A Creative Process

I wrote the first words of the novel that eventually became A Time and a Place in July 1988. I made the final correction to the manuscript about a week ago, in April 2017. So technically it took me almost twenty-nine years to finish the novel.

I hasten to add, I haven’t been working on it all that time.

I wrote a few pages by hand in 1988, then put it aside until 1993, when I found those pages, decided they possessed a certain merit, and promptly wrote the first three chapters.

Then I made the classic beginner’s mistake of trying to get those first three chapters exactly right, revising them endlessly, never really making any progress, frequently distracted by other projects.

Finally, during a labour disruption where I work, I found myself with extra time to write. So did I work on my novel? Heck no! I started a blog about the labour disruption. I posted daily, revising minimally, and by the time the labour disruption was over two months later, I discovered that I had written over one hundred pages of reasonably respectable material.

I realized that if I tackled the novel the same way, I could have the whole thing written in six months. So I did exactly that, refusing to revise even a single word until the first draft was complete. A mere three months later I had the entire first draft written, close to one hundred thousand words.

And then spent the next several years perfecting it.

Which was fine. I wasn’t in a rush. I’d written the story out to the end, so I knew where it was going, more or less. It was just a question of making the journey there as smooth and compelling as possible. The final draft bears little resemblance to that first draft, which was a map without any roads. It showed me where I needed to go and some of the forests, rivers, and mountains in the way, but I still had to hack, swim, and climb my way to get there.

The initial idea was simple: a young man messes with powerful forces beyond his control, frightening those closest to him. I originally envisioned it as a short story. When I discovered those first few pages five years after having written them, it wasn’t the idea that I found compelling, it was the tone—a certain tongue-in-cheek quality. Both the idea and the tone have matured considerably since then, but they’re still discernible in the finished product.

One of the reasons it took so long is that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to write. I had a day job and an active family life. Mostly I wrote on the Go Train commuting to work, but I trained myself to be able to write whenever and where-ever I could: art galleries, cafés, swimming pools, doctor’s offices, wherever I could steal a little time with my laptop.

Where most of A Time and a Place was written

While others sat on the Go Train completing their crosswords and Sudokos, I was consumed with my own gigantic puzzle, using pieces (sentences, paragraphs, chapters) that I’d fabricated myself out of words. Gradually the puzzle grew more complex, the plot and characters more compelling, to me at least. At night I would lie in bed mulling over this or that thorny knot that I’d inadvertently written into the story, trying to figure out how to untangle it. Then I would fall asleep and allow my subconscious to do the heavy lifting. Sometimes the answer would present itself the next day. More often than not it required a whole lot more contemplation and revision.

I was constrained by rules I’d imposed upon myself, some borrowed from writers like Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty), others from editors like Thomas McCormack (The Fiction Editor), and yet others from well-thumbed copies of Writer’s Digest. Never use a word other than said to carry dialog. Never use an adverb to modify the word said. The birds flew, not the birds were flying. Err on the side of conflict. Show don’t tell except when doing so would take all day. Avoid clichés. They’re not for everyone, these rules; not even me, necessarily. They were just guidelines for this particular novel. And I didn’t always follow them.

I drew inspiration from the works of others, most consciously from writers like Edmund Hamilton, Dr. Paul Linebarger (a.k.a. Cordwainer Smith), Roger Zelazny, and H.P. Lovecraft. There’s some Stephen R. Donaldson and William Browning Spencer in there, too. Friends helped. Over the years, I’ve read much of A Time and a Place aloud to members of the Saturday Night Scribes, an informal writing group I’ve been privileged to be a part of for many years. Without their enthusiasm for A Time and a Place, I would not have finished it. Friends and family have read bits and pieces of various drafts, sometimes yielding useful feedback, but mostly it was their encouragement that I cherished.

Roger Zelazny, a favourite author. Go read Lord of Light. Now.

When I finished writing A Time and a Place, or, more accurately, when I thought that it was done, that there wasn’t a single change left to make—that it was, in other words, perfect and unassailable—two skilled and caring editors dissected it with surgical precision. Arleane Ralph and Dr. Robert Runtè astonished me with their discoveries. Flaws blindingly obvious when they pointed them out: logical inconsistencies, grammatical errors, confusing passages, or worse, boring passages, and other ghastly errors too numerous to mention.

This feedback did not bother me at all. I welcomed it, as it was all about making the novel better. I challenged some of the suggestions, but implemented most of them, ultimately rewriting two and a half chapters.

So you can see, A Time and a Place was not exactly dashed off. It was about as easy as threading a wrought iron chain in one ear and out the other. Still, writing it was usually my favourite part of any day. Probably it took me so long to finish because I loved writing it so much. Had I not finally received a deadline, I’d be tweaking it still.

Whether all that time and effort has resulted in a novel worth reading remains to be seen.

Book Launch of a Time and a Place October 26th 2017

I’m thrilled to report that A Time and a Place will be officially launched Thursday, October 26th at 7pm in the Merril Collection reading room (3rd floor at 239 College Street) in the Lillian Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library.

I’m equally pleased that Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s oldest Fantasy and Science Fiction bookstore, has agreed to sell copies of my book at the event.

It’s a ways off yet, but it sure would be great to see you there!

A Time and a Place — Now Taking Orders!

It’s now possible to pre-order my upcoming novel A Time and a Place, being released October 1st 2017 from Five Rivers Publishing.

Kinda cool. 🙂

Cover Art for A Time and a Place, by Jeff Minkevics

Barnabus’s nephew is behaving oddly.

Calling upon Doctor Humphrey for assistance has not been particularly helpful, because the good doctor’s diagnosis of demonic possession is clearly preposterous. Even the demon currently ensconced on the front room couch agrees it’s preposterous. But then, how else to explain the portal to another world through which his nephew and Humphrey have just now disappeared? Barnabus knows their only chance of rescue is for Barnabus J. Wildebear himself to step up and go through that portal.

Thus begins an existential romp across space and time, trampling on Barnabus’ assumptions about causality, freewill, identity, good and evil. Can Barnabus save his nephew—and incidentally, all of humanity?

The Cold Equations

The Cold Equations is a short story by Tom Godwin, first published in Astounding Magazine in August 1954. You might want to read it before we go any further. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you.

The spoilers begin here.

The story’s about a teen-aged girl named Marilyn Lee Cross who stows away on an emergency space shuttle with disastrous results. I chose it as one of the two radio dramas we included in our science fiction radio pilot Faster Than Light.

I chose The Cold Equations because it was dark and sombre. I’m partial to humour, but I wanted something with a little gravitas, something that I thought people would take seriously.  I wasn’t the first to adapt The Cold Equations for radio. It had been adapted twice before, for an episode of the radio program X Minus One in 1955, and for the radio program Exploring Tomorrow in 1958.

August 1954 edition of Astounding Magazine, which included Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations. Cover art by Frank Kelly Freas

In the story, Marilyn just wants to visit her brother on a nearby planet. The emergency shuttle is delivering critical medical supplies to sick miners on that planet.

Unbeknownst to Marilyn, the shuttle is designed with a strict set of parameters: it has just enough fuel to carry its sole pilot and his critical cargo to the planet. With Marilyn on board, the shuttle will run out of fuel, the mission will fail, and the miners will die.

Critics of the story point out that the writer, Tom Godwin, unnecessarily stacked the deck against the girl. Why was it necessary to design the shuttle with such a slim margin of error? Godwin might argue that fuel would be a precious resource in space; you wouldn’t want to use any more than was absolutely necessary. Of course, the real reason is that Godwin needed to create a very specific set of circumstances for the story to work. But consider the recent plane crash in Colombia that tragically killed most of the Brazilian Chapecoense Real football team. The plane ran out of fuel because the company that owned the plane skimped on fuel to save money, with horrific consequences. Godwin’s plot may not be so unrealistic after all.

Realistic or not, in the universe of the story the girl must be jettisoned from the shuttle into deep space for the mission to succeed. Not exactly a Hollywood ending. My story editor, Dave Carley, felt that Marilyn learns the consequences of her ill-fated decision to stow away too quickly. She spends the rest of the story waiting to die, while the pilot reflects on the cold, harsh reality of the universe. There is no hope and therefore no real tension.

I didn’t necessarily agree, at least initially. I’d originally come across the story in an English class in high school in one of our text books. I began reading it during class, during the teacher’s lecture, and quickly forgot about the lecture. I found the story utterly gripping. This was long before cold-blooded authors like George R. R. Martin began killing off our favourite novel and television characters with impunity. I didn’t believe that the girl was going to die. I kept waiting for her to be saved, and was utterly gobsmacked when she was finally jettisoned from the space shuttle. Reading the story as a teen-ager, I had never encountered such a brutal ending before. It left quite an impact.

But Dave felt strongly that we needed more tension, more suspense, so for my version of the story I concocted a storyline where there was some slim hope that another ship (the Stardust) would catch up with the emergency shuttle and rescue Marilyn. I made other changes as well. In the original story, Marilyn was older, in her late teens. I reduced her age to thirteen to make it more believable that she would do something so ill-considered as to sneak onto an emergency shuttle without understanding the consequences. This also injected a little more pathos into the story. Because it was radio, I needed her to speak at the beginning of the story to help illuminate to the listener what was going on. (You can’t just have a character say, “I’m sneaking into the shuttle now,” and so on. Well, you can, but that would be narration, and I didn’t want a narrator.) So I had Marilyn sneak into the shuttle while talking to her cat, Chloe (which happened to be the name of one of my cats at the time.)

Story Editor Dave Carley (far right) on the job in Studio 212 with Gordon Pinsent and Linda Grearson during the taping of the Radio Play Test Drive (photo by John McCarthy).

Writing the adaptation, I felt like I was writing yet another draft of Tom Godwin’s story. This may be horribly presumptuous, and my apologies to Tom Godwin, but I felt like it was a opportunity to correct some of the story’s flaws. For one thing, the original story was quite wordy. I cut an awful lot out of it. Now, I have a lot more respect for Tom Godwin than some, such as editor Algis Budrys, who reportedly once said that The Cold Equations was “the best short story that Godwin ever wrote and he didn’t write it” — referring to the fact that editor John W. Campbell sent the story back to Godwin three times before Godwin finally got it right—that is, before Godwin stopped coming up with ingenious means of saving the girl. Oh, and allegations that he borrowed the idea from a story published in EC Comics’ Weird Science #13 .

Anyway, Campbell recognized the true power of the story: the idea that the universe is impartial. It doesn’t care whether you live or die. Reading it back in high school, I glimpsed, perhaps for the first time in my life, a sense of the implacability of the universe. You play by its rules or you die. The stowaway is done in by cold, hard facts. For others to live, she had to die.

Several drafts into my version of the story, I was happy with everything except the ending. Something was missing. It didn’t feel complete, somehow. Endings don’t always come easy for me. I work hard at them because I consider them extremely important. Getting the ending wrong can ruin an entire story. Getting it right can elevate all that came before.

Producer Barbara Worthy

I discussed it with my wife. Something she said (unfortunately, I don’t remember what, exactly) made me realize that the pilot didn’t need to talk or think after ejecting Marilyn from the shuttle. He needed to acknowledge what he’d just been through. He needed to cry. It was an epiphany for me. It allowed me to cut a bunch of extraneous boring dialogue and get on with the emotion of the scene.

Later, one of my colleagues suggested that if you allow a character cry, you are depriving the audience of the chance to cry themselves, because you’re doing it for them. I felt differently. Making the pilot cry felt like what would actually happen. I know that truth doesn’t necessarily equate to good fiction—the truth is deeper than that—but sometimes it does. So my pilot cried, and it felt right and true to me.

Matthew MacFadzean

Once the script was complete, we held auditions for the cast. An embarrassing amount of actors showed up for the casting call (we auditioned for both radio plays included in Faster Than Light at the same time, The Cold Equations and Captain’s Away). Ultimately we cast Matthew MacFadzean (not to be confused with British actor Matthew Macfadyen) in the role of the shuttle pilot, and Vivian Endicott-Douglas as the young stowaway Marilyn. Shawn Smyth played the stowaway’s brother Gerry Cross. Andrew Gillies played Commander Delhart of the Stardust. Sergio Dizio played the Clerk and Jennifer Dean one of the surveyors. Julia Tait was our casting director (replacing regular CBC Radio Drama Casting Director Linda Grearson, who, I believe, was subbing for Deputy Head James Roy at the time).

Barbara Worthy directed The Cold Equations while I sat behind the Neve Capricorn console recording the show. Matt Willcott did all the live sound effects. I was extremely happy with the work of our actors. I have to single out Vivian, though, who was extra-ordinary. She nailed every single take of every single scene. We could have used any of her lines in any take.

We did have trouble with one lengthy scene during which the pilot must stoically accept Marilyn’s fate. Couldn’t quite nail the pilot’s tone and neither Barbara nor I could figure out what direction to give Matthew to make it work. We did four takes and were running out of time—we only had the actors for so long. We were forced to move on and record other scenes. Just before production wrapped for the day we came back to that problematic scene and did two more takes. Matthew finally nailed the tone, sounding troubled yet together.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas

It didn’t take me long to edit The Cold Equations, probably a couple of hours. I used most of the scenes we recorded in their entirety, which was unusual. Usually we scavenged lines from other takes of the same scene. I mixed the twenty-five minute long play in a single day in Sound Effects Three, my favourite mixing studio.

I didn’t have the budget for much original music, but I was able to use an original piece of music for the opening called Snowfire Reprize, by Rod Crocker. I used a couple of Manheim Steamroller pieces from Fresh Air 1 for a couple of tiny music bridges. At the end, I had Mozart’s Lacrimosa swell up underneath the pilot’s tears. At first I thought it might be too much, a little too heavy, but after listening to the completed mix in the studio I was convinced that the pathos of the piece supported it.

The Cold Equations may not be the most accomplished or sonically interesting radio play I’ve ever worked on.

But I’m pretty darned happy with it.

The Cold Equations was originally broadcast as a part of Faster Than Light on Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo).

A Time and a Place Cover Art

Cover Art for A Time and a Place, by Jeff Minkevics

I’m thrilled to be able to reveal the cover art for my upcoming novel A Time and a Place, being released by Five Rivers Publishing this coming October 2017. The cover art is by artist Jeff Minkevics. I feel exceptionally fortunate to have had such a talented artist design such a cool cover.

To paraphrase Orson Welles, with a cover like that, you don’t really need to release the novel. Just release the cover!

(But I may still release the novel…)

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