Writing is weird. A short while back three of us had a chance to stand around talking about it. This was made possible by a generous donation to The Small Stage.
It’s kind of a departure from a blog strictly about theatre.
My first officially donor-sponsored blog comes courtesy of Boozy Bard's A Christmas Carol: RAW. The drunken Dickens goes on a 5-show tour of local venues Nov, 23-Dec. 21.
The money donated for this entry has helped fund a lot of other coverage for local theatre in this blog, so I’m more than happy to stand around in a room with a couple of other writers talking about writing Here we are:
Aaron Kopec is the artistic director at The Alchemist Theatre where he strives to provide fun and exciting entertainment. He occasionally writes, sometimes directs, often builds sets, intermittently designs lights and audio, and most often repairs leaks and other ailments of the wonderful old building that houses The Alchemist. His past works are all listed at the theatre website under "past shows." He is proud of all of them for one reason or another but mostly for all of the spectacularly talented people he's gotten to work closely with and the amazing audiences who have kept the doors open for over 11 years. www.thealchemisttheatre.com
Jacob Woelfel is an unpublished author currently querying one of a few finished manuscripts. He's written for The Variety Hour Happy Hour, Sketch 22, and PARTY!, and he's assisted in editing Pepper's Ghost and PUNK IS DEAD! at The Alchemist Theatre.
Russ Bickerstaff (that’s me)--I'm a theatre critic and writer of short fictions. (I also recently picked-up work as a comic book critic. Weird.) I live in the south side's Crisol Community with my wife and two daughters. My short fictions have appeared in over 30 different publications including Hypertext Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, Sein und Werden, and Theme of Absence.
Trust Me: There's an Audio Recording
It was the middle of the day. There was a street festival not far from where the three of us had gathered. It was a casual mood conversation. It's been captured on audio...and I seem to remember that a lot of it made sense, but the audio file that I recorded it on is a bit surly. It refuses to be edited. I intend on getting it uploaded to this entry once I've had a chance to edit it. In order to do so, I'm going to need a scalpel, two paperclips and a nuclear accelerator...or I don't know...maybe just the right audio editing software.
Anyway there we stood: three guys talking about writing for a couple of hours...then went to work asking each other questions via email about...writing...these are those questions.
Questions From Me to Aaron:
ME: A lot of people would envy your ability to work on something from conception to completion. You work on a lot of other elements for a show beyond the script. Do you ever find that other elements of production inform on and mutate a script the you may be working on?
AARON: I'm usually lucky enough to know at least a few people that are interested in a role that i'm talking or thinking about early enough that I can write for specific actors and sometimes discuss how they would want to play a character and try to incorporate ideas that they might have.
ME: You've done some incredibly elaborate plot structures for the stage in the past. I would imagine there have been scenes and ideas that have had to get cut here and there. What's that process like? Have there been any notable scraps of ideas that you're waiting for the right opportunity to use or does the scriptwriting all fuse itself into what you're working on for any individual show?
AARON: Sometimes scripts get nearly completed and maybe even to the point of some "per-production" before being "scrapped" or before it evolves into something else.
A few years back the NYC Trilogy was a combo of things that had been disassembled from a possible "throughout the building" production and reshaped into three "for the stage" shows.
ME: So many anti-heroes in your work. Dracula. H.H. Holmes. uhh...Andy Warhol. Unless I'm forgetting something, I don't ever recall any totally altruistic heroes in your work. What's your particular fascination with darker characters?
AARON: Because every character is just me?
I don't really know if I have a good, actual answer for that without therapy.
I think we all love a good antihero. A good villain that we can, maybe unfortunately, relate to. And when those characters manage to find moments of redemption of bits of beauty, that may feel even more hopeful than a heartwarming, feel-good production full of characters that we all want to be friends with.
Questions From Jacob to Aaron:
JACOB: After a show has ended and you think of your characters, do you visualize them as the actors who played them? When you see the actors, do they remind you of the characters?
AARON: Some, certainly. In some ways David Sapiro will always be "Eddie Valentine" and April Paul will always be "Izzy" from "Another Tale of Eddie."
Liz Whitford has played countless roles here but she will always be a bit more "Margarite" from "Faust" because I still use the notebook her character wrote her daily journal in full of love notes about "Johnathon" who was played by Grace DeWolf.
JACOB: You've always had a great handle on dialogue. I remember you once telling me that you prefer to dance around what characters are really trying to say. Tell me a little bit about how you go about doing this. Is it something you plan for? Or is it something that happens organically?
AARON: I TRY to write how we actually speak while also paying attention to rhythms.
This means that I write dialogue rather poorly, actually.
Lots of fragmented sentences and phrases that begin half-way through a thought combined with long-winded speeches.
But I really think that is how most folks talk and how conversations actually happen. Lots of interjections and interruptions before someone just plows though a story wrapped around some central core of what is being discussed.
JACOB: Do you tend to write with a message in mind? Many of your plays seem to have a clear point. If so, when do you discover that message? Is it something you find halfway through? Or is it something you know right away? If it is—how much does that message affect the decisions of your characters?
AARON: Seems to me that if you try to stay true to characters and let them live, a message, so to speak, will just naturally emerge.
For me it is important that the message doesn't get crammed down anyone's throats. Medicine in the mashed potatoes. And I also try to stay aware of creating a bit of a "pop rock song" with my shows so that they are maybe just open enough to interpretation that you can find what you need in them.
Yeah, there are specific thoughts in mind that come from specific events or ideas that are very real to me, but you don't need to know what they are. You, as the audience, have probably had similar events or ideas that you can relate to it.
Questions From Aaron to Jacob:
AARON: I think it's interesting to know how you find resources to "bounce ideas off of." Other writers who are starting out and have novels in them.... can you share some of the online resources that you've discovered where folks can share and interact and get decent feedback?
JACOB: There's many communities on Reddit if you look hard enough. I won't recommend a specific one because your results will vary depending on what you're working on and what kind of feedback you're looking for. Discord voice and chat channels work in a more immediate way for feedback, but again there are so many communities it's hard to recommend just one. It's like any other resource, even within these communities, you have to find the people who have the input you find most helpful. And those aside, the most important resource is everyone you know—and people you don't know. If your pitch can hold the attention of a complete stranger who has no idea who you are or what you're doing, it's probably an idea worth your time.
AARON: You have given me some really great writing advice... things that built my confidence and helped structure things in ways I've not considered before. Again, to writers who are "finding their way" is there any "advice" that you'd offer to them that isn't the cliche' "just write?" If someone feels that they have a "novel length story" in them.... what would you tell them to consider? It's such a big journey.
JACOB: It's tough to give a single answer that applies to everyone. For me, learning about basic structure helped a lot. Scene structure in particular was big, and character motivations were bigger. Most scenes are going to be carried by a character and what they want or need. If it's just a bunch of stuff happening, it's hard to get invested or care. I wish I'd known that before I wrote an entire novel where the main character didn't really want anything. People would ask, "what is your book about?" And I would have no answer. It was about a bunch of stuff happening to a guy because I thought it would be cool. So my answer would usually be some rambling word soup of events that I thought stood out, but really it wasn't about anything. Please note, it can be done. Look at American Gods. Shadow is just sort of a wanderer, and it works. There's always going to be exceptions, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take the time to understand the rules.
As for a novel-length idea and how to tackle it, if you haven't written something novel length before, I would absolutely recommend working on some shorter stories first. Get into the habit of finishing things. Start small, something you can complete in a sitting. Then do something a little bigger, something that might take two days. Do it again, and again, until you're completing pieces with ease. "But Jacob, I only want to write this novel." You can do that. Each short story can be part of it. Think of it as exploratory writing. I've got dozens of short stories within the worlds of my books. Some of them make it in. Most don't. But they were all worth doing in building what the eventual story would become. Again, please note that you can jump right into writing an entire novel having written nothing else. It's possible, but I wouldn't recommend it.
AARON: Same final question I asked Russ.... as someone who considers every word and understands pacing and the silliness of bravado... favorite "guilty pleasure rock song?"
JACOB: REO Speedwagon's Roll with the Changes.
Questions From Me to Jacob
ME: Longer works of fiction can become kind of a lens through which you see the world. How does it feel to have an intimate connection with these very involved worlds you're writing...worlds that few others have been able to be exposed to?
JACOB: I hadn't thought much about this before. I think, above all, it's a little intoxicating. The longer I work on something, the more real it becomes. Sure, it's all made-up nonsense, but it's made-up nonsense I live with, and until I've moved on to that next giant project, it never goes away. In times when I'm most active, it's easy to lose days. It's like going somewhere else, so no matter where I am or what I'm doing, I'm stuck with these characters. It can happen with shorter works, too, but it rarely outlasts the story. As if that isn't real enough, having a small group of interested readers to bounce ideas off of amplifies that effect. Even if it's only three or four people, being able to talk about all of these characters and what they're doing, what they will do—there's nothing else like it.
ME: There are those who make...lots of money writing novels. The really successful novels. It can be really strange to see what the mass public turns into a best-seller. Which author's/novels' widespread success do you find most perplexing?
JACOB: Tough question. I swear I'm not weaseling out when I tell you there aren't any. Don't get me wrong, I dislike loads of novels. You couldn't pay me to read a lot of what's out there, but I still get why these authors are successful. Sure, it's not always clear. Fifty Shades of Grey is bad, but the appeal is obvious. Twilight, too. These authors know their audience and they write/promote accordingly. From what I can tell, a lot of being a successful author has little to do with how good of a writer you are. There's probably countless masterpieces out there that'll never see publication because a great writer gave up. The industry is brutal and unforgiving. You have to convince the gatekeepers you're worth it. That takes time and a ton of rejection. Most importantly, it takes something they think they can sell. I hate that I feel this way, but I haven't seen anything to indicate otherwise.
ME: I find that the more elaborate unfinished stuff tends to hang out around the corners of my consciousness while I'm not working on it. What has your experience been like having characters, characters' relationships and whole worlds on hold while you hold down a day job and the rest of your life?
JACOB: I got a little into this with the first question. They don't go away. If anything, they're hanging out, waiting for me to finish that phone call. Whenever my mind wanders, good chance I'm thinking about them and what they're doing. If I want to write but can't, I'll often think of where they were when I last stopped. What would they do in this situation? Where are they going? What do they want? Is that still clear? Wait, how am I home already? I drove this whole way?
You get the idea.
Questions From Aaron to Me:
AARON: With the whole "where do ideas come from" discussion... I know that having helped raise two souls that some stories come from childhood wonder that is now part of your life with two little ones. Do you have any stories that were inspired by the wee ones?
ME: Yes. When kids’ vocabularies are only starting to download, they’ve got a really interesting relationship with the language that has inspired stories here and there.
There’s one in particular, though...when they were babies, my sister-in-law gifted them a little yellow hand-made plush gnome that I created a whole backstory for. The Strawberry Banana Gnome ended-up being the central character of “Fruiternal Quest”: a brief piece that was published by Raven Warren Studios a while back...in an anthology called Winning! A Guide to Games That Never Were. It’s still available in paperback for $6 on Amazon.
AARON: Unrelated to your "writing" but a big part of who you are for this community... as someone who reviews a LOT of theatre, do you ever get the "bug" to write scripts?
ME: I find myself thinking in dialogue between characters frequently enough that I’ve written a few scripts. MANY years ago I had a few shorts staged in a few Milwaukee shorts programs. There’s a longer one-act that I’ve written that I still think would be fun to stage...a fictional conversation between artists Steve Ditko and Eric Stanton in a tiny, little artist’s studio in midtown Manhattan in 1962.
AARON: We touched on ridiculous pop songs and "Bon Jovi" in our talk as well as "guilty pleasures." I'd be curious to hear any "guilty pleasure songs" that you can't help but turning up when they come on.
ME: There is no pleasure that is not guilty.
I don’t actually listen to the radio, though. Occasionally a song or an ad jingle from 10 or more years ago that I never really paid much attention to will be rolling around in my head. I’ll track it down and play it to death. It’s kind of like the ear-worm version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD...these things come back...overplayed pop songs I never really paid attention to by Def Leppard or Nirvana or Blues Traveler or Bowling for Soup or whatever. I look them up and listen to them a few times so that they can die again. (And believe me...they WANT to die.) So I help play them out by doing a search on YouTube and letting them fade out.
Questions From Jacob to Me:
JACOB: As someone who writes 1000 words daily on something brand new, how different is your process when you decide to tackle a novel? Could you go into depth about what that process looks like?
ME: When your favorite tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Typically it all starts somewhere around 1,000 words. From there it might be edited down to something far shorter or expanded into something longer. Occasionally a few ideas from the past stick together in weird ways and I’ll set them aside to go through the narrative fusion needed to turn them into something bigger, but I can’t think of any longer work that I’ve ever started that hasn’t originated as something shorter and evolved into a longer piece. The shorter works are where inspiration interfaces with text for the first time. Those longer works are more of a process of editing and expanding.
JACOB: Of all the pieces you've written—which is a ton—which one stands out as the work you love most? Which do you dislike most?
ME: I’ve written over 1,000 pieces. Honestly it’s all a big, incomprehensible garble in my rearview. The one that sticks out at me that I keep meaning to expand into a larger work is TOUPEE FOR OUR SINS: THE JOURNEY OF THE HELL TOUPEE. The discarded hair of a misshapen demon wanders the earth sucking souls through the balding scalps of 7 sinners in 7 chapters based on the 7 deadly sins. I’d submitted it as a short story to a few different publications who all turned it down. (I know. I know: imagine that...) It’s just such a weird idea and such a weird departure from so much of the rest of what I write that I find it appealing. As far as my least favorite...uh...there are so many that I’ve forgotten about. My least favorite is probably forgotten lurking around somewhere filed away with all of the rest of them.
JACOB: What is the medium you're most comfortable writing within and why? I ask because it seems to me you're well rounded, writing articles, short stories, novels, poetry, and everything in-between. Additionally, how do you choose which medium fits bet for each story?
ME: Free writing is the most comfortable. When an idle keyboard is casually hanging out in front of a blank word processing window it could be anything. Start writing it and it starts to get defined into form and genre and then...there are all kinds of expectations that start to filter-in. I’m most comfortable before the weight of expectations starts to descend on the emerging text.
Of course, with a review or an assigned piece for publication there isn't the luxury of ambiguity, but there's still that hazy headspace early on where I'm just writing reactions into a journal prior to deciding where the finalized review is going to be and THAT'S a bit more comfortable than the rest of it.
Aaron's next play is Punk Is Dead. It opens Oct. 11 at the Alchemist.
This blog has been generously sponsored by Boozy Bard’s A Christmas Carol Raw. The show arrives at the cozy subterranean theatre at the Brumder Mansion Bed and Breakfast November 23rd. That's the start of a 5-show tour that runs through December 21st. Click the banner below for tour dates, locations and more.