Thursday, December 31, 2020

A look back at 2020

Longtime readers of this blog know I don't do resolutions. I do goals. They're more practical. More useful. More motivating.

For the purposes of this blog, my goals are mostly writing-related, but sometimes I throw in a health-related one as well. Because, after all, you can't be at the top of your writing game if you're not feeling and living your best.

Well, last year, I tried something different. Instead of broad, all-encompassing goals that were largely out of my control (get an agent!), I set more specific goals that were entirely within my control (submit queries to 100 agents).

I shouldn't have bothered. Why? Because I ended up reaching my real goal for the year, and did it well before meeting the arbitrary but exceedingly ambitious submissions goals.

1) Complete my first chapter book

Success. I finished the first in my (projected) book series based on my play The Enchanted Bookshop. This one had the three main Lits--Dorothy Gale, Tom Sawyer and Pollyanna--splorging into the novel Treasure Island in order to get gold that will help Miss Margie pay her rent.

2) Complete a second entry in the chapter book series

Failure. This didn't happen. I started a second book, this one based on Around the World in Eighty Days. I thought I had a concept, but I quickly ran into some hurdles I couldn't jump over and decided to come back to the story a later time, when I felt more inspired--or at least more jumpy.

And no, that time hasn't come yet.

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

Failure. Middle-grade novel series are the domain of large publishers and most of those won't even glance at your manuscript if it's not represented. So I decided to hunt for an agent first.

4) Submit the chapter book to 100 literary agents

Success--sort of. I didn't make it to the full hundred. In fact, I only made it 37 before I reached my real goal for the year: landing an agent. As described elsewhere, the most excellent Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer DeChiara Agency offered to represent me in March and he acted quickly in submitting The Enchanted Bookshop to several large publishers, followed a few months later by his submission of my Edison Young series to many of the same publishers.

Turns out that even if I hadn't received an offer, it was unlikely I would have hit that magic number because I was limiting my search to agents that focus on children's literature and there's barely a hundred of those in the whole biz.

5) Submit the TV series to 100 managers

Failure. I didn't even send one. But that's okay because Stephen's agency has a staffer who specializes in selling their properties to Hollywood. The books series comes first, of course. But it's good to know that if it's a success, there's a pathway to bigger things.

6) Submit the TV series to 100 agents

Failure. See 5) above.

7) Write one more TV series episode

Success. I completed the origin story for the Lits in an episode featuring the indomitable Don Quixote. But until the books series finds a home, this script has nowhere to go.

8) Walk half an hour a day

Success--and then some. What with my day job and my writing time and my family time, it was nearly impossible to squeeze in some exercise time.

Then the pandemic hit, and I was forced (encouraged? allowed?) to work from home. That saved me a whole hour of commuting time every day, and I used half of that time to start working out on our elliptical a rather pricey purchase that had mostly sat unused for the year since we'd bought it. (The other half hour a day? I'm learning Italian through Duolingo.)

And, man, did it help! It got my blood pumping, shaved twenty pounds off my weight and even dropped my blood pressure by a few points (not as much as I would have liked, but still).

Four successes out of eight goals? Not too bad, I guess. More importantly, I'm excited for the new year. Due to the pandemic, publishers are slow in their responses and even slower in laying out cash for a new series. But now that a vaccine had been released, the end of that very long tunnel is in sight.

May all of us get there. Together.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas comes to life

I wasn't expecting much for An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas this year. It came out just three months ago, and with the recent surge in COVID cases, it seemed unlikely that anyone would be performing it this holiday season.

So it was the best Christmas present of all when my latest Google search turned up not one but three video versions of the play as well as an extensive gallery of photos from a fourth production.

Some of the productions are performing on stage in masks (see the Delaware school production above). Some are performing it on Zoom (like this Minnesota church production). And some are performing it the old-fashioned way (like the Georgia school production below). 

Of course, social distancing policies are a decision for the schools. But it warms my heart to see that even this year, my newest play is able to share its message of faith, hope, and Christmas joy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

A virtual aloha

As further proof that theater is returning, though often in virtual form, I finally got that production in Hawaii I've been waiting for. I haven't been able to confirm the date yet, but sometime in October, Hana Arts in Hana, on the eastern tip of Maui, performed my play You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy!, a virtual adaptation of my collection of driver's ed skits. 

Groups like this truly are the lifeblood of the community. Besides offering after-school art and drama classes, Hana Arts strives to keep native culture alive through workshops in hula and oli (traditional chanting), as well as their colorful and authentic dramatizations of local legends like the one seen above. 

Oh and yeah, this makes my 50th state.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Kansas bookshop goes on

Despite the pandemic, live theater is slowly coming back to, well, life, this fall as schools and community theater around the world figure out how to adapt mask and social distancing rules to their venues.

One of those theaters is the Holton Community Theatre in Holton, KS, which gave The Enchanted Bookshop the honor of being the very first production in their brand spanking new digs. Unfortunately, they had to cancel their final weekend of performances due to rising COVID cases, but they were able to perform their first two shows on November 7 and 8.

And by the way, the talented actors put together some charming in-character videos promoting the show. If you'd like to get some ideas for your own promos, like their Facebook page or check out this video featuring that dubious duo, Eddie and Fingers.

Friday, October 23, 2020

The room where it happens

It's small, but it's mine

I've written a lot of places. Sometimes it feels like I've written everywhere. Coffee shops. The backseats of cars. Motel lobbies. Poolside cabanas. The middle seats of airplanes. Pop-up campers. Busy teachers' lounges. Cramped little corners of lakeside cabins. Once I even wrote in an old train station that had been turned into a swanky mall (Denverites will know where I'm talking about).

But my favorite place to write has always been home. And now that many of us have been forced to spend a lot more time at home, I thought it would be fun to share my little space.

Fifteen years ago my wife and I lived in a wooded area outside Colorado Springs called Black Forest. Hundred year-old ponderosas grew for miles in every direction, and my office was in one corner of our house, with windows looking out at those ponderosas on two sides.

It was gorgeous. But it wasn't necessarily the best place to write. The natural beauty that surrounded me was a distraction in itself, and I often caught myself staring at a mule deer munching grass along the edge of our driveway or one of the area's unique squirrels with their tufted ears and jet black fur instead of writing.

Which is why the office I have now may just be the best place I've ever written.

My wife and I bought the house in 2017 when we first moved to Arizona. The office itself is a cozy little room with an exterior door and windows on either side of that door. This allows me to get my daily allotment of sunshine so I don't feel like a mushroom on those marathon days when I'm scribbling away for hours in order to meet some crazy deadline. But the office looks out on a simple courtyard--a relaxing sight to be sure, but not one that's going to distract me.

Not the world's most scenic view, but it works for me

Because of the COVID crisis, and the economy, and the fact that apartments in the Phoenix area are way more expensive than they should be, both of our daughters have moved back in with us. As have their adorable but very opinionated dogs. So these days it often feels like our house is bursting at the seams.

And that leads me to the other great advantage of my office. It's situated at one end of our house, directly opposite the activity center at the other end, so even with the TV blasting and everyone talking and the dogs in full woof, I can barely hear a thing.

Like most writers, I used to write at a desk. But when we moved into the house I discovered that the office was smaller than I remembered and the desk was bigger than I remembered and there was no way I was ever going to fit it inside the office unless I set it on its end.

So I got rid of it. Now I do my writing in a leather recliner, and I would never go back. With a laptop, who needs a desk anyway?

Who says you have to hunch 
over a desk when you write?

My office is a place dedicated to reading and writing, with a bookcase in one corner and cast photos and newspaper clippings from some of my shows on the walls. But my favorite spot is the top of the file cabinet, for that's where I display some of the mementos that directors of my plays have been so generous to share with me. 

Look at the photo below, and you'll see the knife from The Butler Did It!, the KUKU sign from The Last Radio Show, the sarcophagus lock from How I Met Your Mummy and the diamond-studded cat collar from The Purrfect Crime.

And the puffin? Well, I could say it's my favorite animal, and that would not be wrong. I could say it inspires me to write about exotic creatures and far off places, and that would also not be wrong. But the real truth is that it was one of our daughters' Beanie Babies when they were younger and I couldn't bear to part with it after they grew up.

So yeah, writing is important. But it's not everything. 

A few mementos from my shows

Monday, September 21, 2020

Lights! Camera! Murder! is now available

A play which took me years of on and off writing and revising and tweaking to complete, went on to get rejected by several publishers, and was finally given up for dead has just been published by Brooklyn Publishers.

The play, of course, is Lights! Camera! Murder! I've told the whole crazy story before, so let me just say here what a joy it is to finally see this play in print. It's my first play with Brooklyn, and my 18th play overall.

Ordering info and a free script sample can be found on Brooklyn's website. Here's the blurb:

It's 1948, and Hope Holloway is an ambitious young press agent on Dial M for Migraine, a detective movie that's three weeks late and half a million dollars over budget. To finish the movie, temperamental leading man Roger Drummond has to film one last scene, a scene in which his character drinks a poisoned cup of coffee. 

Roger gives the performance of his life, writhing in agony as he collapses to the floor. But when the scene is done, and Roger remains sprawled on the floor, Hope has a horrible realization: the coffee really was poisoned! 

Worried about the bad press this will generate, Hope quickly hides the body so she can solve the murder herself. But who could the murderer be? Alberto Bologna, the hotheaded director who's only pretending to be Italian? Gwendolyn Chambers, the bubbleheaded starlet who can't read her cue cards without squinting? Tommy Novak, the gawky production assistant who has a crush on Hope? Or one of several other unlikely suspects? 

With its crazy characters and snappy dialogue, this sassy send-up of the Golden Age of Hollywood is guaranteed to be a blockbuster hit!

The theater world is still largely on hold with the COVID-19 crisis, but I'm hoping to see this play on its feet soon, maybe early next year.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas is now available

Just in time for the new school year, Pioneer Drama Service has released the latest addition to the growing series of Enchanted Bookshop plays. 

It's titled An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas (echoes of those heartwarming Hallmark specials?) and it's my very first holiday play. The play's web page, including a script sample and complete ordering info, can be found here.

Here's the blurb:
Revisit or discover anew the beloved literary characters of the bestselling The Enchanted Bookshop in this very merry prequel. This time, they're joined by a whole crew of Christmas-themed characters, including the Nutcracker Prince, Amy March, the Velveteen Rabbit, the Little Match Girl, and even Ebenezer Scrooge himself! 
As the play begins, it's four days before Christmas and Miss Margie, the scatterbrained owner of the shop, is thrilled to have two very special guests — her serious-minded sister Ellen and book-loving niece Annabelle.  Ellen was recently laid off from her position as an astronomy professor, and she's certain she'll never find a job again. 
Her luck changes, however, when high-tech billionaire Philip Brantley stops in at the shop and Margie convinces him to hire Ellen for his new space project. With Ellen out shopping, Margie has a brainstorm to wrap the bookmark that Philip wrote his phone number on it and give it to Ellen as a Christmas present. After all, what could possibly go wrong? The present could go missing, that's what!
Now it's up to the Lits to solve the mystery of the missing bookmark and save the day for Ellen — all without giving away their magical existence. It's a hilarious, heartwarming tale that reminds us that the best gifts don't come wrapped in pretty paper and bows.
Of course, An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas had to be a prequel as the original play concluded (spoiler alert!) with the Lits disappearing into their books forever. And that was just one of the challenges in writing this play. After all, how can you create any kind of tension in a story when you know the heroes will survive for another play? Well, I came up with a neat little solution that I think works well.

Another challenge was deciding which characters to include. In my post about the original play, I explained how I came up with the six literary characters who formed the core of that story.

One of the most important criteria for me was that the characters be instantly recognizable from their costumes. This narrowed things down pretty quickly, and I ended up going with Dorothy Gale, Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna, Robin Hood, Heidi, and Sherlock Holmes (of course, Pollyanna may be the odd girl out here, as she's not particularly well-known outside the 1960 Disney movie).

I knew I wouldn't be able to stick to that rule in the new play. Sure, all of the new Christmas-themed characters are well-known and well-loved. But they're not visually iconic in the same way that the original six were.

Of course, the Nutcracker Prince had to make an appearance in the Tchaikovsky ballet have made him a happy part of many people's Christmas traditions. Sadly, to make room for the new characters, I had to axe some of the older ones (namely, Robin Hood, Heidi, and Sherlock Holmes). But with his pompousness and love of big words, the Nutcracker Prince ably filled Sherlock's shoes.

I love the book Little Women and I desperately wanted to include one of the March sisters in the play. And yes, I realize that, strictly speaking, Little Women isn't a Christmas story, but the novel does open with that famous scene by the hearth with the sisters (well, three out of four of them) complaining about how miserable the holiday is going to be. And admit it. When you thick back to the multiple movie versions, that's the scene you think of first.

 Of course, the natural choice would be Jo as she seems to be everyone's favorite sister (she's definitely mine). But Jo is too close in personality to Dorothy, and I didn't need two clever, headstrong leader types.

Meg and Beth seemed a little dull for what I was looking for. That left Amy. Fans of the book have some pretty strong opinions about this youngest member of the brood. Some consider her the most admirable of the four because she knows what she wants and isn't afraid to take it. Others resent that she often does so at the expense of her sisters. Still others (writers mostly) will never forgive her for what she did to Jo's manuscript (of course, I had to include a gag about that in the play).

Greta Gerwig's 2019 film went a long ways toward redeeming Amy in the eyes of many, but even in that film she remains very much a brat. And that made her perfect for my purposes, as she lent a smart alecky tone to the proceedings.

Of all the characters, I had the most fun writing her, and I think she got many of the best lines. Will she make an appearance in a future installment? You'll have to wait and see.

The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite stories growing up. The way this ratty old stuffed animal came to life at the end really stuck with me, so I knew I had to include him. But reading the story again as an adult, I was stuck by how--well, emotional--he was. That gave me a fun personality play with.

Of course, the fact that the toy was contaminated with scarlet fever provided a couple of gags, one of which involves a bottle of hand sanitizer (which I thought up before this whole COVID crisis, I swear). An additional advantage of including this character is that as a rabbit, he can easily be played by a boy or girl.

Although this story isn't normally identified as a Christmas story, the rabbit was originally given to the Boy as a Christmas gift so it worked well. I had my third character.

Then there's the Little Match Girl, who would provide sweetness and light (and make a perfect counterirritant to Amy with her constant griping about being "poor"). This one was a bit of a cheat because the original Hans Christian Andersen story actually takes place on New Year's Eve. But who can forget the image of her peeking through the window of the rich family's home at the huge feast laid out for them--something we normally associate with Christmas?

I also had to include that well-meaning couple from O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. Do you remember their names? They're James and Della Young, and while they play a smaller role here, they get some of my best lines as well as one fun scene where they seem destined to repeat their ill-fated gift-giving forever.

Of course, Ebenezer Scrooge had to show up as the curmudgeonly antagonist. One early version had him going through his famous transformation behind the scenes over the course of the play and while that was an interesting concept, it stole the focus away from the main plot. Still, a hint of that remains in the play, and Scrooge ends up a much nicer, more compassionate figure than he was in the beginning.

All that was missing was the fat man himself. I didn't want to include the actual Santa because that might suggest that Santa himself is no more than a literary character (didn't want to go there). So instead I had one of the characters make a surprise appearance dressed as Santa. I think this will be a big hit for audiences and put everyone in the proper holiday mood.

One set of characters that didn't make the cut? The lively denizens of The Elves and the Shoemaker. This isn't always thought of as a Christmas story but does take place at least partly on Christmas Eve. I would have loved to include them but the large number of elves got a little unwieldy in practice. I ended up giving them an equally crucial role in the story, being the characters that, in their book at least, inspire Annabelle to believe in Christmas.

So there you have it. One new play, seven new literary characters come to life.

Whether you're putting on a special Christmas performance this year, or holding off for another year, I hope you'll buy at least a perusal copy. I truly believe it'll warm your heart.

And isn't that really what we're all looking for these days?

Friday, August 7, 2020

You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy! is now available

We've all been forced to adapt in these difficult times. I've been doing my day job from home since March, so I've had to come up to speed on Microsoft Teams and other technical tools to help me stay productive. I've also learned how important it is not to eat a chili beef burrito immediately before going out in a face mask.
Pioneer Drama Service has been forced to adapt as well, and that's because the market for traditional,  live performance plays has taken a temporary but very big hit. Most schools across the country have switched over to distance learning for the foreseeable future so there's little opportunity for kids to perform in front of an audience.

But kids still want to perform, and drama teachers still want to teach them. So what to do? 

Simple. Offer plays designed to be performed over Zoom or one of the other videoconferencing apps. 

Pioneer has taken a particularly strong lead in this area. For most of the summer, they've been cranking out virtual theater plays at the rate of two or three a week.

Sometimes these plays were specifically written to be performed online. Sometimes they're adapted from previously existing plays.

And now, I'm proud to say, they've adapted one of mine.

It's You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy, an adaptation of my hugely popular collection of driver's ed skits You're Driving Me Crazy!

One of the key requirements of virtual theater plays is that they not feature much movement. The plot must be driven entirely by dialogue, and that dialogue must be delivered by stationary actors facing the camera.

Even something as simple as an actor handing a prop to another actor is discouraged as it can be challenging to pull off . The first actor has to hand it off screen and the other actor has to pretend to grab a replica from the opposite side of the screen at the same time and same angle. 

As it turns out, my play didn't need much adapting. Since it revolves around teachers and students in a car, the basic requirements of dialogue and lack of movement were already met.

One character--a walker-toting grandma--didn't make the cut as the walker she needed would be too hard to handle. And a few of the lines had to be changed. But other than that, it's the exact same play.

Ordering info and a sample script are available on the play's web page. As with the original, the four 10-minutes scenes can be performed individually or together.

Oh, and if you want to learn more about this exciting new art form, read or print out Pioneer's free publication, A How-To Guide for Virtual Theatre.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Hero's Journey in Legally Blonde

A few years ago, I put together a lecture for the Colorado State Thespian Conference on the hero's journey in Star Wars. I broke down the movie into its major plot beats and showed how they match up with the three-act structure first laid out by mythologist Joseph Campbell and further developed by screenwriters Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder, among others.

It was the most popular class I ever taught, drawing over a hundred kids in a room set up for a couple dozen. I was looking forward to teaching it again, but less than a year later I moved to Arizona. Unfortunately, I've been unable to get myself on the staff of the Thespian Conference here.

But the lesson lives on. And that's because my post where I share my PowerPoint from the class has recently become my most popular post.

So I thought people might be interested in the other part of the class, the part where I applied the same structure to the 2001 Reese Witherspoon film Legally Blonde.

Why this movie? Well, most writing students already know that the Hero's Journey works for testosterone-driven action and sci fi films like Star Wars. I wanted to show that it works just as well for something funny and light like this beloved girl power comedy.

My breakdown of Legally Blonde is shown in the chart above. Feel free to download it as a JPG by clicking on the chart itself or download a PDF version by clicking on this link.

Looking at it you'll notice that, unlike a lot of writing teachers, I don't dictate a page count for each of the story beats. After all, some very successful movies play fast and loose with the generally accepted ones (Star Wars itself takes 40 of its 125 minutes to get to the first beat).

But there's one key caveat. If you take too long to get to that next beat, you risk committing the only real sin of writing: boring your audience.

And yes, some teachers include several more beats, but I wanted to keep my template simple for the beginning writers I usually teach. Trust me, if you can cover these seven beats in your story, you're well on your way to crafting a compelling, structurally sound tale.

So let's jump in and see how the irrepressible Elle Woods forges her journey:

1) Catalyst--This is the beat that gets the whole story started. Some beginning writers confuse the Catalyst (or Inciting Incident or Call To Adventure, as some teachers call it) with Accepting The Challenge, but there's an easy way to keep them straight. The Catalyst is something that happens TO the hero. Accepting The Challenge is what the hero DOES in response to the Catalyst.

There are two ways to play the Catalyst. Some movies, like Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starts with the Hero in a negative status quo, i.e. a world in which the Hero is already suffering (Charlie's poverty). In this case, the Catalyst takes the form of a positive opportunity for the Hero, something that will allow the Hero to break out of the status quo and build a better life (e.g. the Golden Ticket).

A more common--and effective--way is to start the Hero in a positive status quo, a world in which the Hero has everything they need to be happy. The Catalyst then becomes something that upends that situation, snatching that perfect world away from the Hero.

The second path is the one that Legally Blonde takes. As the film starts, Elle Woods is well on her way to a SoCal version of nirvana. She has rich parents, a newly minted degree in fashion merchandising (my daughter looked into it once, it's much harder than it sounds), great friends, and the world's most eligible bachelor as her boyfriend. All she has to do is get that boyfriend to propose and the rest of her life will be bliss.

But Warner doesn't propose. In fact, he dumps her, making it all too painfully clear that he considers her unworthy of him. Elle is devastated. Her dreams of a "happily ever after" are destroyed.

2) Accepting The Challenge--This beat is the Hero's response to the Catalyst. And Elle goes big. Despite a (perceived) lack of smarts and a lifestyle that's been centered on swimming pools and the latest fashions, she's determined to follow Warner to Harvard and get her own law degree.  For this, she's convinced, is how she's going to prove to Warner that's she worthy of him and win him back.

As audience members, we already know this is a bad goal. Warner's a jerk. We don't want Elle to get back with him, now or ever. But we know this is part of the growth path she needs to follow to get to her True Happiness, so we go along with her.

Elle now enters the first half of Act Two, what Save the Cat's Blake Snyder called the Fun & Games section. Free of any real cost to her decision, she gets to explore all the ways that her new world (Harvard) is different from her old world (SoCal). This is always the funniest part of a movie, as it gives us a chance to see our Hero make a fool of herself as she flounders around trying to learn (or fighting against) the rules of this new world.

3) Stakes Are Raised--Also called the Midpoint or Turning Point, this is where things get serious. The fun and games are over. Now the hero really has something to lose.

In the movie, Elle goes to the Halloween party to win back Warner, only to be rejected one last time. After he shoots down her plan to get an internship, saying she's just not smart enough, she finally realizes she's never going to be be good enough for him.

In my class, I argued that this was one of the weaker beats in the movie since Elle's stakes aren't raised in any meaningful way. One of the students pushed back, claiming that this defeat provides Elle with the motivation she needs to succeed. But, as I pointed out, things really haven't changed for her. As audience members, we always knew she would never get Warner back. And sure, maybe she'll work a little harder now. But she's already working pretty hard in her classes.

Blake Snyder once observed that a lot of writers think the most important beat is the Inciting Incident or the Climax, but it's really the Midpoint. The whole movie revolves around this beat. The other beats are about what happens. This beat tells you why they matter.

When I first read this, it was like the heavens opened up. It changed my whole approach to writing. No longer did I dread the long hard slog of Act Two. Instead, I relished the challenge of coming up with a turning point that would raise my story to a whole new level.

In fact, the Midpoint is such an important beat, you could almost say it launches a whole new act, with the second half of Act Two becoming Act Three, and Act Three becoming Act Four.

A four-act structure? Why not? After all, a lot of films break their stories into four different worlds, with the middle two worlds occupying the Second Act. Legally Blonde does it with Southern California, Harvard, the law firm, and the courtroom. Star Wars does it with Tatooine, the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, and the X-Wing Fighter.

If you think of the Midpoint as an act break, then you've split the three acts into four. And making the Midpoint an act break should really hammer home how life-changing this beat needs to be.

Still wondering if you've raised the stakes enough in your story? Then ask yourself one thing. What does your hero stand to lose now that they didn't before?

If the answer is nothing, rework it. Your readers (if not your hero) will love you for it.

4) All Is Lost--After the struggles of Act Two, your hero should lose it all at this critical beat. All Is Lot is where the mentor often dies, as when (spoiler alert!) Obi Wan Kenobi is killed by Darth Vader. Killing off the mentor is a highly effective story choice as it forces your hero to prove themselves by fighting their final battle alone.

But you can't have a death in a romantic comedy, so what do you do? You find another way to get rid of the mentor.

Legally Blonde handles this extremely well. After Elle gets the internship, Callahan becomes her mentor--and he's a good one. He teaches her how to do research. He teaches her how to build a case. Most importantly, he teaches her how to think like a lawyer.

Unfortunately, this all comes tumbling down when Callahan tries to seduce her. Not only does this convince Elle that no one will ever respect her for her brain, it also makes it impossible for her to work with him any longer. The relationship, if not the mentor, is dead.

5)  Final Push--Here the hero picks herself up, dusts herself off, and makes one last attempt to achieve her goals. And this time she has to do it alone. Or at least without her mentor. In most movies, the hero has allies she can lead into battle.

Elle does this by taking the lead of Brooke's defense team. Emmett may be guiding her, but it's up to Elle to win or lose for her client. She's the one who argues the case. And she's the one who makes the observation that finally turns the case her way.

For more on this, read on...

6) Final Victory--And now for the payoff. The hero succeeds, finally achieving their goal. But there's a little more to it than that--and it's all in the way they win.

As we know, the hero of every story must follow an arc. They start out being one thing (Act One), and through the lessons learned from their mentor, and the battles they've fought with their allies, they become something else (Act Two).

In Act Three, they may even reject their old self and attempt to achieve their goal based on their new skills only. But they only succeed when they combine something about their old self and their new self.

Star Wars does this. Luke starts the movie with mad piloting skills. In Act Two, he learns to use the Force. But when he gets to Act Three, he loses confidence in his ability to use the Force and relies solely on his piloting skills to destroy the Death Star. He quickly discovers that's not enough. He keeps missing the target. It's only when he combines his new self--the Force--with his old self--the Pilot--that he hits the target and succeeds in blowing up that massive space weapon.

Legally Blonde does something similar but opposite. At first, Elle tries to win the trial by being her new self--a quick-thinking, hard-nosed defense attorney. But it's not enough. Her legal arguments are going nowhere. Only when she combines that new self with her old self--a beauty expert--does she recognize that Brooke's stepdaughter must be lying about washing her freshly permed hair.

Not every movie does this. But if you want to make your story the best it can be, you're going to want to find a way to have your hero combine their two selves.

7) Final Reward--Now the hero gets to revel in their victory. But the main point of this beat is not to show how the hero revels. It's to show how much they've changed.

Elle has definitely changed. No longer the bubble-headed blonde who only cares about looking good and landing a wealthy husband, Elle is now a successful lawyer who has proven herself to everyone by graduating it the top of her class.

She has achieved her True Happiness. But, as in the best of these endings, it's a very different happiness than what she pictured in Act One. This is made painfully clear at the end when Warner asks her to take him back--and Elle rejects him. What better way to show how much she's changed?

I know a lot of writers reject templates like these, thinking it inevitably leads to formulaic stories. And yes, if you follow them blindly, it can lead to a story that's completely predictable and dull. But that's your job as a writer: finding new ways to make those old structures work.

After all, they've been used to tell stories for thousands of years, so much so that they've become a part of our DNA. Who are we to change them?

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas to be published

Hearing yes never gets old.

Especially when it comes quickly.

That was the case with my latest submission to Pioneer Drama Service. I had been wanting to write a Christmas play for a long time. Christmas is my favorite holiday, and every year my family and I gather around a roaring big-screen TV to binge-watch our regular lineup movies and specials.

It's a Wonderful Life. A Charlie Brown Christmas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff and Jim Carrey). A Year Without a Santa Claus. And you'd better believe we run A Christmas Story on continuous loop all Christmas Eve.

But how do you come up with something original? All the "Santa Claus threatens to cancel Christmas until kids learn to shape up" stories have already been done. And I'm not interested in adapting classics like A Christmas Carol. Unless...

My play The Enchanted Bookshop put a new spin on some well-loved literary characters  What if I did the same with some of the great Christmas characters from literature?

I knew the play would be called An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas. But that's all I had. I struggled for a while to come up with a concept that would capture the spirit of the original while heading off in a whole new direction (for one thing, bumbling burglars were completely out).

I tossed around ideas for almost a full year, jotting down thoughts, starting a outline or two, only to dump everything in a junk file when I got sick of it all.

It wasn't until I put the play aside for a few months and came back to it fresh at the beginning of this year that the ideal concept came to me. Once I nailed down the outline, the writing of the play went very quickly.

I submitted it to Pioneer at the end of May, thinking it was already too late for this year. After all, it generally takes three to six months to get an acceptance, and another three or four months for editing. And theater directors often start planning their Christmas shows in the summer.

But despite the pandemic, the good folks at Pioneer moved lightning fast. They accepted the play in 24 days, and said they'd try to get it out by fall.

Like I said, the plot is entirely new, but I wanted to keep some favorite bits from the original. There's a new gag about some damage to a book that becomes very personal when the protagonist of that book comes to life (similar to Sherlock Holmes' broken "spine" in the original). There are more close calls as a human character nearly catches a glimpse of the Lits, which would cause them to disappear into their books forever. And there's another humorous debate as the characters argue about their backstories (I think you can guess which literary Amy appears in the scene below):
AMY: My sisters and I are so poor. We barely own anything! 
DOROTHY: Wait. Don't you live in a big house in the country?

AMY: That drafty old shack? Please. 
LITTLE MATCH GIRL: I wish I had a shack. 
DOROTHY: And a whole wardrobe full of gowns and dresses? 
AMY: Rags. 
LITTLE MATCH GIRL: I wish I had rags. 
DOROTHY: And plenty of firewood to keep you warm? 
LITTLE MATCH GIRL: Oh, I really wish I had firewood! 
AMY: I know a manuscript I could give you. 
I think the play's a lot of fun, and I know it'll put you in the Christmas spirit.

If you'd like to be one of the first schools or theater groups to put on the play, keep checking back at this blog. I'll be sure to post the link here as soon as it's released.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Mini Meatballs

This week, we've been talking about some of the challenges keeping theater alive in these days of coronavirus.

I've been really impressed with the resourcefulness that actors and directors all over the world have shown. But perhaps no one has impressed me more than the teachers and students of Sherman High School in Sherman, NY. When their production of Million Dollar Meatballs was cancelled by the state's stay-at-home orders, they came up with a totally ingenious way to let the show go on.

A little thing called Lego.

Their handiwork can be seen in the video above. I don't know if it was inspired by The Lego Movie or one of my favorite shorts of all time, but it's a lot of fun. And I've got to say, that's one of the most detailed sets I've ever seen--of any size.

You may not want to take on such an intricate, manually demanding technique. But let their creativity be an inspiration for you.

In theater, there are no bounds to what you can do.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Centennial State Zoomers

So that Chicago area production was not quite the world virtual premiere of The Enchanted Bookshop. Montezuma-Cortez Middle School in Cortez, Colorado streamed their Zoom performance of the play on May 9, which you can view above (the play itself starts at 12:37).

This production was different in a couple ways. First, it was more of a reading. Most of the kids memorized their lines, and they all wore costumes, but the stage directions were read by a narrator.
And second, the cast used screen sharing to show all speakers in a scene at once.

The Chicago production only showed one actor at a time, which gave it a slick, movie-like feel but required each of the performers to turn their camera on before they start speaking and turn it off after they're done.

Screen sharing gives the production more of a theatrical feel because it allows the audience to keep track of who's in the scene. It's also easier to manage since each actor only has to turn their camera on when they enter and turn it off when they exit.

I think both are great choices. It's really up to the director as to what they're going for.

Like the Chicago kids, the ones in Colorado did a Q&A after the show (that starts at 1:53:19). If this is a new trend, I like it! Maybe we can keep it going after the pandemic is over and we can all perform live again.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Zooming along

The last couple months have been brutal for amateur theater, with thousands of shows being cancelled or postponed.

Pioneer Drama Service and other publishers have done a great job bringing out tons of new plays designed to be performed over Zoom or other social apps, AKA "virtual theater". But I'm glad to see that some drama teachers are making Zoom work for traditional plays as well.

That's what's happening on Saturday, May 30 at the Chicago area's Kids W.A.Y. Acting Academy. Jossie Harris Thacker, a former dancer on In Living Color, founded the academy several years ago to provide a safe place for kids to develop self-confidence while practicing their performance skills. She also offers classes that teach kids how to use their acting tools to combat bullying.

In early March, Harris Thacker was deep into rehearsal with The Enchanted Bookshop when the statewide shelter-in-place order went into effect. Instead of cancelling the show, the resourceful director decided to move it online.

Her biggest challenge in rehearsing on Zoom? Getting twenty kids to sit still!

Their hard work paid off, and the production is now getting a lot of media attention, including a write-up on the Chicago Now blog and even a mention on local TV.

It may be the world's first Zoom production of this best-selling play.

Harris Thacker encourages everyone to watch tomorrow's Zoom broadcast. If you'd like to support these amazing kids by tuning in, please register on the academy's website (its free!). The show starts at 6 p.m. CST, and will be followed by what's sure to be an animated Q&A with the cast.

I know I'll be there!

Monday, May 18, 2020

My 9th year sales

It was supposed to have been my best year yet. Over the last twelve months, I had not one but two new plays come out--a musical version of my top-selling play and my first foray into the ever popular pirate genre. Add to that the steady number of hits my other thirteen plays had been getting and I should have seen a tidy increase in royalties over last year.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Schools and community theaters started shutting down in mid-March and the number of new bookings went to zero practically overnight. Although I haven't seen too many cancellations, most of the performing groups are pushing their already booked productions into next year. And that means they're pushing back the payment of their performance fees as well.

As they should. Nothing is more important than keeping every single person healthy and safe.

But I'm trying to make a full-time living as a writer, and this whole mess just pushed that goal out another year or two. If I was 25 or 30, that wouldn't be a big deal. But I'm 57. And I'm not getting any younger.

So the year was a tough one. But not as tough as it could have been. While most of my plays showed a dip in productions, the musical had a very strong start and several older plays show surprising strength, which bodes well for their longevity in the school and community theater market.

My total number of productions for the year was 309, a 14% drop from the 361 I had last year. That drop was entirely due to losing the last six weeks of the year, and if hadn't been for the COVID-19 crisis, I would have made it over the top.

For the third year in a row, my bestselling play was, of course, The Enchanted Bookshop. This year it had 119 productions, which is down from the record-breaking 156 it had last year but is a pretty good showing for an abbreviated year. And it's already got 27 productions booked for next year.

My #2 play for the year was Million Dollar Meatballs, topping You're Driving Me Crazy! for the first time. With its 32 productions, this restaurant farce is really proving to be an evergreen play, and I couldn't be happier.

One of my brand new works, The Enchanted Bookshop Musical, was #3 this year with 27 productions, an impressive number for a large-cast musical in the middle of a pandemic. Interestingly, although it was third in the number of shows, it was second in terms of revenue due to the additional royalties I get from the sheet music and CD sales. In fact, this musical and the play that inspired it generate more in royalties than my other thirteen plays combined. But perhaps the best thing about the show is that it got me two of my three new countries this year: Greece and India.

My #4 play was my collection of driver's ed shorts, You're Driving Me Crazy!, with 25 productions. That's a significant drop from the 39 shows it had last year and the high-water mark of 61 it had in 2016-2017, its first full year of publication, and is a much bigger drop than you'd expect from the quarantine hit alone. Recently, however, Pioneer Drama Service has been promoting it as something that can be easily adapted to virtual theater (think Zoom) so, with any luck, things will pick up soon.

Most of the rest held steady or showed only a slight dip so I won't bore you with the details. But I do want to mention Babka Without Borders, my quirky comedy set on the border of two mythical European countries. Although it only ranked #9 out of my 16 plays, it was by far my most improved play of the year, going from a big fat goose egg in its first year of publication to a respectable 11 this year. And to provide the icing on this coffee cake (ha! get it?), it also brought me my seventeenth country with a production in South Africa.

In their annual letter that accompanied the royalty check, Pioneer warned their playwrights to expect even fewer productions next year as large public gatherings are limited by continued social distancing requirements.

I hope we get a vaccine soon, for the health of theater as well as my pocketbook. But more important than those is the health of you, the actors and directors and crew members who make theater happen.

Be well. Stay safe. And keep the faith.

We'll get through this. Together.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Golden State trouble makers

Nearly all of this spring's theater productions may have gotten cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis, but some schools are digging into their archives and posting productions from the recent past.

That's the case with Valley Christian Middle School in Cerritos, CA. They performed Trouble in Paradise Junction way back in November and just posted a video of it to YouTube (seen above).

I have a soft spot for this school because this is the second play of mine they've done in the last year, having produced The Enchanted Bookshop last March (you can find their recording of that show on my Video page).

I'm super impressed with their production of Trouble. Here you've got a show that calls for eight widely different sets--from a diner to a dance studio to a sprawling town square--and yet they were able to make it all work by swapping out a few simple set pieces. The performances were great, and they got a ton of laughs from the enthusiastic audience.

Great jobs, guys! Stay healthy, and I hope to see you back on stage again soon!

Friday, April 24, 2020

You can go home again

Thirty-nine years ago, I couldn't wait to leave my hometown.

I wasn't the only one. In the early 80's, Beaver Dam, Wisconsin (population 14,000) seemed like a dead end to me and a lot of my classmates who were heading off to college. We wanted to move to the city, make our fortunes, live the big life.

I was reminded of this yesterday when an old friend posted the above video on Facebook. It's an episode of Around the Corner, a Milwaukee-based PBS show that profiles the many proud towns and villages of the Badger state.

Last week it was Beaver Dam's turn, and as I watched it, I was happy to see that the community theater--the place where I first fell in love with theater--is thriving.

Back in my day, they used to perform their shows in the town's only movie theater (a single screener, of course), and they made room for the stage by pulling out the first few rows of seats. Well, as the video shows, that same group has just moved into a large, dedicated venue equipped with the latest sound and lighting equipment.

But the video reminded me of all the other things Beaver Dam has going for it--then and now. The county fairgrounds (at one time, the Dodge County was the largest county fair in the county). The beautiful old library (now a museum). A wonderful park system. And, of course, Beaver Dam Lake. It was too shallow and muddy to swim in, but I have many fond memories of fishing and ice skating on it.

Yep, Beaver Dam was a pretty terrific place to grow up. And it only took me thirty-some years to figure that out.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

I get an agent

Followers of this blog know that since my Hollywood manager dumped me in November, I've been looking for a literary agent. I even made it one of my New Year's goals, vowing to submit my chapter book adaptation of The Enchanted Bookshop to 100 literary agents.

Well, it didn't take that many. After querying 37 agents, and getting only one read request, I received an offer for representation from Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.

I couldn't be happier. Steve is one of the most experienced and respected agents in the biz, and he has big plans for The Enchanted Bookshop (more on that in a future post). And unlike my previous agreement with Gravity Squared Entertainment, this one has no expiration date. Steve is in it for the long haul.

I also like that the agency has an office in Los Angeles. Turns out they do a fair amount of business selling the TV and film rights for their literary properties. So in a roundabout way, I may get my stuff out to Hollywood after all.

But first we've got sell the book.

Will the COVID-19 crisis make it tougher? Maybe. But people have to read something while they're shut in, and although individual bookstores are suffering, online book sales are going strong. And publishers are still buying.

Some of you may be wondering how I managed to get Steve's attention. It was, after all, a completely cold submission. Stephen didn't know me from... Douglas Adams. Well, here's the query letter I used:
I've written a 9000-word manuscript for the first in a series of chapter books titled The Enchanted Bookshop.
Synopsis: After magically coming to life, Dorothy Gale, Tom Sawyer, and Pollyanna "splorge" into other classic novels in order to help a struggling bookshop owner, but in doing so they accidentally alter the very stories they enter, forcing them to make things right before they return. 
I'm an award-winning children's playwright with 16 published plays and over 1600 productions in 17 countries. The Enchanted Bookshop is based on my play of the same name. Teachers love the play because it celebrates the joy of reading in a fun, fresh way.  They love it so much, in fact, they've made it one of the best-selling plays in the country, booking over 400 productions in its first three years. A musical adaptation was released last year and it looks like that's going to be a big hit too.
The first 20 pages of the manuscript are pasted below. Thank you very much. 
Best regards,  
Todd Wallinger
That's about twice as long as it needs to be. And that's because most agents don't give a flying fig about your publishing history. But I thought it was important to show that The Enchanted Bookshop is already a proven concept, especially since the premise of a bookshop where the book characters come to life isn't exactly original.

Did it help? I don't know. But I like to think it didn't hurt.

What was more important was the logline. I must have spent two full days crafting that one sentence. But I think it paid off. The logline sets up an expectation in your reader, and a good one not only defines the main conflict in your story, but does so in a way that helps the reader imagine where the story might lead.

Of course, the best query letter in the world won't snag you an agent if the story itself isn't good. That's why I worked for months to make sure the manuscript was as polished (and typo free!) as it could be.

As it turned out, the follow-up to my query was as important as the original submission. After Steve read the manuscript, he asked if I had ideas for the next book or two in the series. Fortunately, I was able to send him seven, and that's because I'd already put together a pitch bible for my studio submissions.

Now, this isn't as important with middle-grade or YA novels, as those tend to be stand-alone. But chapter books are usually sold as a series, and if you want to pitch one, make sure you have at least a logline for the next couple entries.

Steve has already submitted the manuscript to several big publishers so all I can do now is wait. I'm knee-deep into my next project, so I've got plenty to keep me busy.

But am I on pins and needles, hoping to hear something soon from one of the publishers?

You'd better believe it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Making connections

Oh, what a different a month makes.

On the last day of February, we were all going about our everyday business. Going to work. Eating at restaurants. Rooting for our favorite sports teams.

Now it's the last day of March, and thanks to the coronavirus, we're all holed up in our homes.

So how are you doing? Are you staying healthy? Are you staying sane?

I'm definitely the former, though how long I can maintain the latter remains to be seen.

I kid, I kid. Actually, I'm staying quite busy and that's because I still have my day job. The company I work for has been deemed an essential business, but this is Arizona, so golf courses and nail salons are considered essential businesses as well. I am, however, working from home.

I won't lie. I love working from home. It almost makes up for not being able to go out to restaurants or movies.

I love sleeping in a little later. I love not having to deal with crazy drivers. I love taking puppy breaks throughout the day. And I love going for walks with my family at the end of the day.

This little girl needs some lovin'.

It's the kind of simple, laid-back lifestyle I've always hoped I'd have if (when?) I'm finally able to write full-time.

Unfortunately, it looks like that last part might be delayed a while. Due to the pandemic, schools and community theaters are cancelling their productions left and right, and every playwright I know has seen their royalties go to zero.

I'm going to be fine. But I feel bad for the drama teachers and student actors who've been working so hard on their shows--shows which may never see the light of day.

So I was glad when Pioneer Drama Service approached me this week about participating in a new program. It's called Playwright Connect, and it's a way for Pioneer to link up drama teachers with the author of their cancelled spring show. As playwrights, we're here to help the show go on.

Want us to watch a virtual performance of your show? We can do that! Want us to offer feedback new scenes your students wrote? We can do that too! Or we can hold an online Q&A with your cast and crew. It's all up to you!

Interested? Email Pioneer at or give them a call at 800-333-7262 (but note their new limited hours on their website). Their staff will be happy to help you figure out what makes the most sense for you.

I'm really excited to be a part of this new program. I hope you'll take us up on it.

Yes, we'll get through these difficult times. But it will be a whole lot easier if we do it together.

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 really is 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. Apparently, 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.