Friday, August 10, 2007

Playwright vs. Novelist (the party edition)

As my writing career has broadened and shifted to include writing novels as well as plays, I've thought a lot about the pros/cons of writing for each medium. These are, of course, high minded interior dialogues about art, as well down and dirty thoughts about different business models. Both are good ways to work really hard and earn very little money. But what about the social side--if I'm at a party or meeting someone for the first time, is it better to say "I'm a novelist" or "I'm a playwright"?

Let's see:

1) Nobody's ever heard of my work. Both types of writing face the inherent disadvantage that the next question will be: "Oh, what have you written?" If you claim to be a playwright, sometimes people will ask "What movie did you write?" or just look at you blankly (What's a playwright?). Whether I claim Playwright or Novelist, since I'm not a Broadway success or a bestselling author, I'm forced to give them a title or two, with the immediate disclaimer, "But you've probably never heard of it." However, if I've got a play or reading coming up, then Playwright gets a big bonus, because I can plug the event. It also helps whenever I have something coming up in New York, because that sounds impressive (even if it's just a one-act). I've been pulling that stunt lately, with Den of Iniquity about to run at EATFest in October. However, with Novelist, I can give them the title of my book (Tornado Siren) and tell them that they can order it from Amazon or their book store (it's unlikely to be in stock) or even get it from the library. Sometimes they actually do. This is a big plus for books, because they're so much more easily accessible. (I'd say Novelist gets a slight edge here.)

2) The next question is always, "Do you make a living?" For Novelist, the answer is No, but there is always the possibility, so I can say, "Not yet, but maybe my next novel will push me over the edge." There actually are people who make a living writing novels. Hundreds at least. For Playwright, this is a downer. The answer is No, but I suppose I can use the excuse "But almost nobody does." But that doesn't really help. (Edge to Novelist)

3) Playwright gets a huge edge when I meet someone more than once. I've written a ton of plays, and I probably get a dozen productions or readings every year. So if I see someone whom I haven't seen for a while, and I claim Playwright, well, then I have something new happening (even though I might not have actually written a new play for a long time). And I can say something like, "We have auditions in a few weeks." or "The actress is really great." For Novelist, when they ask "What's up?" I say, "Oh, I'm still revising my new novel." But I've been revising the darn novel for about a year and still have more to go. The process is so slow that it's impossibly dull for party talk. (Edge to Playwright.)

4) Plays are easier to summarize than novels. And even a play that's currently under construction benefits from trying to talk about it. Theatrical storytelling for an audience is what makes plays and parties both work. Novels, even simple ones, are hard to sum up. And for some reason, it ends up not being particularly helpful to talk about them while they're in process (especially since the listener won't be able to buy a copy for years to come). (Edge Playwright)

5) The process is of developing and producing plays is socially vibrant. There are meetings with producers and directors and designers. Networking at parties and shows and award dinners. Actors and actresses are awfully entertaining to hang out with. There are readings, workshops, auditions, rehearsals, previews, productions, more parties. Applause. Critics. Playwrights in any city all know and despise the local press and will gladly consume vast amounts of time and oxygen bitching about them. Alas, the poor novelist--sits at home and writes for a few hours every day. Writes some more. Writes more pages. Gives it to a few readers, gets feedback (often over cookies and coffee). Then revises. Revises some more. This goes on for years. Tries to find an agent. Maybe does. More revision (at home, alone). Maybe gets it published. Galleys arrive, which leads to proofreading and exhaustion. A release party (with lots of other novelists but no actresses or directors). Book readings and signings (sometimes fun, sometimes humiliating--on your own). Then it's rinse and repeat. (Edge Playwright)

Hmm. Maybe I'll just say I'm a secret agent. Or a race car driver. Or...

(For now, though, I'd better get back to work on revising my new novel.)


Adam said...

so are people more impressed with one or the other? Which one gets, "I've always wanted to do that," more?

patrick said...

I think people are more impressed with "Novelist," because books have a more concrete presence. They've all read books, and at some point many people want to write one (but realize it's really hard). Theatre and writing plays seems like an obscure mystery to most people.

Malachy Walsh said...

here in LA people ask, "So what do you write?"

what do you say? it makes a difference eventhough everyone knows the answer: television and/or movies.

lately I've said playwright. seems to get more interest - or at least lead to conversation.

i suppose i could say what kind of stuff I write, but wrestling that beast into a box is not as easy as it should be.

ERiCA said...

Virtually nobody makes a living wage off being a playwright? That is a downer. 'course, it takes a while to get to that point with being a novelist, too, so I guess the writing industry in general isn't for the weak at heart (or empty of pocketbook).

I think it's pretty cool that you have both to your name and can claim whichever suits you best at that time! =)

patrick said...

It is a sad fact about playwriting that you can't earn a living at it. Even the big names have to supplement by teaching or writing for TV/Film.

For novelists, of course, it's still tough. For a first literary novel, an advance of $5,000 - $15,000 wouldn't be bad (I think). And you only can write them so fast. Though if you sell one and it does well, things start to open up.

For plays, at least they can be produced over and over again (which also means you never get to stop marketing).