Monday, September 13, 2021

Show me the Bookshop

It really feels like live theater is coming back. My bookings started picking up in the middle of August, right when most schools across the country were opening back up for the new school year. Total bookings for the season are still a little behind my best season of 2018-2019, but they're an order of magnitude above where they were a year ago so I'm not complaining.

I'm starting to see more media mentions as well. Stained Glass Theatre of Joplin in the Show Me state of Missouri opened their production of The Enchanted Bookshop last weekend and they managed to snag a really nice (four-minute!) plug on local TV station KSNF for their last set of performances this coming weekend, including an interview with two of the actors (who play Margie and The Lady in Red). You can watch the entire clip here.

Co-director Janelle Rawlings has been in touch with me throughout their rehearsal period and has been more than generous in sharing photos and videos from the show with me. I always appreciate that.

By the way, if you're confused about the mention of a cast of 40 for this show (the Pioneer catalog says 23), there's a very simple reason for that. They added parts!

Yes, I allow that for this play. In fact, a lot of school and theatre companies have done the same thing (the play readily lends itself to that). But I always ask that you email me first and let me know, which Janelle was kind enough to do.

Who did they add? Prince, Princess, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Farmer's and the Three Blind Mice, and the Three Musketeers. They loved having this flexibility because it allowed them to cast every kid who auditioned while reserving the longer and more demanding parts for the adults.

If you're in the Joplin area this weekend, I strongly urge you to attend. See the details below. Stained Glass Theatre is a very talented, hard-working group of folks with a real passion for telling positive, uplifting stories. I know the show is going to be great!

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Last Radio Show to be published

Wow. That was a long wait.

Five and a half years after the world premiere of The Last Radio Show--and five and a half years after first submitting it for publication--my old-time radio farce finally got that big thumbs up. And from a new publisher for me, Heuer Publishing.

I'm thrilled--and a little shocked.

When I first submitted the play to my main publisher, Pioneer Drama Service, I thought it was a slam dunk. The play was a big hit when it premiered at the Block Box Theatre in Colorado Springs. And it fit in well with the kind of plays I already had published there.

There was just one problem. Okay, two problems. 

First, the main character--a mild-mannered office boy named Jimmy--has what amounts to an eight-minute monologue at the climax of the play when he saves the radio station by performing all of the parts in a superhero show. (Fortunately, he doesn't have to memorize it. Just as in the old days, all of the radio shows are performed from scripts that the actors hold in their hands.)

And second, the play is somewhat hard to produce, requiring dozens of sound cues and, as it turned out, a sort of juggling act as the radio actors switch back and forth between their radio scripts and the sound effects they have to make.

Pioneer passed, saying the play was too complicated for the schools that make up the bulk of their customer base.

Still, I managed to get a second production of The Last Radio Show in 2017 from Johnston Heights Church in British Columbia (one of only two so-far members of my five-timers club). I was told it was a huge hit there as well.

So I submitted it to all the usual suspects. Eldridge Publishing. Dramatic Publishing. Heuer Publishing. YouthPLAYS. All four rejected it.

I started to think it would never get published.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the trash bin. In 2020, my mystery/comedy Lights! Camera! Murder! got published by Heuer Publishing through their youth-focused subsidiary Brookyn Publishers. It did okay too, getting two productions in a year hard-hit by the ongoing COVID crisis.

So I decided to approach them with it again. After all, this strategy worked for me once before (Pioneer originally rejected Long Tall Lester before accepting The _urloined Letter).

After three months of review, The Last Radio Show was finally accepted it for publication, this time by Heuer itself. They focus more on the community theater marker so it makes a lot of sense.

I couldn't be more excited. When I first produced the play, I'd promised my insanely hard-working cast and crew (we threw the play together in three weeks) that their hard work would be rewarded when the play got published. I kept them up to date on the latest developments from the submission front, and they kept me up to date on their latest theater adventures. To be honest, it was kind of depressing to tell them about the rejections, but they kept the faith--and today that faith was rewarded.

If there's a lesson in all this, I suppose it's to never give up in a play or a book or whatever it is you're working on, even if it's been rejected by every publisher in the civilized world (speaking of which, exactly how many publishers does the uncivilized world have?). It may get a second chance at life.

Just don't stop writing. Or, come to think of it, submitting.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Belmont diary: First draft done

Or, in the theater world, END OF PLAY.

It always feels good to type those three magic words. It feels especially good when you have a hard deadline and you manage to finish five weeks early.

That's how I felt today as I emailed the completed script of my commissioned play to Chris Parsons and Susan Dempsey at Belmont Day School.

Six weeks ago, when we first discussed the play, I wasn't sure I'd make it. At ninety minutes, the play is one of the longest ones I've ever written. It also has by far the most roles. In the past, a play like this typically took me more four to six months to write. Knowing that, I started writing an extra half hour a day--two hours in total. That definitely helped. 

But I got lucky too. I don't know if it was the pressure of the deadline or just the story itself, but everything just seemed to click. All the characters came to life with their own unique personalities and their own agendas. The plot points all fell into place. And things that I'd introduced in the first scene suddenly took on a whole new meaning when I got to the last scene. Amazing when that happens, but it happens more often than you'd think.

As for the goals I set for myself after completing the rough draft, I was only moderately successful. I was able to cut the lead role's lines from 163 to a slightly more comfortable 154. But balancing the acts proved to be a little tougher. I only managed to slim down Act One from 56 to 54 pages and boost Act Two from 24 to 25 pages. I wish I could have done more, but I was afraid that any additional surgery would kill the patient.

One of the challenges with this particular play was coming up with a place to hide the treasure which the audience could figure out for themselves but wouldn't be so obvious that everyone would figure it out. I think I came up with a good one--a location that's fully visible to the audience for the entire duration of the play. I even provide a clue in the form a riddle that one of the characters finds, but it's coded enough that it should he tough to solve.

Still, every mystery writer knows that solving the mystery isn't enough. You also have to include a big fight scene or some other physical confrontation after the mystery is solved to serve as the climax. Something that puts the detective or whoever is solving the crime into real danger. It adds tension. It adds excitement. And it shows exactly what the hero was risking all along by poking their nose in.

In The Butler Did It!, the climax was the murderer attempting to smother the helpless butler with a pillow. In Lights! Camera! Murder! it was the murderer trying to trick the perky publicist into drinking poison.

This play is lighter than both of those so I made the climax lighter as well. Instead of putting a character in danger, I put the treasure itself in danger through some humorous swordplay. I think the moment works well, but I'll have to see what Chris and Susan think.

That's another reason it was nice to finish early. We now have five weeks to revise the play before rehearsals start October 1.

And that may prove to the hardest part of all.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Still waiting...

So it's been sixteen months since I signed with a literary agent and I feel as far from getting a book published now as I did then.

Book publishing is slow. And COVID hasn't helped. Because of the uncertainty of the effect the pandemic would have on book buying, editors put off making offers and already scheduled releases were pushed back several months or more. Things are opening up now, but I'm not sure the publishing work is quite back to normal.

I currently have three books out on submission--one has been out since April 2020--and I've only gotten a few rejections (which is good) and no nibbles. The proverbial molasses in January is faster.

The first book to go out was a chapter book adaptation of The Enchanted Bookshop. It isn't the play that many of you are familiar with. Instead, it's a new story featuring many of the same characters and their adventure inside the novel Treasure Island. My agent, the illustrious Stephen Fraser, submitted it to seven publishers--all big houses where I wouldn't have a chance of getting read without a rep.

As far as I know, it has received one official rejection but I believe that Steve heard from several other publishers that they're not really interested because he's stopped pushing it. And that's disappointing. I thought the concept was a natural for an easy reading chapter book series but that one rejection said that the premise seemed familiar and that the execution seemed old-fashioned, especially with characters like Pollyanna and novels like the Robert Louis Stevenson swashbuckler.

I can't argue with her. It is old-fashioned. On purpose. I can't use contemporary characters and novels with obtaining the rights and I can't be sure those will even be available to me. Besides, the popularity of the play has proven that teachers want to teach their students about these classic books. I still think the book series would find a ready tie-in with library summer reading programs and grade school curricula.

The second book was a middle-grade novel about a kid inventor titled Edison Young and the Ravenous Robosaur. I first wrote it way back in 1999, way back when the world was still innocent and carefree (yeah, right). The novel badly needed updating, but I was able to take care of that in a couple months and sent it off to Steve in August. He absolutely loved it and promptly submitted it to six publishers and even handed it off to the agency's film agent.

So far, Edison Young has received four rejections. One publisher loved the humor but said the set-up and execution felt overly familiar. Another said she found the concept intriguing and the imagery well-done but she didn't fall in love with the writing enough to take the plunge. A third thought the book was too short and the story undeveloped. And the last one brushed it off with a perfunctory "not my cup of tea."

Steve hasn't given up on this one yet, but new markets are few and far between.

And that brings us to my third submission, a chapter book version of Wicked Is As Wicked Does. This one is a direct adaptation, featuring all the characters and plot points of the play. But that title is way too long for a possible series so I shortened it to just The Wickeds.

I was worried about this one. The first two got immediate and extremely enthusiastic responses from Steve. In fact, he read them both in just a few days. And he sent them out to publishers a day or two after that.

This one was different. Six weeks after I sent it to him, he still hadn't read it.

Wait. Let me change that. He started it, but hadn't finished it. Which may be worse than not starting it at all. At least that can be blamed on being busy. Stopping halfway through can only mean one thing. It didn't grab him.

I thought the book was done for. Kaput. Dead on arrival.

Then, a few days later, I got the email. He finished it. And he loved it, calling it "completely hilarious."  As it turns out, he really had been too busy to finish it. He had a boatload of deals to negotiate.

He ended up sending The Wickeds to--not six, not seven--but eleven publishers. That was a month ago and I still haven't heard anything.

Do I wish things moved faster? Yeah. Is it driving me crazy? Kinda. But I just keep reminding myself that I'm in a much better position that I was two years ago, when I didn't have anyone representing me.

The books are out there, somewhere. And any day, I could get The Call (or, more likely, The Email) telling me I'm going to be a published novelist.

In the meantime, I've got the play commission to keep me busy. And a couple more play ideas I'm burning to write.

This is, after all, is the writer's life. Never stop writing. And never, ever stop hoping.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Belmont Diary: Rough draft

I did it. I finished my rough draft of my Belmont mystery in--let's see now--42 days. And that includes five days I took off for trips to Williams, AZ (home of the world's largest Route 66 sign) and San Diego.

I'm pretty sure that's a record for me. But I managed to pull it off for a couple of reasons.

One, I knew exactly what the teachers and students were looking for in terms of setting and theme. And two, I didn't have the luxury (or temptation, perhaps) of endlessly toying around my words. I had to keep moving forward.

I still have a ton of work ahead of me. My rough drafts are really rough. And by that I mean I'd rather get a root canal without anesthetic than let anyone see them. The characters aren't all over the map. The dialogue is clunky. The plot is riddled with holes.

But the basic story is there, and that's what counts.

The script came in at an even 80 pages. That means it should run about 80 to 90 minutes, which is exactly what the school is looking for. The only problem is that the acts are uneven. Act One comes in at a bloated 56 pages, Act Two a too slim 24. My first order of business is to make those a little more even.

The other thing is the distribution of line counts. I was happy to find that the main character, a flighty, self-absorbed socialite named Pansy, had 163 lines--much less than the 350 that the main characters in The Butler Did It! and Lights! Camera! Murder! had. And not easy to do in a mystery, where you typically have one character leading the investigation of the murder (Pansy does here).

But it's necessary if I want the play to have a life after Belmont. My publisher recently told me that a play will often struggle to find productions if it has one big part and lots of small parts. What theater teachers are looking for is an even distribution of parts or at least a healthy mixture of big, medium and small parts--something I've vowed to make happen from here on out.

Yep, there's a lot of work to do. And only 64 days to do it in (the final draft is due October 1).

But the hard part is done. The rest is all revision, and I love doing that stuff.

Time to get back to... play.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Evergreen Bookshop hits the silver(ish) screen


Most schools are socially distancing their theatrical productions these days, with students performing in masks and/or recording their performances for posting online. In doing so, they've shown a lot of determination, resourcefulness and creativity, and they all deserve major props for their efforts.

I especially love a recent production I came across from the Evergreen State. Lakes High School in beautiful Lakewood, WA went above and beyond the norm by filming their production like a movie, with professional-quality editing and very cool digital backgrounds. And the performances are so dynamic, you almost forget that the actors are wearing masks. I especially like the in-book credits at the end.

You can check it out above. And if you have your own production you'd like me to highlight, please send me an email. I look forward to seeing it! 

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Belmont Diary: Breaking the story

Before you can write a story, you have to know where it's going. That was the challenge that faced me this week as I sat down to hash out the story for my Belmont Day School commission

The play is to be a comedy/mystery set in a mansion with a cast of 40. It's not required, but I want to make it a single-set play because this'll make it much more marketable after it's published. I also love real-time plays like farces that forego scene breaks in order to keep the action going from lights up to lights down.

But how do you fit that many characters in a story, and make each role important (if not necessarily large)? I could have the play focus around a party, but that won't easily lend itself to the mystery that the kids want to perform.

Mysteries, on the other hand, tend to have one very large role--the detective investigating the crime, whether amateur or not--and lots of small roles representing the suspects. That won't work either, but the school specifically asked for eight of the roles to be major.

Nope. This play will have to have to be structured differently.

I think I finally came up with it. What if the eight roles represented the family--a dysfunctional one, with four adult children gathering for the reading of their late father's will? And what if the mystery wasn't about solving a murder, but finding some priceless object that the father hid--a treasure that represents his entire fortune?

And then, a complication. The night that the will is read, a storm hits the island where the mansion is located and the other islanders are forced to take a refuge in the mansion. This would provide the rational for a whole variety of small and medium roles, and they could pass through the set episodically, giving each small group of characters their own cherished time in the spotlight.

What's more, this would provide a funny, farcelike energy as the islanders learn about the treasure and promptly go rogue, each of them rifling through the mansion in their effort to find it first.

I'll have to play up the mystery, maybe add a riddle that leads the family to the treasure. And I'll need to work on the relationship angle, with the family learning to overcome their differences to find the treasure at the end.

But I think this'll work.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Hurray for dads!

So that program of father-themed shorts I told you about is now streaming at Springs Ensemble Theatre's website. Titled Fatherhood Up Close, it features sketches, monologues, poems and songs--some funny, many quite heartbreaking--but all of them centered on fathers and our often difficult relationships with them. (Hey, I'm a dad. I can say that.)

Tickets are $20 regular price, $5 for dads. But you'll have to act fast. Streaming is no longer available after the show closes at midnight on Sunday, July 4. Like most streaming deals, you'll have 48 hours to finish watching it after you start.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Belmont Diary: Laying the groundwork

My mind was buzzing.

Ever since my first discussion with Belmont Day School about the play they're commissioning me to write, I was eager to get started, ideas of plots and characters swirling in my brain. But there was no point getting ahead of myself. I wouldn't know what plots or characters would be usable until the school told me what they were looking for.

That came today. Chris Parsons set up a Zoom meeting with fellow theater arts teacher Susan Dempsey and myself so they could go over their requirements and together we could toss around some ideas.

From our initial discussion, I knew that the play would have to meet the school's DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) requirements, but I didn't know what that would entail. In my plays, I've always tried to stay clear of gender and ethnic stereotypes. In Trouble in Paradise Junction, I even provided a production note stating that the characters weren't meant to be real people, not hillbilly caricatures. But I didn't know what else the school would require.

It turned out to be pretty straightforward. As I expected, there are to be no stereotyped characters. And the female roles needs to be strong. I wouldn't dream of doing anything else.

Also there are to be no guns, which brings up an interesting point. When I started writing plays, I tended to use guns as a crutch, including them in four of first eight plays. Since then, I've made a concerted effort to exclude them, with the result that none of my next ten plays have included one. It hasn't always been easy (I really, really wanted to give one to the border guard on Babka Without Borders), but it's definitely a worthy goal.

Finally, any murders would have to occur offstage. As a matter of fact, only one of my plays has shown on an onstage murder (Lights! Camera! Murder!) has shown an onstage murder, and while that death is a relatively non-violent poisoning (at first, the other characters are convinced he's just acting), I can understand why it may be inappropriate for some schools.

The play needs to be full-length, between 80 and 90 minutes in length, with one act break. They already have 36 or 37 kids signed up and expect a couple more so they'll need a part for each them, with a healthy mixture of large, medium, and small roles. And the roles needed to be meaty. In fact, Chris and Susan said they liked Babka Without Borders because although the play was funny, it gave the young actors plenty of drama to sink their teeth into.

Beyond that, the kids have come up with their own wish list of items. They wants the play to be a comedy/mystery. They want it to be set in a mansion. And they want it to center on family and relationships.

Check, check and check.

The only real challenge is the number of roles. The largest cast I've ever written for was the 25 from Trouble in Paradise Junction so this represents a huge increase. And the fact that the play primarily takes place in one location adds another whole level of complexity. Not so much from a logistical viewpoint but from a story one.

What would be the rationale for that many characters meeting in one house? That's the challenge.

But then, I love a challenge.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Ten years and counting...

Well, it almost slipped by me without a peep, but I just realized that today is the tenth anniversary of this blog.

When I started it, I'd just received my first offer from publication. It came from Pioneer Drama Service and was for my one-act comedy The _urloined Letter, which had received its first production just eight months earlier.

I wanted to start the blog because I was excited to share this news (I'd been trying to get published for fourteen years). But I also figured now that I was a big-time published author (cough!), people would be clamoring for my insight, much as I'd clamored for insight from those writers who had come before me. 

Ah yes, The naivete was thick.

Of course, I quickly ran into Hurdle #1 for the new blogger. What to write about.

So many baby bloggers rush into their first few posts, flush with enthusiasm and buzzing with ideas. And then they discover that they really didn't have as many ideas as they thought. And they didn't get as many hits as they expected. And that writing is hard work.

I've never had a problem coming up with ideas. I just write about my career as it develops: new plays coming out, new countries where those plays are being performed, mentions in the media. And yes, the occasional piece of writing advice.

I also don't worry about hits. I get ten to thirty a day. Not as many as I'd like, of course. But I get enough emails from followers that I know the blog is proving useful to teachers and directors looking for additional information on my plays and seeking advice on their productions.

Of course, I also ran into Hurdle #2. Finding the time to write.

This has been more of a struggle. With a full-time engineering job and an hour and a half of writing every day--not to the mention the normal daily and household management stuff--my brain is often too mooshy at the end of the day to put together two more words. 

But early on, I made a promise to myself that I would write at least one post a month. And I'm happy to say I've kept that promise.

Ready for some stats? Sure, you are!

Over the last ten years, I've received a total of 86K page views. And sure, a lot of those were bots . I know this because, for a while there, they were spiking like clockwork every two weeks. But those have largely subsided now. Why, I don't know. Maybe Google has cleaned up their Blogger counter algorithm.

My most popular post of all time is The Enchanted Bookshop is Now Available with around 2300 views. It's the post that announced the release of my bestselling play and describes my process for selecting the six famous literary characters around which the play is centered.

I have no idea how people are finding this post because it doesn't show up very high in search engines. Maybe they're finding the blog first and then searching for "enchanted bookshop" within the blog. A good reason for those of you with your own blogs to add a search field, if you don't already have one.

After that, the number of views drops off dramatically. My second most popular post is The Hero's Journey in Star Wars with 563 hits. It's based on a popular talk I gave at the Colorado Thespian Conference and is one of my free really hard-core writing advice posts. If you need a quick intro to the three-act stroy structure, I highly recommend it (it even includes a downloadable 

My follow-up post, The Hero's Journey on Legally Blonde, has been more popular lately. I don't know. Maybe I should write a series of those. 

My third most popular post is Trouble in Paradise Junction to be published with 472 hits, no surprise there because that's another one of my bestselling plays. The post describes my three-year struggle to finish the play and ends with Ted Lasso-like hero Joe Goode's monologue.

Another post that isn't quite as popular as these but that I'm still proud of is So You Want to Do a Staged Reading with 301 hits. In it, I offer some advice from having produced the first staged reading of my play The Butler Did It! If you're in a similar position with your own play, I recommend you check it out.

So, will this blog last another ten years? Who knows? I don't even know if I'll last another ten years. And with the onslaught of Facebook, Instagram and other social media time sinks, blogs seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur.

But I can guarantee you one thing. I'll still be writing something.

Oh, and if you're interested, here's that first post.

Naivete indeed.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Belmont Diary: Out of the blue

You never know where a play might lead.

When I was writing Babka Without Borders, I almost gave up halfway in. At that point, I knew it would take me a couple more months to finish and the fear started to gnaw at me that the play would never get published. Or if it did, nobody would produce it. Its costumes were too challenging (it's set in the early 1900's), its language too stilted.

But the story wouldn't let me go. The characters begged me to bring them to life. So I took a gamble and finished it.

It turned out I was wrong on both counts. Pioneer Drama Service snapped up the plat and, while it hasn't gotten a ton of productions, it's done all right (11 productions in its best year). And it is, so far, my only play to have been performed on the African continent (the stunningly beautiful Knysna, South Africa).

Most importantly, the schools that have done it really love it. Its themes of love, world peace and pastries seems to resonate with a lot of people. 

Which leads me to Belmont Day School in Belmont, Massachusetts. They liked the play so much that they arranged for me to do a Zoom call with the students (the first hour is always free for schools and other theater groups that perform my plays!). I had a great time meeting the cast and crew and they had a great time firing questions at me, like where do I get my ideas and what is my favorite flavor of babka (chocolate, of course).

That was a couple years ago. And I hadn't heard anything more until this week, when out of the blue, Christopher Parsons, the school's theater director, emailed me. He He explained that the school has very specific diversity requirements, and that he's had a terrible time trying to find a play that meets those requirements. Would I write one?

I only needed about a half second to answer that one. It's been four years since I've developed a play in partnership with a school, and I miss interaction. Not only do I get feedback that helps make the play better, but the sheer energy of the staff and students pumps up my writing.

They would pay me my usual fee and I would own full rights to the play after they perform it. The only challenge was the time frame. They originally wanted it done by August 10.

Now I'm a slow writer. I usually take four to six months writing an hour and a half a day to finish a full-length play. Even if I squeezed an extra half hour of writing in each day, the soonest I could get it done was October.

Fortunately, they were willing to give me until the first day of that month as the absolute drop dead date. Of course, I promised to send them partial drafts along the way so they could start planning sets, costumes, that sort of thing. And having a deadline will force me to stop wasting so much time second-guessing myself in my writing.

Deal done.

Now all that's left is to discuss are the parameters of the play: Cast size, length, possible themes. But that comes next week.

I can't wait.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

My 10th year sales

Pioneer was right.

In their annual letter to writers last year, they said that as tough as last school year was (I saw a 13% drop in productions, with nearly all shows cancelled in the second half of March and April), they warned that the coming year would be worse.

I'd hoped it wasn't true. Like most people, I'd thought that the pandemic would peak in the summer but that things would be back to normal by the time school started up again in September.

Of course it didn't happen that way. As everyone knows, we had a whopper of a wave that started in November and didn't end until we started to see the effects of the vaccine in February. (Thank you, researchers!). The result: almost an entire year's worth of school and community theater productions were wiped out.

Fortunately, there were a couple bright spots. One was the growing popularity of virtual theatre through streaming apps like Zoom. The other were all those brave directors and students who managed to maintain all those social distancing procedures necessary to keep live theater, well, alive.

Still, things weren't great. I had a total of 160 productions--a 49% drop from the 314 productions I had last year, which was a 13% drop from the 361 productions I had in my best year of 2018-2019.

That's not as bad as it could have been, but most of those productions were for shorter plays or fewer performances than my usual mix, resulting in an even more painful drop of 69% in revenues.

For the fourth year in a row, my bestselling play was The Enchanted Bookshop with 40 productions. That's a huge drop from the 121 it got last year and the record-setting 156 it got the year before that, but it's still pretty impressive for a large-cast play in the middle of a pandemic.

It was the first full year for the musical version of that play, The Enchanted Bookshop Musical. With 22 productions during the year, it moved into second place. This one actually has 12 productions booked for next year, so I'm thinking it may do very well next year.

You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy! was released in August and came in as my 3rd most popular play for the year, with a respectable 20 productions. That's not too surprising because it was adapted from You're Driving Me Crazy! for virtual performance during the pandemic. It'll be interesting to see how well this and Pioneer's other Zoom-friendly plays do as schools open back up.

An Enchanted Bookshop Christmas is my most recent release, coming out in September. It had 13 productions, which isn't too bad for a holiday-limited play in the middle of a pandemic. It actually was my biggest moneymaker for the year because it sold a ton of scripts. A play's first full year is usually its best year so with schools opening up again I'm thinking it could do gangbusters in the next twelve months. 

You're Driving Me Crazy! also had 13 productions. I don't know if the bulk of these were also virtual productions but I wouldn't be surprised if they were. At the very least, three of the four scenes that make up this driver's ed-themed collection of short plays are very small cast (two or three actors each), so schools who did perform ut live may have chosen it for that very reason.

On the other end of the spectrum, The _urloined Letter, my oldest play, got zero productions, and Babka Without Borders and The Purrfect Crime each got just one production. Things were so bad, in fact, that because of cancelled productions, two plays--the aforementioned Babka Without Borders as well as The Stinky Feet Gang--actually made negative royalties for the year.

But there is a light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel. The vaccine is now widely available, cases are way down, and most schools are preparing to reopen for live instruction in the fall.

And this month alone, I made more in royalties than I did in the first seven months of the 2019-2020.

A very bright light indeed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Wandering back to the Springs

I miss Colorado Springs.

Don't get me wrong. I love Phoenix. In fact, I wouldn't live anywhere else (unless I get really rich and can move to the Amalfi Coast). But Colorado Springs is better in some important ways, and one of those ways is its theater scene.

Although Colorado Springs has a population of only 300,000, the city has a wealth of professional, amateur, church and children's theaters. I've been involved with several of them, but I've never had anything done by one of my favorites, Springs Ensemble Theatre (otherwise known as SET).

Until now.

My 10-minute play The Wanderer has just been selected for their Fatherhood Out Loud Play Festival on--when else?--Father's Day Weekend (June 18 to 20).

The play has only been done twice before (kudos to Springs Ensemble Theatre for not insisting on world premieres): Once at Oakland's Pan Theater in 2012 and once at Connecticut's Stonington Theatre in 2013.

It's my only drama. Opening in the waiting room of a police station, it centers on an old man who was arrested for shoplifting a lady's watch and his workaholic son who's trying to understand why he did it. 

The play was inspired by my own father. And no, he never stole a watch--or anything else, come to think of it. But the thin ice that the father and son tread in their 10-minute very much resembles our own relationship dynamic.

Due to the pandemic, SET still isn't performing live, but that's a good thing because it means anyone in the world can stream the show. You can buy your tickets here (cheap!). But don't wait too long. The video isn't available after closing day. 

And if you're a playwright with a short mother- or father-themed plays, make sure and bookmark SET's website. Their Motherhood Out Loud and Fatherhood Out Loud festivals shows are an annual thing and they accept submissions from anywhere The deadlines are February 28 and March 31. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Saving the novel

I haven't plugged books here before, but I'm so excited about one I recently picked up that I just have to share it with you. It's Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.

Regular readers of this blog know that I've been an avid disciple of the Save the Cat! books for a long time. I first came across them fourteen years ago when I tried to break into screenwriting. They quickly became my bible for structuring all my stories, not just screenplays.

Other books have covered similar ground, but Snyder's take was more detailed and user-friendly. He provided specific page counts for each of this fifteen story beats so that you can see how closely your story paces with existing movies. He defined ten popular story genres--from Monster in the House to Fool Triumphant--and described how the beats varied for each genre. And his books were just fun to read, with a jokey, light-hearted style and catchy, unforgettable names for many of the story concepts (I still refer to "Whiff of Death" and "Pope in the Pool" in discussions of my own stories).

I especially loved his second book, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, because it described the specific story beats of fifty famous movies, giving readers an intimate look at how masters of the craft structured their stories.

Sadly, Snyder passed away all the all-too-young age of 51 in 2009. But he left behind a legacy in Hollywood that's hard to match. Blake's template has become the de facto standard for commercial films.

Of course, novels aren't expected to follow this structure as closely as movies are. But you have to give your novel some structure or it'll just drift from event to event with no tension or sense of direction.

Author Jessica Brody
(Photo Credit: Brian Braff)

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel provides that structure. Brody--who's had her own success in the YA field with books like I Speak Boy--offers the same fifteen-beat template as Snyder but adds her own quirky humor while showing how those beats are met in novels like Misery and Bridget Jones's Diary. It took Snyder two books to cover that much ground for films.

Now I'm not one of those writers who believe you have to slavishly follow these templates. Do you absolutely need a B story? I don't think so. Can the Theme Stated come later, say halfway into the story? Probably.

But deviate at your own risk. Over the years, I've read many, many manuscripts for friends and acquaintances, and one thing has become painfully clear to me. Every poorly written story--whether novel, screenplay or play--fails because it leaves out one of those fifteen story beats.

Sometimes it's the Debate. Instead of rejecting the call to adventure, the hero jumps in willingly--even excitedly. Not good if you want to maintain a sense of tension.

More often it's the Midpoint. This is where the stakes are raised, where the hero first gets that whiff of death. Skip this beat and your readers won't even care what happens at the climax because they don't know what your hero is risking.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel isn't a book you're going to want to read straight through. There's just too much detail, too many helpful tips to remember. Instead, keep it at your side while you're writing so you can dive in when you hit a wall and find out how the masters got around it.

It won't just save the cat. It'll save your butt.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Badger Crazy

A very nice high school student emailed me today saying that she'd played Kat in her school's production of The Butler Did It! earlier this year and wanted to direct a scene from You're Driving Me Crazy! for her theater class. The only thing is she couldn't decide which scene she wanted to do. Could I send her the scripts?

I wanted to help, I really did. But with the pandemic cancelling 80% of all school productions this year, playwrights and play publishers alike are struggling. We really need every script sale we can get.

Not to mention the risk that once a PDF of a script is out there, it's all too easy to make copies and/or forward it to other schools or theaters (not that any of you lovely people would do such a thing). And any electronic script I had would be an early version of the play and wouldn't include all the required legalese. So I had to decline.

But I recognize that many schools are struggling too, so I offered to mail her one of the free printed scripts that Pioneer Drama Service provides me.

I also did a Google search and happily discovered that a high school in Plainfield, Wisconsin posted a video of the play just a couple months ago. (That town, by the way, has a personal connection for me as well. When I was a kid, my family and I would often drive through it on our vacation trips up north.)

Actually, the play they performed was You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy!, the virtual adaptation that Pioneer released last year. But as I've explained elsewhere, the differences between the two are minimal. And this particular production is really good, with lively performances and all of the action being set inside actual cars. (One of the benefits of social distancing: it forces you to get creative.)

So I emailed the student a link to the video. I hope it helps her. And, if you've been considering this play--one of my most popular works during the pandemic--I hope it helps you too.

But if it's at all possible, please buy a perusal copy. Pioneer's E-view system makes it fast and easy. And it'll help keep them and me in business for when the world finally does open up again.

Thanks for your support!

Friday, February 5, 2021

Trouble in British Columbia

They say the show must go on, and that's never been truer than now with the COVID-19 pandemic making its way around the world and schools having to find new ways to keep their theatre programs alive.

Oak Bay High School in Victoria, British Columbia, took on another whole set of challenges when they decided to film their production of Trouble in Paradise Junction for online streaming. Not only did they have to learn how to do the camerawork and editing themselves, but their rehearsal time was cut from their standard twenty weeks to just five.

There is one big advantage to filming it though. It allowed them to perform the scenes in various locations throughout the school rather than just on the stage, giving the show a more cinematic feel.

The streamed performance can be viewed on the school's YouTube channel, but it's only available from 5pm to 11pm EST today or tomorrow.

For the complete story on this ambitious production, check out this article in the Oak Bay News.

Friday, January 1, 2021

A look ahead to 2021

As a writer, I always find it hard to set concrete goals for the year. A story idea that excites me now may not excite me three months from now, when I finally have time to work on it. 

And then there are the vagaries of the publishing world. So much of what we decide to write depends on what we've been able to sell. 

So I'm a little torn about this coming year. I have some ideas what I want to accomplish, but I have no doubt most of those goals will change before the year is half over.

But having some goals are better than having no goals. So consider these a snapshot of where I am today--and nothing more.

My new year's goals

1) Sell a middle-grade novel series

My agent is pitching two of mine right now: The Enchanted Bookshop and Edison Young. 

If I sell either one, then I'm going to be VERY busy. Publishers want to have the next few books in the pipeline before they launch the series in case the first one's a hit. And although I've mapped out where I want those series to go, I've only just begun the next book in each series.

2) Write the first book in a third middle-grade novel series

If I don't sell either series, then I'm going to need something else for my agent to pitch. That's why I'm currently adapting another play of mine as a novel (actually more like a chapter book).

Which one? None other than Wicked Is As Wicked Does. Although it hasn't been as successful as I'd hoped, I love the characters, and the story hints at a whole post-fairy tale world that would naturally lend itself to a series.

That title, though, is a little long. So I'm just going to name the series The Wickeds, and give a more detailed title to each book.

3) Write another school play

Plays are what launched my publishing career, and some of them are doing very well so I'd like to keep that going.

But which play? Well, I've got an idea I've playing around with for a few years, and it may finally be time to put it to paper. I don't want to give any details yet (nothing sabotages your excitement for a new work like talking about it), but I hope to share some once I get the first draft written.

4) Buy all my books from independent bookstores

This goal has nothing to do with my writing career. But it does have something to do with the community I want to be a part of.

Book publishers have actually done pretty well during the pandemic. But bookstores have not--independent bookstores even less. People stuck at home have found it all too easy to buy their books from Amazon and have them show up at their doorsteps a day or two later.

But that's not the way to promote a vibrant literary community.

The east valley of Phoenix, where I live, has a wonderful independent bookstore in Tempe, called Changing Hands Bookstore. They promote local authors, hold writing classes, sponsor book clubs--all the things needed to keep a literary community alive. They've also adapted to the pandemic pretty well, shifting over to contactless curbside service for those not ready to venture into the store itself. 

Now I love Amazon as much as the next guy. And I have to admit I bought way too many books from them last year.

But no longer. This year I'm going to buy 100% of my books from Changing Hands or, if I decide to go used, from one of the many independent bookstores on Alibris (they need love too!).

Summing up

I think that's enough goals for this year. Like I said, I'm sure they'll change as the year progresses. But at least I have a plan for now. Something to shoot for. Something to keep me going when the going gets tough.

After all, you don't have to reach your goals to be successful. You just have to keep reaching.