STORY – Home Again

I made it home. Spent a lot of time sitting around the airport, thinking about writing. Spent a fair bit of time on the plane waiting on the tarmac, thinking about writing. Took a break during the flight to watch a couple of episodes of Carnivale on my iPod. Now, I’m home, doing my laundry, and thinking about writing.

Specifically, I’m thinking about my new novel.

I want to start fresh, after the seminar, and use the method and structure to see where they take me. To that end, I’m making notes about characters, scenes, the types of conflict, things like that. What I’m hoping to discover in the mess of ideas is what the story is about. Once I have that, I’ll have an idea about the antagonist (or forces of antagonism), and I’ll start to see the structure of the thing.

So, did I get what I wanted out of the seminar? Honestly, I dunno yet. I haven’t looked at the list, yet. Let’s do that now.

A better understanding of the underlying structures of story as put forth in the book. I primarily write short stories, with a single completed novel and half of another novel, and I find that thinking about things as Acts and Scenes and Beats doesn’t come naturally to me.

Check. His examples helped this sink home very nicely, and walking through Casablanca was very enlightening.

A better example of the way the elements discussed in the book work together to form the whole. There are tons of examples of each individual idea in the book, but they’re drawn from a number of different sources to illustrate individual points. The seminar features a stop-and-start viewing of Casablanca to analyze the movie scene-by-scene in light of the principles presented in class.

Check. Again, the viewing of Casablanca helped a lot, though there was a lot of time spent on the cinematic aspects of the movie. Fair enough; the seminar is primarily targeted at screenwriters, and I can see how useful and valuable that discussion would be. Some of it was interesting to me, some of it wasn’t. But the exercise gave some real insight into how everything fits together.

Discussion about the various points. Books are great, but a live tutorial session illuminates so many more elements of the material.

Check. Very much check. Several times during the session, I found myself thinking, “Oh, so that’s what the book meant!” Sometimes you just need to hear the right words the right way to really get it.

A renewed passion for writing. I’ve been a little bogged down, mentally, and really want this to recharge my batteries and get me excited about writing again.

Check, and check again. I really want to stay home from work tomorrow to get a full day’s work done on the new novel, but that ain’t gonna happen. Thank god for laptops and lunch hours.

Inspiration about the central conflict in a novel I’m working on. I’ve got a good idea for setting, some good characters, some interesting scenes, but no actual PLOT yet.

Kinda check. See, I don’t have the central conflict, yet, but I do have more confidence that it will emerge as I build and structure the novel using the method from the seminar.

See a little of Vancouver. I’ve got most of a day to walk around, and the hotel is near the waterfront, and Chinatown, and Gastown. I’ve never been to Vancouver, so I’ll be a bit of a tourist.

Check. I also got see one of the cruise ships pull into dock from the window of the seminar venue – it’s an experience I have to remember if I ever have to describe something huge and ponderous and building-sized moving. It was awe-inspiring.

Have dinner with my cousin. He lives there, and we’re going to a place called Sanafir. Once you get past the annoying (but pretty) intro, it looks like interesting food.

Check. Good food, good company.

So, that’s my trip. One last thing to tell you folks – on the taxi ride back to the Vancouver airport, I saw a sign that said, “Left turns restricted ahead. Use Hemlock.” I thought that was a little harsh*.

*I was tired and my head was full of literary thought. I make no apologies.

STORY – Day Three

So, it’s over.

Today was just as long as the previous two, but parts of it dragged more for me. This was simply because more of today’s topics dealt with things more specific to screenwriting than novel writing. Not that the ideas presented were not useful; they just really emphasized the screen over the page. Still, ideas about dramatizing exposition and events, minimizing and pacing dialogue, and developing subtext have real application in all storytelling.

But it was less directly applicable to me, and so seemed to go on longer.

Also, the food court at the venue was closed today, meaning the lunch break was a little more frantic, which meant it wasn’t as much of a break.

I sound like I’m complaining, don’t I? That’s not my intent. But three long days of lectures – even lectures on a subject you love by a fantastic speaker – are very tiring.

The viewing of Casablanca was everything I had hoped it to be. It illuminated a number of key concepts, and showed how the pieces fit together. 

It also highlighted what a deep, rich movie it is.

Tomorrow, I’m going to take a look at my list of what I wanted out of the seminar and see if I got everything – tonight, I’m still a little to close to it. And tired.

I do want to say three last things.

First, what Robert McKee teaches is not difficult on a conceptual level. Learning the form and structure and techniques he teaches isn’t hard. But it opens up a whole depth and breadth of possibility and complexity – once the basics are down, you’ve got a lifetime ahead of you of working to master the form.

Second, Mr. McKee’s seminar (and book) will not fix your writing. It won’t fix anything. But it gives you a set of tools that you can use to fix your writing. It’s not magic. It’s a recipe for hard work to get better. Work that you have to do yourself.

And by you, I mean me.

Third, I shook Mr. McKee’s hand and thanked him for the seminar, and told him how much I enjoyed it. And he said to me, “Do something great with it.”

So, y’know, no pressure.

STORY – Day Two

Another very full day, and my head is buzzing.

The group seems to be relaxing a little more in the seminars; there’s more response to Mr. McKee’s jokes and questions, a little more conversation among attendees at the breaks, and just generally a looser feeling.

The subject matter is tightening up, though, getting into more specifics of the craft of building stories. Three-act structure, building mystery and suspense and dramatic irony, the principle of antagonism, handling exposition, stuff like that.

I don’t know how the man does it. My energy is flagging by the end of the day, and all I’m doing is sitting, listening, and taking notes*. He’s lecturing the entire time I’m sitting in the seats, and he’s still lively and energetic and interesting at the end of the day. A testimony to his stamina and the passion he has for the subject**.

The passion’s contagious. I’ve got a number of new ideas for my writing projects from the seminar, and I’m so eager to use them that I spent last evening, and plan to spend this evening, putting some of what I’ve learned into practice.

A friend of mine once told me that he tries to pick the moment in a seminar or session when he’s got his money’s worth. Sometimes it comes early, sometimes it comes late, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. It’s a way to evaluate, on the fly, how much value the seminar has for you.

My moment came today, during the afternoon, when it finally clicked for me why the novel and a half that I’ve written so far weren’t working the way I wanted them to. I know how to fix it, too. I’m just not sure it’s worth the time to go back to that when I have a couple new ideas that I could start fresh with, and avoid those mistakes.

Anyway, one day to go, and half of that is going to be watching Casablanca, which I’m really looking forward to. Seeing all the pieces laid out on the workbench is no substitute for seeing how it all fits together in a working movie.



*Not as many notes as I had feared; I’ve got the book, and that covers a bunch of stuff. And a lot of the lecture is paraphrasing basic principles to make sure the point sinks home. And there are a lot of examples to illuminate the principles, and stories to keep everyone’s interest up. 


**I’ve used the word “passion” a coupe of times talking about Robert Mckee. Maybe it sounds melodramatic, but that’s one of is defining characteristics, at least during the seminar.

STORY – Day One

Wow.  That’s a long day.

Got to the venue just after 7:30 and registered. That was pretty early, so I got to hang out in the lobby for a while before finding a seat in the auditorium. And the session went a little long, so I was over there for about 13 hours in all. 

A long day.

And how was it?

I liked it. 

Robert McKee is intensely passionate about story as an art form. His love of it comes out in his presentation, as he swings from topic to topic and anecdote to anecdote. He is, by turns, gleeful and wrathful, frank and teasing. He draws you in and invites you to share his love of story.

He can be a real martinet about anything that disrupts the flow of his lectures – tardiness, cell phones, talking. His explanation is simple and harsh: he doesn’t want some attendees wasting the time of the other attendees. A laudable goal, in my opinion.

There’s a lot of material, and some real depth to the subject, and he’s got it all at his fingertips. He’s obviously been delivering this seminar long enough that he’s got most of it memorized, and needs to check his notes mainly to pull back to the main point when he follows a tangent or anecdote a little far afield. In short, he displays a complete mastery of the subject matter.

And what did we cover today? The basics. Things like discussing definitions so that we were all working from a shared vocabulary, and talking about what story is, what it isn’t, why there isn’t enough good story around, how story relates to the setting and characters and meaning and audience, and how to write from inside your characters.

Interspersed with this was a wide range of social and philosophical and political commentary, along with stories from the world of screenwriting. These are interesting and entertaining. In fact, his presentation reminds me of video I’ve seen of Richard Bandler, one of the developers of NLP, giving a seminar – he wove in stories and jokes and digressions until he had the right comfort level instilled in the audience, then moved on to the subject matter at hand.

And there’s a fair bit of profanity woven into the presentation. He explains that away by saying that there’s a part of him who is still a twelve-year-old boy that enjoys talking dirty in public.

One day in, and I’ve already got a number of ideas about how to move ahead on some of my writing projects. And the desire to do so. I’m going to try and make a start tonight, but I don’t know that I’ll get much done.

As I said, it was a long day.

Back in the saddle tomorrow.

STORY – Travel Day

Got up early today to catch the plane to Vancouver.  I realized yesterday that it had been a long, long time – better than ten years – since I had flown. This was brought home to me when people at work started asking me if I had stocked up on little bottles for my shampoo, etc.

Y’know, it’s a good thing that it was people at work telling me these things. If it had been my friends, they would have taken terrible advantage of my ignorance.

That said, the flight was pretty routine. Security took a little time to get through, and they swabbed my computer to test for “bad chemicals,” and the airline didn’t have any free food or drinks, but I got a window seat and I spent the flight listening to Night and Day by Robert B. Parker on my iPod. It was good.

And wow, was it something of a challenge to find my way out of the Vancouver airport. But I did. And then got a ride in a cab to the hotel, along with an earful about how much the Olympics are costing the taxpayers, and how expensive it is to operate a cab.

At the hotel, my room wasn’t ready. I hadn’t expected it to be, as it was only 10:00 a.m. and check-in time was 3:00 p.m. I really just wanted to drop my suitcase off and take a walk around the downtown. Still, they were very apologetic, and I wound up (when I returned from the walk), upgraded to an executive room, free of charge. Nice folks here at the Ramada. They also loaded me up with a tourist map and pointed out some things I should see.

And then on to my walk. I first scouted the venue for the seminar, to make sure I know where I’m going tomorrow. It’s about a three-minute walk from the door of the hotel, and looks pretty nice, though the actual auditorium was closed and I couldn’t check it out. I like being that close to it.

So, then on to a walk. I saw Chinatown, and the Steam Clock in Gastown, and the waterfront, and lots of the downtown area of the city. On the way in from the airport, I had been surprised at how much greenery there was everywhere. Less of that in the downtown area, but still some nice little parks*. The streets seem more claustrophobic than Winnipeg, mainly because there’s more tall buildings and hills.

Oy, the hills. Living in a city that’s flat as a table doesn’t prepare you for walking the streets of Vancouver. And it’s pretty hot here, today – it was about 28 C around noon. That made me pretty happy when I got back to the hotel and found out about the upgrade, which includes free water in the room.

So, now I’ve been resting up before meeting my cousin for dinner. Apparently the restaurant is about seven blocks away, which is a pretty nice walk. I’m meeting him at 6:30, so I’m gonna jump in the shower now and head out at 6:00.

And then back to the hotel to bed. Another early morning tomorrow.


Just got back from Sanafir. Three things to know:

  1. My brain keeps wanting to call it Sarafin, blending seraphim and paraffin into some sort of wax angel in my head.
  2. Tough to find. I walked past it three times, and finally had to ask someone. No real outside signage.
  3. The food and the service are both amazingly good. Heartily recommended.


*I almost got high on the pot smoke coming off Victory Park as I walked by.

Robert McKee – STORY

Have you heard about this guy?

I had heard mention of him, then I picked up his book, STORY.

Actually, I went looking everywhere for the book, because I had heard it was good. I couldn’t find it locally. I was getting ready to break down and order it online, but then, in a box that I hadn’t looked at in some time, I found that I had actually bought it some months before and never started reading it.

I started reading the book and was amazed. Not that everything he said in it was a revelation, but he managed to bring to consciousness a number of things that I was doing instinctively, which gave me a greater understanding of the writing process. He provided a structure and vocabulary in a number of areas where I lacked it, allowing me to think in a clearer, more methodical way about how I built stories.

And how to make stories work.

He gives a number of seminars each year, all over the world. Inspired by my friend, Michael, who made one of his dreams come true last summer by walking the pilgrimage to Santiago, I decided that I was going to attend one. This year, he’s only doing one in Canada, and that’s in Vancouver. It starts this coming Friday, and I’m going to be there.

I’m really very excited.

Each of the three days of the session is apparently almost twelve hours long, but I’m going to try and update this blog each day for anyone interested in what’s going on.

Tonight, I have to go find a good notebook (or notebooks; the woman organizing the seminar said she filled three yellow legal pads when she took the seminar) and some nice pens.

I like shopping for stationery.