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?

 

Observation Thursday

Every Thursday I post something I’ve observed. I don’t know when or where I’ll use it but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the consistent habit of making an observation and writing it down. When you start to do that, everything becomes an idea for the future.

What’s your observation?

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The line that says it all

Observation:  A lady putters slowly by on a mobility scooter.  She is talking on a phone. As she goes by, this is what I overhear. “So that’s how I was banned for life from Shooters.”

What can you do with it: Didn’t your head explode a little bit at that whole image? Woman on a scooter. At the tale end of a story. About some place called Shooters. Where she did something that caused her to be “banned for life.”

  • Who is this woman? She’s older, she doesn’t look like the type who would get banned for life from anything. What’s her life? What’s her background? Why is she in a scooter?
  • Who is she talking to? Is she a relative or a friend? Is this person surprised that Scooter Lady has been banned for life from somewhere? Or is this the kind of thing that happens all the time?
  • What’s the story? What is Shooters? Is it a pool hall or something else? Is it a Basketball bar? (Who knows, could be) How did Scooter Lady end up there? What did she do to get banned for life? How does one get banned for life?
  • Is she telling the truth? Is Scooter Lady the type who lies or tells the truth? Did she really do something bad or is she just telling tales because she wants to make her life more exciting?

And after you have all that…. Write a monologue for the listener. What does she say after hearing Scooter Lady’s story?

Do you keep the rule of three sacred?

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I could be talking about Aristotle’s Three Unities of Tragedy, or the rule of three in comedy (although if you can go to 17, it’s even better), or even the pattern of writing where the flow works best when events come in threes.

Those are great. This rule of three will save your brain from overload.

Last week I talked about Overdoing it and now it’s time to turn the boat around. Let’s get into the solutions for overdoing it.  What can you do to keep your writing life fulfilled but sane?

 

The Rule of Three

When you’re considering a new job or a new project,  answer the following three questions:

  1. Will it make you happy?
  2. Will it provide a unique challenge?
  3. Will it make you money?

In an ideal world, we should answer YES! to all three questions. We’re happy, we’re challenged, and we’re paying the bills. But let’s face it, we’re artists. I’ll bet you can name dozens and dozens of projects that made you happy and offered a unique challenge. It becomes harder to name those projects made money and also brought happiness or challenge.

New Project = Time

But these are the things you need to think about. New projects take up your time.  Your valuable time.

You want to be wary about are the projects where you’re answering NO! to all three questions. Those are the red flags. There’s many reasons we take on new projects. Maybe you’re helping out a friend or a relative. Maybe someone wants you to do just one more thing. Maybe you’re trying out a project just one more time to make it work. If you’re miserable, if you’re not challenged, and if you’re not being financially compensated, then why are you doing it?

Worse are those projects where not only are you not being financially compensated, you’re expected to pay in. There are many playwriting contests and theatre groups that expect playwrights to pay if they want play. We’re supposed to be grateful for the experience. The experience of performance is not enough. It’s not worth your time.

Money, money, money…

You want to be wary too of the money only projects. I’m just doing it for the money, I know I’m doing it for the money, it’s ok. It can become a mantra when you’re working long days on something that doesn’t serve your soul.

I applaud anyone who can just do it for the money.

Seriously, I wish I could do it and maintain my happiness. But I can’t. I’ve done it twice. Both times were total misery. Damaging my health misery. Sucking up months of my time. It wasn’t worth it.

Is happiness enough?

Of course that brings us back to being happy and challenged but maybe not being paid. You have to consider that as well. Your time is valuable. Only you can answer the question – Is happiness and creative challenge enough? 

It all depends on how you define happiness. In my early years when I wasn’t making money as a writer I would temp. I would work full time as a secretary for six weeks and then write for two. That made me very happy – the bills were paid and I was working to make writing time.

Recently I’ve started adjudicating festivals. Some for free because I’m a beginner. The act makes me happy because I’m developing a skill.

Here’s the bottom line.

Never flippantly take on something new without thinking it through. Every project sounds interesting on the surface.  But what are you getting out of the experience? What is your time worth?

  1. Will it make you happy?
  2. Will it provide a unique challenge?
  3. Will it make you money?

 

 

The keys to done town

You know a play is finished when….

So when is it? Is it the day after that first draft when you feel so excited to get to the end? Is it after draft three? Draft seventeen? Is it after your first reading? Your fourth workshop? Your tenth performance?

What are the keys to knowing when a play is finished?

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The Audience Response

You’re sitting in the audience. Your play is on the stage. You are looking for two reactions:

  • Laughter.
  • Silence.

If you’ve written moments of levity the only way to know they’re working is when you hear an audience react. Is the timing right? Does the audience laugh when you want them to? Does it get a guffaw or a nervous titter? Does the action on stage move a laugh forward?

My favourite reaction in the world from an audience is nothing. Silence. The audience is so captivated by what’s happening on stage they forget to move. They are so still, they are so drawn into the world of the play they can’t think about their laundry or their aches and pains.  That is when you know to close the book.

The Actor Response

When you’re in rehearsal for a new work, actor questions are good. If they’re asking questions that means one of three things:

  • They’re trying to figure out their character for themselves.
  • They ‘re confused about their character.
  • Something is wrong that needs to be fixed.

I love being asked questions about a play. It’s amazing what prompts a question in a text. You have to remember that you’ve been living with this play for a long time. You know a lot about the characters and how they came to be.  It’s an actors job to come to a same or similar place with their character. That’s why they ask questions. It’s not necessarily because your work is incomplete.

I don’t always answer them – sometimes an actor will ask a question that is pure interpretation; the answer should come from within them.

Having said that, sometimes their questions reveal missing plot points, unclear details, an interpretation that you didn’t intend at all. And when these types of questions come up, you need to pay attention. These types of questions indicate that your work is not finished.

The Enjoyment Factor

I recently had a premiere. And after the show was over, I realized how much I enjoyed the performance.  I was an audience member. I wasn’t agonizing over the words.

That is a great sign that the play is finished.

This does not always happen. I have sat through shows and I know it’s not good enough. The pace is not clear. The transitions need work. Characters need clarifying.  And sometimes you have to really open your eyes in these moments. You have to know when a piece isn’t finished even though the audience was having a good time. Even though the actors didn’t ask those red flag questions.  You have to be able to examine a script and say I could do better.

It’s the worst feeling in the world to put so much time and effort into a play and at the end of the road know it’s not done. But you have to be truthful with yourself. Do you want a good work or something great?

Beware the Perfection Monster

Time and time again the thing that stops writers from finishing work is the perfection monster. It has to be perfect. It has to be absolutely perfect.

There is a difference between knowing your work can be better and trying to make it perfect.  You can never make a work perfect. It’s impossible. First of all, perfect for whom? Our audiences do not think with the same brain. If you make your play perfect for one group that means another group will think it’s decidedly imperfect.

Stopping any forward motion with a piece because you’re waiting for perfect will only result in an unfinished product.

We have to finish product. We need work ready to produce. Ready to produce again. Ready to publish.

That is what getting to done town is really about. Finish so that you can start work on the next project. And in order to do that, you need to know when you’re finished. When you can close that door and open another.

  • Listen to the audience.
  • Listen to the actors.
  • Listen to yourself.

Learning how to finish makes you a writer.

Observation Thursday

Observation is my number one method of finding play ideas. If you’re ever at a loss for coming up with something to write about, start logging observations. I write down observations on a daily basis and on Thursdays, I’m going to share one with you what I’ve seen and then you could do with it.

Observation Thursday

 

Baby Headbands

Observation:  A woman at a church bazaar selling teeny baby headbands that seem totally inappropriate for babies.

Date: Saturday May 24, 2014

Comments: So I walked into this bazaar, the whole town I was in was having garage-sales-a -polooza event and I was wandering from one to another. This one was in the basement of a church. You can tell at a glance if the bazaar going to have tables with interesting crafts, or crochet toilet paper roll covers.  This was a category B bazaar. At one table a woman was selling these very small headbands for babies. I guess it’s important to dress up a baby. I don’t have one, I don’t know. But the thing that struck me was that they had feathers, and beads, and tiny shiny things attached to the headband. I have a five month old niece. EVERYTHING goes in her mouth. I can just image her getting hold of this headband. Sticking it in her mouth. And you know the rest.

What can you do: You always want to think of the person or character who could be connected to an observation. And in this case, my thought was – everybody has a job. It could be mailman, teacher. It could be something less stable. It could be glamourous or anything but. School is a job. Doing everything or anything possible not to work is a job.

So who’s the person who decides to turn baby headbands into a job? Are they changing careers? Is this their first stab at making something? Is this a hobby that’s getting some traction? What about the relative of this person – your sister makes inappropriate baby headbands and wants your baby to wear one. What does that scene look like?

See you next Thursday!

 

Which do you choose?

which one do you choose

I’ll be putting together a Free Online Training just for writers in the next couple of weeks and I want your input. Which free training would be most valuable to you right now?

1. “Have you Written Anything I’ve Heard of?” Feel like a Writer in Seven Steps.
2. All My Ideas Suck: How to Find and Develop Play Ideas.
3. The Ultimate Writer’s Check List: How to get to the end of a first draft and beyond.

Please click here to head over to my facebook page and post your choice in the comments.

Thanks so much!

 

Have You Joined My Email List?

You should. Not only are we some pretty cool writer cats, but there’s exercises, questions to ponder for your work and writer self reflection. You can be a focused, purposeful writer who not only does their best work but gets work done.

That is the endgame here – get your work done so you can get it out into the world.

Join in, sign up, it’s free and totally focused on writing.  If that’s your idea of a good time (and who doesn’t?) click below!

Forgetful Nut?

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Has this ever happened to you?

You’re watching a rehearsal or a production of one of your plays, or maybe you’re reading something you’ve written. You hear a line or read a sentence and your first thought it – “Who wrote that? Did I write that? I didn’t write that – they must be throwing something new in. That must have been edited.”

This happens to me all the time. I’m watching a scene and I’m sure the actors aren’t saying my dialogue. I really like what they’re saying, it’s great stuff. But I’m sure it’s not mine.

Of course, when I go to the original material it’s totally mine. The actors are not  making something up or throwing something new in. They don’t have to, they have a script. It’s my dialogue.

So am I just a forgetful nut or is it something else?

When I watch one of my plays, I really try to become an audience member. I don’t want to be THE PLAYWRIGHT. I want to be entertained, moved, made to laugh. I want to be engaged by the theatrical experience. And that means sometimes I forget the writing process of a particular play. I think that’s good – I don’t want to be reminded of what it was like to write a play, I want to be swept away by what’s in front of me.

An audience doesn’t care about the fact that it may have taken 2 years to write something, or that you re-wrote such and such a scene 12 times. They care about the experience. And so should we.

When you read or see your work, do you remember the process, or are you engaged with the product?

Ritual or Habit

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Is writing a ritual or a habit? To which ideology do you subscribe?

Writing as Ritual

Those who believe in ritual worship words. They respect the power of words and the ceremony of writing. The writing ritual has certain and specific steps that must be followed.  There is a specific atmosphere that must be invoked in order for words to flow and prosper. Writing only happens in a special place or at a explicit time. The ritual must be authentic or else the writing will be disingenuous. This writer has far too much devotion to the word to ever let their work falter or become base. The ritual is everything and the ritual is what makes words come to life. That is what makes this writer thrive.

Writing as Habit

Those who believe in habit are practical. Writing is a job. A wonderful awesome job, but a job nonetheless. Writing is work – sit down, roll up your sleeves and get it done. Writing doesn’t happen at a special time or place or with a special pen. It happens when this writer puts words on the page. And this writer is dedicated to words on the page; good, bad or ugly. Writing on a consistent basis is what defines a habit. Words on the page makes this writer fulfilled. And then once the words are on the page, the habit becomes to craft the words, make the words better.

What do you believe? Do you savor the ritual? Are you a roll up your sleeves type? Which ideology is right?

Which ideology is right?

That is what the beginning writer wants to know. What path do I follow to become a writer? I need to know the exact steps that will take me from A to Z. Am I on the right or wrong path? If I’m on the wrong path, I’ll never become a writer.

The right path is the one that gets writing done. If a belief in ritual works for you, it is your path. If you squirm at the thought, don’t subscribe. If you find yourself following a completely different path altogether, don’t look back.

There is no formula, no doctrine, no one way to write.

Exercise

Finish this sentence starter: I believe writing is…..  What? What do you believe about writing and being a writer? Get it on paper, keep it close by. See if it changes year after year. Define your own path.