Ask yourself…. how you doin’?

When you’re working on a play or any piece of writing there are some key questions you should ask yourself. Sometimes when we’re in the thick of writing it’s hard to think about why we started in the first place.

What do you want for your work?

By asking and answering some questions you can clarify and focus your goals for the piece. Knowing your goals can be extremely helpful during rewrites. I like to ask these questions after I have a first draft because then I can refer directly to the text and see if my answers are reflected in the text.

If I want my play to be fast paced and action packed, but my play has a lot of complicated scene changes, that’s an issue. Nothing slows down the pace faster than a lot of scene changes. If I want the audience to have an emotional connect to my main character, but my main character spends a lot of time talking in facts, statistics and dates, that’s an issue.

Answer the following questions about the piece you’re currently working on.

  1. What do you want the audience to experience during the performance?
  2. What do you want the audience to remember after the performance?
  3. What are you struggling with right now?
  4. What do you like best about your piece?
  5. What will your audience connect to most in your piece?
  6. Why are you writing this piece?
  7. What do you want to achieve with this piece?

 

 

 

The Writing Process

What’s my writing process? Let’s find out.

This is my first experience with a bloghop. The idea is to share the writing process of participating authors.  The Struggling Writer passed the baton to me and you can read his response to the questions here. You can also see which writer he got the questions from.

Here are my answers…..

Doors and windows 12 (2)

 

What are you working on?

I have a habit of doing too much and as I answer this question I feel a little overwhelmed just looking at the list. I have a middle school play in rehearsal and it opens next week so I’m at rehearsals making final tiny changes. I also have a full length play going into production next February but the theatre company is gearing up for a workshop at the end of September so that’s my deadline. I’m also doing a lot of educational writing – lesson plans, articles,  rubrics oh my! My writing life is really varied. I just would like to be doing less things. But there’s so much to write…

How does your work differ from others in your genre?

What a great question! My work resides squarely in the theatre in education genre and because of that I have a pretty specific focus on process over production. What I mean by that is the process that the students acting in the play go through is just as important (or more important) to the students watching the final production. Connecting to an audience is always key and you have to write with your audience in mind – but – I’m also thinking about the student actor experience: having enough good parts so that an entire class can put on the play, easy staging and costuming, creating a theatrical experience.

Why do you write what you do?

I love writing for the school market. I feel there’s no group more enthusiastic, open, daring, or energetic than the high school drama production. It’s a joy to watch them work. Further, I don’t know if I believe theatre in the adult world actually has any impact or influence. Does theatre change lives anymore? I do know theatre has impact and influence at the school level. Just being in a production can change a student’s life. And it doesn’t matter what the play is either. It could be intense and dramatic, it could be fluffy and total fun. It’s the act that matters.

How does your writing process work?

I always start with pen and paper. I haven’t got to a point where I can create on computer. Call me an old lady but the act of writing with a pen is just so utterly satisfying. I feel more creative with a pen and paper. When I start writing it’s all scrawl. There are notes, point form lists, snatches of dialogue, ideas, lines crossed out. There is no rules and there are no bad ideas. It’s a true honeymoon stage. It’s my favourite phase of writing.

creative_color_pencil_02_hd_picture

 

Having said that I wouldn’t give up my lap top for the world. Because there always comes a time when I’m tired of writing things out and I want the structure of a formatted play. Once I transfer to the computer I focus on getting from the beginning to the end of a cobbled together first draft. I’m still  not worrying about plot holes or character questions but I do want to put together a first draft that makes some sense. This is my do draft. I just get’er done.

Then I move on to the why draft where I question everything. Why does this happen? Why does this character act in this way? This is the most painful stage because one question can derail the whole writing process. Once I get through the first why draft I’m ready to start showing my work to others.

I have a trusted reader who I show my work to and he’s the first person who sees anything I write. If I get the thumbs up from him then it’s time to start seeing the work on it’s feet. A play is not a play until it is produced. And that means first a reading and then a workshop and finally a fully staged production.

And then the process starts all over again….

The Next Step

I have passed the baton to Bradley Hayward a fellow playwright. When he answers the writing process questions you’ll be able to them on his blog. Enjoy!

 

Your Restaurant Scene Isn’t Working

I have read countless scenes that take place in a restaurant.

restaurant

Two people sit down. They look at the menu. They talk about the entres. They order. And… I am…. asleep…..

This is exactly what happens when two people go into a restaurant. It makes sense to follow that pattern, especially if you think that a restaurant is the perfect place for a scene.

But no one goes to the theatre to see the way things are usually done. No one cares if Jimmy orders the french soup and Jane orders a green salad. If they wanted to see what goes on in a real restaurant they would go to a restaurant. They’re not at a restaurant. They’re at a theatre.

You have to do two things with your restaurant scene. Right now.

  1. Get to the point.  We don’t need to see two people ordering soup to know they’re in a restaurant.  Why are they they? How does this scene help move the play forward?
  2. Make it extraordinary. That’s what people want to see. They want to see something they recognize twisted into something that just doesn’t happen in daily life.

Keep in mind – extraordinary doesn’t have to mean aliens drop kicking the white house. It could. That would be something to see. It could be as simple as the waiter taking the orders at that restaurant breaks down at the table because french onion soup reminds her of her husband who left her for their French Canadian neighbour yesterday. That is something that doesn’t happen every day to two people ordering in a restaurant.

Don’t discount the aliens though, that would be interesting too.

Exercise

  • Make a list of five ordinary situations. Eating in a restaurant. Driving to work. Sitting at your desk. Washing dishes.
  • With each situation brain storm five extraordinary events that might happen in that situation.
  • Choose one situation and one event and write that scene. Dont get caught up with reality or money or that could never happen. Just write the scene.

Here is a great example of what I mean by taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. In this video a man makes tea. That’s it. And yet the manner in which he makes tea is far from ordinary….

 

Are You Invisible?

invisible

I dramaturge a community project t in which playwrights write plays based on a historical locally connected topic. It’s the hardest kind of play to write especially for the beginner because they have to take research and make it sound natural and organic.

How do you combine information you really want the audience to know and theatrical writing effectively?

What often happens is the dialogue comes across as informational.  Dear brother, I can’t wear stockings, it’s 1942. There’s a war on don’t you know. It sounds like the playwright lecturing directly to the audience – here is information you need to understand in order to get this moment. It doesn’t sound like organic dialogue that would happen in natural conversation.

Are you invisible in your work?

Are you? Does your dialogue sound like natural organic conversation or are you trying to direct your audience experience? If that’s your calling, then you should be on stage instead of behind the scenes. One of the jobs of the playwright is to disappear.

Certainly you need  a point of view.  You need a reason for writing. A thesis. And you want to communicate your reason to an audience. But your characters should not, and cannot act as your mouthpiece. They are not shills for your point of view. They have to have their own voice and their own personality.

It’s not easy to write this way. It’s difficult to imprint your thesis on a variety of characters sharing a story and make it seem completely natural at the same time.

So how do you do it?

  1. Develop your characters fully. Make them specific, make them unique, make them three dimensional and most importantly, give them enough details so that they differ from you and your personality.
  2. Develop a clear character want. If you have a character expressing your personal point of view, make sure they express that point of view via a defined want. In that way the character is more than a mouthpiece. They have drive, they have reason, they have purpose beyond what you want them to say.
  3. Never have one character say to another “….do you remember…?” or,  “as you know….”.  these are give away phrases that what comes next is not something the character would ever say, it’s something the playwright wants the audience to know. And that is neither natural or organic.

Are you invisible in your work? Why or why not?

Discipline or Devotion?

medal

I ran a half marathon yesterday. It’s my second of the year. I did pretty well (for me) with the first half marathon but there were some problems :

  1. I didn’t fuel properly leading me to severely run out of steam in the second hour.
  2. I didn’t stretch properly in the weeks leading up to the race leaving me with screaming hips.
  3. I went out way to fast in the first hour leading to the same steam problem in #1.

For this second race, I’ve spent the past two months correcting these problems. Practicing with different types of fuel. Stretching at least six days a week. Working with a timer to get the pacing down.

I was psyched for this race, I had a plan ready to execute. I was ready to roll. Except for one thing. The one thing I didn’t prepare for.

Hills.

The first three miles for this half went uphill. Let me repeat that. I ran uphill for three miles.  Half an hour. Up hill.

Every plan went out the window. Well, except for the going slow in the first 30 minutes plan. That was inevitable. But after a half an hour running straight up hill (UP. HILL.) My legs weren’t all that keen to continue to run another 10.1 miles. Neither was I.

And yet I did. I wanted to quit. I thought about walking the rest of the race.  But I didn’t. I was determined to carry through and finish.

I’m not a disciplined runner. I only run 3-4 times a week,  I’m not the ideal shape or weight to be a great runner. I don’t have any plans to change these things.

I am a determined runner. I know how to get the job done. When my plans for the race went awry,  I had to decide quickly how I was going to handle the rest of the race. I decided to enjoy my surroundings, take in the day, put a smile on my face and keep running.

I am a devoted runner. I can’t believe I have the capacity and the ability to run for over two hours and not feel like falling apart after. I love how running makes me feel. I miss it when I don’t do it regularly.

What kind of writer are you? Disciplined? Determined? Devoted?

As I write about my race, I see the same patterns in how I write.

I’m not a disciplined writer. I don’t write for hours at a time, every day. I don’t write at a desk. I have gone for a month without writing and not felt bad about it at all.

I am a determined writer. I know how to get the job done with a piece. Deadlines work for me. Often there’s no one else pushing me but my internal deadline and I’ll feel guilty if I don’t meet it.

I am a devoted writer. Writing is the thing I love to do. It’s the most important activity in my life. I work to make sure writing is not a chore or a task. I never want to be a slave to writing, I want to enjoy it. That means, perhaps, my writing isn’t as successful as it could be. Or as well known as it could be. But I do know it means I’ll never be a regretful writer.

Who are you? Disciplined? Devoted? Determined?

What type of writer do you strive to be?

What type of writer do you want to be?

What type of writing works best for you? 

Two Steps to Creating Specific Characters

I’ve always been a character writer. I love character development, my favourite theatrical experiences center on interesting, well-developed characters.

What is your favourite part of a play?

One of the reasons writer falters, certainly in a play, is because of one-dimensional characters. Characters with no life outside the play. Characters who are there only to serve the plot. Characters who only exist in an occupation – teacher….doctor…mom… (unless of course this is a specific theme driven choice. I have a play where the characters are numbered One to Fifteen) The more alive a character is on the page, the more they’ll come alive off the page.

How do you create specific characters?

Take these two steps and you’ll be well on your way to creating specific characters.

Give them a name. This is the easiest place to start. Even if that name never makes it into the script, the easiest way to visualize a character is to name them. A name is the gateway to so much information. I have a play called Sweep Under Rug in which there are two sisters named Miranda and Ariel. The names come from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The mother in the play is never seen, but is described as a drug addict and all around “bad person.”  

I wanted to provide a detail that showed a different side to the mother, since she can’t speak for herself. That side is a love of Shakespeare.  Yes you have to know Shakespeare to get the reference, but if you’re a director studying the play it doesn’t take too much research to find out where these two names come from.

Secondly, Miranda and Ariel are very pretty names. It’s even hard to say the names in a harsh manner. The world the characters live in is decidedly ugly. I purposefully chose pretty names for these characters to contrast their surroundings.

How do you choose names for your characters?

Character Specific Language. When you’re writing for specific characters you want to give them their own language. What words do they use? How do they sound? Do they use a lot of noises – umms, coughs, hums? How do they sound when they get emotional? How do they breathe? How do they respond to pop culture? Would your character swear or say “oh my gosh?”

Establishing a character language is extremely helpful to crafting character driven dialogue. In Sweep Under Rug the older sister Miranda is extremely depressed. She’s sad to the point that she can’t express herself fully. She doesn’t know what to say or how to say it.  To that end, she  is losing her language. She speaks in fragments. She doesn’t use complete sentences.

MIRANDA: Walls crumbling away. Crumbling.

She’s also a poet. In a couple of moments where she’s able to communicate, she shares her view of her world in a poetic form – it’s something specific and different from her world, it defines who she is as a character.

MIRANDA:  Getting worse out there. Anger under lock and key. One with Knife. One with Nail. Yesterday one just takes your stuff. Today you‘re dead. Today there is a never ending rain, never ending in your bones. Flood up to the ears, up to nose, up to eyes. It‘s the knowing we will drown. That‘s the worst part.  

If you just take these two steps with your characters you’ll elevate them off the page. You’ll make your characters come to life. And that’s going to make an audience remember your work.

The Top 5 Tips to Writing 500 Words a Day

Could you write 500 words a day for a month? For a month with 30 days, that’s 15,000 words. When you add up the numbers it seems like an insurmountable task. Let’s forget the concept of just writing for 30 days straight, to give yourself a word count just adds to the mountain. That rigidity of must write – must meet a quota certainly should lead to writers block or at the very least writers fatigue.

I wrote 500 words every day for the month of January.

Every day, I sat down either with my notebook or on my laptop and wrote. Sometimes I barely squeaked by with 500 words, other days I ended up with twice as much. I wrote in the car on the way to family birthday parties. I got up early when I had a full day, I even wrote on vacation. In general, it took less than an hour each day. One day I only had 20 minutes and pushed myself to reach the word count. At the end of the month I had a first draft of a full length play, half of a one act, and the first drafts of ten articles.

It’s not an easy exercise, but it’s not hard either. There are procedures you can put in place to make sure each day gives you usable material.

What’s Your Endgame?

The overall goal is to write 500 words every day for a month. Beyond that however, it’s important to think about your specific goals.

  • What would you like to have accomplished at the end of the month?
  • Are you working on a project like a novel or a play?
  • Are you writing blog posts?
  • Are you a new writer and simply want to create a habit of writing?

All of these examples are valid and useful expressions of the exercise. If you establish your end game before you even start, you have a reason to write every time you sit down. You have a goal in mind.

And don’t worry if your goal is to work on a book and a couple of days you end up free writing because your brain just isn’t in the mood. The exercise isn’t a punishment.

Further to that, over time you may find that your goals change. My end goal was to finish the full length play. Around the third week I had enough material to start rewriting, which is why I switched my 500 a day goal to articles.

Plan the Night Before

Staring at the blank page is the easiest path to writers block. And there’s no worse feeling than when you set a task for yourself and nothing comes to mind. Spend five minutes at the end of each day thinking about what you’re going to write. Put a question at the top of a piece of paper, or a sentence, a theme, or idea. That way when you sit down to write half the work is done for you. You don’t have to think about writing, you just do it.

500 words does not mean 500 perfect words

This project is hard enough on your brain. To worry about the quality of the writing only adds extra hardship. Don’t be afraid to free-write your 500. Throw your focus into staying on topic but after that just get those words on the page.  You may even not want to worry about rewrites at all during the month. That’s a mistake I made during the exercise. It was difficult to use one part of my brain for rewrites and then switch over to another part to get those 500 words on the page.

Announce Your Work

One of the best parts of my experience was that I had to tell people my word count each day. Writer Jeff Goins set up a closed facebook page where participating writers committed to posting each day. This set up didn’t work for every participant – Facebook can be a time suck afterall. For me it was the accountability I needed to keep writing, and keep track of my words. I also liked having a place to share with others going through the exact same experience.

If you don’t have a group to share your count, reach out to some fellow writers and start your own. Announce your daily results on any social media platform. Aside from posting on facebook, I also Instagramed a writing picture each day.

instagram 500 words

You could even ask a friend or family member if you could email them every day. The method matters less than the act itself.

Celebrate Your Efforts

A exercise like this will illuminate for you the true nature of writing.

When you’re writing that much on a daily basis it’s becomes easier to see how much of the process is work. It’s easy to see how often your brain doesn’t come up with wonderful shiny ideas.

You’ll see what it means to have to sit down and crank out words when you don’t want to. You’ll learn how to write on a consistent basis rather than when the muse strikes. You’ll figure out if writing is something that you really want to do.

For me, this project was an overall joy. I love to write and love to push myself. It wasn’t always pretty and the last week was by far the hardest. But I came to the page every day and put something there.

You can do the same.

Make a commitment to write 500 words every day for a month and see what happens. Make a commitment to write 100 words a day. Or make it a time challenge. Get up five minutes early and write. Or take fifteen minutes out of your lunch to write.

You’ll be amazed at the results.

Stay On Your Side of the Fence

“Comparison is a killjoy: it will steal every ounce of
contentment in your heart. It will rob you of
perspective and leave you feeling empty.” ­ Kristen
Welch

Artists are really good at looking over the fence. Comparing what they have to what some else has. Suffering from the ‘grass is always greener’ mentality. I must admit, I am not immune to feeling this way:

Oh I wish I had written that. Oh I don’t write like that, I’m no good. Oh they got that award, that teaching gig, that production. Why them and not me? What are they doing I’m not? Why is their lawn so beautiful lush and green, while I’m crunching through crab grass? I’m no good, I’m no good…..

On and on it goes.

“If you compare yourself with others, you may
become vain and bitter, for always there will be
greater and lesser persons than yourself.” ­ Max
Ehrmann

It becomes a plague in your artistic life to always look elsewhere and compare
yourself to others. The blight grows and grows until we are nothing but a shell. We have no
opinion of our own work, just that it’s not as good as everyone else’s. We have no faith in
our skills. We have nothing. We are nothing.

How is that a way to live? How is that a way to move forward with your art? It’s tiring, and
it’s less than productive. You’re not creating anything new when you compare. It’s a never
ending circle.

“I will not reason and compare: my business is to
create.” William Blake

The only way to fight this need to look sideways, to peer over the fence, to beat everyone to the punch and beat ourselves down, is to do your work. Work makes me so happy, I’m thrilled when I’m writing well, when I can see words marching across the page.

Whenever I get into that mode, when a big ‘woe is me’ threatens the edges, I make a promise to myself: write for five minutes. That’s it. No grand work session. No vaulting mountains. Five minutes of writing and then if I still want to partake in the pity party, I can.

More often than not, I just keep writing.

Besides,  it is impossible to be like others and get what they do. Until the scientists figure out how to have the masses thrive with one brain, we all use our own. We think uniquely.  We approach life in our own special way. So even if we were given the opportunities of said lush green grass owner, who knows if we’d get the same results.

When we think someone has it better, has more opportunities, is being a better artist than – how do you know they don’t look sideways at you? Maybe they look over their fence and long for  your crab grass.

“When you stop comparing what is right here and
now with what you wish were, you can begin to
enjoy what is.”  ­ Cheri Huber

So instead of focusing on others and what they do, focus on what you do. Do your work.
Write your play. Dance your dance. Act in the way that you know how to do. Others will
get jobs that you want. Others will succeed. If you look ahead instead of to the left or right, you will move forward.