My First Podcast

I just participated in a workshopping of a 10-minute play as part of the Ten Minute Play Workshop, and the workshop was audio recorded for podcast. I’ve never been part of a podcast before. (Yes, I realize for many of you it is a routine way of life, but not for me.) As someone who can’t stand to hear or see recording of herself, I doubt I could make myself listen to it, but for friends interested in (a) playwriting, (b) theatre in general, and/or (c) what I sound like here is the link. (There is also a blog write-up if you don’t want to listen.)

Writing for Stage & Screen

My technique for writing stage- and screenplays is a bit different from prose because while prose is a solo job, stage and screen work is, at the end of the day, a collaboration. Or it will be if you’re lucky enough to find anyone who wants to produce what you’ve written.

I hear a lot about writers who throw tantrums any time someone wants to change something in a script. I prefer to remain relatively flexible. I’m no carpet—I don’t let people walk on me—but I’m open to suggestions, so long as they’re made in good faith and spirit. I’ve found, to my great luck and benefit, that though there are some real creeps out there, a lot of people want to help. And when you’re all in it together, no one wants to fail. So when “creative differences” arise, it usually has more to do with one person’s vision of the work butting up against another person’s. I try to see both, or all if there are several. And remarkably enough, sometimes other people do have good ideas.

The other thing about writing for stage and screen versus published prose is that when I’m writing prose I try to make sure to fill in all the little details. I have to, in order to make sure the reader can “see” what I’m seeing. I am the only storyteller involved in such an effort, and the readers rely on me to give them the whole picture. But when writing for actors and directors, I like to leave a little wiggle room, places for them to play around and find what will work for them. I’ve noticed they like and appreciate that. My attitude generally is that I give them everything they need to do the job and tell the story while leaving them places to embroider. Or, to use another metaphor, I serve the meat and they select the sauce(s). Though I, as writer, do get a final say on the flavor.

Again, I get some flak for this from other writers who think I should be in complete control of my “vision.” Well, if I want to write and direct and star in it maybe . . . But these are writers who also insert every camera shot and angle into their scripts. And potential directors see that and shudder. Not the way to get your stuff produced.

I’m almost done with the script I’ve been asked to write. Soon I will send it off to the director/producer and the collaboration will begin. He’ll have some ideas and notes. I will take or leave them. We will agree or disagree. It is a complex conversation as opposed to a one-sided lecture. And that is the difference between prose, which is a narration, and stage or film work, which is the result of many dialogues.

“Casting” Your Characters

When writing something, I usually find (often without realizing it until well into my story) that I’ve “cast” an actor in at least one, if not more, of the chief roles. For example, the screenplay I’m writing now is based on a play I wrote last year, and somewhere in between starting and finishing writing that play, I realized it was Ewan McGregor’s voice in my head as the main character. A young Ewan McGregor, mind, since the characters are not long out of university, but him all the same.

With The K-Pro I had Benedict Cumberbatch in mind for David Styles, though in retrospect, were I to cast this as a film, I’m not sure I’d give him the part. Later in the story, I sort of had Emily Blunt in mind for Liz, and certainly Judy Dench as David’s mother . . . Everyone else I picture quite clearly but haven’t really found comparable actors for the roles. (Maybe that guy who played Lutz on 30 Rock for Craig?)

Of course, if you ever see a movie based on a book, it always fashions (or refashions) your mental image of the book. Sometimes, if I’ve read a book and then see the movie, I end up with two separate ideas in my head: my original and the one that has been fabricated for the multitudes. If I see the movie before I read the book, I’ll almost always simply picture events from the film version as I read. (Almost always.)

And then it’s somewhat surreal to see something you’ve written become a cast and produced—a concrete play or film. That changes things, too. I don’t know what I’ll think or feel when they make this screenplay (they’ve already cast one lead) . . . Will I keep picturing Ewan McGregor or will I be able to shift my interior perspective? I’ll literally have to wait and see.

“Ladies of December” to be Workshopped

Ten Minute Play Workshop has invited me to workshop my play “Ladies of December.” It’s scheduled for June 2.

I know the play needs tweaking. I’m fond of the banter between Jane [Austen] and Emily [Dickinson], but the end probably needs punching up, and maybe the characters need to more fully investigate the reason they are where they are. Maybe I could turn them into sleuths! Hmm . . .

At least I find it easier to hear criticism when I’m ready for it rather than when I think the work is already pretty good as it is. That’s hard for me, because I’m a perfectionist at heart. I tend to think, by the time I release something I’ve written into the wild, that it’s as close to perfect as it could or will ever be. I must always remind myself that even the best writers are myopic in their visions of their works. There’s a reason one needs readers and proofreaders, &c.

People liken writing to giving birth, and it’s true. But try to remember that a baby, when born, is still something of a mess. Nurses take it and clean it and weigh it. They advise you how to care for the child. And then you take it home and feed it and change it and teach it to walk. There’s work in giving birth, even beyond labor. And that “child” is yours for life, so you want to teach it well and eventually send it out into the world as a solid, fully formed citizen that you can be proud of.

In other news, got this in the mail yesterday:

stpeter_script

The Sundance readers signed a copy of the script for me and sent an audio of the table read.

And though I’ve been a bit depressed lately, good things are foretold by my garden. The first tulip of the season:

And this outside my window:

The Goal of Writing

Many people will tell you the goal of writing is to tell a story. Preferably a good story. And bonus points if you tell it well.

Those people are wrong.

The goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the minds of others. It’s done with words, but the picture is the goal.

In a sense, every writer is a cinematographer. Every writer wants to make you see what s/he sees. Artists do it with paint, photographers with cameras (used to be film, but no more), writers with words. A picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps, but what’s lovely about using words instead of paint or film is the fluidity. A painting or photograph is static, even when it gives the impression of movement. But words are always in motion. And no two people will visualize the exact same thing, not until that book becomes a movie anyway.

So if the goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the mind of the reader . . . And yet the reader will never be able to see it exactly as the writer does . . . Doesn’t that mean all writing is a failure? Maybe. But it’s wonderfully freeing to know, as a writer, that there is no exactly right way to do your job. Only that some ways are better than others. And it’s freeing for the reader, too, to know there is no right way to do his or her job, either. (Unless you’re reading for English Lit class and your instructor has very definite ideas about things. But that’s something else again.)

At the end of the day, a writer should be trying to make himself or herself clear to the reader. If I’m picturing two people at a restaurant, it’s easy to say that much. But now everyone is picturing two random people in various types of restaurants: Is it upscale? A dive? Is it day or night? Two men? A man and a woman? Two women? Are they friends, lovers, enemies, coworkers?

When writing a script, each scene begins with a “slug” that tells the director (and location scouts, and art department, etc.) where and when the characters are. For example:

INT. DAVID’S BEDROOM – DAY

When writing prose, you can’t start every scene this way; it would be silly. But you should start with it in mind so that the reader knows where s/he is and what s/he’s looking at.

In a script, if it is the first time you’ve seen a location, there will be a description. Not too detailed—broad strokes except when something is important to the plot. What does David’s bedroom look like?

Remarkably tidy room, blank walls; looks unused, impersonal as a hotel room except for the stack of library books on the floor beside the bed.

That’s how I might write it as part of a script; in prose, I would naturally not pare it down quite so much. But that little bit already says a lot about David, doesn’t it? Readers (or viewers) suddenly know more about him in that brief bit of description than any amount of dialogue might have conveyed. (And the director, the actor, the art department all know more, too.)

Because prose changes locations without a transitioning camera, it’s even more important to make it clear to a reader where the characters are, what they are passing through. The reader can’t see it if you don’t put it on the page. And with nothing to “look” at, the reader becomes lost in a kind of void. I read a story recently that had people in a car, then in a restaurant, then going on to another location. Back in the car, I assumed, though it wasn’t clear. And when at one point a character went to set something down, I found myself thinking: Setting it down where? Where are they? I was lost. I was not seeing the picture the writer was trying to paint for me.

Every writer uses words to paint pictures. Poets, novelists, screenwriters, playwrights. In the cases of screenwriters and playwrights, the goal is to have those pictures made real, either on stage or screen. (At that point, like a painting or photograph, the screen version becomes static and definitive. The stage, however, remains fluid, as there can be many interpretations of the material, and even differences within the same production from night to night.) Admittedly, novelists may wish to have movies made of their books as well. But first things first: you have to paint a picture for your readers. You have to make them see it. When they can see it, they can feel it, they can connect. And that is the goal.

January Recap

So, here are the stats for January. In the “wins” column:

  • My short script took grand prize in Table Read My Screenplay
  • . . . and had a table read at Sundance
  • Producers are reading my scripts now
  • . . . and one wants to chat with me next week
  • It was the best month yet for my Amazon Kindle books

As for “losses”:

  • Two rejections for my plays
  • Three rejections from literary agents
  • One of the publishers who was supposed to publish some of my work folded (and so my work will go unpublished, at least through them)
  • More of my work failed to make the finals in another competition

In short, the wins are more amorphous than the losses, which are rather concrete. It’s hard to get excited about the idea something may come of something; I like to have the bird in my hand before I celebrate having caught it.

Hopefully I’ll be able to cement some wins in February. Besides chatting with a producer, I’ll be attending the San Francisco Writers Conference. And The K-Pro will release some time in February, too, though I’m not yet ready to announce a date.

Playwriting Opportunity: Call for Monologues

Suitcase Theatre is calling for new monologues to be included in their forthcoming production at Clwyd Theatr Cymru Mold in July 2013.

1. Each monologue should be written for performance in a theatre, by a single actor on stage, and should have a playing time of at least 5 minutes but not more than 10 minutes.

2. The monologue should be new, original and previously unperformed, and should be complete in itself, without being an extract from a longer work or an adaptation from another medium.

3. Three monologues are required to form part of an evening’s entertainment on the theme of “Television” – the whole programme to include two new plays, one a satire on game shows, the other an improbable comedy. The monologues will therefore relate to this theme. It is envisaged that actors will deliver the monologues as if to camera.

4. Although the monologues will be essentially verbal, writers should feel free to utilise props and costumes. However there will be no scenery as such, and writers should avoid complicated use of doors, windows and so on. It will be possible to “divide” the monologue into “scenes” through the use of lighting, but this is not essential.

5. The monologues will be performed in the Emlyn Williams Theatre, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold during the week beginning 8th July 2013, and scripts should be submitted to Mike Stevens at mike.suitcasetheatre@hotmail.co.uk to arrive before midday on Monday February 25th 2013.

6. Suitcase Theatre will audition actors, including the writers themselves should they wish, to perform the scripts, and these auditions will be held initially on Wednesday February 27th 2013.

7. The panel selecting the monologues for performance will consist of Anna Turner, Artistic Director and Steph Phillips, Assistant Director, who will direct the monologues, and Michael Stevens, Suitcase Theatre Company Manager.

8. Writers whose work is chosen will be able to attend rehearsals and may be asked to re-draft elements of their piece in conjunction with discussions with the director.

A writer may submit more than one monologue for consideration, but each piece should have a title and be signed off as the original work of the writer whose name appears with it.

What Goes Up . . .

I spoke too soon on a previous post about how wonderful the year has been so far. Well, it has been wonderful, but we’re also only 15 days in, so . . .

As they say, “What goes up must come down.” Well. I’ve had one of my plays rejected (and then to add insult to injury, they keep sending me notices about the other plays that have been short-listed for production). And I’ve had a brush off by an agent. You know the kind: “Thanks but no thanks, have a nice life.” Sometimes I do think I’d rather they not respond at all.

Well, whatever. This table read is coming up in ten days, and even if nothing more comes of it, it’s still an accomplishment, right? To have your script read at Sundance? (Please tell me it is. I’m looking for some encouragement here.) And maybe, just maybe, I’ll network with some cool people at the San Francisco Writers Conference next month. In fact, it’s exactly one month from today that I’ll be going. So that’s good, too. Right? Right?

It’s hard not to feel your heart crack a little whenever the weight of a rejection is laid upon it. I realize it’s part of the process, and that strong hearts are required for exactly this reason. But sometimes it’s too much in too little a time. Bad news in threes? Should I expect one more rejection soon?

Sigh.

Onward then. Back to work. It’s all I can do, just keep trudging forward.

Goals

Just like last year, I thought I’d set some [writing] goals for myself this year and see what I can accomplish over the next twelve months. So here, in no particular order:

  • Edit & publish The K-Pro
  • Finish writing & publish “St. Peter at the Gate”
  • Draft at least one new novel (either Pretend You Love Me or An Astral Affair)
  • Finish my Henry II play
  • Write at least two more Sherlock Holmes stories
  • Finish my zombie television pilot spec script

It’s a pretty ambitious list, I realize. And there are still other projects in the wings not listed here. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it all, but I’m going to try!

2012 in Review

I always thought 2012 might be a big year for me, and it was in many ways, though somehow it feels less significant than I hoped it would be. I realize this sounds foolish, ridiculous even, given the huge life changes this year brought, but . . . I don’t know. Maybe because I expected the year to be important, the fact these big things happened seem small because I was waiting for them all along. Almost as if taking them for granted even before they occurred.

Here are the major milestones of my 2012:

The Move

This past March saw me moving from Massachusetts to California. I’d lived in Massachusetts for more than twelve years, but it had never felt like home to me. Meanwhile, I had been supposed to move to California back in 2001, so here I am, a bit tardy, but better late and all that. And I love it here. I now live someplace I’m glad to return to after traveling.

Which brings me to

Travel

Besides the move, which was travel in one direction, I did take a couple round trips this year. I went back to London over Easter, spent ten lovely days there to write and see a couple shows and an old friend from uni. And I visited family in Houston before attending the Austin Film Festival, where I also took the opportunity to see old friends from that area. Really good trips.

There was also a weekend away in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco.

I love to travel, am already planning a return to London in summer 2013.

“Warm Bodies”

My first play, only ten minutes long, but a success on various fronts. It premiered in February in Enfield, Connecticut, as part of the annual Lab Works, where it was a finalist. Then it got picked up for the Source Festival in Washington D.C. It would have had a showing in Texas, too, except my Source contract eliminated the possibility (because the Texas show would have been in May, and I agreed to not have it produced again until after Source, which was in June). Still, on top of all this, “Warm Bodies” was selected for publication in an anthology, which is supposed to come out some time next year.

I’m excited by this modicum of success, though I’m hoping it wasn’t just a fluke. I don’t want to be a one-woman show one-show woman.

E-Books

I put out five e-books this year, starting in late June, and they’ve done moderately well. I’ve had close to 13,000 sales and downloads in the six months since my work has been available, and my Sherlock Holmes stories have been particularly popular, were even the #1 & #2 Sherlock Holmes stories, respectively, on Amazon for a while.

Truly, I resisted self-publishing for a while, but though I was getting encouraging feedback from places that liked my style of writing, no one was taking that step to publish me. (Though, as an aside I will say that I did have four flash fiction pieces accepted to an anthology.) And it seems that these days the publishing industry is somewhat backward, where the agents and publishers want to see whether you can sell before signing you. They only publish two kinds of writers now anyway: big names and lowest common denominator trash—the stuff that sells to the masses regardless of how badly written it is. The “middle class” of writers has fallen through the cracks, and self-publishing seems to be the net that has caught a good many of them.

In any case, I’ve been pleased to get my work out there and have it find an audience. And I’ve enjoyed the occasional fan e-mail, too.

Scripts

I was prepared to write off 2012 as a bad year for my screenwriting. Though I’d had a couple agency nibbles for my Sherlock spec, they came to nothing. And I spent the entire summer fielding rejections from various screenwriting competitions. Then, in October I got one really positive read for my short film script St. Peter in Chains (based on one of my novellas), and just a few days ago it made semi-finals in the Table Read My Screenplay competition. I have not been able to get anyone interested in actually making the film yet, but I’m still hoping it might happen. In any event, the year in screenwriting ended better than it began. Perhaps my strength is in prose, and maybe a little bit too in playwriting, but I’ve wanted to work in film and television since I was a child, so it’s tough to let go of those dreams.

***

. . . And those have been the major features of 2012. I’m not sure what to think about 2013; I’ve had 2012 in the back of my mind for so long, always knowing it would have some weight, I haven’t thought ahead to anything else. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe going in with no expectations is better than being disappointed in the long run.