Saturday, March 31, 2007

Why writing novels is harder than writing plays.

Novels and plays are both full-length works and both challenging to write well. I've been writing plays for such a long time now that it seems second nature to me, and the process feels comfortable.

I'm only on my second novel, and man, sometimes I'm just stunned by how tough it is. There are just so many words. I did a check, and my recent full-length plays, even though they come in around 100 pages, run between 15,000 and 19,000 words. Not bad. But my current novel is sitting around 90,000 words, and that's after I cut 15,000 words from the first draft. That's an whole full-length plays's worth!

I can keep an entire full-length play in my head at once. When I'm working, I have a pretty good sense of everything that every character has said, and every scene, even every beat. I can run the whole thing through in my mind, in one sitting. I'm not sure I can say that of my novel. Getting the first draft down is fun as hell, because I don't worry too much about how it all fits together. I just plow ahead, and figure I'll sort it all out later.

Well, I'm in the sort it out later phase, and it's tricky. I try to be organized about it--I have a notebook where I keep in revision plans and strategies and notes. I'll do waves of purging bad habit words (I have lots). Then expansion. Character work. Descriptive work. Rhythm. Style . I have to say I now truly appreciate the great books that I read. I'd like to read a lot more from writers I admire about how they handle the revision process. If you know of any such books or articles, I'd love to hear suggestions.

The toughest part is just remembering that writing a novel is like running a marathon. I just need to keep showing up to my desk every day, make some progress, and as the months go by, it starts to add up.

(Coming soon: why writing plays is harder than writing novels.)

What I'm Watching: The Ant Bully

I know there are critics out there who go see the first act of a play and then write a review. Well, I'm not like that (I'm not a critic, either). Or am I?

I got The Ant Bully to watch with my twelve-year-old daughter, who wasn't exactly impressed with my choice. If she'd been around, I would have let her fiddle with the Netflix queue, but she wasn't, so there.

As is (sadly) my Friday night habit, I got through about the first fifteen minutes of the movie and then fell fast asleep. The weeks are busy and by Friday night I'm kaput.

The first fifteen minutes have plenty of fine computer graphics, but the script was an absolute mess. The story made little sense, the characters were uninteresting. It's hard not to compare this film to A Bug's Life, since they both have lots of ants (thought I'll give the Ant Bully folks credit--theirs have six legs, not four), bullies, people who don't fit in. However, A Bug's Life is a fantastic movie, from the get-go. And the reason why it's fantastic isn't because the computer graphics work, it's because the story is so well told, carefully introducing you to the the characters and their problems and desires. The reason why Pixar has been so successful over the years is the incredible effort they put into the scripts. Screenwriters really rule the roost when it comes to animated pictures.

I think I'll have to get out our copy of A Bug's Life. I know I won't fall asleep, even though I've already seen it fifty times.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Last Day of Binge #10

Today was the final day of the 10th Playwright Submission Binge. This is a (Yahoo) group of writers who agree to take on the marketing challenge of submitting a play every day, for 30 days. I started this group about five years ago, as a way to make my marketing chores a little more fun, and to build an additional sense of accountability. Over the years, the group has grown to more then 300 (though only a fraction of those actively post and binge). We do submission binges twice year, once in the spring and again in the fall.

For Binge #10, I sent out 26 scripts and 53 queries, and I actually managed to submit every single day of the 30 days (I don't always succeed in this).

About a year ago, I asked folks how much success they'd from past binges, and just from 14 writers we'd had 140 productions and 31 awards (which includes honorable mentions, finalists, etc.) from binge submissions. I'm sure the number is much higher now. This year the group submitted many hundreds of scripts and queries to theatres all around the world.

The best part is that it's turned into this very supportive community of writers, who interact all year about writing and marketing for theatre.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What I'm Writing: progress today and feedback rationing

Had a good chunk of the morning available for writing today. I'm hard at work on a second draft of my second novel. When I finished the first draft, around Thanksgiving, it was about 350 pages long. Since then I've done a big round of cuts, bringing it down to about 275 pages. Now I'm in expansion mode, and it's grown back up to about 305. I find it interesting how a novel in progress sort of breathes its way into its final shape and length. (Plays develop differently.)

I've been working only the second half of the book lately, because the first 160 pages are in the hands of my fiction writers group. We meet next Thursday, and they will have a great deal of useful (and probably overwhelming) feedback. I'm trying hard to finish my current work on the second half before that feedback arrives, because, especially for expansion work, it's important to have a clear head. I've even been holding back from reading written comments from one of my readers who can't attend the meeting. She's given me a few pages of notes, but I won't read them (okay, I confess, I skimmed them) until next week. Any time I have to write new material, it's so important to avoid self-consciousness, and that's impossible with the echoes of a handlful of critiques bouncing around in my head.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What I'm Reading: The Omnivore's Dilemma

I thoroughly enjoyed The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. He's been one of my favorite writers, ever since I read A Place of My Own, some years ago. And I stumble across stories by him in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, often quite by accident, and then look at the byline to see who this talented writer is, and there's Pollan again.

The book has the distinct danger of making you annoying to your spouse/partner/children, because you'll be reading along and feel compelled to share a fact about how industrial corn production has wormed its way into nearly every aspect of the American diet. I know my 12-year-old daughter cringes when we go the store, and I inspect the ingredients, calling out, "Yep, there's corn in this, too."

Pollan is an immensely fun writer, because he enjoys learning about this stuff, and he's skilled at taking the reader along on the journey, not just through the facts, but through feedlots, and chicken slaughtering, and mushroom hunting. He takes a close look at the industrialization of food production (which depends heavily and crazily on corn), large scale organic farming, and then at a sustainable farming operation, and then around a meal that he assembles using his hunting and gathering skills (relying heavily on the skills of others).

For our family, this book seems perfectly timed, since we've been making huge dietary changes around here since Halloween, cutting out animal products and most refined and processed foods. We were doing it for health reasons, but this books adds an entirely new level of justification. Not that Pollan is saying you should become a vegan. Not at all. He's saying that we owe it to ourselves to become more conscious about what we actually put in our mouths, and the effects that its creation is having on us, our culture, and our planet.

My only disappointment is that in the final wrap-up, he focuses on the extreme distance between the industrialized food he and his family consumes and the meal that he makes through hunting and gathering, without mentioning enough of the sustainable farm that he'd visited. (That section made me want to go out and buy some land and start farming. Tomorrow.) We spent so much time with Pollan through this book, I wanted a stronger sense of whether all this had actually managed to change his day-to-day buying and eating habits. But those are really minor points.

(Also, don't miss a terrific essay Pollan wrote for the NY Times in January, Unhappy Meals, about what we really should eat. Really, it's the answer to what was bugging me about the end of his book. It should be included as an addendum to every copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

Excuses, Excuses

We've had out-of-town guests for nearly a week, which is always a good excuse avoid getting some writing done. On Monday, I didn't write anything, even though I probably could have found a little time. I've got a nice little routine of working on my new novel while the kids are gone at school in the morning, but I'm used to doing it alone in the house, and I feel oddly exposed when there is someone else here (even though I can write just fine in the library or a crowded coffee shop).

Yesterday and today, I finally got over it and spent some time making the revisions that I need. I plugged my headphones into the computer, and listened to the same damn twenty-song set that I've been listening to for months while working on this book. I didn't even plan to get any writing done; I'd written the day off entirely. But this music has become such a part of my writing routine, that listening to it right there at the computer put me right in the mood to get to work.

I figured I'd put in 30 minutes, but I wrote for more than an hour, and got a whole new scene, plus more revisions. That's the good thing about building a writing habit or routine, I guess. It takes effort to create it, but once it's in place, it can help save you from yourself.

What I'm Watching: Sankofa

Part of my plan with this blog is not just to write about writing, but also about the films, plays, and novels that I'm taking in.

Last night I went to a film series in the town where I live. I can't remember the actual title of the series, films about the African diaspora, or something like that. I'd thought that I was going to watch Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, but I was a week off, and so instead we watched Sankofa, written and directed by Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima (released in 1993).

I've been troubled by the film all day today, for various reasons. The movie is nominally about a black fashion model who is mysteriously transported (in a dream, or spiritually?) from the ruins of a Ghanaian slave fortress in the modern day, to a life/persona of her ancestor, where she is a slave on a plantation in the West Indies.

The plot is complex, and sometimes a little disjointed, but overall the film shows the cruelty of slave life on a sugar plantation in many horrific aspects, and almost entirely focused on the black slaves, with a little time spent on a Spanish priest. The white slave owners are present, but not really characters. (Which is fine by me.)

Sankofa powerfully examines the struggle of a community of slaves to preserve their own dignity while still attempting to survive, and even more than survive, actively rebel. It also looks into the relationship between current descendants of slaves and the bondage, rape, and murder that dwells permeates their history.

Unfortunately, I found myself unable to completely latch onto this film. Though the acting, especially by the lead actress, was often fiercely raw, it also was uneven, with many of the smaller roles clearly filled by non-actors. Sometimes the dialogue felt trite, even as it dealt with intensely interesting, complex social and racial situations. And, as a viewer used to slick Hollywood films, and also as a sometime filmmaker myself, the visual elements of the film were often jarring in their lack of skill. Shots might inexplicably linger on a landscape element, or we'd see a microphone boom at the edge of the frame. The camera might pan or track at odd moments. The entire piece felt like it needed re-editing. And the story fluttered about between several different sub-plots, some of which were engaging, and others that made me keep looking at the clock.

I haven't decided if the technical elements kept me at a distance from the film just because they were bad, or if because the material is so difficult and painful that I subconsciously latched onto these distractions to keep some sense of emotional composure. Probably a combination.

Making a film about slavery in the Americas is a tough act. You want to make a movie that really gets to the heart of what it was like, the violence and despair. And at the same time, it needs to be watchable. I don't know that I've seen the film about slavery that really makes me say, "Oh, I get how this worked." Most tend to show the triumph of the spirit of the slave over the degradation of his bondage. But I'm also interested in what it did to the slave owners--how did it affect and corrupt their own humanity? And for the slaves, I don't feel I've yet gotten a sense of the continuous despair that must have been part of life.

I got a hint of it last night, when one of the slaves talked briefly about not being able to continue as a head slave for the rest of his life, that the stress of the brutality that he was required to inflict up on his own people was too great. The tough thing to remember about the enslavement of African-Americans is that it didn't just go on for a few years. When we look at a Holocaust film, it seems like the Jews were in concentration camps forever. But the first camp opened in 1933 (Dachau) and then it was all over by 1945. Slavery in the Americas lasted from 1503 to 1865. More than 350 years! I find it tough to get my head around the implications.

So, I guess Sankofa (and the task of writing about it) definitely got me thinking about all of these issues (I've been at work on an historical piece about a slave during the Civil War, so I've been in this territory before) . That seems like a decent accomplishment

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why Contest Fees Don't Make Sense (for Playwrights)

The topic of submission fees for playwriting contests has become the fallback topic online (and perhaps in person) for playwrights, coming in right behind bitching about critics. I posted this back in January on the Playwright Binge list, but it seemed worth revisiting.

The main problem with most contest fees for play competitions, especially for short play competitions, is that they don't make sense for the playwrights or for the theatres (or for audiences).

For playwrights, it's a cost/benefit problem. Generally, when you enter a contest for which you pay a fee, you do so with the expectation that you're taking a risk which has the potential for great gain if you win. And a contest, rather than a lottery, involves some element of skill on your part, so if you (think you) are more talented and/or experienced, you would expect a greater
chance of a win.

Oddly enough, many short play competitions that require entry fees do not offer significant prizes. Often, the winners get a production of the play, and maybe a video. In some instances, the writers might only get staged readings. However, what is the value of these productions to
the writers? The theatres seem to think that a production has a value worth a fair amount of cash, perhaps enough to cause a talented writer to wager $5 or $10.

This isn't really the case. For an experienced playwright, a production of a ten-minute play, in East Podunk, Indiana, which will lead to no further professional productions, no useful contacts, will not generate any useful reviews, and won't even be seen by many people, is not particularly valuable as a prize. If it's in a venue that's close to home, and the playwright can see the show, then the value goes up. But if it's far afield, and the writer can't see it, the writer gets very little from it. And a video? Ever watch a badly produced video of an amateur theatre production? Not so fun. For an beginning playwright, it's useful to have a competition win and a production to put on a resume, but even with these, they're not going to impress the folks at big theatres.

If theatres offer a $500 prize for the winners, then hey, I might be there. Lots of other experienced writers will be, too. But otherwise, the rewards are too low. Writers who are submitting to these competitions are selling themselves short. I don't think this is an
ethical issue, really. I don't care what the theatres do, but it doesn't make sense for most playwrights to participate.

Why is it bad for theatres? Well, because it's bad for writers. And especially bad for experienced writers who can get productions elsewhere (where they get paid, rather than pay the privilege themselves). So what this means is that theatres have created a situation where they have a competition that does not draw in the best material. Ideally, a theatre should want to work with the most talented writers possible, but these competitions are taking away the incentive for these writers to send them this work.

Some theatres introduce fees to keep the volume of submissions down. This is just stupid. Yes, raising fees will bring in less submissions. But it mainly means that you get less varied submissions (class issues at play here, playwrights with spare money are not necessarily better
writers) and a lower quality of submissions. A more effective way to get fewer submissions is to narrow your window, time-wise, when you'll accept submissions. Or narrow the subject matter. Or state in your guidelines that you will only accept the first 200 submissions, and post on your web site when the door is closed.

Why is it bad for audiences? Again, it's bad for audiences because it doesn't encourage submission, and therefore production, of the best possible plays available. In this age of constant media exposure, theatre needs, more than ever, to present exciting, vibrant work of the highest quality. Going to watch a mediocre evening of theatre is worse, I think, than watching a thoroughly wretched evening of theatre. Mediocre theatre makes people feel that "this was nice, but I could just have easily have stayed home and watched something better on TV."

If theatres need to raise more money to put on these festivals, they should pick better plays (from a better pool) and sell more tickets for work that really thrills audiences. If you can't find and produce such work, get out of the business. One of the reasons many ten-minute play
festivals start in the first place is because they can utilize a lot of actors, which means a lot of tickets sales to friends and family, which means it's easier to cover costs.

As to why screenplay competitions charge so much (this is often an excuse used by play contests)--it' s a totally different business. The film business has very few entry points, through which tens of thousands of writers are trying to cram material. Access to producers and agents is a precious commodity. And the best screenplay contests (they're not all created equal), offer big cash prizes for your $50. Some of them might have as much as $30,000 in total prize money, as well as guaranteed reads by agencies or production companies (who are named on the competition web site or brochure). The ones that don't offer this are a complete waste of money.

The good news for playwrights is that there are tons of theatres out there, large and small, and lots of opportunities to get our work produced and seen by audiences. We need to save our money, buy theatre tickets, and go network afterwards with the producers and directors and

Monday, March 26, 2007

Starting Out: Why I'm Here

From what I can tell, it's customary to start out one's blog with some explanation of why the heck it's necessary to create yet another blog, and why anyone might want to read it. (My reasons for all of this may be different tomorrow.)

I've been a playwright since 1987, when my first play was produced (The Elevator, by the Pendragon Theatre). I wrote it on a lark, sent it to a theatre with whom I'd worked as an actor and stagehand, and they decided to produce it. I was not quite 20 years old.

These days, I'm still a playwright. But as much as I love working in the theatre, playwriting alone hasn't quite been enough for me as a writer, artist, and father/husband. Over the years, I've found that some stories are best suited for particular media--some for the stage, some for screen, and others for the page. So I've written a novel (Tornado Siren), which was published last year. I've written screenplays, which have been optioned but not produced.

And it's not just that sometimes I want to work in different media. Sometimes I get fed up with theatre, because the pay stinks and the hours aren't conducive to family life (all those night rehearsals). So I'll say, "To Hell with it, I quit" and observe the resounding silence of a whole world of people not noticing. But then I miss working with actors and directors and the adrenaline of the lights going up on one of my plays with an audience excited to see what might happen next. So I keep sending out more plays, and even write some new stuff.

I've come to love writing novels and am deep into my second right now, but it's awfully lonely work. And (this doesn't apply to my friends, of course) novelists aren't quite as much fun to hang out with as playwrights and actors. And the pay, so far, hasn't turned out to be much better than theatre. There are other plusses, though, including the potential to actually make a living someday (that potential doesn't even really exist as a phantom for playwrights).

And screenplays. God, I love writing them. Especially the first draft, when it's just you getting to watch this cool movie in your head that no one else has ever seen before. But the business side is really weird. It's hard to do from Boston (and I don't think we're moving to L.A.). You get a lot of people being nice to you for a while, "we love it, we love it," and then no one returns your calls. Still, every once in a while, I'll write a new screenplay, because it's fun, or I'll start marketing my old ones (which are still good). And I have fantasies about making movies again (I liked making movies in college).

So, I continue to struggle to find a way to wrap all of this together into a career and writing life. There are elements of each type of writing that feed into the others. Certainly attempting to be a triple-threat seems to mean, at least in my case, a fairly slow learning curve and career progression. My plan with this blog is to share with readers (and fellow writers) some of the lessons and adventures that I stumble through as I continue to try to write and reach audiences in these media.

Thanks for joining me.