They like me. They really, really like me.

testimonials, editing, Vancouver, Colin Thomas

I appreciate the heartfelt testimonials I receive for my editing work.

Editing somebody’s writing is so intimate. And sometimes it can feel so presumptuous. That’s why I am so pleased and humbled by the testimonials I receive for my editing work.

This week, I’ve gotten a bumper crop.  [Read more…]

Napi’s Dance

I opened my mailbox at lunch today and found a copy of Alanda Greene’s Napi’s Dance, which I story edited and which Second Story Press has just released. [Read more…]

Discipline your fantasies

How many types of warrior do you need?

Sometimes when you’re writing—especially if you’re writing fantasy material—the sheer pleasure of invention can become seductive and you start making up all sorts of groovy stuff: there are 18 ranks in the Air Command; your hero travels to an alternate universe.

Cool. Generate as much material as you like. But, when you review that material, make sure that it serves your story. Are all 18 levels of the Air Command necessary? Only retain the elements that have a direct impact on your plot.

And think your conventions through. If your hero travels to an alternative universe, what’s the portal? How does she get there and how does she get back? How does she explain her absences from her ordinary world?

Fantasy is fun—but only if it makes sense.

Personal growth—in three acts







Stories are about struggles—successful or not—to grow in wisdom and understanding.

In a HAPPY story, the hero starts from a position of relative weakness or vulnerability, decides to face his fear, struggles to overcome his concrete problems, and eventually succeeds in doing so because of an increase in personal wisdom.

The three-act structure is built to support the notion of personal growth. The protagonist often refuses the Call because of a perceived weakness (“I’m not brave enough”, “I’m incompetent”, and so on). But the Intervening Mentor convinces the protagonist that the protagonist is the only one who can do what must be done. Despite being afraid, the protagonist crosses the first threshold. He pursues his Act 2 Goal, but experiences defeat at the end of that act. The hero realizes that he wasn’t addressing the problem on a sufficiently fundamental level, so he readjusts his goal in Act 3. In the Act 3 Climax, the hero faces his fear directly, proving that his struggles have taught him bravery, competence, or whatever he needed to learn. And, because of that internal change, the hero triumphs.

If there is a negative outcome—to be reductive, if the story is SAD—it will be about a failed struggle to grow in wisdom or understanding.

Creating a strong narrative spine

A strong story hangs from the clear, simple spine of a consistent, though deepening goal. The protagonist refines his goal and his understanding of his goal changes, but he does not shift his focus from one distinct goal to another. To say this another way: the Act 3 goal emerges from the Act 2 goal. Or, to express this as a formula: Act 2 Goal + deeper understanding = Act 3 Goal.

In a strong story, all of the narrative steps clearly support the simple spine created by the evolving goal. One step builds upon another so that there is a sense of constant accumulation. In the Call to Adventure, for instance, the protagonist is invited to embark on a quest, the quest that he will pursue, in an ever-deepening way, throughout Acts 2 and 3.

Screenwriting/novel adaptation

SFU’s Praxis Centre for Screenwriters is a terrific resource.

They have just announced a workshop that might be of interest to some of you. Here’s the info:

Small logo 2

West Coast Screenwriting principals, Keith Digby (Young Alexander,

Time Exposures) and Brian Paisley (Lies Like Truth, The Great Night of Shiva) are holding ‘Weekend Blitz’ personalized workshops in Victoria andVancouver for aspiring screenwriters and adaptors.


In five sessions of high-octane teaching, Brian and Keith will take participants through hands-on sessions in screenwriting structure, character development, creating visual action scenes, and building sequences that grip the audience.


For new and emerging screenwriters, bring your idea/concept, outline or unfinished screenplay. Novel and short-story writers, who might be thinking of adapting one of their works, bring a one-page outline and watch its progress toward the big screen


VICTORIA | Sponsored by the Greater Victoria Film Commission

Location: T.B.A. (Victoria, BC)

Dates: August 10th (evening) to 12th (late afternoon)

Cost: $275 (Participants) $150 (Gallery)

* Group Rate for 5 or more ‘Gallery’ Auditors: $100 each


VANCOUVER | Hosted by the Canadian Media Production Association

Location: CMPA offices: 600 – 736 Granville Street, Vancouver

Dates: August 17th (evening) to 19th (late afternoon)

Cost: $275 (Participants) $150 (Gallery)

* Group Rate for 5 or more ‘Gallery’ Auditors: $100 each


Special Offer! Praxis subscribers receive a $25 discount off the registration fee. For more information or to redeem this offer, email Keith Digby at


For curriculum details, ‘Participant’ vs. ‘Gallery’ status, and any other information, please visit the West Coast Screenwriting website.

What is your protagonist DOING?


The most common problem that I run into is passive protagonists. It’s also one of the easiest and most rewarding problems to fix.

I have read drafts that were full of beautiful descriptive prose and almost no action. These manuscripts seduce at first, but very quickly become boring.

As readers, we want to see a story develop. The best way to make that happen is to allow the protagonist to identify—and pursue—a goal. Your hero won’t instantly achieve their goal, of course; they’ll have to try different strategies. As they apply these strategies, they’ll acquire enemies, allies—and wisdom. And, as that wisdom accumulates, the protagonist’s goal will deepen.

In every story that I’ve worked on, the seeds of the protagonist’s goals have always been present, although they’ve sometimes been buried. Give those seeds and little light and nourishment and—Presto! Change-o!—your manuscript can go from flat to exciting in one rewrite.


Tips from an emerging playwright

Shelter from the Storm

My interview with emerging playwright Peter Boychuk (pictured above) will appear in next week’s Georgia Straight (Thursday, May 31).

Peter’s new show, Shelter from the Storm goes up the next day (June 1) at the Firehall, where it runs in a Touchstone production until June 9. It’s about the relationships between a Vietnam draft dodger, his daughter, and a US soldier who has fled to Canada to avoid a second tour of duty in Iraq.

In the version of the interview that will appear in the Straight, Peter says all sorts of interesting things about Canada’s changing cultural values. We welcomed draft dodgers in the ’60s. So why is Canada—or at least our federal government—so hostile to war resisters now?

Peter also said some interesting things about what he’s learned about writing from his instructor  Joan Macleod at UVic, where Peter did his masters in playwriting. I want to share some of those thoughts here. Here we go.

Exploring character through monologues

Peter said: “I feel like almost everything I’ve learned about writing I’ve learned from Joan. I had an undergraduate degree [in playwriting, from Concordia] going in, but this was like a master class. I really feel like I learned the craft of writing from Joan: active dialogue, how to move a plot through character, voice. Voice was huge. Joan’s character voices are so authentic and so detailed. That’s her big thing: don’t start writing until you have an authentic voice for the character. She starts all of her plays with monologues. So I wrote a lot of monologues for this play. Some of them I ended up using; some of them just became lines.”

Getting the job done 

“She doesn’t pull a lot of punches,” Peter said of Joan.

And Peter seems to have learned a no-nonsense approach from his forthright mentor. “I try not to be precious with my writing,” he says.  “It’s work. And you do the work. I’ve written, at this point, probably a thousand pages of this play that you just have to say, “Gone! Gone! Okay! Cut that.” Find the one line that’s perfect. Joan’s big on compression. She came from a background as a poet, so her big thing is compress, compress, compress. Find the most active part of the line and just get rid of everything else. What’s pushing the story forward? What’s revealing character in the most interesting way?”

Words to live by, I say!

If you don’t know Joan Macleod’s work as a playwright, do yourself a favour and read some of it. The Shape of a Girl is masterful.


Commit to Conflict

Some novelists and screenwriters that I work with are shy about conflict.

My sense is that’s partly because they don’t want to dumb their stories down with meaningless action or fall into the traps of popular culture, which features a lot of gratuitous—and sexist—violence. I hope I’m not being sexist myself when I say that, in my experience, more female than male writers are wary of conflict.

But conflict is essentially to storytelling and, if you want your story to be well-shaped and exciting, you’re going to want to ramp up it up at crucial points, including the Act 2 Culmination and Act 3 Climax.

And remember: if you’ve prepared the reader for these encounters—if you’ve created a credible emotional world, high stakes, and a fully-fleshed protagonist and antagonist—then these encounters will feel neither meaningless nor gratuitous.

Character Exercise

Want to give two-dimensional characters an instant third dimension? Try this.

Make a list of characteristics, likes and dislikes for your character. Opposite that list, write opposing characteristics, likes and dislikes. Choose one of the items from the list of opposites and incorporate it into your character.

A number of years ago, I did this with a character named Allan in my play Flesh and Blood. Allan is a straight, rebellious, teenaged boy. He likes his drugs and he likes his unprotected sex. One would think that his musical tastes might tend towards the harder edges of rock and roll, but I made him a secret opera lover. It worked gangbusters. In the play, there’s a scene in which Allan and his girlfriend Sherri-Lee have just made love. Allan opens up to her and plays Montserrat Caballé’s recording of “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca for her. I was amazed by how well this simple exercise worked.

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