Tuesday, December 6, 2016

More on fighting the negative voice...

Last week I shared some thoughts about how important it is to keep your cool when that first draft just doesn't seem to measure up.  How you have to realize that it's all process and peeling off the layers.

I thought it'd be useful to reinforce that thinking by sharing what some of our most successful writers have to say about encountering that negative voice.

Playwright Terrence McNally told me he has days when he asks himself: "Why can't I just get a job at a bank and be an honest worker?"  He related to me that one day while working on his first draft of a script he thought:  "I wanted to kill myself, burn the play, quite the Dramatists Guild, resign from being their vice president, quit teaching at Juilliard.  How can I teach playwriting?  I don't know what I'm doing."


Two-thirds of the way through writing her Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'night Mother, Marsha Norman told me she heard an inner voice saying:  "I don't know what this is.  I'm in real trouble here.  I mean, nobody's going to want to do this, right?  It's going to be real embarrassing."

Emily Mann captured it nicely when she said:  "There are crazy days when you lose all belief."

Almost every successful writer that I asked about this in my extensive interview series I did at the Dramatists Guild several years ago and many writers since have related to me their own stories of temporary despair.

So when you hear such a voice yourself, it's imperative that you find some way to tune it out and push on--especially when you're writing your first draft.  You're in the most vulnerable phase of the work, when it's easy to get seduced into giving up.  First drafts are tough largely because they don't have that polished and professional authority you sense when reading successful produced and published scripts.  Your initial pages just aren't measuring up.  What's important is to keep reminding yourself that every one of these successful scripts were brought into existence in the same way your script is.  Any given play or screenplay on your bookshelf may be a fifth, or tenth, or twentieth reworking of a tentative first draft.  And it's possible that very little, if any, of the very first draft may still be contained in that script you admire the most.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are still considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15 or for starting with our June residency running from June 22-July 2.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What to do when your first draft sucks...

For starters, first take a deep breath.  Then give yourself a pat on the back for having pushed through the wilderness to the finish line for the first time regardless of how bad you think it is.  Pushing through the entire story in draft form is obviously a major step.  Finally, put that first draft away and forget all about it for at least two or three days or a week or longer and let it cool.  Getting some distance is critical.  Remember, what you at first think is terrible is usually much better once you come back to it--if you've put it out of your mind for a while.  

In that cooling off period, remind yourself that successful and well known scripts you have read and studied are projects that have gone through several if not many many drafts.  Scripts that have been tested with actors and that have incorporated lots of good feedback in subsequent drafts by people who understand what makes a script work and lift off the page.  That these plays and screenplays have gone through the ringer so to speak in order to eventually come out as polished finished works.

So many of the writers I work with need to be reminded that the name of the game is process.  That once you come back to your initial draft your job is to take it one step at a time regarding rewrites. You first need to determine where you sense the biggest road blocks--the scenes that stop the forward movement of your story.  Then determine which of these is the biggest problem and fix it by trying a different approach.  Just that one problem.  Then examine the ripple effect that one fix has on the rest of your script and make necessary adjustments along the way so your fix fits in and makes sense throughout your tale as it unfolds.  Then tackle the next biggest issue, and so on and on...

The key is to never panic and to always realize that you peel the onion one layer at a time.  And when you make one fix it will suggest another fix and another.  Some big, some small, but all making a contribution to allowing your script to eventually get better and begin to lift off.

I will always remember what Athol Fugard, the highly successful South African playwright, told me in an interview I did with him regarding his first draft woes:

There is always a mortifying moment when, having pushed through that first draft without going back and checking anything--just working, just driving, just trying to create that arc on paper using the scraps that you've accumulated--there is always that moment when you say, "All right, that's finished, now I've got to read this."  And then you read it, and it's an awful experience....I have never experienced anything but the most appalling, sinking feeling on reading the first drat of a play.  Every time!  

The difference with this writer and all successful writers?  He knew it was all process and that he'd eventually produce another wonderful finished work.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The tyranny of the written...

Often, the biggest rewriting hurdle for writers is freeing themselves from words already written-- prying loose material that's been, for one reason or another, set in concrete in your mind but in truth is weighing your script down and keeping it from lifting off as it needs to.  And, of course, the remedy is to develop an attitude that doesn't allow your mix of words to harden in place prematurely.


The late Horton Foote, one of our revered playwrights and screenwriters, once told me the following:

You have to divorce yourself emotionally....There's a point where I just calm down and cool it and become as objective as I can.  I find those moments that are really essential, and I find those that are nonessential, and sometimes it kills me; I've cut some of the best writing that I've ever done.

The basic rule here is that if the script as a whole is to be served, you sometimes have to be willing and able to let things go.

Probably the most striking example of this is Edward Albee's experience with his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Seascape.  He told me that he discovered at the first rehearsal that what he thought was a play in three acts was really a play in two acts, so he cut out the second act entirely, going from two intermissions to one.  One day the play had three acts and the next morning it had two.  And he told this story with no regrets whatsoever.  The work as a whole was served, and that's what counted. Extreme, yes.  Necessary?  Absolutely.  He discovered the play was structurally sound without the material between the first and third act.

So be tough on yourself if you can.  More than likely you'll be serving your script by heeding the mantra "less is more."

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Finding a title for your script that works, Part 2

Last week I focused on the critical importance of capturing a great title for any script you write.  Here I offer up a simple title search exercise that has proven very successful for myself and with my students and clients over the years in finding a title that really works.

First, reread the early draft you have completed or, if you haven't yet gotten to draft, meditate on your preliminary jottings about the script you hope to write and the ideas you want to deal with and make a concerted effort to capture in your mind what you want to leave in the heart and mind of your audience once your story has been experienced.

What is the essence of that feeling?  Try to feel it yourself.  Ponder this for a few minutes, keeping your focus solely on what you want your audience to feel when the stage lights make their final fade to black or the movie reaches its final fade out.


Next, keeping this focus in mind, write down as quickly as you can a list of every word or phrase you can think of that even in a small way describes or connects to this feeling.  Put down anything that comes to mind through free association, keeping each item as short as possible, a word or two or three should suffice for each.

As you do this, don't allow yourself to think about an actual title.  Just make a list of words or phrases that in some way captures the essence of your project emotionally, intellectually, or both.  Don't judge anything you put down.  Some of your items may sound silly.  Or out in left field.  Put them down anyway if your brain has brought them to the surface.  Just let these descriptions flow out of you. And don't stop and dwell on any of them.  Force yourself to create as long a list as you possible can--at least fifty or more items.

Next, when you've run completely dry, immediately put the list away for at least two days without looking back over it.  It's critical that at this point you don't go back over what you've come up with right away.  In fact, the exercise is largely worthless if you ignore this step and don't distance yourself from it.

When you finally do come back to your list, read it over carefully, putting check marks next to the items that trigger even the slightest positive response.  Don't necessarily be looking for a title yet. Then look back over the checked words and phrases.  See if any can be combined into something interesting.  If so, put them together.

Usually, but this time a title has jumped out at you.  All of sudden you see it sitting there in that list. You may have to create it by putting together words from two or more items on the list, but it'll be there.

I realize this may sound too good to be true , but it almost always works.  The three keys to success are first focusing clearly on what you want to leave your audience with at the end of your story; then giving your mind free rein when composing the initial list; and third, getting some distance from your list before dissecting it.

Try it and see.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Finding a title for your script that works...

Every writer I know needs to have a working title of his or her current project.  It's a label, a simple and often generic description of the story that's taking shape.  That's all it needs to be.  And sometimes you get lucky and find increasingly that as your script takes shape your working title resonates ever louder.  If that's the case, consider it a little gift from the muse.

In the vast majority of cases, however, there comes a time in the writing process when that working title needs to be looked at anew and an all out effort must be made to discover the title that truly resonates and that will seduce readers into opening that cover page to discover what's inside.


A good title is provocative and alluring (for you and everyone else), something that will stop people in their tracks and make them want to devour the script then and there.  It needs to capture perfectly the central idea you're dealing with and it should reverberate strongly in the reader's mind after the script has been experienced.  In other words, what you want to capture is a title that pulls the reader in and defines perfectly what the reader is left feeling and thinking after the read.

Of course, a good title does not a good script make, but a weak title can seriously threaten the future life of a good script.  It's a label for what's waiting to be read between those covers and eventually for what's running in theatres or seen on the screens of the world, and your title needs to reflect the life and passion found in it.  It's imperative that you settle for nothing less because it represents your initial gateway into that rarefied world where scripts find legs and start attracting serious attention.

Look at a handful of some of the all time great titles:

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
A Streetcar Named Desire
Death of a Salesman
Angels in America
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Crimes and Misdemeanors
To Kill a Mockingbird
It Happened One Night
Five Easy Pieces
The Rules of the Game

Obviously, I could go on and on.  But my point is clear.  Every great title pulls you in, makes you want to discover and embrace the story it represents.

My next blog will walk you through a simple and field tested title search exercise that I've found is quite successful in uncovering your own perfect title.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.




Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Rules to live by in the entertainment industry...

Last week at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester, the former Studio Head of Dreamworks Animation, Gail Currey, sat in front of a large audience and was interviewed by the Institute's President, Kent Devereaux, about her impressive career in the entertainment industry.


What transpired was quite inspirational.  But most significantly, Gail Currey offered a number of wonderful and insightful tips to any aspiring writer or artist hoping to forge a career in the 'Biz," tips that she followed herself as she rose through the ranks of Hollywood.

Here are a few of the gems:

--In our rapidly changing world, a person in the arts (or any other field for that matter) shouldn't focus on finding the answers to questions, but rather on asking key questions. Specifically, she has repeatedly asked herself throughout her career questions like, "Am I bored with what I'm doing?"; "Am I fulfilled and happy with my current career?"; "What am I doing that I shouldn't be doing?"; and "What am I not doing that I should be doing?"

--What is looked for in new hires are people with genuine talent but also people who show up on time. She stressed that it is always the combination of attributes--standout talent in any specific area and a strong sense of personal discipline--that makes a person attractive and lifts careers.  Talent alone most often doesn't cut it.

--Be willing to take on menial entry-level positions and then prove your competence.  In other words, make yourself indispensable regardless of where you find yourself on the career ladder.

--Always volunteer to do more.

Unspoken, but clearly evident during the presentation, is that it certainly doesn't hurt to also be gracious and exhibit more than a dose of humility--traits Gail Currey has in spades.  This is a person who rose to the top of her highly competitive field and what was clearly evident last Thursday evening is that she has never stopped asking herself the important questions and is always reaching higher.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.




Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How to have fun writing your first draft...

I'm a big believer that the writing of your first draft can for the most part be an enjoyable adventure. I know I mention this quite often, but I'm convinced it all depends on what kind of planning and prep work you've done before leaving on the journey.  It's no different than any kind of extensive trip you intend to head out on.


Primary among the items you want to have with you before embarking are a detailed working knowledge of your characters' personal and shared backstories, an ear for their distinct voices, and, of course, a plot outline road map that takes you on one possible basic route through your tale from beginning to end.  Armed with these key elements, you should be able to take off on your first draft trip relatively confident that you'll somehow find your way through to your predetermined destination or some other landing place that the writing of the draft itself has led you to.  And having this pre-draft work in hand can in fact liberate you as the writer, freeing you to try things and explore those interesting side roads along the way.

So it ultimately comes down to preparation for the journey.  I constantly stress this with the writers I work with.  And if that preparation is done thoroughly and you believe you have everything you might need with you as you venture forth, then the chances are that the writing of your first draft can indeed be a fun and creative experience.

On the other hand, if you prematurely plunge into your draft expecting that most if not all the answers to the questions your story raises will somehow magically be handed to you in the actual writing of pages, you are most likely headed for frustration and will find yourself staring at a mountain of exploratory scenes that lead you nowhere.  It'd be like heading out on a trip through unknown and uncharted territory with no road map or guideposts on the seat next to you when you inevitably take that wrong turn and end up totally and hopelessly lost.


It's been proven to me countless times that making the effort to do the necessary pre-draft exploratory work, including working your way through at least one rather detailed version of your entire story in outline form, will actually greatly increase the chances of allowing the writing of your first draft to be a relatively frustration-free and even a liberating experience.  Writing a first draft is always a tremendous effort regardless, but with your prep work beside you, you can now take those interesting and unexpected side trips when they materialize without worry of losing your way.  And if those side roads and detours uncover entirely new ideas and possibilities, you're still in a vastly superior position to digest them intelligently and make the necessary adjustments to your story.  Or you'll be able to find a way to somehow hook these new discoveries back into your central character's arc, thereby enriching the overall journey.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.