Sunday, October 4, 2015

Virtual Book Tour for Steering to Freedom starts tomorrow!

Pat at MIT reading croppedSeptember saw three readings of Steering to Freedom--at Porter Square Books, the Old State House Museum, and at MIT. I'm grateful to all the sponsors who brought me in and to all the book lovers and my friends who showed up to hear me read and talk about Robert Smalls. I never get tired of talking about this amazing man and his adventures during the Civil War.

Though my in person readings and signings are finished for a little while (I hope to do another at a Lab Rats show in November), I'm still working hard on spreading the word about Steering to Freedom. For this book, I'm trying something a little more ambitious. Tomorrow, I start on a virtual book tour, a blog tour on 16 different blogs, from October 5-30. I set up the tour through Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Here's the schedule:


Monday, October 5
Guest Post at Historical Fiction Connection

Tuesday, October 6
Spotlight at Carpe Librum

Spotlight & Excerpt at The Never-Ending Book

Wednesday, October 7
Review at Book Nerd
Spotlight at Broken Teepee

Thursday, October 8
Character Interview at Boom Baby Reviews

Friday, October 9
Spotlight & Excerpt at What Is That Book About

Saturday, October 10
Spotlight & Giveaway at Teddy Rose Book Reviews Plus More

Tuesday, October 13
Excerpt & Giveaway at Unshelfish

Thursday, October 15
Spotlight at Genre Queen

Friday, October 16
Review at Beth’s Book Nook Blog

Wednesday, October 21
Spotlight at A Literary Vacation

Thursday, October 22
Excerpt & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books

Sunday, October 25
Review at Carole’s Ramblings

Monday, October 26
Review at Worth Getting in Bed For

Tuesday, October 27
Spotlight at CelticLady’s Reviews

Friday, October 30
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past

Please check out the giveaways and interviews and all the other content about Steering to Freedom at some of these sites.  (And, please, make a comment, so that they know you were there.)  I'm thankful to all the bloggers for hosting me this month and for reviewing and discussion the book.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Steering to Freedom is published!

My newest novel, Steering to Freedom, has just been published by Penmore Press!

In May 1862, Robert Smalls, a slave and ship’s pilot in Charleston, South Carolina, crafts a daring plan to steal the steamship Planter and deliver it along with the crew and their families to the Union blockade. After risking his life to escape slavery, Robert faces an even more difficult challenge: convincing Abraham Lincoln to enlist black troops. Based on a true story, Steering to Freedom tells the powerful and inspirational tale of a young man who becomes the first black captain of a US military ship, while struggling to navigate a path to freedom for himself, his family, and his people.

I've been working on this project for  years, so it's a thrill to finally have this story published both in paperback and as an ebook.

You can order a copy through your local bookstore, or buy it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Penmore Press is a small publisher, so this book will need a lot of extra help in order to reach a broad readership. I know you're all busy, but I hope you will help spread the word. A mention on Facebook, Twitter, or a rating on Goodreads makes a big difference. If you enjoy it, please tell other people or write a review on Amazon or elsewhere. Most public libraries allow you to request that they add a particular book to their collection. I'm also happy to speak with book clubs, either in person or via Skype.

But most of all, I hope that you will read Steering to Freedom. Robert Smalls and his family and friends were amazing people, and their story is a thrilling and important part of American history.

(I know I've been quiet about posting here for a while, but I hope to have more soon. Including a bit of history about how this book came to be published.)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Writing by the Numbers, 2014

Distant Neighbors, produced by Fresh Ink, with Louise Hamill, Sheldon Brown, Gillian Mackay-Smith, Daniel Boudreau, directed by Liz Fenstermaker, photo by Jeff Mosser

Time for my annual round up of my writing stats. Being something a numbers geek, this is the perfect way to end the year and look forward to the next. Plus, I always hope that other writers will join in and together we can give folks a more general, if incomplete, picture of how life really works for a writer (especially playwrights).  (See a list of links to such posts below.)

I think it's fair to wonder, when it comes to gathering all these numbers:  Why bother? Why track so much?  In some ways, this is just an odd hobby of mine. But at the same time, capturing data allows for more rational decisions moving forward. Or at least allows for a potential honest assessment of the current state of one's work or career (if that's to be desired).  I often think of the principle in quantum physics, known as the Observer Effect, which states that by attempting to measure something, you end up having an impact on the result, just through the mere act of observation. Writing and submitting plays isn't exactly quantum physics, but by consciously paying attention to how I spend my time and efforts, I become more self-aware. This is part of the reason why in my work with the New England New Play Alliance, one of our first projects has been a comprehensive attendance survey of new work done in Boston over the past two years. We want to know the current state of the new play scene here in Boston, but we're also curious to see whether actively measuring the new play ecosystem  has some impact on how it operates. We'll see. (Watch for a big report coming out in mid-January.)

Anyway, back to my own numbers.  2014 was a busy year, with lots of productions and readings. And many hours spent.  And a few dollars earned.  Here are the stats:

Number of Productions/Readings:  44.
Number of Performances:  123.  (This includes published plays.)

  • 18 productions were of published plays. 
  • 1 production and 6 readings were of full-length plays.  
  • My work was read or produced in Japan, New Zealand, Canada, England, and the following 16 states: MA, WA, RI, NY, IN, CO, FL, PA, IL, MO, CA, NE, NJ, VA, NJ, NC. (None of these figures include plays done by students in competition--those were used widely, across North America).
Estimated Audience:  13,411 total. This includes 10,333 for performed work. For published plays I tend to estimate low, 40 people/performance. The rest of the total audience comes from people reading books, plays published in anthologies, etc. These are based on conservative estimates--the actual number is probably higher.

Books sold (mostly ebooks):  78   (Many fewer than I'd hoped. The bottom has dropped out of the self-publishing ebook market.)

Total:   235
queries for plays:  11
play scripts submitted:  164
queries for books: 54
book manuscripts submitted:  6

Hours spent on writing :  1,426 hours
actual writing and research:  452 hours (my initial goal was 600)
reading for work (not fun):  109 hours   (this used to be counted under writing time in past years)
rehearsals and writing meetings:  342 hours  (includes a tiny bit of teaching)
marketing and admin:  396 hours
New England New Play Alliance:  127 hours

I also spent 130 hours farming at the Long Life Farm this season (we didn't have our own farm this year).

Here's how my time worked in:
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).

The hours are a bit under reported, in all categories. I'd thought that since I wasn't farming my own farm this year, the 900 hours I spent farming in 2013 would all come into my writing life, but that was wishful thinking. The farm work in 2012 and 2013 was intense (in many ways) and also mostly out of the house, so when I was at the farm or market, I was only doing farming. When I'm working from home to write, I also have to take care of various family and household duties.

Breaking out the reading hours was useful for me, because it helped me invest more time and effort into reading plays, and also kept me honest about how much time I spent actually sitting at my desk writing and researching. The New England New Play Alliance is a new project this year and is time intensive. I'm hopeful that it will have a measurable impact on the new play ecosystem in my home region, but we'll have to see.

2 new full-length plays (both on the short side)
3 new ten-minute plays (plus more scenes)
started a new full-length play
wrote some one-minute plays
LOTS of revisions--to multiple full-length plays, a musical, a novel.

Plays watched:  57
Movies/TV series watched:  64
Plays read: 50
Books read:  22 

I watched more plays than I'd planned (by a lot) and read fewer books than I would have liked. I read a lot more full-length plays than in the past, though I'd like this number to continue to grow this year.

Gross Income$7,974
published plays:  $1,051  (about the same as last year)
production royalties:  $431
commissions:  $5,000  (installments on 3 different projects)
teaching: $570
my novels:  $241  (down a little from last year)
Prizes: $110
misc. (essays, panels, editing & other): $571

Expensesabout $5,480 
I spent about $1,400 on theatre tickets, by far my biggest expense. (up a lot from last year and which seems excessive, but some of it was buying tickets for my family to see my own shows, plus I see a lot of plays. I'm going to have to cut back a little this year--I have a kid in college with some pretty impressive tuition bills.)
$330 went to submission fees (I only pay to submit to super big places, like the O'Neill, or to international festivals)
$565 went to professional dues and memberships (DG, StageSource, Rhombus, etc.)

Net Income:  $2,494  

past years:
2013:  Gross income:   $7,767  Expenses:  5,758  net:  $2,029
2012:  Gross Income:  $3,844  Expenses:  $2,808  net:  $1063
2011:  Gross Income:   $2,638   Expenses:  $4,665  net:  $-2027

Those are my writing numbers. For better or worse.  I was able to completely throw myself into playwriting this year, perhaps more than ever. In terms of finances, the news was mixed--my income stayed steady, but I worked 50% more hours. On the other hand, it was an immensely satisfying year artistically, and my plays were seen by LOTS of people. And I have more exciting projects coming up, with five productions scheduled for short plays, and readings and productions of four full-length plays on the calendar for 2015.  I would obviously like to reach larger audiences and get paid more, but that will require continued hard work, patience, and a little bit of good luck.

Please let me know if you keep track of numbers like this and if you post about it anywhere, let me know, and I'll post a link below:

Donna Hoke's submission tallies  (she submits a LOT more than I do)
Adam Szymkowicz's year in review 
Claudia Haas's year end stats 

Friday, November 14, 2014

In The Thick Of It (and how I learned to stop worrying about climbing)

Images from the plays I've been working on in this 18-month stretch.

There's a certain inherent dissatisfaction that can be part of having an artistic career, and playwriting is no different. There's never much money, there aren't many production slots, and there's always a hope for the next "bigger" thing. Maybe this reading will lead to a production, maybe this production will catch the attention of someone in New York, maybe an off off Broadway show will move to Off Broadway, maybe Broadway will come calling. Maybe the next reading will lead to a production at an NNPN theatre, or a LORT theatre. Maybe the show will get a positive review, in someplace important, maybe someone will notice my work, will notice me.

I confess to having these thoughts. They're not particularly productive. They haven't caused any of these things to happen. Thoughts like these are good at adding to a general sense of unease and anxiety. And though they generate pressure to perform, I'm not convinced they lead to the creation of better work. They do lead to a general far-sightedness, that lifts the eyes up to the horizon and removes focus from the people and work sitting right in front of me.

As much as I have ambitions of "bigger" things for me and my work, I haven't spent much time thinking about such things lately. My attention has been completely absorbed by the work at hand, and I feel like I'm the luckiest writer in the world. I'm in the midst of an 18-month stretch of working on seven different full-length plays and musicals, with more than a dozen readings, workshops, and productions of those seven plays. (A few of the scripts were written a while ago, but they're getting readings and productions now.)  Sometimes it feels like creative whiplash, trying to unlock the mental bin for Lost in Lexicon and then switch the next week/day to Lab Rats and then back to Distant Neighbors.

I don't know that any of these productions or readings are designed or likely to lead to something "bigger." They might not be impressive to people higher up the theatrical food chain. But I don't care. I love the sensation of being completely immersed in the warm (and sometimes turbulent) waters of theatre and creation. I love getting to work with collaborative artists from so many different companies. With the exception of Clockwise Theatre in Illinois and Liminal Space in London, all the companies I'm working with are here in Boston, so I'm getting to work with people who part of the community where I live. I'm engaging with an audience of theatre goers who surround me every day.

More and more, I'm realizing that the place where I want to be is exactly where I am, and the thing I want to do is what I'm doing right now. I'm working, I'm creating, I'm part of a creative community that gives me an electric jolt every day. I'm not spending so much time looking ahead for what's next, I'm just trying to make the most of where I am right now, and enjoy every minute of it.

I've found the whirlwind I've been looking for, and I wanted to say that I'm here and I'm grateful.

(Special thanks for that whirlwind need to go to: In Good Company, Clockwise Theatre, Tumblehome Learning, Argos Productions, Liminal Space, Fresh Ink, Theatre on Fire, and the Bostonian Society.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hey, kids, what color are your gatekeepers?

I've been putting off writing about this.  My motivation for blogging comes in spurts. This has been a busy time for my theatre work--with lots of workshops and readings and productions of plays coming up.

I write books, too, of course.  And both my books and my plays often deal with race, either directly or indirectly.  Actually, ALL of my books have race as an important element to the characters or the story.  I don't write books with an all white cast of characters (though if I did, race would still be playing a factor, let's not kid ourselves), because I'm interested in a multi-racial world and I live in a multi-racial family.

As a writer of novels, I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to find publishers for those books.  Sometimes with some success--my first book, Tornado Siren, found a small publisher and sometimes not--I self published my second novel, Moving [a life in boxes], and my third novel, Buried Treasure, about a young black girl and her white adoptive grandfather on a high stakes treasure hunt, remains unpublished.  I'm currently trying to figure out what happens next for a Civil War novel about the escaped slave and national hero (and eventual Congressman), Robert Smalls.

Partly it's my scarcity of success that's made me reluctant to write about gatekeepers in the world of fiction, but I'm not the only one thinking about this stuff.  There's even a whole online campaign now called We Need Diverse Books.  And in the March 16 Sunday New York Times of this year, the late Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher, published a pair of essays under the title, "Where Are The People Of Color in Children's Books?" (The second is actually The Apartheid of Children's Literature.) They talk about the power of books and stories to shape our perception of the world and ourselves.  And why it's important, not just for kids of color to be able to read books that have characters of color in them, but also for white readers, in order to have a more complex view of people who aren't white and come from different backgrounds.

Myers writes:
Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

The intro to the article points to a study by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, with this killer stat:  "Of 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people." You don't have to be a numbers guy like me to have a stat like this make you catch your breath.  This is not saying 93 were BY black writers.  It's saying there were only 93 ABOUT black people. 

There's lots more numbers on their site.  For 2013, only 68 children's books were BY black writers.  Books ABOUT Latinos: 57 (48 written by Latinos).

This doesn't say anything about how they're represented, just whether they're there.  Now, as an adoptive parent of two black children, I've spent a lot of time trying to find books with characters of color that might be of interest to my kids.  And just try finding a middle-grade novel with a black main character that is not about urban problems or violence. They're just not out there. (Well, that depends on how you look at it.  They exist.  Hell, I wrote one.  But they're not being published.)

Here's the crazy thing--when my daughter was born, in 1994, there were actually MORE children's books about African-Americans published, 166, than there were in 2013.  That's right--the number has declined by 43%.  The peak was actually in 1997, at 216.

Is it any wonder that we live in a society where there is so much racial misunderstanding and incomprehension?  (And violence as a result.)  Is it any wonder that the publishing industry flops around like a fish gasping for breath, when in a country where almost 40% of the population are people of color, less than 8% of children's books are about characters of color. 

Christopher Myers wonders at the cause--the "Market" is often blamed.
The closest I can get to the orchestrator of the plot — my villain with his ferret — is The Market. Which I think is what they all point to because The Market is so comfortably intangible that no one is worried I will go knocking down any doors. The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.
 My experience has been that it's hard to even get close to The Market with a children's book about people of color, or even an adult book about black characters. To get a book contract with a major publisher, your manuscript has to pass through two important gates.  First you need an agent to fall in love with your book, and then you need an editor (with the help of your agent) to fall in love with your book.

Books that will be obvious hits sell for purely business reasons.  It seems clear that they're going to make gobs of money.  But the books that are on the margin--and guess were books about people of color fall?--require that love, that identification.  Because, even though there are zillion bad books and crappy writers out there, there are still thousands and thousands of good and interesting books out there, on all kinds of topics.

And that's where I see a gatekeeper problem.  Because the kinds of rejections I see most often are either Christopher Myers' "the market isn't right for it" or "it just didn't resonate with me."  "I didn't fall in love with it."  Well, from what I've seen, the people making the decisions are almost all white.  (And so are the writers--go to a SCWBI conference sometime.)  Not only are they predominantly white, they also have spent a whole lifetime reading children's books mostly about white people.  Despite being avid readers, and I promise you, editors and agents are voracious readers, they have limited experience with books about people of color.  It's not their fault, really, the books don't exist for them any more than they exist for my kids.

In one search tool that I use, QueryTracker, there are 179 agents listed who represent children's books. That means that in 2013, about half of them didn't sell ANY children's books about black people.  None.

The argument could theoretically be made by agents and editors--"it doesn't matter that I'm white, I'm interested in stories about people of all races and backgrounds."  But the numbers show that to be false.  Or maybe they're interested, but interest is not love, is not identification, is not passion.

Of course, increasing diversity in the workplace is never easy.  NPR had a story last month about the publishing business and its need for diversity.  In it, Dawn Davis (she's black), editor of 37 Ink, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster, says that a recent Pew study shows that college-educationed black women are the people in American most likely to read a book. The market is actually there, but the people with an interest in multi-racial and multi-cultural stories are not in a position to decide which books get published.

This can't change until the big publishers get serious and work harder at recruiting and retaining editors of color, and literary agencies do the same. There has been a lot written about white privilege and race in America over the past few weeks. The publishing business is one of the few places with the power to influence our entire culture and way of thinking, for the better. But to do so, they've got to take some difficult steps and look hard in the mirror.

(By the way, don't think the gatekeeper situation in the theatre world is a whole lot better.  But that's a blog post for another day.)

(And one more P.S.--if you're looking for YA books that have black male characters, I came across this post online that has a nice list of some. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Mad Dash, year two


I'm taking part in the Fresh Ink/Interim Writers 24-hour hour play festival and fundraiser, The Mad Dash, for the second year in a row.  Tonight, 16 playwrights will meet up at Doyle's Pub in Jamaica Plain and be paired into 8 writing teams.  We will go find someplace to write and magically churn out a brand new ten-minute play (based on prompts we'll receive tonight) by 7 a.m. tomorrow morning.  We'll meet with directors, start rehearsing with the casts, and plays will be fully staged by 8 p.m. tomorrow night, at the Central Square YMCA in Cambridge.

Tickets are $15 in advance, or $20 at the door.  This fundraiser is all the more important this year, because we just found out the the Factory Theatre, where Fresh Ink normally performs (and where my play, Distant Neighbors was scheduled to open in November) will close on October 31 (see the story in WBUR's ARTery site).  So they're going to need all the resources they can get to find a new space.

I already took two naps today, trying to get ready for tonight. It's always a little nervewracking, knowing that you must come up with a new play by morning.  Last year, we had a blast and turned out some pretty fun work. (I'm hoping my partner will want to write at IHOP again--I could go for a serious sugar rush.)

I can't wait to see what we come up with this year.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Boston Theater Marathon 16, round up

As many of you know, the Boston Theater Marathon is one of my very favorite theater events of every year.  With 53 short plays by 53 New England playwrights, staged by 53 different companies, it's an ideal opportunity to see a cross section of the local talent pool and to be inspired by the voices of dozens of playwrights.  And it helps benefit the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund.

As I have done for the past fours years, I dragged my daughter Kira to the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, on a gorgeous Mother's Day (with my apologies to my wife, Tracy, whose Mother's Day has been interrupted by a long string of BTMs). This year, I missed just one of the 53 plays, in a day that began at noon and ran straight until 10pm.

There was, as always, a lot to admire about the day.  Here are some of my favorite moments:
  • Kevin LaVelle always seems the perfect actor for Bill Donnelly's plays, and he was on the mark again on Sunday in Grass Hog, the first play of the day, as a neighbor who's had more than his share of ups and downs.  Produced by Battleground State.
  • Rick Park gave us a very touching car play, The Doppler of My Heart, with terrific performances by Greg Maraio and Becca Lewis. Produced by Company One.
  • Steve Barkhimer totally rocked Richard Dresser's ultimate cringe-worthy wedding toast in Love, Dad. I laughed awfully hard (and took notes in case I ever have to make such a toast for my daughter someday).  Produced by the ART.
  • 16 Gigs by Maggie Kearnon, an awkward explosion/exploration of eager-unrequited longing and love was one of my favorite scripts and got a terrific performance from Stanis Johnson. Produced by Marblehead Little Theatre.
  • Film Appreciation by David Susman got a whole bucketful of well-deserved laughs, about a woman who dates the ultimate film buff (and some other types). Produced by Mill 6.
  • Webbed Hands, by Cecilia Raker, directed by Matthew Woods and produced by Imaginary Beasts, was a theatrical delight, with its use of mask and movement.  It was a real standout for me (and made me miss Rough & Tumble).  I'd love to see more Marathon plays with more adventurous or unusual staging.
  • Obehi Janice rocked the role of a math teacher having a very, very bad birthday, in MJ Halberstadt's Peggy's Properties, directed by Jeff Mosser and produced by Project: Project. I'm a sucker for any play about math, but this one was about so much more, all in a very small package.
  • Fracking With Walt Whitman, by Greg Hirschak, with Chris Webb in the role of a poet laureate who might become president in a very strange and dangerous world, made me laugh so hard I cried.  Produced by Off the Grid Theatre Company.
  • And The Maltese Walter by John Minigan, produced by Argos and directed by Ariana Gett, might have been my very favorite of the evening, with Paul Melendy starring as a man with a strange superpower (and paired with Charles Linshaw and Liza Hayes). 
Overall, I also felt like this Marathon had stronger lighting and sound design that past years, which was a treat.  (I have to give a shout out to Cassie Seinuk, the stage manager, and all the BTM folk who make the show run so smoothly.)

As in any year, there are always a few types of plays that appear more than others.  This year, we had two ghost plays, and another meta play (Peter Floyd's clever Too, Too Solid Flesh) that featured characters that not everyone on stage could see. There was the usual collection of plays in cars, the T plays, and a whole bunch of plays where people in relationships were leaving each other (often for members of the same sex).

If I had a wish list, it would be for us to make a car jig, so the various car plays could dispense with mimed steering wheels. And more plays that are more physically theatrical and/or musical (we did have one ten-minute musical, The House of All Alone, with book and byrics by Richard Schotter and music by Phil Schroeder, which was a lot of fun).

My other big wish would be to make an online directory with pictures and resumes for all the actors in the Marathon.  I am certainly not the only theater maker in the house at the BTM furiously scribbling notes on programs, as I'm looking for possible actors for upcoming readings and productions. 

Once again, congratulations to everyone on a fantastic day of theater.  I can't wait 'til next year!