Monday, April 30, 2007
The good news is that the play won the competition for that evening, so it will move on to the finals this Friday (7pm) and Saturday (5pm). Competitions decided by audience voting are often problematic, but I think these folks do it better than anywhere else I've seen. The voting is done by secret ballot, you rank your top choices (1-4), and you have to see all the show in order to vote (you can't arrive late or leave early). Seven shows (one from each night) move on to the finals, and the producers pick three others to even it out to ten plays for the final weekend.
I've got my fingers crossed that all will go smoothly this weekend (I'll be in Boston, not NYC).
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
This is a play that's never been staged before, so I'm especially excited (and nervous) to see it up on stage. It's about a conflict between a white gardener and a black neighbor in a community garden, in a neighborhood that's undergoing gentrification. I'm very curious to see how the audience reacts.
Assuming we don't get stuck in traffic, I should be able to see a rehearsal on Friday afternoon. I'm not one for surprises when it comes to my work--I much prefer to see it in rehearsal before watching it in front of a big audience.
I came across two simple tools that I used a bunch, that aren't so unusual, but are really handy:
the first was a calendar, that would lay out a year at a glance calendar for any year. It sure ended up being helpful for me to know what day of the week it was on January 21, 2002.
the second was a day calculator, that would tell me how many days there were between two given dates, or give me a date x number of days from another (say 912 days from today).
You never know when you might such things. Mostly, I was glad to make progress after a busy week home with the kids for spring break last week.
Monday, April 23, 2007
I'm trying to stick with my plan of 30 minutes a day on marketing my novel, Tornado Siren, and 30 minutes on screen stuff. So far, I've spent more than 30 minutes on the book mostly making a list of exactly what I've done so far, so I can get my head around what's worked and what hasn't. Next I need to make up a list of what I want to try next (and then actually do it).
So, here's what I've done so far:
- Designed and printed post card. Got 5,000 copies. Have about 1,800 left.
- Mailed out post card to a couple hundred people. Gave away lots more.
- Got www.tornado-siren.com web domain registered. Put together a web site for the book.
- Set up an Amazon Day, where I e-mailed all my friends and family and encouraged them to buy on the same day (in the hopes of increasing the Amazon ranking, and thus gaining more notice). It worked pretty well (we got to #484 overall, and in the top 100 for fiction). Not sure how many we sold, but it was close to 100. This was the most successful book selling that I’ve done, and really fun, too, because it reconnected me with a lot of old friends.
- Came up with a list of all bookstores in
. Called most of them and then had publisher send them advance copies. Didn’t seem to accomplish much—I don’t know if they’re currently carrying the book. Oklahoma
- Worked out a deal with an Omaha bookstore to offer a discount on the book with a ticket stub from a play festival (in which I had a play). The theatre offered a discount to patrons who brought a copy of the book. Sent post cards to the theatre to give out. Didn’t seem to generate many sales.
- Did a signing at a
theatre festival where I had a play. Learned, the hard way, that having the signing after the show is a bad idea. Intermission would have sold a lot more books. I also tried setting up a cross promotional deal with area bookstores, but they weren’t interested. Washington, D.C.
- My parents and my in-laws have all sold dozens of books for me to their friends and co-workers. Not unlike as if I was a Girl Scout selling cookies. I have to say, these readers have been some of the most appreciative that I’ve encountered.
- Did another signing at a play reading event. I signed books at intermission and sold half a dozen or so, which felt good.
- Set up my first book store signing, at the MIT Coop bookstore. It was an early signing, 5:30pm, which was problematic, but it was my first, so I got about a dozen people, who bought almost 20 books. This store rarely does events, so they were pleased with the turnout. I’d postered all around campus and sent tons of e-mails. The e-mails helped but the posters did nothing.
- I set up signings at other bookstores: Harvard Coop (good audience, decent sales, great staff), Book Ends in Winchester (local flooding was a problem, but 2 people showed), Salem (driving rain kept away all but 2 people), and two signings at a Barnes & Noble in Worcester (where the books were sold on consignment)—the first one was great, with coverage in the local paper (though the article brought in only 1 person) and my wife’s book club showing up. The second signing brought in only 1 person.
- I tried to get signings at half a dozen other stores in the
area, but was turned down. Boston
- Went to a local weather conference, and gave out a few post cards and made a possible contact at a book store, but sold no books. (Started to figure out that weather geeks are more interested in non-fiction around tornadoes than fiction.)
- Got a copy to a meteorologist friend, who is friends with the publications director of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). This landed me a nice blurb in the Bulletin of the AMS. This, in turn, got the book noticed and mentioned by the Weather Guys, who write a blog for USA Today. I wrote to people that I knew had read the book and asked them to write comments to the blog, and got a great response (28 comments). The coverage sold a few books, and word popped up on another blog, but that was about it. (I had fantasies of it catching fire from this coverage.)
- The book got three reviews (Curled Up With a Good Book, Romance Junkies, and Publishers Weekly) thanks to my publisher’s efforts, and I got one from a playwright binge writer (on Ink19, which was my very favorite). All were positive, but all were on-line only, and it’s unclear if they lead to many sales. We still haven’t had an actual print review. (The best print coverage I got was in
- I tried my Boston Globe contacts, but they only write about theatre (and not about playwrights writing books).
- I researched all the big media markets, looking for weather forecasters who were black and/or female, and gave this list to my publisher (my main character is a black, woman meteorologist), who sent out copies. We also sent one to Al Roker. Never heard a peep from this. (I’d hoped at least one might read it and like it.)
- I gave books away as raffle items, to my daughter’s school, and to the weather conference I attended. This didn’t really seem to lead to anything further.
- I contacted some of the biggest stormchaser web sites, and even got a nice mention on StormTrack.org, which is a biggie. Sold a couple books that way.
- Sent books to a bookstore in
, where my old theatre company, Chameleon Stage, was having a signing of some of our collected monologues. (I should follow up with them.) Denver
- Went to NYC for two signings sponsored by my publisher. Unfortunately they were at odd times, on weekdays (one in a restaurant that changed its name that very week, so was tough to find). We had half a dozen authors or more at each event, but the audience was entirely made of spouses and people that I’d e-mailed (and just a handful of them). I don’t know that any books were sold.
- Got my publisher to enter the book in both the
Massachusettsand state book awards competitions. (My publisher paid for all the books.) But I didn’t win. Oklahoma
- I set up an interviews with shows on a Worcester Community Access TV channel, but for the first one, the producer never showed up, and the second one got canceled. It started becoming clear that it wasn’t worth the gas, so I let it go.
- I participated in an author’s weekend sponsored by my local library, where I got to do a reading and a signing. My friends and neighbors came out in support, and I sold about half a dozen books. There might be some ongoing contacts that come from this event. (We might start a book show on the
community cable channel. We’ll see.) Brookline
- Put in requests with my local libraries to carry the book. (And had family members do the same.) They did buy the book and it’s now often checked out.
- Sent a copy to my screenwriting agent/manager in
, with the hopes that it might lead to it getting optioned by someone. Nada. Hollywood
That's mostly it. Mostly I've learned that selling a first novel, by an unknown author is very, very, very, very difficult.
That's mostly it. Mostly I've learned that selling a first novel, by an unknown author is very, very, very, very difficult.
I'm certainly interested in suggestions/ideas (other than, "get it on Oprah.")
Sunday, April 22, 2007
I've sold a lot of books just on my own to friends and family, which has been enormously helpuful. But most of those don't show up in Bookscan (which is what editors and agents can look at to see how well my book fared). I'm with a very small publisher, so their marketing and distribution power is tiny, and now that the book has been out for a while, it will be very hard to get additional reviews and press. (We're hitting the hot patch of tornado season, which might help make people interested in Tornado Siren.)
So I felt depressed for a while last night (you know--I suck, no one is ever going to read or buy this book again, I should have been working harder, I waste too much time, what an idiot, I don't know what the hell I'm doing), but I know that I just need to make a plan and get to work.
I'm in the midst of writing a new novel, so time is short. But I think I'm going to shoot for spending 30 minutes every day marketing Tornado Siren, and 30 minutes on screenplay marketing. I'll try this for the next 30 days and see how it's going. (My own little marketing binge.) I haven't spent much time at all on marketing either of these aspects of my work this year, but if I don't do the work, the stuff won't sell (duh).
Saturday, April 21, 2007
I heard about it from Adam's blog, and now Malachy's has a video of this very weird audience response to Mike Daisey's monologue performance at the ART. A good chunk of the audience leaves, apparently in protest, though it's unclear why. (He uses the "f" word, but to be honest, the content that's on the video seems fairly mild.) On Mike's site, he says they were a Christian group (but I'm not sure how he knows this).
Mr. Daisey handles the whole thing extremely well (the protesters pour water on his desk and script on their way out). I don't know what I would have done. I wondered sometimes during the production of Pieces of Whitey, if we might get angry audience response (it's a comedy about race and well-meaning white people) (but that mostly seemed to happen from the critics) (and they were angry), but nothing every happened.
What's so weird is that this group leaves en masse, but when Mike tries to talk to them about what's happening, they don't answer him. And he's acting calmly and reasonably, really, considering the situation. It seems a strong violation of the unspoken audience/performer contract: he's doing his best to engage and entertain them, and in return expects an honest answer in return. You could say that their leaving is an honest response--they apparently hate it. Pouring out the water on his stuff shows that they really, really hate it. But, especially with the water, they don't take into account that he's a human being (one in a vulnerable position) with feelings. It's not like he was berating the audience or treating them disrespectfully. But they chose to disrupt his performance and the experience of the other members in the audience.
I'm especially disturbed that this happened here in Boston. I've always found audiences here polite, if a little reserved. I just don't get it.
Friday, April 20, 2007
(in no particular order) (also like Malachy's list. I'm a complete copycat.)
Jobs I've Had/Stuff I've done for money:
1-hour photo shop clerk (in a mall in
Pet sitter. (mostly for dogs, but I also watched my neighbor’s livestock. Feeding a frisky bull made me find out how fast I can run. Pretty fast.)
Janitor (part-time, really it was freelance cleaning, but I like the sound of janitor better).
Turnkey (the guy who has the key and gets paid to open up a place while contractors do work there)
Stage hand (without this job, I wouldn't be a playwright today)
(without this job, I wouldn't be a playwright today)
TV news cameraman (internship)
Snack bar worker
Brick washer/sealer (one of the most fun summers ever)
Filmmaker (For my first gig, I got paid to make a short film on Super 8 for some international students conference while I was in college.)
Editor (for a play publisher, not for a film)
(for a play publisher, not for a film)
Producer/director for radio dramas
Subject in medical experiments (only little ones. But I did have to give blood for one of them.)
(only little ones. But I did have to give blood for one of them.)
Publisher (of Market Insight for Playwrights, which actually meant doing lots of other jobs in marketing, layout, research, etc.)
(of Market Insight for Playwrights, which actually meant doing lots of other jobs in marketing, layout, research, etc.)
Circulation manager for medical journal
Computer network administrator/consultant
Office temp—helped design some of the early catalogs for Dell Computer, worked in law office and other places.
Researcher for headhunter company (lots of lying involved)
Community garden coordinator (I didn’t really get paid for this, but it was a job. Rewarding, but lots of work.)
Front desk worker at dormitory
Real estate developer (sort of)
My seven-year-old enjoyed the production of Winnie the Pooh at the Wheelock Family Theatre, a fine professional theatre within walking distance of home. The set was colorful and elaborate, with a huge tree filling half the stage. The costumes made for cuddly a Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, etc. And the show was well-miked (some of the actors were children, so this was important) so it was easy to hear what was going on. The actors were energetic and engaging. The bees were a neat effect, and the kids liked it when Pooh flew in to the air with his balloon and (spoiler) Tigger jumped out of the birthday cake at the end.
The adaptation, by Kristin Sergel, seemed a bit odd to me. Kanga is new to town, and everyone is afraid of her because she's a neat-freak, and comes hauling her own bathtub and soap. By mid-show, she's kidnapped Piglet, cleaned him up and won't let him go. Later Roo runs away, and Rabbit and Pooh basically decide to hold him hostage and swap him back for Pooh. Who thinks of this stuff? (I'd better go check the original books, I guess.)
Probably my biggest problem with the show is that it ran about two hours, including intermission. My son, who has definite problems sitting still, ran out of sitting power at around 1:45. Overall, the show served as good practice for kids to get used to going to theatre, which is, I guess, part of what children's theatre is for.
The show reminded me that in many of the small theatres where I tend to work, we just don't get (or don't choose) to spend enough time and effort on the spectacle of theatre. Watching children's theatre reminds you that we need to have something interesting to look at on stage. Something colorful is nice, if you can swing it. I do my fair share of complaining that big theatres spend more on fancy sets than they do on royalties to playwrights, it's not always wasted money. Small theatres could do a lot better and are cheating audiences of an essential part of the theatre experience (yet another reason why people don't go to plays).
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
I do get a bit of a treat tomorrow night, with the first rehearsal of Measuring Matthew, for the Dragonfly Festival (May 10-13, in Boston). This is a play that's been produced successfully in other cities, but I've never had the chance to be involved in any of the productions or even see the show. First rehearsals, especially with unfamiliar actors, are a bit like going on a first date. I'll be both nervous and excited, and on my best behavior, trying to make a good impression (and I assume they'll do the same for me and for the director). The day before first rehearsal can sometimes be the moment of peak potential--everyone involved has the potential to have this be a transcendent experience--the actors will all understand their roles perfectly, the director will fully grok the piece, and the playwright will make the perfect tweaks to the script. It's definitely a time to savor, before the hard work and reality sets in (though sometimes the experience actually exceeds expectations).
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
He's especially interested in how slavery set up an unhealthy relationship between whites and the land and the labor associated with maintaining (and loving) the land on which we depend for our existence. This concept of the degradation of essential tasks by the wealthy and powerful, has modern political resonance in the current struggles over illegal immigration and the constant refrain that "illegals do the work that Americans won't." I'm sure that Wendell Berry has written elsewhere, and more recently, about this, but The Hidden Wound will get you thinking about it. (As well as lots of other things--it got me thinking a lot about what exactly constitutes community and the power of neighborhoods.)
Here are a few quotes that I marked:
"I am a good deal more grieved by what I am afraid will be the racism of the future than I am about that of the past. The past may to some extent be understood, and it is our obligation to do that, but it cannot be corrected. There is, I am sure, such a thing as a sense of guilt about historical wrongs, but I have the strongest doubts about the usefulness of a guilty conscience as a motivation; a man, I think, can be much more dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable. The historical pressures upon race relations in this country tend always to push toward two complementary dangers: that, to whites, ancestral guilt will seem an adequate motive; that, to blacks, ancestral bondage will seem an adequate distinction."
"The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indespensable. Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums."
If I could I'd just cut and paste the whole book here, so everyone could read it. But you'll just have to get a copy for yourself.
Monday, April 16, 2007
On Saturday night, I went down to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which is a terrific local movie house, which does goofy things like host a Buffy The Vampire Slayer Sing-Along midnight show (it had a prom night theme this year, so on my way after watching my movie, there were scores of folks clad in suits and evening gowns waiting in line). As for me, I finally got to watch The Lives of Others, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. I figured that since it has been out for a while, I'd be by myself, but the small theatre was completely sold out (as was the earlier showing).
The movie completely deserved to be sold out. It's a spare, tense film, about a playwright and actress in East German under surveillance from a taciturn (and arts loving) Stasi agent. It's a movie that shows how you can offer an illuminating view of an expansive, oppressive regime and time, by focusing closely, intensely on the lives of just a few people. The actors were completely convincing, breathtaking really. For me, it was one of those rare films, where I was completely caught up for the entire time, and afterwards wasn't even tempted to try to look for parts that didn't work. It all meshed together for me. I'd actually love to watch it again, just so that I could look more closely at how he put it all together.
Thank You for Smoking, written and directed by Jason Reitman from Christopher's Buckley's novel, was on a Netflix DVD that lurked around our house for weeks. It was a movie that ended up on the list somehow, I guess it sounded good, but then once it was here, it never really caught our interest. We finally watched it and wondered why we'd waited so long.
Aaron Eckhart turns on the charm full blast as a spokesman for Big Tobacco. Thank you For Smoking is a rare case of a satire that manages to walk along the knife edge between preachiness and silliness, and come out intact. Though it's about spin in the world of business, the movie feels especially relevant today to our current political situation, living in a country whose political leadership is constantly trying to paint a happy face onto a war without popular support, and scandal after scandal in the executive branch. The character of Nick Naylor makes a point of teaching his young son how to direct an argument away from factual truth, and shows him how to make it all about winning and losing (and how to make sure you always win).
If this was a typical Hollywood movie, you'd expect Naylor to eventually get his comeuppance, and there's some of that, but it doesn't quite work the way you'd expect. The tricky thing is that we're rooting for this grand deceiver, in the same way that you end up sympathizing with the gangsters in the Godfather, or the crooks in a jewel heist movie. Naylor loves what he does and he's good at it, and Eckhart's clear love of his character is infectious.
Last night our Netflix copy of Munich wouldn't play, so we were onto Courage Under Fire, starring Denzel Washington (and nominally Meg Ryan). (Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Patrick Sheane Duncan.) Released in 1996, this is a film about the first Iraq war and the aftermath of a friendly fire incident. It's a bit of a character piece about Col. Serling (played by Washington), who, while trying to deal with a deadly error in Iraq, also has to investigate the details of the first woman up for the Medal of Honor.
Ah, the first Gulf War. I fear that we'll look back on it fondly someday (or do we already). I can guarantee you that the war movies made about the current Iraq war will look nothing at all like this. The combat, what little there is, is out in the empty desert, with a few anonymous Iraqis getting shot by the Americans. But the war was over so quickly, the films have to deal with American v. American violence and conflict. And there's no political comment by anyone over whether it was a good idea to be there or not.
The movie is a bit of a mess. The big incident that haunts Serling isn't given the weight it needs to explain Denzel's struggles, and the puzzle that he tries to unravel around Meg Ryan's character, feels awkward and forced. I guess, ultimately, this movie is trying to deal with the notion of "the truth shall set you free" but you'd be better off watching something else for that, or even to get a sense of war (for a good Gulf War movie, I think you head to Three Kings.
Mostly Courage Under Fire made me very curious about what sorts of movies we'll see about our current war, five years from now. I think they'll be much more powerful, emotionally and politically.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
"I realized that the culture I needed was not be found visiting museums and libraries and auditoriums. It occurred to me that there was another measure for my life than the amount or even the quality of the writing that I did; a man, I thought, must be judged by how willingly and meaningfully he can be present where he is, by how fully he can make himself at home in his part of the world."
Which made my list from yesterday seem not quite as important (though I'm still a numbers fiend, and I'm afraid I just can't shake it). Mr. Berry reminded me of all the things I left out about what I did in my 30s. The numbers might useful to a student of writing, I suppose, to see that it's possible, over the course of ten years to write a substantial number of pages, mail them out countless times, and get scripts mounted on stage and novels published. These are good things to know.
What I left out, oddly, was how grateful I am for the chance to write each of my plays, novels, and screenplays. Mostly this was possible because my wife had jobs that provided us enough income to live, while I stayed home and took care of the kids. I wrote about the things that I most needed to write about, and that's lucky, too. I wrote about faith, friendship, race, moving, love. Nothing I wrote was perfect, but it all helped me improve as a writer. (Note to students: improving as a writer does not mean that it suddenly becomes easier. It only means that I now have tools to tackle projects that weren't possible before, and barely seem possible now.)
I also left out the fact that I did a lot of things, other than writing, that informed my writing and who I am. I worked with my hands a lot--fixing up houses, laying pathways, digging gardens. I raised children and cooked dinners and dumped other people's garbage.
Wendyll Berry has me thinking a lot about community these days. I'm new to my town, so I'm still finding my way. I'm not sure how writing fits into everything, but I know these thoughts will be a part of what I write in the future.
P.S. Shame on Brookline Booksmith and the Brookline Barnes & Noble for not having The Hidden Wound in stock last night. It really is a must-read.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
So, how productive was I in my 30s? I didn't start any theatre companies (I started two in my 20s, along with a marketing newsletter for playwrights, and ran a nonprofit playwrights organization). In my 20s, I wrote a lot of screenplays and full-length plays, but in my 30s, my writing was more diverse.
Here's what I did in my 30s:
One novel (Tornado Siren, published)
Two drafts of a new novel (hope to finish it this year)
Three non-fiction book proposals. (none bought. Yet.)
Lots of rewrites of various scripts.
2 ½ full-length plays: Pieces of Whitey (produced), Constant State of Panic (incomplete), God’s Voice (workshopped but not produced),
1 one-act play: The Sky is Falling (produced and published)
16 ten-minute plays: (15 of them are published and/or produced)
1.5 screenplays (The Three Great Loves of Christopher J. Tomaski, 1/2 of another)
4 outlines/treatments for screenplays
a Dramatists Guild magazine article
Also I started:
the Rhombus playwrights group in Boston
the online playwright submission binge.
(tried to help start the Kansas City Playwrights Cooperative, but I think it didn’t make it.)
Published a bunch of issues of Market InSight for Playwrights (and then sold it).
854 play scripts
515 queries for plays
171 queries for screenplays
28 screenplay script submissions
75 queries for book manuscripts or book proposals
a handful of book manuscripts.
All these submissions resulted in:
145 productions and readings of my plays
27,058 people attended these shows (approx.) Another 4,000 or so heard my radio shows
8,675 high school students bought my published scripts (resulting in $6,396 for me) and used them in competitions
1 screenplay optioned, and it came very close to getting made.
All the book, play, and screenplay productions and sales earned me about $14,057
I read 463 books
I watched 199 plays and readings (this # is low, because I lived away from big cities for a while)
I watched 615 movies
Moved 5 times. (bought 5 houses, sold 7)
Adopted our son.
That's about it. I'm not quite sure what to make of it all. In terms of writing output, I generated 7 full-length works, which seems close to what I'd like. Moving as many times as we did makes it hard to be as productive as I'd like. And having babies in the house can also cut down on time.
Though I didn't earn much money, when I look at the number of people who saw my plays, I feel pretty content.
The truth is, I can always find people who are more prolific or more talented than I am. In the end, the trick for a writer is be simultaneously content that he's done as much as he could, and be determined to do more and better work in the future.
Now, I'm looking forward to some time to think about what might come in the next decade.
Friday, April 13, 2007
On the plus side, I got a modest check (about $70) for a signing I did of Tornado Siren at Barnes & Noble in Worcester last August. (Talk about slow.) When you're a very small fish like me, sometimes you have to do signings on consignment (not ideal at all), and I managed to sell some books. Incoming funds are always good news. It mostly reminds me that I need to get off my butt and try hustling the book a little more again.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
I'm almost 40. So maybe I have a good 40 years of reading left. At 25 books a year (I'm slow, I know), that's 1,000 books. Which seems like a lot. But they keep publishing new good books every year. And there's plenty of classics I want to read but haven't. Last time I was there, I picked up Bleak House and then Maugham's The Painted Veil, and thought I want to read these. And then The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks caught my eye yet again, but she's got a new one out that looks good, too. I bought Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian for my step-father last year and now I want a copy of my own.
And that's just fiction. I keep meaning to read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. And I need to round out my Michael Pollan collection with Botany of Desire, and actually buy a copy of Omnivore's Dilemma, because my wife loved it, too. And I'm reading Wendyll Berry's The Hidden Wound right now, and feel like I should probably just read all of his work.
Sometimes I fantasize about being locked in a bookstore overnight. (It's fun to spend all night in a theatre, too--I did that for South City's May Day Play Day a few years back, and ended up writing a play, The Sky is Falling, that I still like.)
When I'm in a library, I don't have the sense that I want to take it all in. Maybe because the collections are too large. But something about a bookstore makes me lust for the books, lust to read them backwards and forward. I guess I'd better get going. The clock is ticking.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
I really need to do a screenplay submission binge. I've got four feature-length screenplays that are finished and in desperate need of being bought and filmed. I need to get my resources together and start sending out at least a query every day. (Maybe next week...)
I have many of the same concerns about trying to make a living from theatre, and also about who, ultimately is my audience. Do I relate to the wealthy, white, upper-middle class patrons who pay big bucks to see the more commercial productions in LORT and Off Broadway theatres? Will they be interested in what I write?
Hard to say. This is something of a concern, if I want to make more than a tiny bit of money from theatre. Much of my work is more suited to smaller venues. But smaller venues mean smaller audiences, which means smaller paychecks. Not that I expect to make a full-time living from writing plays, but more than a pittance would be nice.
I worry about theatre sometimes. Even at the bigger levels (above where I currently operate), there doesn't seem to be enough concern about making sure that playwrights can earn a living wage by writing plays. There has been an incredible building boom around America, in the construction of new spaces over the past ten years or so. Sadly, it's easier for a big theatre like the Huntington to raise a few million dollars for a new theatre space, than it is for them to, say, fund an endowed position for a resident playwright or two.
The Huntington's made a big deal about its Calderwood Fellowships, which are great. They offer four writers $4,000 and development time, over two years. $2,000 a year? That's not going to get a writer very far. Now, if they offered $40,000 over two years, that would be something.
If theatre doesn't find a way to pay playwrights better and to financially support developing writers, they're going to have a lot of very nice theatre spaces, and fewer and fewer great new plays written for them. How many full-time administrators work at a big LORT like the Huntington? What theatre needs is a more organized farm system, really, to allow people to write plays and earn enough to support themselves and their families. That's right, families. What happens to playwrights when they start having kids? Good luck. Go write for TV, if you live in NYC or LA.
The economic issues of theatre extend to the most basic level. Ticket prices continue to rise out of reach of many. Hell, I can't afford to pay $35 or $45 to go see a play. I have to shoot for free tickets. (Thank you StageSource!) Compare this to film--I can get all the movies I can watch for a month from Netflix for $20. I can read all the books I can carry, for free, thanks to the public library. Any writer needs lots of exposure to new and exciting work in their form. For playwrights to improve as writers, they need to see lots of plays and get lots of productions of their work, simple as that.
Wouldn't that be a cool program--if all the major U.S. theatres started a "playwrights passport" program, where legitimate playwrights (say, Dramatists Guild members who have been produced) could attend any show for free? It's not offering huge fellowships, but it would make sure that they keep writers coming in the doors. Just a fantasy, I suppose.
Monday, April 9, 2007
And they make it sound so easy. On the sappy TV shows, the kids always drift off to sleep as the mom or dad turns the pages, but in our house, it's usually my son shaking awake his semi-narcoleptic father, "Read, dad!" I'll drift off mid-sentence, and mumble half-dreamed endings to the words floating around the page.
Once or twice, I'd make up stories at bedtime, but it's hard work. I guess I'm not that quick on the fly. I'm really good at writing on paper or on my computer, but oral storytelling is entirely different. And worse was that the kids loved them, no matter how lame or stupid the stories were. The problem with this is that then they want another one. And another. Every night. The pressure.
So that never really worked out. I'd just read Hop On Pop yet again, or Stellaluna. But I'd just have to accept that I wasn't one of those cool dads destined for future fame and fortune.
But a few weeks ago, my son got a special FM system at school to help with some auditory processing problems (it's hard for his brain to filter out background noise). He wears a little receiver on his ear, sort of like a hearing aide, and the teacher wears a microphone around her neck. This way the teacher's voice is right in his ear, and it makes class much more productive for him.
But getting a seven-year-old to buy into this isn't necessarily easy. So on the way to school, I told him a story about Super Guy, who happens to have this really cool bionic ear. He hears various crises with his high tech ear, and then rushes to save people from the evil creatures of the world. He thought this was really cool.
Of course, he wanted to hear more of the story. And more. In order to keep from having to tell Super Guy stories all day and all night, I said I would only tell the stories only on the walk to and from school. (But it's a secret as soon as we get to school, since he doesn't want anyone to know that he's a super hero.)
It's been a couple weeks now, and we still do it every day (though we had a brief interlude where I had to tell Baron Von Bombhurst stories in an outrageous Vulgarian accent, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, only in our story, he's a nice guy). I'm not going to get rich by writing these all down into a fine children's book. My son likes a quick set up (a giant skunk smelling up the town, a giant centipede eating all the ice cream in Brookline, evil Dr. Gworkus threatening his friend Marty the Martian on Mars), and a fairly quick resolution ("And then I locked him up in a cage, right?"). Sometimes, I try to make the episodes a little more complicated, with some element of suspense and storytelling craft, but he doesn't really seem to like for his stories to have middles, not yet anyway.
Once or twice, I've started to repeat scenarios or villains, by accident, but he catches me right away and will have none of it. So I guess he's paying attention. It's not always easy to come up with new situations twice a day. Maybe he's training me for a future writing for a pressure cooker sitcom, who knows. But I look forward to our walks every day now, and when I'm telling him a story, I never have to remind him to hurry up. We're always at the school before we know it.
I'm sure it won't last, but for now, I like pretending that I'm the dad I really want to be.
Sunday, April 8, 2007
I liked Mission to America quite a bit. It was the first book of Walter Kirn's that I'd read, though I've had an interest in reading Thumbsucker, and the film made me want to read the book. The premise of Mission to America seemed interesting: that an obscure and isolated sect in Montana, on the verge of dying out due to generations of inbreeding, sends out two missionaries to essentially bring back some women converts that will help flesh out the gene pool.
Along the way, they interact with the corrupting influences of America, and while trying to stay true to their beliefs, get entangled in a world that's more bizarre than the one they left.
The book does a good job of not being heavy-handed in either direction. The simple life in Bluff, Montana, isn't exactly perfect. And the two missionaries do meet some interesting people out in the world who aren't totally crazy (though not many).
For me, the book started out fast, and then got lost a bit in the middle. At the very end, though, I couldn't put it down, and I probably came across as fairly anti-social this Easter weekend at my in-laws, as I read through to the ending.
Kirn's writing can be wonderfully sharp and sometimes I'd reread passages, just to make sure I didn't skim through it (it's a fast read overall). However, I have to confess that I wish that the two missionaries hadn't ended up bogged down in an Aspen-like town in Colorado, amongst freakishly wealthy families and ski bums. It seems like his social satire would have taken a bigger risk, but maybe had more of an impact, if they fell in amongst a slightly more typical set of Americans. The people in his Aspen stand-in don't feel like me and don't live anything close to the way I live. And their problems and their personalities barely interested me. So the satire's reach ends up feeling limited.
Still, Kirn's clearly a talented, experienced writer, and he writes a complicated story and set of interactions. I look forward to reading more of what he's written. However, I'm still looking for the American Nick Hornby. Suggestions?
Friday, April 6, 2007
We're reading the second half of my novel next month, so I have a some touch-up to do next week, and then I need to get it out to them so they have time to read it.
One of my friends told us about the unexpected success of her sibling, who wrote a novel mostly for kicks, and then promptly got picked up by a big agency. Hard for all of us, who have been writing seriously for a long time, not to be jealous as hell. Made me think of this terrific post on Malachy Walsh's blog, Lit Dept.:
In his post, Malachy writes, "You only get back to healthiness when you get back to work." I like that.
As for me, the meeting last night has given me an increased resolve to pick up the pace of my revisions to this new novel. I really need to make sure that I'm putting in three hours a day, minimum, on these revisions.
I had a writing professor who told me once, "Pat, you're not a first draft writer. It doesn't come out of you fully formed. But if you work at it, your writing can be great." Good advice, to not expect to be finished at the starting line.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
But in order to do so, the lion has to leave the jungle, travel as baggage on the train, wear a leash when he gets there, live in a cage, and then do tricks in the center ring. When he meekly objects, the main replies, "don't think twice about it. Showbiz, you know."
(spoiler alert) Finally, he objects a bit more strenuously about never getting his big roaring solo, and the man replies, "I'm afraid you must always obey me. Showbiz, you know." At which point, the lion swallows the man whole, goes back to the jungle, and rescues all the other animals, who have since been caged.
Kids'll love it. But you might want to get it for your favorite screenwriter/playwright, too.
It's a lot to ask of people to read and make detailed comments on 160 pages of a novel (and they'll do the other half soon). Right now I'm rereading all the material, and I've set aside some time to think about my own impressions and concerns. In some ways, a novel's developmental path is more constrained than that of a play. There are certain stages where I can get feedback, but they're a bit more limited. With a play, I might bring bits of it to a playwrights group, and then have a sit-down reading, and then a staged reading, and more readings, and then a workshop production, more readings, a production, and then make even more changes.
With a book, it's not that complicated, or drawn out. Of course, I could choose to work on this one forever, but this is an important time and opportunity. I owe it to myself to make the most of what they have to say, and to try to stamp out any defensiveness that might tend to rumble during the session.
One of the things I find most challenging about working on a novel is trying to return to revisions with fresh eyes. This is tough for plays, too, but I can always put together a reading with actors, which will shine new light on the piece.
In a way, I've had the best of both worlds with my current novel, because I've been bringing ten-page chunks of it to Rhombus, my playwrights group, where we hire actors to read for us every two weeks. I've gotten constant and helpful feedback there from my fellow writers and actors. But while having talented actors read your novel-in-progress is helpful and fun, it also can help hide some flaws in the manuscript. My fiction writers group will dig past some of those.
I just need to be ready.
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
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?
Sunday, April 1, 2007
Then Jamie Pachino, who is a friend, mother, and terrific writer had to post this:
Sun Mar 11, 2007
I've been reading this thread with great interest, as I do
believe that (1) having children, being a wife, a caretaker
and an artist at the same time is VERY HARD and (2) I
still manage to pull it off.
In 2006, I gave birth to a new baby, had the world premiere
of a new play at a LORT theatre (which was subsequently
produced at another LORT, and the SPF Festival in NYC and
won an award for science plays), parented my 4 year old,
wrote 2 scripts for Lifetime (one of which was produced
and aired, the other of which will air this May), wrote an
animated feature for Disney, handed in a feature to Dreamworks
which won't go anywhere-- and all while my husband traveled
218 days out of the year (no seriously, we had to add it up
for tax purposes last week), and did I mention, I broke my
ankle while i was 7 months pregnant? Yeah. That too.
Now. This was an EXCEPTIONAL year for me, both in the
amount of work that was produced and created, as well
as the actual bodily creation that was going on. It also,
obviously, afforded me a chunk of money to pay for some
help to watch my children while my husband was off working,
and I was paying the bills and being an artist. But that was
only 1/2 days, because I didn't want to just give birth to
them, I want to actually hang around with them too.
Understand, though, that this is the product of having spent
about 6 years pre-children promoting the crap out of my work,
traveling to both coasts on a regular basis, taking meetings,
networking, being part of an amazing Chicago theatre
community where I had spent several years as a working
actor (I'm now in LA), and working my ass off to create one
play after another, as well as several film samples of my work.
I busted my ass, and I rarely slept. (Now I rarely sleep too,
but that's a whole other matter).
Are there days when I feel like I'm cheating both my children
and my art? You bet. Are there days when I wish I could go
do a writer's retreat for a month, the way I had the luxury
to do when I was w/o kids? Absolutely. Is it harder to carve
out time to write? Hallelujah, amen. It's HARD. But I do it.
Because my goal was always to have a big life. To be the
artist I could be, to not back down from the themes, the
ideas and the craft I wanted to pursue, and to also build
a marriage and a family in the same way. I wanted a big life.
Do I work my ass off way more now than ever? Holy Christ,
you betcha. Does it pay off? Many days, yes. Some days
I wanna crawl under the covers.
Frankly, I don't know how people who can't afford help, or
start working and trying to climb the ladder when they
have their young children do it. My hat is sincerely, 100%
off to them. And I'm very jealous of my husband, who does
travel so much, who works regularly as an award winning
sound designer and composer off-Bway and at every major
regional in the country. He's living the life of the artist
I wish I could some days. On the other hand, he misses so
much back here, and it's a trade off. But as I'm paying the
bills, doing the laundry, cooking the meals, cleaning the
meals, giving baths, going to the playground, sneaking on
my computer, writing to plays and playwrights, finishing
a new script for Lifetime, trying to catch a shower and
more than 5 hours of sleep a night... I find the wherewithall
to write this note, because it's worth it to show that it
can be done, but not without effort.
Your mileage may vary.
After reading that, how can I possibly whine anymore about not having enough time or energy? I'm a slacker! I actually did add it up, once upon a time, and it turned out that I've actually been MORE productive in my writing since I've had kids than before. But it certainly doesn't always feel that way.
I've got a couple role model friends, and Jamie's definitely one of them. (Except, sadly, I need more than five hours of sleep a night.)
The Departed definitely had my pulse racing the entire time. It's a tightly crafted piece, and the performances are strong across the board (though Jack Nicholson ends up hamming it up too much for my taste). And it was fun to watch a movie set in Boston and actually filmed in Boston (since I live here). I appreciate the storytelling, and I enjoyed the complexity of the narrative, though sometimes I just wanted to get to know the two main characters better. Especially DiCaprio's character (he gets that furrowed brow look and holds it forever in this one). If you look back at my favorite Scorcese films, they've got plot, but also some real deep character explorations. The kind of depth I've also wanted to pull off but am still attempting. Still, I think The Departed is one of his better pieces, and it wasn't undeserving of the awards it won.