The past couple months have been focused on getting my new podcast, Writers Get Animated, going, so my plays had been placed on the back burner a bit. When I say "back burner," I mean that I'd journal about them, obsess about them, but not write actual lines or scenes for them. I find that ti's difficult to really keep the writing going when other things are "vampiring" (not a word) energy. One of those things is the day job lately. Any other playwrights work retail? If you do, then you know what I'm talking about that the last month has been exhausting. However, the retail that I work is slightly more brain taxing because of my role in the store... I won't go into it, but suffice to say my brain is completely enervated by the time I get home.
But! Yesterday, my vacation started! Due to some schedule swapping with another playwright who works at my day job and also is my partner in crime for the podcast, my vacation has ended up being longer! Knowing this, I spent the few days before, trying to prep myself for actually having time to write. I made maps and lists of scenes for my play Leak, which I hope to have a draft of before my vacation is over because this is a "working vacation." When done right, however, playwriting, for me, isn't work. When I think of work, I think of being taxed mentally and physically and not getting anything back. I think of day jobs that have nothing to do with what you want to do with your life. Maybe I shouldn't call it a "working vacation" then. I know! It's a "Vocation Vacation!" Vocation: "a person's employment or main occupation, especially regarded as particularly worthy and requiring great dedication." Worthy is the main point. Playwriting is my vocation.
After months of story and character sketches, yesterday was a mixed bag of writing success. I chose to focus on two scenes for the play, so I could prepare and have a manageable goal. I mean, it was day one, I wanted to set myself up for a good day. One scene, between my main character, Rachel, and her father, Paul, was amazingly easy to write. I wrote Paul's first line and then only had a couple of brief stops as I looked for better ways to phrase the lines that popped into my head. It had great flow and seemed to "write itself." Ah, satisfying.
Later, I attempted a scene with Rachel and her artist partner, Simone. Simone is older and has often hired Rachel to assist her with mural work. This scene did not flow. I wrote Simone's first line and then stared into space. I knew what was supposed to happen in the scene, but I couldn't get there. I'd write the next line and then stare into space and then the next and then stare into space. Write-Stare-Write-Stare-Write-Stare... I fought against being frustrated because the writing was getting done and told myself to trust the process. There was probably something in the subtext that I hadn't answered for myself that I hadn't been able to tap into to allow the scene to "flow."
With the Paul/Rachel scene, I understood more about where Paul and Rachel were coming from at a deeper level, in their relationship, how they view one another, how they interact with each other. With the Simone/Rachel scene, there were a lot of unanswered questions, so I allowed my process to work and stared into space, asking the questions and finding the answers. I came away with a scene that's okay, that'll be great once I tackle it in rewrites and after I've spent more time with Simone as a character I'm sure. It was my first time writing for Simone, figuring out how she speaks, how sarcastic she is, what references she makes, so it'll get much much easier as the play goes on.
Today, I've again chosen two scenes: Rachel and a pastor, then Simone and the pastor. We'll see how they go.
How do you find scenes flow for you? How do you feel after your day jobs? Are you surviving?
Keep working and, as always, be excellent to each other.
(Also, be sure to check out Writers Get Animated on iTunes!)
When Melanie Marnich was a visiting artist at The University of Iowa, she had us all do an exercise: imagine where we saw ourselves in 1 year, in 3 years, and in 5 years. We thought about our personal trajectories and, in some way, how we would get ourselves there through short term goals. Something that I've been lacking lately is a focus on goals. I don't quite have any. Okay, that's not entirely true. I suppose I don't have large, specific goals. We often are asked to define what success means for ourselves since success, especially success as a playwright, is so personalized. I've been concentrating a lot on my family, my wife's goals, and have had some very distracting business going on at the day job, so my playwriting goals have been out of focus. Mainly the goal has been "I want to write plays." I've also extended the goal to "I want my plays to be performed." Easy enough.
What I've decided to do is take bite-sized action towards this goal by submitting at least 1 play a week. It's not as ambitious as Brian Doyle's 1 submission a day, but it's doable for me. It's been especially easy after having done all the prep work as recommended by Donna Hoke. I can get a play submitted in about 20 minutes, not including research about the theatre or contest. The most difficult part of the process will be pairing the right play with the right theatre. I just recently sent off a copy of Father Bob, a play I haven't sent out in a while, because it seemed like the one play of mine that would work in terms of theme and casting. Maybe. I don't know. All I can do is read the missions of the theatres, look at their previous productions, and try to be honest about whether or not one of my plays would work there. I'm doing my best to not send something simply to send something.
In other news, I have a fun new project that's going to start in December. More info to come. I hate being vague, but it's coming soon enough!
I love the movie The Dark Knight for many reasons. The scene above is a big reason why. The Joker, having orchestrated a complex sequence of events causing death and mayhem asks the newly deformed Harvey Dent, "Do I really look like a guy with a plan?"
The answer is: "No, you don't look like a man with a plan... But you do have one."
Do we playwrights have a plan when we write? Should we? Should we have a very clear outline of the entire play before beginning the process of writing?
I know that I hate outlines. I find them constricting and bothersome and cumbersome. Having said that, I just wrote two projects directly from meticulously planned outlines in the past couple months...
In my previous post, I talked about having a hard time writing screenplays. I have since learned why. Writing a screenplay is closer in style to novel writing than playwriting. It's scene and character descriptions that I'm not used to spelling out. I prefer more of a "They fight" style stage direction, leaving space in the specifics for the directors and actors and designers to figure out. But this is a post about outlines, so I'll leave that conversation for another day.
The screenplay was one that I'm currently writing with my partner who lives in LA. We've written several other screenplays together long distance. We worked separately from loose outlines that we'd come up with together and then joined the scenes together in a mishmash manner over email as we navigate the world of "day jobs" and writing in our proverbial "spare time." It took months and months and months to finish a script, mostly because whenever we'd set out to get work done on our own, life got in the way and there'd be a delay. It wasn't the writing that took forever, it was the not writing.
This year, I received a fellowship that allowed me to take some time off from my day job specifically for writing, and I decided that I would use part of the money to go to LA for a week to write a new screenplay with Ryan. My thinking was that if we could have one week together in the same room, we could get a ton of work done. But I knew that if we were going to get the work done, we had to have a plan.
My first day out there, we spent hours poring over our story, crafting an outline that we both agreed upon. We left no detail out, trying to get each scene and plot point as clear as possible. Then, over many pots of tea (Ryan is a tea drinker. I prefer coffee, but when in Rome...), we divvied up the scenes and wrote on our own, going methodically through the outline. After 2 1/2 days of writing, we actually came up with a first draft of the script. Then, came the rewriting. We revisited our outline and looked at the script we had written and refocused our outline and, once again, divvied out scenes to revise and add and refine.
In this situation, working from an outline made perfect sense. We both needed to know exactly where we were going with the story, especially if we were going to be working on different parts of the script at the same time. If I was working on the opening scenes, I had to be sure that they'd fit with the later scenes that Ryan was working on and then with the scenes that I, myself, would work on later.
Last week, I planned another week off for writing (thanks once again to the fellowship) to work on my untitled play based on the myth of Persephone. I knew that since I'd have a week entirely devoted to writing, I had to make it count. Having come out of my LA experience with two drafts of a screenplay in less than 5 days, I knew I could write the play, I just needed to have... a plan.
I outlined the story of Persephone in the weeks leading up to last week, so that when Monday came around, I hit the ground running. It helped that Persephone is an adaptation of an existing story, so the foundation of the story was already there. However, my playing with the story adds a new timeline, even though the main thrust of the story is mostly intact. (Eurydice is also entwined in my version, making it more complicated and interesting to me).
I worked chronologically and methodically through my outline, writing every scene in order. I didn't have the stamina that I had with Ryan. I don't know if feeding off of Ryan's energy (and tea) made all the difference, but I found it very difficult to look at my outline and write the scene that would come next. It was slow going and felt unnatural and somewhat artificial to me. But after 5 days, I came away with a first draft of the play, handwritten in my journal. I usually write my first drafts longhand and create a second draft as I transcribe the text to my computer. This second draft is what I'm currently slogging through this week. I hate transcription...
What I found in both instances was that having the outline was effective in getting the drafts written quickly. However, I also found that I felt rushed in my writing. Part of it was the feeling of "I only have a week and if I don't finish this play (or screenplay) by the end of the week, then this week will be a failure." Part of it was the feeling of needing to get through it, to hurry up and get to the end of the story and write the last scene. I knew where the story was going, I just needed to hurry up and get there!
So, the process of the screenplay and Persephone was as follows:
Now, let me show you the process that I'm more accustomed to:
It's a long process. It's not pretty. It's probably not ideal, but it's ripe for discovery. Books & Bridges went through this process and took several years to get a draft written. I like that process. I like the messiness of it. But I also liked having something to show for myself after a week of plugging away with Ryan in his dining room in LA or on my own in the coffee house in Columbus.
The new draft of Persephone that I'm currently writing as I move from the handwritten, mostly readable, text in my journal to my computer is starting to deviate from the outline. I'm using the scenes I've written, but changing the order of them. I'm noticing that my outline was flawed in structure, but the scenes still work. So far. It's very slow, especially since my day job has ruined my typing speeds because I type on touchscreens all day. But the work is getting done. I'll have a second draft of Persephone by my personal due date of November 15th and I have my outline to thank.
What about you? How much do you plan? Do you write like driving in the darkness, writing only as far as your headlights can see? Or do you meticulously plan out your story in outline form before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard?
No matter how you do it, get the work done. And, as always, be excellent to each other.