Writer, Broadcaster

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The Great Bookshelf Tour: Third Stop

Third stop on the Great Bookshelf Tour, intended to be a tiny, inoffensive distraction from the strange, science-fiction-come-true travails of our lives these days.

We’re on the second shelf from the top, a land of books guarded by a friendly looking bear, a fox who appears asleep on the job, and some tiny owls. I dare any evil-minded entity to get past them. Starting on the far left, I see a Farley Mowat book I’ve yet to read. The bear is in the way and I’m too comfy on the couch to go downstairs and see what the book is called. I just looked all his books up online and still can’t figure out which book it is. He wrote a lot of books! Later, if I’m ever able to move again, I’ll wander downstairs, identify it, and name it in the comments. If I remember. Okay, never mind, I had to get up to feed the animals: turns out it’s No Man’s River, and it’s supposed to be pretty good.

Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity. A terrific piece of popular fiction, now a movie series, but the book is much better, I promise you. There because I’ve read it at least twice already, and probably will read it again.

His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. Contains all three books in the series. Just finished this one about a month ago. I thought it was quite an accomplishment. Not perfect, still a heck of an achievement. Original story, memorable characters, adventure, a bold premise that would have had him burned at the stake in any other century, a smattering of science in an otherwise fantasy, and most importantly, I felt what I was reading. It’s all about emotion, you know. That alchemy of your emotions intermingled with the characters’ emotions that produces magic. Pullman achieved some magic, here.

Which brings us to Ultra, the first of the books on my shelf by a friend and colleague, in this case David Carroll, who also works at the CBC. This is David’s first book, about a young ultra-marathon runner, and it’s an excellent book. David’s an ultra-marathoner himself, so he knows of what he writes. I bought Ultra because I like to support my friends, as they have supported me, and I kept it because it’s a good book, which I will re-read one day.

Tales of Time and Space, edited by Ross R. Olney, is a collection of science fiction short stories that my parents bought me when I was a kid. There are some great stories in here by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Silverberg, Jack Finney and so on, but my favourite is The Last Command by Keith Laumer. When I was choosing a radio play to adapt for CBC Radio’s Faster Than Light way back when, I selected The Last Command as an alternative to The Cold Equations, but the powers that be favoured The Cold Equations (which was fine, as it’s another favourite).

The rest of the books on this portion of the shelf are by Lois McMaster Bujold, all of them part of (or leading up to) the Vorkosigan saga. If you haven’t read this yet you don’t know what you’re missing. Miles Vorkogisan is one of those characters who leaps off the page. The least of them is eminently readable, the best of them special indeed. Standouts are The Warrior’s Apprentice (not here because I gave my copy away) and Memory, but try to read them all in order.

And let me know what you think.

Other Stops on the Tour

The Dreaded Travelling Shot

This is a repost, with some slight revisions, of a post I wrote back in June 30th 2006 on a different version of this blog. Also posting the audio sample of the travelling shot in question, which wasn’t included in the original post:

Canadia 2056
Canadia 2056

First of all, I have no idea how to spell “traveling.” I have seen it spelled both as “traveling” and “travelling.” The more I look at the word with either spelling, the stranger it looks.

That aside, some of you may recall my comments on traveling shots in radio a little while back. (For those of you new to the term, a traveling shot is a shot in television, film or radio in which the characters are on the move and the camera/microphone is following them. Think Xander on his skateboard in the opening shot of the very first Buffy the Vampire Slayer for TV, or the famous lengthy traveling shot with Tim Robbins that opens Robert Altman’s The Player)

Basically, traveling shots in radio are usually a bad idea. The reason they’re usually a bad idea is because many writers write them accidentally, without even realizing that they’re writing a traveling shot, until they get in the studio and the engineer says, what the heck, this is a traveling shot, you do realize how difficult it is to convey traveling shots on radio, dontcha? And they say, well, you did read the script before getting here didn’t you? And the engineer says, um, I didn’t really have time, and the writer says, well then you only have yourself to blame then, don’t you? And then the engineer says, well, the producer should have caught it, and then the producer suddenly jerks awake in his chair and says, what scene are we on…?

So why am I repeating myself?

Well, after I wrote that post, I wound up working on projects that were essentially traveling shot after traveling shot. Clearly people are not reading this blog (for shame!) It bears repeating: do not drink and drive, do not pet burning dogs, and DO NOT write traveling shots for radio UNLESS YOU ARE A FOOLISH, IMPETUOUS RECORDING FOOL LIKE MYSELF!

Now.

Have I made myself clear?

Good.

I beg your pardon? You want to know about the “foolish, impetuous recording fool like myself” business?

Oh, all right.

Yes, I was personally responsible for one of the traveling shots. The traveling shot in Canadia, to be precise. (Canadia being the science fiction comedy pilot I’m producing with my buddy Matt Watts).

You see, after writing about them, I realized that I’ve long wanted to try recording the granddaddy of all traveling shots. One that really works. Because if you can convey to the listener what’s going on, then your traveling shot will have worked. Now, it happens that I have recorded dinky little traveling shots that have sort of worked, and longer traveling shots that have kind of worked, and location traveling shots where I’ve followed actors with a boom on the streets of Montreal that also have kind of worked after a fashion…

…but I’ve never built a really good, effective traveling shot for a radio play in a studio.

So I said to Matt as we were planning Canadia that I thought it would be neat to attempt a West Wing/Hill Street Blues style traveling shot off the top of Canadia. So obliging fellow that he is, Matt went ahead and wrote one.

It so happened that we got busy before the taping, Matt was off to New York to see The Drowsy Chaperone (which he helped write), and we never got to discuss the scene properly before taping was upon us. I had originally thought that I might grab a boom and a Tascam and follow the actors around somehow, but instead I opted to record the actors in place with the rest of the cast swirling around them.

Racing against the clock in post-production, however, I lost my nerve and simplified the scene to essentially a static shot. It didn’t work at all. It just lay there in the play, twitching from time to time like a dying rat. When Matt heard my rough mix, he was horrified. I had to admit that it didn’t resemble our original conception at all. Guilty as charged, I admitted that “it still needed a bit of tweaking.”

During the final mix, I sent Matt off for some sound effects, which meant that he had to pass through five different rooms and hallways, each with radically different acoustic ambiances. On the way, it occurred to him that if we broke the scene up in exactly that manner (several different clearly distinct rooms) that it could be made to work. The scene happens to take place on a starship, where this would make complete sense. Additionally, it’s a great opportunity to take listeners on an acoustic tour of the ship.

Genius!

I grabbed an AKG stereo microphone and our Edirol and Matt and I set off on a trek across the Broadcast Centre. I recorded everything as we passed through as many radically different acoustic environments as possible. Afterward, I loaded the material into my ProTools mixing session and cut it down to about a minute and a half, the length of the traveling shot. We placed doors at strategic points during the scene, and built wildly different sound effects beds for each section. (These included a set of stairs, an engine room, a room with loads of construction happening, etc.)

I also electonically “treated” the actors’ voices depending on their supposed location (as well as the accompanying sound effects)… for instance, in the stairwell, I used a Protools plugin called TrueVerb to make them sound realistically like they were in a stairwell.

Although I’m essentially opposed to the use of footsteps in radio (for fear of it becoming “all about the footsteps”), I try valiantly not to be too dogmatic about such things, and reluctantly added a “soupcon” of footsteps here and there just to help sell the movement in the scene.

Whew!

We think it works.

Next time round we’ll plan it better, though, so that the actors know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing when (ie. speaking loudly in the engine room). Although I must say that there is something to be said for their straight delivery, in which nothing is overplayed.

Now if we can only get this show greenlighted for a series and broadcast so that folks can actually hear it…

Note: Not only was the show greenlit, it ultimately went two seasons, with twenty episodes in total broadcast (twenty-one in total made, with two versions of the pilot).

Here is the infamous travelling shot:

The Infamous Traveling Shot

No It Isn’t Done Yet, But Thanks For Asking

The Infamous Manuscript
The Infamous Manuscript

Just now a woman stopped me on the Go Train platform to tell me that her nephew had finished his novel. Oh, and he’d published it too.

“It’s on the shortlist for the Jiller prize,” she told me.

“Giller,” I corrected. “Good for him.”

“How’s yours coming?” she asked me.

I felt a lump forming in my throat. “It’s coming along,” I told her.

She looked at me with what could have been sympathy but might just as well have been pity. “Good,” she said, nodding. “Good.”

She was asking because she’s ridden the same Go Train as me for several years. And as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.

And I felt bad because as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.

This morning – the same day, mind you – another Go Train friend told me about a friend who had just published a novel.

“How’s yours coming along?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Almost done.”

“It’s been almost done for four years,” she reminded me.

“Yeah,” I said, and slunk off.

Recently a relative said, “I don’t tell anyone about your book any more. It’s embarrassing. You need to just finish it.”

Later that same evening one of my daughters said, “Just finish it, Daddy. I’m sure it’s fine. You don’t need to fix it anymore. Here, let me read it.”

“Another pass and I’ll let you read it,” I told her, and slunk off.

The fact is my novel isn’t done yet. Last summer – or was it the summer before – I thought it was. I convinced myself it was done. I was tired of writing it. So I gave it to a few friends to read. Four of them professed to like it (one even graciously copy edited it for me.) I’m still waiting to hear from one (I don’t blame him – I consider it a great imposition to ask someone to read my work). One said he couldn’t get past page forty (yes, he’s still my friend, the jerk).

While I was waiting I read it over again myself. I liked it. But I didn’t like the ending.

So I went back to work.

And that’s what I’ve been doing since, correcting the ending. It’s a lot better. But I still have a few pages to go.

James Michener
James Michener

James Michener once wrote that the biggest challenge in writing a novel is finishing it. Many others have expressed similar sentiments. One of Michener’s favourite novelists only ever wrote one book. Except that’s not exactly true – late in life Michener looked him up and found out he’d actually written three others, but never finished them. Late in this fellow’s eighties he was still working on them, trying to make them perfect. As far as I know, he never did.

I have always been afraid of being that guy.

Once I was mad at George RR Martin for not finishing the next book in his Game of Thrones series in a timely manner. I met him in Montreal two or three years ago. I wanted to say, “Finish your damn book, sir.” Except I knew better, and I knew what it was like trying to finish a novel you care about.¹ You can’t just finish it. The book is the boss. It will tell you when it’s done, not the other way around.

George RR Martin
George RR Martin

Another of my favourite writers, Vernor Vinge, took ten years to write one of my favourite books, A Deepness in the Sky.² He had a full time job, like me. I’m eight years in since I started working on this book seriously in the Fall of 2005.³ So by that standard I still have two years to go.

Vernor Vinge
Vernor Vinge


So yes, in case you were wondering I know it’s completely ridiculous that I haven’t finished my novel yet. I’m sorry. Believe me, nobody wants to finish it more than I do. Increasingly when people ask me about it I just want to weep at the pathetic-ness of it all.⁴

Will it be worth it after all this time?

I was going to write that I don’t know, because I have no way of knowing whether it’ll ever get published, except to say that my efforts to get it published will equal my efforts to make it good.

But the true answer is of course it will be worth it. It’s already worth it.

Because I have loved every instant of writing it.⁵

Postscripts:
¹In the end I just shook his hand and told him how much I loved his books. “Thanks,” he said. And that was the extent of our relationship.
²Don’t hold me to that figure, I’m not exactly fact checking here.
³Although I put the first words to paper sometime around nineteen eighty-seven, I think.
⁴Except, as I have written before, I don’t, because I’m a man and as such have never wept and probably never will.*
⁵Except the first draft. I hate first drafts.
*Yes, the bit about weeping and being a man is meant to be ironic.

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