The Progress of the Play We’re Writing for the Avalon Theater

Two weeks ago Mala and I had a meeting with Tim Weigand and Cecile Davis at the Avalon Theater. We had sent them the first draft of the Christmas play “At Christmas I Believe”  and wanted to know if we were remotely on the right track. If they told us it was crap and start over we’d have done that. If they’d told us it was crap and to go away, we would have done that. But we got lots of warm fuzzies about how much they liked it and then suggestions about how to make it better.

Cecile said, “It reads like a script.”  Funny she should say that since scripts are what Mala and I have been writing for the last two years. We knew “At Christmas” had to be fixed to read like a play. There are some significant differences. In a film you can close in on an actor’s face to show a wide range of emotion. In a play the back row has to get the emotion through the voice and the power of the words. In fact this has been one of the hardest things for Mala to get through her head about screen scripts. In this play we have an actor hold up a Christmas ornament he made as a child. He says, “I made this for Mom when I was in second grade. (beat) Sure is ugly.” In the play you have to say that because the people in the back row can’t see how ugly the handmade ornament is. In a film, the camera would zoom in and show the viewer so you don’t have to have that line of dialog. It’s something like the showing vs telling we pay attention to as fiction writers. It’s just done in different ways in a screenplay, in a stage play and in a novel.

In a screenplay you insert slugs that tell you the location of the scene. For example, “INT: WILL’S BEDROOM”. Film can establish place with visuals. Stages can establish place, but with a much more limited repertoire.  Films can take advantage of multiple locations with what are called establishing shots. A flyover of Washington, DC and you know the general location where the next scene takes place. But the next scene might be in Boston with some sort of visual to alert the viewer to the location change. Stage plays usually have just a few locations to minimize scene changes.

Also, stage plays usually have a much more limited cast. In a film, an extra can walk through a scene, say nothing or say one line, and walk out.  On the stage the cast is usually restricted with some actors occasionally playing multiple parts.

Of course the biggest difference is that once the curtain rises on a play, the show goes on until the end. The rehearsals may have taken months, but the actual play is time limited and there is never a chance for a do-over – until the next performance.

The Generosity of Writers

On June 23 I attended a seminar on indie publishing and how to market your indie published book. The speaker was Robert Bidinotto whose first novel achieved e-book star status when his book became a Wall Street Journal “Top 10” National Best Seller and the #1 Amazon Kindle best seller in the “Mysteries and Thriller” category. Robert is a terrific speaker and had lots of information to present, but what really impressed me was how generous this author is to other authors. Laura and I first heard him last winter when he gave a talk at the Kent County library. We spoke with him afterwards and arranged to meet him at Holly’s one morning. He’s a busy guy and he had taken the time to respond with specific suggestions to the questions we’d sent him. At the seminar he told us others had helped him and he was paying it forward.

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That made me think of all the dedicated people who make the Eastern Shore Writers Association function, and the people who get behind the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference to make that event a success year after year. And not just the conference planners, but the presenters who come, sometimes from long distances, because they love helping writers. Trust me, they don’t come because of the honorarium.  I know how much they get!

We all become better at our craft because of the generosity of other writers. So, thank you, Robert Bidinotto, for reminding me again to pay it forward. If you want to read an engrossing thriller, check out Hunter: a Thriller.

Cross-pollination

This morning in Yoga class our instructor, Paulette Florio, asked us during a meditation to think about things we loved doing and why. I love gardening and am probably happier with my hands in the dirt than just about any other thing I do. My husband says it’s because it’s low conflict and there’s probably a lot of truth in that statement. But this morning when I thought about why I love to be in the garden, the image was of being connected to our earth mother, Gaia. That image may have been there because of a writing project that is marinating in my brain, but I think it is more than that. My little garden has its share of problems – clay soil, spots that don’t dry out when we have rain and then turn to concrete when it’s dry, pesky insects, etc. – but I always thought it was my job to find the plants that would be happy with those conditions. Working with what you’ve got instead of fighting is a more joyful way to live – at least in the garden.

This year Laura invited me to join the Great Pumpkin Growing Contest. This started as a competition (probably thought up after sharing a pitcher of margaritas with her sister) to see who could grow the biggest pumpkin. I was asked to join because Laura saved seeds from last year’s winner and I started them for her in one of my raised beds. I was so excited when I had a baby pumpkin and then really disappointed when it fell off. That happened several times before I realized I needed to give Mother Nature a hand. The tiny pumpkins were falling off because they weren’t being fertilized. Now I watch for those embryonic pumpkins and when the flower opens, I take a male blossom and stick it right in there.  I now have four pumpkins the size of ping pong balls that seem to be flourishing.

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What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Cross-pollination is the answer. I recently blogged about my writers group and how helpful it can be (even though it took me a long time to trust the process). Sometimes a chance remark made by a fellow writer about a character or a plot can spin us in a new direction. Something like that happened recently when at an Eastern Shore Writers Association meeting in Cambridge our speaker, Kate Blackwell, talked about a stuck place in a novel she’s writing. During a break Laura went up to her and gave her a suggestion about the plot. I was still at our table but could observe Kate’s face. It lit up! “I never would have thought of that, but it’s perfect,” she said. Laura later told me Kate’s next comment was, “I can’t wait to get home to start writing.”

Writing can be such an isolated experience. Cross-pollination by another writer makes it less so.  But you have to be open for the experience – like those pumpkin blossoms, they can’t be pollinated until the blossom is open.You don’t have to do what someone else suggests, but it might spark something that helps a writing project move forward from a stuck place. It might even move your work in a whole new direction. And don’t you just love it when that happens!

Celebrate Your Successes – Even the Small Ones

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If you are task oriented like Laura and like me, it may be hard to celebrate your successes. Don’t wait until you get the hard copy of your book from the publisher! Finishing a page, a chapter, a first draft is a reason to celebrate, but the celebration doesn’t have to be huge.

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I suspect that most of us aren’t very good at celebrating while we go along. We wait until there is some sort of a milestone, but neglect to celebrate the fact that we actually sat down and put words on paper today.

Ruth Glick (aka Rebecca York) tweets (I see it on FaceBook) when she’s finished a pitch, a chapter, or resolved a troubling plot issue. Lots of people respond with encouraging and comments and help her celebrate. What a good idea.

Here are some ways you might celebrate.

Give yourself flowers.

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My particular favorite…treat yourself to chocolate truffles. Oh, heck, any kind of chocolate is a celebration.

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Unkink your back and neck (after long hours at the computer) with a massage. Laura did this once, but told me she didn’t know the stones weren’t supposed to make your skin sizzle.  Maybe a monkey massage would be a better choice, dear writing partner, but I suppose they might bite. And if you have to hang on a wooden beam, I’m not doing that.

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Be Careful Who You Listen To or How to Ride a Donkey

In my critique group last week we read a couple of new chapters from one of the members. The book she is writing is really good, the pacing is just right, the dialog spot on and I love the characters. I hope she can hear how much everyone in the group liked it.

At the end of the meeting she talked a little about another book she has written that is still not published. She said she started going to writing conferences for her genre and every “expert” told her to rewrite the book in a different way. Which she did. She said she rewrote that book three times, in three different POVs. And while it was a good piece of writing, it didn’t sing like the one she is working on now. She said that she’d decided to heck with the experts, she was going to write this new book the way she wanted to. And then go back and write that first book the way she thought it should have been written in the first place.

This conversation made me think of some of my own experiences with writing experts and how they pulled my writing in ways that didn’t reflect what my heart was telling me to do. As a dyed in the wool neurotic writer, I need validation, but perhaps all of us need to tell the stories we are driven to tell in the way we want to tell them. I suppose part of the problem is that while we are learning the craft of writing, we need to listen to the experts. But at some point we need to use the writing tools we’ve acquired and listen to our own opinions.

Critique Groups

I have been part of a writing group since shortly after we moved to the Eastern Shore. An announcement in the local paper indicated several local writers were getting together to form a writers group. I’d never been part of a writing group, but it seemed like a way to meet people, so at the appointed time, I showed up.

The writer’s group had people who were working on a first book, people who had written for their jobs, who had been published academically and a couple of people who just wanted to start writing. At that point in my writing life (always an adjunct activity to my professional life as a Clinical Social Worker) I had published children’s fiction with Doubleday and non-fiction with Bruner/Mazel. Not too shabby. My first novel had been self-published the previous year and a second was at the printers. Yet, it took me almost a year to put something out to this new group for critique. The members weren’t mean when they critiqued. We had some guidelines about saying positive things before we made suggestions for improvement. I understood all that, but I still couldn’t get myself to submit anything.

Others seemed to have an easier time. I suppose I had to get to know the group and really trust that they would “consider” my writing. I’m not sure what I mean by “consider” but it seems like the right word. When I finally got up the courage, the feedback was enormously helpful and I wondered why it had taken me so long. Almost seven years later I am still part of this writing group and now have no problem submitting work for critique. The group has evolved over the years so that everyone involved “works” at writing either professionally or personally and everyone has been published in some way. A few of us are from the original group and as new members join, the trust issue (for me) seems less fraught.

Laura took a screenwriting class at Johns Hopkins and with other students from that class formed a critique group that met weekly in Baltimore.  That group lasted one year and then reformed and met for five more years in Annapolis. She had a weekly drive over the bridge (at night) to meet with people whom, she told me, only made her cry twice. A weekly critique group is a true commitment to one’s writing.  But, if my writing group had ever made me cry they never would have seen me again. Laura joined my Easton critique group a couple of years later, after learning about it at the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference. Much of what I submit now is something she and I have worked on together. Perhaps there is more confidence in work that has essentially already been critiqued by your writing partner.

The whole experience has made me wonder why we writers are often so emotionally fragile about our creations. Even when we try to think about writing as a “business” we never seem to be prepared for the rejection letters (now emails) from agents. If not many people buy our independently published books, as least the process of getting there is not so painful and we can tell ourselves we didn’t do a good job of marketing. It must be fear that someone won’t love what we’ve created as much as we do – a rejection of our most inner selves.

Hanging Out Writing

I recently blogged about how and where people write. I said that when Laura and I work together we usually work at a table in my family room. When my back needs unkinking I can now hang upside down from my yoga sling. Here is the picture I promised. Confession: I don’t stay inverted for more than a couple of minutes and I am careful when I slowly come back up. Otherwise I’d topple right over. We wouldn’t get much done if we had to make a trip to the emergency room.

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We got an email on Friday from Amazon Studios that a script rewrite proposal we submitted about a month ago had passed some sort of hurdle and they asked to see a completed script. Not the rewrite, but a sample script to show them what we could do. We finished three scripts last year so had one ready to go. Apparently the process is for them to solicit writing samples from a number of people and then decide who will be awarded the job of rewriting the script for which we submitted the proposal. It really would be a totally new script as the original had too many moving parts, not enough development of the characters to make some of them likeable, and action sequences that didn’t work for us. The original script was titled “My Facebook Friend Is Dead.” Intriguing. Our proposal was for a Romantic Loser Comedy.

In the meantime, while we wait to hear about that project, we are into Act 2 of the Christmas play we are doing for the Avalon Foundation. We love the creative piece so are having a great time. The formatting for a play is different from the formatting of a movie or tv script so that is something of a challenge. Staging is more limited and the budget for the production is…well, we don’t really know what the budget is, but we are operating on the assumption that it is miniscule. Working title: At Christmas I Believe.