Sunday, September 30, 2007

I'm So Lame (meme)

I got tagged by a meme by Johnna at BlindSquirrel. From a meme written by Marisa

(this is apparently karmic payback, because she created her blog after responding to my five strengths blog--which is still oozing around the blogosphere, into at least 8 generations)

List 5 things that certain people (who are not deserving of being your friend anyway) may consider to be "totally lame," but you are, despite the possible stigma, totally proud of. Own it. Tag 5 others:

Hm. Okay.

1. I love the song "18 Wheels on a Big Rig" by Trout Fishing in America. And especially because of the part where they count the wheels of the truck in roman numerals (really fast).

2. I have watched every season of "Survivor."

3. I eat vegetarian, and actually pretty much vegan, as does our family. I really like leafy green vegetables, especially collards and kale. My daughter's friends don't know what to make of us. (They don't exactly beat down our door for dinner invitations.)

4. I really like numbers and to keep track of stuff (numerically). I have a big Microsoft Access database where I track all my writing submissions, so that I can tell you very quickly that I've submitted 1,268 plays since 1990 (with 174 acceptances), along with percentages of rejection, no response, etc.

5. (This one's tough for me to admit.) I sometimes listen to my daughter's Aly & A.J. album (Into the Rush), even though she's long since moved past it. (She's only 12 years old and has much hipper taste in music than I do.)

Oh, there's so much more. (My wife might bring up the powder blue tuxedo I wore to my high school prom, but I tell you, it was the fashion.)

I tag Novel Eye, Dan at Musings of a Minor Mennonite, Laura at Gasp!, and ghost light.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Confession #47: Temporal Deficiency

Yes, I must confess, I am temporally deficient, especially when it comes to home repair projects. My wife, Tracy, will confirm this. Emphatically. (Repeatedly.) (Justifiably.) Thus, this week's project, painting the exterior of our condo's nine basement windows took longer than I expected.

I figured, oh, no problem, there's not much wood to them, and half the paint has already been worn away (the windows are in pretty bad shape). I'll be done in a couple hours. It's a one-weekend project. It never really works that way . Instead, the paint scraping took a lot longer (and a lot more energy) than expected. Then there was sanding. And vacuuming. And washing. Caulking. Repairing the window glazing. Minor repairs. Taping. Finally painting (I still have one coat to go).

It's not like I'm a bumbling newbie to home repair. I've owned eight houses and done lots of work on all of them, so this is common ground. Yet, for some reason, this great groundswell of optimism (and self-delusion) tends to swirl around me when it's time to guess how long a project will take.

So far, I've always been great about making writing deadlines, but as I try to land more writing freelance jobs, I'm going to need to make sure I get my time estimator gene whipped into shape. I'd had big plans this week for the new freelance job exploration, but a lot of that got eaten up by painting and school projects. Next week will be different. (Right?) I've also been fighting a bit of an emotional slump--but I that's closely related to finishing up the draft of my new novel last week. Even though there's still more work to be done, the emotional release of a major draft completion often leads to a blue period. Being a bit at sea for how to handle the new job/freelance stuff makes it trickier, but I have a feeling it was all unavoidable. Next week is a new week.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Habits and Dithering

I started my new job yesterday. Not a job in the traditional sense, but a job of trying to earn money from writing stuff (and thus avoiding getting a traditional job job). I got up at 5:30, so that I'd have time for breakfast, shower, dishes, dog walking, and getting the kids off to school, and get a good start by 8:30. Most of the day was spent thinking of strategy and doing research. Sure it'd be nice to jump right into landing freelance writing assignments, but it did make sense to think a little bit first.

The funny thing is that this sort of financial worry and response is actually something of a habit (this was very kindly not pointed out to me by my wife). I opened up a notebook yesterday that I've been planning to use on this new venture, one that I've used before in this very sort of situation.

In 2004, I started looking at making freelance money, and wrote up notes on strategy and a nice list of potential topics for articles (which I typed up yesterday, a mere three years later). In 2004 I got sidetracked by a bunch of theatre productions--I had two local full-length productions of my plays in early 2005 (and was supposed to have one in the fall, too), which totally too every ounce of time and creative energy. (And I did get paid--though not $500 per month).

In 2006, I started down the same path, but was pre-occupied with converting our three-family house to condos, selling them, and buying a new house, and then settling into our new neighborhood. This time I actually did write up a query and submitted it to two magazines (both rejected). Then I went on to write a non-fiction book proposal and finish the first draft of my new novel.

But this time I really mean it. All my pondering and note taking yesterday still left me a bit torn between courses of action. I'm pretty sure the best long-term plan is to try to place some articles in magazines, focusing on topics that I need to research already for projects that I'm either about to write, or currently writing, or about to try to market. This way I gain knowledge and establish some credibility around those topics, and make media contacts that might help me later (build a "platform").

The bad part about this strategy is that the money part of it is so uncertain--I'll have to go back to query writing and researching, waiting for responses, rejections, etc. My available clips are of only modest value, so I'll have to work my way up to larger publications (the ones that pay the most). The competition is pretty stiff. It all feels like a pretty big mountain to climb, and I feel ignorant about my actual chances and what I can expect to make in a given amount of time.

The other option, as generously pointed out by readers of this blog, is to bid on freelance jobs on sites like or I'm fascinated by these sites--what a cool idea. I'm sure the competition is pretty fierce on these sites, too, but it seems like there is less up front effort to secure any particular job. (As far as I can tell from a brief look.)

The downside is that I don't get to control the type of content/project as well. So the writing is likely to be less fun, and less likely to be useful in my other projects (though I could be wrong).

Maybe the answer is the try to do a bit of both. Spend two days working on article queries and research. Two days on trying to land other sorts of freelance assignments. I figured I have about 90 hours of work time available in my current schedule. If I can earn $20 an hour, I can make what I need in half of the time available and have the rest leftover for finishing my novel and doing more of my own writing. (Speaking of the new novel--on Friday I made my deadline and sent the latest draft off to two friends for their comments. It felt very good to make that deadline, and also left me feeling a bit lost.)

Either way, I have to actually keep plugging ahead and make it happen and put in the time. Of course today was completely consumed by a project on the house--scraping, sanding, caulking and repairing the glazing on our basement windows. I've been putting it off for a while, but the warm weather won't last much longer and I need daylight to do it. I should start painting the windows tomorrow, if all goes well, and still have time left for my "job." This week is one of those weeks where I don't have anything near enough hours to do all the tasks that I'm supposed to complete. (My turn writing the school PTO newsletter is this week. Yikes.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Last Box of Mac 'n Cheese

You know how it goes in the interviews with the famous writer or actor. "I was down to my last box of mac 'n cheese (or ramen), and on Monday I was going to have to start selling insurance and put writing/acting/directing aside. Then the call came, and the rest is history."

Now, really, we're doing okay. We're not quite down to the last box of mac 'n cheese, but I've been doing a bit of figuring, and the truth is that we don't have enough money. We have enough to keep living in our condo and paying our bills and buying groceries. We've been getting by on one salary for a long time, while I've been able to stay home and take care of the kids and write. It's been pretty amazing. Boston is an expensive city and we've been frugal. Until last year, I was also a landlord and did some janitorial work (and bought and sold houses a bit a few times). But those sources of income are gone.

Basically, I need to find a way to make some money, in order to visit family, pay for kids braces, emergency car repairs (and college tuition isn't quite as far away as it seems). Being numbers people, Tracy and I spend a fair amount of time counting pennies and figuring out where they all go. Our kids are getting older, so our grocery bill has risen. Medical expenses, even though we have coverage through Tracy's work, have risen. Little stuff here and there adds up.

The tough part is that writing novels and plays pays next to nothing (yes, I know I just got a royalty check for my plays this week, but it's not enough). Maybe this next novel will sell, but that's a long ways off. At first, I figured I'd either find an office job or go push a broom at one of the many hospitals near our house.

The tricky part to this is that I have two young kids (2nd and 7th grade) and I really want to be around for them after school, and due to my son's special needs, I need to go to school/teacher meetings and keep up a good level of contact with the school. And I'm the one who takes the kids to the dentist, who stays home when they're sick (like today and probably tomorrow), and all that. And I like spending time with them and my wife. I'd rather not completely gum up our lives, so that means I should find a night/evening shift. Or a half-day job in an office while the kids are in school (8am-2pm)

The funny thing is that I don't need to make a ton more money, even $300-$500 a month would make a big difference. But part-time work pays less than full-time.

My plan, though, is to make a one last ditch effort to get writing to pay off a little more, by writing freelance articles for magazines and newspapers. Writing is what I'm best at, really. (And I've been out of the regular job market for a long time. My experience is all around running theatres and playwright organizations and community gardens.) I've done a little bit of article writing in the past (though mostly for free), and understand the basics of how to do it. If I put in 5-6 hours a day researching and writing article queries (and articles, if I can get some assignments), I think I can earn what we need. (It doesn't need to happen all at once.) I know the reality is that the competition is fierce and the pay is low and slow, but my needs are modest.

The cool thing is that it'll help me improve as a writer, and if I plan it out right, I can use the research for the articles to provide research for some of the other fiction and non-fiction projects that I want to do. (And I don't need to buy a new wardrobe.)

What it does mean is that my new novel will be harder to finish, and that any new fiction/playwriting projects won't get started for quite a while. Spare time and energy will be in short supply.

I've been awfully lucky to have so much time to devote to writing projects that were of great interest to me (and sometimes to audiences and readers), without commercial pressure. I'd be lying if I said that after 20 years of writing, I feel satisfied with how much income my writing brings in (that's putting it mildly). But I wouldn't go back and undo any of the projects I've done or scripts I've written.

Blogging has been a good warm-up for some of this freelance article writing (or so I tell myself). Now I need to see if I really put in the intense effort, if I can get it to work out. I'm looking at it like starting a new job (it starts on Monday). If it doesn't pan out, then it'll be time to get a real job, I guess.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

All in the Timing

I owe a big thanks to my friend Jessica for mailing me a copy of Mark Childress's essay, Fear of Finishing, at exactly the right time (it appears in new book, Writers Workshop in a Book). I'd been feeling a little stuck, trying to write the final scenes to my new novel. I finished the third draft of the novel today, which feels awfully good (rewarded with a cold beer at lunch and one to come for dessert). These scenes had needed to be written for quite a while now, and there's still more work to do. But today, I felt like I'd finished the real writing of it. (We'll see what I think after I hear back from a few of my trusted readers).

Childress's essay was exactly what I needed, at exactly the right time. Nice when it works out that way.

Here's a little of what he had to say:
"I finished a book! Time to celebrate! So why don't I feel like celebrating? Why do I feel like my whole family has just died?

Because, in fact, they have. The whole crowd of imaginary people with whom I have spent the last four years--well, they are all dead. All killed off by me, by those two little words: The End. I will rewrite--oh boy, will I--but I will never again have the experience of living inside that particular world for four years."

I had that today, as I walked the dog along the Muddy River, once it was all done. I knew I'd put off writing those final scenes for so long, even as I was rewriting the whole rest of the book, because it would mark a break with these characters who have been so important to me. Now I've done it.

Here's a toast to them.

Why I Like September

Yes, September is grand for the start of autumn, back-to-school, football, apples picking. But I like it because that's when I get my royalty statement from Brooklyn Publishers. A lot of playwrights have never heard of Brooklyn, because they specialize in the high school market. They sell a lot of duets for use in forensics and drama competitions. In this case, the students (or their drama teachers) buy the scripts (8-12 minute pieces) by the script book ($4.50 each) and don't have to pay performance royalties as long as they only perform the pieces in competition.

Brooklyn publishes more then 30 of my plays, most of them duets, but also some one-acts. This past year they sold 963 copies, and licensed the plays for 20 performances. I like the idea of so many budding young theatre artists using my work to cut their teeth as actors, and showing off the work to their friends and families. The cool thing is that I wrote these plays for use by grown ups (they get staged by small professional theatres every year, too), but the kids really enjoy them, too. (Since I started with Brooklyn, they've sold almost 10,000 copies of my plays, which feels like a nice solid amount to a numbers guy like me.)

And I like that I get paid. It's not a lot, but it's a healthy enough check to cover most of my basic writing expenses for the year (if I'm frugal). When the check comes, it makes me feel like a professional writer. And that's a nice feeling.

Friday, September 14, 2007

New Meme: Five Strengths

I've never created a meme before, so we'll see how it goes. None have been going around lately, that I know of, so perhaps they're out of fashion.

Something Gary Garrison said in his visit to Boston earlier this year caught my attention: "What are your strengths as a writer?" he asked. "I'll bet you'll have no trouble listing your weaknesses, but what are you good at?"

I think he's absolutely right. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to improve our manuscripts and how to improve ourselves as writers. Our interior list of negatives is continually polished, when we should make sure that we're able to move forward in our writing from our strengths.

So, here's the challenge: make a list of five strengths that you possess as a writer/artist. It's not really bragging, it's an honest assessment (forced upon you by this darn meme). Please resist the urge to enumerate your weaknesses, or even mention them in contrast to each strong point you list. Tag four other writers or artists whom you'd like to see share their strengths.

Here are mine: (this is harder than I expected)

1. I have an interest and a knack for creating stories that are unusual or slightly off-beat. Possible examples would be my novel, Tornado Siren and my play, Blinders.

2. Writing dialogue comes easily for me. This is part of what makes writing stage plays come naturally for me. I'm still learning to incorporate dialogue effectively into my fiction.

3. I'm stubborn, persistent, dogged (and sometimes patient). This means I can commit two years or more to writing a novel, or five years to writing researching and writing a play about William Tyndale and the creation of the English Bible (God's Voice). I had the idea for the novel I'm currently writing in 1998, and I waited until 2006 to start writing it, when the time was right and I was ready.

4. I have a good sense of pace within a story. I know when things are going too slowly, and know when the rhythm needs to calm down a bit to let the audience or reader catch up.

5. I have a certain earnestness to my writing (I possessed the same quality when I was an actor). If I'm aware of this, it can be used as a strength. This has shown up quite effectively in a lot of my short plays, which have been accessible for both professional actors as well as high school actors.

That'll do for now. I tag Adam, Dan, Johnna, Laura, and Novel Eye (I know that's five, but I want to see what they say).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Beware of Praise (of your talent)

My son's teacher pointed out this article to me in New York Magazine: How Not to Talk to Your Kids. It covers a fair amount of ground, but the gist of it is that empty praise in the intention of bolstering self-esteem is actually harmful. And, what seems to be relevant to writers, praising kids for their intelligence (saying they're "smart") rather than recognizing them for hard work and problem solving, ends up having measurable negative effects.

For writers, the issue, rather than being praised for "intelligence" is that of being praised for having "talent." In the article, Bryson writes:
For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

In talking with students of writing, we often encourage our most promising students by telling them that they have a great amount of talent. It's interesting, based on this article, to consider that this sort of praise received early on by the best young writers, actually might do long-term harm. Instead, we might focus a lot more on their work in process and ability to revise and improve scripts in the wake of failure. I think back to one of my writing professors in college, and the one thing I remember her telling me is this: "you're a fine writer, Pat, but you're not a first-draft sort of writer. It doesn't come from you to the page fully-formed. You'll always have to work hard to get your writing to a high level, with many drafts, but you can do it." I was 20 years old and believed it wholeheartedly. How much better for her to tell me this, than to say, "Oh, you're one of the most talented writers we've ever had here."

Our media doesn't help young writers, especially in the realm of fiction, where reviewers seem constantly on the lookout for the breakout first novel. They want to discover promising new talent, undiscovered genius. For the writer's sake, it would be better if reviewers worked harder at finding breakout books by writers who had three or four novels under their belts, who had weathered success and failure in their artistic attempts, and who finally grew their writing into something fine. (Note: I'm not saying reviewers should give an "A" for effort.) The sophomore slump with novelists is a phenomenon completely expected by reviewers, but isn't this all set up by the overpraise of first novels?

As adult writers, it's also worth looking at this article and thinking about what we're internally seeking from the outside world in response to our work. Are we looking for confirmation and recognition of our in-born artistic talent? And if we don't find it, do we become bitter and resentful? Or do we hope that audiences are able to fully participate in what we create (be it stage, film, or prose), and that if this time around we do not succeed in engaging our audience, that we can return with a new effort to try again?

Persistence and resilience may be the most important qualities to develop within ourselves if we seek long and productive lives as artists.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Moving to LA

No, I'm not moving to LA. But John August's blog has a nice guest essay by a young writer who did. Definitely worth checking out.

For me, though, if I want to get film work, it's going to have to happen while I'm living in Boston. There is a film community here, though I haven't worked too hard at being a part of it yet. I've been sending out a lot of screenplay queries lately, mostly to LA and NYC (via e-mail and Script PIMP) but have been getting no bites at all. I know I need to work the personal aspect a little better, but time has been short.

some good news

I found out (last week, actually) that my short play, Pumpkin Patch, will be part of SlamBoston, Diverse Voices in Theatre, a one-night play slam on November 13th, at the Boston Center for the Arts (produced by Another Country Productions and Company One).

I've been a bit skeptical about the whole notion of play slams for a while, but I know folks who have done this one and liked it, and, more importantly, it's run by Lyralen Kaye, who directed a short play of mine earlier this year, and I really enjoyed working with her. So I'm excited to give it a try (if we win our evening, we win money, which would be a good thing).

Even better is that my director is Kortney Adams. She's also a terrific actress and has worked with the Rhombus playwrights group a lot. This is my first chance getting to work with her as a director, and I'm really looking forward to it.

I'd worried that I'd have no theatre action this fall, but this is helping the end of the year not seem too empty. Plus, I've got Den of Iniquity coming up in NYC at Emerging Artists Fall EATFest in October. I really like my director, Ian Streicher. Looks like I'll be able to get down to NYC to see the show on October 20th.

So, life is good. (And I even got some writing done over the past two days.) (And I've been getting marketing done every day with the Playwright Submission Binge.)

Interesting Post about Theatre Education

Check out this post about the myths around theatre education. I think he's got some very good points, and they can apply to playwrights, too. (I found out about it from Adam's blog.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

What I did while the kids were in school today

The kids started school yesterday, so you'd think I'd be making sudden huge strides on the revisions to my novel until 2pm, when school gets out. Let's see what I accomplished:

Walked the dog (a mile).

Fed the kids breakfast.

Showered (not always easy to accomplish in the morning with kids underfoot).

Walked the kids to school.

Dropped off car to Midas for the brakes. (set us back $800! Ouch, ouch, ouch!)

Mailed a package to my sister.

Cleared off my desk.

Sent a query to a NYC theatre (for the Binge). (Good news--they requested a copy already!)

Worked with daughter's soccer coach (I'm the assistant coach) on the line-up for tomorrow’s game.

Called contractor.

Called doctor to try to set up appointment for son.

Answered and read a few e-mails (my in-box is under10).

Checked too many times. Bloglines, too. Read something about soccer drills for defense. (I'm trying to figure out how to explain things that I understand instinctively.)

Did laundry so daughter will have clean socks and shorts for tomorrow’s soccer game.

Took dog out again.

Brought in trash cans (from which I had to wash off maggots yesterday. Maggots really creep me out.)

Talked to Tracy on the phone.

Made myself lunch.

Talked to neighbor and gave her back her key (I was feeding her fish).

Got the dishes in the dishwasher and started running it.

Not a bad list for a morning and early afternoon. Ah, but there's an item missing. Writing. Didn't get squat done today. Wrote a speck in my journal, and put in all of ten-minutes into the rewrites. I had such big plans, but everything took longer than expected.

Surely I can do better next week. Right? Maybe I'll even start tomorrow (after the soccer game and shopping for school supplies). Right?

I'm very close to being done with this revision. I have about 30 pages to go (with a pretty decent rewrite of a short chapter), and then need to add a section (10-30 pages, which scare me to death). My deadline is Friday, September 21st, and then I'll get it out to some of my readers.

No one knows or cares about this deadline but me, really. But it'll motivate me anyway (I hope.) I actually find it pretty helpful to set internal deadlines, because without them, projects can drag on forever. And I'd definitely like to finish this enough to send out to agents by the end of the year (if not sooner). Guess I'd better get my ass in gear.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

What I did on my summer vacation

We just got back from a terrific week in Colorado, visiting with my family and friends. We also took the kids on a tour of our old houses (all three of them). Less than a mile from our old mountain house in Conifer, we saw these two elk fighting/playing along the side of the road. (I only had a Kodak digital snapshot camera, so the video is only so-so.) We actually spent most of our time in Estes Park in or near Rocky Mountain National Park, where we saw tons of elk, plus coyotes and other wildlife. I think we're rooted in New England for a while, but the pull of Colorado (where we lived for 7 years) is strong.

Here's a photo from Jewel Lake that I got, just as the sun was rising over the ridge. I left at around 7am for this 7-mile round trip hike (up to about 10,000 feet) and beat the crowds. It's not often that I get in a solo hike, and I really soaked up the solitude.

Binge Started Yesterday!

The 11th Playwright Submission Binge started yesterday. This is a bi-annual marketing challenge, where a group of playwrights get together (virtually) and try to submit a play every day for 30 days. When I started this group, more than five years ago, there were about a dozen of us. Now the group has almost 350 members, and it's developed into a very supportive on-line playwright community. Of all the things I've started in theatre, this is one of my favorites. I was on vacation all week, not getting home until super late last night, so I missed the starting gun for the first time in 11 binges. Luckily, I'd arranged with L.A. playwright (and long time Binge member) Mark Harvey Levine to guest host for me.

Anyway, if you're a playwright and haven't heard of it, definitely give it a try (it's free). It's a great way to get motivated, and people are very generous about sharing submission opp details, so you can pick up a lot of good info.