Tuesday, April 3, 2007

FAQs (part I)

Here are my most Frequently Asked Questions (Part I):

1. Where do you get your ideas?

If you're a writer, you recognize this question. Everyone asks it. But I understand why people wonder--it seems mysterious. The thing they don't understand is that ideas are a dime a dozen. It takes a year or two to write a full-length play or novel. So hell, once I've got five good ideas, I'm set for the next decade. Ideas are the easy part, it's the discipline of sitting down every day that's tough. That, and figuring out how to turn a shapeless mass of first draft text into something brilliant.

Ideas are everywhere. I have a file folder where if I get up an idea, I'll write it up and stick it in there in case I ever need it. It's pretty thick. I have another one for newspaper and magazine clippings that strike my interest (which sometimes are just an image). Usually an idea will kick around in my head for a few years before I actually start turning it into something. I'm pretty sure I had the idea for my new novel in 1999, but I didn't start actual writing on it until 2006.

Listening to NPR gives me a ton of ideas. Reading newspapers and magazines (the more obscure ones are most likely to get you an idea that a thousand other writers haven't gotten). Books. Living life--working in organizations, teaching classes, traveling, moving to new cities. It helps to be a little bored if you need ideas. A long car ride is good. Commuting by train is even better.

2. What's for dinner? (This should actually be #1.)

Quinoa black bean chili. Don't make that face.

3. How do I find an agent for my play?

First you should ask if you need an agent. Are you making money from your writing? Are you at least on the verge of making money? Because agents subsist on 10% of what you earn. So if you currently earn, oh, let's say $10 a year from your playwriting, you might not be so appetizing to an agent.

But you have a brilliant script, you say. That's terrific. Is it something that can be done at a big theatre, that pays well? It helps if it doesn't require many actors. For an unknown playwright, a small cast comedy sure would be nice. Let's say that for every actor you need over 4, your play needs to be 10% more brilliant.

Basically, if you think you desperately need an agent, they're probably not interested. If you're already making money and have great connections and it doesn't seem like an absolute necessity anymore, they're probably ready for you.

The pool of cash for playwrights is so small, I'm amazed that agents still handle playwrights at all. But they're out there. The best way to approach them is with a referral from a current client. If you don't have that, then it's time for a query letter. (There's listings of them in the Dramatists Guild Resource Directory and the Dramatists Sourcebook). You can also invite them to any shows that you have running in NYC--sometimes they'll send someone. If you're not getting productions that they might see (say at a big LORT festival or in NYC), then you might not be ready.

I don't have one for my theatre work right now. I think about it sometimes, but I'm not sure my work is commercial enough yet. Maybe the next play.

3. Can I have a cell phone?

No. I know all the other kids in 6th grade have them, but somehow your mother and I survived childhood without cell phones. (Can I really sound that old already?)

4. How do I get an agent for my novel?

Finish your novel first. Now make it a little better. A little better. Now write a kick-ass query letter. Visit the Miss Snark site. The AgentQuery.com site. Maybe pick up a copy of Jeff Herman's guidebook. Send a bunch of queries. Wait. Send more. Get more rejection letters. Send more letters.

5. Can I...


6. How do I get an agent for my screenplay?

Just like for books and plays, you're going to send out a really kick-ass query letter/e-mail. There are a zillion on-line publications for screenwriters (not all free). I feel a bit out of the loop on this. I've used Script P.I.M.P. before with some success (it's an 0n-line database). Creative Screenwriting has an on-line version. I get regular e-mails from MovieMaker Magazine. I don't know if I'd vouch for any of these at the moment, but they're definitely a place to start. I'd love to hear some suggestions. I've had several agents for my screenplays in the past, and they've been somewhat useful, but I've never had a script go beyond the option phase. I've got four solid feature-length film scripts that I really want to see get made, so I'm about ready to start a new round of marketing. I think this time, though, I'm actually going to approach both agents and independent production companies, with an emphasis on production companies.

More to follow, in FAQ parts II and III (as yet to be written).

So, let me know, what are your FAQs?

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