- sometimes with a deep certainty that something would come up to keep this from happening. And trust me, there were moments. Most recently, I had a bout with the judicial system where I could have been named a juror in an eight week murder trial. Fortunately, I ducked out of that one by the skin of my teeth. Truth be told, I think jury duty would have been fascinating ... but not during the three months I planned to write!

So, today is the day. Hard to believe. There's special energy in the air, even though I have no expectation of writing today. No - today is going to be about preparing. Opening this blog so I can keep track of my journey. Cleaning my apartment. Packing for a writing retreat. Getting a few loose ends tied up for work.

Tomorrow, two friends and I are heading to a cottage. How perfect that my friends are helping me to start my time off right. It's been a while since we had a writing retreat together, so it will be great for all of us.

And it will be a chance for me to hit the ground running.

Three months. I can't believe it.