Category Archives: Playwriting

The Year Without End Ends

Well, 2008 has been quite a year. I got my daughter back from Russia. I made the decision to put my mother in a nursing home when my wife and I could no longer give her the level of care she required, and then said “see you later” when God took her home.

Well, my daughter is a student now, and my son is in a faraway city, and with mom in the hands of the Lord, my wife and I are real empty nesters now. So what am I going to do about it in 2009? Here are some things I’m considering.

  • Get back on the Wii Fit trail.
  • Finish the “clean house and get rid of unnecessary stuff” project – which may take all year.
  • Learn the 10 songs I’ve finished writing and haven’t yet learned – and learn them.
  • Find the 21 songs I singled out into a “haven’t finished writing but should finish because they’ll probably be good when they’re done” list – and finish writing them. Then I should probably learn them, too.
  • Speaking of my songs, I really should play out more. I’ve averaged one gig a year (except for 2006, which I missed completely).
  • I really should rewrite and edit my novel “,,,and that’s the end of the news”. Then I could use it to find a new agent. Or a publisher. Or both. Don’t know if I’ll get to this one, though.
  • I probably ought to fix that broken Christmas play, too. Again, don’t know if I’ll get there.
  • I need to get the two VBS plays into some kind of shape so they can be sold over the Interweb.
  • I’m also scheduled to write my third VBS show this year, and my first Christmas Pageant. I know I’ll get to those.
  • In October/November of this year I designed a game involving Zombies. Playtested it over Thanksgiving with my son, daughter, and assorted relatives. Now I need to tweak the rules and try another playtest. But when?
  • Finally, I need to get back on the reading wagon. Maybe I’ll buy a Kindle and forget about a lot of that unnecessary writing stuff.

It should be an interesting year.

The Next Move

So over the holiday break I’ve been making tiny mental deposits about A Father Christmas, but I’m thinking that the reworking of the script is going to take longer than the six weeks or so that remain for me to get it in during the month of February. There’s lots of work to be done, and given the way that my writing time tends to evaporate anymore, there’s just no way I’m going to make it – especially since I’ve got to rethink so much of the way the story unfolds. So for the moment the show is on the back burner, but now my directoral bow probably won’t be until 2008.

With that delay – or should I say creative procrastination – in mind, the end of the year finds me pondering what my next creative move will be.

Here’s one of the things I’m thinking about. Around last year at this time I was thinking about playing out for a second time – and perhaps more. I’d even flirted with the idea of playing out once a month. But I haven’t played out at all this year. And while I was working on this year’s two principal projects, A Father Christmas and The Terrible Misfortune, my songwriting pretty much fell off the face of the earth, after a fairly productive 2005.

Hence, one of my thoughts is to take a year off of writing and work on my music – songwriting, performance, singing, and just general practice and learning more on the guitar. I thought of doing this because within a couple days of finishing work on A Father Christmas, songs started coming out of me again.

A couple of other things. Since discovering Lulu.com,I’m thinking about self-publishing The Mushroom Shift again.

I’d e-published it several years ago, and did it, as it turns out, just a couple of weeks before the outfit I’d chosen to do it changed their business model and got out of that part of the business. Going with Lulu would give folks the choice of getting the novel as an electronic file, or, thanks to the magic of print on demand, as a traditional book. It would also be available through places like Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.

(Not that this is a huge undertaking. I’ve got all the files for the publication project, and I could probably do it in the space of an afternoon. But I would have to make some kind of ongoing effort to promote the book.)

Then there’s book projects, always looming. Deadline, which I’m about a third of the way through, and and that’s the end of the news, finished in first draft and idle for three years, waiting for revision. Add to these the notion I’ve had to blog a novel as I write it, letting all of you folk out there read and comment on it as I go.

Of course, a year is a long time. I could combine work on a number of different things, say, publish The Mushroom Shift, then work on the music while tinkering with an appealing book project. It’s just a matter of sorting out which and what and when.

I’ve got a few days before the new year to think about it. And technically, I don’t have to start anything smack at the start of 2007. It’s just a convenient time to do it, but I don’t know that I’m all that obsessive about the the timing.

Or maybe I’ll just do nothing for a year.

Well, I’ll see what my subconscious has to say about that.

Listening:
the TV set

(written by hand with the lap desk and using The Pen. More about The Pen in a couple of days)

The Reading Party, or, If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Don’t Become a Writer

It never ceases to amaze me. Just when I think I should shutter the doors on this online journal, something comes along that I realize I haven’t written about, and the blog goes on for another few weeks.

My wife and I hosted the reading party for A Father Christmas last night. I brought in five community theaters regulars, a writer-in-progress with some theater background, and my two children. And between Christmas cookies and other snacks, we managed to slog our way though the second draft of the script.

Yeah, I said slog. A funny thing about writing – you can look at a manuscript all you want and think you’ve cut it to the bone. But then something happens that makes you reassess what you’ve done and suddenly there’s stuff all over the place that makes you cringe as you reach for the red pen.1

In the case of the Christmas play, it was a matter of having a bunch of people together in one place at the same time reading the parts of the characters. Not only did I hear lots of cringe-worthy moments that made me bloody my pages with red ink – but between acts and afterwards the readers had lots of useful comments for me. It helped that one was a writer, but some of the other had lots of theater experience and were quite articulate in things they thought were wrong with the play:

  • The parents were nice… too nice… sickeningly nice;
  • But the wife was something of a cypher who didn’t really react to losing her adopted daughter (well, the play is called A Father Christmas, but that’s no excuse);
  • The antagonist was not nearly sympathetic enough. With him the way he was, the court case would have been a slam dunk in favor of the parents. Making him more sympathetic would create more conflict over who had the right to the child;
  • The antagonist also didn’t act like someone who’d been in the military, who’d seen combat. And he was a loser;
  • The courtroom scene was way… too… long…;
  • The six-year-old seemed more like a four-year-old (that’s a fair cop – my six-year-old was six twelve years ago);
  • Some of the dialogue was really, truly, cringe-inducing. No, wait. That’s my comment. Although one brave soul did tell me that one particular line “really sucks” (if I hadn’t caught it and red-penned it, it was red-penned then);
  • There was also some disagreement among the cast over the motivations of some characters. Some agreed with what I’d used, some didn’t. Lining those up for tweaking, too, to get everyone on one side – hopefully.

Looking at this laundry list of literary sins, perhaps some of you writing aspirants are thinking that maybe my friends were a little too articulate in their critique of my play?

No. They weren’t.

That’s why I picked these folks. I knew they’d be honest. That’s what I needed. Besides, in my career as a novelist, I’ve had my share of criticism that was just plain mean spirited. It was filed under the heading “Reviews.”

See, editing is an important part of the process of creating a piece of writing, but the ability to see what needs to be edited or revised is one of the hardest things to learn. Ask someone who teaches writing at any level of education. I have even been asked to speak in classes specifically about the need to edit one’s on writing simply because the participants thought that one draft was all that was needed and that their work was perfect, say Amen and close the door.

But it’s not. It’s the very nature of our closeness to a work that we sometimes get blinded to its faults. So we do things like employ outside readers (for a general look or to look for specific things), or set manuscripts aside and work on something else for extended periods of time (at least a month works for me).

Besides, if you’re serious about writing, you understand that your work is going to come under scrutiny at some time or another. Better that you give it your own beforehand. There’s no guarantee you won’t get an unflattering review, but how much worse will it be if you realize that it addresses dumb, stupid things you did in your draft that you would have fixed had you only known about them? Besides, if the mistakes are that dumb and stupid, they will likely prevent your work from getting into print in the first place. Yeah, better to get those out of the way now, while the manuscript is young.

Which means you’ve got to get used to criticism. Which means seeking it out.

Author David Brin has an approach to using outside readers that I think should be a model for how we all approach criticism. He recruits readers to look at his work – and if they don’t have any criticism of the manuscript at all, he does not use them again.

The lesson being, the whole object of the criticism exercise is to make the manuscript better, not accumulate Yes-men who would grin and nod their heads if you handed them your novel that reads like it was carefully plagiarized from the Manhattan Telephone Directory.

On the other hand, you don’t want to continually use someone who shoots your material down just for the sake of being critical, or perhaps out of jealousy (I’ve chronicled here before about an acquaintance of mine who did just that, so I won’t revisit that here – just be mindful that folks like that are out there).

Which is why it helps to accumulate a trusted group of people you can rely on for that kind of favor. If they’re writers, you should be prepared to return the favor for them, too. And if they’re not, well… maybe you could promise them a part in the play (if you’re writing one).2 And if not, well, I usually promise an autographed copy of the book. Some people have been known to respond well to plates of Christmas cookies, too.

So don’t be fearful. Thicken your skin and seek out folks you can trust to give an honest criticism of your work. As I said, if you don’t, there are overworked editors, agents, and critics who will also point out the error of your ways in terms a lot less blunt. And if you can’t bear the thought of doing it, be prepared to accumulate a closet full of unfulfilled manuscripts.

Or else become a goth poet and do a lot of coffee house readings.

Yeah, the reading party worked really well for me. It’s a shame that I can’t do the same for a novel. I did put out a feeler – “Anyone want to come over and tackle my 800 page thriller?” – to which I got the response, “Should we bring our sleeping bags?” Guess I’ll have to stick with first readers, and letting the manuscript sit.

And in the case of And That’s The End of the News, that’s one peoject that ought to be ripe for the plucking. While going through the blog to add categories labels to all the posts, I realized that it’s been three years since I last looked at the manuscript.

I’d better get another box of red pens.

Listening:
And then I heard some footsteps in the hall outside my door
The same ol’ Christmas trick my dad had played since I was four
He stands outside my bedroom yelling “Ho! Ho! Ho!” because
He knows I don’t believe in Santa Claus

(via iTunes shuffle play)


1 Yeah, I know that by tradition it’s a blue pencil. But what I’m doing is editing to get a manuscript in shape to face the blue pencil, so I use a red pen, which can be easily seen against the white page and black print.

2 But what if their comments result in you cutting out their part? Best not go there right now…

Media Obscura

With all the work and thought I’ve been putting in on the play, I thought that the lull between finishing the second draft of A Father Christmas and the Reading Party would give me a chance to cool my heels creatively.

But this hasn’t been the case. I finally have gotten to pick up the guitar for a bit here and there, and I realized this morning that, after a long dry spell, over the last couple of days I’ve got three new songs in various stages of completion. There’s Seasons of Discontent, which spins off of the opening line of Richard III and goes from there. It was supposed to be about guys my age whining about their lives, but it’s evolving into a brief history of 60’s counterculture. The music is in place for this one but I need to finish the lyrics.

Then there’s a random portrait of a character song called Woman in a Red Coat, which I realized after writing most of the lyrics should be called Woman in a Black Coat – but it’s too late now because I’ve filled the words with red imagery that black just won’t do justice to. Lyrics mostly done, needs music.

Finally, another character piece called Three Fingered Mickey. I was scrolling fast down a web page a few days ago and my eyes caught the phrase Three Fingered Mike. Or so I thought. I went back to find it, but it was just a trick my eyes played on me. So I wrote the phrase down. I thought it sounded like a good song title, so I started to strum out a progression for it. Words followed. It’s probably 90% finished.

So much for a vacation.

I suppose this brings up the question of when you’re going to get to hear these. Well, I’m going to have to finish them first. And there are lots of unfinished and unfulfilled notes on songs in my song notebooks. Then there’s the matter of recording them, or at least performing them at an open mic night (when I’ve only done that once so far). And then there’s the matter of whether I choose to perform them or one of the other originals that I’ve already finished and pretty much nailed down.

On the other hand, there’s the theory of obscurity, which states that art is only pure when you remove the need for public consideration.

Art, schmart. These are folk songs (of a sort). The people are supposed to hear them.

So again, when are you going to get to hear them? That’s a really, really, really good question.

Listening:
Don’t take any wooden nickels
When you sell your soul
A devil of a time awaits you
When the party is over
you’re on your own

(via iTunes shuffle play)

You Don’t Want to Be Inside My Head, It’s Dark and Full of Spiders

Twenty-nine pages into putting the changes into the second draft of A Father Christmas sees the length down by two pages thus far. As I got into it and saw how the cuts were affecting the length, I was hoping the manuscript would be shortened by 1 page for every 10, which would cut the potential length by 15 minutes. I’m running a little short at this point, but I think it’ll come along.

Last night I dreamed that I invited some friends over from church because we were going to wait out the coming of the zombies. We were lackadaisically getting our survival gear in place, and I took out my Glock and started to load it. I told one of the guys from church, “This baby is great. It saved my life when this happened last year.” And at that point in the dream, I could remember what had happened the year before, and how the gun had indeed saved my life.

There was also a bit toward the end of the dream when I realized I didn’t have enough ammo to get through the night, and there was a part where a zombie got into the house, and when I aimed the gun at him, he said, “Hmmm, nice gun,” and I thought, “Ah, they’re intelligent this year.” But that’s kind of moot.

What’s really strange is having a dream that is so detailed, that I actually have memories of the dream’s back story.

It’s rather strange when that happens. This wasn’t the first time, but I remember the first. I dreamed that I’d been caught shoplifting and I was worried sick because it was my third offense, and I knew I was going to go to prison for it. And I could remember the other two times I got caught shoplifting. It was so vivid that when I woke up, I had to go into the bathroom and splash my face with cold water so I could wake up and remember that I’ve never done that sort of thing.

So this morning I told all of this to my wife, including the bit about the shoplifting dream, and she said, “I’m glad I don’t live in your head.”

Yeah. Sometimes it’s no picnic for me, either.

Listening:
Moving liquid
Yes, you are just as water
You flow around all that comes in your way
Don’t think it over
It always takes you over
And sets your spirit dancing

(via iTunes shuffle play)

Holiday

Happiness is finding out you’ve got twice as many days off to use up by the end of he year than you originally thought you had. I was under the impression I had two, and one of those I was using on the day after Thanksgiving. But a check revealed four. This was a surprise. The way that things have been going the last few years, I haven’t really had a vacation since… I’m not sure. 2001 maybe? Since then my days off have all been frickered away with house emergencies or sick family members or being ill myself, or one annoying thing or another, with a few intermittent days off to do things like write or go up to the Rock Hall for the Tommy retrospective.

But four days off? Wow?

So I took Wednesday off. I drove up to Kent State University with my daughter, and while she was in class, I did the bohemian thing of hanging out in a coffee shop with a scone and a latte and worked on editing the play. Came home and managed to get through the rest of the play – some 48 pages worth. Now all that remains is to get the time to put the changes into the computer for Second Draft, and then it’s time for a reading party.

Thursday was Thanksgiving, of course, and yesterday I slept in, walked the goats and dog with my wife and daughter, did some puttering around the house, and worked on mucking out the goat stable. Watched Night Watch, a Russian-made modern fantasy that wasn’t half bad. Not knowing Russian enhanced the creepiness of the film for me, because it added to the alien-ness of it all1.

Today will be some errands, some family fun and frolic, and later on, some time at the computer typing the changes into the play. By the time I get back to work I’ll have spent five days away, using the holiday to pad out the time off. And I must admit… I’m starting to feel pretty human again.

Listening:
Sometimes I get the feeling
That I won’t be on this planet
For very long
I really like it here
I’m quite attached to it
I hope I’m wrong

(via iTunes shuffle play)

1 I’m of the school that foreign films should be watched in the native language with subtitles. Run Lola Run is a great film in German, but becomes a cartoon with the goofy job they did of dubbing the film in English. Night Watch is also fascinating because the prologue and epilogue are in English, and the subtitles are done in such a way that they become part of the film, being obscured as people move across the screen, appearing in different places and different colors for emphasis. It’s the best job of subtitling I’ve ever seen in a film.

Claustrophobe

Act One, Scene Three is edited, and the act is finished. Next up, the longest scene of the play, Act Two, Scene One. It’s the courtroom scene, and going by page count it would run about 45 minutes just by itself. The usual disclaimer about pacing applies, but I’m going to see if some judicious trimming can get it down by about one-third. I already know of a couple of things that can be taken out without harming the flow or the content. I just have to find more stuff like it. If what I’ve cut out of the first act is any indication, I shouldn’t have much of a struggle in finding material to delete.

I’m starting to get a little claustrophobic about the remaining time I have to get this edited, have a reading party, and incorporate any resulting changes into a third draft that will go to the play selection committee. My wife thinks I can pull it off, but I know how time gets sucked away during the holidays (this Saturday is shot, for starters, and a couple more between now and Christmas are already spoken for). If I can get the third draft done before Thanksgiving, I’ll be happy. Otherwise, I’ll be looking at getting it done in January, right up against the February deadline.

But hey, I bet I’d have it done before Saddam is hung.

Now that is a deadline.

Listening:
I don’t want to go to Las Vegas
I like better Carson City
I’m like a dog for you
I just wanna be with you

(via iTunes)