Meet HLWW Guest:
How would you describe your writing process?
Everyone has their own writing process, but mine has been fairly consistent over the years. I write at night. I can revise and edit during the day, but there’s no better time for me to write than at night when my family is in bed and everyone is settled. Even before I got married and had kids, I still was a nighttime writer. There’s something about writing late into the night that has always been appealing to me. It’s when I feel the most creative. So I settle down to write at night.
I frequently struggle to begin a piece, so lately, I’ve been letting go of the idea of coming up with a brilliant beginning. Instead, I just start writing scraps of scenes or paragraphs and then fitting it all together later. I’ve really enjoyed that process of writing little things bit by bit and revising them together into a coherent whole. It’s helped me be less rigid with following a structure and allows me to think about themes and characters more broadly. When I have lots of pieces to put together like a puzzle, then I can see the way the structure needs to come together and map out the plot from there. It’s been really wonderful letting go of the idea that I have to start at the beginning, write through the middle, and then come to an end. You don’t have to write things in order. You just have to be willing to revise, and I’m certainly happy to do that.
I also think that having writing friends or a writing group helps me with my process. My husband reads just about everything I write and gives me feedback, but I also am in a writing group, and I have writing friends beyond that as well. In my experience, the way that I’ve learned how to be a decent writer has been by sharing my work with a lot of people, getting opinions on it, thinking it through some more, and then revising. I like bringing plays-in-progress to my writing group, the Indiana Playwrights Circle, where I can hear them read aloud by actors every week. Hearing the plays read aloud helps me through the writing process because I can tell right away whether or not the dialogue is working the way I intended. I pay a lot of attention to what the actors stumble on or the way they interpret a character when they’re reading it cold. It shows me where things are working and where I need to cut, rearrange, or add.
I’ll also say that getting a first draft of a play or story (or whatever you’re writing) done is important, but it’s not important to get hung up on all the details in the “creation” stage. When you’re just coming up with all the characters and whatnot, it’s okay to let some details go and then go back in the revising process and add to the piece. By the time you have a finished draft, you might have a better idea of what you want the piece to say, broadly — like, what theme are you presenting? What is the moral of the story (if there is one)? I usually want my writing to have a larger question that it’s answering, and sometimes it’s not clear what the question is — or its answer — until I’ve finished a rough draft. Sometimes it takes several revisions — countless revisions — to shape the work into a polished piece that you’re proud of, and that can sometimes take years.
The last part of the writing process is submitting. I’ve had fifteen short stories published and some poetry, but lately I’ve been focusing more on plays. I’m self-producing my second play, Seneca and the Soul of Nero, with my new company, Southbank Theatre Company, September 23-October 2, 2021, and my third play, Seeking Nietzsche, is having a development reading with the Indiana Playwrights Circle on August 31. My first play, The Profession, has placed well in several contests, although submitting during the pandemic has complicated things enormously. Nonetheless, The Profession is currently a semi-finalist in the Athena Project’s Plays in Progress series (Colorado) and a finalist in the Wild Imaginings’ New Plays Festival (Texas). I should be hearing more about those contests by the end of the year. Meanwhile, since the beginning of the year, I’ve submitted to over 100 theatre opportunities and have had 7 acceptances. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but being persistent means that your name gets out into the world and the theatre community starts to notice. I’ve had short plays produced (or accepted and soon to be produced) in Indiana, New York, Georgia, Connecticut, Canada, and the U.K. Without submitting, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere!
What are the differences and similarities between writing prose and writing a play?
I used to think that I’d only ever write fiction, but I realized at some point that my fiction was so dialogue heavy that I might as well be writing plays! The process for writing fiction is sort of similar to writing plays in that you think about the moral of the story, overarching themes, characters, and world building. However, fiction is often a lot more detailed in descriptions. Not only do you describe what people look like, what they’re doing with their hands, or what they’re thinking in fiction, but you also have dialogue to write and settings to build. Writing plays is somewhat easier in that you don’t have to worry as much about describing people and settings and every move a character makes; however, you do have to have all of the plot working out through dialogue, which can be extremely difficult. You can imply a lot through speaking through characters, but the danger is that you can over-explain things or under-explain things, and that might leave your director, actors, and audiences lost. It’s important to be clear with what you’re trying to get across in both plays and prose, but how you do it is often different. An omniscient narrator, for instance, might go into the mind of the protagonist and share inner feelings that no other character knows about. When you do that onstage, in a monologue, for instance, you need to have a good reason for that character to be mulling over things out loud. So what is that motivation? And why is this speech happening now? I suppose I feel like you need less justification in prose about why you’re having a character think about something. Then again, motivation and the logic of the world is important in all different kinds of writing, so the better you are at one form of writing, the better you’ll be at thinking through other kinds of writing, too. It’s kind of like how musicians who play one instrument well can pick up other instruments far more easily than they did the first one. When you learn piano, learning guitar isn’t quite as hard because you already know something about how music works. It’s the same with writing. Whether you’re writing prose, poetry, or plays, you’re still writing — it’s just that you’re sort of playing a different instrument.
How would you describe the process of producing plays, given your expertise?
Producing plays is really difficult and really fun. The one thing that really sets plays apart from other kinds of writing is that plays are totally collaborative. You have a director, assistant director, stage manager, designers (costumes, lighting, sets, music, etc.), and of course actors. You have auditions, rehearsals, meetings, and if you’re doing a new play, sometimes the writer wants to revise. If you’re producing an established play, you might have to secure rights to that play, which can be a long process. You need a lot of time and patience and a willingness to work nicely with others if you’re going to produce plays. Fortunately, I adore working with other people on a shared larger project, like a play, and it’s incredibly rewarding to see a bunch of words on a page spring to life through the shared, combined efforts of the entire team. But because theatre is the ultimate combined art form, putting together music, literature, plastic arts, dance, design, etc., it can also be a little overwhelming. I think it’s important to build a team of trusted people, come up with a vision of what you want the play to look like, and then plan how you’re going to delegate the workload so that it’s fair and everyone feels like they’re an important part of the team. You have to be able to plan, plan, plan, but also be flexible, too, in case your plan doesn’t work out. Being able to roll with the punches is a key feature of producing a play!
What are your favorite books/plays?
When I was younger, my aunt used to read to me, so she had a huge impact on my reading interests. She was interested in historical literature, and that really rubbed off on me. My favorite novel is Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece had an incredible impact on me growing up, and I decided I wanted to be a writer because I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the ending. When I was twelve, I wrote a sequel to Gone with the Wind, a good three or so years before Alexandra Ripley’s novel Scarlett was written. I wish I could find those pages — I’d written it on a manual typewriter, and it was roughly 150 pages. I lost the manuscript over the years. When I went to college, I really loved reading plays and short stories, and that’s when I started writing short stories more regularly. In graduate school, I took a Shakespeare class, and due in no small part to the excellent teaching of the professor, I fell absolutely in love with Shakespeare and early modern literature. I ended up getting a PhD in Shakespeare and dramatic literature, and I focused my research on Shakespeare’s history plays that focus on English kings because I loved historical literature so much. My three full-length plays are heavily influenced by my love of early modern literature and history, and I love reading biographies and history books to get ideas for my writing. I also have a pretty hefty audiobook habit. I listen to a lot of nonfiction that’s interested in history, politics, economics, and women’s issues. Lately, I’ve been reading a ton of philosophy because I was writing a play about Friedrich Nietzsche, the existential philosopher. Sometimes I read thrillers or mysteries, too, just to break it up some, but I read and/or listen to a lot of books. I read way more than I write, and I write a lot.
What advice would you give other aspiring writers?
The things that have made the biggest difference in my writing life are (1) reading a lot, (2) finding a group of likeminded writers to share work with, and (3) submitting a lot. Reading a lot — and in a variety of genres — helps you find your own voice and allows you to explore issues your interested in writing about. Sometimes I read a book that doesn’t answer the question I wanted to have answered, so I explore that question on my own in a different piece of writing. I’m inspired by everything I read. One of the harder things for writers, especially those with day jobs or family obligations, is staying motivated to write, so finding a group of likeminded writers is incredibly important. When I was primarily writing fiction, my friend Wendy Vergoz was my go-to writing friend. With plays, I’ve been a member of the Indiana Playwrights Circle for about two years, and that group has really motivated and inspired me. When it comes to submissions, it’s important to find out where you can submit things, so having a subscription to Duotrope is super important for short stories because you can narrow down your search for opportunities by genre and length. With longer fiction, reading trade magazines can be helpful, but also just talking to other writers is very important, too, and learning from their experiences. With my short stories, I didn’t publish anything outside of school journals until I was nearly forty, but the only way I got anything published was through seeking out opportunities and then submitting relentlessly. Every rejection made me more determined to submit more. With playwriting, there are some theatres that accept submissions year round, and there are some who do contests throughout the year. Others only take things that are recommended. It’s important to submit as much as possible with plays as well, and I have been. March and September seem to be the best times to find opportunities for submitting plays. I’ve had several short plays produced already that way, and my full length plays have placed well in contests and have had great readings during the pandemic. There are a lot of development opportunities out there for plays — which is one way plays are very different from writing prose. When you submit fiction, you usually are submitting a finished product. Plays aren’t considered “finished” until they’ve been produced, and even then, sometimes they get tweaked before publication. Plus, plays really aren’t published the same way fiction is. Plays really should be produced before they’re published, and all the major publishers of plays basically stick to that rule.