Playwright Novelist Screenwriter

Writing Around, A Blog about Writers and Readers

Learning to Wright with Vern Thiessen   by Katherine Koller

Vern Thiessen began his talk “Writing v. Wrighting” (September 30, 2016) by claiming that “playwrights are plankton on the literary food chain,” yet he’s spent twenty-five years at it, winning (among many others), a Governor-General’s Award (Einstein’s Gift), the CAA-sponsored Carol Bolt Award (Vimy) and a Dora Mavor Moore Award for his adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage.

He relocated to New York for seven years “to up his game,” which resulted in hundreds of productions of his plays around the world. Now happily back in Edmonton, he is Artistic Director of Workshop West Theatre as well as a playwright with many commissions. The turning point for him was an elevator ride at age 35 with a man who collapsed (unknown to Vern at the time, the man survived). In this carpe diem moment, Thiessen decided to quit his day job at the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and commit to playwriting.

He soon learned that there are three levels of commitment for playwrights: a personal one, where writing is for fun, love and practice; the artistic stage, where the story must be told or the telling of it explores new form and craft; and the professional level, writing plays to a deadline for performance, for payment. Vern needs to know what he’s building, and what stage he’s at with each play, every time. This way he can manage expectations and goals, as a play moves from one level to another.

Vern emphasizes that playwrights write for the actor’s voice. His stage directions, to designers and directors, are minimal and written to inspire, not prescribe. He prefers playwriting because he has control of the property, the written text, but not the production, which is “different in interpretation nightly.” For Vern, the excitement of the “chess game” of playwriting is expressed by British playwright David Hare: “The act of writing is the act of discovering what you believe.”

Vern concluded his evening presentation with a reading from his play Lenin’s Embalmers and a three-pronged challenge to the audience: What needs to be written about? Who needs a voice? What world do we need to see?

In his Saturday morning session the next day, Vern explained his practice, developed over years, to release the individual voice. First we all completed the following three sentences: A play is . . . A play must . . . A play must never . . . This gave us an idea of our own and our shared understanding of what a play does.

Next, Vern walked us through the six Aristotelian elements of a play: plot (what), character (who), theme (why), dialogue (how), rhythm or song (how), and setting (where and when). To make sure we all understood the difference between plot (how a story is told) and story (what happens), we did an exercise giving five, active and chronological events of the story of The Titanic. Then we examined the plot of the movie Titanic, noting the difference of ordering the story events for dramatic purpose.

A rapid, timed exercise on making ten story points in a group was revealing because no one had time to think, the events spilled out on the page and all we had to do was put them in chronological order. Then we were asked to decide what the story was about, to show how in playwriting the theme emerges after the story is laid down.

Vern also gave a monologue exercise, noting that monologues are to oneself, to another or to the audience. In a monologue, there is a decision to be made, a struggle under consideration, in the present  (“To be or not to be”).

Next we all wrote two pieces of dialogue from prompts. Vern showed the importance of punctuation in dialogue by demonstrating the difference with a simple word, hi, when preceded by ellipses, or followed by a period, question or exclamation marks.

Vern’s developmental technique for each scene answers this question: if you only have eight lines, what are they? This exercise promotes compression, meaning, essence.

Finally, we all wrote a scene. In this workshop lasting only two and a half hours, the scene was our seventh writing exercise! Before we began, we answered six questions: how the play looks, tastes, feels, sounds, smells and what it’s about. This gave us a chance to construct the world of the play in our sensory imaginations before trying to write what happens.

I asked Vern how he writes five plays at any one time, all in different stages of development. He replied that he takes extensive notes at the end of each part of the process for each play because it may be some time before he has a chance to return to it. When he does, he reassesses the world of the play by doing the same exercises he gave us: going through the five story points, the ten story points, the eight-line scene sketches, the look/taste/feel/sound/ smell of the play world. He re-examines what he thinks the play is about over and over. The notes from before and the reassessment of the world of the play then define the plan for the “re-wright” of the script.

(First published in The Branch Line, October 2016)

 

Fear of Fiction with Gail Anderson-Dargatz                                       by Katherine Koller

“Getting your Work Noticed” was the subject of a Friday night talk by Gail Anderson-Dargatz. The key to book promotion for Gail, author of six books of literary fiction, comes from being a farmer’s daughter: “community is everything” and “never go anywhere without a gift.” Even though Gail recently completed a three-month Random House book tour, she believes that the responsibility to promote the book begins with the author. For her part, she posted about every event, every success and tick up the bestseller lists in social media. But, she stresses, the time comes when you can’t only talk about yourself and your own book online; when your turn is over, celebrate the work of the other writers in your community, and your community will, in turn, celebrate yours.

Besides sending out a single email to friends to let them know about her new book, Gail uses social media to give recommendations of other writers’ work and asks other authors to be guest bloggers on her website. Hand sales, where a reader hands someone a book saying “You need to read this,” now manifest in online reader reviews and blogs. “If your book is great, the readers themselves will promote it,” she says in “Promoting Your Book” on her website (www.gailanderson-dargatz.ca).

Gail also gets readers to notice her books with personally-crafted gifts including homemade paper bookmarks and oatcakes for The Cure for Death by Lightning, individual honey pots for A Recipe for Bees, and postcards for The Spawning Grounds. Some other advice is to participate in writers’ festivals, give workshops at libraries and speak at clubs and gatherings as a way to network, build a reading community and get paid at the same time.

On her Saturday workshop, Gail asked the very full room of writers for their fears about writing fiction. The responses filled an entire whiteboard. Next, she went through each and every fear, giving strategies from her own experience with the very same anxiety, and asked for other solutions from the floor. This made the workshop, which she titled “Writing Home,” more of a dialogue than a presentation. Some of the fears dissected include finishing a long project (“structure will save you”), the tyranny of research (“don’t stick to the facts”), beginning hell (“trust your craft”), what will mom think? (transform fact to fiction) and the fear of cultural appropriation (Margaret Atwood said, “It’s only a short step from saying we can’t write from the point of view of an ‘other’ to saying we can’t read that way either, and from there to the position that no one can really understand anyone else. . . . Surely the delight and wonder come not from who tells the story but from what the story tells, and how”).

Gail also had many tips about writing that will eventually become a writing guide, Fifty Things about Writing I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Wrote This Fucking Novel, which she calls “against the grain advice”:2016authorphoto

Write the story first, then do research.

“Cook” anecdotes into story. (Anecdotes are single happenings without consequences; story answers “what if” with “why” while anecdotes simply describe.)

Interview subjects for fiction.

Fictional characters are not real people, but larger than life.

Don’t write about your own kids.

Structure will help find meaning.

Doodle your structure before writing.

Pay yourself first in writing time: make it early in the day and make it a habit.

Make writing play, not work.

Write crap (to combat perfectionism, investigate, experiment).

Focus on scene: action, dialogue and beats (emotional turns).

Let characters tell you who they are (rather than listing their cv before you begin).

Create a “well file” for discarded material.

“Follow the heat” of what interests you.

Use genre templates to help structure your novel (screenplay, gothic, romance, thriller).

Avoid over-isolation.

When you hit a wall, be hyperaware and ready for synchronicity and solutions.

Learn about what is working from editors’ comments.

If you face burnout, make changes to how you work, and continue on.

 

Besides being a best-selling novelist, Gail is also a writing mentor and writing camp leader. On her website, she listed thirteen articles especially for our workshop about story, the writing program Scrivener, turning real life into fiction, act structure, character desire and getting a book deal. A common problem she sees in the work of writers she coaches (and even in her own work at early stages) is protecting the protagonist. If a protagonist is passive, they cannot act or speak. They are paralyzed, and relegated to listening and reporting about action given to secondary characters or in flashback. Characters must act on conflict rather than talk about it; “chase your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them,” Gail says. Another common problem is that some authors record a description of an object in a museum or a landmark they’ve visited directly onto the page rather than integrating this research into an active scene.

In our day with Gail we did one exercise, the interview. This revealed how quickly we could find out what matters to each other, by sharing commonalities and life histories in an informal way. One writer said, “we both came out of the interview with something – a gift to each other.” For interviews, Gail suggests that writers ask to talk about their project in progress, practice a waiting silence, leave room for “what if” and watch for patterns that will lead to truths. Meet people in their home if possible, for their own ease and comfort and for the details of their physical environment. “Most people want to tell their story,” says Gail. In so doing, they reveal about themselves sometimes what even they didn’t know before. The interview can be an act of self-discovery or realization.

The second exercise, “Blind Cat” was a take-home challenge from The Writer’s Gym by Eliza Clark. Pretend you’re a blind cat in a new experience; engage your other senses and memory to let go and even embarrass yourself a little to see how it feels.

Other resources recommended by Gail are A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins and a blog, Terribleminds by Chuck Wendig.

(This piece first appeared in  The Branch Line, January 2017.)