Monday, March 30, 2009

Novel Approach - They say everyone has a book in them. But do they have to hurt so much coming out?

It seems like everybody's writing a book nowadays.

I have a copy of my friend Scott Alberts's book, Below The Line, written with John McFetridge, on order from right now. The 30 Second Commute, Stephanie Dickison's nonfiction comedy about working from home, is available for pre-order.

Just in stores and available to order directly from Groundwood Books is Earthgirl, fellow TV scribe Jenn Cowan's first book from House of Anansi Press.

Hardcore Nerdity principal Lesley Livingston's Wondrous Strange is selling like hotcakes and has already spent time as one of Amazon's top youth sellers. So wake up, Twilight fans.

Actress and author Adrienne Kress, another Hardcore Nerdite, has a second book out, Timothy And The Dragon's Gate. Both of Kress and Livingston's fantasy works are garnering excellent reviews, like this one in the Globe and Mail.

And pals like actor Stephen Adams are taking matters into their own hands and self-publishing, like his first novel, Suit On The Run.

Sure, this post is partially a chance to shill for my friends and acquaintances, but the whole idea of putting a book into the world seems more possible thanks to the efforts of these colleagues. But it seems like writing a novel is becoming more and more common. The people above are some of the authors I know who are getting out there and getting it done.

Last November I posted about Chris Baty's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoMo Yes Or No?). I was tempted by the idea because of the power of a deadline to make the impossible happen. The NanoWrimo site's description of how it works is full of inspiration:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

As you spend November writing, you can draw comfort from the fact that, all around the world, other National Novel Writing Month participants are going through the same joys and sorrows of producing the Great Frantic Novel. Wrimos meet throughout the month to offer encouragement, commiseration, and—when the thing is done—the kind of raucous celebrations that tend to frighten animals and small children.

In 2007, we had over 100,000 participants. More than 15,000 of them crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.

The amazing thing about it is that it's all true. This sucker really works!

I never believed I had a novel in me but about three days before National Novel Writing Month was to begin the germ of a possible idea wormed it way into my head. And as the clock ticked down to the start, I threw caution to the winds and began. I found it invigorating and challenging and soon the need to achieve each day's page count burned in my heart.

Then I had to stop.

It soon became apparent that I had so much paid writing to do I could not do both projects without my "day job" suffering. It took a little while to see if I could actually reschedule my time to make room for work and NanoWrimo (NaNoMo, How many different short forms does National Novel Writing Month have anyway?) It turned out it was possible, with the support of a very understanding wife, and so I was the rest of the month went well.

I was surprised by some of the twists that flowed from my flying fingers. I was seeing the idea expand and grow despite never having enough time to explore each digression and character that arose. I knew the draft would be far from perfect but if I kept to schedule I knew it would be complete enough to really work with . Writing is all in the editing.

It was fast and furious creation. The fingers really had to fly across the keyboards too make up for a lost week's worth of word count. By coincidence, this year's month ended on a Sunday Night, allowing for a full weekend of laptop bashing. At sometime around ten I had passed the 50, 000 word minimum but it wouldn't be official until I fed it into the official online counter. Normally, I would just see my count rise by much less than I'd hoped. But I knew this would be different. A sense of triumph hung in the air. I hit ENTER and was greeted with...

Through storm and sun, you traversed the noveling seas. Pitted against a merciless deadline and fighting hordes of distractions, you persevered. You launched yourself bravely into Week One, sailed through the churning waters of Week Two, skirted the mutinous shoals of Weeks Three and Four, and now have landed, victorious, in a place that few adventurers ever see.

We congratulate you on your hard work, salute your discipline and follow-through, and celebrate your imagination.

You did something amazing this month, novelist. We couldn't be prouder.

I can't tell you what a heady experience it was to see that logo flash across the screen. And the congratulatory write-up does not exaggerate that feeling. I was a viking! A master of throwing words at a page in some semblance of readable order! I was unstoppable!

So why didn't I slap this all over the Blog when I reached my lofty goal? For one, simple reason.

I wasn't finished the damn thing.

According to NaNoWrimo founder Chris Baty, the last word you type really should be "The" and "End". There will be a lot of crap in between but you'll have something complete to edit with and you can begin the arduous process of polishing up a prose gem. But my last two words weren't "The End". My last two words weren't my last two words at all. I was far from finished. I figured at the rate of 1600 words a day or so I was over a week away from having a finished first draft.

I got down on myself. I'm a professional writer. Why didn't I pace out my story to end at the right point. But then I did some calculations and realized I was pacing myself... for thirty days. But with two or three days away from the novel for family functions and a week lost to paying assignments and reworking my schedule, I had only written on twenty of the thirty days allotted! I was still ten days away from "The End".

Baty warns you to finish quickly if you still have work to do. The energy of the deadline disappears fast and the longer you wait to return to the first draft, the less likely you are to return to it at all. And when you do, your head will be in a different space and you might have difficulty recapturing the original mindset.

Sadly, that bastard is absolutely right.

The Winner's Seal has been mocking me for months. There has been so much work and so many things to balance in my day to day life that I still have yet to write those final ten days worth of novel. I'd like to do it in one go so I can be as close as possible to that state of automatic writing I achieved in November. So after, script deliveries, after Easter and after preparing my taxes, maybe I can finally, truly feel like I've earned that Winner Seal.

Compared to that, editing will be easy. Right?


Live the adventure.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Chosen One - Homemade Flash Feature Inspires DIY Rules

I've seen too many bad, low-budget indie films and shorts lately that have everything going for them but are ruined by eager creators who can't recognize they need to step up and really look at what they're inflicting on us. So it's with relief that I found a fun, homemade animated film by creators who seem to get it. And they're getting lots of attention at Festivals, Ain't It Cool News and positive reviews from sites like

I just finished ordering my copy of The Chosen One, a home-made, Flash animated feature by Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer, which was picked up by producer Andreas Olavarria. I believe that much of the work was done on their own but homemade may be a bit of an exaggeration. These guys are working writers and filmmakers and have a few key contacts.

Still, they spent their money on the right things; top notch voice talent and sound and a funny script that worked toward their strengths as animators. When you don't have the Disney or Pixar budget and can't make it smooth and realistic, follow South Park's lead and make it funny.

Here's the theatrical trailer from their The Chosen One Youtube page (There's a longer, more leisurely paced one for the Festival circuit).

All of the Do-It-Yourself hype around the movie makes it clear the script is what sold the talent and the buyers on it. What are the lessons for people considering making their own productions, whether live action or animated, webisode or straight to DVD, for Festival screens or Cellphone screens? Since there is a DIY wave washing over writers eager to get their work out over the net, may I suggest a few basic rules to consider before you start?

One. I'm talking about basic rules like be honest with yourself. Are you really a good director? If not, find someone you admire and trust. The flip side is, don't be afraid to speak up if you know you can improve something or direct it well yourself.

Two. If you do direct, listen to the input from those around you, consider it and take what you need. You can't see everything or consider every possible solution to a challenge without help.

Third, write a script based on what you have and can get. Don't be calling for a Bond-villain style set if all you've got is a bachelor apartment to shoot in.

Fourth, write a little beyond what you have or can get. I know, it's kind of bending rule number
three a little. Good1 That rule needs to be bent just a bit. You always need to be reaching a little higher than you expect to go, or it's all gonna be crap.

Fifth, don't scrimp on sound recording and mixing. Clear, clean sound well -mixed is a key to audience enjoyments. Even a crappy looking film can be helped by good sound. But your beautiful cinematography and clever script will seem horrible if the tinny dialogue and messy mix is giving the viewer a migraine.

Six. Seriously, don't scrimp on sound, man. Are you even listening to me?

Seven, always remember you want an audience to see your work. So step back and make it as polished as possible and don't assume they will get all your in-jokes and somehow know the convoluted backstory that's whipping around inside your brain but is nowhere on the screen.

Eight. Cast actual, bonafide actors. They're worth the money. Sure, it's hard to talk their language and you're not used to dealing with actual, you know, people. But they will bring your work to life and add elements to your work you never even knew where there. And if it really, really works, audiences will quote them. People will never remember you wrote it. Sorry. It's a sad fact. But they may remember your vivid character and the lines they spouted, or the moments they experienced with them. And they'll share them with their family and buddiss for the rest of their lives. That's IF your actor is good and not just one your drinking buddies from the indoor soccer team.

All these things make a difference if you want half a chance at actually making money. But you have to aim beyond scoring a few Youtube hits.

Nine. Find the story behind your film and why it was worth spending so much time and effort on it. you want your achievement to become part of the legend behind the film.That gets people interested and gets them talking.

Ten, go out and talk up your film yourself. The personal is the only way to get it to rise above the dreck everyone else is producing. Better still, you want to rise above the GOOD STUFF other people are putting out there!

Eleven, keep working to pay those bills. Everything stops if you're being evicted.

Eleven and a half. Ego can be useful but stow it when you're working. There's a time and place for it. You need everyone onside in the trenches and humbly is the way to call in favours. Do bring the ego out when you need to inspire those around you, overcome criticism and work through bullshit. You want to harness the power of ego, not let it control you.

Twelve. Soak up the glory when you finish and send your work into the world, everywhere you can. People will get to know you through your work and will watch for you again, hopefuly to embrace your next production and not to avoid the moron who ignored all of these rules.

Finally, it lives or dies on the writing man. you can save yourself a lot of headaches with a well-written and thought out script. Then all you have to do is make every stage that follows live up to and elevate it.

I'm curious to see what Lackey and Fifer accomplished. I'm curious to see what you and I accomplish too.

Live the adventure.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Blind Date Tightrope - It's worth spending time in awkward moments to reveal and develop characters

I like the fact that in ancient Chinese art the great painters always included a deliberate flaw in their work: human creation is never perfect. – Madeleine L’Engle

Fourteenth century Friar and logician William of Occam’s Razor advises simplicity in attempting to explain any phenomenon. But simplicity is deceptive. It does not mean, as some espouse (especially in mystery shows and police procedurals), “the simplest theory is the correct one”. It means the working theory should make as few assumptions as possible and any elements that shed no real light on the observable predications of the hypothesis should be eliminated from the theory.

As writers we are often going through our scripts shaving out dialogue or cutting scenes that don’t push our plot forward or somehow set up some revelation or twist that will appear later. We’re trying to make a lean, mean script that builds it momentum and carries our viewers to the emotional place we went them to end up at. We want them to have laughed out loud and been surprised, discovered whodunit was the one they never suspected or want them relived after watching our thriller on the edge of their seat, And ultimately, we want to leave them wanting more.

But often when we strip down our scripts to their essential elements only we can lose the things that make it watchable or readable; those quirky character moments that let people get to know a character, that panning vista that really tells us the kind of world our characters are coming from, or just spending time in an environment to let people immerse themselves in our world. We’ve all reached the moment when we’ve taken out everything that seems unimportant and read through the script, only to discover it reads as perfunctory, unrealistic and, gasp, dull.

I recently attended writer and actress Rebecca Northan’s brilliant, partially improvised play, Blind Date, at Harbourfront Centre and experienced the other side of this approach.

Northan’s moving, fascinating play could teach a lot of writers a lesson in where truly compelling drama and humour comes from. It’s messy and tense and delightful and surprising as two people fish for what they need in an encounter with another human being. I won’t even get into the questions it raises about the nature of the audience and viewing, and reality versus committing to a fantasy under unclear rules, et al. That will have to wait for me to start my psychotherapy blog, In essence, Blind Date is all about the things we might be tempted to cut out of our scripts in an effort to streamline and drop anything that feels potentially extraneous.

First of all, I should point out that improvisation and Writing are two very different animals. I spent the first fifteen years of my career doing live improv and though you are trying to explore character and narrative, the experience is very much communal. Rough patches, awkwardness and mistakes are forgiven because the audience is a part of the ride. You’re using their suggestions, building on their lives and sometimes actually bringing one up on stage to perform with you. The tightrope walk makes it okay.

In a scripted show you have to take responsibility for the writing. When there’s a wonky bit of dialogue or a scene that just doesn’t seem to work, it’s on us. You’re presenting something to the audience and they will let you know if they do not like. The forgiveness factor of improv isn’t there. Your script is the only net and you better weave it well.

That said, Northan’s hybrid play reminded me of the power to harnessed by embracing those awkward true moments we find so often in life and in people. In Blind Date Northan plays (and play is the key word here) Mimi, a Parisian clown who has just been stood up for a Blind Date and so she goes into the audience and chooses an unsuspecting male to be her blind date for the evening… on stage… for ninety minutes.

Blind Date is everything a real blind date is; awkward, full of shifts and turns and misunderstandings as two people to try to get to know each other and connect in a very short time. It soon became apparent, that much like real life, trying to make up interesting things about yourself is far less interesting than the truths. I hope I keep that in mind the next time I want to make a character who belongs in an insurance company cubicle into a Fashion Magazine editor simply because it seems more interesting.

After a drink date filled with pauses and moments of connection (Northan and the audience guide the “date” on being honest through coaching sessions and positive reinforcement like cheering and applause), Northan takes the date back to her “apartment” and then jumps forward in time to show the developing relationship. By this time most of her “dates’ have caught and reveal surprising things about themselves, often learning things even they were unaware of.

The fact that a person can be thrust into a situation they are completely unfamiliar with and discover things about themselves and hidden reserves is just the kind of thing we try to capture in our scripts. But the only way for the character, and for us as writers, to uncover those things is to explore unexpected moments and tangents. It’s amazing how much depth they can bring to the viewing experience.

Think of some of cinema’s most amazing moments and you’ll find examples of we can achieve by not struggling to be interesting, but rather embracing the discomfiting inelegance of real behaviour…

"I engage you a character? Exactly how do I engage
you? I engage you like a funny clown maybe?"

The seduction scene in the Graduate is compelling because of Dustin Hoffman’s sputtering, overwhelmed performance. And it’s played so well against Anne Bancroft’s hard-edged, weary woman so unhappy in a dead-end marriage she’s willing tii seduce her daughter’s fiancé.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen on the deck of his apartment, first getting to know each other in Annie Hall. Magical awkwardness used to be Allen’s stock in trade. And the growing attraction between the characters is as apparent as the intellectual divide that will eventually break-them up again.

I have to agree with TV Guide on this. There’s no better blend of humour and menace than Joe Pesci turning on Ray Liotta after telling a joke in a restaurant. People still drop into his “How am I funny? I amuse you?” speech at the drop of a hat. It’s uncomfortable, disturbing and riveting cinema.

Let’s call it the Blind Date Tightrope.

Our script is the audience’s blind date with all of our characters and the only way to get them interested is to find the truth of our characters, including the awkwardness, nervousness and self-image issues we all work through as we get to know the people in our lives.

Blind Date creator/performer Rebecca Northan.

It's interesting that most reviews for the show refer to it as unreviewable because it depends so much on who Northan chooses. The truth is, it will work almost every time, because she has done some writing in creating an adaptable framework to keep her partner's safe in that she's there to help them, but she's also there to keep them riding the edge, always forcing him to make choices. Sounds like great way to build a character.

Northan's own philosophy is summed up in this interview for the show in Calgary's Fast Forward Weekly.
I think an unsuccessful show is one where the audience leaves and goes, ‘meh, that was alright.’ If someone leaves the theatre and goes, ‘I loved that! I never thought of things that way!’ or ‘Oh my God, that really upset me, and I'm going to be fucked up for three days,’ or ‘I'm outraged! I'm politically outraged by what I saw!’ — that's all great. But if you leave the theatre the same as when you entered it, that's a failure. Otherwise, why tell the story?”
Rebecca Northan’s Blind Date will be remounted in Harbourfront’s Fall Season.

My next script will on your desk days before the deadline so we can go over some initial notes.

Live the adventure.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Grading Erica - Being Erica closes in on the end of her first season

Looking back on Being Erica so far...

After my excitement over the premiere of CBC and Soap TV's Being Erica dramedy in January, I have been watching it regularly. It’s one of those shows that I can enjoy and share with my wife, and such opportunities are welcome in our house.

Last night, the show rounded the corner toward its final few episodes of the season so it seems like a good time for a bit of a report card. In its virgin run the show has been moved, dipped and recently surged again in ratings. It also has had varying degrees of success in exploiting its concept and characters and maintaining dramatic focus. But I think it can be said that the growing pains suffered by Being Erica are the same challenges being faced by most of the Canadian comedies currently airing on our non-cable stations. And the kind of growth suffered by any new series.

Little Mosque on the Prairie is holding its own, having had several seasons to work out its unique rhythms. It seems to have abandoned the more free-wheeling funny of the second season in order to spice the current crop of episodes with social commentary and satire-based humour. It's rare for a show to see such success with new story departments on each season but the dust has now settled. The show is at its peak when it utilizes their bevy of comic character actors like Carlo Rota, Sheila McCarthy, Neil Crone, Deb McGrath, and my personal favourite character, Boyd Banks' delightfully loopy Joe Peterson.

The meaner and naughtier Less Than Kind has thankfully been renewed. It gets much mileage from the essentially unlikable Blecher family surrounding our sweet, put-upon lead, played by Jesse Camacho. I can't get enough of Linda Kash's fed-up, no-nonsense doctor. Mark McKinney and Gary Campball lead a strong writing room so the show should only get better as it goes along.

Perennial favourite, Corner Gas staked out its own niche, combining well-observed characters who are slaves to their natures with sublimely ridiculous plots. There will be much hype when his new show, Hiccups, begins starring his wife and Corner Gas co-star, the hilarious Nancy Robertson.

J-Pod is all quirk, requiring a bit of a commitment to learn the show's rhythms. But I'm glad I stuck around to meet characters like Alan Thicke and Sherry Miller as David Kopp's Grow-Op running, movie-extra parents. And Colin Cunningham makes a good villain as Steve, the tech company's mercurial and self-loathing "Vice President In Charge of Vision".

The English version of Sophie is the current show most like Being Erica. It boasts a talented, likable lead in Natalie Brown, but the show still struggles to find a light touch, with many comic moments overplayed and a heavy seriousness to the dramatic moments. There are flashes of fun ideas though, such as Sophie sending her mother to spy on her baby's father at the park and reporting in so she can know the baby is safe (and not being stolen by her Daddy). The scene has all the elements needed for great comedy, a ridiculous situation under lined with a darker side. The show needs to embrace and combine these elements more effectively. In any given scene, it feels like several shows are fighting each other for the spotlight.

As you can see, the thing that stands out in a comedy is inevitably the characters. If an audience comes to know your character well enough, you can put them in any situation and viewers will begin to imagine the comedic potential before the scene even begins. There is much to learn from what Erica is doing well (a lot). But there is also much to learn from the ways in which it can still be improved. Being Erica is a at heart, a romantic comedy but the need for solid characters still holds true. And it has a lot of characters to work with.

So here we go. Remember, I’m a fan. I write this out of looooove.

Being Erica continues to walk a lovely balancing between the serious and comic, anchored by the still-delightful Erin Karpluk in the lead. She manages to both ground the show and keep it light and frothy all at once. Two weeks ago, Bill Harris of the Toronto Sun had some good insights into what the show was doing well in his column here. You can find another version of the article here.

Harris’ comments are bang on. Erica doesn't seem have any significant problems, many of the characters she interacts with are a little on the cartoony, one-dimensional side and her main problem seems to stem from being surrounded by inconsistent friends.

It's interesting how well the preview webisodes (posted online before the series premiere) showcased the series’ potential. Erica was in a dead-end, cubicle job and her frustration with her co-workers and her life were palpable. Karpluk's closest friend lived in another city and she seemed helpless to change her life. She was funny and charming and we could relate to her life.

You can view them all on the preview blog (abandoned after the premiere in favor of a Facebook profile, which is both an inexpensive and brilliant way to keep up a web presence and sad that they abandoned something they worked so hard to establish at the same time. The character’s lonely blog still sits there, a cold dead thing on the web. I can imagine this is very off-putting for potential viewers seeking info on the show.

Here’s the first of the video blogs so you can see how they helped the character connect with her future viewer-ship.

Lovely performance, understand and natural but funny. We have a lovely office enemy established and we know Erica’s job is not exactly making her do cartwheels on the way to work every morning. Later she joins an on0line dating service and has a first date with a hunky guy. Then the premiere arrives and all that groundwork is thrown away as Erica gets fired by the first commercial and dumped by the new beau.

Apparently having an everyday job didn’t seem interesting enough. So why waste so much energy establishing such a strong environment and situations people can relate to only to drop it" The likely answer is the videos were done after most of the shooting; after they knew their characters well. I do hope we see them revisit that location so we can see some of that potential used to better effect.

So okay, the series starts and we’ve traded one problem (without mining any of the story potential it presented) for another challenge: finding another job. Despite the disappointment at losing the things about the show which I had already invested in, the premiere was a fun, comic, ribald and sometimes dark romp, introducing the concept of the series and its main characters solidly.

After the premiere, I found myself having many discussions with fellow industry types about the show. this is a good sign. People are still talking about Erica. Some colleagues admired the obvious budget the series basked in. The location specific shooting certainly makes Toronto positively glow with warmth and hip-ness. But several of my friends wondered if the series had "legs". Meaning, did the show have the potential to remain as fresh and entertaining over 65 episodes as it did over 13?

Many were concerned with Erica learning essentially the same lessons each week: that she shouldn't have regrets and shouldn't assume she knows everything. We were, however, intrigued enough by Dr. Tom, Erica's time-travel facilitating shrink played with such aplomb by Michael Riley, to already begin speculating on the nature of the character and unique form of therapy. All agreed the show had a lot going for it but the jury was still out.

I had faith that creator Jana Sinyo could go take this show places, arguing that there was much fertile ground to be mined so long as Sinyor let the basic concept develop and the ramifications of Erica's time travel slowly build. Another colleague suggested that she'd be more interested if they spent more time in the present and really followed Erica’s life, allowing us to invest in the character. That way, the time travel would provide much needed insight without weighing down the show under its concept.

It turns out we were all right.

It’s not that Erica is spending too little time on the present. She just spends all her time in the present rushing headlong through plot that should be developing at a slower pace. Erica’s relationship with her separated but so-perfect-he’s-kinda-not-interesting, best friend Ethan (Tyron Leitso, Wonder Falls) is the kind of thing that needs time to breathe and develop. My initial fears they were going too fast (story arc-wise) came in the third or fourth episode when the pair shared a kiss. But when Erica returns in the next episode to explore their newly elevated relationship, she finds Ethan completely at a loss as he holds his divorce papers; the overwhelming reality of his divorce overtaking him at last. Erica holds Ethan in her arms and we know they are not taking anything to the next level for a while. Not a lot of dialogue, but real. I was hooked again.

That’s good television. But we accelerate the story line again and again. Ethan tries getting back together with his wife, then drops the idea just as quickly as Erica goes out with a succession of men who look exactly like him (Hello casting? There are blonde and redheaded actor hunks in Toronto as well, Just saying.) It feels a bit like the producers knew they were getting these first thirteen episodes with no guarantee for more, so they’re dying to cram as much of their storyline in as possible.

The show has fallen into a few predicable tropes: Erica is quick to judge or misunderstand. Her friends overreact or behave in an over the top manner. Erica feels guilty, learns something in the past and apologizes. And somewhere in the course of an episode something will happen to add adult "edge" to the show, such as Erica shaving her hoo-hah on camera, someone throwing up, near or implied nudity both male and female, a lesbian-bisexual kiss, even public peeing. My wife predicts we may see bestiality by the end of the first season and I kinda hope she's right. I certainly wouldn’t bet against her.

Despite this, Erica is still buoyed by its strengths. A show lasts on the backs of interesting characters and Being Erica has some great ones. It shines best in its depiction of her family unit. John Boylan and Kathleen Laskey pull off Erica's parents at various stages of their failed marriage with aplomb, never failing to play the reality of a scene but also giving the comedic moments a light touch. The pair never feel the need to prove their character's familial link to the lead character with fake theatrics, preferring instead to underplay their scenes and let the chemistry take care of itself. The recent Yom Kippur episode in which Erica meets her parents around the time they met and discovers a hidden secret, was the strongest, most focused episode yet.

Joanna Douglas, as Erica's sister Sam, fills her character with great depth, whether she’s playing the strident emotions and whining of Sam as a teenager or the weary woman trying to make the best of her life in the present. Erica’s brother, Leo, is still a question. Since he is dead in the present, he serves more as a metaphor of loss and recaptured moments than a full character. He also always seems younger than Erica though he’s supposed to be the bug brother. But perhaps that’s just a case of boy’s maturing at a slower rate. And poor Leo never got a chance to do that.

Erica’s friends are harder to peg. As they are often there simply to react to Erica, goad her into an outburst or be petulant. When Erica finally comes to terms with her frenemy, (Sarah Gadon of the Border and voice actress on the animated series Ruby Gloom and Total Drama Island), Katie’s sudden maturity doesn’t change the fact that she’s been played like a bragging, bitch for most of her previous episodes. Still, the show is trying to show characters in a new light each time Erica’s journeys back in time and that is commendable. Still, we have yet to see the best out of friend Erica’s friends Vinessa (Judith Winters – best friend, Soul Food) and Paula Brancati (Dark Oracle, Degrassi:The Next Generation).

Outside of the family and friends, many of the characters surrounding Erica are more broadly drawn. That's the tightrope walk for a show like this. Sam's husband Josh is cartoon villain, all swagger except for brief glimpses of what could have been during his wedding to Sam. The storyline of Sam’s poor marriage and her not speaking to Erica after her sister badmouthed Josh at the wedding, is partially dealt with in on or two episodes. In my experience, even the worst marriages start off seeming pleasant for the first while. But Sam’s hubby is so cartoony, they don’t bother to play the charm that could fool a smart girl like Sam. We’re not shown any redeeming qualities in Josh so it makes the otherwise deep character of Sam seem stupid for sticking by him. As Josh, Leitso is game but the direction and the script lets him down.

Erica's workmates at River Rock publishing are also drawn in broad strokes. It's hard to believe her bitchy boss Julianne (Reagan Pasternak, In A Heartbeat, Doc, Blue Murder, CSI) could get away with such serious snark. The whole set and vibe of River Rock screams “night time soap opera” job as opposed to working publishing house. But now that I have gotten t used to this, I am liking the casts’ comic energy. Erica’s work is a slightly different reality than the rest of her experiences, grounded as they are in real Toronto.

The biggest problem Being Erica is dealing is creating a dramatic arc. Only a few episodes feel like they’re always driving us forward. The trips back in time too often disrupt the story flow, especially when they are not well integrated in the present-time problem, as with the Lesbian kiss of two weeks ago (which paid off in ratings according to Bill Brioux, if not in story cohesiveness).

That story really could have dealt with caring about someone on a level that borders on romantic, despite them not being the right choice for other reasons. But since Erica’s lesbian next-door neighbour is nowhere to be seen in the present, any depth the episode could have are lost and the kiss did indeed feel gratuitous. It's a shame too, the lovely Fredericton lass Anna Silk brings real emotion to her role and was compelling in every scene. She made you want to see more of her. Silk has been a guest star staple for years and is always interesting to watch in comedic and dramatic roles. But her most famous work so far is...

See? Silk is totally real and utterly hilarious. And in Being Erica... totally wasted. Thanks to Mike's Bloggity Blog for posting this. He's also from Frederecton and a big booster Silk booster.

Last night's episode was the series first attempt to go back into a previous episode. That sort of things generally needs to be planned ahead so it makes sense they built it into these first thirteen episodes. The story idea was for Erica not to kiss Ethan and though it had much to enjoy the fact that Erica (and therefore, the audience) left Katie, the friend she'd just reconnected with, stuck onstage with a loon and ran off to sort out her love life created a disconnect. Why run away fromt he compelling immediate problem for the less less interesting story. We know she's gonna talk to Ethan later, so we wonder why she isn't helping her dang friend!

So Erica spends twenty minutes solving the less compelling, arc-related issue while the immediate problem is left to fester.. And by fester I mean left to be completely forgotten by the increasingly uninterested viewer. By the time Erica returns to the present, Dr. Tom literally has to fill usall in on what’s happening at the Author’s Festival so Erica and Brent (Falcon Beach’s Morgan Kelly in a fun supporting role) can save the day. When I recapped what happened at the end for my wife, who had fallen asleep by this time, she too couldn’t understand why they ignored the more interesting problem for so long.

The other thing that seems to have gotten lost a little bit as the season progressed is Dr. Tom himself. He was quite intriguing over the first few episodes, displaying passion and frustration at times and a gentle assurance when playing opposite pre-teen Erica (perfectly played by Samantha Weinstein). What is it about Erica that draws this concern, anger and support from Dr. Tom? The humanity Riley brings to his living deux ex machina is lovely but we need to see some hints as to what, or who he is soon or we risk losing interest. It's important to drop some Dr. Tom elements to take better advantage of the very real chemistry at play between Michael Riley and both the actresses who have played Erica so far.

My current theory is that Dr. Tom is actually the spirit of Erica's deceased brother Leo, as he would have been had he grown up. It nicely explains his knowledge of Erica’s life and being dead, how hard could it be to manipulate time of at least, Erica’s perceptions of time?

I shared my Dr. Tom theory with the productions’ Erica Strange Facebook page and was told the reality is even better. Much like the show, the best stuff is still waiting to be told. I hope I get to find out all of it.

ultimately, if I didn't really like Being Erica, I wouldn't spend nearly as much time figuring out what it needs to be even more successful. I still make an appointment to watch week after week. And that's high praiie indeed. Being Erica is solid entertainment and deserves a chance to spread its wings. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the final episodes and a second season order .

Live the adventure.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bragging Rights - Karen Pincombe honoured with Woman of Excellence Award

We tend to defend vigorously things that in our deepest hearts we are not quite certain about. If we are certain of something we know, it doesn't need defending.
-Madeleine L'Engle
Let me take a moment to brag about my big sister.

While we rant and rail about what constitutes good writing,and network decisions, and the state of Canadian culture, my sister quietly puts us all to shame by managing to explore her creative muse while making the lives of the children of London, Ontario just a little bit better.

I have an innate cringe that rises in my bones whenever the subject of religion comes up. I am one of those people who have seen religion used too many times as a way to avoid open debate and squelch dissent, to put forth hurtful, judgmental opinion as fact, as an excuse for violence and a way to couch all manner of selfish behavior behind a cloak of hypocritical, righteousness. I guess you can tell how I feel just by examining the words I just chose to describe my problems with organized religion; judgmental, hypocritical, etc. But the truth is, at its heart, I still believe in the faith part of religion. I believe in faith and all the power it carries with it. I believe we're all connected. I believe in larger forces governing the universe so I guess I believe in God. I just don't believe in prosteletyzing.

But Faith is beyond organized religion and beyond prosteletyzing. Faith is a real thing. And religion based on faith rather than power is real too. Faith can make people happy, give them hope and help them endure incredible turmoil. Religion can bind people in common purpose and organize at a moment's notice to aid others when the hands of government are tied or when they're simply unwilling or too disorganized to help.

It's the quiet ones who draw me to this kind of religion. The ones who simply live their lives and aren't afraid to talk of their faith and their beliefs and of yours, whether they contradict or not. The ones who know you're all connected, even if you do things a little differently. My oldest sister and her husband are of that ilk. She's just living her life and setting an incredible example that shines for the rest of us.

Man... You know I had no idea when I started writing this that I see my sister as a kind of illuminating guide to what true faith is? That's something for me to chew on. Essentially, Karen demonstrates her faith simply by trying to be a good person, following her principles and leaving the world a better place than when she found it.

Karen's the kind of person who goes on vacation in Paris and spends a good portion of that time locating and riding along in a van that supplies warm blankets and serves hot soup to the homeless on cold nights. The kind of person who travels to Africa and comes a whisker away from meeting Desmond Tutu in the same twenty-four hour period in which she ventured into dangerous parts of the ghetto so she could know better how she could help (scaring the crap out of her worried guides). I also have a picture of her hugging a cheetah from that trip. I'm not sure hot that relates to the topic at hand but it occupies a worthy place on my wall.

She's passing on this enthusiasm for helping others to my delightful niece, whose Christmas list, from a very early age, has consisted mainly of money to aid the Sudan famine relief and her Sudanese pen pal. In addition to this, Karen is world-class percussionist and timpanist who has played with Orchestra London and some of the top performers in the world for over twenty years. She was the first female timpanist if the University of Western Ontario Orchestra and the first female percussionist with the London Salvation Army Citadel Band. And somewhere in there she finds time to raise her daughter and teach full-time with the London Board of Education. Me? I need a nap from just writing this list.

Sorry for gushing but surely a little brother is allowed some leeway to admire his sis, right? Just don't tell her I said any of this. I will deny it.

The good news is, I'm not the only one who's noticed how cool Karen is. The London YWCA has announced the 2009 recipients of its bi-annual Women of Excellence Awards, honoring women who are community leaders in a variety of fields. And this years honoree in the field of arts, culture and heritage is none other than my oldest sister, Karen Pincombe.

Karen (lower right hand corner in the green and
black shirt) joins other recipients of the
YWCA's 2009 Women of Excellence Award.

Dale Carruthers' London Free Press interview with Karen offers this summation of the award:

“The recognition is very important to the YMCA as it represents our commitment to the development of spirit, mind and body in people of all backgrounds, beliefs and abilities in our global community,” said Shaun Elliott, chief executive of the YMCA of Western Ontario.

The London Food Bank opened its doors way back in 1986. Soon after, Karen founded Arts For All Kids, a non-profit service dedicated to providing free music lessons (and later, arts lessons of all kinds) to children whose families couldn't afford them. It's been going for twenty years now and boasts a volunteer teaching force of 30 instructors under the direction of Karen and her husband, Brian Ratcliffe and over 70 students.

Two brief interviews with Karen on this auspicious occasion can be found at the London Free Press' website, here and here. In another interview regarding an Orchestra London fundraiser for the Food Bank, Karen's enthusiasm still showed through after all this time:
"...they get to work with artists of all kinds from the community," Pincombe says. "We have classes in drama, music, dance, visual art, and in the new year, we're going to have our first classes in creative writing."
More on Arts For All Kids and the Faith Tilk donation (her fund's donation was mentioned in the video above) can be found here and here. You can also find out how you can help the London Food Bank at their website, here.

Live the adventure.

Dang! We Gave Them An Inch

Leave it to Google to fight a War on several fronts.

As my last post on the U.S. Orphan Works Bill discussed, Google is one of the many companies eager to leap over copyright and artists' rights to gain control of all informati-- er, artwork and out of print works to disseminate as they see fit. If they believe they will make enough through advertising it will all be free. But if that doesn't seem like enough of a return to their stockholders, they'll start charging whatever the market will bear.

But hey, their backing of the Orphan Works Bill covers artwork, design and illustration. Surely, there's nothing for us writer's to worry about yet, is there?

Judge for yourself.

According to the New York Times, Google has just cut a $125 million dollar deal with the Author's Guild for the rights to digitally publish all out-of-print books. The deal covers Google's ass over it's scanning of over seven million books for its digital coffers the past few years with no effort to pay author's royalties.. a definite infringement on their copyrights. The Author's Guild accepted the money on behalf of (presumably) all authors.

Was the Guild empowered by every author infringed upon to make this deal? It's unlikely but they have been around since 1912, defending their membership and the rights of writers so they seem legitimate. Except the deal covers exclusive to ALL Out-of-print fiction. ALL of it. For 125 million bucks, paid to a guild that boasts all of 8000 or so members.

Let's face it, the money seems like chump change to me and I'm not alone. Just check out, who leaked an Author's Guild Memo about the deal here. Over at The Fiction Circus, Miracle Jones summed it up nicely:
This laughable, ludicrously small price is the kind of price that somebody would only offer for something that they didn't actually own.
Now Google gets to fight off future efforts to protect a copyright work they use without permission by saying, "we paid the Author's Guild". Sue them. It gets even better. Not even half of that money is going to actual authors! Apparently only $45 million will be disseminated among the membership ($60 to $300 each!... IF they jump through extensive hoops to attain it. Hey, hey, at last we can give up one of our three jobs and retire Mama!) The rest is likely going to all the crusading lawyers who negotiated this glorious act of thievery and the Guild itself.

The Times article in question naturally doesn't bother to follow-up and ask any of those sorts of questions. They simply ignore the bull**** aspect of it and use the decision as an excuse to fly into a gushing celebration of the future of the digital book. You'd think the Times (being written by WRITERS and all, many of whom publish books based around their reporting) would pick up on the fact that its their own rights which are being so thoroughly trampled in front of their noses.

Think it won't impact author's much? Well, here's just one scenario to consider: what happens when a writer's book is out of print for a time and they negotiate a deal with a new publisher to bring it back into print?

Probably dick all.

Google now has the "exclusive" right to publish that baby. Too bad. So sad. It's possible some arrangements could be made but I find it hard to believe Google won't want a piece of pretty every book they can get their hands on. Once again, the rights of creators to negotiate for the use of their work and earn fair market value for it is compromised.

Check here for Miracle Jone's entertaining initial response to the announcement and here for his thoughtful follow-up.

And the small but mighty Author's Guild hasn't stopped there. According to their website, the AG have managed to convince Amazon to allow author's to decide whether the new Kindle 2's text-to-speech (TTS) software will be allowed to read its books aloud. Or as Jones, (today's Stark Raving, blogger de jour) put it here:
In an effort to retain good relations with the mysterious "Author's Guild" that supposedly represents the world's fiction writers, Amazon has decided to go ahead and let the rightsholders of Kindle books decide whether or not to allow the Kindle to read books aloud in an uninflected, demonic robot voice.
Jones diatribe against this announcement is misguided. While on first look this may seem to be that is unfair to limit that use. But consider that the audio rights to a writer's works are a separate revenue stream. Books on Tape, for example, are generally a completely different negotiation straight from publication rights. Amazon wanted those rights for free. The Author's Guild announcement sums it up quite clearly for its membership:
For most of you, Amazon's announcement means that it will now respect your contractual right to authorize (or not) the addition of computer-generated audio to your e-books sold for the Kindle. We will be sending recommendations to you shortly on your TTS audio rights.

One important consideration in those recommendations will be to ensure that visually impaired people have access to this technology. Book authors have traditionally authorized royalty-free copies in specialized formats intended for the visually impaired, and copyright law provides a means to distribute recordings to the blind. We can work this out.

A more compelling argument against can be found here at But I find the Guild's position here much more defensible though it's still questionable how the Guild can be represented as the negotiating body for every author, even when the majority non-members. But they do seem to be serving the needs of their members in this case.

And in the case of on-line databases like Nexus-Luxus... where they are monitoring the Supreme Court's Decision to hear the case of freelance writers who complain there are not enough safeguards for writers of unregistered works (a registered copyright is necessary to bring a case of infringement before the courts but that fails to recognize innate copyright protections currently supported by law). The summation can be found here, on the Author's Guild website.

They're coming at us from every which way.

Live the adventure.