Negative Reviews

“Doesn’t the review bother you?” I was asked following a rather harsh criticism of a musical play that premiered this summer (2014). “It didn’t even explain what the critic disliked very well.”

Yes, the review bothered me, and I certainly agreed with my theater colleague that the review could have been more helpful, but every review is helpful to some extent. Some are simply more helpful than others.

A negative review tell you that something might be wrong with a work. It might not be, but critics at regional and national publications tend to know something about their specialties. In this instance, the reviewer is a playwright, so ignoring his views would be shortsighted. However, critics also have biases, and this critic hasn’t demonstrated the greatest understanding of new work development in our small city. Shoestring theater seldom enables perfection, and even less often provides active development processes.

When you read a review, skip the snark. Reviewers seem to love demonstrating how smart they are, and how cynical they’ve become. Ignore the ego behind the review and focus on a list of concrete positives and negatives. Don’t get lost in the flourishes of someone trying to impress his or her readers.

In this instance, the concrete claims appear to be:
1. Some of the musical numbers (tune and lyrics) were good.
2. The play was too long.
3. The three-act structure was problematic.
4. Direction lacked energy.
5. The play had little new to say.

As a playwright, I can’t do much about any acting or directing issues, even with a new work. Things simply happen. Therefore, item four is beyond my control. Direction can also affect item five because a slow play without energy has no message, no passion. That means item five is likely a mix of problems with the script and the direction.

The length of the work and the structure are a problem. Reducing the snark to the core claim, that the play was long and oddly structured, I would agree that a new work usually needs more editing. As a writer, I tend to overwrite first drafts. Therefore, I can set aside the snark and admit the play needs another revision pass (or more).

I’m not sure I agree that the three-act structure is a problem, but it is if there are two intermissions in a modern play. Audiences want one intermission and quick scene pacing. The structure I wrote was applied literally by the director. I need to change the script — that’s definitely my fault as a writer.

Learning to list the concrete claims made by reviewers is a skill writers and artists need. My final works are better because of this approach to “listening” to the critics.

Breaking Rules

Students, seminar attendees, and visitors to our online writing guide have complained that my insistence on knowing (and adhering to) traditional story structures ignores “real art” in favor of production and publication.

“You can break the rules after you master the rules,” I respond. “And then, only break them when you can defend the choice.”

Imagine my frustration when a play was rejected because it lacked the “journey” of the main character.

When I decided to write a play without a complete Hero’s journey, it was an intentional act (pun), a choice to parody a genre. There are characters in myth and legend that do not change. They don’t mature. Mocking that notion of the invariable being seemed promising.

One of the readers providing coverage clearly didn’t get the joke. The comments on the coverage sheet indicated the story needed a clear journey and transformation. Oops. My choice must not have been obvious.

There are two lesson: 1) breaking the formula is risky; 2) if the reader doesn’t know the original, parody doesn’t work.

The other reader did like the script and scored it “highly recommended,” but you need to run the gauntlet to be produced.

Both reviewers liked the dialogue, the wit, yet only one got the joke. That isn’t good. I’m not sure following the traditional formula would have helped.

Will I break the rules again? Of course. But I also understand the risks.

Using a Spreadsheet to Write

Beat sheets, outlines, storyboard, and other tools help me organize my thoughts when writing. Too many writers stick with word processors as their sole “digital tools” when many other great applications exist — and “applications” for various applications, too.

How can you use a spreadsheet to write? And why might you try this?

A spreadsheet’s columns and rows, a reflection of the ledger books they replaced, make an ideal way to track your pages, words, minutes, or other metrics. My writing spreadsheets range from simple checklists to complex sheets with calculations reflecting how much I need to cut or add to parts of story. (Scrivener’s outline view is similar to this, so allow me to plug Scrivener yet again.)

My basic story sheet resembles the chart on our website page “Plot and Story”.

Some plot points should be reached at specific pages, especially early in a story, while others should be reached within ranges of pages, as a percentage of the overall work. Using a spreadsheet helps me track these personal ideas.

For example: I like to have the “perceived problem / challenge” and the “real problem” within the first ten pages of a 90 minute screenplay or stage script. In a book, I might want those within the first “ten percent” of the work. Express each plot point in 25 words or less.

Major Beat 3 -> Perceived / Immediate Challenge -> Bomb ticking in a subway tunnel
Major Beat 4 -> Real Challenge -> Corrupt leaders creating the chaos to gain powers

Using Excel or another spreadsheet, I include columns reflecting page counts, minutes, real time, literary time, and more. These metrics help me pace my stories.

Do you have a checklist? If not, create one. Every creative writer using narratives should have a beat sheet, because it forces you to recognize when things are missing from a story.

Writing is Planning

As I finished the draft of a short play, a colleague sent me a message asking how many new manuscripts or adaptations I have written in the last twelve months or so. It seems best to list them:

  • Billie’s Girlfriend, written in early 2014 and submitted to Acting Out! Pittsburgh Pride for consideration. It might not be selected, of course, but it is a new play.
  • Twists of Choice, written in early 2014 for The LAB Project, premiering in 2015.
  • Women Say F*ck, Too! written in late 2013 and premiering during the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival in May, 2014.
  • The Fertility Dance, written in 2013 and submitted to a regional contest. The company passed on the script, but it found a home for 2015.
  • The Cat Lady, written in 2014, about to be submitted to a regional contest.
  • Under Development, written in 2013, received a staged reading by Organic Theater Pittsburgh.

That would be six new works, with another two or three outlined. My goal is to complete seven new works in the 20-minute or longer range during 2014. Most of my plays run 70 to 80 minutes, not counting intermissions.

Friends say it seems like I’ve done more. That’s because older works that had been collecting dust are now finding homes as I dedicate myself to completing them, too. Older plays that have been revised or rewritten in the past year:

  • A New Death, my oldest unproduced script was rewritten and submitted to Throughline Theatre and will be premiering in July 2014.
  • The Gospel Singer, premiering in August, 2014, received as staged reading in 2013 as part of the “In the Raw” festival of Bricolage Production Company.
  • Clown and Mime, revised in 2013.
  • The Garden, which was produced in 2012, has been revised for a future production. (I can dream.)

I have at least ten scripts I hope to revive by 2015.

These counts do not include scripts I edited, revised, or completely wrote for other individuals as a consultant.

I don’t sit around waiting for ideas and I’ve stopped trying to perfect my old ideas. Now, I aim to get as many good scripts to producers and directors as possible. A good script becomes better, or even great, during the development process. Trying to perfect plays by editing alone for ten years was an ineffective approach to writing scripts.

Writers write. It’s that simple. Some of what I write will never be produced, some of it will be. You can’t write one or two manuscripts and then spend years and years trying to craft perfection. Write, and write some more. You never know when a script will find a home.

When Good Writing is Bad

“This is an engaging read, but can you revise it to sound more academic?”

Most of us want to read writing I describe as demonstrating the Five Cs: clear, concise, compelling, correct, and complete. I tell my students and creative writing seminars to resist overwriting. Avoid affected academic prose, with words you’d never use in a passionate, but professional, conversation with colleagues. Stop trying to adhere to high school writing “rules” that generate more fluff and filler than refined thought.

Imagine my disappointment when a journal editor said, “You should being with, ‘In this paper we…’ and then outline your points. Frame it, state it, repeat it.”

Wow. If ever there was bad writing advice, that would be it. Imagine a novel written with that structure:

In this novel we will follow the actions of Jane Eyre, though childhood to marriage. The themes explored include….

If your writing has to be “framed” beyond basic foreshadowing, you write weak prose. Fix it. Punch up the paragraphs and streamline the sentences. We don’t want a world of five-paragraph SAT-ready essays that only impress a handful of English teachers and test scorers.

Academic writing represents the worst writing a reader must endure. Often pretentious and inefficient, we should leave the formulas behind and break free from the tyranny of “rules” that foster creating complicated compositions with little content. Write with passion and flare. Compel your readers to move from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

When I tell students to be concise, I explain this does not mean leaving behind a good stylistic twist. A student recently mentioned that I advised parallel construction and repetition, devices other writing instructors warned against. They preferred “variation” of words, so every “said” in an essay became a sighed, yelled, asserted, declared or other action.

“What about Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?” I asked. “The title phrase appears nine times, with two additional variations. Does that make it bad writing?”

“It breaks the rules,” the student asserted.

I explained that some “extra words” and “repetition” strengthen writing. That’s why we like rhyming poetry and alliteration as readers, especially as children unaware of artificial rules. Give me Dr. Seuss over most modern free-form poetry any day. Learning when to repeat, and why to repeat, takes practice.

One rule should guide writing, including academic writing: Engage the reader. If you fail to engage the reader, nothing else matters. The reader honors you; treat the reader with respect. Drop the annoying academic filler, weak transitions, and empty academese. The “rules” about framing, stating, and summarizing help students reach arbitrary word counts, but they do not encourage good writing.

Academic writing treats readers with condescension and bores them with the routine. Being able to engage in “academic discourse” might earn a student better grades or help a scholar publish research, but it is a lamentable metric by which to measure writing ability.

Yet, I did rewrite the academic paper, because I must. It is now properly dreadful.