By Cathi Winslow
No one is born with the ability to write well. We learn to write by writing. Toronto theatre artist Jeff Ho will visit Thunder Bay on October 12 and 13 to share excerpts of his own work and help us learn new ways to approach our writing.
When Jeff Ho began writing his first play, it took him a long time to realize what he had been missing—not only in his work, but in his life. He graduated from the National Theatre School in Montreal with an impressive résumé of acting credits. However his training was devoted to how to interpret a play, not how to write one.
“It took quite a little while,” says Ho, “to believe that writing was something I needed.”
He didn’t feel equipped for it and had to muster the confidence that he could succeed. He worried that no one would think his writing was any good. “That need to work, be affirmed, make a name—all those fresh grad things felt very high stakes.” Ho learned to write by doing it, discovering along the way how much tenacity, perseverance, and sheer faith is required to move a play from page to stage.
Before theatre school, Ho studied classical piano, and so he decided to incorporate his own compositions as well as those of Chopin and Rachmaninoff into his play. He says, “Learning to marry all the different artistic facets of my upbringing—music, writing, and acting—to create a unified and cohesive piece of theatre was an enormous experiment.” He established rules for how piano music would speak in place of the male characters. His journey was sometimes daunting and humbling as he discovered new ways to combine his creative skills. The process required patience. “It was a lot of trying things, till something theatrical and potent revealed itself.”
Ho created his play as a way to honour the matriarchs who had held his family together through dire circumstances over three generations. He created characters based on his mother and grandmother, and discovered how deeply they were ingrained in him. “I learned how the way I love, laugh, and live have all been informed by what my mother and grandmother faced while they were loving, laughing, and living.”
Ho’s experience as a performer helped to inform his play. He used acting techniques to develop each of the characters, then sat down to transcribe his improvisations. He wrote scenes that he would love to dig into as a performer, such as a fight scene or “something really juicy”. If the words felt “clunky” or unwieldy in his mouth, then he knew a rewrite was needed. Sometimes a scene looked like it might need more work, but performing helped to reveal its strengths. Ho learned that “if something felt underdeveloped on the page, but left lots of room for silence and stillness in performance, that was actually a gem to keep.”
As he worked with a dramaturge to develop his play, he uncovered many subtleties around creating text for himself to perform. He says they all stem from the same core: to share a story on stage that is full of power and beauty.
“Whether we acknowledge it or not, like it or not, see it or not, theatre is all around us: the courtship of young folks at a club, dancing around each other trying to catch each other's attention. Our politicians and their speeches. Teachers in front of their students. A chef presenting a dish. A driver trying to get out of a speeding ticket from the officer. We are constantly shifting our personalities within each specific encounter in our days, and that is theatre.”
Ho’s advice to writers:
"Learn to be patient with yourself, because not everything will come at the speed you'd like it to. And be open to learning, every day, everywhere: curate your curiosity, as artistic inspiration can flow in from a walk, an encounter with a stranger, a thought in the shower, a song that won't leave you alone. And then, create with all of your being. Don't compare yourself to others; there will be younger, hotter artists every year. Do your work, and love your work, that's your prime responsibility."
Jeff Ho will share excerpts from his first play, as well as his most recent play, on Friday October 12 at 7:00 pm, in the Jean McNulty Recital Hall at Lakehead University, presented by 10x10, NOWW, and the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada. (Free admission)
On Saturday, October 13, you are welcome to participate in playwriting workshops at Urban Abbey: Monologue Boot Camp at 10:00 am (free admission) and Playwriting Master Class at 2:00 pm ($10 registration). More information at www.10x10tbay.ca/workshops
Cathi Winslow is a playwright and musician with an extensive background in theatre, music, dance and creative writing. Her original plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles and Thunder Bay. Cathi is the Artistic Director of the 10x10 Play Showcase. She is delighted to represent Northern Ontario at the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada.
Wondering if you can get paid for your non-literary writing? Join two career freelance writers, Graham Strong [www.grahamstrong.com] and Bonnie Schiedel [www.northstarwriting.ca], as they talk about the ins and outs of a freelance writing business.
Meet the speakers:
Bonnie Schiedel is a freelance writer, editor, and content consultant. She got her start in the publishing world at Chatelaine magazine where she worked for several years, first as an assistant (lots of fact-checking, faxes and photo shoots) and then as an associate editor. In 2000, she moved to northwestern Ontario and launched her freelance writing business, North Star Writing.
Her award-winning work has been featured hundreds of times in national publications such as Best Health, Canadian Family, Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Cottage Life, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Canadian House & Home, and Outdoor Canada. Over time, the focus of her business has shifted to corporate clients, and the research and storytelling skills she honed with years of magazine writing work well in the business world too. For the last six years, she’s been doing content marketing, writing, and editing for top brands and agencies like Bravado Designs, PACE Communications, Green Living Enterprises, Scotiabank, TD Bank, fyp.io, and RE/MAX. From 2011-2014 she was a consultant on the Creative Services team for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. And while she still writes lots of magazine articles, she now also writes and edits copy and provides content strategy for blogs, websites, business emails, and apps.
Government and corporate clients include the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, the Ministry of International Trade and Investment, the City of Thunder Bay, Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre, Mobile Health Network, the Arthritis Society, St. Francis Herb Farm, BillyYTZ.com, RBC, Toronto Hydro, NorthernOntario.travel, and Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund. She also writes for trade and B2B publications like Grocery Business, Ignite (meeting planning, incentive programs and corporate travel), and Adrenalin (sports tourism). In 2016 she was nominated for a Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award in the Tourism Partnership category. Her passion project, Tbaywithkids.ca, a website about stuff to do with kids in Thunder Bay, just celebrated its first birthday.
Graham Strong is a freelance marketing writer, ghostwriter, journalist, and web professional. He started writing as a professional side gig in 1995, though he has been a writer of one sort or another most of his life. He majored in English at Lakehead University where he joined the student newspaper Argus and eventually became Editor-in-Chief.
After university – and a lot of travelling – Graham would get the occasional request to do some writing on the side. Most was free work for friends, but some were paid opportunities. It was through one of these freelance side gigs for a local community newspaper that Graham got a job editing the employee newsletter for Robin’s Donuts when its headquarters were still in Thunder Bay. That led to work with the graphic design company on the account, and eventually other organizations as well.
It was about that time that Internet advertising was on the rise, and Graham started getting clients from all over the world including Toronto, Calgary, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, London, England, and Frog Pond, Alabama. Most of those clients are still with him today. He writes in almost every format possible including articles, web content, brochure content, catalogue-like descriptions, annual reports, ads, TV and radio scripts, white papers, PDF brochures, and more. He transitioned to writing full time in 2005.
Graham also provides web services including website building for small businesses using the WordPress platform. Not only does branching out like this keep his days interesting, it’s another service he can offer to clients. Recently, Graham officially launched his ghostwriting services, providing professional writing for authors who have a great story to tell, but need someone to help write the book. He is also finishing his first novel, Social Grooming for Higher Primates, which is currently in the beta reader stage. Graham will be looking for publishers and agents later in 2018.
What to expect from the Side Gig workshop:
• an overview of skills that make a must-hire writer
• the wide variety markets out there
• money—what you can make, and how to keep the cash coming in
• tested tips on marketing yourself as a writer
• our top picks for helpful websites, books, and other resources
Date: Tuesday March 20, 2018
Time: 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Location: Waverley Resource Library Auditorium
Registration: Not required
Fee: Free and open to the public
By Brandon Walker
At the end of October, 2016, I was in New York City learning the fundamentals of storytelling from Robert McKee, a legendary script doctor/guru.
McKee offers a three-day workshop based on his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting that is definitely worth the time and money. He teaches the form, not formula, for writing a good story.
You may have heard of McKee and not realized it. The film Adaptation (2002) starring Nicholas Cage had a character inspired by McKee (played by Brian Cox), and McKee helped fix the third act of that script (please excuse the language).
In my opinion, one of the most important lessons in this workshop was how you use subtext in dialogue. At the end of the second day, McKee talked about exposition – the history of your characters’ lives, the setting, and other important details you want to convey to the audience.
“Exposition should be invisible. Show, don’t tell,” McKee said.
Too often dialogue is written “on the nose,” meaning it directly expresses the characters’ thoughts and feelings. “It’s bad writing. If you write what the scene is really about then you’re in deep doo-doo. That scene will die like a squashed dog in the road,” he said.
On the nose writing to convey that two people have known each other for years might be something like this: “I’m so glad we’ve kept in touch all this time. Gosh, we’ve known each other since high school. What has it been? 20 years?”
Instead of that or “table dusting” – a scene with two maids dusting while chatting to pass exposition to the audience – McKee said you should use that information as ammunition.
One friend should say to the other: “You’re the same immature ass that you were in high school.”
Now you know they have been friends for years, and this presents the necessary conflict to keep the audience’s attention and keep the story interesting.
McKee recommends bringing in exposition only when necessary, when the audience needs to know, including with flashbacks. Don’t be in a hurry, he said. Keep the audience in the dark a bit.
At the start of the third day, McKee spoke more specifically about subtext.
He described text as the sensory surface of a work of art. In this case, it’s the words on the page – what you see, hear, what the characters do.
On the other hand, subtext is the inner life, thoughts and feelings of characters that are unexpressed, and their subconscious thoughts, too.
“It’s impossible for humans to say and do what they’re thinking and feeling. The only time subtext should go into text is when you’re with a therapist, and even then the therapist is taking down what you’re not saying. Only crazy people speak the subtext,” McKee said.
“Subtext is the stuff of acting. On the nose writing leaves nothing for the actors to do. Remember, the scene is not about what it seems to be about. As the audience, you become a mind reader, an emotion reader. You see the characters’ deep thoughts and feelings,” he said.
This applies to writing short stories, novels, plays, TV shows and films, although McKee said stories and novels can allow the reader to hear the characters’ thoughts directly.
So, what should characters say if they can’t speak their thoughts?
McKee said the key is determining what characters want in the scene. For many characters, it’s conscious – they can name what they want. For instance, James Bond wants to kill the villain.
“Dialogue must be economical – the maximum amount of content in the fewest words possible, with no repetition of language,” McKee said.
Think of dialogue in terms of different beats of action and reaction. Beats are the strategies used by the character to try getting what he/she wants, and beats are also how the other characters react. Every scene should be a battle between at least two characters. As McKee said, progress can’t be made in a story except through conflict.
He suggested working from the inside out by creating what is called a treatment. For each scene, write out the text and subtext without the dialogue – including the character’s thoughts and what they talk about – but don’t put words in their mouths yet.
“Every scene must be perfect before you begin converting from scene description into screenplay. Then when you write the dialogue the characters won’t sound the same . . . and the dialogue will come out easily,” McKee said.
I highly recommend McKee’s books Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, and Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen.
If you ever have a chance to attend one of McKee’s workshops, definitely go. There’s a reason why John Cleese, Julia Roberts, Kirk Douglas , David Bowie, and many other famous actors and writers have attended his Story workshop – he knows what he’s talking about.
By Jean E. Pendziwol
I attended elementary school in the 1970’s, when Thunder Bay schools were bursting at the seams, where St. Vincent on Redwood Avenue had portables in the playground and two grade six classes sharing the gymnasium. Our librarian was the enthusiastic Mr. Christie, who always managed to make our weekly trips to borrow books an adventure, offering suggestions for great alternatives to the standby favourites, helping students find the most recent Nancy Drew book, and demonstrating how to use the Dewey Decimal System. He recognized that the awkward gangly-legged child checking out stacks of books each week had a particular interest in playing with words, in creating character, and weaving story, and offered to publish my very first work of fiction. What a proud moment seeing my story, bound with a piece of scrap orange wool and illustrated with crayon drawings, tucked on the shelf next to all the other “real” authors in the St. Vincent school library. I even had an entry in the card catalog.
It was some years before I again had that thrill of seeing my work on a library bookshelf. My early career as an editorial coordinator and writer for commercial magazines allowed me the opportunity to craft with words, but I didn’t pursue fiction again until after my children were born. It was then that I fell in love with picture books, enjoying the challenge of writing in a genre that necessitated a constraint of words; that demanded excellence while simultaneously requiring a story that was engaging and entertaining for both my reader and my audience (not the same in the picture book world, but that’s another blog.) And although by this time I was comfortable with the commodification of my writing, it was different when I viewed that writing as art.
It is interesting to examine our responses to the business of being published – when a work of art becomes a product. It’s something many people struggle with. Does commercial success somehow diminish artistic merit? Is it because our work – our writing – is so tied up in our sense of identity? Can we separate our “self” from our “product” or book? How do we respond professionally as we journey the road to publication? These were all questions that I grappled with as a newly published author.
When I finished writing my debut novel, The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, and decided to pursue publication, I was faced with additional challenges I hadn’t experienced previously, in spite of successfully publishing numerous picture books with two different houses. I waded into the world of beta readers, agents, international book deals, foreign rights, and the need to build a “platform.” And I became aware of some minor differences between the commercially driven US market and the Arts Council funded, awards-driven, literary Canadian market. It became important for me to keep the art – to keep my story – at the heart of every decision I made, while at the same time recognizing that in choosing to follow the publishing route, my story was becoming a book, and a book is a product.
In the words of Nicholas Sparks, “Writing a great novel is the most important thing you can do to become a success, but sometimes it's not enough.” That’s where a community of writers can help. Heather Dickson and I are looking forward to co-facilitating the upcoming NOWW workshop on The Business of Writing. We don’t have all the answers, but we are happy to share our own journeys in the ever-evolving world of book publishing. It is our hope that by understanding the business aspect of being an author, you will have the confidence to make informed decisions about your work and where you’d like to see it end up, whether that be in your private collection, on a bookstore shelf or in the eager hands of a child, waiting to check it out of a school library.
Every book is a different story; every writer has a unique journey. Publishing is the intersection where art becomes business and poetry becomes a pitch. Sometimes harsh, rarely lucrative, always complex, we welcome you to grab your pens, roll up your sleeves and prepare to get down to business. The Business of Writing.
Jean E. Pendziwol