Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #11: Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington is an award-winning writer of plays, musicals, operas, radio plays, and her first novel, the heartbreaking and lovely Alice Bliss, has been met with critical acclaim.  She's also the mother of a daughter who recently graduated from college.  I've been a big admirer of Laura's work for the stage, and now I'm a big fan of her novel, too.  She's off in London for the paperback release of Alice Bliss right now, but took some time to answer some questions for me.

You’ve had so much success writing for the stage, both plays, musicals, and operas. What made you decide to write a novel?

A few things conspired to open up this world to me. I was given this incredible award for my music theatre work that gave me two years of writing time. Which was an awe-inspiring moment – so much validation for my theatre career coupled with so much possibility. But I didn’t immediately think: Great! I can’t wait to write my next musical. Instead I thought: This is my chance to be a beginner again, to re-connect to the creative process by trying to do something I’ve never done before. I also wanted to pick up my pen without thinking about anything other than story. No worries about the size of the cast, the cost of production, etc.

Did you find yourself able to do things in prose that you hadn’t been able to do in script form?

Yes and yes and yes. It was so liberating to be able to spend time with a character’s interior voice. I also loved being able to tell a story that unfolded slowly. And it was just plain fun to be able to play with language in new ways.

from the TN Rep production of THE PERFECT 36: "A Woman's Voice"

Your writing for stage often deals with historical topics, and isn’t necessarily grounded in strict realism or traditional styles. For Alice Bliss, for which the writing is heartbreaking and lovely, you chose to write a contemporary story, grounded in realism. How do your approaches to tackling prose and drama differ?

As for all that history: I write about what obsesses me, the things I can’t stop thinking about. In some ways, my stories choose me. I’m also drawn to the voiceless and the displaced. And I’m deeply disturbed about war and wish that I could do something to make a difference.

Is my approach to writing prose and drama really different? I’m not sure. For me it’s all about voice. Once I have the voice and the rhythm of the book, the play, the character, then I just follow it through the first draft. I’m sure that sounds overly simplistic, but it’s as though the world of the play or the book has a voice, a style, a look, a feel and so does each character’s individual voice. I’m fascinated by layering voice/ image/ sound/ smell, etc. For me writing comes from a very, very physical place, from specific physical observations, from all the senses, no matter what genre I’m in.

Your daughter is a recent college graduate. In this interview series, I’ve talked a lot to writers who are in the thick of raising kids. You’ve succeeded!

Thank you! She’s a great kid.

And you’ve written so many plays and operas. How did you do it?
I am blessed with a lot of energy and focus. People are always commenting on how self disciplined I am, but it’s more that I love my work. And, to be honest, I’m pretty driven and ambitious.

What advice can you give those parents of small children (and teenagers) who are also trying to write?

Don’t think about the big picture. Keep it simple and small and write a page a day. I love the story of Andre Dubus III writing his first book. He had 4 kids, was working construction full time and spent 20 minutes a day writing while parked at the cemetery before going home.

In some ways playwriting is ideal for short bursts of time because you really can write a play one scene at a time. I could not have written a novel while my daughter was young. It’s no accident that my writing world expanded as my daughter headed off to college.

I find that when I’m working on a novel, I need a long stretch of predictable time to write, whereas a play is so much shorter, so I can get more done in bursts. What’s your writing schedule like? Does it vary a lot, depending on whether you’re working a play, opera, or novel?

The actual writing process, the day-to-day activity of writing is the same no matter what the form. You have to show up and give yourself to it. But the book took more time, lots more time. I found I had to make my life very, very quiet in order to create the mental space for a book.

One of the best things about writing a book is that the fun part – what I think of as the honeymoon phase when you’re living inside the work – lasts longer.

It seems like Alice Bliss has really struck a chord with many readers, of various ages. You’ve attended many productions of your work for stage. How does the response from readers of Alice Bliss compare to the response you’ve had from your plays and operas?

A reader lives in the world of the book for much longer than an audience member lives in the world of a play. I would say that the response of readers has been more intense, perhaps because of that longer, more personal and more private relationship with a book.

from Pilgrim Theatre production of N (Bonaparte) directed by Kim Mancuso

Marketing a book is very different from marketing a play. These days, the author of a book bears a lot more responsibility for getting the word out, even when you’re with a large publisher. Talk about some of the lessons you’ve learned about marketing a book. Do you think they’ll have any use for you in your work for stage?

Book marketing feels very different from marketing for the theatre because - if you’re lucky - it lasts such a long time. I was working intensely on the hardcover release of Alice Bliss for a solid 6 months. And now it’s time to work on the paperback release, which will be more extensive.

Lessons learned? Getting up to speed with social media, learning how to reach out to and engage with readers and fellow writers. Learning how open and friendly and supportive novelists can be. Meeting dozens of book bloggers – a world I did not even know existed. There is a very generous spirit at the moment and the world of books feels very open. I don’t know if this openness will last, or whether it is just the first flush of all of this social media potential.

The contact and connections with other writers has been amazing and really fun. I’ve found people who are friendly, open, and supportive; I’ve met and corresponded with writers in South Africa, England, Sweden, Canada, and all over the US.

What are you working on now?

I’m about to begin work on a commission from Playwrights Horizons, to write Alice Bliss, the musical, with the composer Jenny Giering and lyricist Adam Gwon.

And I’m deep into my second book. My next novel begins with water, as Alice Bliss does. There’s a large Irish Catholic family with six kids. It’s 1966 and the Viet Nam war changes everything.

Thanks for taking the time for this, Laura!
Thank you, Pat. Always fun to talk with you. 

You can read more about Laura and her work at  www.lauraharringtonbooks.com and www.laura-harrington.com.
The next installment of the Juggler Interviews will feature a talk with Diana Renn.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Measuring Matthew Film in NYC, May 31

Measuring Matthew poster

The film version of Measuring Matthew made it into the New York Shorts Fest.  This will be my New York film debut!  It will be screened on May 31, in Program 8 at 7:30pm.  You can now buy tickets online here. The festival is at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston Street.  The screening room only seats 100, so if you're going to go, buy your tickets early. I won't be able to be there, but my producer and director will.

If you're in New York next Thursday, I hope you'll check it out.  With any luck, this will be just the first of many festival appearances around the country.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Playwriting in 3D: Playwriting and Puppetry, May 29

Next Tuesday, May 29, I'll be moderating the fourth installment in StageSource's Playwriting in 3D series.  This time we'll be talking about Playwriting and Puppetry.  We'll have an in-depth discussion at the Brookline Puppet Showplace Theatre with Roxie Myhrum, Bonnie Duncan, Faye Dupras, and Brad Shur.  And show-and-tell, too.

The use of puppets dates backs to the very beginning of theatre, and now more and more new plays and theatre productions are using puppets as ways to help tell stories. Recent examples include Paula Vogel's Long Christmas Ride Home and the production of Wild Swans at American Repertory Theatre.   The very popular Avenue Q is running right now at Lyric Stage.

The panel will discuss different uses of puppets in narrative theatre, and how writing for puppets is both similar and different from writing for live actors. Whether you're interested in writing your own puppet show or want to integrate the use of puppets into your own script/production, this is a great chance to learn from the experts.

Panelists will show examples of their own work, and there will be plenty of time for audience questions and discussion.

The cost $20 for StageSource members, $30 for non-members.

To purchase a ticket visit http://www.stagesource.org/store/product/53/

Come check it out.  We've had great discussions at the other panels and this one promises to be more interesting and fun than ever. 

(You can also help spread the word, by inviting people to the event via Facebook at the Facebook event page.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

2012 Boston Theater Marathon Round Up

I had a great time at the Boston Theater Marathon yesterday.  My daughter, Kira, and fellow Rhombus playwrights, Alexa Mavromatis and Ginger Lazarus, were part of our theatre-absorbing team.  We saw them all.  Yep, 53 plays in 10 hours. 

My play, Second Look, ran in the 6-7pm hour, and I was delighted.  It's a serious piece, and the audience was clearly with us.  The house grew very, very quiet, which is just what we needed.  Actors Charles Van Eman and Bob DeLibero did a fantastic job, under Stephen Faria's direction, of capturing the awkwardness and silent pauses in the difficult encounter portrayed in Second Look.  Much thanks to the Firehouse Center for the Arts for choosing and producing the play.

Bob DeLibero, Stephen Faria, and Charles Van Eman at rehearsal.
I was was a little concerned about how the audience would react to our piece when I first sat down and saw the program, because our hour started with Designated Sitter, by George Sauer, featuring Hannah Husband, Nael Nacer, and Ed Hoopman--and this promised to have the audience laughing.  (And it did.)  And then right before Second Look was scheduled Walt McGough's piece, The Dinosaurs Have a Request, with a cast of a dozen actors.  I'm a huge fan of Walt's work, and this promised to keep the audience chuckling.  How would we get them to settle down for Second Look?

Turns out, Walt's piece was funny, sure, but it was also extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking, and highly theatrical.  A hard act to follow, but it fully engaged the audience.  This was just what we needed and Bob and Charlie kept a tight trip on them throughout our piece.

There were many good plays and performances over the course of the evening.  Far too many to list all of them here, but besides Walt and George's pieces, here are a few that stood out for me:
  • Shrapnel by young playwright Yavni Bar-Yam. Intense play about potential high school shooters.
  • Love, Billy Bunny by Peter Floyd.  I'm a big fan of plays about obsessives, and any play that features a gun being held to the head of a stuffed bunny has my vote.
  • Kevin LaVelle completely grabbed our attention in William Donnelly's play, Animal Boat, as a former writer of children's songs turned corporate PR hack.  (This was one of Kira's favorite's, too.)
  • Ronan Noone's I Glue You showed his dark, dark sense of humor and clear love and skill with language.
  • Bob Mussett and Lynn R. Guerra shone in an intense encounter between two people who have trouble dealing with other people in Sheri Wilner's Arts and Sciences
  • Grant MacDermott made a fine playwriting debut with the heartfelt King Richards, with strong performances from Dale Place and Bob Pemberton.
  • C.J. Erlich, whom I met at the EstroGenius festival last year, gave us some great laughs with The Lilac Ticket, about an elderly married couple.  Kippy Goldfarb and Stephen Benson had terrific chemistry.
  • I was delighted to see Audrey Claire Johnson, who is in the film version of Measuring Matthew, give a strong performance as a sleepless mother in Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich's play, 3 A.M.
  • Hand Down the Chesterfield, by Tom Grady, was one of the more ambitious pieces of the day, with Michael Fordham Walker giving a fluid performance as a coat, in a play that had a complex view of time, place, and memory.
  • I like a play with a good surprise, and John Shanahan's play, Hot Water, featuring Will Lyman, Bill Mootos, and Amanda Collins, certainly made me happy.
  • Erin Striff's The As-If Sisters was a solid adoption play, and I happen to love writing and watching adoption plays.  As well as plays with Georgia Lyman in them.
  • Deirdre Girard's play, Frickin' Woodpecker, got a great cast in Steven Barkhimer and Barlow Adamson, that got this script to land with just the right gentle touch.
  • Esme Allen blew me away in The Accidents of Bread by William Orem.  I turned to Alexa and said, "who the hell was that?"  Having spent the last zillion years working on a play about the creation of the English Bible, I loved seeing someone flip out over the nature of transubstantiation.
  • And Reproduction by Elizabeth Dupre, featured some great romantic geek humor.  I adore romantic geek humor, since I might actually be a romantic geek myself (you'll have to ask Tracy for confirmation).  Excellent performances in this one by Andrew Bernap and Rachel Dulude.
 The day ran, as always, seamlessly.  The BPT staff, designers, running crew, and stage managers are special kinds of magicians and deserve high prize for this most intense juggling act.

I dragged Kira to the party afterwards.  I promised that we'd only stay 15 minutes (she protested that she needed to go home and get to bed because she had school the next day.  Pshaw!)  but of course I kept us there for almost an hour.  My wife pointed out that the BTM is basically Bring-Your-Daughter-To-Work Day for me.   [The following is apparently a secret.  Do not tell anyone:]  The BTM party is pretty much the ideal networking situation for playwrights.  There's plentiful, delicious food, cheap drinks, and LOTS of actors and directors who like working on new plays.  Is there a better place to catch up with old friends and make new contacts?  If you're a playwright working in Boston, you're a fool, a fool I say, not to go to the BTM and the party, even if you don't have a play selected.  You can scout dozens of actors, directors, and theatre companies.  What kind of new scripts interest these folks?  And then that very same night, you can hunt down the ones you like and introduce yourself, tell them how much you love their work, and give them business cards.  Seriously--you get all this for $25 (if you buy in advance).  It'd be worth that much just to go to the party alone, but no, you can watch 53 short plays, too.  It's pure insanity.   [Some playwrights are very shy and find parties painful.  The solution is to find an extroverted friend and go as a tag team.  It works.  Trust me.]

It was a great night.  I can't wait for next year!

(My apologies to playwright Erin Striff.  In the initial version of this post, I mistakenly gave writing credit for The As-If Sisters to Laura Crook, who was the director for the piece. Erin wrote the piece and North Shore Music Theatre produced.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #10: Georgia Stitt

Georgia Stitt is a composer and a lyricist. Her musicals currently in development include: Big Red Sun (NAMT Festival winner in 2010, Harold Arlen Award in 2005 and and written with playwright John Jiler); The Water (winner of the 2008 ANMT Search for New Voices in American Musical Theatre and written with collaborators Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko); Sing Me A Happy Song (a musical revue); and Mosaic (commissioned for Off-Broadway in 2010 and written with Cheri Steinkellner).  She's also released several albums, including My Lifelong Love, and is a music director.  And she's a mother of two daughters.  Together with actress Susan Egan, she writes about mixing busy musical careers with parenting in their blog, Glamour & Goop.  I was delighted that she was able to take some time to answer questions about juggling her artistic life and motherhood.

You’ve got two young daughters (how old are they now?) and also a very busy career, one that can require a lot of travel, sessions in the studio, rehearsals, performances. Plus your husband, Jason Robert Brown, is also a composer/lyricist, so you have two chaotic careers/schedules in the house. How do you balance the career stuff and motherhood?

Balancing -- it's the never-ending challenge in our household. My daughters are 6 (first grade) and 2 1/2 (starting preschool this fall). And the magical secret is that we have a nanny. After our house payment I think the nanny might be the biggest expense in our household, but there's simply no way we could pull off these two careers without her. She is a much-beloved part of our family. The gift of the third set of hands means that, for the most part, my husband and I both assume we have the traditional business hours available to work, just as if we went to an office. I schedule meetings, conference calls, rehearsals, recording sessions and writing during the hours when the nanny is on duty. And I stop working at exactly six p.m. so I can be with the kids for homework, dinner, bath, and bedtime. The mornings are great, because I work at home so I'm very aware of the rhythms of the younger daughter playing, eating, napping. And then in the afternoons, they head out. I do miss out on a lot of the after-school activity, but every few weeks I'll take the afternoon off to go watch a swimming lesson or a ballet class. And of course, if the nanny is sick, I cancel everything.

As far as the travel goes, Jason and I try as often as possible to make sure we're not out of town at the same time. In the few times when we've had to travel simultaneously, we've either taken the kids with us or hired the nanny to stay overnight. Neither is ideal, but all of the grandparents live far away so it is what it is. Getting on a plane is always hard, and I don't see how that will ever change. Theater is developed all over the country, and those of us who make theater have to travel. It is the necessary evil of this business.

Heidi Blickenstaff sings from “MOSAIC” (produced Off-Broadway, 2010)

How and when do you write and compose? Do you have a studio at home, or do you need to get out of the house? Do you have a routine that you follow, or does it vary from project to project?

Jason and I each have a sound-proof piano studio in our home. It's part of why we left New York and moved to Los Angeles. When we were young and childless we shared a one-bedroom apartment with a grand piano in the living room. We were each constantly encouraging the other one to go away so that we could be alone with the piano! When we decided to buy a house, we looked for one that had two separate spaces that we could adapt to accommodate our unique needs. My studio is the converted garage, so I do actually have to walk out the front door to go to work. I find that I usually get into the studio in the late morning, and there's the inevitable dealing with business -- returning phone calls, emails, etc. If I can get into writing mode by lunchtime I can usually have a nice long stretch of composing in the afternoon. Sometimes I come back to writing after the kids are in bed, but more often than not I'm dealing with household stuff in the evening and my creative energy is sapped.

I love the blog that you and Susan Egan write together, Glamour and Goop. In one post, you tell a great story about traveling with your kids to work on your musical at Goodspeed Musicals. How did it end up working out? It seems the ultimate juggling act to try to work on a workshop or production of a new play or musical, all while trying to manage the kids in a strange place.

It was really, really, really hard. Jason had work in New York when I had to be at Goodspeed (in Connecticut), so the kids had to come with one of us. He offered to take them (and our magnificent nanny) to New York, but we knew that I would have better housing and the temporary school situation in CT seemed more manageable than in Manhattan. My eldest daughter enrolled in public school a few miles away from the theater, and I drove her to class each morning before rehearsal. Any production or collaborator meetings we needed to have after rehearsal had to happen in my living room, because I had to let the nanny have SOME time off each day. I requested an electric keyboard for my bedroom, and I stayed up very late at night doing the orchestrations and rewrites for the next day's rehearsal. For five weeks I was underslept and anti-social but my kids, who are troopers, really loved being in New England in the fall. (The pumpkins! The leaves! The hayrides! The apples!) Just as I was about to say "never again," I realized how happy everyone was. It is an experience we will all remember. And the truth is, if I had said no, the production of that show wouldn't have happened. So that's how it goes. We've taken the kids across the country countless times, and they've been to Denmark, to London, to Australia. It's an adventure, to be sure, and every trip is different.

How do you find that being a mother has changed your approach to writing and composing? Both in terms of how you create and what you create. Your album, My Lifelong Love, seems so clearly influenced by motherhood, as is the work you did with Susan Egan on The Secret of Happiness.

I really think the biggest change in HOW I write is about time management, as described above. The change in WHAT I write is bigger. I always challenge myself to write about things in ways I haven't heard them said before. And as I entered this phase of my life and my career, I realized that most of the songs about mothers and children were written by men. (I mean, come on, most of the songs about everything are written by men.) So I figured I had this unique opportunity to describe something that was very real and all-consuming to me with a voice that was truthful but under-represented. I walk the line very carefully -- I want to write from a distinctly personal and feminine point of view, but I don't want to be a "girl writer." If all I wrote about was motherhood I would turn into my own little cabaret show. But I see the world through the eyes of a mother, a wife, a daughter, a writer, a former Southerner, a liberal Democrat, a church-goer, an almost-forty-year-old, a student... Somewhere in there is my voice.

Susan and I had a lot of fun putting the two albums together at the same time. We are in similar chapters in our lives -- former New Yorkers living in southern California and raising our daughters. Our collaboration -- the blog, the concerts, the albums -- all comes from exploring where those shared experiences meet.

You’ve managed to keep working, thriving really, while still being fully engaged as a mother. But the demands of working the theatre are intense and it’s not exactly known as being a family-friendly business. We lose a lot of promising artists in our field as they hit the age where they’re trying to have a family. Is there something that development or producing organizations could to be more accessible (or at least understanding) or artists with children?

It's lovely to read that you think I'm thriving. I think I'm barely coming up for air. I'm very aware that when my younger daughter starts school this fall I'll have my days back in a way that I don't have them right now, and I am trying to make sure that I'm up on the business I left behind seven years ago. I moved away from New York at exactly the same time I first got pregnant, and a lot of what I've done in the meantime is just try to stay relevant. I am active on social media because it makes people think about who you are and what you do, especially when you spend your days in a studio or a nursery or a carpool. I have to say, the organizations I've worked for have been very accommodating at every step along the way. I've nursed in recording studios, I've spread blankets and babies on the floor of rehearsal rooms, I've hired sitters in cities where the only contacts I had were the stage managers of my shows. What I won't do anymore is travel for something I don't believe in, or take a job that costs more in childcare than it returns in satisfaction. And if I'm going to have to miss bedtime, it better be good.

If it ever entered my mind to stop writing and focus more exclusively on parenting, it didn't last long. I would be a very cranky mother if I stopped working. I have convinced myself that it's important to show my girls what it looks like to be in pursuit of a dream. For all the good and all the bad, they seem to understand what I do and how much it means to me.

What are you working on now?

I have two musicals that are in various stages of development -- BIG RED SUN is a story about a teenager looking for his father in post WWII America, and the songs draw from the wildly different musical sounds of the 40s and the 60s. SING ME A HAPPY SONG is a book musical about five contemporary characters who are more technologically connected than ever but find actual human connection elusive. Beyond that, and the ongoing concerts with Susan Egan, I'm writing a musical this summer for TADA!, a children's theater in NYC, and I'm the composer in residence at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church here in California. I have the beginnings of a few new projects that are just starting to crack out of their shells, but I'm protecting them until they reveal themselves more fully. It's sort of like being pregnant again... but actually not like that at all.

Thanks much for taking the time to do this! Good luck with all your upcoming projects! 

Georgia will appear in concert with Susan Egan, this upcoming Monday, May 21st, in New York at Birdland, at 7pm, 315 W 44th Street.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Boston Theatre Marathon this Sunday, May 20!

I look forward to the Boston Theater Marathon all year.  For me, it’s like the theatrical version of the Patriots or the Red Sox in the playoffs.  I don’t like to miss a minute.  For a single day, a huge swath of the Boston and New England theatre community comes together to show off their stuff.  Last year, I dragged Kira (then 16) and fellow Rhombus playwright, Alexa Mavromatis (who didn’t actually require dragging), to the Marathon and we watched every one of the fifty plays.  We packed snacks, we stretched, we took notes, we chatted with friends between sets, and we soaked it all in.

We’ll be there again this year.  My play, Second Look, will be in the 6-7pm slot, directed by Steve Faria and produced by the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport.  I saw a rehearsal last week, and they're doing a great job with it.  I can't wait to see it on Sunday.

The minute the lights go down, there’s that flicker of electricity that comes at the start of any show.  But at the Marathon, you get a new jolt every hour, with each new set of plays.  Fifty scripts by fifty different writers (fifty-three this year, because fifty just wasn’t enough), directed by fifty different directors, produced by fifty different theatre companies.  It’s rare in any city to see companies of all different sizes putting their work on the same stage—but at the Marathon, they all play together, as peers.

But wait, there’s more.  You get to watch all these interesting new plays and fantastic New England actors, and it’s all for a good cause.  Yep, the money raised is for the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund (TCBF), which gives financial relief to members of the theatre community in crisis—people facing extreme illness, flood, fire, theft.  TCBF gives out thousands of dollars every year.  And the Theater Marathon helps make all that possible.

So you can go for fun, or to socialize, or to help theatre folk in need.  Or all three.  But whatever you do, don’t miss it.  Get your tickets HERE.

(A version of this post appeared on the StageSource blog, too.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Civilian's Guide to Book Publishing (i.e. how you can help your writer friends)

[Clawback]Tokyo Heist by Diana Renn
 (Book covers of newly released books by some of my friends.)

This post is not for all you artsy types who already know the ins and outs of the business of publishing.  You don't need to read this.  Go do something artistic.  (And if you have a book coming out, tell your civilian friends to come read this post.  Seriously--send them here, and then they'll know what to do.)

This is for normal folks who just happen to have a close friend or relative who after years of toil and struggling (and perhaps a little whining) has landed a book contract.  Now that book is about to be released, and you want to know how to help.

Unless you've got a spare million bucks, you're probably not going to help make this book a bestseller.  But the good news is: you actually can help, even if you're not a blogger or book reviewer.  Some of those ways cost some money (but not a lot) and most won't cost a cent (and not even much of your time).

Let's start with the kind of help that takes a little cash:

  • Buy the book.  Simple enough.  But when and where you buy that book can increase the helpfulness of that purchase.   
    1.  Buy it as close to the release date as possible (pre-order if you can).  The first few weeks in the life of a book have a big effect on the book's future.  Everyone is watching those numbers, especially the publisher and booksellers.  Strong early numbers might lead to additional marketing support, extra orders, or even an additional print run.  Books that don't get sold in the first few weeks have a good chance of being remaindered (returned to the publisher).  New books, it turns out, are highly perishable.  If they don't sell, you won't see them on the shelf again.  Ever.
    2. Buy it from a bookstore.  Sure Amazon is easier and cheaper.  But that's because they demand huge, unsustainable discounts.  Which screws the writer.  Your friend will get more money from a book sold at a bookstore.  You also help that store stay in business (Amazon doesn't need your help).  And, if the bookstore sees that the book is selling, they will order more, and might display it more prominently.  Many cities have local bestseller lists.  You can look in your newspaper to figure out which stores report sales to create those lists (unless your paper is the New York Times).  Buy from a bookstore whose sales factor into those lists.
    3. But it from a bookstore at a reading.  This makes the bookstore happy and makes your friend happy.  (More about readings below.)
    4. If you can't buy it from a bookstore, it's okay to buy it from Amazon.  But do buy it.
(Total Cost:  about $25 for a hardcover, $15 for paperback.)

  • Buy more copies.  Duh.  "But," you say, "I can only read it once."  Ah, but you have other friends and family, and they need gifts.  Birthdays, Christmas, Hanukkah, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Arbor Day.  My friend, Laura Harrington, wrote a terrific novel, Alice Bliss, that came out last year.  Guess what the book lovers on my list got for Christmas?  The thing is, when they know that it's written by a friend of yours, they'll appreciate the book even more.  It has meaning. And they might help spread the word.  Some people are shy about giving a book by a writer that no one has ever heard of.  But do it for your friend.  Your other friends and family will thank you for sharing a terrific new book with them, and you don't have to spend hours and hours tramping around the mall or trolling the internet figuring out what to get them.
  • (Total cost:  $25 and up.  The more the merrier.)
  • Throw a book party. This one takes a little more cash and effort on your part.  But your friend has been running herself ragged, trying to promote her book.  You can help by inviting over a dozen friends, going to Trader Joes and buying some wine and cookies, and throwing a little party.  It can be very low key.  No pressure to buy, you just want to celebrate her accomplishment (but make sure some books are on hand and a bunch of book marks).
  • (Total cost:  $30-$75, plus a couple hours of your time.)

That's really it.  I mean, you can buy an ad in the New York Times Sunday Book Section (please do), if you really want to.  But these basics make a huge difference.

There are a LOT of things you can do to help your friend's book that don't cost a cent, and will make a huge difference.  Here are a few:
  1. Post about the book on Facebook and Twitter, with a link to the Amazon page for the book or to your friend's web site.  If a writer has ten friends who each post an enthusiastic recommendation for the book, and those people each have 200 Facebook friends, we're taking 2,000 people who have now heard about the book.  Don't say things you don't mean (if it's not the best book you've ever read, don't claim it as such), but this isn't the time for critical comments either (i.e. "my friend Pat just published a highly flawed novel--it's a slog, but please help him stay off food stamps").  Do post about it a few times--there's a rule of thumb in marketing that it takes three exposures to a new product for a customer to actually notice it.  (Time required:  3-5 minutes.  You can spare that for your pal, can't you?)
  2. "Like" and "share" your friend's Facebook posts about the book, and retweet her tweets about it.  Especially posts about positive reviews or events. This is super easy and takes almost no time, but it boosts the effectiveness of all of your friend's marketing efforts.  Again, if an author has ten friends actively doing this on social media, those posts suddenly become much more visible to the rest of the world.  (Time required:  2-10 minutes, over the course of a few weeks.  At most.)
  3. Write a review on Amazon or GoodReads (or elsewhere).  This only applies if you liked the book.  (If you don't like the book, do your friend a favor and keep that news to yourself.)  It doesn't need to be a huge review, and it doesn't need to have a plot summary.  Just mention a few things that you liked about it and rate the book.  This is a BIG help, because many people are reluctant to buy a product online that hasn't gotten many reviews.  (Time required:  5-10 minutes.  Of course, you have to read the book first, but you were going to do that anyway.)
  4. Request a copy of the book from your public library.  If they don't have it, you can request it.  In most cases, you can do this very quickly online.  (Time required:  2 minutes.  Maybe an extra 3-5 minutes to figure out how to request it.)
  5. Suggest it to your book club.  This can mean a whole bunch of sales.  And maybe your friend can be a special guest, either in person or via Skype.  (Time required:  2 minutes.)
  6. Comment on blog posts about the book.  You won't have to work too hard to find them, because your friend will post links on Facebook or Twitter.  Your job is to follow the link, read the guest blog post or interview, and post a comment.  It doesn't have to be a long comment, but comments on posts helps capture additional attention.   And it lets your friend know that you care, and that's worth something too.  (Time required:  3-5 minutes per comment, max.)
  7. Show up at a reading.  If your friend gives a reading in your area, but sure to show up.  And don't come alone.  Bring a neighbor or co-worker.  These events can be tough to promote for the author, and they're demoralizing for the writer and bookstore if no one shows up.  (Time required:  2 hours.)
  8. Carry the book around.  That's right, for one week, try walking around with the book in hand, when you're going from place to place.  And talk to people about it.  (This one's hard for introverts, I know.)  If you can't do it for a week, try doing it for just one day, and try to commit to talking to one person person about the book.  Your friend has poured her soul into that book, and all you need to do is have a thirty second conversation about it.  (Time required:  depends on how you look at it.  30 seconds per conversation.  Carrying the book around, well, that's just a little extra exercise for you.)

These simple tasks won't take much of your time, but they could help boost sales for the book.  The key thing is to do them as soon as you can after the release date, to start building positive buzz.  And try to get your other friends to do the same.  If your author friend has five or ten people each taking the steps, it will definitely have an impact.

You can make a difference.  On behalf of your writer friends:  Thanks!

(Writer types, if you're still here, feel free to chime with comments on other suggestions for simple ways your friends can help.)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

the Juggler Interviews, #9: Mark Dunn

This week I got to talk with Mark Dunn, whom I first met in the late '90s, when we were both having our plays produced in Denver, directed by the same director.  We stayed in touch and become friends over the years.  In terms of juggling writing for different media, Mark has always been an inspiration and role model for me, moving effortlessly from writing mostly plays to writing a variety of books (including one of my very favorite novels, Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters ). 

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, you were getting a lot of productions, at small and mid-size theatres across the country. Belles and Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain were getting a lot of productions . You had a dozen full-length plays published by Samuel French, DPS and Dramatic Publishing. And then your first novel, Ella Minnow Pea, came out and was a big hit. Ella Minnow Pea has been followed by a whole string of books—what was the transition like, moving from writing plays to books (and moving, physically, from New York to Albuquerque)?

The transition was stranger than I expected.  I went from working exclusively in a very artistically collaborative medium to one in which the writer has to do most of the heavy lifting.  I often make the comparison when I'm teaching writing workshops between the playscript serving as a blueprint which then is taken by the director and the actors and from which the physical play is constructed -- contrasted with a novel which serves as the creative entity itself and lives or dies only on the basis of the text itself upon the page.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each: as a playwright I like working with people who bring their own forms of creativity and artistic insight into the mix.  Together we create this (hopefully) beautiful piece of theatre that takes its author's original story idea and shapes it into something that everyone has a stake in.  (And woe to the playwright who gets too proprietary about his work.)  But a novelist doesn't get to benefit from the overlay of other talents and perspectives, except in terms of editorial input.  And I've had editors who were very hands-off.  I've had the other kinds of editors, as well, resulting in (in one sad case) clashing visions that resulted in my publishing house siding with my editor and dropping the book altogether.  The physical move from New York to New Mexico paralleled my shift in large part from writing plays to books.  I drew a lot of creative energy as a playwright from living in a theatre town like New York.  But an author can pen his books anywhere, so my wife and I picked a place that was quieter and little more sedate than the Big Apple.  The irony is that I really did want to keep my hand in and perhaps write a new play every year or so and suddenly I had entered a community in which being in the theatre was considered more of an avocation than a vocation.  To put it bluntly, I moved to a town with an enormous number of community theatres, and very little opportunities for professional playwrights to develop new work.

Was Ella Minnow Pea the first novel that you wrote, or the first that was published?

Ella was my first published novel, but I had written Welcome to Higby several years before.  After Ella was published, my publisher asked what I'd be working on next, and I handed him Higby.  It worked out pretty well, although the books being so different from each other, spoke to different sets of readers (and some fans of my "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable Ella Minnow Pea" were looking for something similar and instead, I gave them a book about a small town in Mississippi).

How long did it take for you to find a publisher for Ella?

Quite a while.  I couldn't get an agent for an odd book like Ella and had a hard time landing this unagented novel with a publisher.  Most of the queries to both agents and publishers (for which I received responses) met with form-letter rejections.  Good luck was eventually on my side, though.  MacAdam/Cage had just opened its doors the year before and was still hungry for manuscripts, even to the point of accepting unsolicited manuscripts from unrepresented authors.  Even MacAdam/Cage doesn't do that today.  Interestingly, when the hardback did well and there was a bidding war among several of the large publishing houses for the paperback rights, I had a private laugh over the fact that each of these publishers participating in the auction for Ella's paperback rights, had rejected the book when I had first queried them about it.

It seemed like for a while you dived headfirst into writing books, but you’ve managed to keep your hand in theatre. What makes it so hard to leave playwriting?

Many of the things I noted above, but I should also say that as one who is basically a storyteller, and a storyteller who first learned to tell stories through dialogue, playwriting has always been a comfortable vehicle for me.  As a writer who enjoys challenges, I've always felt that the idea of holding an audience's interest for two hours through people simply talking to one another on a stage was a challenge that I especially loved.

Do you find it difficult, as a writer, to go back and forth, or is it actually helpful?

These days I make that transition fairly easily.  It's like an artist who spends part of his time painting in oil and part of his time painting in watercolor, which requires two very different techniques, but after a while you get used to the adjustments.  With plays I work small and work concise.  There's an economy of words that must be respected.  My canvas is much, much larger with my novels and I have the chance to explore the contours of my novels' characters, which I can't do with my play characters.  My latest book, though, offers an interesting challenge -- American Decameron is 100 short stories.  As I've worked through these stories, I've found that I've had to apply some of my playwriting rules of saying much with fewer words.  But in large part that's just a difference between long form writing and short form writing -- the same way that my one-act plays require a different approach than my full length plays.

Do you find that you have more freedom to challenge yourself and your audience when writing books? When I look at some of the work you’ve done, Ella Minnow Pea, Ibid , Under the Harrow , and your upcoming American Decameron, it seems like you’ve set up extremely difficult situations for yourself as a writer (for example, in Ella Minnow Pea, you are forced to progressively use fewer and fewer letters of the alphabet, Ibid is told entirely in footnotes), and the reader gets sucked in with seeing whether you can pull it off. It’s so cool that you’re able to write like this, yet at the same time, it seems like the publishing industry is becoming more risk-averse in terms of what they’ll publish. This would seem especially difficult for a writer like you, who is not writing in an established genre. What’s your take on the state of American publishing right now?

And that pretty much defines where I am right now.  I do really enjoy the constraints and the challenges and the chance to do things that few if any authors have done before.  I can safely say that no author has ever written a book about a disappearing alphabet in which the alphabet literally disappears from the book as it goes along.  Ella Minnow Pea has now become fodder for literary trivia -- a weird but fun honor.  But because I tend to do things that have few comparables, it puts me in an awkward and mostly unfortunate situation with regard to extremely risk-averse and conservative publishers (which pretty much defines all of the medium to large-size houses right now.)  American Decameron was rejected by one editor after another when my agent started sending it around because it was a big book, because it was comprised of short stories in a day in which very few short story collections are being published (not that A.D. is a "collection" in the traditional sense), because it can't be easily described by an editor to those of her superiors who will ultimately decide its fate.  And that's the problem with the industry right now.  Hard economics has made it much more difficult to take on a book that may have the potential to break out on its own and turn itself into a publishing phenomenon, but also could end up falling far short and lose the house money.  So what we have is fear and parochialism in the industry.  Something similar, I noticed, happened with my published plays over the last four years of this recession.  The community theatres that generally license my work from the play catalogs stopped scheduling plays in their seasons that weren't in what I call the "cobweb canon."  We saw a lot of productions around the country of old plays (often tired, old plays) with familiar titles.  Most of my plays don't have familiar titles and so my playwriting revenue went into a several-year slump.

You’ve written one book for kids, The Age Altertron (Calamitous Adventures of Rodney and Wayne, Cosmic Repairboys) . How did you approach writing for a younger audience?

I put myself as best I could into the head of the young pre-teen reader.  I kept the language simple but not patronizingly so.  What worked best for me is writing the kind of book that I would have enjoyed reading when I was twelve.  But it definitely required the shifting of a few gears.  Then again, I shift gears a lot.  Every book I write requires its own voice and its own storytelling tool box.

I love that you’ve been able to do some non-fiction work—you wrote ZOUNDS!: A Browser's Dictionary of Interjections and you and your wife, Mary, put together the comprehensive, United States Counties. Again, you seem able to make some big, fun leaps into other types of projects. How do you balance it all? Do you tend to have a lot of projects running all at once?

I actually do work on more than one project at a time -- unless I have a deadline that forces me to concentrate on one particular book or play until I'm finished.  I shuffle through them in such a way that I keep myself engaged and energized on each one.  Maybe that's why I'm allowed to tell people that I don't get writer's block.  If I find myself getting to a point where I'm going to have work myself through a tough spot, I move to something else and then come back.  Often my return involves backing up a few chapters or pages and then going at it with a running start.  I also have projects that I've set aside, that I like to come back to from time to time.  My maxim usually is that anything I write can be made better if I keep working on it.  It's only my published work that I'm not allowed to tinker with anymore.  On occasion I've taken work out that's ten, twelve years old and now with a more mature eye, I can reshape it in a way that makes it more satisfying for me.

What is your writing schedule like for a novel, a book of non-fiction, a play? Does it vary a lot?

The non-fiction can be a slog.  The county encyclopedia as the exception to all my usual rules was like working each day in a salt mine.  On the other hand I usually am having so much fun with my books and plays that it's hard to pull myself away when I'm "in the zone."  People wonder why I'm able to write such long books.  Under the Harrow, for example is 200,000 words, and American Decameron will be 250,000.  In large part it's because I really enjoy spending time with the characters I've created.  I'm also not averse to research and so many of my books have been pretty heavily researched.  I like discovering things in my research that will serve my story and characters and even sometimes shift things in an unexpected new direction.

How do you organize the research that you do? (I’m using Scrivener now and really like it.) I’d love to hear about the tools that you use. You worked for a long time at the New York Public Library. Did you learn any good tricks there?

I use no tools beyond the cerebral ones I've acquired through trial and error and intuition.  For the county encyclopedia Mary and I created a large WORD database divided into state folders and county files and using the same template into which to plug in information and text, so that at the end of the day, the county articles were nearly written from the assembly of information in each file.  But I'm an old fashioned researcher.  I've spent thousands of hours sitting in library reading rooms with either my laptop or pencils and spiral-bound notebooks, jotting down facts that I felt might be useful in my plays and fiction projects.  I'm an armchair cultural historian of the 20th century, so often I was building around information I already knew.  With respect to my last novel, Under the Harrow, it was necessary for me to sit with the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1880s and browse through nearly every page to get a sense as to what it was that my characters would know, since they were quarantined neo-Victorians who had only this encyclopedia, a Bible, and the novels of Dickens from which to create the lions' share of their world-knowledge.  In the course of all that browsing, I discovered several things that furthered the plot of my novel such as the fact that the encyclopedia had quite a few translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics words and phrases (plot point!), or that there were little snippets of Victorian poetry throughout.  I was surprised to learn that as far back as the late 1880s most scientists had a strong feeling that the invention of lighter-than-aircraft was only a few years away.  How prescient was that!

What projects are you working on right now? (Weren’t you working on a board game at one point? Wasn’t there going to be a musical of Ella Minnow Pea?).

In between working on edits of American Decameron, I've been spending time with an old play from around 2000 that I didn't do much with back then, as well as a science fiction Young Adult novel I've been working on now and then for the last eight years.  Alas, I had to give up my quixotic dream of becoming a game designer since there is no more competitive industry on this planet and especially in this day in which Hasbro has cornered 90 percent of the board game market (and has its own in-house designers).  Not that I don't have at least five games either prototyped or living in my head.  The Ella Minnow Pea musical premiered about three years ago at the University of Michigan and its book writer/lyricist and composer have taken it through a few more rewrites before hooking up with a theatre company in New York where I believe it's slated for a workshop production next year.  I'm not too well looped into the project at this point.  They just keep paying their option every year and I try to make sure it doesn't get too expensive for them since they're very talented and I'd love to see them eventually get a good New York production.

Thanks, Mark!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

my first look at Measuring Matthew and T Plays announcement

Tonight I'll get to see the film version of Measuring Matthew for the first time, at a screening for the cast and crew.  I haven't seen any of the assembled edit yet, so I'm curious, nervous, and excited.

There's other good news coming up, most of which isn't quite ready for public announcement quite yet, but I did find out that I'll be writing for Mill 6's T Plays in June, featuring plays written on and about the T.  I love writing for this series, and the other plays I've created for it, Recognition and Escape to Wonderland, have gone on to be produced in other theatres around the country.  Can't wait to see what we come up with this time.
 The T Plays, coming in September 2008