Saturday, April 15, 2017

The New England New Play Anthology is now published!

After a very long time, and a lot of work and support, all across the Boston and New England theater community, StageSource and the New Play Alliance have finally published the New England New Play Anthology!

I'm so proud to share these fabulous plays with the rest of the world. Our authors are:
Walt McGough, Melinda Lopez, Marisa Smith, Kirsten Greenidge, Johnny Kuntz, Steven Barkhimer, MJ Halberstadt, and John Minigan.

Special thanks are due to Laura Neill, Julie Hennrikus, Emma B Putnam, Brian Michael Balduzzi, Haley Fluke, Ty Furman, Alicia Bettano, Daniel Begin, Clare Lockhart, Jake Catsaros (who designed the fabulous cover), Naomi Ibasitas, Mary Frances Nosser, Michaela Tucci, Juliet Bowler, Steven Bergman, Ellen Davis Sullivan, Amy Merrill, Lisa Rafferty, Stefanie Cloutier, and Karla Sorenson, Ilana Brownstein, Charles Haugland, Jessie Baxter, and many more.

I hope you'll buy a copy (via StageSource, but bookstores and Amazon also have it), not just to support new plays in New England, but to read these fantastic scripts by some of New England's most talented playwrights.
http://bit.ly/NPAbook

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Binge Tidal Wave: Submission Binge #30 Survey

Image result for abacus

The Playwright Submission Binge, an online community dedicated to helping playwrights market their work that I started 15 years ago, just finished our 30th "Binge." For each Binge, we take up the challenge of trying to send out a submission a day, every day, for 30 days. After each submission, member are encourage to post to the group what they sent, where, and why (and often share the contact info for the opportunity in question).
 
It's an amazingly positive and supportive group, that now functions year-round as a source information and support. Many of us have become friends, outside the list. Our membership has continued to grow, and our list now has more than 950 playwrights from around the world. Not all of them are active, and not all of them post, but during the binge we had more than 50 different writers post to the group. It's hard to know how many people are actively reading the list and submitting on their own.

Back in 2011 (when the group has only 640 members), we conducted a survey, to see what sort of impact the group was having on its members and on the rest of the theater world. Despite its size, our group seems to operate a little under the radar--I run into playwrights all the time who haven't heard of the Binge. But I guarantee you that when a submission opportunity gets posted to our list, the company receives a solid wave of submissions. If a company posts a call for scripts that feels abusive to playwrights, they will also get strongly worded e-mails from our members with suggestions on how to improve.

I figured it was time to do another survey, and see what the impact is like these days. In some ways, with sites like NYCPlaywrights.org and Playwright Submission Helper, it may be that the notion of a binge of submissions isn't as necessary for some writers. For my own marketing, the Binge helps me get super focused and make marketing a priority at least two months of every year.  (Binges happen in March and September.)
 
For the survey of Binge #30, 90 writers responded. Those writers sent out 1,765 submissions (down from the totals of the Binge #19 respondents), or an average of almost 20 submissions per writer for the month of March. More than 97% of these playwrights have already been produced (93% have been paid for their work), and more than 60% have received productions as a result of past Binge submissions.  More than half of the respondents were women.

All of which continues to make me feel like our group is having an impact on both the writers involved and on the companies to whom they are submitting.  There's some potentially interesting data here, and I might start conducting these surveys after every binge.  (I'm guessing there's a difference between Spring and Fall binges.) 

I'm still considering possible trends. From 2011, the percentage of writers who have been produced and paid has risen. The number of writers actively posting to our group has declined. Two data points don't really give enough information to identify trends more strongly.

I'll post all the data below. Please comment and let me know your thoughts or questions.
 

2017 Binge #30 Survey Results:  (percentages based on people who answered question)
(I am including 2011 percentages in parentheses, for comparison.)

Number of  Writers Who Completed Survey: 90 
Total number of scripts and queries submitted during Binge #30 (by these 90 writers): 1,765
238 queries, 1,527 complete scripts
(In 2011, 74 people responded, with a total of 2,270 submission)

How many years have you Binged? 
First time.  12.5%   (15.1% in 2011 survey)
1-2 years   22.7%    (26.0%)
3-4 years   28.4%   (24.7%)
5-6 years    11.7%   (19.2%)
7-8 years   11.7%    (4.1% )
9-+ years   13.6%    (10.9% )


Has your work ever been produced? 
Yes  97.7%  (94.4% in 2011 survey)
No   2.3%   (5.6%)

Has your work ever been published? 
Yes  72.2%  (69.9%)
No   27.8%  (30.1%)

Has your work ever received a reading? 
Yes  100% (97.3%)
No   0%  (2.7%)

Have you ever been paid for any of the readings/productions/publications of your work? 
Yes  93.3%   (87.8%)
No   6.7%    (12.2%) 

Have you ever received a reading, production, or publication as a result of a Binge submission?
Reading    51.1%    (54.1%) 
Production  61.1%  (67.6%)
Publication  21.1% (21.6%) 
Not yet    27.8%     (27.0%) 

How often do you post to the Binge list?
Often    15.7%  (23.0%)
A couple times each Binge  15.7%   (27.0%)
A couple times a year  20.2%  (14.9%)
Rarely  31.5%   (23.0%)
Never  16.9%  (12.2%) 

Are you male or female? 
Male  43.3%  (39.2%)
Female   56.7%  (60.8%)
Non-Binary Gender  0%    (These two options were added very late, and were not present in 2011.)
Prefer not to answer 0%

Monday, February 27, 2017

Build (and Share) Your Own Writer Marketing Tools: The Binge

I’ve been actively marketing my writing for years. As I do, sometimes I find a glaring lack of tools to address a particular marketing challenge. Sometimes I get lucky and discover that someone else has found the same problem and has already been hard at work to solve it, and maybe I can buy a piece of software or join an organization. But sometimes it’s necessary for me to make the tool myself.

Back in 1993, it was hard for playwrights to find up-to-date marketing information—we had annual guidebooks with listings, but they went out of date quickly. So I started publishing a monthly newsletter, Market InSight for Playwrights, that gave playwrights fresh info. Hundreds of playwrights subscribed and a lot of us got a lot better about sending out our plays to the right places.

I sold Market InSight around 1999  (it lasted under new ownership until 2016), and I kept submitting my work and using the info in the newsletter. But I found it hard to stay motivated. Then I heard about an entire town that was banding together to collectively lose weight. By making it a communal event, and building in layers of accountability and fun, the town found a way to establish healthy habits and get healthier.

I thought maybe I could bring playwrights together to do something similar for marketing our scripts. Thus the Playwright Marketing Binge was born. In 2003, about a dozen of us took the challenge of sending out a play every day, for 30 days. We committed to reporting back to the group every day about what we sent, why, and where. It was a way to have fun doing chores that can often be a real drag. And it worked! We all sent out a lot of scripts and started to get more productions.

 It worked so well, that we started taking the challenge twice a year, every March and September. On March 1, Binge #30, will commence, now with 940 members from around the world. What began as a lark has turned into an extremely supportive and active online community. And a very generous one—where people share submission opportunities all year long. Many of us have met in person, and sometimes members band together to encourage (or demand) that theaters treat playwrights more fairly. Our writers get productions around the world. I submit a LOT more scripts now that I'm involved with the binge, because I have the information at my fingertips, and I'm inspired by my fellow bingers.

Some important lessons to keep in mind from the success of the Binge:
  • Sharing works. This group experiences success because people are generous about sharing opportunities. Creating a large and active cloud of opportunity ends up benefiting the whole group. Not everyone posts or shares, but enough people to do make it work.
  • Successful tools aren’t always planned. The first Binge was an experiment, with very limited goals—we wanted to have fun and submit more plays. The community that grew up around the events is the most powerful aspect of the Binge, but that wasn’t the initial goal. Part of the reason it ended up working had to do with tone, openness, and the right amount structure (not too much, not too little).
  • Tools don’t have to expensive or complicated. There is no budget to run the Binge. It’s free to join, and it doesn’t cost anything for me to run it. (It’s a Yahoo Group.) You can participate if you want, but you can also join and merely lurk. The only thing you can’t do is be a jerk to other members. The goals for each binge are simple: submit something every day for 30 days; but those are only goals—each person uses the group in their own way.
  • Consistency helps longevity. The dates used to shift a little. Deciding to make the Binges start on March 1 and September 1 simplified operation. Choosing a software platform that is easy to manage helps a lot. Simplicity of operation is important if you want something to last without burning out the people who are running it. The time required to manage this group is minimal. The benefits, to me and to many, many people, are large—in terms of sharing information, building community, and establishing good marketing habits.

As you make your way through the artistic and business aspects of creating plays, books, and films, consider where you find gaps in resources, information, community.  You are not alone in experiencing these gaps.  Has someone else already found a way to fill that gap? Or is there an experiment that you can try, on a limited scale and budget, that might solve the problem not just for you, but for other writers, too?

Let me know what you try.

If you’re playwright and want to join the Binge, all you have to do is click here and join the group.


Great examples of other tools people have created include Donna Hoke’s Trade-a-Play-Tuesday, and QueryTracker (for fiction writers).

Monday, February 20, 2017

Idea Management for Writers—a new use for Scrivener



One of the most frequently asked questions of all writers is: “Where do you get your ideas?” And the answer, for most of us, is usually both simple and complex at the same time. The simple answer is everywhere, because we’re alive in the world and paying attention. The complicated answer is that we get them from devouring books and movies and plays and television and music, and we listen to conversations on the subway, and read the newspaper, and browse the Internet, and walk in the woods, and have our hearts broken, or see some inspiring act of kindness, and we daydream, and reminisce.

Non-writers don’t understand that 1) ideas aren’t that hard to come by, and 2) we don’t really need that many. I write one or two full-length works a year. That means I only need a handful of major story ideas kicking around my brain at any given time.

The question that might be more useful for aspiring writers to ask is: how do you manage your ideas once you have them?

When you’re just starting out, it seems like you’re going to use up all your ideas as soon as you find them. But from my experience, ideas start to pile up over time. I’ve been writing for a long time (more than 25 years), and some ideas get turned into projects right away. But for every one that I snatch up, a handful of others linger, maybe waiting for the right time in my life or more research or some shift in the world or myself before they’re ready to develop.

Some writers have notebooks they carry with them everywhere. I used to always have a pen and 3x5 card handy, not just for a to-do list, but also jot down a random idea. And a notebook to haul around. I also had a big thick file in my file cabinet, where I would drop newspaper and magazine clippings, and another where I might drop those 3x5 cards, or write up pages or sketches of ideas. And then what if I saw something online? I tried setting up e-mail folders for ideas, too.

What happened was that I had lots of little clips, and scribbles in notebooks, but no way to easily search for them. If I had some vague notion to revisit an idea from 20 years ago, it might take quite a search to find it. Who knows what notebook it might be in. And I never did find a good way to capture and connect links to web sites and on-line research and stories to all the paper files.  Even if I made Word files, it was hard to keep them all straight, and very hard to search or browse.

But I think I’ve found a better way:  Scrivener.

I’ve been a fan of Scrivener for quite a few years (I use the PC version and am still jealous of Mac users for the supercharged version they get to use).  It’s a great piece of software for drafting novels, plays, and screenplays, and especially for research-heavy projects. I write a lot of historical projects, and Scrivener makes it very easy to manage web-based research, images, and a thousand different notes. For adaptations, Scrivener makes it easy to keep track of the exact source material that underlies adapted scenes. I know some people find Scrivener complicated, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential, but I find it worth the learning curve.  (Note: remember that it’s a drafting program, not an output program, so Scrivener is software you’re going to combine with Word or Final Draft for final output.)

Last year, I figured out that I could also set up a Scrivener "Project" solely to help me manage my various idea files. Its ability to separate material into hierarchical cascades of folders, files, and images, let me group types of ideas and then use folders to contain research materials of various types (text, images, web sites, links, etc.).

The great thing is that I can now easily browse or search ideas and not worry about losing track of them over time. I can safely back them up. Using DropBox for file storage gives me an additional layer of security.

In addition, now that there is an IOS version of Scrivener, I can easily add to my Scrivener Notebook through my iPad when I’m on the road, and not have to worry about losing a scrap of paper with an idea when I get home.




Right now, my basic Binder has these folders:  Scenes and Sketches, Blog Post Ideas and Text, Characters, Research, and Notes.  I keep general ideas in the Research folder—I have almost 40 ideas for full-length work in there plus a folder of short play ideas. Material in the Research Binder can’t be easily compiled for output, so when I start to actually play with scenes for an idea, I’ll write it in my Scenes and  Sketches folder.  (A lot drafts of my new short plays get written there.)

Scrivener offers multiple way to view the list of file ideas. So I can color code them (I do it by medium—so I can classify it as a play, screenplay, book, or multiple possibilities), or view them on a corkboard. I can easily jump into any of their folders to read the research that I’ve gathered.


Color coded ideas, by media type
There is plenty of room in my Project Ideas Scrivener Project to both gather many ideas and to do lots of preliminary research. Once I decide to commit to more fully-developing an idea, then I create a new stand-alone Scrivener Project for that piece. The nice thing about having my initial research already in Scrivener is that I can easily copy and paste it from my Ideas Project into the new Project.

Sometimes I still like to noodle and sketch out ideas using a pen and paper. And I still often have a notebook in my bag. But eventually, I make sure to capture those sketches and paper daydreams, either by scanning, taking a photo, or typing up a summary.

Keep in mind that Scrivener plays well with many other programs (including Scapple, but more about that in another post). As an example: I’d made a list of possible blog posts for 2017 in a Word file, but I quickly saw that using a Word file to serve as a reference file/list was going to get awkward. Instead, I started a new folder in my Scrivener Ideas Project just for blog post ideas. And I was able to Import the list directly into Scrivener and automatically generate a new text file for each listed item. If you choose to start using Scrivener for your own idea management, it’s not that hard to input material from your old systems.

Once I decided to use Scrivener for my own idea management, it did take some start up time to go through my email folders and old manila folders full of scraps of paper and printouts. But that time has already paid off by refreshing my memory about ideas that I liked but had faded from view over time. I’m new to this system, but I am convinced it will help me become both more efficient and creative.

I’d love to hear how you manage your writing ideas. If you end up trying to use Scrivener for this purpose, let me know how it goes.




Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Feel Better/Write More: The Joys of Time Tracking for Writers



I can be a bit of a numbers nut. I keep stats for script submissions, writing income, and lots of other things. But one of the most important things I track is my time. I’ve been writing seriously for more than 25 years, and I have a busy life, with a house and kids and a spouse. I’m involved in many different groups and productions, which entails lots of meetings and rehearsals.  Which all impede on the one thing I need in order to write:

Time.

If I don’t actively make time for my writing, it doesn’t get done. But I’ve discovered that one of the most important habits for building discipline, and for not beating myself up too much when I feel like I don’t get enough writing done, is tracking my time.

Lots of writers feel constantly frustrated, because they don’t get as much written as they want to. But my first question to those writers is: how much time do you actually spend writing? Most of them don’t know. Which means, maybe they’re wasting time, or maybe they don’t have as much time to write as they think they do. The one thing I do know is that complaining won’t get that next script or novel written. Writers need to be realistic about what they actually should be accomplishing.

If you only spend 2 hours a week writing, that’s not nothing. That’s 100 hours a year. Which is enough to write some short stuff, or maybe a draft of a full-length play (or more).  But, remember it’s going to take you a year to get that written. And you’re not going to write two novels, or a whole bunch of new plays plus rewrites.

My goals this year is to spend 400 hours of ass-in-the chair writing time.  (I count journal writing, because that’s writing practice. More about that in another post.). That should be enough time to create the projects that are important to me. I will probably spend another 800-1,000 hours on other parts of my writing life.  I also track time spent reading for work (not recreational reading and not project research), meeting/rehearsal/teaching time, marketing/admin time, and time I spend on theater ecosystem/volunteer work (like the New England New Play Alliance).

I also track my various side jobs/projects, which are sometimes farming or fixing up my old house.  It helps me to know how much balance I’ve got in my life.

Isn’t it a pain in the ass to do so much tracking?  The answer is a definite No. I use a simple excel spreadsheet that I open it at the start of every work day, and I close it at the end of the day. Whenever I move on to a major new task, I just open the window, and enter my starting time and expected end time.  When I finish that task, I update the end time.

 (I really do more than just write in my journal.)
There are a few reasons why this habit is especially effective:

  • It makes me focus on one task for a certain block of time. Shifting back and forth between projects, minute-to-minute is not a productive way to work.
  • By entering the end point when I start, it creates a sense of self accountability—the mere process of writing down that I’m going to work for one hour on my play puts me on the hook. I’ve made a commitment to sit at the desk and work on that manuscript. Going back and having to enter a lesser number is demoralizing, so I’d rather just do the work. I find that if I’m modest about my initial goal, I will often work past my expected end-time—so if I pledge to write for one hour, once I get going I can’t stop, and suddenly it’s two hours.  
  • I can see whether I'm really doing my job.
  • It allows me to set specific goals, that are useful whether I'm outlining, drafting, or revising. Many writers set productivity goals around pages or words per day, which works great for writing first drafts. But what about early stages, when you just need to think and outline and node? What about revisions? Tracking time is a more universal measure of your writing efforts.


Some of you might say this is too much trouble. I can only suggest that you give it a chance and try to make it a habit.

Others might say that having a time sheet feels too much like I’m doing a “job” and that's icky.  The tricky thing about working for yourself as an artist is that you have no one to answer to.  The external rewards for the work are often very far off, if they come at all. No one is there to make you do this, and no one really wants to hear you complain. You have to be your own boss/producer/editor/publisher/taskmaster.

The other advantage of tracking is that you start to get a sense of how long it actually takes you do stuff. And how long you are capable of working on a given project at a time. My wife will tell you that I am notoriously bad at estimating how long it will take me to do a household project—say replacing a light fixture. Should be simple—half an hour! Two hours later, I’m just finishing up.

That’s okay when you’re puttering around the house. But what about if someone wants to commission you to write a play? Do you have enough time to complete the commission?  How much should you charge?  You need to know how long it takes you to write something.

And you also need to have a sense for how long you can write at a time. Is two hours your upper limit?  I find that 3-4 hours of solid writing time is pretty tiring, so I plan for creative work in the mornings, and then admin/marketing after lunch. If you work a day job or have small kids, you shouldn't arrange your schedule to give you one 8-hour block of writing time every week or month, when you can't write for longer than 3 hours.

I hope some of you will give this a try, and let me know if it works. Also, if you'd like a blank writing timesheet, I'm happy to e-mail you a blank copy of my excel template.

Just for kicks, I’m going to see how many hours I spent on various writing projects (I’ve been tracking writing time since 2010.  (I have a series of annual blog posts where I write about the numbers.)   

Here's how my overall time has been spent over the past few years:
2016: 1,223 hours (416 writing/28 reading/438 rehearsing/274admin/67 New Play Alliance+873 home renovation
2015:  1,035 hours (262 writing/52 reading/295 rehearsing/303 admin/123 New Play Alliance) + 561 on moving and house renovations
2014:  1,426 hours (452 writing/109 reading/342 rehearsing/396 marketing/127 New Play Alliance) + 130 hours farming.
 2013:  996 hours (394 writing/308 rehearsing/294 marketing)  + 902 hours farming
2012:  896 hours.  (386 writing/278 rehearsing and meeting/231 marketing)   + 734 hours farming
2011: 818 hours.  (I didn't break out rehearsals from desk writing time in 2011).


I just put together a big spreadsheet of hours for each of my projects over the past 7 years.

Here are numbers for a few specific projects:

Full-length Plays:  (this is writing time only, not rehearsal time in workshop/rehearsal)
Chore Monkeys:    95 hours
Blood on the Snow: 145
Distant Neighbors: 151
Drift:  77 hours 
Fire on Earth: 150  (it was more, but my data stops at 2010)
Flight:  180  (this includes workshop time)
Lost in Lexicon: 96
None but the Best: 134

Short plays generally take me 3-7 hours to write.

Novels:
Steering to Freedom:  680 hours
Moving:  91 (revisions only)
The Secret of Spirit Lake:  125 (revisions only)

Keep in mind, this is time at the desk time, not the additional noodling and walking around the neighborhood time that goes into a project. Short plays look like they don't take very long to write, but I'll often think about them for many hours before I sit down and actually write them.

Thoughts after compiling all this info:

  • It reminded me that I work on a LOT of projects. At least 38 projects over the past 7 years, of all lengths.
  • I made a grid of all projects, over the years. It's interesting how many years it takes to craft a full-length play. Typically, I put time into them over a 3-4 year span.
  • History and research intensive projects take a long time. Steering to Freedom is a Civil War novel, and at 680 hours, it took about 2 solid years worth of my writing time. (I worked on it over a span of more than 6 years).
  • Keep in mind that even if a full-length play takes a 150 hours, I'm lucky to get 15 hours per week on a single project. So that's 10 weeks worth of work. And I am typically working on 2-3 projects at once. Which is why it sometimes feels like it takes a long time to finish a piece.
Let me know if you try any of these tracking techniques. Or if you do, what kind of numbers you find. How long does it take you to write play?  A novel?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Blood on the Snow will return to the Old State House

The announcement was made official today:  Blood on the Snow will return to the Old State House in Boston, for the WHOLE SUMMER.  Yep, that's right, a 12-week run, opening June 1st. We sold out the entire run last year and the audience response was tremendous to this immersive show set on the day after the Boston Massacre. In the room where it happened. (an important meeting that might have determined the fate of America, not the massacre) Most of the original cast (who are amazing) are returning for the run. The folks at the Old State House/Bostonian society are amazing to work with. Should be a great summer.  Here's a very cool trailer they came up with for the show.  Tickets aren't on sale yet, but if you're interested, get on the mailing list to find out when (I think it's going to sell very quickly again).

The success of this show has been very interesting, in a town where performing space is at a premium.  As is funding.  This show was able to use a resource where Boston is incredibly rich (historical sites) and partner with an unusual partner for theater (National Park Service), so play a show for audience that were not necessarily the typical theatre audience.  (I'll write more about all this soon.)  The model for what we're doing can continue to expand across Boston and in other cities.