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.
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.
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.
Tomorrow evening I’ll be taking my writing skills over to the Black Box Arts Center. (Where I do most of my acting these days.) I’ll be writing a one-act play. In one night.
I won’t be the only one pressed for time. The auditions, writing of the script, all rehearsals and the one and only performance of each script will be taking place within a 24 hour period. (Hence the title of this post, and the event itself.)
Despite my experience in theater, I haven’t written plays very often so far. I wrote a one-act play for a contest years ago, and didn’t win. I currently have an early draft of a regular length play I keep trying to have a reading for. And I have the idea of a stage play that I am still doing research for. But in none of those cases have I had to crank out something in the course of a single night!
There is of course a certain advantage to such pressure cooker situations; the constraints will promote creativity. Much like Nanowrimo, there will be no time to overthink what I’m writing.
Then there is accountability. It will have to get on the page, ready for actors to read and (in theory) memorize the following morning. Other people, from directors to actors to the eventual audience are counting on me (and the other playwrights) getting this done.
Granted, this is not generally the best way to produce theater in a normal setting, but this is not a normal setting. It’s an exercise, a stunt, an experiment, and it’s just plain crazy, but hopefully will be fun also.
As with most drama, the key of course is a conflict. Somebody wanting something and for a time unable to get it. There are exceptions to this formula, even within my own writing, but for something like this, best to stick with the basics. For a one-act, in general personalities of characters should remain uniform. That is to say less time for catharsis and arc. Hence, what they say is of prime importance. To me in drama, but especially in the one act, is it the lines that make a script stick in the mind most. We’ll find out if I’m correct tomorrow.
I have no idea how many people will show up. I also have no idea who will be in the play I will be writing. Everyone who shows up is promised a role in one of the plays, so I don’t even know how many characters my play will have. I should be ready for anything, I imagine. But as for the casting, I’ll be leaving that mostly to my friend and director. I’ll provide input naturally, but I think this exercise will be most fun and most interesting if each segment of the process is as independent as possible.
Maybe what i come up with will be a usable script, (with more deliberate edits) in the future. And maybe it won’t. But whatever happens, this is the sort of thing I think writers should open themselves up to from time to time. The out of the ordinary, the weird, the crazy.
Check back in a few days from now for an update on how all of this went!
My third novel will be published sometime this summer, but before that, (on an as yet undetermined launch date) I will publish my first book of non-fiction. It’s called, Thoughts I Wrote Down Because I Hate Talking To People.
It will be a collection of about 20 informal essays, written by yours truly. It consists of my thoughts and general observations on such things as food, library visits, body language and even an apartment I used to live in, among other topics.
It will also have swear words. I know that may shock some of you, but I was determined, when I started this project, to write my thoughts in the manner I would speak them, and that does include profanity. Not, in my opinion gratuitous profanity for its own sake, but profanity nonetheless. Sometimes an adult uses profanity when the express thoughts, what can I say?
Might not be a bad thing at that; it may mean I’m more honest than most people, according to a recent study or two.
But profanity isn’t the point of the collection, nor of this post. It’s all by way of saying that the collection, which I hope will be equal parts humor and insight, sarcasm and reflection is pure me, if you will. I will be editing it for quality of course, but I told myself from the beginning that whatever essay I chose to write would not be censored, for language, length or topic. The purpose of the collection on the whole, however, is to get to know a bit more about me, and they way I think, by means of the written word. (One of my strengths, after all.)
In the course of getting to know me, I hope readers will also come to recognize a bit of themselves. Some of the topics I feel are universal, others are particular to me, but all are sincere and straightforward, what I call “informed meanderings,” which I hope will at least give pause for a laugh or a thought.
Because I’m not famous at this time, I realize people won’t be lining up to get a slice of my thoughts. So it will probably be free. (I’ve not worked out the marketing preferences yet.) Perhaps if a few people get a feel for how I think on random topics and enjoy it, their want to check out my fiction as well.
If not, though, I can still hang my hat on my candor this time around.
So keep checking back for updates, including cover reveal, launch date announcement, and so on.