Sunday, August 30, 2015

On first lines and writer's block

OK, so now comes the hard part. The first line.

I've jotted down a synopsis, built a chapter-by-chapter outline, received hugely helpful feedback on both from a very wise reader and now I'm ready to start writing.

But that means I have to surmount what is often the most challenging barrier for my writing projects: composing the first line.

I put a lot of pressure on that first line. I have convinced myself that a great first line is the key to selling a book to an agent, convincing a publisher to take you on, and eventually attracting readers in a bookstore.

I place so much importance on that first line that I often create an artificial case of writer's block for myself, even if I have the rest of the book completely and convincingly laid out in my head. I write and rewrite, devise and revise that line over and over again in my mind and can't force myself to move on to the rest of the story without getting that first line absolutely perfect.

So, right now, I'm playing with something like the following: "The first bolt of lightning struck about five miles away." or "Lightning struck. The building shook." or "..."

And now, when I type them out, I think: "No, those suck..." And all my confidence drains away.

Writing colleagues have advised me simply to hammer down a first line, the best I can come up with under the circumstances, and then keep on writing. By the time I get a substantial portion of the story written, I'll have a better idea of how to craft the first line.

At least that's the theory.

And then I wonder whether or not my problems with creating the first line of my book are not simply a psychological construct to permit me to delay actually engaging in the long-term writing process.

Ahhh, first lines....

Friday, August 28, 2015

An awesome week for a writer

I have had an awesome week, as awesome a week as a struggling writer can have without actually signing a publication contract.

First, I spent an amazing hour with a real-life playwright and artistic producer for a theatre company and a screen writer, talking about my draft play.

Second, I received a fantastic email from a creative friend who very kindly agreed to read the draft synopsis for my new middle-school-age novel project. It was thoughtful and supportive and filled with interesting thoughts and ideas. She's given me lots to think about and I had proposed to present it here for your edification.
Unfortunately, after reading it again, I have come to the conclusion that I can't share it in any meaningful way without giving away details of the story that I simply am not willing to share at this point.
Sorry, Clare... your email is absolutely wonderful and so very helpful. I will indeed be referring back to it often and and thinking over the ideas you have presented.

As I mentioned to Clare in my responding email, it is a rare and wonderful thing for a writer to receive honest, thoughtful and helpful feedback on his writing.

I now have to stop myself from sitting down immediately to start writing. I have more thinking to do about plot and character before I actually start the writing.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Basking in the glow of honest, constructive criticism

It doesn't happen often but, every once in a while, something you have been looking forward to actually lives up to and even surpasses your expectations.

That's how I am feeling about my much anticipated meeting with Ryan Griffith, Artistic Producer with Next Folding Theatre, and screen writer Nancy Lynch that took place today in a coffee shop across from my place of work.

Did Ryan hug me and declare me the best playwright since Anton Chekhov or William Shakespeare? No.

Did he tell me my first draft of the stage version of A McAdam Station Christmas was a masterpiece on the order of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? No.

Did he tell me he plans to produce my play as written and expects us all to become multimillionaires on the basis of ticket sales and movie rights? No.

Did he give me lots of great information and guidance on how to make my play better and make kind, supportive comments that implied I am not a complete hack who should hang up his keyboard?

Yes. Yes he certainly did.

And Nancy, who is my partner in crime on this little venture, was equally supportive and insightful. Ryan offered me a full year's worth of lessons on how to write a successful play. Nancy helped me to understand how to apply those lessons specifically to the Abigail story.

I have to admit, I'm feeling a bit stunned at the moment. Stunned that Nancy, an accomplished screenwriter and film creator, has taken such a supportive interest in this little project. So much so that she has agreed to take the lead on it and on our web series proposal.

And stunned that Ryan was willing to take time out of his busy (and clearly productive) schedule to read my novella and the draft play and then sit down with us for more than an hour to share his thoughts, insights and suggestions on how to make it better.

I have come away from this meeting inspired, excited and with a large pile of home work. Step one of the homework is to read Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, to get an idea of how a master handles both the medium and the structure of a three-act play. That should be no problem: we have a World's Classics collection of five plays by Chekhov on our bookshelf and I'm ready to start reading.

My second task is to re-imagine the basic themes of my original story in stage terms, to find ways to tell the same story but in a different, more theatre-oriented way.

Ryan proved to be an excellent, knowledgable teacher. He kindly said that he found enough in both the novella and my writing to suggest that I could write a successful play. He also kindly agreed to read the next draft that I produce, even if it doesn't make an appearance for several months.

I think most writers suffer from a lack of useful, honest, knowledgable criticism of their work but, thanks to Ryan and Nancy, I am glad to be able to say that my suffering has been abated. At least for now!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Honest criticism is an honour to receive

I wrote the other day about some of the possibilities that have arisen with regard to one of my ongoing writing projects: the Abigail Massey at McAdam Station series of short stories for kids.

At least I think I wrote about them.... oh well, if not, bear with me. Or should that be "bare with me"? No, that sounds a bit rude.

One such possibility is the opportunity to adapt my Christmas novella, A McAdam Station Christmas, into a stage play. Now, I'm not a playwright by any means. I wrote a couple of one-act plays way back in my youth but writing for the stage is not something I consider to be among my talents.

When a screen-writing colleague at work suggested, however, that I consider such a project, I jumped at the chance. I thought, "Why not?" and "It would be great if it worked out!" and "Holy crap, did I really just agree to this?"

But how does one go about converting a novella into a play?

With no clue how to proceed, I did what I always do in such situations: I took the process step by step.

First, since plays are all about dialogue, I stripped most of the exposition from the story, leaving only the dialogue itself and just enough "stage direction" to make it make sense.

Second, I re-reviewed the resulting draft script with the strengths and limitations of live stage in mind. I reduced the number of characters, for example, by eliminating unnecessary scenes and, in at least one case, having a major character take on the functions and dialogue of a minor character. I also reduced the number of sets required, by identifying three or four major locations and then relocating all scenes that had been set elsewhere in the novel into one of these locations.

The result was fine, I guess, but I strongly suspected that, well, although it looked like a play on paper, it didn't really have the shape and structure of a play. At that point, I was stumped as to what to do next.

My colleague came to the rescue. She investigated local theatre groups, identified one to which she felt the play was best suited in theme and audience, and approached its artistic director to discuss my play.

To my amazement, the director not only agreed to read the play, he also agreed to meet with us to give us feedback!

So tomorrow morning I sit down with my colleague and a real live theatre man to talk about the Abigail play.

He warned us that he intends to be blunt and honest in his "notes" on the play draft -- I guess he's had too many bad experiences with egotistical writers who don't like to hear criticism -- and I find myself actually quite delighted to hear that.

I have no fear of criticism. In fact, sometimes I think struggling writers get much too little criticism of their work. Strike that -- I strongly believe that very few struggling writers get enough honest criticism of their work.

And, as someone who knows that play writing is NOT my strength, I am really interested to hear what he has to say about how I can improve the Abigail play.

To be honest, I'm quite honoured simply by the fact that he read the thing in the first place, not to mention that he's willing to take the time to comment on it in person. I am trying not to get my hopes up that this means he found enough worthwhile in the play that he might consider mounting it on stage -- I am focusing on this amazing opportunity to get honest, if blunt, criticism and to improve my written work!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Finding a gold nugget in the waste of the past

If you're a writer like me, you've probably got five to ten projects (at the very least) on the go, inside your imagination if not actually on paper (or hard drive).

Some of them are active projects, the ones you're currently working on from day to day. Others are projects that you're brain is only starting to develop, that are so preliminary that you have not even jotted down a single word about them yet.

And then there are the projects that you started at some point in the past (even the distant, distant past) but never finished, that ran aground for want of imagination, for want of time, or because they got displaced by a newer, fresher idea. These are the projects that, while put aside, are not entirely forgotten.

And sometimes one of these can come roaring back to life, often for the most bizarre of reasons.

That's exactly what happened to me recently. I have a novel project that I began about five years ago, an interesting little idea for the Middle School crowd. The most memorable aspect of the project, at least until recently, was the fact that I created the protagonist's name by combining the first names of my friend's two daughters.From what I remember, I had the basic premise, the name and maybe three paragraphs of writing. Then I set it aside and, to be honest, all but forgot about it.

It all came back to life recently when I was sitting in that friend's living room, chatting with him and his now-teenage younger daughter about writing. I suddenly remembered the project and I mentioned it to them, more to share the character name than anything else.

"What's it about, this novel?" the young woman asked.

And I found myself tossing out a synopsis for the book in a more developed way than I had ever come up with in the past. Even as I was spinning the tale, I could feel myself getting interested. Excited even.

Then the daughter said, as casually as you please, "I'd buy that book."

My friend nodded. "Me too."

We batted around a few more ideas and then moved on to other topics.

When I got back home, I sat down at my new net book and, within about 20 minutes, I had a page-long synopsis in front of me. I read it over, started seeing connections, opportunities, themes that could be developed, and did a quick revision.

Then I did a chapter by chapter outline, capturing the main plot points, the major developments in character and theme, and felt the excitement burning in my gut.

I read it over again. My gut was right -- this good be good, very good. Great, even.

So I Facebooked the young woman and asked if she'd be willing to review the synopsis and outline I had produced. She said yes, of course, she'd enjoy that. In fact, she wrote, "I have some ideas of my own I'd like to contribute."

I immediately emailed the document to her, excitement blooming.

I can't wait to read what she has to say!