Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Around the world in sixteen plays

Oakhill School, Knysna, South Africa

While we're on the subject, Valentine's Day was a great day for another reason as well. I learned that Oakhill School in Knysna, South Africa will produce Babka Without Borders in July. This represents my sixteenth country and my very first production on the continent of Africa.

I have just two more continents to reach: South America and Antarctica. Don't laugh. Turns out the scientists at McMurdo Station have an amateur theater group, although if you want them to perform your plays, it helps if you already work there.

If that wasn't enough, I found out yesterday that the Bangalore School of Speech and Drama would be performing The Enchanted Bookshop Musical that same month. That makes India my seventeenth country--roughly one country for each of my sixteen plays.

I love both of these plays, but I'm especially grateful that kids have taken to The Enchanted Bookshop Musical so quickly. I'm sure the main characters of Dorothy, Tom Sawyer and Pollyanna are grateful too. After all, they get to come to life again, not just within the confines of my fictional bookshop, but on the stages of schools and theater companies all over the world.

What could be better than that?

The gifted students of the Bangalore School of Speech and Drama

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Lights! Camera! Murder! to be published

It had a great Valentine's Day, and not just because I enjoyed a delicious filet mignon and Cotes du Rhone with the most wonderful wife in the world. I also--finally!--received a publication offer for Lights! Camera! Murder!

Followers of this blog know that many of my plays could serve as a testament to persistence. But Lights! Camera! Murder! is a real doozy.

I've always been obsessed with old movies. And so, when I started writing plays in 2006, this Hollywood-based murder mystery was one of the first I worked on.

I'd never written a mystery before, and I soon found myself way in over my head. Plotting a mystery is hard, and my original concept didn't make things any easier.

The concept was to have the play take place on the set of an Errol Flynn-like swashbuckler. The murder weapon was to be the villain's sword, and the murderer would accomplish the dirty deed by poisoning the tip of that sword. The victim--the womanizing leading man--would then be killed during the filming of the film's big fight scene.

From there the script went... well, nowhere. I had no idea what clues to plant or what alibis to put in the characters' mouths.

As a novice playwright, I never realized an even bigger challenge, at least from a marketing viewpoint. Few high schools--and no middle or elementary schools--would produce a play where the young actors have to handle swords.

I soon abandoned the script. But over the next few years, I would return to it again and again, tweaking the dialogue, swapping out characters, maybe adding a gag or two, but never getting one iota closer to breaking the story.

I finally cracked it in 2016--AKA The Year I Was Laid Off. Because I was out of work, I had a ton of time to write, so I tossed out the script and started fresh, refusing to even glance at the original version in case it contaminated my thinking.

Instead of a swashbuckler, I made the movie a hardboiled detective story, a la The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. The murder weapon? A much easier-to-deal-with poisoned cup of coffee.

I finished the script in a couple months and quickly sent it to my publisher, Pioneer Drama Service. They almost as quickly rejected it, saying they didn't think it would thrive in their particular market. Although the play is a very lighthearted comedy, I suspect that the specifics of the murder and the fact that the victim dies on stage were a little too grim for their customers.

Shortly after it got rejected, I managed to snag one production of the play. Johnston Heights Church of Vancouver, British Columbia had been hitting me up for another play (they've now done five of mine), and when I told them about this homeless little waif, they were more than happy to give the play its world premiere (see photo above).

From the feedback on that, I gave the play one last polish and sent it off to other publishers.

The response was the same. Dramatic Publishing rejected it. Eldridge Publishing rejected it. YouthPLAYS rejected it.

I finally sent it to Heuer Publishing, a company I've long respected but which had rejected three of my previous submissions. And then I went on to write other stuff. Plays. Screenplays. Novels. After a year of waiting, I still hadn't heard anything from them and had completely written them off.

Then yesterday, thirteen months after I submitted Lights! Camera! Murder!, Heuer told me they wanted to publish it through their affiliate Brooklyn Publishers.

I was thrilled. Not only did it finally find a home after eleven years of writing and three years of submitting, but it will be my first play published by someone other than Pioneer.

I still love Pioneer and plan to submit to them again, but I'm looking forward to establishing a relationship with a new publisher. The play comes out in August.

So I guess the lesson is don't give up. I know it's a cliche, but it's really true. No matter how many rejections you get, no matter how many people ignore you, just keep sending your stuff out. Again and again and again.

It only takes one yes to change everything.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

How do you love your books?

I came across an article the other day that really got me thinking. Written by Anne Fadiman, it was published 25 years ago in Civilization magazine, but it was reprinted by Slate this week in response to a tweet that raised the hackles of book lovers everywhere.

In the tweet, the tweeter (twitterer?) posted a picture of a book he cut in half in order to make it easier to lug on trips.

Here is that photo, and if you're an avid book lover, you may want to sit down for this (graphic image follows):

Horrifying, I know. But Fadiman had something to say about it. In her article, titled "Never Do That to a Book", she proposed there are two ways to love your books.

First, there's the courtly way, in which the reader takes pristine care of their texts, refusing to tear them, write on them or even dogear a single page.

The other way is the carnal way. Disciples of this school (and that includes Fadiman herself) don't just read books, they consume them--and in the most literal sense possible. They scribble in the margins, throw away pages as they finish them, even--horror of horrors!--set them down spine side up.

A sign of disrespect? Not at all. Says Fadiman:
"To us, a book's words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy."
I have to admit, I've abused my share of books..When I was a kid, my dad had a collection of elegantly embossed hardcovers called the Twenty Greatest Works of Literature or something like that. He kept them out of reach on a high shelf in our rec room, but when I saw that one of them had the intoxicating title of--wait for it!--Treasure Island--I knew I had to read it.

I climbed up on a chair, grabbed the book off the shelf and, for the rest of that summer, took it everywhere I went. Church. Summer school. Camping. Fishing.

I loved that book, and when I finally returned it to its shelf a couple months later, it stood out from the rest of the books in its sheer usedness. The cover was faded. The corners were bumped. The edges were threadbare. And I think it got some fairly significant water damage from that fishing trip.

Sure, it was ugly. But it was the only book from that collection that ever got read.

Anyone who has seen or performed in my play The Enchanted Bookshop knows that Miss Margie, the owner of the ship, belongs firmly in the courtly camp. She scolds the bad guys, Eddie and Fingers, when they toss her books on the floor. And so, when it comes time for them to punish her, they know how to make it hurt:

EDDIE: This ain't the necklace we was looking for. What happened to the real necklace?

MARGIE: I don't know! I never had it!

EDDIE: Tryin' to pull a fast one, are ya? Well, we'll see about that. Fingers?

FINGERS: What books should I start with?

EDDIE: I don't care. Just pick one.

FINGERS: (Grabs a real book from the shelf.) How about Mary Poppins?

EDDIE: Whatever. (FINGERS tears pages out of the book.)

MARGIE: No! Stop!

EDDIE: Are you gonna tell us where the real necklace is?

MARGIE: I already told you! I don't know where it is!

EDDIE: All right, Fingers. Pick another book.

FINGERS: (Grabs another book.) This one's got a funny name. Don Quicksoddy. (Tears pages out of the book.)

MARGIE: Stop! I'll give you all my money! Just please don't hurt my books!

You know, it's funny. I've seen dozens of productions of this play--both live and on video--and not a single one had the bad guys actually tear the pages from the book. They usually just mime the tearing, or toss the books gently on the floor without tearing them all.

I get it. My plays are primarily directed by teachers and I suspect that most teachers are lifelong members of Team Courtly. I mean, they have to be. The books in their rooms get handled by dozens of hands a year, and if they didn't enforce some level of care, within a couple years, there wouldn't be any books left.

In my play, however, I think it's really important to damage the books. It has to be visceral. The audience should feel the tearing of the pages like a gut punch, and in that way, they'll realize how precious books are.

But what if you really, really don't want to damage any books? Well, there is one way around it. Stick some loose pages inside the books ahead of time, then when it comes times to destroy them, pull out those pages and toss them on the floor. The audience will never know it was faked.

Or maybe you can talk your local library into donating some damaged books that are otherwise headed for the recycler.

These days, I take better care of my books. Maybe it's a result of getting older, but my current view is that we never really own our books. We just borrow them. The best of our books will last much longer than we do, and we owe it to those who follow to leave at least a few of the literary treasures we loved so much.

But those trashy little paperbacks? Do what you want with them.

I won't tell Margie.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The playwright speaks

I've never really liked my voice. The few times I could bring myself to listen to a recording, I thought I sounded like a teddy bear. With an upper respiratory infection.

That's no exaggeration. Several years ago, after leaving a voice message for one of my co-workers, that co-worker asked me never to do that again. Listening to my voice, hurt his ears too much.

But that shouldn't stop you from listening to it. And now you can. Pioneer Drama Service has just launched a new promotional tool called Pioneer Pods.

The concept is simple. They start with an audio interview with their playwrights, asking them questions like what was their inspiration for the play, what kind of message are they trying to convey? You know, the usual stuff. They then take these answers and intercut them with dialogue from an actual production of the play.

I think it's a great idea. Directors get to hear directly from the playwright what makes the play unique. And the dialogue gives them a feel for some of the characters and what play sounds like on its feet.

Pioneer invited me to do two--one for The Enchanted Bookshop and one for The Enchanted Bookshop Musical--and Adam, who puts the audio files together for Pioneer, did a wonderful job on them.

Want to check them out for yourself? They're easy to find, situated front and center on the web page for each play. You'll find the page for The Enchanted Bookshop here and the page for The Enchanted Bookshop Musical here.

I hope you enjoy listening to them!

I know I won't.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Why Tarantino was wrong

I came to Tarantino late. I didn't see my first film of his until 2012 when I rented his heist-gone-wrong drama Reservoir Dogs, 20 years after it was released to theaters. And the only reason I saw that was because I was going to be reviewing a theatrical adaptation of the film for the local newspaper and I wanted to familiarize myself with the story.

Well, I was hooked. The media loves to focus on the over-the-top violence in Tarantino's films, but I saw that they offer do much more. His characters are complex. His dialogue is fresh, smart--and often hilariously funny. And his musical choices are, well, transcendent. I quickly made a point of seeing the rest of his films (thanks, Netflix!).

Yeah, I'm a big fan. So last night, I was thrilled to see him win his third Golden Globe for Best Screenplay (he won it for Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood).  But there was something that bothered me about his acceptance speech. Here's what he said:

"Normally the thing is when I win a writing award, I--you don't share the script with somebody else, you write it by yourself-- kind of don't have anybody to thank. I did it."

That's kind of true. In the whole process of moviemaking, the screenwriter is the only one who creates something out of nothing.

But that misses the point. The Best Screenplay award is not a writing contest. The 89 journalists who make up the Hollywood Foreign Press Association don't read the scripts. They experience them through the performances that the actors give, and the director guides, and the costume designers dress, and the composers embellish, and so on, and so on.

So the excellence of the screenplay can only be viewed through the filter of the entire film.

Of course, Tarantino's comments were meant to be tongue-in-cheek. And he did go on to thank his actors for adding "a slightly different layer that what was just on the page".

But I think his comments speak to something that a lot of writers feel, that we are the most important part of the moviemaking process. Which is why we need to keep something in mind whenever we get too full of ourselves.

Sure, we may begin the process. But we don't complete it. And our value, our success, our very existence as writers is dependent on all those other creatives who we collaborate with to make something good and meaningful and lasting.

For without them, our words on the page will remain just that. Words. And that's not what movies are about.

But it would be nice if we were paid more.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Happy new decade!

A local news channel presented the results of a poll last night. They asked people to respond to the question: When does the next decade start?

Well, one-third of the people said 2020 and the other two-thirds said 2021.

Well, they're both right. And both wrong.

You see, a decade is just a group of ten years. Any ten years. Humans defined the fairly arbitrary concept of decade to begin with, so we get to apply it any way we want.

For example, if you were an historian, you could write a book titled something like A Decade of War, 1935-1945. Or if you were compiling a new album (shows how old I am), you could call it Rock and Roll's First Decade: 1952-1962. It depends on what your purpose is.

The same goes for centuries, and those who were alive in 2000 remember we went through a similar debate then too (and similarly ended without any resolution).

But it's very simple. It depends on what you're calling it.

If you call it the 20th century, then the "20th" implies that your counting from something. What are you counting from? The beginning of the Christian era. There was no year 0, so we start with the year 1. This means the 1st century went from 1 to 100, the 2nd century went from 2 to 200, and the 20th century went from 1901 to 2000.

However, if you're talking about the "1900's", that can only mean one thing: the 100 years that begin with a "19", or 1900 to 1999.

In the same way, the start of the new decade depends on which decade you're talking about. If you're talking about the 3rd decade of the 21st century, then that's very clearly 2001 to 2100. However, if you're talking about the 20's, then that means 2020 to 2029.

Of course, no one is going to refer to it as the 3rd decade. They're going to refer to it as the 20's.

But if they're waiting to celebrate until next year, then they--like two-thirds of those poll respondents--are wrong.

Happy 2020's everyone!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A look ahead to 2020

As I said in yesterday's post, I'm feeling pretty good about the new year. I've got the material. What I don't have are the connections. So that's what I'm going to focus on this year.

Oh, I'll keep writing every day, of course. And I'm excited to start a new project after I finish the one I'm currently working on.

But I also need to make time to submit my stuff to the folks who can get it out there. And there are a lot of them, as you can tell by my list below.

And yeah, it's a longer list than last year. I may or may not sell the TV series this year, but at least I'll give myself some interim goals so that I can measure progress toward that goal. And this year, I'm stating those goals in terms I can control (submitting to a certain number of publishers) rather than something I can't (getting published).

1) Complete my first chapter book

The new project I referred to in my last post is a chapter book series based on The Enchanted Bookshop. My idea is for the TV series is to have each episode focus on one classic novel, with the main team of Lits (reduced to a more manageable three: Dorothy, Pollyanna and Tom Sawyer) "splorging" into the novel in order to help Miss Margie save her shop.

Well, the chapter books will mirror the series. Each episode will have an easy-to-read companion book with the same plot and characters. If I can't sell the TV series, then I'll try to sell the book series--and launch the TV series from that.

I started the first chapter book--an adaptation of the Treasure Island-based pilot--in November, and should have it all polished and ready to send out by the end of January.

2) Complete a second entry in the chapter book series

Middle-grade novels generally stand alone, but early-level chapter books are almost always sold as series, so if I do sell it to a publisher, I'll need to have additional entries ready to go.

I've already written the second episode of The Enchanted Bookshop TV series, and I expect it'll take me a couple months to adapt that one into a chapter book. I won't submit it separately. I'll just have it ready to go in case I sell the concept to a publisher.

3) Submit the first chapter book and series concept to 20 publishers

Like animation companies, some publishing houses accept direct submissions and I'll submit to all of them I can find. I don't think there are many.

4) Submit the chapter book to 100 literary agents

For those publishers that don't accept unsolicited material, I'm going to need to get an agent. I hear it can be as hard to get an agent as a publisher, but there's a 100% chance I won't get one if I don't submit to them at all.

That 100 number is arbitrary, of course, but is large enough to make it a serious effort. Once I get a rhythm going, I may end up submitting to a whole lot more. It all depends on how many agents are looking for fantasy-related chapter books.

5) Submit the TV series to 100 managers

As I said yesterday, I lost my Beverly Hills-based manager in November. And while I've gotten some interest from the animation houses I've approached, I've found that most of the big animation houses won't even look at your stuff without a manager or agent to act as gatekeeper. So I'll start looking for a new one next week.

6) Submit the TV series to 100 agents

Managers are easier to get than agents, but managers generally focus on developing their writers' careers. Agents are the ones who find and negotiate individual deals. It's even better to have both, though it can get expensive as both reps take a 10% cut.

I've never tried to get an agent in Hollywood, but this could be a great time to look for one. In April, the Writers Guild of America instructed its 20,000 members to fire their agents in protest of their predatory practices, and those agencies could now be looking for non-WGA members to fill out their slates.

Or it could be a horrible time, as the agencies may have written off writers altogether. Either way, I don't have to worry about being a scab as most animated series aren't even covered by the WGA but by IATSE instead.

7) Write one more TV series episode

I've got tons of ideas. And I'll need another script pretty quick if I'm invited to pitch my concept in person to a production company or network. Better to get it done now, before it's needed. And, if I feel especially ambitious, I may even get a third book adaptation completed from that.

8) Walk half an hour a day

With all these career-driven goals, it's important to step back and refocus on those things that are really important, like my health. Unfortunately, both my weight and blood pressure have inched up over the last year, largely because I haven't found time to exercise.

Well, that's got to change. Somehow, I've got to find the time to take care of myself. And if I do that, the other things will follow.

Final comments

Yep, it's going to be an insanely busy year. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

I may never succeed in selling The Enchanted Bookshop as a TV series. If I was a more practical person, I might give up entirely.

But every TV series is a longshot. And if this one is ever going to get made, now is the time. Netflix and Disney and the other streamers are buying stuff like crazy.

And let's face it, there's a lot of dreck out there for kids. Is there a place for something a little more thoughtful, a little more educational, a little more literary?

I guess I'll find out.