Thursday, November 30, 2006

Whose writing is it anyway?

In yesterday's Guardian Maddy Costa writes about an 'extraordinary' collaboration betweeen five women playwrights at the Royal Court Theatre this week, instigated by outgoing artistic director Ian Rickson and echoing a similar experiment in 1971 with seven young men including Howard Brenton, David Hare and Stephen Poliakoff. Well, the play does sound exciting, so maybe it's extraordinary in that sense, but it's a little amusing that the concept of collaboration should be considered so innovative once it's applied to mainstream theatre, when it was of course a commonplace with alternative theatre in the seventies and eighties, and often still is to this day.

It puts me in mind of the time I took part in a similar exercise. Two other playwrights, Sue Ashby and Janet Mantle, invited me to join them in writing a play for Theatre in Education on the subject of child abuse, It's OK to Say No. I was interested and excited to find out how such a process would work, and what it would be like writing someone else's concept rather than my own, and something so very research-based.

First off, we did the research by talking to professionals. Next, we mapped out a story and a structure for the play. This was easier than I'd imagined, sitting swapping suggestions and coming to a consensus - partly, I suppose, because our aim, teaching children how to deal with abuse, very much dictated a structure. Then, like the Royal Court group, we divided up the scenes between us and went away to write them. It was a good experience - I liked the learning process, I loved the companionship and sharing, but I have to be honest and say that it felt more workmanlike than writing usually does for me, without that thrill of inspiration that comes from somewhere deep.

Halfway through the writing period I dropped out. After we had talked to one of the professionals I began to have doubts about the professional methods and ideology for dealing with child abuse which she was describing and which our play was endorsing, and I left Sue and Janet to it.

At least one of my scenes remained, however, a pretty crucial one, and it was a very strange experience to attend the first performance of a play over which I no longer had any claim and no longer felt any ownership, and to witness that scene being acted out. I'd written it, but it was no longer mine; I didn't even feel the need to claim it. Weird.

It's OK to Say No has toured schools all over since, mainly with Action Transport Theatre Company, who probably know nothing of my early involvement with the play. Maybe my scene has long gone anyway, but whenever I hear of another production I get that strange mixed feeling of disconnection and ever-so-vague connection.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Frontlist

Times in an author's life, there's no point in having any pride. The Frontlist seems like a good idea, says Fessing Author. That's what I thought too.

Like Fessing Author, I wasn't a new writer, but I emailed Tom Lodge, who runs the scheme, and got the go-ahead to put something up.

First the synopsis. This is really important, the site tells you, so important that they provide you with guidelines. I look at the guidelines. A synopsis should be all about plot and story, they tell me. It should be written in the style of the novel and should include a flavour of the dialogue. I scratch my head. This doesn't quite sound like the kind of summing-up paragraph I know most publishers and agents prefer (and anyone else, surely). I email Tom again. Is he looking for something longer or something shorter? Tom says it's all early stages yet, and it's really up to me but he thinks something that an agent would like sounds best. But he also says that on the other hand it might be a good idea to write something my peers would like, and some people have been marked down for not making their synopses long or detailed enough.

I scratch my head again. I compromise. I write as short a synopsis as I can while trying to outline a ridiculously complex and psychological story and include a sense of the (fluctuating) voices of the novel.

I post up my submission, synopsis included.

Straightaway I get five pieces to critique. Each piece has to be given a mark out of 5 on each of several criteria. Firstly Syntax, which to my surprise is explained as spelling, punctuation, grammar etc, and which - although I know that writers who can't do the basics mostly can't come up with the bigger stuff - seems a rather nit-picking and superficial approach to establish in beginning to look at a novel. Next Concept which we are told we should judge via the synopsis. Well now, I can see that a synopsis might indicate that a novel has a good shape, etc, but just because it fails to do that doesn't mean a novel hasn't: as anyone in the business knows, a synopsis is one of the most difficult things to write, and the person it's most difficult for is the author, so necessarily close to the subtleties (why would you write a novel if you could sum it up in a paragraph - or a page or two, as some of these synopses run to?). So I'm not so sure about the idea of at least one fifth of the marks being based on the synopsis, about which there seemed to be some confusion in the first place...
Then the last three: Originality, Intelligence, Readability. Nothing about narrative thrust or characterisation (though later characterisation was introduced), nothing about voice. And the explanations of some of these categories seem confusingly to cut across each other...

Now to look at the work I must critique. Well, I've done a lot of critiqueing of work at all sorts of levels, and I am sorry to say that some of the pieces were not, shall we say, of the best I have ever seen. I am pretty used as a teacher to commenting constructively on people's less-than-good work (I am being euphemistic here), but on this occasion my heart sinks, because what I am doing with my comments - and the marks which I must in all honesty give them - is denying them their goal in entering this scheme, being passed to a publisher. No way can I bring myself to use the word which comes to mind about one of them: 'semi-literate'. But there is one good one, thank goodness, pretty brilliant actually, and with relief I can say so and give the author practically full marks.

It all seems a bit embarrassing, I think. Professionals pitted against would-bes, and let's face it, never-will-bes...

Ha! Here's my come-uppance, my own critiques. Sparse dismissive comments, eg 'Waffelly' (sic); I am told that there is nothing original, complex or insightful about my novel, several times I am told that my 'syntax' is poor, I am pulled up for my 'improper' sentences (by which the reviewer doesn't mean indecent), and my narrator's use of the word 'caff' (for cafe) is marked down as a spelling mistake of my own. I'm even told that at one point my novel is 'a bit illiterate'. And it's the synopsis they really have it in for: some tell me it's too long, others that it's not detailed enough (and all the time its 'syntax' is faulty). Not all of my reviewers are negative, there's one who gives me almost full marks, but even he/she feels obliged to take marks off for my synopsis.

Crumbs. (No doubt they'd tick me off for that verbless sentence.)

And the overall results? Well, some of the ones I didn't rate did a whole lot better than me...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Taken over...

Oh dear, I have not been blogging. Why? Because I have an idea for a play simmering, and I'm one of those writers who, once this happens, can't think about much else. The play takes up all of my attention, I stop halfway through the washing up and find myself leaning on the windowsill thinking about those characters, wondering how the heck I am going to get them from A to B; halfway through cleaning my teeth I find I have wandered downstairs, toothbrush in hand, listening to the conversation they are having which has sprouted unbidden into my head...

And we writers wonder why people sometimes look at us askance...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Driven to drink?

Reading group on Wednesday night. Only six of us drinking, and when I got up next morning there were eight bottles to clear away! I don't think I drank much of it, but if I did, this is why.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What are playwriting schemes for?

Today on my other blog I ask What is Theatre FOR? but you could ask the same question about playwriting schemes, and when I came back from holiday I was alerted to the fact that Lyn Gardner has.

Wondering where all the good new playwrights are nowadays, Gardner speculates that they are clogged up in burgeoning playwriting development schemes, which she suspects exist for their own sakes, and to keep personnel in jobs, rather than actually to bring plays to the stage.

Some of the comments on her post endorse my own about theatre script readers in an earlier post here about my attempts to place 'O'Leary's Daughters' with New Writing mainstream theatres. (I hesitate to betray the arrogance of placing myself among the 'good playwrights', but the play has been fringe-produced, twice, and has won prizes, and I'm a pretty established, you might even say veteran radio dramatist). Gardner might have added that the playwrights are stuck in never-to-be-touched slush piles: it was February when I sent the play off, and I'm still waiting to hear back from several of those theatres and know now that I never will. But of the responses I did get back, more than one betrayed the tendency I described earlier to apply naturalistic measures to a non-naturalistic play (and thus to find it lacking), and the rest appear to fulfill Gardner's suspicions. I have been repeatedly told that my 'well-written and engaging script' can't however be put on by a theatre, since the theatre only puts on the plays it 'develops'. Once or twice this has extended to putting my name down on a list for 'the next development programme' (ie to write another, different play, which will, as Gardner says, be molded to the theatre's mission statement).

The most encouraging response was from Suzanne Bell, the Liverpool Everyman's Literary Manager, who I have to say quickly is a great person, but her hands are tied by this system. Again she said that the theatre only puts on the plays it develops, but she said she wanted to keep links with me and invited me to a workshop with Paines Plough and Graeae Theatre Company. But what was this workshop? Oh dear, yes, the Paines Plough and Graeae people were lovely, but it was one of those workshops which I used to do all the time with schoolkids, and then later with WEA adults, you know: get into pairs, each think up a character, swap characters, then write a dialogue using the two characters. Oh... Groan. For godssake, I just want to get my play on a mainstream theatre; it's already wowed audiences, I'm a radio writer going long in the tooth... what am I doing BEING TAUGHT HOW TO WRITE FROM SCRATCH????

A few weeks later I get an email from Paines Plough. Would I send them what I wrote at the workshop? A bit later another: if I've developed this piece since, or written anything else, would I send it, as they are looking for writers for their Wild Lunch series of rehearsed readings. What they are looking for is 30-minute plays. Oh! Well, sounds like an opportunity you can't miss. I sit down and develop my piece into a 30-minute play.

A couple of months later I am informed that unfortunately I am not one of the fourteen writers they have selected to develop their 30-minute plays into 45-minute pieces. Fair enough, but what was I doing being diverted through hoops to no avail, WHEN I JUST WANTED TO GET MY ALREADY WRITTEN PLAY STAGED? This week I am sent the Wild Lunch programme of rehearsed readings. Eight plays, eight writers. Which means that SIX of the fourteen CHOSEN TO DEVELOP THEIR 30-MINUTE PLAYS have been dropped!

Oh please! These lovely, committed and hard-working people aren't to blame, it's the system, but this is playing with writers. This is not taking seriously any concept of writers' individuality or professionalism, just as Gardner laments.