Category Archives: Writer Advice
Though 31 Plays in 31 Days ended last month, I was crazy busy with moving and picking up a second job (oh, post-grad life…) and procrastinating to post about it. But here it is: the final entry on the subject.
Sadly, I was not “playwright enough” to complete the challenge; I wrote twenty-seven plays in 31 days which, while impressive, does not qualify for a win. Those that did “win” get to submit one piece for possible publishing in the 31 Plays in 31 Days anthology.
My final plays:
DAY TWENTY-ONE: Mr. Sealy’s Opinion. Babysitter Evelyn tries to find out how nine year-old Claire really feels about her baby brother.
DAY TWENTY-TWO: Friendly Advice. A woman discovers that her best friend has used the first woman’s personal life as an example in her advice column… and it’s not flattering.
DAY TWENTY- THREE: Fair Friends. Going to your town fair means running into a lot of people you grew up with and discovering that sometimes you don’t want to know them anymore.
DAY TWENTY-FOUR: Everything to Nothing. Written entirely sans action, a girl decides to leave everything she owns and knows behind and move on. To where? She doesn’t know.
DAY TWENTY-FIVE: A-B. While writing this play, I wanted to see if I could create a sort of play-palindrome: that the play was the same lines, growing from the middle out to the beginning and end.
DAY TWENTY-SIX: A Real Brother. After unexplained events, a six year-old boy tried to convince his older brother that he’s truly sorry.
DAY TWENTY-SEVEN: A Pair of Strangers. Inspired by the true events of this date twenty-two years ago, a college dean at the University of Florida breaks the news to two students that their roommates have been murdered.
I learned a lot during this process, namely how to turn off my inner editor. This project also made me brave enough to try ideas that had been rolling around in my head for a long time. While obviously I can write whatever I want, when I want, for some reason, the idea that I might try out an idea in ordinary life and it doesn’t work out is terrifying. With this project, a bad idea lasts one day. It’s strangely freeing.
Though I didn’t win, I’m really glad I did this challenge and plan on doing it again next year.
One of the more popular methods of determining whether a story—be it literary, film, or otherwise—gives equal footing to men and women is the so-called Bechdel Test, which was first put forward by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”. This litmus test has three key components:
- There are two or more female characters with names
- who interact with one another, i.e. have conversations
- about something other than men.
While this is important not only for considering target audiences but making a story more convincing and life-like, the Bechdel Test undermines several key points crucial to making a story more egalitarian between the sexes. To begin with, how are these named women characterized? Do they always wear makeup, skirts, and heels? Do they all prefer pink, purses, and chocolate? Are they teachers, secretaries, and waitresses?
Beyond that, we must consider the situational context in which the female characters interact. Are they talking over cell phones after one of them has had a spat with her boyfriend? Or are they chatting about an upcoming conference on their way to the office after lunch? The former still forces them to rely on men to produce the conversation, the latter is the result of women pursuing careers in business and working together on the job without necessarily interacting at a male’s prompting.
Additionally, women must talk about material that is deep, insightful, and spurs the story onwards. Consider when the women are not talking about men but still playing into preconceived notions of female conversation topics—they are still being portrayed within the societal stereotype. If they only talk about lipstick and pushup bras or perhaps how terrible Suzy’s dress looked yesterday, that’s not going to cut it.
With all of these ideas mulling around, it seemed appropriate to come up with a new test. Here are more comprehensive (though by no means perfect) criteria:
- The characterization of the well-developed female characters should not fit stereotypes.
- These females should not interact in stereotypical contexts and media
- and must have some degree of meaningful conversation that does not include stereotypical subject matter.
- Within the above, the female characters must be able to act, interact, and converse without any sort of male context, framework, or causation.
My personal reasoning for this heavy emphasis against societal stereotypes is this: these molds are designed by the largely patriarchal ideologies ingrained in our Western culture for centuries and perpetuated by government, media, social, and religious groups largely led by men. These male-dominated (and sometimes phallo-centric) perspectives of women therefore need to be overturned or at the very least ignored by female characters in literature if one is to craft a truly feminist piece. Naturally, stereotypes about women and girls must be present to some degree in one’s story not only to make it natural and life-like but also to allow for one’s opinion about these misconceptions (or conceptions, if one is inclined to agree—stereotypes can stem from fact).
What I have found most compelling in my experiences writing well-developed female characters is that they add a new dimension and bring insightful direction to my stories. And, as Rachel will probably attest, it makes my stories better.
I suppose I am a real writer now, readers. Why? Because four days ago, I received my first-ever real writing rejection.
Don’t mistake me, readers. I have been rejected as a writer before, but it was in a more minor fashion: plays I wrote not being chosen for school performance, losing essay contests, etc.
As I may have mentioned, I took a poetry and fiction writing class last semester, and I produced some work that I thought was fairly good. Since we only had four people in our class, I also brought in a piece I had written on my own, for critique. The class seemed to like it and gave me suggestions, and I polished it up as part of my final portfolio.
As I was working on this portfolio, I was also completing a project on a literary magazine for the same class. It’s very simple, I discovered, to submit to these magazines, and many of them don’t charge a reading fee. I decided to submit the aforementioned piece, a short play, to one of the magazines I had come across.
This was all about a month ago, and I had no idea when or if the magazine would get back to me. However, I am an actor; I’m pretty much used to putting myself out there initially and never hearing from someone again. I am prepared for this kind of thing.
Then Thursday came along and I saw an e-mail in my inbox from the very magazine to which I had submitted. The e-mail itself is very short, but while they could have written, “Thank you for submitting your piece, but we have decided not to publish it,” they actually referenced the piece itself, saying that they did find “the style, using the line breaks, effective , especially when reading drama” and wished me the best with it.
So it could be worse. No, I will not be published in this magazine this time around, but hey, at least they read it and noticed the part of the play I’d spent the most time on. I think it’s a good piece that could probably still use some revision, but I’m proud I submitted it. And now I feel like I’m officially a writer; all real writers get rejected :p
Actually, it’s more than writing advice; it’s life advice.
When I was a sophomore and in the same Children’s Theatre class that gave birth to my thesis idea, my professor gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard regarding presenting material. At that time, it was directed toward our writing, but I’ve used it in pretty much every area of my life since:
Are you ready? Here it is:
Don’t ever, in any way, shape, or form, apologize for what you’re presenting.
Sounds simple, right? But how often do you want to turn in a piece of writing (or open a speech or share an art project or present an idea) with a prefacing comment that runs along the lines of, “I know it’s kind of a dumb idea…” or “I probably didn’t do the assignment right, but…” or “Compared to everyone else’s, mine is kind of weird…” or any other statement that ends with implied ellipses and the shamed lowering of eyes.
I know it seems like qualifying your piece like that, before anyone even reads it, will keep them from thinking those things themselves or tearing their eyes out later when they deign to read your craptastic writing, but the fact is that you, as the writer, are not a reliable judge of your own skill. If you think that this piece isn’t as great as something else you’ve written, you may be right. But chances are, you finished whatever assignment you’re making excuses about not too long beforehand, which means that you’re still way too close to the project to see it clearly. And introducing a piece with “I don’t think this is very good” is like opening a conversation with “Don’t get mad.” The recipient of your words will automatically have an idea of what they’re about to hear (or read), and it’s not a good one.
I think about this advice a lot, because I am wont to make excuses for what I believe are substandard pieces. Usually, I restrain myself, even if I am bursting inside with the need to qualify. But today was the perfect example of why this advice is great to follow:
I had a short story due. I do not like writing short stories, or short plays, or short anything. I am a full-length writer. But the assignment was the write a short story. The assignment also came with a topic, one that was broad but, for me, very difficult. I didn’t have an idea for it until two days before the story was due and it was a flimsy idea. My way of carrying out the inspiration (dare I call it that) was even flimsier. I was working on the story until I had to hastily pound out a convoluted conclusion, print it out, and go to class. I hated it. I thought it was the second-worst thing I’d ever written in this class and also possibly ever. I considered skipping the session or turning in a section of a completed novel that fit the prompt. When I checked the critique schedule for today and saw that I was being reviewed, I felt sick.
But I went to class. I read my story aloud, as we must, and waited, cringing, for my feedback.
It was all good. Like, really good. Save for some small critiques here and there… my classmates and my professor and the visiting high school girl loved it. Even the guy who hates everything everyone else writes said he thought it was “funny and well-constructed.” (You don’t know this guy, but he might as well have just awarded me the Pulitzer.) When, after the feedback was over, I revealed my struggle with the assignment, my professor said, “Then maybe you should write under the gun all the time, because I think you should definitely send this around. I think people would be interested.”
While the feedback itself might not have changed if I had introduced my piece with some sort of excuse, it would have weakened the reception of the story. My classmates would have gone into the reading aware that the piece was substandard, and even if it wasn’t, that I thought it was. Their perception would have been altered before they even began to read.
So don’t apologize for your work. Stand by it proudly. It might not be the most amazing thing you’ve ever composed, but it’s probably not as bad as you think… and sometimes, it may just be awesome.
Recently, my university introduced a new MFA Creative Writing Program, and since its advent, we’ve been privileged to have some really awesome writers come and visit. This past Friday, though, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, the castle was host to someone a little different: Keith Strunk, an actor, writer, and producer who had come to Arcadia to discuss using the tools of acting in the field of writing.
The posters thumbtacks around campus bore the Hamlet quote, “Suit the word to action, the action to the word,” an excerpt taken from Hamlet’s speech to the players he’s hired to perform the “fictional” play about a malicious man who kills his brother, the king. Strunk, however, used this phrase to begin a discussion about something else: How can a writer use an actor’s approach to words to influence their work, or make it better?
Strunk started out as an English major at Ursinus College, and only after he graduated did he find his way to the world of performing. These days, the award-winning scriptwriter runs River Union Stage, is a member of the Philadelphia Liar’s Club, and is currently ghostwriting a non-fiction book. Most of his fictional work, he shared, begins with a line or two of dialogue, from which springs a bigger idea.
Due to my chronic earliness, I got to talk to Strunk for a bit before the event began. In person, Strunk is energetic and inquisitive, and his open, friendly manner make you instantly comfortable around him. After calling accidentally attention to myself as a “theatre person,” Strunk asked me if I was there for just the acting aspect of the talk, or the writing part as well. I told him both, and he even asked me about my thesis and how it was coming about. When he found out that I had been trained in the Meisner technique, he asked me to help him with an exercise during the event.
To begin his talk, Strunk defined Method acting. “How many of you roll your eyes when you hear the phrase, ‘Method actor’?” Most people, including myself, raised their hands. Strunk went on to explain that the approach to performance first only included the teachings of Lee Strasberg, but now a Method actor is anyone who has any affiliation with Stanislavski’s teaching.
“But what does that have to do with writing?” he asked the group at large. “Who cares?”
He went on to quote famous acting teacher Sanford Meisner, who defined acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” In the later stages of Meisner training, an actor learns that in order to make a scene live, they need to know who they’re talking to, how they feel about that person, what their own point of view is, and what action they’re playing- even if they’re onstage alone. One part of Meisner’s exercise is to have one actor in the room and another actor knock on the door. When Actor #1 opens to door to Actor #2, the latter must have a reason for being at that door. “Think about it,” Strunk pronounced. “No one goes to any door without an intention. Even if they claim they don’t have an intention, there’s an intention behind that statement.”
This is the same for writing. Strunk pointed out that all intentions stem from being specific- what does my character want? Why does he want it? What will happen if she doesn’t get it?- and looking at the specificity of an action makes a scene work, on the stage or on the page. Every scene must have a conflict, something to raise the stakes, and each character must have a point of view about that conflict. If none of these exist, the scene probably does not help the story move forward. “Characters,” Strunk told the group. “Need to need something.”
About halfway through the talk, Strunk called me up to demonstrate the Meisner technique of repetition. He explained to the crowd that the point of the exercise was to remain neutral in your delivery until you had the impulse to change something. This was a speeded-up version of the exercise; in my experience, it can takes weeks to be allowed to go beyond being neutral. He and I stood facing one another in front of the crowd and Strunk’s eyes landed on my polka-dotted rain boots. “Those are funny boots,” he commented. “Those are funny boots,” I repeated. “Those are funny boots.” “Those are funny boots.” Back and forth, we parroted the phrase, eventually allowing inflections from anger to joy to disbelief to understanding, to enter our phrases.
“But,” observed an audience member, “It seems as though you’re manipulating the meaning.”
“Exactly!” Strunk exclaimed. “And it seemed false, didn’t it?” The observer nodded. “The point of a Meisner exercise is not to manipulate the words when you feel they need a change, but to allow the words to be spoken differently because you feel an impulse to change them. It’s not premeditated.”
Strunk later used a similar example when a student in the audience asked how actors manage to keep their lines fresh every performance. Strunk explained that while improvisation of lines is frowned upon in performance, one must think of the recitation of lines as an improv with predetermined words. “You use techniques to build a framework, like walls of a log flume. You’re the car, and you set yourself on the top of the hill and let yourself go. Those walls, that framework, keeps you on track, but you still have room to play.”
The great thing about actors, Strunk pointed out, it their ability to be open and the fact that they never lose touch with their inner child. Writers could benefit from the same lesson, being open to play with their scenes and dialogue. “It’s that old writing adage: you can’t have a favorite character, scene, or line. You have to be willing to play around with it and throw things out if necessary.”
Strunk also remarked that even writing non-fiction can be fun. “It’s still about connecting with the audience, to the idea of things.” He mentioned an instance when he met with the subject of his ghostwritten book. The client works in what one might consider a dry field, one full of charts, graphs, and numbers, “but what I wanted his honesty and ability not to judge people to come through [in the writing.] I wanted to connect through the humanity.” Strunk pointed out that non-fiction is just as viable a form of writing as novelization, and just as difficult, if not more, because the writing has to be clear and connected for someone who is trying to learn about the book’s subject.
The most important thing I took away from Keith Strunk’s talk was that a solid foundation and willingness to play within that foundation can be the key to a successful career, both in acting and writing, as well as beyond. If you’re willing to trust your words to do some of the work for you, then you’re well on your way.