Thursday, May 31, 2007

off to BEA

This weekend, I'm off to Book Expo America (BEA), which will be attended by some 25,000 people, features 2,000 exhibitors, and 1,000 authors signing books. Yikes!

I'm supposed to be one of those 1,000 authors, signing copies of Tornado Siren from 11:45 - 12:15 on Saturday. (Come on by!)

I have absolutely no idea what to expect, other than I imagine it'll be pretty overwhelming (and that I doubt anyone will take much notice of me or my book in the midst of the mayhem, but you never know). It'll be fun to hang out with my publishers (Behler Publications) and their new distributor, Blu Sky Media.

The best part is actually that my wife, Tracy, will be there with me. This is a belated birthday trip for me, and the kids are staying with my in-laws, so this is actually a 24-hour vacation for us. She's a librarian, so she gets all sorts of special perks from the Expo. I figure we'll come away with lots of trinkets for the kids and more free books than we can carry. I hope to check out a few publisher booths for some folks that might be good for a few of my other projects.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Screen Life: baby steps

My adventures in screenwriting have been the slowest aspect of my writing life, for quite a while. I secured a manager in LA about 3 1/2 years ago, and we worked together on some of my scripts, but we never got much off the ground. They submitted one of my pieces once or twice, but that was about it. Then they got busy on the production end, and basically got too busy to call or e-mail me back.

At the same time, I got busy writing plays (and having productions) and having a novel published. But I have four spec scripts that I'd love to see get sold and produced, and since I haven't been doing anything with them, nothing's been happening.

My writing account is just about dry, but I got some money for my 40th birthday, and I'd been thinking about putting some of it into writing stuff. Tonight I plunked down $100 for a year's subscription to Script P.I.M.P. (Pipeline Into Motion Pictures), which is web site that offers access to a database of production companies, agents, and managers. It's not a huge database, but it has a number of folks who will look at material from unknowns like me. I used this back in 2004, and that's how I ended up with my previous manager. So I know that it can work. And maybe, since I've put my money down, I'll feel inspired to make a lot more queries now, to make sure I get my money's worth. Spending that much money definitely makes me feel a little queasy (screenwriting has had the worst payback, financially, of any of my writing, so far).

I was especially inspired to do something today, because the news is full of a story about a man with a rare strain of TB who has been quarantined. Elements of the news story are extremely similar to The Carrier, my screenplay that's had the most close calls to-date. To me, it felt like this was really the day to start getting those queries back out there.

I realize that I don't understand the movie biz, and especially how to make it work from Boston. It seems like a place where there are lots of folks interested in lots of different projects, but getting them to follow all the way through to the end is the tricky part.

Maybe this time it'll finally work out. I sent out two queries, through the Script PIMP site tonight. I'm down to $50/query already.

Killing Time

Next year I've got to get in on the big 48-Hour Film Project. I have a couple friends who have participated, and it sounds like much, much too much fun (a lot like May Day Play Day). Teams are given a genre, a line of dialogue, a character, and an item that must appear in the film. Then they have 48 hours to write, film, and edit the film. It's a nationwide competition--some of the winners even were shown in Cannes this year.

My friends Dan Milstein and Bonnie Duncan were on a team that make this short horror film, Killing Time. It's funny (and a little gory). They had to make a horror film, 4-7 minutes, that had the line of dialogue "call me when you get something really good", featured a shoelace, and had a character named Quimby.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

May Day Play Day: Open and Shut (and a link to the script)

10:48pm, Saturday. Well, the show has opened and closed. I had no trouble staying awake, thanks to good performances and a Red Bull right before the house opened. All four shows went well. We had a receptive crowd, close to capacity (which is especially impressive considering it's Memorial Day weekend). My show went second, and it held its own with the other plays. My actors did an especially fine job, really bringing in some emotional depth in front of the audience. Moments that I'd been doubting came off very nicely, and the first half of the show really sailed by. I can see where I need to cut at the end, but even so, it was a powerful play, and not one where you'd say, Oh, well, what would you expect, he wrote it in the middle of the night.

This afternoon, I was just so exhausted when I got home. I felt like the play really sucked and how were we going to pull it all together in time. Blah, blah, blah, whine, whine, whine. (Tracy says I was exactly the same the last time I did this event.) The nap this afternoon helped a lot.

I got back to the theatre, mid-way through our tech. Unfortunately, we lost some of the fun sound stuff I'd hope to have at the beginning, just because the CD player wouldn't cooperate. Oh, well. The actors were pretty solid on their lines by the time I got there at 6, and once tech was over they ran it three or four more times.

Here is my cast (photo from last night: Shaun Butler, Kyla Astley, and Mikey DiLoreto).

Kudos to them and my director, Brian Anastas, for working their asses off all day and night (and being completely off book on a 15-page play by 8pm). Thanks to Mike Manship and Colleen Rua for sponsoring the whole event.

I don't usually post my scripts online, but I know folks have been following the growth of this play. So I've posted the script on line: click here to see a pdf of A Bright New Morning. I'm still sleep deprived, but this is pretty much the script did tonight, plus a few small additional cuts.

I definitely learned that I'm not good at cutting down a script on no sleep. Lots of other lessons, too, but for the moment I just need to get some sleep.

May Day Play Day: off to tech

5pm, Saturday. Had a good day of rehearsals today. Met director at 9am, actors at 9:30, worked straight through until 1:30pm. By that time we had the whole thing blocked and had a chance to run it a few times in the space. After being up for almost 36 hours in a row, definitely wished that I was a more brilliant writer. The script is okay, but I was trying to do a lot and didn't succeed at it all. We'll see how it looks at 6pm at the tech. This afternoon the actors were already starting to get off book as well as handle the blocking. What a lot to do in such a short period of time.

I'm just up from a 2 1/2 hour nap and am pretty out of it. Hopefully can snap back to wakefulness by the time I get to the theatre.

May Day Play Day: made the deadline

Okay, well, I got the script off to my director, before the 8am deadline. We'll see he thinks. We're meeting at 9am at the theatre, and then have a few hours of rehearsal. Then, with any luck, I'll be able to get a nap.

I did make a few more changes, but some of my time got sucked up trying to download a sound effect, which then got all screwed up. 6am computer screw ups after being up all night are not fun.

I need something to eat.

May Day Play Day: revisions, A Bright New Morning

5:08 am. I had a little nap, until 4. Since then I've been reading aloud and revising. It's still awfully bitter and dark, but I'm afraid that's just what it is.

I'm a little worried that the language is a little loopy and flat, and likely to get the actors caught in circles. I only have a little while to work my way out of that, and it's not as easy as it sounds (on no sleep, at 5am).

I wonder if the piece is subconsciously drawing inspiration from Laura Harrington's Boston Theatre Marathon piece (which I liked). It's somewhat post-apocalyptic. In some ways it's an odd post-Katrina piece, I suppose. Too soon to say.

I have staging in my mind that should work with what we've got at the theatre, using a ladder and cinder blocks and the umbrellas.

I'm glad to have a title, A Bright New Morning. We'll see how it all goes in rehearsal. I'll look at it for a another hour, I guess, and see what I can do with it.

May Day Play Day: draft 1

3am. Well, I'm starting to nod in my seat here. Might be time to break out the Red Bull. Hard to say.

The good news is that I have a first draft, coming in a little over 13 pages. Not bad. It's much darker and more oblique than I wanted. More static physically, too. (Where that sheet of rules?) But there's definitely conflict, in an odd triangle. I'll take a ten-minute nap, I think (or a little longer) and then read it over and see how I can make it much better.

Can I make this into something that sizzles? Rewrites ahead. (I have hours and hours ahead.)

May Day Play Day: some progress

1:43am. I've got about 8 pages. Pretty rough, and much darker than I'd like, and I'm not sure I see how it ends, though I have an idea. I might need to backtrack and add some complications. The dialogue is fairly sparse, but I like that the characters know each other, and the stakes are high (life or death). I don't know if the stage business will work completely (if it doesn't, I'm going to have to do some some creative thinking on my feet tomorrow morning). I like that the setting is unusual (I got so tired of seeing living rooms, hotel rooms, and table and chairs at the Marathon), though it's a bit abstract feeling (thank you Mr. Dali).

I'd really like this to run closer to 15 minutes, but I feel a ways away from that at the moment, and it's late enough that the words are coming pretty slowly. The characters aren't nearly as clear as I'd like. Still, I think I might have a draft by 3am, with time to revise by 4am, if I'm lucky. I'd like to be at 12 pages by 3am, but I'm not sure. I'm not super sleepy, but also not super clear headed either.

Okay, that's enough break. Back to work.

May Day Play Day: a start

It's 12:30am. I've got two pages, plus I found a sound effect online that I might want to use. I have character names, and know how they're related to each other, at least for now. There's a grudge involved, but I'm not sure exactly what. Despite having them stranded, I have an idea for a whole bunch of stage business, but I'm not quite sure how it all works out.

Need to keep pushing ahead. With some luck, the next hour will prove fruitful.

May Day Play Day: noodling

Okay, it's 11:20pm and I'm back home from the theatre. I got to meet my actors and director, all of whom are fairly young, in their 20s. Promising bunch. The actors each did a monologue for us, which was helpful. I've got one who can speak Italian, another can play guitar, and a third can stand on her head, box, and speak French. Hm. I remembered to bring my camera and took photos and short videos of each, which is very helpful. Once the actors left, the playwrights spent time poking around the space, looking at props and entrances/exits.

The item we were given for inspiration is a Salvador Dali image--melting clocks on a dessert and beach. Hm.

I have until 8am to come up with a script, and I'm supposed to meet with my director at 9, the actors at 9:30.

Right now I only have a few pretty vague ideas and no definite characters in my head just yet. There are a bunch of props that I really like--empty liquor bottles, a box of umbrellas, a fishing pole, cinder blocks, a ladder, that have caught my interest. For some reason, water is really on my mind, though that seems to be awfully serious, and I'd prefer something comic. I have an idea floating around in my head, about islands and stranding and floods, but I'm worried that it all leads to a very static stage, so I'm resisting.

I figure I need to actually be typing pages by midnight and better have most of a play by 2am or 3am. This is a very frightening thought.

I've got a can of Red Bull in the fridge, two dark chocolate candy bars (already ate one), and a loaf of bread for PB&J.

Time to go stare at the blank screen for a while.

Friday, May 25, 2007

May Day Play Day: rules of the road

Though I have no idea what I'm going to write tonight, I find it helps to set up some ground rules for myself before I start. (I'm sure I will break some or all of them before the play is finished.)
  • Balance the roles. All three actors will want fairly even stage time, and it's only fair to try to make that happen. No one wants to spend all Saturday working on a walk-on.
  • Make it visual. Scripts written in a hurry can tend to be on the talky side. I need to get a good look around at the theatre to see what sorts of props and costume pieces we have available. Consider the actors' talents (juggling, magic tricks, etc.). The audience needs something to look at. Bright colors are good. Try to use some stage magic. (But at the same time, any physical bits have to be VERY simple and readily available.)
  • Don't be afraid to use sound. Sound effects are probably out, but think about things that the actors might do that helps make a soundscape.
  • Make it active. Have the actors engaged in doing something active. The audience wants to see action. Strong action will help move the story forward and keep the actors from getting lost.
  • Conflict and tension are critical. This is true of all plays, but especially important in this case. It's hard to learn a short play in a single day, but it's a lot easier if you're character is actively engaged with everyone else on stage.
  • No long monologues. Actors are only human.
  • No blackouts. I hate these anyway, but they're deadly in a short play festival, because they confuse the audience. The audience does not like to be confused about when the play is over.
  • Use the whole space. Examine the entrances and exits and make good use of them. For god's sake, don't write a park bench or cafe table play.
  • Beware repetitious dialogue. The rehearsal period is so short that convoluted dialogue, or looping dialogue is guaranteed to get the actors lost when it comes time for the show.
I'm sure I'll think of a few more.

(Last time, my play The Sky is Falling, was about a woman who goes home to say goodbye to everyone after her guru tells her that the rapture is coming and they're about to be taken into the mother space ship. At the end of the play, the guru and the grandmother end up going off on into space. I think I managed to stick to the rules above, but still have a play that was fun, whimsical, and fluid in terms of time and space.)

May Day Play Day: prologue

Tonight is the start of May Day Play Day. This is a24-hour play making festival run by the South City Theatre Company here in Boston. Tonight four playwrights (including me) will meet with four directors and a dozen actors at the Devanaughn Theatre. We'll pick from a hat to see who works with whom. After that, I'm supposed to spend all night writing a short play. In the morning, my director and actors will take over and rehearse like crazy. At 8pm the show will be fully blocked, memorized, and ready for an appreciative audience.

I did this five years ago, and it was a hoot. Especially interesting was that the rehearsal process felt like any other, but merely compressed: initial excitement, fumbling, semi-mastery, everything falls apart when it's time to go off book and do the blocking, nervousness starting to focus the minds, exhaustion gets people a little punchy, and suddenly the lights come up and the magic of theatre brings the whole thing together.

I try not to come in with any preconceived notions of what I'll write. I especially enjoy writing with specific actors in mind. In some ways, this feels like a more necessary kind of theatre, one that takes all of the artistic collaborators into account from the beginning. (I need to think and write more about this someday.)

When I meet the actors tonight, I will ask the following questions:

  • What talents (besides acting) do you possess? Can you juggle, sing, play guitar, do cartwheels?
  • Do you speak another language besides English?
  • Are you a fast memorizer?
  • What have you always wanted to do on stage?
  • Can I take your picture?
I think those will give me a good start, and something I can lean on at 2am. (I'm gonna need a big bag of dark chocolate.) I'll check in with more posts as the eveng progresses

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Guilty Pleasure: On The Lot

Okay, I've seen two episodes and I'm hooked. On The Lot is my new guilty pleasure--it's a reality TV show about a bunch of budding film directors all competing for a million dollar development deal at Dreamworks. The judges are Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall, Brett Ratner, and Jon Avnet. Unlike most reality shows, the people in this one are actually doing something that I like to do (and miss)--making films. And they're doing it under difficult circumstances, which is the way films always seem to get made. And the judges don't indulge in cruel ego trips. (The web site is horrible, by the way. I really want to see the short films they made in the 24-hour challenge they had, but can't find them.) It's easy to imagine myself being a contestant (though I think it'll stay in my imagination for the moment).

Marry Well

I sometimes fantasize that there are young writers out there who might seek out my advice on how to survive as a writer. (Hasn't happened yet.) If that were to happen, it would be: Marry well.

This gets a laugh, because people always think I mean, "marry rich." Which wouldn't hurt.

But I really mean find a partner who gets who you are, and who understands that being a writer is part of you are, not just what you do. Someone who will put up with lack of income, who will put up with you when you're in a slump and when you need to bitch and whine. Again. And again. Someone who doesn't set deadlines for you, but knows when you need to be reminded of the ones you've set for yourself.

Here's why I'm lucky to have been married to my wife for the past 19 years. Earlier this week I was asked if I might want to teach a playwriting class at a college. The money would be minimal and the commute would be long, and I wouldn't know exactly what I was doing so it'd take a lot time, but it might be fun. And some money would be better than no money. And I had a great time filling in for a prof at MIT last semester. It was flattering to be asked (and ego food is always a good thing). And I'm good at saying Yes to too many things. I got that little buzz going as I imagined how it might all work out.

I ran it by my wife, who said "It sounds great. But you're struggling to find time right now to work on your novel, and this would eat up your time. It'd probably be a mistake." But she knew I'd been excited, so she added, "If you need me to change my tune and be super supportive, I can do that, too. But this is the realistic version."

Marry well.

I really want to finish this new novel by the end of the year, and my days get short pretty quick (the kids will be out of school for the summer soon, I'm getting involved with a Brookline author's group that might put together a community cable show on books and local authors, and I have two other projects that I'm trying to get off the ground). I'm lucky to have someone to remind me about what I'm really trying to accomplish. I couldn't do it without her.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Action Jesus

It's always nice when one of your friends puts up a show and you really like it. Leslie Dillen's one-woman show, Action Jesus, playing one more weekend at Boston Playwrights Theatre (and coming to NYC this summer) was great fun this past Friday. When her husband goes off on his own to write his memoirs, Leslie gets a chance to spend a month on her own in a Manhattan apartment, and she (accompanied by her Jesus action figure) uses the time as a sort of spiritual journey, looking both to her past and future. I've seen several of Leslie's one-woman shows, and she's always a terrific performer. This is her best work so far. The direction, sound, and lighting are all crisp and serve the play and performer well.

My main disappointment was that the audience was so small on the night I saw it. This is a play and performance with great appeal, but especially to women of a certain age, who make up a large percentage of the theatre-going crowd. I just hope they can get to a production of the show before it's too late.

Boston Theatre Marathon IX (and disturbing omissions)

I attended one of my favorite theatrical events on Sunday, the annual Boston Theatre Marathon. The Marathon features 50 ten-minute plays by 50 different New England writers, each produced by a different New England theatre company. Running from noon until 10pm, with five plays every hour, it's an event with a great amount of energy, sparked by fifty casts performing for a warm crowd.

One of BTM's strengths is that theatres of all different sizes participate. So the Huntington and the ART both produce plays (the ART does a Robert Brustein play every year) alongside the Devanaughn Theatre and Hovey Players. With more than 150 local actors involved, it's an unparalleled chance to see Boston's theatre community in action.

I've been lucky to have had four plays in past Marathons, but I didn't have on in this year's festival. (So the comments below should be seen with that in mind, I suppose.)

I got to my seat right at noon as the lights were going down, and I lasted all the way until 9pm. It's a lot easier to last the whole day now that the venue has been shifted to the Stanford Calderwood Pavillion Wimberly Theatre, a beautiful new theatre built for the Huntington, that seats 360 in very comfy seats. The BTM used to be at Boston Playwrights theatre, which is small, and has seats that cause partial paralysis after three or four hours.

Still, I couldn't make it to the final hour. I was just too tired, and all the plays were starting to blur together for me, and weak scripts that might not have seemed so bad in hour 3 or 4, now felt excrutiating in my exhausted state. No sense hating plays that don't deserve it.

I'll spare you my rundown of the entire festival. The first hour was particularly strong, and I really enjoyed Gary Garrison's play, Storm on Storm (with my weather background from Tornado Siren, it was right up my alley). Bob Murphy and Kelly Lawman were delightful in it. Ranch on the Run wasn't a perfect play, but at least it offered a bit of whimsy and theatricality, with a short tale about a runaway house. My Rhombus friends Kirsten Greenidge and Leslie Dillen both were well-served by their productions of their plays.

One play that caught my attention was Ritz Rendezvous by Gregory D'Angelo, produced by the Stoneham Theatre. The chemistry of the actors, Christopher James Webb and Jessica Webb really drew me in and and had me laughing hard. Great timing.

There were a few duds here and there, but no total train wrecks.

I was disappointed in the general lack of imaginativeness and theatricality of the staging of plays (though it was great to see a kayak on stage). Rough & Tumble did their part, along with Ranch on the Run (mentioned above), but there were an awfully lot of domestic dramas and comedies. I found myself pining desperately for something fantastical, something that at least offered bright colors and something interesting to look at. This was the first year I can remember with no musicals.

I find it very disturbing that in the 44 plays that I watched, there were no strong political plays (with the exception of Monica Raymond's very gentle, Hijab). There was one tiny mention of the Iraq war in The Polish Pictures by Monica Bauer, and a few references to George Bush in The Red and The Blue, but all minor. There was nothing in the nine hours of plays that I watched that would make you realize that we're at war and have been at war for more than four years. Nothing to make you realize that the current presidential administration is drowning in its own incompetence. Nothing that talks about the current state of race relations, about class in America, about the current rise of corporate power, about global warming, AIDs (in Africa or anywhere else), about the history of anything. Nothing about a struggle that's larger than the scope of own heads, or our own families. (Einstein + The Angels by Laura Harrington did offer some sort of post-apocalyptic vision, but the nature of the apocalypse itself was vague).

I'm not saying that I want diatribe after diatribe, and I understand that theatre works in the interpersonal relationships between human beings on stage. However, nine hours without any modern political shout or protest, or hell, even a slight clearing of a playwright's artistic throat is chilling. Theatre has the power to speak to the human AND human political condition, the state of our world. If theatre fails to use that power, it will weaken and become more irrelevant.

I hope that in next year's Marathon, we'll hear some voices who have something to say about the state of the world in which we live.

Gary Garrison in Boston for Dramatists Guild

The Dramatists Guild sponsored a "playwrights' town meeting" here in Boston this weekend, led by the DG's new executive director, Gary Garrison.

Garrison brought considerable energy to the Boston Playwrights Theatre Saturday afternoon, and talked at length about some of the changes and new programs he'd like to see coming from the Guild. Of particular note:

  • A national conference. (Long overdue).
  • Revamped web site.
  • The possibility of members being able to store or archive their own scripts on the DG site.
  • More regional focus in DG events and publications.
  • More focus in The Dramatist on playwrights who aren't the standard big NY names.
  • The ablity to download the DG contracts from the web site (for free)
  • Improved health care plan.
  • He wants to talk to theatres about getting DG members free or reduced ticket prices (much like Equity members can get free seats).

All of these sound like good ideas to me. They'd certainly make Guild membership a lot more valuable to all playwrights.

In addition to the town meeting, I stuck around for Garrison's playwriting master class, entitled, Keeping the Drama in Your Work and Out of Your Life. He had a bunch of entertaining stories and some good advice. Key points that I took away:

1. Be aware of your own strengths as a writer (we're all well aware of our own weaknesses).
2. Beware of jealousy that comes from comparing yourself to peers who are at different places in their careers from you. You need to set your own milestones.
3. Find a theatre hero, a playwright whom you admire. Read all of her work and all about her, so that you really have someone that you know in depth and can use as inspiration.
4. Don't expect your loved ones to read your mind, in terms of supporting you and your art. Let them know how to best support you.
5. Stop trying to get an agent. When you need one, they'll come to you.
6. No one asked you to be a writer.

And a bunch more that seem to have fled from my mind at the moment. But I'm sure it's all in his book, Keeping the Drama In Your Work and Out of Your Life. For Boston playwrights it was a nice chance to gather for an entertaining pep-talk and some insight into this life that we've chosen.

Petition worth signing

There's been some very good discussion online about the weaknesses of the current Actors Equity Showcase code for Off Off Broadway productions in New York. The fact that it has not been modified to account for the current financial realities of producing even small productions in New York is harmful to the whole Off Off Broadway scene. If you agree, you might want to check out this online petition.

To be honest, it's great that folks are getting together to talk about this with regard to OOB, but most other cities also need a better Equity contract for small productions. Los Angeles has its 99-seat plan, which is great, and a few other cities also have contracts for small theatres. But most, including Boston and Denver, have very limited options. I so wish that we had a small theatre contract for Boston (sub-99 seats) what would allow limited runs with limited budgets to hire Equity actors at more reasonable rates. I want to be able to pay actors a full Equity rate, sure, but sometimes small venues just can't handle that sized budget, especially with some of the additional requirements (Equity stage manager and other factors). Equity could provide its members with a lot more work and a lot more opportunities to be seen (and maybe sometimes small shows would be more likely to move up into SPT contracts) with a Boston waiver.

Monica Bauer, fellow playwright, put the question to the Dramatists Guild's Gary Garrison at a "town meeting" this weekend as to whether the DG would consider talking to Equity about the Showcase code. He seemed cautiously open to the idea, but it sure would be worthwhile for member playwrights, many of whose work is done OOB, to have the Guild try to engage in this discussion.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Why I'm a Slow Reader

I'm trying to be a good writer of various flavors (good novelist, good playwright, good screenwriter). So I work pretty hard at the writing. And, in order to get better, I also need to read a bunch of books and watch a bunch of plays and movies. I love books, but I'm so slow at getting through them, it makes me crazy. It's taken me almost two weeks to get through P.G. Wodehouse's, Big Money, a book that should take about two sittings at most.

So, this morning, I was thinking about where my time goes. Here's what yesterday looked like:

6am – 8:40am. Get up. Walk dog 1 mile. Cook breakfast for kids and me. Get son ready for school. Wash dishes. Walk son to school, see teachers, drop off camera in classroom, walk home, walk dog into town and back to get local newspaper.

8:40-9:10am. Make soup for dinner and get it in fridge.

9:10am – 12:20pm. Write. Finish soup making.

12:20-2pm. Check e-mails. Call wife. Walk dog. Eat lunch (while making way slowly through Sunday NY Times). Shower. Start bread in bread machine. Pack snack for son. Drive to school.

2pm-5pm. Take son to dance class. Chat with other mom there. Read (here’s my reading time) for 20-30 minutes (this is a lot for me). Go home. Prep for dinner. Make hot dogs for son. Help son with his homework. Call to find where daughter's gone. Prep to take kids to soccer. Take dog out quickly. Drive daughter to soccer.

5pm – 7pm. While daughter is at soccer: Go buy flowers for son's class’s garden. Buy OJ. Play with son at playground until soccer is over (do this with my book in hand and manage to read 3 pages). Drive back home.

7pm – 8:20pm: finish cooking dinner. Eat dinner with family. Walk dog again (we don’t have a yard). Tuck son in to bed.

8:20pm – 10:45pm: answer e-mails (including write letter of recommendation, agree to possibly blurb a book, grant permission for staged reading of a play, etc.), look at funny juggling video on YouTube (4 minutes). Help wife find papers for son's summer camp. Think about watching a movie, but update my Tornado Siren web site instead. Check statcounter for my web sites for the 100th time and skim a few blogs by friends. Consider blogging but can’t think of anything. Watch twenty minutes of The Daily Show on line. Dog out for final pee.

10:45-11pm: Read book. Fall asleep on couch.

Okay. Well, I guess that’s why I don’t read as many books as I’d like.

So today, it was rainy and I realized that the third chapter of my new novel is a complete waste of space, and I'm not sure how I want to replace it. Sitting still and noodling is the hardest part of writing for me. Which is why first drafts come easy, because it's just a matter of keeping the fingers moving. Later on, it requires actual thought and finesse. Turns out that P.G. Wodehouse was just what I needed (since plot and humor are something that this third chapter needs a lot more of). So I sat down for an hour or two and finished. It felt good (and Wodehouse is always good for some laughs). Nice work if you can get it, huh?

Here's a fine quote for a cold rainy day:

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he's supposed to be doing at the moment.
Robert Benchley

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

How To Make a Besteller: NY Times article

Check out this story in the New York Times about the book business.

I like this quote from an editor:

“People think publishing is a business, but it’s a casino.”

I'm continually puzzled as to why no one has come along and found a way to make the book business work better for everyone. It's a complicated business, with a distribution and retail chain that's insane (booksellers can return books to the publishers for the full price, which takes too much of the risk off the retailers).

Part of the problem is that it would lose the lottery feeling, and the people who earn the big bucks would have to give some of them up. It doesn't make any sense (as you'll see in the article) for publishers to lavish huge advances on big name authors, on whose books they will lose money. But, as I read somewhere (I can't remember where)--bookselling is a business that doesn't really make sense in a corporate environment. If a publisher is privately owned, the owners can make a good living. But there is a fairly constant number of eyeballs out there, so the corporate desire of steady double digit growth in revenue and profit, isn't sustainable, long-term.

Anyway check out the article.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

the hardest parts of writing novels (final revisions and patience)

Miss Snark has some smart words to say on her blog today about how hard it is to finish up a novel. Here's part of what she wrote:

They know, like I do, that the final 20% of the novel is harder to write than the preceding 80%. They know too that a first draft (which is what you're talking about when you first write THE END) is hardly ever something you should show anyone except your dog. That means you're a year from being really done, if you ever finish at all.

I think she's right on the money with this. Sure, it takes a long time (for me, anyway) to write a 300-page first draft. But it's the easiest part, really, because it's the time for discovery, the time to make mistakes.

But each subsequent revision gets a little trickier as the piece gets tighter and tighter. I'm onto draft 3 or so of my new novel, and it's fun as hell to work on it, but it's a challenge to find just the right patches for stuff that isn't working.

I'm cutting and revising one particular chapter, and got hung up today on one short scene. Maybe 2-4 pages, but I just had a tough time coming up with the right rewrite. That's part of what was making it harder (that I needed it to be just right), so tomorrow, I'll just write three versions of the scene, with complete license for any or all of them to be total crap. I'll bet good money that one of them will end up working.

The challenge of the revisions is part of what makes writers so anxious to prematurely start peddling their books. I know I feel it. The sense of, "man, I'd like to be done with this and start working on query letters." But it's a long way away. (My fiction group meets tomorrow night, where we'll talk about the second half of the novel. I imagine I'll come away with a very long list of things that will keep me busy for a while.)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

My Fantasy World: A Living Wage Theatre

I don't know what you all think about when you're in the shower, but I come up with fantasies, about how more playwrights might earn a living wage. (And I want other theatres artists to earn a living wage, too.) Here's my latest:

I'd love to create a consortium of a dozen small theatres (100-150 seats) in 12 different cities. Each of these theatres would commit to producing 12 new full-length plays over the course of a year, each by a different playwright. One writer from each city. Each month, the plays would rotate to the next theatre.

The plays would be cast and directed using local actors. The casts and production elements would be minimal. Ideally, there might be a single team who designs all the productions, and the set and other design elements could be shipped from theatre to theatre. Marketing and design elements could be used in multiple productions (cutting costs again).

Another plus is that it would be easier to raise larger corporate sponsorships for a such a large, concerted effort.

This plan would have some powerful benefits for the 12 playwrights, in that they would receive royalties their play for an entire year. So let's say 60 seats sold, 4 nights a week, 48 weeks, $1/seat (5% of $20 tickets). That's $11,520. Not a living wage for an entire year, but a start. (Higher ticket prices would yield more $ for the writers, but I'm not a fan of super high ticket prices.) In addition, they (if they chose) could see 12 different professional productions of their plays, which would be immensely helpful in the development of the scripts into material that would be of interest to other theatres around the country. They're also exposed to audiences in a dozen different cities--very strong potential.

Cost savings for theatres on marketing, sets, design, might be significant.

There are numerous reasons why this is likely to stay a fantasy. Some of them:
  • How could you get 12 producers/artistic directors to agree on 12 different plays to produce? (Though really, you just have to say, each producer picks one play she loves, and everyone has to just agree to produce the whole set, even if the other eleven aren't all equally appealing.)
  • Even with the cost savings, the economics of professional productions at small theatres is almost impossible (though I like productions at small theatres much more than big spaces. I don't believe that large theatres make much sense any more. A blog about this some other day.)
  • Big systems tend to break down. What happens when one of the theatres goes belly up? Or one of the shows proves itself to be a big bomb?
  • The production demands and cast sizes of the plays would have to be fairly limited, if the goal is to make sure everyone gets paid a living wage.
I wish that I had the time and resources to try to turn this fantasy into a reality (with one of my own plays, too, of course). But if any of you gets the urge, let's talk.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Laura Axelrod on Debt/Costs of doing biz

Laura Axelrod has some interesting things to say about being a writer and dealing with debt on her Gasp! blog. Check it out.

I recently added up the cost of my recent trip to NYC for the American Globe Festival. This is a festival where you have to find your own director and actors and foot the bill. The festival provides the space, tech, publicity, insurance, etc. Which is great. But even with all of that covered, I probably spent $180 on stuff (props and actors) for the show, plus another $140 to go down and see it (bus tickets, subway, meals. I slept on my friends' couch).

Each playwright got $25 in royalties.

Now, I had a great time, and the director and cast did a fine job with the show (which was sold out and advanced to the finals, though it didn't win any prizes). It was the first time the show was produced, so it was helpful for me to see it. I had some good meetings with playwright friends and got the chance to hawk my novel to some bookstores. The people who run the festival are very nice. And it's always cool, at least psychologically, to have a show in New York. Maybe someone saw it who might someday want to produce something else of mine. Maybe. I don't have a sense that a lot of industry people saw the show.

What I do know is that I can't afford to take a $300 hit for a ten-minute show (and the trip to see it) very often. It's a tricky thing, to figure out how much money you should invest to get your work out there, and knowing when the return just won't be there (and the intangibles count, too).

What I'm Reading: Digging to America

When I was going to New York and back two weeks ago, the bus rides gave me some precious uninterrupted reading time, and I read all of Anne Tyler's Digging to America. I got turned on to Tyler by Nick Hornby. (That could almost make it sound like Nick is a pal and we sit around drinking beer and watching World Cup matches together. Sadly, untrue. He's just one of my favorite writers, and I've read a couple interviews.)

Digging to America at first felt a lot like Breathing Lessons (for which she won the Pulitzer), but quickly diverged. She's so good at drawing her characters and the small essential dramas of their lives. In some ways not much happens in her books (I usually hate books like this), but there really are a lot of tiny conflicts going on within and between her characters in this proscribed, somewhat domestic realm that they inhabit. And she has a sense of humor. She's definitely a writer that I read and say, "I want to figure out how to write like that." It's a lot harder than it looks.

This particular book was useful for me, too, because the book I'm currently writing is sort of based in domestic realism (much more so than anything I've ever written), and also deals with race and adoption. We have very different takes on these things, but it was helpful for me to see how she handles it all. Digging to America shifts 3rd person POV to a different character in just about every chapter, which was intriguing, though it didn't always work for me. This was especially problematic late in the book, where suddenly we're seeing through the eyes of a child, which I found annoying because I wanted to have more insights into what was happening. (I don't imagine Ms. Tyler is worried what I think.)

I should probably reread this one, to look more carefully at how she pulls it off, but I think I'll read The Accidental Tourist instead. (After I get through the pile of P.G. Wodehouse from the library, and Anna Karenina (honest), and two new Michael Pollan books that I got for my birthday.)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Why 6 is the Magic Number

(photo by Geri-Jean Blanchard from
I was talking with my friend Dan the other day--he's working on his writing, but sometimes finds it hard to finish projects. I suggested that he look around for a writer's group, or else start one. I've started a few playwright's groups--one has been going for 14 years and another is about five years old, plus I belong to a fiction writer's group. I've thought a lot about what it takes to make a writer's group work:

Size matters. For a group that meets fairly often, six is an ideal number. If you have people bring material every session, you can give everyone a chance in a three-hour session. In order for a meeting to be effective, you really need a minimum of four people present. If you have six people in your group, you won't have to cancel, even if someone is sick and another has dress rehearsal. With half a dozen writers, each person can have her say without an excessive amount of repetition. And with six people, there's less of a tendency for one or two dominant personalities to use up all the oxygen (as often happens in larger groups). If you meet once a month, and bring in longer pieces, six writers only have to produce twice a year, which is possible for most writers.

Chemistry counts. Finding six people who can all stand being in the same room with each other, year after year, is not easy. A lot of it is luck. It can be helpful to state from the outset that this is a new group and be sure to schedule a session explicitly for the purpose of evaluating how well the group has begun to gel. If it's not, then you're better off closing the group, with no hard feelings. Once a successful group is established, it's hard to fill empty slots, and patience is critical. In my playwrights group, we actually bring in prospective members as guest writers for one session before deciding. In order to include someone new, the decision needs to be unanimous.

Quality. I think it's a good idea not to be the best writer in your group (for at least one person, it can't be helped I suppose). I like working with people who I can learn from. As much as I want diversity in my group in most aspects, I think it is important to have writers of a somewhat narrow range of experience. Putting pure novices together with bestselling authors is unlikely to be useful for either set.

Diversity. When putting together a group, it's important to have writers who write fairly differently from each other, but who can still appreciate the writing of each group member. A mix of genders, ages, races is much more stimulating than having five other folks whose writing styles and backgrounds are carbon copies of each other (and you).

Evaluate. My Rhombus playwright's group meets twice a year for four-month sessions (two times a month). After each semester, we schedule a business meeting where we just talk about the business of the group and how it's working. It's important to have this time away from the regular meetings, in order to continually refine the format and function of the group. (We always do it over dessert potluck, which is a fine traditions for writers with sweet tooths like me.)

Actors. This applies to playwrights groups. Find the best possible actors. Pay them a little bit if you can swing it. We hire two men and two women to read with us for the semester. We use different actors in the fall and spring semesters. Working with experienced actors helps all of our scripts, and the relationships that we've all formed have benefited everyone. One play developed in Rhombus went on to an Equity production and the show was able to use three actors who'd been reading the roles in our group.

Those are the main things I can think of at the moment. If you've had good luck starting groups and have other insights, please comment. I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm especially curious about small screenwriter's groups. (There's a large screenwriter's group around here, but it seemed awfully big to me.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Opening Night Tomorrow

Measuring Matthew opens in the Dragonfly Festival here in Boston tomorrow night at the Devanaughn Theatre. I've been to a couple rehearsals so far, and it's been going well. I'm looking forward to seeing the other plays, too.

Measuring Matthew, May 10-13, Boston, Devanaughn Theatre

Scheming (again)

I’ve got a new time scheme I want to try out, inspired by a friend who is adamant about protecting her writing time. I'm going to reserve 9-12 every weekday for writing. This will only last while school is on, but that gives me about five weeks or so.

This time of year, it’s easy to be distracted. Yesterday, I ended up leaving early and walking around town to do errands (it was sunny and in the 80s). There are always dishes to wash, stuff to pick up, library books to return, bank visits, e-mails, etc..

But I need to just drop all of those things at 9am. Leave them where they’re at, and get to my desk and get to work. Clear off all the junk and papers into a milk crate that I keep under the desk. It fills up. Stuff doesn’t get done. Oh, well.

I’m also going to try VERY hard not to check my e-mail for those three hours. I normally prefer to check my e-mail about every two minutes. Need to close down the e-mail program and keep it closed.

I’m lucky to have the time in my life to write at the moment, but it’s amazing how fast it gets eaten up. Vigilance and discipline are key.

It seems simple, but it’ll be tough. I’ve tried a million schemes to get more work out of my time. Sometimes they work great (the playwright submission binge succeeded for me and a bunch of other people) and often they die quick, silent deaths (didn’t I say just two weeks ago that I was going to spend an hour a day marketing Tornado Siren and another hour a day marketing my screenplays? What happened to that fine plan?)

I hope this one will work. It's not far from what I've been doing, but I've been a little too loose lately.

Once school is over, I’ll need a new plan. I’m already scheming.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Denmark Anyone?

Check out this post on Parabasis about the current (pathetic) level of national arts funding in the U.S. (versus that in Denmark) and also the impact the decline of the NEA will continue to have on the future of new plays in the U.S.

Sheep to Shawl (and May Day Play Day)

I'm going to take part in a fun event over Memorial Day weekend: the May Day Play Day, produced here in Boston by the South City Theatre Company. I did this a few years ago and it was a blast (these types of 24-hour festivals are becoming increasingly popular).

What happens is this:
At 8pm, five playwrights are brought in to be randomly paired up with directors and actors. The writers are given a common theme or props or some unifying element that they have to include in the script.

After this, the writers go off and write all night long. (Or they just stay there in the theatre, which is more fun.) This is exciting at first, then scary, when it gets to be 2am and you realize that the idea that you've been working on might not seem quite so brilliant anymore, but there's no going back.

In the morning, the director shows up at the theatre, ready to read a brilliant new 10-15 minute play.

The actors show up and rehearse all day with the director, memorizing the lines and blocking the show.

Around 5pm, the tech director arrives and finds out what sorts of light and sounds cues are required.

At 8pm, the shows are fully mounted for an appreciative crowd.

The whole event has kind of a crazy energy, and the audience tends to pick up on it right away. The play I wrote in the first May Day Play Day, The Sky is Falling, has gone on to be published and gets done by lots of students.

If writing plays isn't your thing, you might want to check out the Sheep to Shawl Contest at the Waynesburg Sheep and Fiber Festival in Waynesburg, PA, on May 19th. (You just missed the one in Maryland). In just about three hours, teams will shear their sheep, card the wool, spin the yarn, and weave a shawl. That makes putting up plays seem easy.

Friday, May 4, 2007

What I'm Reading: The Well of Lost Plots

Jasper Fforde's first book, The Eyre Affair, left me laughing, saying, "Wow, that is a very, very, very clever guy." His main character, Thursday Next, is a literary detective in a British alternate reality in which literature is a critical part of existence. Even if you're not supremely well read (I'm not, but Fforde certainly is, though he doesn't rub your nose in it), it's fun because there's a real detective story at play, led by a fascinating lead character, in convoluted world where people are able to go into books and characters in books are able to come into the real world.

The Eyre Affair was a big hit, rightly so, and Fford went on to write more Thursday Next books, and also a loosely linked spinoff series of Nursery Crime novels (starting with The Big Over Easy) which I liked very much.

Sadly, The Well of Lost Plots, the third in the Thursday Next series, was not nearly as good as the first two. I was awfully close to just giving up on this one. The first 100 pages are mostly exposition (the world is so complicated that it takes a lot to catch the reader up) and clever jokes. But no story. He's a self-aware writer, so at one point, Thursday even comments to one of the other characters, when asked how it's going, that her day has been mostly exposition so far (she's living in a book at this point, in hiding). Fforde is so inventive, but as a reader, I'm don't want an author to give up plot for cleverness.

Luckily for me, I brought the book with me on the bus to New York, determined to see if I could finish it. The second half of the book jumps into high gear, like any good detective story, once people start getting killed (and a mispeling vyrus gets loose, which is very bad news is you're text-based and living in a book).

I suppose it's a relief to know that even my favorite writers mess up sometimes (they are human after all) (I'm struggling with some very similar plot/story issues on my new novel right now). I'll still pick up his other books, very soon. If you haven't read any Fforde yet, The Eyre Affair is definitely the place to start.

P.S. Definitely check out Jasper Fforde's web site. It's a hoot. (And I just saw that he's coming to Brookline in July. I'll have to go to the signing of his newest.)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Theatrical Joy

Just got back from the annual PTO play at my kids' school. This is an annual event that both serves as a fundraiser and a way for the grown ups in the school community (mostly parents, but the principal had a role, too) to get up on stage and entertain each other. We're new to the school, but I've been told that this event has been going on for years and years (20 plus?). Two parents write the script and another directs.

We're talking a two-hour show, with a seven piece band (who were great!), a cast of about two dozen (some of whom had to sing). The energy and enthusiasm of the performers came through so clearly, as they performed for their peers and children, in a story that was pretty complicated (about the namesake of our school and a time machine, and two love stories (one between a cave man and an ad exec and another between an exec and a19th century woman)).

The show had joy and music and bristled with the raw human energy that makes theatre feel vital. Sometimes I feel like these qualities end up getting squelched in small to medium professional theatres, where we sometimes take ourselves too seriously and ask the audiences to take us too seriously. And we can't afford a band with three electric guitars and a base and a keyboard, bongos and drums. I got a rejection from a company last week accompanied by submission guidelines that state that they're not considering any plays that require more than four actors.

I know that constraints aren't all bad for artists, but sometimes it's good to be able to just cut loose and play. That's the business we're in after all. Tonight I got to watch a whole bunch of people playing. They had fun and so did I.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

New York daydreams

When I was in New York this weekend, I got a call at lunch from my director saying that we needed some paint in order to finish off the pumpkins in Pumpkin Patch. So all of a sudden I'm down in the West Village, scrambling to find a hardware store. The Chinese woman at the restaurant tried to give me directions, but I didn't really understand what she said. So in my wandering, I stopped into a cool little bookstore on Bleecker Street.

The guy behind the desk helped me out, and of course I happened to remember that I had a copy of Tornado Siren in my bag. So I said, "I'm a novelist down from Boston for the weekend. I have a book that just came out. How can I get you some info on it?"

He asked me what it was about. I told him and he seemed genuinely interested, so I offered him a copy, which he took, saying that he was heading out on vacation next week and would take it with him. Then he asked, "So, who would play the main characters in the movie?"

I imagine most first time novelists have speculated about this very question, with spouses, siblings, friends. I know my wife and I have passed more than a few minutes in the car brainstorming answers.

So, I had a ready response: "Halle Berry and Viggo Mortensen."

"Oh," says the book seller, "Viggo comes in here all the time. I'll have to mention it to him."

So that's it, right there. The start of a whole series of events, that will include the book seller reading and loving the book, passing it along to Viggo, and him loving it, the book being made into a really cool movie, turning the book into a best seller. You read about it here first.

(You gotta have fantasies, right?)

Points Off the Board: contract tales

Had an odd experience this week. I was doing a little self-googling, and found out that a company had decided to produce a script that I'd sent them, although they hadn't let me know yet (their web site made it apparent that it had already been cast). I got an e-mail the next day, informing me that they'd picked my play.

I didn't make a big deal out of the fact that they should have waited to be sure I agreed on terms before making plans. After all it was a pretty low-key festival, just two performances.

However, it's my policy not to allow my work to be done for free (unless it's a reading or charity event). So, when small theatres send me those e-mails, saying "congratulations, we want to do your play," I respond: "thanks, I'm very excited. Do you have a contract that you usually use, or do you need me to provide one? Oh, and how much are you paying the writers?" Or something like that. (This is usually just a problem for short plays. I haven't had this happen for a full-length play yet.)

Often, they write back and say, "Oh, well, we're a small theatre and hadn't planned on paying the playwrights." Now, these companies are used to paying royalties to produce "The Odd Couple" or "Fences" or "Oliver!" But they thought they might not have pay to this time around.

Almost every time, the company agrees to pay me a small, nominal royalty. Often they end up realizing that they should pay all of the writers. We're talking $25 for a weekend, or sometimes $50 or $75 for a two-week run. Vastly underpriced. But I'm a professional playwright, the work is good, and I should be paid. Only a few times have companies decided they won't pay, and when that happens, I say, "well, then you can't produce my play." (This has happened three times so far.)

I think playwrights need to think of themselves a lot like landlords. (I've been one.) Landlords rent out their property to all sorts of people, who then add their own furniture and gear and make it into a place of their own. But it's still the landlord's house. And the landlord gets paid first. He doesn't care if you have money for food or your car payment or your electric bills. The rent comes first. And if you don't pay, you can't live there anymore.

Theatre is not a collaborative art, when you're talking about playwrights and completed scripts. Sure the developmental process is heavily collaborative (including the first production or two). But after that, the playwright is generally removed from the production process. She rents out the script upon which the theatre company will build its production. She gets paid, no matter what. If the play is published, the publisher collects the royalties from small companies before the curtain even rises on the first performance.

Anyway, back to the story: so this small company responded to my standard response, saying that they'd consider paying me, but they never sign contracts for one-acts. I thought that perhaps they were thinking that I meant a complicated legal document, rather than a fairly simple licensing agreement, whose sole purpose is to state what rights are being licensed and state clearly that we both have the ability to enter into this agreement (it was a Dramatists Guild simple agreement), so I sent a copy.

I have no idea if they even read it. But they reiterated, they don't sign contracts. I responded that while the terms might be negotiable, the use of a contact was not.

They decided not to produce the play.

I still haven't figured out why they'd be unwilling to sign. I was pretty disappointed. Sometimes it really gets me down to have to haggle with small theatre companies over these fundamental issues. I'm not trying to get rich, I'm just trying to get treated professionally (and at least help cover my costs). I've been doing this for a long time, and I'd sure like to be negotiating over slightly larger issues.

Good News: Lost Oasis in Central Park

I just got a signed contract for my one-act play, Lost Oasis, to appear for 16 performances in June in New York, in Central Park. I don't have all the details yet, but it'll be produced by Ciona Taylor productions.

This is a script that I wrote for my theatre company, Chameleon Stage, in Colorado, quite a few years ago, for our initial site specific series, Theatre in the Wild. It's a play that I've always enjoyed, but I really haven't sent it out (it can be done inside, but it's best performed outdoors) (and thus it hasn't been produced). This seems like a good match for it. I hope I'll have a chance to get down to NYC to see it. There's just something cool about saying, "my play will be produced in Central Park."