Tag Archives: playwright

Rewriting and other things I hate…

Fake notes, but a real project...Shelved, for now.

Writing is the main part of the job, obviously. Without doing the writing bit, you don’t get any of the other parts of the glamourous life of being a writer. But reading the inspirational blog of Mr James Moran again the other day, I was reminded that rewriting is key to being a good writer. Mr Moran got his big break when his script “Severance” was made into a movie. (Actually, there were a number of things that he acheived before then, but I’m abbreviating. Read his blog FAQ’s for the full and fascinating story) But before it got accepted and filmed he wrote twenty drafts. Twenty. And bear in mind that, even if you’re economical with your words, a screenplay for a full length movie tops a hundred pages. Two thousand pages to produce one workable movie script? The longest Harry Potter novel was less than eight hundred pages.

Rewriting was not something I used to do. I began my playwriting with short plays and one acts, and they usually came out the way I wanted them. There were some where things didn’t sound right, or there were ideas I hadn’t managed to include, but going back over the text, I couldn’t see where to cut or insert anything. I think I was afraid that if I pulled at what I’d got, it would all unravel. Then I wrote a short play called “The Red Balloon” which is still one of my favourites. It started with the voices in my head, like a lot of them do, and very quickly became part of a nice idea – what if the stupid, pointless modern art piece at the beginning gave way to a piece of melodrama, then that gets refined, over and over until someone takes the process too far and we ended up with the stupid piece the play starts with? Sorry if I just wrecked it for you. Read it anyway, there are some laughs in it.

From the April 2008 performance by the Mexico Area Community Theatre

This was ambitious – I had never begun a play before with a specific end in mind, and I wasn’t sure how I would manipulate the characters to get the ending I wanted. I showed Mrs Dim the completed play and she hummed and hawed over it. It was, she said, OK. But wouldn’t it be better if this happened, and that, and then you could do this…? She was right, and since I liked the original idea so much, I was loathe to send the play off to the publisher when I knew it could be better. I took a deep breath and went back into the text. It was amazing, making small changes without the whole fabric changing too. Some small additions early on allowed the finale to be more logical, less of a leap, and still part of the overall gag. This is the only play of mine that I have seen performed without being involved in the production.

Last week I finished the first draft of my first ever full length play, currently going by the title of “Blank stage Blues”. It’s come out pretty well, everyone in it said the things I wanted them to, and the key transitional moment that first got me interested in the idea worked out fine. For the first time I have sent out the play to some friends and associates to get some feedback before I make final changes. I like the play, I think it’s fun and a good concept, but duh! I wrote it. Maybe it’s clever and witty but not worth performing. I’ve already had some responses that show I have to go back in and make some changes. But right now, the file is staying closed, and here’s why:

One of the most frequently offered pieces of advice about rewriting is to leave it. Don’t get to the end of your book, screenplay or play and then turn back to page one with your red pen. Put it in a drawer, back it up to the hard drive, nail it to the shed, whatever, and DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. I don’t mean repointing the chimney (though mine needs doing, if you’re keen…) I mean start a different writing project. Jump into that one with both feet and resist the urge to check on your previous baby until you’re done. Then you come back to your old story with fresh eyes. It’ll feel weird to read it, but it’ll be easier to spot the parts that need work, and easier to make those changes because you’re not as invested in the writing now.

So, I’ve dug out “Tribute”, a screenplay Steve is desperately trying to adapt for the stage and added some more pages to that. I’m aiming to have the whole thing done by the end of December and then I’m sending it off to Lucy Hay for her usual insightful analysis. When it’s winging it’s way through cyberspace, I’ll go back to Blank Stage Blues and the very first thing I’ll do is think of a decent title….

Fuelling the writing

Almost as important as my keyboard...

In his book “On WritingStephen King does an excellent job of dispelling the myth that great writers need something like whisky or drugs to function better. Hemingway didn’t drink because he was a great writer, he drank because he was a drunk and he happened to be a great writer too. So, drinking beer doesn’t help me get my writing done, and I would never claim taking any kind of narcotics helps you do anything except get poorer and die young. But coffee… Ah, coffee is a different thing altogether.

In the UK, I drank a lot of coffee. Working from home in Bournemouth I worked in the breakfast room, just off the kitchen (Look, it was a weird house, ok? Breakfast room AND dining room…) mainly because it was warm in the winter (because the boiler was in there too) but also because that kept me close to the kettle. I would drink instant coffee in much the same way as other people chain smoke…as soon as the cup was empty, I would hop up to refil it.

Once we arrived in Canada I realised this lifestyle could not continue. Not only because we no longer had a breakfast room, but because the instant coffee here is bad. Really bad. I don’t have a very discerning palette, for anything. I can distinguish between Coke and Pepsi, and red and white wine if I’m allowed to look, but distinguishing between Gold Blend and Full Roast? Pass. Not a chance. Over here, people can tell the difference between different brands of coffee beans just by the aroma BEFORE they’re made into a drink. People can tell the difference between a Starbucks coffee and a Tim Hortons (a couple of bucks, usually) But the instant coffee is so bad, even I couldn’t drink it.

We’d brought over our caffetiere, relic of dinner parties we’d never had, and it got a bit of a thrashing in the first few weeks as we used it every morning. Eventually the inevitable happened, and we smashed the glass bit. That’s when we bought the beauteous machine in the photo. A coffee maker! Load it up and it makes coffee for you! No plunging! You can even program it so that it comes on while you’re doing the school run and you come home to fresh, piping hot coffee! Miracle!

Sadly, all things must end. Yesterday I put on the coffee maker and hopped into the shower. I came out, dressed, and poured myself a cuppa. It was empty. The coffee was not made. I looked out the window, in case the Apocalypse had come to pass. But it was worse than that – the coffee machine was broken.

I’ve had twenty four hours without coffee, as the new machine had to wait until the shops were open. I’ve been that long without coffee before, of course, but that was by choice. This time I didn’t have coffee because I couldn’t and that was harsh, dear reader, harsh. Anyway, normality is restored with the arrival of the shiny new machine and a steady stream of liquid revitaliser, to which I give the credit for the completion of my first full-length play. Less than a year in the making, but at eight cups a day for ten months, that’s….a lot of coffee.

Excellent tool for writers – Dropbox

My favourite new icon - so handy and unobtrusive!

I had prepared a huge rambling monologue about the joys of collaborative writing, thanks to the last two weeks spent working with my writing partners (who came all the way to Canada for a writing work out – thanks, Steve and David!). But it occurred to me that short and sweet is better for blogs and David introduced a minor, FREE, piece of software that made our entire fortnight a lot easier to manage, writing wise.

DROPBOX is a downloadable piece of software that sits on your desktop. You can save files to it, or drag and drop them as usual, and they’re there, in the folder. But they’re also in a 2Gig folder out there in Internet Land, so if you’re out and about and drop into an Internet cafe, you can open up a file you’re working on, change it, save it and Dropbox will update that same file the next time you go online at home. No more dragging around a file on pen drive, worrying about which version you’re saving, or where you last worked on it. Listen, I don’t know about you guys, but I have a desktop, a laptop, and now a netbook. I have four pen drives and two portable hard drives. I have trouble keeping track of where the records database is most recent, or which unfinished play file is the most up to date. Now I keep all those files in Dropbox and they’re all the same file on every computer!

If this sounds like a gushing advert for Dropbox, then I make no apologies. We all installed Dropbox on our various machines during our writing fortnight, and added a shared folder, meaning if one of us completed a sketch or scene, we didn’t have to e-mail it around, we just dumped it in the shared folder and the other guys’ folders updated automatically. As long as we were careful to work on files one at a time, there was no instance of multiple versions appearing and having to be collated. We wrote a complete panto (60 pages of material), nearly a dozen sketches, two lots of corporate work and outlines of many, many other ideas, and they all got speeded along using Dropbox. It’s still inplace and working though David and Steve are back in the UK.

So, if you’re using multiple machines, or working cooperatively with another writer, try Dropbox. They’re not paying me to tell you this, so it’s a genuine tip from one writer to others – this thing can actually make your writing life easier and less frustrating!

TLC go wild in Canada! Steve, David and me (L-R)

Writing a play for Community Theatre

Today, as a marketing ploy and because I don’t want to write another blog piece that starts “I’ve been thinking…”, I’m handing out a free sample from my book (Title above). I’ve chosen the start of the chapter about the most common mistakes made by folks writing for the Community Theatre Stage. Hope you enjoy it.

Common Mistakes

After a few years of being published, I took on the job of Script Reader for my publisher, Lazy Bee Scripts. The company was being inundated with scripts, and they needed someone to help with the initial sorting of the new arrivals. This gave me a chance to review and report on hundreds of scripts from a huge variety of writers. Scripts are sent to Lazy Bee from all around the world, by people who have been writing for years, people just starting out, and people trying stage writing after success in some other form. Before long it became obvious that the same mistakes were being made over and over again.

The Biggest Mistake

Writing a screenplay for the stage. I’m never sure if this mistake is made because the authors have never visited the theatre, or because they wrote the idea as a screenplay first then attempted to convert it to the stage. Since the primary market I am reading for is concerned with the amateur stage, where resources and stage space tend to be limited, there is little point in saying “but I’ve seen some pretty spectacular things on the West End stage”. Yes, I know you can see ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ fly out over the audience in some theatres, but you’re not likely to see that done in your local village hall or school production. Time after time I read plays that open in a living room, described in perfect detail. Five minutes later the action moves to a second, equally detailed location for just a few lines of dialogue, and then another change. If the play is to be performed on a regular small stage, the only options are to have a subdivided stage with many sets permanently erected and the action moving between them, or to have a minimalist stage with movable furniture to signify the various locations. I used a combination of these devices in ‘A Time for Farewells’, with one half of the stage permanently set as a bedroom, and the other half different arrangements of three stage blocks that became a bar, a hospital room, a lounge.

This is entirely possible, but the important thing is that YOU are the one who should decide that this is the way the play should be performed. There’s no point in writing an epic masterpiece that includes horse races, the sinking of the Titanic and an aerial dogfight and then saying “It’s up to the director to work out how to stage it.” If you’re looking for the best of all possible worlds, you’ll end up with a script that doesn’t depend on a trapdoor in the stage or some other technical device (like flying wires, back projection or giant inflatable gorillas) for a successful production. You can certainly suggest that these elements would make the production better, that they were part of your original vision, but allow for the fact that not every group will have these things at their disposal. When the prospective director reads your script, they should be able to see the play being performed on their stage in their mind’s eye. Which leads into point number two:

Incomplete or Unhelpful Instructions

I reviewed a play once that had a character coming onstage carrying a large box. Halfway through the scene, a second character pops out of the box (which is still being held by character number one) and delivers a speech. I couldn’t see how this would be possible unless one character was incredibly strong, or the bottom of the box was open and character two’s legs were screened by some handy scenery. As it turned out, some unenclosed production notes would have told me which characters were to be played by puppets – that information would have put a different spin on things.

If you’re planning on having a character disappear into a magic cabinet, it would be kind to indicate how you imagine this being done: “The back of the cabinet is screened by the mangle, and Aladdin climbs out the concealed flap in the false back…” You don’t need to include a diagram with numbered and labelled parts, but your director needs to have a clue what you’re thinking about. This is particularly important in British pantomime transformation scenes, like Cinders’ “Rags to Ball Gown” or “Pumpkin to Coach” moments. It’s all very well writing “There is a flash and a bang and the pumpkin is replaced by a shimmering coach…” but that’s leaving it all to the director. A little research will show you there are many ways of accomplishing this effect – bringing lights up behind a gauze, unfolding a special piece of scenery… Again, read a few scripts, see some shows, talk to some experienced dramatists. Then put your own spin on the process.

Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling

I know, I know, it seems really petty to complain about mistakes like this. Who cares about full stops and question marks? It’s the content that’s important, isn’t it? Language is a constantly evolving thing, textspeak is becoming a valid form of grammar, blah, blah, blah! Well yes, language does evolve, but at the moment there are still guidelines and rules about grammar, spelling and punctuation, and you can be pretty sure that nothing much has changed in the way English is written since you were at school. Delivering a script for your publisher, or even simply turning one out for your local theatre group, should still be treated with the care and attention to detail you would give a job application letter.

Grammar exists to make the written language easy to hear in your head. Commas give pauses in the sentence, full stops indicate when one idea stops and the next begins. These things are important for your words to be understood, and if people can’t comfortably read what you’ve written, they’re not going to enjoy the content. They’re not going to understand the content. They’re certainly not going to buy or perform your play. Also, if you’re not careful enough to spot errors that are highlighted for you on the spell checker of the word processor you wrote this on, how can any customer be sure you’ve been careful enough to produce a decent plot? Are there as many errors in your storyline as there are in your typing? Bear in mind that the editor or publisher is likely to be someone fond of the written word – they’ve made a business of it, after all. They are exactly the kind of person who gets annoyed by incorrect spelling, and they are also exposed to it on a daily basis. If your script contains no ghastly spelling or punctuation errors, that will be another factor in your favour.

The only exception to the rule about correct spelling and grammar is when you choose to get it wrong. Not everyone speaks the Queen’s English like an Early Fifties BBC Radio Announcer, so of course it doesn’t make sense to have Bruno the door bouncer throw a drunk into the street and yell after him :

“We’d be much obliged if you would refrain from revisiting this establishment in the foreseeable future and encourage your rehabilitation with regard to your alcohol dependency…”

Bruno would shout  “Sling yer ‘ook, drunk!”   or something worse, and you won’t need to add in the ‘h’ that he drops. But the apostrophe shows the letter has been dropped on purpose, not as a result of rapid typing, and that Bruno is not making monkey noises. In summary, your characters are allowed to speak ungrammatically, or in dialect, but for your readers to correctly interpret this type of speech, it needs to be clearly punctuated.


A Time For Farewells, as performed at RAF Halton

To get YOUR copy of the ebook rush over to the TLC website  Best of luck with your writing.