Use Fear For Good In Your Work

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What do your characters fear?

Fear is such a wonderful motivator for characters – with both positive and  negative connotations.  Nine times out of ten when a character reacts out of fear it’s going to be worth watching. Fear is captivating because it’s a primal human emotion: Do you know someone who won’t do something because of fear? Who won’t get on stage, or get on an airplane? Who won’t make life changes because they fear the outcome? And on the other side, do you know someone who works to counter a fear – a fear of turning out like their parents? Or a fear of becoming poor? And what about that climactic moment when a character decides to stand up and face their fear? What an exciting moment! When they stand up to their overbearing boss, or jump off the cliff, or walk out the door. The possibilities are endless. These are the traits that make characters three-dimensional and interesting.

Exercise:

It’s important to know what your characters fear, even if it never directly ends up in your script. It will definitely effect how they act in your work and how you write for them. Knowing what your characters fear will make your writing specific, and that never hurts. Take your main character and answer the following questions:

  • What does this character fear?
  • What is the origin of this fear?
  • How do they act when they think about this fear?
  •  How does the fear affect this character’s life?
  • Does any other character know about this fear? Does that bother your main character?
  • Will this character ever be free of this fear? Why or why not?

 

How do you define success?

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If you’re reflecting back at the year that just happened and thinking about the year ahead, it’s inevitable you’re going to consider success and failure. Maybe it’s been a year where there have been more of one than the other. This may be uplifting or send you in a down ward spiral.

If you’re in reflection mode and planning mode it’s vital that you determine this one thing:

What is success?

You not only need to define this for yourself, you need to write it down. Put it somewhere safe (and that you can remember) so you can return to this definition on an annual basis.

It’s important to define success for yourself because there is no one definition. Not in the arts.

An actor can work on TV or on the stage or in movies. Which is the definition of success? Is it TV or movies? Is getting awards the definition of success? Is it money? Is it getting an agent? Is it acting on stage on a regular basis?

A writer can write novels, plays, or screen plays. Which is the definition of success? Is it writing every day? Is it getting a book deal? Is it being produced on Broadway?

Further to that, you can’t define your success on the success of others. This is a trap. As a young playwright I made this mistake time and time again. I lived a bitter life because I looked at the success of other writers and I defined myself on those successes. If I didn’t get what they had, I was a failure. But when I defined success for myself I realized I didn’t really want what they had.

What is success?

When you define success you have a goal. If you have a goal, you can create action steps toward that goal. Steps are important. You don’t want to leave your goals in dream land. “I wish I could do this…. I would love to be that….”

Don’t dream about success. Write down your definition. Take action.

Reflect back. Face forward.

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December is here! That means the end of the year is right around the corner. Are you ready to tackle 2015?

I know you just got your Christmas decorations up. But now is the time (and not in January) to figure out what worked this past year, what changes need to be implemented, and what projects are on the table for the year ahead.

That’s right. You should be planning your whole year, right now.

There was a time when I had no idea what was going to happen from week to week, let alone year to year. Planning a year in advance is actually quite freeing. It not only lets me know when I’m doing certain thing but when I’m not doing things. For example, I have a new play development workshop in the spring and I’ll be writing a new play in the summer/fall. By planning those events in my calendar now, I’ll be able to see when I have free time and when I’ll have to say no to new projects.

It’s not perfect, and there are always the snags that life throws in. I had a number of different plans for 2014 – which was actually my biggest misstep – too many projects. I’ll be amending that for 2015.

Reflect Back

Reflect back on your writing life in 2014. What happened? What were your successes? What failures can you learn from and change? Did you take on too much? Did you plan to finish something and life got in the way?

Face Forward

Now what do you want to happen in 2015? Don’t get bogged down by what you didn’t do or didn’t accomplish this year. Face forward. Look ahead. Where are you going? What do you want to do? What are five steps you can take to make this happen?

 

 

A picture tells a thousand words

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I came across some pretty haunting pictures that are ideal for a writing prompt.

Click here to see the faces of soldiers before, during and after war. The pictures are over at upworthy.com. I keep going back to the look in their eyes in the after pictures. What have those eyes seen? How have they changed? Each face tells a story. It’s one I probably could never imagine in my nightmares. But this is what writers do, isn’t it. Imagine what we have not lived.

Exercise
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Look through the sets of pictures and pick one man. Decide on who this soldier is, write a brief character profile for them. What’s their name? How old are they? What’s their background? Where do they come from? How long have they been a soldier? Where are they coming back from? Are they married? What does their family think of war?

Write a monologue of your character as they are before war, during war, and after. It could be an inner monologue or a direct address. Decide who they are talking to in the monologue and what is it they want to say. What is the inciting incident for the monologue? What’s the reason they open their mouth and talk? What’s something they could say in a monologue that they could never repeat out loud? In that after monologue what has caused that look in their eye?

In a month where we are supposed to remember and more often than not I’m too busy, these pictures say a lot.

Are you a playwright who asks “How do I get published?”

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It’s not an illogical question. It’s not a wrong question. It’s what writers do. Writers get published. That’s how you become a professional. That’s how you make money.

But that question is not going to help you make a living as a playwright.

Why? Because plays are not meant to be read. They are meant to be performed. That means productions matter over publication. And further unless you’ve been on Broadway, or unless you have an amazing track record in regional theatre, why would a company go looking for your play in a catalgoue? And lastly the doors to publishers are getting harder and harder to open. Samuel French stopped taking unsolicited submissions.  

Stop banging your head on a door that won’t open.

Put your focus on productions. That’s how you make your play the best it can be. That’s where you can get social proof for your play: reviews, testimonials, interviews.  That’s how you give your work credibility.

And if your question then becomes – “How do I get productions?” my primary piece of advice is write to a niche. If you want to make a living as a playwright it’s more effective to be a specialist in one small area than to try to write plays for everybody. That’s what a thousand other playwrights are doing. 

For example I write plays for schools and student performers. Period. That’s all I do. It makes looking for productions pretty straightforward. I know who my audience is, I know who I’m writing for, I know who’s going to buy my work and more importantly who’s not.

In my niche (and I think my niche alone) the publication model is different than traditional theatre. Publication is not the end of the line because many teachers are willing to take a chance on unknown work. They’ll produce plays they’ve never heard of. Many teacher compete with their programs and they want the edge that a lesser known work can bring. But you have to be careful of language and you have to treat touchy subjects theatrically instead of realistically. That’s what of the rules of my niche.

Another rule is that this adventuresome attitude is only for straight plays, and one acts at that. It is not the case at all for musicals – there it’s MTI all the way.

  1. What niche can your work fit into?

  2. Examine that niche. What are the rules?

  3. Can you write to those rules without compromising your own artistic rules?

 

Don’t ignore the every day

An observation doesn’t have to be….

Weird, wacky, out of the ordinary all the time. The point of an observation is that it’s something that comes across your world view. What do you see every day? What patterns repeat themselves? Do you know someone who says the same thing every time you see them? What about an object you see on a regular basis. Observe it, write it down, reflect on it. What’s going on in your world?

My Observation

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I live by Lake Erie and we have several public beach entrances. It’s a great place to walk. I pass by  this sign every time I go to the water, which is at least twice a week.  It’s a part of my every day and it makes me smile every time I see it. There’s so much to love about this sign. It’s totally old school. The Palmwood still exists but the “Circus by the Sea” night club is no more. Every time I see that a million questions go through my head. What happens at a Circus Night club? Does it matter than it’s a lake and not the sea? What’s the food that has been blacked out in-between Canadian and European? And what is Canadian food anyway – butter tarts and poutine?

What was life like at the time when this sign was current? I can only imagine. And I do. 

17 Questions to Ask Yourself in the Dog days of Writing

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When you’re closer to the end of a draft than to the beginning it’s time to hunker down and get specific. Look at the play you’re working on and answer these questions. If you can answer every one with confidence, you’re nearing the finish line.

  1. Why does the world of the play matter?
  2. What makes my story specific and unique?
  3. How does each scene advance the journey of the play?
  4. Is there anything I’m holding on to in the script, even if it doesn’t advance the journey? Why?
  5. Is there any time I repeat myself? If so, why is it important to the story to repeat that information?
  6. What style am I writing in?
  7. Why is this style necessary to the world of the play?
  8. How do my main characters change from the beginning to the end of the play?
  9. What are the flaws in my main characters?
  10. What makes my main character specific and unique?
  11. Why does the main conflict matter?
  12. Who is my audience?
  13. What do I like about my audience?
  14. How do I want to challenge my audience?
  15. What do I like about this play?
  16. What do I love about this play?
  17. What challenges me about this play?

What did you observe today?

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Did you write it down?

Make it a habit: Observe something, write it down immediately. Observe, write. Don’t wait till you get home, the moment will be gone. Carry a note book with you at all times. If that is too cumbersome, get a phone app. I use  Google Keep.

My Observation

The picture at the top of the post is supposed to represent the future of Charlotte, NC. There are two other murals beside this one (past and present respectively) but this one was just wacky to pass up. What on earth are we supposed to think of the future based on this painting?

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Is culture being trapped in a box? Will the environment burn? We’re going to live in pyramids and young boys will wear their parent’s coats? Sure, that’s being literal but come on. Doesn’t it seem to lack cohesion? Perhaps I’m just a dullard when it comes to art. In any case it makes a great writing prompt. This is your future – write a scene that takes place in this world. 

 

 

 

Create Your Own Feedback Sheet

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You’ve received some feedback. The best scenario is that the feedback is useful, helpful, and practical. It inspires you to get to work right away. The sky opens, the hallelujah chorus plays and you know exactly how to move forward.

This does not always happen.

In fact it rarely happens. For many writers, the reaction when they get feedback is What do I do with this? What do I do now?

Avoid this by creating your own feedback sheet.

Don’t hand your play off to a respondent with a Tell me what you think! Give your respondent direction. Give your respondent context. Give your respondent a specific job as they read your play. Not only is this going to make it easier on your respondent (most times if a respondent fails to give feedback or gives crappy feedback it’s because they have no idea where to start), it’s going to give you a clear picture of what’s working, what’s not and where you need to put your focus during rewrites.

The Feedback form is divided into two parts.

PART ONE

1. Answer this question: Where are you with this draft?

Is this a first draft? Have you been working on it for a month or a year? Are you happy with what you’ve written? Are you frustrated? What do you want to accomplish with this play? Let your respondent know exactly where you are with the draft.

Eg: This is my second draft of “The Waiting Room.” I’ve been working on it for three months. I really love my beginning but struggle a lot with the end. I want this play to really hit the audience. I want them to be dazed when they leave the theatre.

2. Give the respondent a job.
Instead of asking “What do you think?” give a specific job to your respondent. Give them ONE thing to accomplish as they read your play. Ask them –  “Do you think the ending is satisfying, why or why not?” Ask them –  “Is the main character is loveable or hard to connect to?” Ask them  - “Did you get the plot twist?”  Come up with ONE thing you want your respondent to answer.

PART TWO

In Part two you’re going to avoid asking for likes and dislikes. These are opinions and they’re subjective. Just become someone “likes” your work doesn’t mean it can’t be improved and just becomes someone “dislikes” your work doesn’t mean it has value. Instead ask your respondent for Impressions and Questions.

1. Impressions are important because they tell you what stays with the reader. And what stays with the reader is what is going to stay with an audience. It could be a moment, an image, a character, a tone, a line of dialogue. What resonates? Ask your respondent for 2 to 3 Impressions.

2. Questions are important because they give you something to answer. They give you a task to accomplish right away. That means you’re not sitting staring at your feedback wondering where to start. You have forward motion. Ask your respondent for 3 questions.

When you give a draft to someone for feedback include your version of this Feedback sheet. By doing so you’ll up your chances of getting that useful, helpful and practical feedback that will move your work forward.

Observation is your number one tool

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What did you observe today?

The best way to never run out of ideas is to have a consistent stream of input. And the best way to have a consistent stream of input is through a habit of observation. Make it a habit to write down one observation every day. What’s come across your world view? What did you see, hear, smell, touch, taste? Don’t worry about where you’ll use this observation. What matters is that you create the habit and you maintain the habit. Observe something, write it down. When you do that, everything becomes an idea for the future.

My Observation

Here’s a conversation I overheard yesterday between a couple:

_________

SHE: That food truck only has mac and cheese.

HE: No they don’t.

SHE: We went and all they had was mac and cheese.

HE: No they don’t.

SHE: We went -

HE: This is a special event.

SHE: I hate mac and cheese.

HE: I SAW their menu. There was NO mac and cheese.

SHE: Really? Can we go look?

HE: Yes.

________

What can you with this: This was pretty much word for word. Even the emphasis.  I did not see the couple, only heard the conversation. The first thing I would do would be to create a relationship profile. Who are they? How long have they been going out? Are they happy? Why was the boyfriend (or husband) so emphatic? Have they been irritable with each other all day? Why? Is this really a conversation about mac and cheese or something else? What’s going to happen tomorrow?

Write an inner monologue for both characters. What are they truly thinking during this conversation?