The Play (Dialogue) Is the Thing.

I’m near the end of a latter draft-a stage script I’ve been working on for about two years or so, with some time off. Comedy, with a few touching (one hopes) moments.

It’s the first full length play I have written. I like it. I think it’s funny when it should be. The plot is not complicated, but I hope the dialogue is fun for most people to listen to. And of course, fun for future actors to deliver.

The plot is straight forward for the most parts. Not many sharp twists and turns. Maybe a surprise here and there, but nothing to blow people away. It wasn’t designed to blow people away.

Some people will argue against this, but I’ve always felt that in script if the characters are memorable and the dialogue fun to  both speak and listen to, half the work if not more, is done.

I’ve been in theatre for a lot of years now, in all kinds of different plays. Some had complicated plots, and some had virtually no plot. Everything in between. And while upon reading a script I can be impressed with plot depth or twists to a certain extent, as an actor it means little if none of the characters say anything memorable.

This is not to suggest that plot doesn’t matter in a play. Of course it does. But Shakespeare himself wasn’t considered a keen plotter. In fact, most of his plots are structured around plots that already existed. May not be totally fair of me to pull the Bard out like that to prove my point, but when it fits it fits; Shakespeare is not beloved for his plots. he is beloved for his language and characters.

But set him aside for a moment. Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter” (in which I played Geoffrey once) is bar none my favorite non-Shakespeare script. At times it dips its toes into “convoluted plot” territory. But I, and I imagine many thousands of people over the years (thanks in part to the movie version as well) find it easier to overlook some of that thickening plot due to the absolute brilliance of the dialogue. Seriously, if you took the 30th best line in this script and put it in just about any other play, it would be the best line of that play.

But if the characters were flat? If their speeches were droning, repetitive affairs? The script would deservedly be long forgotten, if it ever would have been published and produced at all.

Boring characters doing something interesting will to me always lose out in a head to head battle against fascinating people doing mundane things.

Even in such genres as farce, wherein nothing is to be taken at face value and nobody represents any realistic person, we still must recall the nature of a character and what he or she brought to the absurdity. Otherwise, it’s boring people yelling, falling, and slamming doors for two hours. Who cares?

Other people will almost certainly not be amazed by the plot of this play I am writing. But I hope they will remember with a smile the characters and some of what they say.

If that happens, I will have done my job as a playwright.

 

How Much Writing Do You Save?

On a top shelve in my closest is a set of boxes full of paper. The thickest of these contained the original first draft of my debut novel, Flowers of Dionysus. Four hundred-fifty odd printed pages. (I think the word count was around 120,000.) Those boxed pages of my proto-novel have scribblings in red ink all over the place.

If you’ve read it, (it would be nice if you did) you know that the final word count of that novel was about 80,000. I removed almost half of those first draft pages in total. Then I stuffed the draft in the box.

I printed each subsequent draft of the novel, (each one thankfully a bit smaller.) I also boxed them, and put them in the closet on top of the box with the first draft.

A lot of real estate on that shelf is dedicated to the initial versions of debut novel.

In contrast, there is zero shelf space dedicated to drafts of Murder. Theatre. Solitaire. One reason is that I only ever printed the rough draft, on which I made the usual notes. I never printed the following drafts.

Furthermore, I didn’t even save the printed first draft. I may or may not save future novel first drafts; I’ve not yet decided. But I have decided that the first draft will almost certainly be the only one that gets printed. You see, I’m not a pack rat of drafts anymore.

At first I thought it was important to somehow archive every draft of my novel. Not because I thought the library at Marietta College would one day beg for my papers relating to my runaway bestseller, but because I had learned over the years that many authors save every scrap. Every draft, every scribble, every character sketch, every abandoned story. “You never know when you might need that scrap,” said the advice articles collectively. Others also mentioned how valuable it would be to see my progress as a writer later on.

I think I’ve opened the first draft box once or twice. To the best of my memory, I’ve not cracked the boxes of the later drafts of Dionysus since I stuffed the papers into same years ago. As I said, that was the first, and last time I followed the practice.

Lest you laud me as some kind of eco-hero I must point out that I don’t save digital drafts either. I write my second draft of a novel within the master file of the first draft, according to the notes  made on the printed paper.As that remains the file I alter throughout the entire process; I don’t archive previous versions. I sense how small of a minority I’m in here, but I just don’t see the point much of the time.

My goal when writing a piece is to produce a finished product that people can read, enjoy, be moved by and so on depending on the nature of the piece. That process of polishing and fixing and softening edges is just that-a process. I have certainly learned, I hope, from the process of writing any  given novel or short story, or play, but as my goal is to create something that is better than the current draft, holding on to the current draft serves little purpose to me beyond nostalgia.

Don’t get me wrong. If I find any given excised scene from a novel worthy of its own story at some point I will set it aside in a separate file for future consideration. It’s uncommon, but it has happened. Yet in that case it’s more a matter of source material, than a draft, because I’ll only keep the pieces that have potential, and not the entire version of the novel by which they are surrounded.

And abandoned projects? (Defined as those that were never completed, as opposed to completed works for which I have not yet found a home) I don’t actually have many of those. If it’s a short story that I have started and couldn’t get going, I’m more than likely to just can the entire draft, and start over in the future if/when the idea can be approached in a fresh manner. I’ll be aware of what went wrong the previous time from memory. So it’s not just a matter of room or computer memory, but a lack of necessity, on my part.

As for longer abandoned works, those are even less common. In fact the only unfinished long work I have is the novel I iced (ironically) two years ago this very day. While I have my doubts that a novel will ever emerged fully formed from those pages, I have nonetheless held on to them, as much for the time I put into them than anything else. I will mention that the nature of what that novel tried to be provides some fodder for a potential short story collection, so for now it is archived and not trashed.

Abandoning a novel after that much work on it is somewhat nauseating, and I hope not to repeat the experience often. But if I do, I won’t know until the time comes if I keep the drafts or not.

I do still have what remains of my first ever Nanowrimo experience. I didn’t finish the plot, but got to 50K in a month. I’ve never dug back into it, and although I could one day, it’s still around as much for the distinction of being my first Nano than anything else.

In short, from what I gather from the comments or other writers I save far less than average. Drafts are for the most part a means to an end with me, and abandoned projects are usually abandoned with good reason.

How about you? What do you save of previous drafts or abandoned projects?

Forget Number of Words.

There are times, when you work for someone else or if you are entering a contest when you need to pay strict attention to how many words are in your story. And I’m aware that,at least for now, the traditional market has its own standards for length of work it is willing to try to sell.

Still, I say 85% of the time, forget length. I mean it.

If you bother to write fiction, you have a story to tell, obviously. The story has to feel complete to you, and it must meet your standard of excellence. (And I hope you have one.) If this is accomplished in 50,000 words, 150,000 words, or only 20,000 thousands words is not material. Forget labels such as novelette, novella, novel, epic, short story, flash fiction.

How many words must it have until the story is complete in your heart? How short does it become once you have tightened to language to your own satisfaction, made it as evocative as you know how, and gotten rid of anything that doesn’t make you happy? The answer to both questions is, “it doesn’t matter.”

You will edit, yes. Words, chapters will likely be added and cut. And yes, if you want to go with the traditional route of agent and publisher, there are expectations. But those expectations are for much further down the road. And here’s the dirty little secret; if you publish it yourself, there are no limits at all, for minimum or maximum length.

I can’t promise you the general public will want to read your 300,000 word epic fantasy, even if you promote it to death. People may scoff at the idea of a novella of novelette. (Though this is changing over the last few years.) But if you have thought of, written and edited a story that ends up being 30,000 words that you love, don’t wrack your brain invented another 20,000 because the most generally accepted minimum length of a novel is 50,000 words. Call it a novella, if it makes you feel better, or just insist you wrote a novel that is shorter than most. Hell, call it “egg salad,” if you want to, but just make sure that through inspiration, time, writing, revisions, editing, reading, polishing and more polishing, you finished product is truly yours, and not subject to numbers.

It must be yours first. The rest is minutia.

24 Hour TheatreFest: Conclusion

I rarely spend 14 hours in a row away from home, unless I am on vacation or something. But yesterday I did, arriving at the theater at 8:00AM, and leaving at about 9:30PM.

I won’t leave you suspense; my play, based on the laughs from the audience, was a success.

The writers weren’t required to stay for the entire day. I however opted to, not only because I wanted to be there to rewrite a section if needed, but also because I’ve not seen a script of mine performed before, and I wanted to experience that as much as I could, from first reading through to the performance itself.

I also wanted to be there to help with any technical things, such as moving things, cleaning, looking for props and such. It turns out I wasn’t needed for most of that most of the day, so I spent most of the time with the cast of the show I wrote.

A friend of mine directed this one day affair. When I first asked her a few months ago if she would do this, I explained that I was to be a hands-off writer. I’d write the thing, and be present for the auditions, but from then on, it would be her project. I’d just be observing. I like to believe that for the most part I achieved this.

That to me is the true nature of theatre. Yes, its possible for somebody somewhere to be completely wrong-headed in their approach to a text, but when theatre people undertake a production in good faith, I don’t think this happens much. And it didn’t with my play. Any two people are going to do something a bit differently in the theatre, and there are choices that I would have approached differently throughout the process. But that’s exactly what they were; choices. I trusted in the choices of the director and the actors. (I will admit it was easy to trust the director, since I have known her for years and she is a friend of mine. That’s why I asked her. Still…)

My words, her direction, the four actresses. All left to their own responsibilities. And it worked. I’m glad I kept my distance. I don’t see what I as my own director could have done to improve it much. Time would have improved all the shows last night, but that is the entire point of a one day festival; no time.

Sort of reminded me of college a bit. Not the writing part, but the all-day weekend rehearsing part. Especially this time of year; those of us in January shows back in college often had to come back before the rest of the student body and rehearse all day every day for a week. Yesterday had that chaotic, mostly fun energy to it. (Though of course I wasn’t acting this time.)

One interesting part of the experience as that our show felt like it went through the stages of a regular show. The morning started with a table reading or two. Some conversations about the characters. Blocking a little later, working trouble spots, finding the props, and so on. It was of course a long day, time wise, but it felt like in some ways it was more than a single day. Not because of tedium, but because we hit just about every milestone of a six week rehearsal process within that single day. By the time I got home, it was actually hard to remember that when I had gotten up that morning, nobody in the show had yet read the show.

In the final two hours before the show went on, I was more stressed than I thought I would be. Not a wreck, but I had thought earlier in the day that once things were all set, I, as the writer who had no further responsibilities would just relax and watch things unfold. Not quite. “Nervous” doesn’t feel like the correct word here, but it’s the closest word I have right now for how I felt. There was no fear, and I was certainly not relaxed in the final two hours. I wanted to get on with it, and yet I didn’t. I knew the crowd was to be a good size for the venue, and I wanted to know if they’d find the show funny or not. But I also knew as soon as it started, it would be done, and I had enjoyed the process of seeing the director and cast bring my show to life.

So, an eclectic mix of feelings near the end. Especially helplessness. Which is not to say hopelessness. But there was little I needed to do all day, and by the two hour mark, there was nothing I could do. It was going to be what it was going to be from my perspective. On the community level there is a certain amount of work a director can do on opening night and beyond, but a writer? It wasn’t until those final few hours I remembered; I have never been the writer on opening night before, unless you count performing my own material. For that I was too busy getting ready to perform to worry much about my own writing.

As I said at the start, the audience laughed a lot at my little comedy. Not as much as I thought they would in some parts, and more than I thought they would at others. Much of it, more of it, has to do with the actors and direction. As an actor I have always said that without good actors, there isn’t much point to a stage show, and I am only more inclined, not less, to think that now that I have been on the other side.

Theatre is collaboration, or should be. I am obviously not a professional playwright at the moment-I don’t make money from this. Those that do have the legal power to insist on total control over how their scripts are performed all over the country, right down to the nature of what costumes their characters can and cannot wear. Should I ever writer a stage play that is sold somewhere, I hope to not be that possessive of my material. Yes, I still expect a good faith adherence to what I actually wrote, whether that be something like last night, or something on Broadway. But if I can’t let go enough to let actors and directors make some choices about my work, I don’t have business writing plays.

Total control over how things unfold is why I write novels. Even then, as any author will tell you, an author’s control is still sometimes tenuous over the material. And it amounts to zero once we talk about the imagination of readers.

So though I didn’t do a lot on performance day, it was still an exhausting and rewarding day. If I ever do this again, I probably won’t come in in the morning for the whole rehearsal process, but I’m glad I did yesterday. I hope the play is performed again somewhere, someday.

Public, though discreet thanks to the director and cast members of “Common Cold.” I am grateful for the outcome.

24 Hour TheaterFest Vol. 2

Last night, (and to an extent, just a few hours ago) I finished the script for the 24 hour play festival I talked about in my last post.

To begin with, turnout was lower and much younger than expected, so the talent pool was smaller than organizers had thought it might be. I too thought there would be a few more people. But that is what it is.

It became clear also that there would have to be a lot of room made for kids under 16 years old. I hadn’t planned for this to be as big an issue.

Still, I made it work. Once the three directors met after auditions and hashed out who would be playing in what play, (a process that went faster than any of us thought it would) it came to pass I had to write a script for four people, and two “kids” though in my case they are probably closer to teens than children.

Once the place cleared out, I set up my laptop in the men’s dressing room of the theatre, basically in the same spot I put my stuff when I am in a show there. I had a few very broad ideas in my head, but decided early on which to go with. And because I had gathered what kind of opening to a play would as I watched the actors audition, the start of the writing was fast going. Though I had to take a break and ponder a small issue in the narrative for 15 minutes or so, I was almost constantly writing the piece.

I’d say I had a finished on-act script after a little over two hours of work. About 15 pages of text, though, that is a very different thing when writing a script than when writing a novel or story. Depending on how well the actors commit it to memory, I estimate it will actually take little more than ten minutes to perform.

There are a hundred ways to go about a challenge such as this. My own approach was to come up with a story wherein two people wanted something, and neither had it, nor had the desire to undertake what they needed to get it. Instant friction.

Second, I wanted to make sure most of the lines I gave the characters were one or two sentences, both for ease of memorization and because in this setting I think a back-and-forth play is more effective, and in my case, more funny. A sitcom pace, to some extent.

Something this short to me ought to be memorable for what is being said. If I had all the time in the world, I could of course add more nuance, as a polished theater piece should have, but given the constraints, I opted to put most effort into the dialogue. As an actor, I would appreciate that, so I wanted to give the actors playing these parts fun things to say. If i create something that is not fun to rehearse within the frantic 12 hours the actors and directors have today, there is no point in any of it.

After reviewing it a few times, (and letting the other two writers in the TheaterFest read it and offer thoughts) I decided around 1:15 AM this morning that yes, I had a script that was short, fast, fun, and still up to my standards. Something I was willing to put my name on. Something I would enjoy performing, if I had to.

Did I succeed in all of these goals? No way to know yet. But I will head to the theatre soon, and join the actors and the director as a passive observer of the rehearsal process of my words. I will not be co-directing. I am leaving the interpretation and presentation wholly in my director’s hands, and those of the cast she (mostly) chose. I will know throughout the day if the actors have a good time with it, and will know tonight if the audience did as well.

Check back in here for an update.