Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Our bi-annual gathering of scriptwriters...

It's that time again.  Every January and June, there is this special gathering of playwrights and screenwriters in the quaint mountain village of Peterborough, NH for a ten-day marathon of sharing new work and participating in intensive workshops on our craft and our industry.  Our next get together launches this Friday, January 6.

Of course what I'm talking about is our low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Talented student writers from all over the country--from New Mexico to Florida, from Texas to Michigan and from New York City to Dallas--as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico and Wabasca, Canada will all gather together to celebrate our art form with a distinquished professional faculty drawn from various aspects of our profession.


There will be intensive pitch sessions of new story ideas, craft classes in dialogue and rewriting and career oriented workshops on submission tactics and the national new play development arena. And central to the residency will be ten readings of new work written by our students this past semester, all of which are cast with professional actors and are followed by extensive feedback sessions.

To top off this residency, we've invited our alumni back for the opening weekend to share their adventures in the scriptwriting trade and to help further expand our growing networking apparatus on a national level.

Overall, these residencies are a time and place for emerging writers to share their passion for their art and expand their skill and their horizons as artists.  And all student writers leave the experience renewed and ready to go to work during the semester on their next project with their assigned professional mentor--developing a new script they'll share with the whole group at the next residency.

It's quite special.  Come join us if you can.

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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 about to start our next residency that runs January 6-15.  We are currently accepting applications for starting the program 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, December 20, 2016

Capturing your angst...

At a Christmas party this past weekend I ran into a writer I know who has been having a rough time emotionally this fall, to the point that she can't really move forward in her creative life.  I suspect there are a lot of folks out there who are experiencing the same symptoms to one degree or another this election year.

What I suggested to this writer (and anyone who considers him/herself any kind of scribe in this predicament) is to put down on paper or pound out in a document all your raw feelings.  In other words, to journal your way through your angst and/or the thoughts that are bringing you down.


Journaling can do wonders to help you objectify what you're feeling, getting out in front of you what you're experiencing emotionally and what you suspect are the reasons for it.  And by journaling I mean really venting and letting loose and putting down in words exactly what comes to mind when you target the root causes of the dark mood you find yourself stuck in--describing the sadness, the depressing thoughts, and so on and making an attempt to articulate in detail the reasons for it.

No one will ever see this but you, but the dividends are often significant and long lasting.  On the short term, you'll find that it tends to help you process your way through the doldrums you're going through.  But also, what I've learned over the years with of this type of journaling, is that sometimes months or even years later I can go back to these entries and there staring back at me is a vividly captured emotion that I experienced in my past and that I can now use in my current work.  I'm still connected to it, but I now have the necessary distance from it to be able to fold it into my writing.

At times it's been exhilarating as a writer to have this documentation of my past emotional struggles available to me--my own private treasure trove.  And on occasion a past journal entry has unlocked a key I'd been searching for and that I needed to unwrap for a project I was currently in the middle of.

At any rate, it's always a good practice for a writer to use words--the raw material we work with day in and day out--to help guide us through the down times.  And you may find that down the line it will prove a bonanza.

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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, December 13, 2016

Honored to be one of the top 50 screenwriting blogs...

I'm claiming some bragging rights here and announcing that this blog has just been included in the top 50 screenwriting blogs by Feedspot.  Out of the thousands of blogs on the subject, that is sweet news indeed.
Feedspot lists all 50 selected blogs and annotates each with a brief description of the blog, the average frequency of postings, and other data.  The site is updated weekly.  

Needless to say, I'm happy to be included in their listing.  

Thanks, Feedspot--and thanks to all my loyal readers!

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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, 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.