Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Oh, by the way... I got an agent.

After more than a year and a half of looking and a number of close calls, I finally found an agent for my books (fiction and non-fiction).  I started searching for an agent for my novel, Moving (A Life in Boxes), in January of 2009.  In October of 2009, I also started querying for my middle-grade novel, Buried Treasure.  Last month, I signed with agent Regina Brooks, of the Serendipity Literary Agency--it was Buried Treasure that caught her attention.

According to my querytracker account (a tool that I highly recommend if you're looking for an agent), I sent 104 queries about Moving and 80 for Buried Treasure.  I tended to send them in batches--starting with batches of 5 or 10 at first.  Though with Buried Treasure, I went through a period where I was sending out quite a few.  That's a lot of high hopes floating out in the ether.

I also attended Grub Street's The Muse & The Marketplace conference twice during my search--the first time, I thought it looked like I'd met an agent who was going to sign me, but it didn't work out.

So, I sent queries to people who wrote books that seemed like mine, I sent queries to agent who had blogs I liked, I sent queries to agents of my friends and contacts.  I read a lot of books by prospective agents, so I could start my query letter with a personalized sentence or two (though I eventually quit that, because there are only so many hours in the day, and it didn't seem to matter.  At first, I was reading a book or two books sold by every agent whom I approached).

I have several close friends who found agents in the past year, and each found her agent just by going through the front door, with no specific contact or recommendation.  And my friends were all very kind about reading my query letter and making suggestions.  (Thanks!)

In the end, it was a recommendation (actually two) that landed me my agent.  And oddly enough, the key first recommendation came about because of the Huntington Playwriting Fellows (HPF) program (that's right--I got an agent for my books because of the Huntington.  Now I just need an agent for my plays).

Here's how that worked:  I was at a fancy library gala talking to a highly successful detective novelist, who happens to also be a very nice lady.  We'd met once or twice before, but I'd never had much to catch her attention (I was a struggling playwright, writing a novel, wishing for an agent, blah, blah, blah).  This year, however, I had just gotten into the HPF program and was eager to talk about it with anyone.  Turns out that she used to be a playwright and the mention of the Huntington really caught her interest.  We had a lovely chat, and at the end, she said, "If you need anything, if you're ever looking for an agent, let me know."  Me:  "Ah, it just so happens..."   So I told her about my middle-grade novel, and she thought her agent might be interested and gave me her contact info.  At the agent's request, I e-mailed the complete manuscript.  This was in March.

And then I waited.  Looking for an agent requires a lot of waiting.  This is good, because the publication process (which I've been through) also takes a lot of waiting.  Next I'll wait for the my agent to give me comments, and then maybe wait for a second round, and then wait for submissions to editors, and then more waiting.  You get the picture.  So I waited.

In July, I got a phone call while I was on my bike home from a theatre gig at MIT.  I thought it was the kids (maybe they'd set the kitchen on fire or the cat was making weird noises), so I pulled over and answered it.  It was the agent.  Very cool.  Agents don't call just to say Hi.  They call because they're interested.  And this was a very good time, because I'd been waiting (see above) for some good news, even a speck.  And my friends had just gotten agents and book deals and I was feeling a little low.

So the agent liked Buried Treasure, but wanted to read a bunch of more of my work.  She emphasized that she'd be representing all of my book work, so she wanted a sense of my body of work.  Which made sense to me.  It wasn't an offer, but it was feeling like it might be pretty close.  So I sent out a whole bunch more stuff.  And then waited.

After another week or so, she called again.  This time I was at the garden, trying not to collapse from heat stroke--it was 95 and felt like 100.  I don't know how coherent I was, but the thought that I might have an offer of representation brought some clarity, or at least adrenaline.

She liked Buried Treasure, but wasn't so sure about the other stuff.  But she was still willing to represent me.  Which seemed like a good thing.  (Since a couple weeks prior, I was thinking I'd never get an agent.)  But I explained that the manuscript was out with two other agents, and asked to have a few days to contact them, out of courtesy, and make sure they weren't also interested.  She agreed.  (This is standard practice.)

So I contact the other two agents, both of whom I'd been referred to by friends.  One never got back to me.  The other asked for a few days to read the manuscript (which had been in her e-mail box since January).  I said okay.  She got back to me on time and also offered to represent Buried Treasure.

That's right, I ended up with two offers.  Odd how it all works.  The second agent is a friend of a friend, whom I'd been trying to reach for a while, and my friend was insisting that the agent read my stuff, and I was worried that he'd push her away by pushing too hard, and I figured she was thinking "Oh, great, this guy again."  But I also met her at the Muse & the Marketplace conference, and she was very smart and I'd liked her a lot, and I'd left thinking she'd be a great match for my work. 

In the end, after a couple phone conversations, I finally made my choice, mostly based on chemistry and the level of enthusiasm for my work, and with Regina.  I'm excited to see what happens next.

Finding an agent requires a lot of patience, work, and luck.  And the luck part isn't small.  You just need one agent to say yes.  Sometimes that right match might happen after just your first dozen queries.  But a lot of times, it'll take a lot longer and require a lot more queries and waiting.  (Or it might never happen, and you'll just have to write another book and query about that one.)  It's not easy to guess who will be the exact right match.   But if you get lucky, the right agent will read it on the right day.

Okay, I've got to go do some more waiting.  (Though it feels a little different now.  Better, I think.)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Can Playwriting Be Taught and the Value of an MFA

There's a pretty lengthy article about whether playwriting can be taught by Davi Napoleon that's just come on-line.  She talked to tons of people (including me) about it, and it seems to cover a lot of the angles.

In addition, Malachy Walsh, one of my favorite bloggers is finally back on the scene after a long absence, at LitDept.  He has two great posts about the value of an MFA for playwrights, one addressing common myths about playwriting MFAs and the other about the dollar cost/value.

For a long time, I was pretty anti-MFA, though I've considered going back for a master's degree several times.  The time never seemed right, or the program never seemed right for me.  But I've softened my stance considerably over the years, especially since a lot of my best friends  have playwriting MFAs and even teach playwriting in various programs.  For some people, it's the best way to learn.  For me, I had to learn playwriting on my own, by running theatres, writing plays, screwing up, having some success, banging my head against the wall (a lot).  But that's just me.

Maybe I would have learned everything I know now about theatre a lot faster in a graduate program, and I'd be much better read.  Hard to say.

From my point of view, borrowing money to get a graduate education in playwriting would seem a dicey call, however.  It's almost impossible to earn the money back in a timely manner by writing plays, and the cost of the debt would seem likely to suck away the time after graduation needed to actually make use of the skills gained in graduate school.

I've been pretty lucky in having a spouse with a full-time job, who has been extremely understanding of my writing life (i.e. has not demanded that I go get a full-time job).  I've made some money working part time, fixed up and sold houses, and I also have been a stay-at-home dad with our kids (going on 15 years now)--all of which took plenty of time, but also left me with more time and energy to write.  So if the point of going to graduate school is to get dedicated time to write, maybe I never needed that, because I've always found a way to make the time and usually had the discipline to make use of it.  The place I feel I've most missed out, in terms of graduate school, is having close mentors to whom I can turn to ask questions or help guide my career. I spend a lot of time fumbling around career-wise, and also working a lot with my peers (rather then people a generation ahead of me, in terms of skill and career).

For now, I think I'll stick with the road I'm on.  But I can definitely see why others choose other paths.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Don't Talk Back (or Do?)

The reading of Fire on Earth at the Huntington went quite well yesterday.  We had rehearsal from 12-5, which gave us time to read through the script once, and then go back through to look at a few important moments, figure out which stage directions should be read, and think about transitions.  We also cut a few pages, taking out some sections that were remnants of an earlier draft, that probably never quite fit in there either.  Rachel, my director (with some help from Lisa Timmel, the Huntington's Director of New Plays), was very good at helping me figure out whether the pages should stay or go.

For the reading itself, we had about 30 people in the audience, mostly people I knew.  The heavy rain kept people away--we'd cut off reservations last week (we only could seat 50) when we'd reached capacity, so we ended up less than full.  But they were a good, attentive crowd.

The cast, of Will LeBow, Gabriel Kuttner, Ben Evett, and Grant McDermott, were fantastic.  There's a special joy that comes from seeing your work read at its maximum capacity.  There's a lot less room for excuses that way ("oh, if only we'd had a different actor for that part.  He couldn't quite get it.")

We chose not to have an audience talkback, which I know disappointed some people.  I'm mixed on the value of talkbacks.   They certainly can be fun, especially for an audience eager to talk about what they've just heard.  When I helped run Colorado Dramatists (ages ago), I led a lot of reading discussions.  Over the years, I've probably facilitated at least 50, probably close to 70 or 100.  Having an experienced moderator helps (a lot).  But even then, the discussion sometimes veers into odd territory, into weird feedback, or unwanted rewriting of the playwright's work.

Still, sometimes it's helpful.  But I'm less and less likely to use them these days.  I find it more important to make sure there is a critical mass of bodies in the seats to watch the reading, so there's an actual audience there to respond.  (20-30 people will do the trick in a small space.  For a comedy, I think 20 is the minimum.  With less, you shouldn't even bother having a reading.  I make a point of sending a lot of person invites to people, to try to get them to attend.)   Part of my job as a playwright is to be able to watch my play, judge it on my own terms, while at the same time being in tune with the people sitting in the seats around me and noticing whether they're paying attention, laughing, sighing, etc.  I get better at this all the time, with practice. 

If I was in a strange city, I might actually still want a talkback, because I wouldn't know the people or how else to solicit their feedback.  Though, at the same time, too much of the wrong feedback can be very unhelpful (possibly even harmful.).

Since I was in Boston, though, I knew most of the people in attendance, and I'd made it a point to invite people whose opinions and feedback I valued highly.  Instead of trying to get their instantaneous impressions, I e-mailed all of them today and asked for them to send me any thoughts they had.  The advantage of this is that the responses are more likely to be to the play as a whole.  And one-on-one feedback doesn't favor people who are the most outgoing--the louder voices don't end up taking over the public conversation.  I've already received several detailed e-mails from audience members that are very helpful indeed.

One of the other ways I like to do feedback, which isn't what we did last night, is a millabout--where there is plenty of food and drink and we encourage people to linger and to come up and talk to me and each other.  This easier for some people than sitting in chairs waiting to be called on.  And a few drinks loosen people up.  Plus, I can eavesdrop on people, too.

The other advantage of not having a talkback right after a reading is that right when the reading is over, I haven't had time to digest my own thoughts about the play yet.  It's important for the playwright to take a little time after a reading to just sit with his or her own response and own notes, before hearing from a horde of people with other agendas.  It helps me to be better able to respond to outside feedback in a more useful manner.

And lastly (and this might seem trivial or stupid, and actually didn't occur to me before this reading, but rather afterwards), in a situation like last night, where the artistic director of a major theatre is hearing my play for the first time, I'm interesting in him taking away the experience of the play and thinking about it on his own, without that experience being stirred up and around by a discussion.  And discussions will often take a little journey and build momentum on certain topics, that after a while have more to do with the people commenting, that the script itself.  Now, of course, Peter Dubois probably isn't as likely to be as affected by this as I am myself (I imagine he's sat through many hundreds of talkbacks in his career), but still, I want to be able to talk with him about it first.

Anyway, that's my thinking about talkbacks these days.  I had a great time last night and am full of questions about what I need to do to continue to improve the script.

Monday, August 23, 2010

reading of Fire on Earth tonight

In about an hour, I need to head over to the Huntington Theatre (which is not far from my house) to work on Fire on Earth.  We've got a whole afternoon of rehearsal, with a fantastic director (Rachel Walshe, from the Perishable Theatre in Providence) and a stellar cast (Will LeBow, Gabe Kuttner, Grant McDermott, and Ben Evett!).

The reading is at 7pm tonight, and it's been sold out since Thursday.  From the reservation list, it looks like a good mix of theatre pros, friends, and Huntington subscribers.  I think you get a more honest response to the reading of a script with a balanced audience like that.

I'm excited and unusually nervous (it's a big opportunity), but I think the nervousness will disappear once we get to rehearsing.  I've been working hard over the past two weeks, making tweaks to the script.  This is my first chance to hear the whole new version aloud, and I'm grateful to have the chance with such a talented and experienced cast.