Friday, December 31, 2021

A look back at 2021

Well, it was another crazy year. And not just because of COVID, although that didn't help.

Fortunately, my family managed to stay healthy. We got our shots and our boosters as soon as we could. I was also able to work from home for my day job all year, allowing me to spend what would have been my commute time for more productive projects--namely, working out and learning Italian. And that time working out (I use a elliptical) allowed me to see LOTS of movies and TV shows. Like many people, I fell in love with The Crown, The Queen's Gambit and Derry Girls.

But I fell short in one big area. My playwriting.

Literary dreams

This was the first year since I was first published in 2011 that I didn't have a new play released. And that's because for the first half of the year, I was focused on launching my (still non-existent) literary career.

As I've mentioned before, I managed to snag my first literary agent in March 2020, and for 15 months after that, I focused on writing novels.

My thought process was this. Sure, my plays were making money. But I'm a long ways from being able to support myself solely through playwriting--especially with the pandemic crippling public performances for a second year. If I wanted to become a full-time writer, I would have to find success in another field. And the most likely field, it seemed to me, was writing children's novels.

Most of my plays are written for young people to perform. And several of them lent themselves to being adapted to novels. So I found a literary agent with several big books under his belt and cranked out three novels (well, more like two and a half) in a little over a year.

The first novel was an adaptation of my play The Enchanted Bookshop. The second was an adaptation of my play Wicked Is As Wicked Does. And that half of one was an update to a middle-grade novel I'd first written over 20 years ago and which had won me a local writing award: Edison Young and the Ravenous Robosaur.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my literary success. It didn't happen. Not because my agent wasn't any good. He worked hard peddling my manuscripts to all the major publishers. It's just that none of them were interested in it.

Then an even funnier thing happened. I learned I hate writing novels. To be honest, they're a lot of work. They require a lot more words. And I get bored out of my skull writing descriptions. Give me dialogue (and a few choice stage directions) and day.

So I was torn. Do I pursue something that I love that may never support me? Or do I stick with something I don't love but has a greater chance of making me money?

It was about this time that I got word that my long-simmering play The Last Radio Show (first performed in 2016) got accepted for publication. And then Belmont Day School in Belmont, MA commissioned me to write a play.

The universe was sending me a sign.

So I decided to devote myself to playwriting. And I decided that, even if I would never get rich from it, if I can crank out a fair number of plays over the next few years, I might be able to make it full-time.

Well, guess what? Writing is actually fun again. And after just six months, I've already got a nice pipeline going. The Last Radio Show is in editing at Heuer Publishing and should come out in early 2022. My commissioned play--It's a Madhouse!--is in rehearsal. I just submitted my bext play--a large-cast comedy about dinosaurs--to Pioneer. And I'm well on my way on my next play.

So I no more novel writing goals for me next year. I'm going to focus on playwriting, with a goal of completing--and publishing--three.

Last year's goals

1) Sell a middle-grade novel series

None of the three series my agent pitched got sold. Call this one a big fat Fail.

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

Success. This was my adaptation of Wicked Is As Wicked Does. This got the most positive feedback of any of my submission (one publisher called it "a really funny, irreverent story"). But sadly, no one bit.

3) Write another school play

Another success. I wrote not one but two: It's a Madhouse! and The Real Reason Dinosaurs Went Extinct.

4) Buy all my books from independent bookstores

With regards to this goal, I was a very good boy, buying all of my new books from my local indie bookshop, Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, or my favorite online bookseller, Alibris, which is essentially a conglomeration of hundreds of independent brick-and-mortar booksellers.

That is, until Christmas rolled around, and I needed a book--fast!--as a stocking stuffer for my wife. That's when I caved on my principles and coughed up $11.44 to purchase Mindy Kaling's Why Not Me? from Mr. Bezos. Maybe it'll help pay for a screw on his next space rocket.

Summing up

So my success rate was pretty good, almost 75% if you give me partial credit on that last goal. But I didn't achieve my main goal, which was to sell a book series.

At this point, I don't think that'll ever happen. And I'm okay with that.

After all, I've got a new play to finish.

Monday, December 6, 2021

That ticking timebomb

I don't usually discuss movies in this space. In fact, I haven't yet. But no movie has captured the travails and triumphs of the writer's life quite like tick, tick... BOOM!, which premiered on Netflix a couple weeks ago. And I can't say enough good things about it.

The film is based on the stage musical written by Jonathan Larson, who went on to fame and immortality as the genius behind Rent. What is now believed to be an undiagnosed case of Marfan syndrome led to Larson's sudden and tragic death from an aortic aneurysm on the morning of Rent's first off-Broadway preview. He was only 35.

tick, tick... BOOM! was Larson's third musical, coming a couple years before Rent's first staged reading in 1993, but his first to get multiple productions and serious attention.

I saw the stage musical in 2015 at Denver's now defunct Ignite Theater. To be honest, I was underwhelmed by it all. While I was drawn to the premise, I found the music to be mostly unforgettable and the production painfully claustrophobic, constrained as it was to a small black box stage dominated by a stack of weird, too-steep levels. I also felt the main character was unsympathetic and, frankly, annoying--a wannabe composer absolutely convinced of his own greatness despite failing to demonstrate it at any point in the two-hour-long musical.

Here's the thing. Although the musical was largely based on Jonathan's life, and even though the main character is named Jon, the stage musical is only semi-autobiographical. That's because it changes some key facts about Jonathan's life and fills in the rest of the cast with fictional characters. So there's nothing in the stage version that guarantees that he will ever find success.

When it came time to adapt the stage musical for the film, first-time director Lin-Manuel Miranda--who seems to be everywhere these days--made one strategic decision that changed the whole trajectory of the film. What he did, quite simply, is drop the semi.

From the very first scene, the film presents itself as the story of the Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent. And it reminds us that we lost him right as he'd reached the cusp of success (no spoilers here).

That changes everything. No longer a wannabe, Jonathan is seen as the genius he was. What's more, we feel his struggle every time he runs into a brick wall trying to put his latest musical on its feet. As producer after producer slams the door on his dreams, all we can think is one thing: How can these people be so blind?

Andrew Garfield's ebullient performance also goes a long way toward making Jonathan a character you can't help but love. His Jonathan practically bounces off the walls as he leads his friends in an impromptu ditty about the Bohemian life ("Boho Life") or drools over his best friend Michael's newfound financial success as a Wall Street hack ("No More").

Guess what? The music is no longer forgettable. Larson's angular melodies really benefit from the driving guitar work and dynamic vocal performances they're given here, so much so that I've been humming the tunes almost non-stop still I saw the movie almost two weeks ago,

And let's give Miranda some credit. The guy knows how to stage a musical number. Song after song leaps off the screen with dynamic camerawork and a wry sense of humor. And while the dancing may not be as ambitious as it is in some musicals (this is an intimate, small-scale show after all), it is bursting with energy and perfectly matches the spirit of each piece.

You've especially got to love the chorus of past and present Broadway greats in the moving diner-set anthem "Sunday".

Having belonged to several writing groups, I know that many beginning writers love to write about their struggles breaking in. As if there's something unique or compelling about their story.

I've got one piece of advice about that. Don't. That's a story for the geniuses to tell, not us mortals.