williamallenpepper

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Archive for the tag “amwriting”

IS ALL WRITING THE SAME?

Years ago, I attended a novel-writing workshop. The presenter, a prolific novelist, opened the session by putting a DVD in the player and playing the opening scene from the movie My Cousin Vinny, the Joe Pesci comedy where Joe is a street-wise, New Yorker who just recently passed the bar ex.He is called down to a small town down south to defend his cousin and his cousin’s buddy who are charged with murdering someone while passing through town on their way to start college.

But you probably knew that.

The opening scene of the movie has no dialogue. it’s just a music montage following the boys’ car as they travel from New York, down south, headed to college. We know all this just by looking at the details; road signs, what they have in the backseat of their green convertible, the license plates. That, in fact, was the point of the exercise: to see how much information we could glean about these characters just by what was given to us on screen with no narration and no dialogue.

It was a very effective exercise. But it strikes me now as a weird choice for a novel writing class. We were learning about writing prose, not screenplays. One is all about the written word; conveying ideas on the page through reading. The other is about telling a story visually.

So why, when writers teach other writers,do they always go to movies and TV shows for examples? My Cousin Vinny. Mad Men. Lost. These all get trotted out for examples. A novelist and blogger I really like, Chuck Wendig, frequently cites the Die Hard movies when he talks about plotting. (By the way, check out his site, terribleminds. It’s fully of awesome, profane wisdom)

Why not try to prove a writing point about setting by citing a passage from a Michael Chabon novel; or vivid characters in a Stephen King novel? Do writers just assume other people don’t actually read books? These seminars are often writers talking to other writers. Surely other writers have read books?

Of course they have. So why not use some of those books as reference points? Is it because we watch more TV than we read? Do we assume a greater percentage of the attendees have seen the same shows than have read the same books? Is there something inherent in the visual nature of TV that emphasizes the SHOW in “show, don’t tell” better than passages from the books we’re supposed to be learning how to write?

Writing books should just be different than writing TV right?

Well, maybe not. All story telling is fundamentally the same. Make up characters, build a world, progress the character from A to B, screw with them a lot along the way. Maybe you could have a bunch of writers read from photocopies of some novel to get a point across, but watching a film clip makes more of an impact, fits more with the showmanship aspect of any presentation. And it’s simple.

Confused? Well, here’s let’s just watch this clip from …

Hey, that is easier.

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THE PLAY’S THE THING…THANKS TO THE CREW

My latest play “Calling Home” debuted this past weekend (as a full production; it previously lived as a staged reading) as part of the New Ground Theatre annual playwrights festival. If you missed it, shame on you. All will be forgiven, though, if you go to one of next weekend’s shows. And bring a friend. Or seven.

I am by far not a veteran of the theatre. I’ve acted a little and had now several things I’ve written produced for the stage, but the whole thing is still a fairly young medium for me work in.

The giddy thrill of hearing words I wrote spoken by actors on a stage and going out to entertain a roomful of strangers looking to be moved or amused or (ideally) both hasn’t completely left and I hope it never will. But, I have gained enough experience to tamper the giddy ( not to be confused with gilding the Lilly. No, I’m not sure what it means either.).

This time, during production, I found myself watching more of the behind the scenes stuff. The words on the page are hugely important, of course. But they make up only one part of an enormous machine, a juggernaut of entertainment. There are the actors, of course. And the director.

But there are lots of other people too. There’s the producer/theatre who picked your show to begin with. There’s the crew that builds and paints the sets. There’s the crew that changes out the set between scenes. The lighting and sound people. The wardrobe people. The person who made the poster.

We all know this, of course. But it’s easy to forget. We shouldn’t, but we do. Remember that, writers. What the audience sees isn’t just your words, but the culmination of a lot of people’s work. You’re just a part of a bigger whole.

There’s good theatre in that lesson.

Not a bad lesson for life either.

REFILLING THE WRITING “HEALTH BAR”

I’m an old school gamer. In the old days of Donkey Kong and Frogger and Pitfall, if you wanted to keep your guy ( it was almost always a guy) from dying in the video game, you had to get through the jungle/maze/whatever and grab some sort of “health” pellet. When you did, you’d be relieved to see the blinking remnant of life surge back up to a full length far of lively-lifeness.

For writers, going to a conference is kind of like finding a health pellet.

I just got back from my annual trip to the Missouri Writers Guild conference. It’s a little bit of a drive for me, but I go every year because it’s one of the few times I get to spend time, in groups and one-on-one, with industry insiders like editors, agents and publishers to talk about the writing craft in general and sometimes my work specifically. It’s awesome.

Going to conferences like this are also great at reminders you are not the only weirdo who isn’t content just reading stories. It’s a hotel full of people as obsessed as you with creating arcs and beats and word counts and plots and story.

Last year’s was notable because the hotel we were at was hosting not just writers, but also a child’s beauty pageant ala “Little Miss Sunshine” and a convention of people who make and display miniature doll house furniture. No houses, mind you; just the furniture. Makes sense. Everyone knows doll house builders are dorks. (Kidding! Not kidding! Okay, kidding…please don’t hurt me with your tiny chairs.)

Every year, I’m struck by the variety of backgrounds the attendees come from. This year didn’t disappoint. There was the newspaper reporter who yearns to write fiction, the twenty-something who has pared down his lifestyle to such a degree he can live on what he makes from 2-3 hours a day of work (writing freelance articles) so he can devote the rest of his time to writing tales in the vein of old Norse mythology. I met a retired judge and his wife who travels around showing horses. There was also a cardiologist who quit to be a writer and lots of retirees.

Then there was a college professor and part-time children’s entertainer, who I talked to at the same time as the barbershop quartet singer. The professor, it turns out, has always wanted to be in a barbershop quartet! (Math geeks, calculate me the odds of meeting ONE, let alone TWO, people into barbershop at the same time and place.) They actually started harmonizing right there in the hall between workshops. It was surreal.

That’s the best part of these conferences: you never quite know what you’ll get or who will there. And everyone is supportive of this weird thing you’ve dedicated yourself to. Some of them are already published, some are wannabes, some are never-wills. But all love the written word and those who put those words out there.

Looking forward to 2015!

DOES “SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION” MEAN ANYTHING ANYMORE?

This is a novel I wrote some time ago:

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When it came out, e-books weren’t really a thing. There was social media, but tweeting every thought and DM’ing each other hadn’t yet replaced social discourse.  Phones were smart, but not that smart.

There was no Smashwords.

But there is now!

This book is available on Smashwords (among other places in print and e-book). And I’m pimping it wherever and whenever I can.

Because that’s what people do now. Self-promotion isn’t to be apologized for anymore. It’s to be expected.

I don’ t know if that’s good, bad or indifferent. But I do know, when Smashwords decided to offer “Read An E-Book” specials all week, March 2-8, I wanted to get in on it. Never mind that my book is a holiday-themed Santa Claus story for adults and it’s March. Here’s a free chance to promote!

So I did.

Also, it’s a pretty darn good book. At least I think so.  Go check it out. You can order it anywhere all year round, but this week only, on Smashwords, IT IS FREE. Go get it, pay me nothing. All I ask is that, if you like it, leave a review somewhere, on Smashwords or wherever.

So that’s it. I have no shame, you have a free book.

Seems fair, doesn’t it?

 

SHERLOCK V. MONK

I’m kind of nerdy.

But if you know me or have read the blather bullshit pithy nuggets in this space,you already knew that.

One outlet for my nerdiness is the fact that every Friday night for, like, eight seasons, I tuned in to the USA network to watch “Monk.” The show’s been off the air for years now, but I still hear the theme song in my head sometimes. Here it is, from memory:

It’s a jungle out there
Disorder and confusion everywhere
No one seems to care, but I do.
Hey, who’s in charge here?

It’s a jungle out there.
Poison in the very air you breathe.
You know what’s in the water that you drink?
Well, I do.
It’s a-mazing

People think I’m crazy
’cause I’m worried all the time.
If you paid attention, you’d be worried too.
You better pay attention, or this world you love so much
Might just kill you.

I could be wrong now.
But I don’t think so.

It’s a jungle out there.
Yeah, it’s a jungle out there…

The show was a deft mixture of drama and light comedy. Adrien Monk, played by Tony Shalhoub, was a former San Francisco police detective forced to retire after the death of his journalist wife, Trudy, sent him over the edge. Always obsessive compulsive, her death left him fearful of just about everything (germs, the outdoors, milk, countless other things). He was still a brilliant detective though, in the mold of Sherlock Holmes, who can solve crimes no one else can. He works as a consulting detective and every episode, at least early on, features a “man dies in an empty, locked room” type mystery that Monk unravels, with a big reveal at the end when Monk announces “Here’s what happened…” then spools out some amazing solution (my spoilery favorite: the astronaut who murders his mistress in her house while he’s up in space)

The only mystery Monk can’t solve is how his wife died, which is the one thing that both devastates him and keeps him going. He has an assistant who is there to get in trouble, ask questions as the surrogate for the audience, and help the anti-social, awkward Monk function in the real world.

“Sherlock”, the BBC update that brings the classic characters Sherlock Holmes and Watson into the present day, is a show about a self-described “high functioning sociopath” who is a consulting detective and solves crimes no one else can solve with the help of an assistant, Watson naturally. I was skeptical these classic literature icons could work in an update, but the show is excellent.

The modern Holmes character, as conceived by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who, in this post’s obligatory Doctor Who reference, are show runner and frequent writer, respectively, for that show too) has a lot in common with Monk. Both shows are similar in that they strive to both densely plotted mysteries and in-depth character studies. Both succeed mightily in those efforts.

Up to a point.

Early Monk was awesome. Locked room mysteries. The astronaut murderer. The professor who kills someone while teaching a class. The DJ who kills someone while he’s on the air. And great character stuff. Shalhoub walked that line between comedy and drama, dipping a toe over the line on whichever side the story called for. But…

As the Monk series progressed, the mysteries suffered a little. It became more about the character stuff. That was enough to sustain it for a while; the performances and the writing were that good. But then, after a while, the “character stories” kind of slid into just “what whacky situation can we put Monk in this week”. The show was good until the end, but that was after being great early on.

I worry about Sherlock going down that road. The first season launched with an amazing opener, “A Study in Pink”, an excellent balance between character and mystery, The next two stories were solid mysteries. Seasons two and three, though, while excellent, are slowly becoming more about the mystique of the character of Sherlock Holmes and less about giving the audience a good mystery to puzzle through. (The big exception: Sherlock’s dive off a building in front of a street full of witnesses that climaxed season 2. A real head scratcher, but I’m not sure it’s ever really been fully explained and that the explanation given is all that plausible.)

Season three, just concluded, really seems to be more about “look how cool Sherlock is” than about giving us great puzzles. Some of the solutions to the mysteries have an air of “oh, let’s just say something here so we can get back to Sherlock and Watson bickering”. The character stuff is still great, don’t get me wrong. Moriarty was a great character, gone too soon, (and maybe coming back? Mixed feelings on that. Strains credibility to do that.) The mysteries are still okay, but I really kind of wish the mysteries would go back to being great.

But I’ll still watch. I’m invested. I’m looking forward to season 4. “Here’s the thing,” as Monk would say, “the game is on,” as Holmes would say.

See what I did there? That’s nerd loyalty for you.

SO, WRITERS, DOES IT GET ANY EASIER?

In 2007, on a whim, I wrote two short plays and submitted them to an open call for submissions to a playwright’s festival at a local college; one comedy and one more serious piece. I’d acted in several plays before this, and done lots of other writing, but I’d never written a play.

To my surprise, the festival accepted both plays. The night of the performance was…amazing. I’d been on stage a lot before this and had many other types of writing praised or criticized. But this night…this night hearing my words, words I wrote, characters I created, brought to life…well, it was a weird mix of frightening and giddy, out-of-body surreal-ness. It was a rush at least equal, if not perhaps even greater than the thrill of acting.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of other plays I’ve written at festivals since then, most recently this past weekend when my play “Calling Home” was given a public reading, which could lead to a full production in the future.

One of the other playwrights, Michael Carron, made his playwriting debut at the event with his work “A Decent Interval”. He also acted in the reading of my play and the third offering of the night, “Wheelies” by Shea Doyle. When the event was over, Michael was elated and relieved. The experience was, he said, the most frightening thing he’d ever done. Here was a guy who has been on strafe thousands of times – doing Shakespeare, no less. And even he was intimidated by the experience of watching an audience watch lines he wrote be performed.

I totally understood that sentiment. And yet, I surprised myself when he asked me about watching your work Be performed, “Does it ever get easier?” I said, “yes”.

I have no idea why I said that. I was just as stressed this weekend as I was that first time years ago. The rush of seeing your characters come to life. The joy of the audience laughing where they should and being reverent where they shouldn’t. But still…the stress was, I dunno, differentthis time. Unlike crust first night years ago, this night I was thinking more about technical things – tweaks to lines and characters I might want to make. Tightening to be done, points to be clarified.

So, in that sense, I guess it is easier now, the playwriting, because I don’t worry as much about the act of putting work in front of an audience as I do about what that audience will say about it.

As I write more and put more out there for public consumption, if the fear wants to continue to evolve, that’s fine with me. But I hope it never goes away, not completely anyway. I kind of feel like if the process of writing for the public gets easier, the work will suffer.

Am I wrong about that? What say you?

HEY, I’M DOING ANOTHER PLAY THING

So, I wrote another short play. This one is called “Calling Home” and is pretty funny (if I say so myself) and coming up on January 11, New Ground Theater in the Quad Cities is going to feature it, along with several other awesome short works by local playwrights. These are not full productions of the works – not yet anyway. But they will be each by read by an ensemble of very talented local actors.

Doors open at 7:00 p.m.

Did I mention admission is FREE?

Oh, and there will be CHEESECAKE (I’m told) and beverages, including wine and beer. So, even if the plays suck, there’s that.

Did I mention admission is FREE?

So what’s the point? Well, these are all plays that likely will have full productions down the road. This is an opportunity for me and the other playwrights to get some feedback from potential future paying audiences about what in our scripts work and don’t work. Here’s your chance to play theatre critic for a night.

AND HEY! IT’S FREE BY GOD!

January 11, 2014 at 7:00. New Ground Theater in Davenport.

What the hell you waiting for? Mark your calendar NOW.

PLAYWRIGHT!

At the moment, I’m doing edits on a new short play.

Well, not literally at this moment. At this moment, I’m writing a blog post about doing edits on a new play.

Well, that’s not really true either, of course. Whenever you’re reading this post, it’s already been written. When you actually read this, I may, in fact, being doing edits on that same play or a different one. Or, more likely, I’ll be watching Doctor Who. Or enjoying some ice cream. Or peering at you ominously from behind the curtains.

Just kidding!

Or am I?

Anyway, what was I talking about?

Oh, right. Playwriting!

A local theatre I work with sometimes is hosting a play reading event soon (more about that in another post. Watch this space), and my short play “Calling Home” is expected to be in the lineup. At a recent rehearsal, certain continuity errors were pointed out. Things like my character talking about broccoli, then peas, then broccoli again. Should have been broccoli all three times. Whoops.

As many times as I had drafted the script, I didn’t notice that discontinuity. That’s one of the unique aspects of the playwriting format. Prose tends to live in a writer’s head; the words perhaps mumbled softly to herself as she writes, but otherwise unheard as they’re produced. A play script, in contrast, is a living, vibrant, vocal thing. It largely only exists when the actor speaks the words. And it’s then that errors reveal themselves.

There’s a reason writing guides tell you to read your stuff out loud as you write. You should try it. I don’t do it nearly enough, myself. Hence, broccoli – peas – broccoli.

Learn from the broccoli, friends. Learn. From. The. Broccoli.

MY BOOK

If you don’t already follow me on Twitter, please do so now! Be warned, I talk about Doctor Who a lot. And doughnuts. (I know some people spell it “donut”. I prefer the classic spelling though.)

Anyway, if you follow me on Twitter, you know that for the last month or so, I’ve been flogging my holiday-themed book IN THE ST. NICK OF TIME, a Santa Claus story…but for adults. It’s the story of three unlikely friends – the depressed author, Cameron Jones, who is losing his daughter in a custody dispute; Dogwater Hunt, the multiple alien-abductee pathologically afraid of holiday lights, and the big man himself, St. Nick. Nick is burned out and quits being Santa. Dogwater and Cameron become the unlikely saviors of Christmas as we know it.

I don’t talk much about the book most of the year, for obvious reasons, so I hope you’ll tolerate my blatant trolling for sales this time of year. I’m really proud of this little holiday tale; proud and relieved as, when I wrote it, it finally released Father Christmas from the endless loop his sleigh had been flying around my head for years before I finally committed the story to paper.

Oh, by the way, here’s what the cover looks like. You can order this just about anywhere you want, like here, or here, or here It’d really make me happy (obviously) if you did. And, if you do, leave a review!

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A NUGGET OF FICTION-ISH GOODNESS

“You’re beautiful,” Bluff Mesa said,raising a glass of Pinot to his beloved.

Hazel eyes shining, Veronica Chesterton flushed with finally requited love. “Oh, Bluff, how long I’ve waited.”

Bluff savored the grape. His piercing gaze – hazel eye quotient rivaling Veronica’s – caressed the far shore. “I await the moment we can be together again, my love.”

Confusion pummeled Veronica’s hazelness. “But I’m right here.”

Bluff couldn’t speak, eyes shining with tears.

Her eyes tracked his. Dual power of the hazels nearly swamped the forty-foot yacht across the bay.

Then Veronica understood.

Bluff sailed his craft alone forever more.

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