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Archive for the tag “the writing life”

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?

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WRITERS: WHEN IS YOUR BOOK NO LONGER YOURS?

The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been freaking out for several years. In the Unite States, Sherlock Holmes is not considered public domain. Based on the dates they published, all of the books are public domain, except one, the last one. The estate says that is sufficient to tie up the copyright for all the Holmes works. Their theory is that the books and stories are not separate, distinct entities. Holmes and Watson were created in the very first story and grew and developed all the way through all the stories. That evolution runs through the public and private domain stuff and you can’t separate the two. Ergo, says the Doyle estate, it should all be copyrighted. Never mind that when that last story came out, 1927, copyright law said the longest time copyright protection could run was fifty-six years.

Disney has been freaking similarly. In 1998, the entertainment industry lobbied for and got Congress to extend copyright protection to all published works by an extra 20 years. The big news at the time was that this bought Disney another twenty years before their mascot, Mickey Mouse, fell into the public domain because the copyright on Mickey’s debut film in “Steamboat Willie” was due to expire.

As a reader and a writer, I’m of two minds about copyright. As a writer who strives (hopes? dreams? pines?) for a steady, paying, writing income, I’m ALL FOR HOLDING ONTO A COPYRIGHT AS LONG AS I CAN. BACK OFF! THAT’S MY KIDS’ INHERITENCE, DAMN YOU!

On the other hand, as a lover of the written word, I’m all for getting those words out there where the most people can access them at the lowest cost. Why should mega-corporations reap profits long after that writer is dead? Why shouldn’t I get a part of that?

Money stuff aside, I’m a little squeamish, as a writer about THE PUBLIC DOMAIN out of fear as to what, exactly, the carnivores out there hiding in the public domain bushes waiting to pounce on and eviscerate my precious work. No wonder the Doyle estate is peeing themselves. They’re scared of the inevitable plot of “Smurfs 3: Elementary, my dear Smurfette”.

On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes is such a great character, just think what some other great writer could do with it. Look at what Stephen Moffat has done with the excellent “Sherlock” series on the BBC, a modern retelling of the Holmes and Watson adventures. If more people could access those characters, the possibilities are limitless.

A lot of it could be crap. A lot of it could be wretchedly offensive. But is that a reason to withhold it?

It’s this last bit that also makes me nervous about when estates commission other authors to write new books in long established series where the original authors have died. They did it with Robert Ludlum’s Bourne books. The Godfather. The James Bond novels too. I haven’t read any of them. They may be great, but I’m scared.

Michael Chabon wrote a novel called “The Final Solution” which is clearly about an elderly, retired Holmes, though he’s never mentioned by name. The character stuff in the book is interesting, but the plot…well, it just isn’t a Holmes novel.

“Star Trek Into Darkness”, the second installment in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise hits all the right character notes. They’ve got Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest nailed. But…the plot just isn’t there.

Ultimately, you can’t beat the original. Of anything. You can imitate. You can copy. But you can never reproduce.

The question is do you have the right to?

And if you do, should you?

LITTLE WAYS TO MAKE THE DAY JOB BEARABLE

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I have a secret.

Several really, but one in particular is relevant here.

Making sweet blog missives week in and week out is intellectually satisfying, but doesn’t really pay very much. So…

I have a day job. At night, I sit around in my underwear; one hand on the keyboard, the other on a bottle of gin, cranking out Internet goodness. But by day, I sit around in a tie in an office doing GROWN UP THINGS.

It’s an old story: the writer who supports his artsy habit working for THE MAN.

The Day Job: Purgatory for Creatives.

Well, that might be overstating it. But for someone who wants to be their own boss, do their own thing, make a living creating things, working a day job can be a toil. Fortunately, there are little ways to tow the company line while still maintaining that quirky whatever that makes you YOU.

I’m not talking about gold-bricking. That’s a thing, right? “Gold-bricking”? A thing that fits in this context? Anyway, the little defiances against the drudge of the work-a-day world that I’m talking about aren’t about goofing off. No looking at porn when you should be compiling a spreadsheet. No two hour lunch hours. Nothing that detracts from what you’re getting paid to do.

I’m talking about little acts that let you do your job while still making it just a smidge more entertaining for yourself. Here are some that I like:

Up at the top of this page is a picture of a mini TARDIS. I picked it up at Barnes & Noble and it is parked now on my desk at my day job. When the mid-afternoon slump hits or the fevered paper-shuffling that is most mornings is particularly stressful, the TARDIS whisks me away to anywhere else in time and space (“All of time and space; everywhere and anywhere; every star that ever was. Where do you want to start?”) that I would want to go. I take a little mental trip (insert your own joke here), then I’m back. Work goes on.

Once in a great while on a work day, for the hell of it, I don’t shave. It’s a little thing. My beard is pretty light (shut up – it doesn’t make me any less of a man, I tell you), so it’s unlikely anyone notices. Or cares. But I do it anyway. For me.

Twitter. Some people take smoke breaks. I take Twitter breaks. This is a tricky one. Twitter. Facebook. They suck you in and can be total productivity killers. I’m not talking about a long session. A few seconds here and there; enough time just to get a sense of what’s going on out there, then back to work.

Look out the window. The key here is my office doesn’t actually have any windows. I actually have to walk around the maze of cubicles to find an exterior wall with a window to the outside world. Its a way to remind myself there’s still a world going on outside with sun and rain and snow and life bustling along – probably doing something more fun than me. But still.

I carry a briefcase TO WORK. It has pens and paper. And books. Books I actually want to read, not books I have to read. Most of this stuff stays untouched all day, of course. I just like having it nearby. Having books nearby is to writers like frilly underthings are to cross-dressers.

No judging.

Hey! Reading this post might have been your subversive act of defiance against your employer. I’m like a revolutionary.

Sexy, ain’t I?

Before you put down your preferred blog reading device, let me know what ways you’re taking down the economy from within your workplace.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS

This coming weekend, I’m blowin’ this pop stand. Goin’ on the lam. Gettin’ out while the gettin’s good. Taking a powder. Hittin’ the road. Vamoosing. Road trippin’.

In other words, I’m off to a Writer’s Conference.

Specifically, the Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference in St. Louis.

“Why?” you ask.

Well, lots of reasons. A weekend surrounded by people who love making up stories as much as I do. A chance to rub shoulders with successful writers, publishers, editors and agents. Many small and large-group workshops on a variety of publishing topics. And,the big draw, opportunities to talk one-on-one with professional literary agents about your work-in-progress.

It’s like Comic-Con without the cosplay. Except for me. I’m going as Boba Fett. No chance those agents will forget me now.

This is an important part of being a writer – the conference, not the cosplay. That’s your call. Princess Leia’s gold bikini anyone?

If you want to write for public consumption, write as much as you can, of course, but also get up from the writing surface you choose to take up residence at (in? around? on top of?) once in a while and interact with all humans in general (except the ones creepier than you) and literary humans in particular. You get important feedback on your specific works and a general mood-lift. “Yes,” you can say to yourself. “These people are weird too and they’ve made it. I guess I can do it too.”

At the conference, there will also be time for writing in solitude without screaming children and noisy pets. There might also be drinking.

There probably will be drinking.

I hope Bilbo Baggins is buying.

ON THUNDERSTORMS AND CREATIVITY

Actually, I’m not sure the two things in the title have anything to do with each other. I just really like that title. Here, look at it again:

ON THUNDERSTORMS AND CREATIVITY

Or maybe this way:

On THUNDERSTORMS and CREATIVITY

I think maybe I like that title because the whole household (well, everyone but, remarkably, the three-year-old) was awakened by a thunderstorm one day last week in the early morning hours. Storms with lots of thunder and lightning are…electric. Just ask Ben “I just charred my skivvies for science” Franklin.

Going to sleep with the rain going pitter-pat is soothing. Reading a book by a picture window while a storm rages outside, equally so. There’s something about the rumbling, the lightening, the way a storm can turn day into night that fuels the senses.

Ergo, the storm which left me exhausted from lack of sleep, fueled my creativity.

You know what it feels like when you go outside right after a heavy storm? You really can feel a charge in the air. Experiencing real creativity is like that. Thunderstorms create electricity and dead earthworms (shut up, they do to. You ever see an earthworm wandering around when it hasn’t been raining?). Brainstorms create a downpour of ideas and new projects.

The fact that I haven’t been extraordinarily more productive since the night of that storm, other than a catchy title on this post is no matter. I’d say I’ve been a normal week’s worth of productive. It does nothing to undercut my thesis. Nothing at all.

NOTHING.

After all, what if we hadn’t had a thunderstorm? My creative endeavors – books, plays, getting out of real and meaningful housework and avoiding my family – might all have cratered had I not been awakened at 3 a.m. by a storm, reawakened at 3:30 by my kid saying said storm was scary and again at 4 a.m. by the storm. There’s no way to know.

THUNDERSTORMS AND CREATIVITY – THEY GO TOGETHER.

THEY ARE THE CHOCOLATE AND PEANUT BUTTER OF METEOROLOGICAL ACTIVITY.

I wrote this blog post didn’t I?

Thunderstorms also make logic air-tight.

I’m really tired. Also hungry.*

*MMMM. Chocolate and peanut butter. *Drool*

EDITING PLAYS V. EDITING BOOKS

I sometimes write books.

I sometimes write plays.

At the moment, I’m writing both.

Well, actually, at the present I’m writing a book and editing a play.

The two really feel different to me, even though fundamentally it’s still writing. With a book, you’re editing for the plot, the voice, the character development, the various arcs and making sure the major plot points fall where they need to. You’re doing this in the guise of the omniscient narrator. As a mechanic of words, you’re worried about sentence structure, paragraph flow, voice and tone. Is the balance of narration and dialogue okay? Did I properly write that quotation? Did I ramble on too much in that last paragraph?

In writing a novel, to me, the mechanics of the story – sentence structure, plot pivots, etc. – feel blended with the storytelling itself. The dialogue and characters breathe only within those mechanisms; the fish can’t leave the bowl or their gills will burst. It’s like reading a document in Word with all the normally hidden characters and editing prompts showing.

But, for me, playwrighting is different. As the writer, the mechanical stuff is still there, maybe even more so. Scripts have a definite format for where lines of dialogue go, where the director’s notes are placed, setting up action prompts, cues, etc. All of this is dictated by set rules. But when I write a play, this mechanical stuff stays in the background of my mind – the special characters are turned off. All I really consciously see is that character standing on the stage. Alone and still in his underwear at first, then clothed as only he should be and moving around with purpose.

In a book, you’re always supposed to “show”, not “tell”, meaning convey the story through dialogue and action, not through spewing out exposition in your narration. But still, both can, do and should co-exist. Plays are different. There is no “tell”. There is only “show.” Yes, I’m channeling Yoda – “There is no try. There is only do.” It’s good advice, Jedi or not.

In a  play, there is typically no narrator up there on stage filling in the gaps. (Okay, actually, I have written a play that way, but only for comedic effect, not as a legit storytelling crutch.) If you character’s dialogue doesn’t move the story, the story doesn’t move. Yes, costumes and sets and, obviously, good acting, help. But if the words aren’t on the page, it all crumbles to dust.

In a book, you can’t really cover bad dialogue, but dialogue is just one of many moving parts. Where dialogue lags, (artful) narration steps in. On stage, that’s not an option.  So, writing and editing dialogue in a play feels more visceral to me. I really do see that poor woman up on stage so desperately wanting to express herself and needing the words to do it.

So I better go give her some.

WHAT TWITTER MEANS TO THIS WRITER

Twitter is a time killer.

Facebook too.

Total productivity suck.

Yeah. Only losers spend time on social media.

Several hundred million losers, to be a bit more precise. Though, with numbers that large, it’s kind of hard to be.

Anyone who has a social media account – or two or seven – has heard all those from their Luddite-ish friends. (If you have any kind of current technology – tablet, computer, cell phone, whatever – it’s hard to call yourself a full-on Luddite.) But here’s the thing.

It’s not a waste at all.

Yes, you can kill time waiting for the train scrolling through cat videos and posting witty comments about the dorky barista at the coffee shop. But there are benefits to be had if you follow the right people, “right” being a relative term. The right people for you to follow may or may not be the right people for me. But whoever those people are, they are the ones who give you the entertaining, inspirational, or professional support you need. Social media conect you with old friends and acquitances you want in your life, but for reasons of geography or circumstance have drifted away. They can expose you to news of the world, to other believe systems and to information you need to do your job better.

For example, writers. Writers love Twitter. For one thing, we’re stuck alone in our rooms a lot of the time making up stuff so the chance to even vicariously leave the house and interact with another living person, even indirectly via 140 characters posted on a screen, is magical.

There are also professional writing benefits. Links to articles with helpful writing tips. Information about agents and editors. Opinions and news from the publishing industry. A chance to mingle with other writers, in a sense; to learn from them, laugh with them, make them laugh and share whatever it is you know.

I’ve gained from this as a writer, but I’ve also gained as a reader. There are two authors I read now that, frankly, I’d never heard of until their names came up in someone else’s Twitter feed – John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig. And a third author, Neil Gaiman, I’d heard of, but never read until after I saw what a kind, funny, inventive person he was even on Twitter. Scalzi, of course, recently wrote the hilarious Redshirts, which somehow both pushes the boundaries of traditional sci-fi and hilariously skewers Star Trek. Wendig wrote, among others, Blackbirds, about hard-living Miriam Black who knows how you’re going to die. Gaiman is the legendary author of many things including The Graveyard Book, about a small boy raised by a family (of sorts) of ghosts in a graveyard.

And I never would have read any of these guys if it wasn’t for Twitter. I started following them. They were funny, smart and even willing occasionally to trade witty banter with me, a dude they had never and probably will never hear of. Gaiman even took time – a few minutes at most, but still… – to find an answer for me, a complete stranger, to a question I had about one of my characters in a book I’ve been writing.

Those who care about book marketing debate heavily the value of promoting your book or your brand on social media. I probably wouldn’t have bought Blackbirds or the others just from a Tweet that was nothing more than an ad, but I can tell you that it was the impression these guys made on me of who they are, their brand is it were, that made me a loyal customer, at least for that first book. And in reading those first books, I’m now hooked and will buy more.

Everybody wins. Thanks, Twitter.

Now find me some porn.

DOUBT

Doubt.

You know what it is. You’ve felt it. You’ve seen it on the faces of others. Heard it in a lover’s voice over the phone from across country ostensibly at a librarian convention as the sounds of “Hey, I lost my thong bikini AGAIN” and a conga line are clearly audible in the background.

“Well, you say you had nothing to do with murdering these twelve people, but, I dunno, that bloody axe in your hand…”

“If there’s nothing going on between you two, why is she monogramming her initials on your tonsils with her tongue?”

“For a bunch of really spiritual people, Father Flynn and crew sure got lots of ‘splain’ to do to God.”

Whoops! Sorry! That last one was a mini-review of John Patrick Shanley’s play “Doubt”. And, really, it has nothing to do with this post.

Anyway, DOUBT hangs heavy over everything thing we do. Forcing us to second-guess ourselves and others. This can be beneficial when it brings us greater clarity; it can be debilitating when it makes us question every little thing.

Enter: The Writer.

With the exception of my cat scrutinizing a proffered toy, there may be no more doubting creature on the planet than the writer. We question EVERYTHING. Would the protagonist really do that? I had him turn left, but should it have been right? Does this sentence make the best use of subject/verb agreement? Have I developed this enough? Is this Tweet witty and/or insightful enough? WON’T ANYBODY LOVE ME EVER!

It’s hell to be a creative type. Painters, sculptors, actors and politicians all have the same problem. We all make stuff up, crafting something out of nothing, and we all know what we think will make the audience happy, but we really have no clue. None of us. We fumble around trying this and that until something sticks. Then we beat that into the ground for all it’s worth until it’s time to fumble over something else.

Unlike, say, math, where there typically is a RIGHT ANSWER. For the writer, except for points of fact, there is no RIGHT ANSWER. Writers make choices. Go left or go right. Kill this character in chapter five. Let her live. The book is done. THE BOOK IS NOT DONE. Whatever the quandary, we make a choice. We can never know if it’s the right one.

But we press on. We keep writing and revising. Editing like made. Keep this in! Cut that out! Hate that word! Don’t ever write THAT WORD AGAIN!

Until, finally, we’re done. How do we know we’re done? Instinct. How do we develop instinct? Lots of practice. Lots and lots. So much practice, it’ll make you puke. Wait, that might be the gin & tonics consumed while practicing…

Anyway, even for all this time put in at the keyboard, doubt never really goes away. But if you put in the time and develop your writerly instinct (and really there is no other way to do it than by putting in the time) your instinct can taser that doubt long enough to let you sneak out the side door and finish your project with some degree of confidence, even as doubt screams in your ears, “Don’t tase me, bro! Doubt is your friend….maybe. owowowow! I mean doubt is your friend definitely.”.

Is that all there is to be said on the topic of writerly doubt? Probably not. But have I reached the end of this post? I’m gonna go ahead and say yes.

And I’ll just have to deal with that.

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