I’ll never tell you your play sucks

Here’s why.

When I first started out, I had two vivid negative experiences.

  • An artistic director told me “Never send me another play.” He didn’t want to see my work ever again.
  • A second artistic director returned a play to me (which I had submitted for a three week development project) with the note “There is not enough time to fix this play.”

Luckily I’m stubborn. These two experiences only strengthened my resolve to keep writing. Even though as individual events they were devastating, I never considered giving up a writing life. Maybe because I didn’t have a back up plan!  If those AD’s were trying to get me to stop writing, too bad.

I don’t understand the impetus to take someone down with their criticism. It’s not necessary and it’s cruel.

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Now, that’s not the same as…..

…telling someone they’re great when their play needs work. Sunshine and roses when they’re not warranted is not productive and doesn’t help a playwright move forward. That should be the goal of all criticism: comments that help a writer move forward with their work. If your comments are merely emotion, and negative emotion at that, what’s the point?

The question then may be: “But what if the play is beyond help? Aren’t you doing the writer a disservice by encouraging them to work on it?”

Who am I to make that call? The plays those ADs determined “beyond help”  have both gone on to long lives. What if I had listened to them? What I can do is make sure I’m clear about the work that needs to be done (usually via questions) and what the playwright can do to move forward.

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We all need feedback.

It’s a vial part of the writing process. Writers need feedback to grow their plays. That outside eye can be the turning point between writing a good play or a great play. But feedback can be a tricky tightrope – you have to find the right person. Sometimes you get unexpected feedback you didn’t want to hear – I received  a feedback form from a contest once (a form I didn’t ask for) in which my play was given a D and scrawled across the bottom of the page were the words “I did NOT like this play.”  

We spend so much time on our words that it hurts if they’re not loved unconditionally. It’s easy to only want praise or to disregard feedback that isn’t what we want to hear.

Feedback is a two way street. If I’m going to take care with the comments and questions I give a writer, I expect them to handle those comments with care. But if I’m the writer, and the feedback I receive is unkind with little care, then I toss it aside. That feedback is not worth my time. And that’s how you should handle unkind feedback.

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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Observation: Walking by a building in my home town, this was scribbled on the wall and I snapped a pic.  A couple of days later it was scrubbed away.

What can you do with it: The first thing that comes to mind when I read this is “blanket fort.” My second thought is “why would someone want to light a blanket fort on fire?” That’s not nice. That is a kids game gone horribly wrong.

But then again, why would anyone want to set any kind of fort on fire? What is the message behind a fort on fire? Why a fort? A bridge, I can see. A tower, I can see. A fortress, I can see – though those are usually made of stone and kind of hard to burn.  Why burn a fort? Figuratively or literally, neither makes much sense. The metaphor doesn’t gel for me.

And further, why do I need to hear the message of the burning fort? Why steal out in the middle of the night and write the words “Build a fort and set it on fire” on a wall? Those are very specific words. Those are not “for a good time call…” words. Those are not “Jimmy sux” words. This is a call to action message. This is a stand up be counted message. I’m just not sure what for. That’s what I love about it. It’s not obvious, it’s not normal.  That means it could mean anything and everything.

What do you see in this message?

 

When Feedback Bites

Rejection letters hurt. They’re depressing. They make one feel like less than a writer.

I wear a number of different hats. Along with being a writer, I also sit on the other side of the table and read submissions for my publishing company Theatrefolk. By in large, I send out far more rejection letters than acceptance letters. There are a number of reasons for that:

  • We work in a narrow niche and with specific criteria.
  • We’re a small company and don’t often double publish on the exact same topic.
  • We want to to love what we promote. So it may be a runaway hit, but it still has to grab us as a piece of theatre.

Because I’m a writer too I’m aware of how rejection letters land. They hurt. They’re depressing. They make one feel like less of a writer. It’s worse when the rejection is a form letter with no indication as to “why” a play was rejected.

For that reason I try to give specifics when a play doesn’t move forward.  A lot of the time there are other factors in play that have little to do with the quality of the work or the ability of the writer: it doesn’t fit the criteria, we just published something like it, it’s a play that should be seen rather than read.

That’s a tricky one. It’s the one that hurts writers most.

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I know this because it’s the response that gets the most bite back from writers. I have been told that I’m wrong. I have been told that the audience loved the play and so should I. I have been told I don’t know what I’m doing.

It’s okay. I can take it. It doesn’t make me change my mind, but I know why a writer bites back in that case. They have the audience applause ringing in their ears. I don’t.

It’s a bit strange to choose plays to publish strictly from the page. You have to be able to see the play and hear the play without actually seeing it or hearing it. I’m pretty good at it after twenty years. It’s thrilling when you read a play and your imagination takes over. You see and hear everything fully.  The play lifts off the page, it’s an amazing moment. It comes to life.

It may be that play is a winner when it’s produced. I’ve been in adjudication situations where I read a play before I see it and have been amazed at the difference.

But you can’t choose material based on  “may be.” More often than not, my customers won’t see the play before they chose it, they’re only going on what they read. The play has to live on the page. It has to come to life in the imagination of the reader.

If you get an “it should be seen” comment from a publisher your first response may be to lash out. Bite back. Let them know they’re wrong and they don’t know what they’re doing.

Take a moment. Breathe. In fact, take three days and then ask yourself this question:

Is it important that this play is published by this company?

Is it? Really? Because if this is the company you want to house your wares then the last thing you want to do is write a nasty note telling them they’re wrong, regardless of how you feel. It doesn’t help nor is it endearing.

Instead, see if you can start a dialogue with the company, ask specific questions about issues with the script. Say thanks for the feedback and think about sending them something else. Use this rejection as the start of a relationship. And if the company doesn’t respond favorably to starting a relationship, then you know they weren’t going to be a good fit for your work anyway.

If  the company is not important, move on. Let it roll off you. You don’t need to prove your point by telling anyone you’re right and they’re wrong. What good will it do? Find another company and get your work in their hands.

How do you handle rejection comments?

 

 

 

Playwriting Exercise: The Office

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What does your office look like? Does your office represent you or your work? Are you devoid from your office? Or do offices make your skin crawl? Does the thought of being in the same room from 9 to 5 eat away at your soul?

This Imagur album shows people in their offices around the world. Not just the shiny Wall street office. But offices from Russia, Liberia, India, Bolivia, France and more.

I think one of the comments says it best: “No matter where you are in the world, the look of silent desperation of having to work in an office is identical.”

Exercise

Go through the pictures and choose three. Do the following for each picture.

  1. Automatic write on this picture. What comes to mind when you look at it? Don’t self-judge or critique your thoughts, get them on the page.
  2. Describe this office using the five senses. What does it smell like, what are the sounds?
  3. Who is the person in this office? What do they do? How long have they been at this job?
  4. Write the internal monologue for this person. In this moment, what are they thinking? Where are they in their heads? Where do they long to be?
  5. Don’t be bound by the look on their face. Some people put up a wall when they’re in a place they hate. Think about what’s going on behind the wall.

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.

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Out of Place, out of time

When: August 17th. A Sunday afternoon.

Observation:  We have a very small horse track not so far from us. It’s actually a quiet way to spend the afternoon as it’s never busy and there’s lots of time between races. If you only bet the minimum it’s a great outing.

Last time we were there, we spotted a family. Four kids and the parents. Every girl in the family was wearing a dress or a long skirt. Every girl had hair to their waist in a braid. The father and boys were dressed in pants and long sleeved shirts. Not jeans. It wasn’t Amish or Mennonite but it was clearly a religious choice of some kind. And they were at the track.

What you can do with it:  Get writing.

  • Write a scene where a couple discusses what they’re seeing. What’s they’re response?
  • Write a scene where the husband in the family wants to be there and the wife does not.
  • Write a scene where the wife in the family wants to be at the track and the husband does not.
  • Write a scene where the only reason they’re there is to watch horses and don’t realize gambling takes place.
  • Write a scene between a kid in the family and another kid. The kid is overly curious as to why the other kid is dressed that way.

Your Life is waiting for you

The most solid advice . . . for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.  WILLIAM SAROYAN

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You’re overwhelmed, overworked, writing till the wee hours of the morning to catch up. You get things done but your exhausted, some days you never step out side. There isn’t any end in sight as the days march on and the mountain of work never diminishes.

There’s a problem with living this way. As artists it’s hard to turn down work or  manage our time in a organized fashion. But the reason you need to is simple.

You need to live life.

Living life doesn’t mean working yourself to the bone. It means going out to dinner. Going outside. Taking a day off. Playing with your kids. Playing basketball. Not letting the days pass in a fog but being in the moment and enjoying the moment.

Taking a day off doesn’t mean your lazy. Writers need days off as much as any other human being. Maybe even more! Getting away from the words will recharge the brain. Have you ever found you solve a writing problem after you’ve stepped away from the page? I solve more plot holes on walks than I do staring blankly at the immovable words.

You need to get a hobby.

Seriously. I’m not talking macrame or stamp collecting. A hobby is something, that isn’t your job that you gladly spend time doing. It can be anything. Hobbies use a different part of your brain and that’s important. If you’re only a writer all the time, that will lead to burn out.

My hobby is being an Aunt. I have two nieces and I make an effort to go see them, to plan activities for them. It’s never dull, always fun and if you want to learn how to be creative, hang out with a four year old. I also practice yoga, bake and travel. 

All of this makes me a better writer. It’s good to use different parts of your brain. Sure, you still have to manage your time so that it’s not a 24 hour niece yoga baking party on the beach. But life is about balance.  

What is your balance between writing and life?

 

 

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.

Observation Thursday

 

The Cows are found. The Beagle is lost.

When: August 3rd in the car.

Observation: I was listening to This American Life  on a drive (thankfully I was not at the wheel so I could jot this down right away) and the show had a corespondent talking about Swap and Shop. It’s a radio show commonly found in rural areas where people call in with things they have for sale, things they’re looking for, and things they want to swap. And one person calling into the show said the words: “The four cows have been found. That beagle we found, we lost her again.”

What you can do with it: Well come on. 4 cows found. 1 beagle lost. Where were the cows found? Who lost the cows? Who lost the beagle? How did the beagle get found and then lost? Who is the person calling into the show? What if sentence is actually code for something else entirely. I like that the best – write a scene where the words “The four cows have been found. That beagle we found, we lost her again” is actually code for something else. What does it actually mean? Who is listening for that code and what is their response?

Time Never Magically Appears

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst. – William Penn (1699)

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Even in the 17th century they worried about time. We always want more and no one’s figured out yet how to make the day longer.

If you are overwhelmed, if you take on too many projects, the first place to look is time. How do you manage your time as a writer?

I’ll get to it…. later…..

Many artists suffer from the misuse of time. Whether it’s not buckling down to consistent work day after day, a disorganized calendar which makes us too busy to be productive. Do you know someone who constantly cries I need more time!

Time management is your best friend as a free lance artist. Because you don’t have a traditional nine to five job, you have to figure out not only when you’re going to work but how long projects are going to take.

Get control of you time

Put writing time in your schedule or calendar. 

If you’re not writing consistently, start thinking of it as an appointment you can’t miss. You wouldn’t blow off your doctor (I’ll get there…later) don’t blow off your writing time. If it’s in the schedule, don’t cancel it. Don’t put something else in it’s place, don’t agree to go for coffee. Keep that appointment.

If you don’t like the rigidity of an appointed writing time in your day – then block off times in the calendar where you’re not allowed to schedule anything else. The last week of the month for example.

Overestimate your time. If you’re teaching a workshop, or giving a presentation, don’t just schedule the day. Block off two days before hand. That way you give yourself time to review notes, to prepare, to even just think about what you’re going to do. There’s nothing worse than feeling unprepared or looking unprepared for an event.

Look at your calendar daily. It’s great if you’ve got everything mapped out on your calendar. It’s not great if you never look at it and you make plans on the fly. That’s how you end up double booking, or not giving yourself fully to a project because you’re swamped. Put your calendar on your phone. Have it at your finger tips so that if someone wants you to do a reading, or wants to set up a meeting you can be honest about your time. Which leads to the best tip for time management….

Say no. If someone asks you to do something, and you’re booked up, say no. Don’t imagine you’re going to re-organize your time to make it work. Or that time will magically appear to make it happen. Time never magically appears.

Give yourself time to have a life

 Time management is not about being rigid. It’s about being organized, productive, and ultimately giving yourself time to have a life. As artists it’s important that we get out into the world. That we examine humanity. How can we do that if we’re hunched over our work 24/7?

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. Groucho Marx

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.

 

Hello

 

Talking to a four year old.

When: August 7th, in the pool.

Observation:  If you want to know how to be creative and never back down from your creative world, talk to a kid.  Nine times out of ten they say the weirdest thing and when you question them, they look at you like you’re from Mars. You’re the crazy one. You’re wrong, and they’re right. Forget logic. Forget reality.  This is one of those conversations. It happened between my husband and my four year old niece.

NIECE:… and then we met up with her friend and we went to dinner.

HUSBAND: What did you have?

NIECE: Guess.

HUSBAND: Chicken fingers.

NIECE: Um….. what’s that when you go to McDonald’s?

HUSBAND: Chicken Nuggets?

NIECE: (looking at him like he’s from Mars) No! Burger and Fries!

HUSBAND: So you went to McDonald’s?

NIECE: (now looking at him like he has two heads) Nooooooooo.

What you can do with it:  I like a conversation like this because it’s so non linear. It jumps and goes in directions you don’t expect. That’s what it’s like talking to a kid. And that’s what our works need sometimes. They need to be less linear. Less Point A to point B. An observation like this is a great reminder for me to practice writing conversations that don’t make total sense. That’s going to make them more human and more interesting to watch. It’s not about being wacky, just unpredictable. Write a conversation that doesn’t exactly make sense. Point A to Point Q to Point C.

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?