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 Writing Advice

©Copyright 2002-2008
[Shawn Nacol]
All rights reserved


"The entertainment industry is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."  Hunter S. Thompson

For what it's worth, I thought I'd stick a couple of words of advice up here for anyone who's curious... But before I mouth off, I'd like to relate a story.

Famed novelist Margaret Atwood was attending an extremely formal foundation dinner in London with a gaggle of muckety-mucks that included members of the royal family. During the soup course, she discovered that the distinguished gentleman to her left was in fact the Head of Neurological Surgery at one of the major London hospitals. They fell to chatting and discovered that they had several interests in common. Around the time the entree was served, he told her that he was planning on retiring in the next 2 years. He leaned over with a satisfied grin and made an excited confession: now that he had some free time, he was going write a novel. Without missing a beat, Ms. Atwood smiled broadly, leaned over, and confessed that she too had an exciting plan: she was retiring as well, and now she was going to become a brain surgeon.

If you want to be a playwright, my biggest piece of advice right off the bat is...


Honestly... Save yourself. If you can do anything else, go do it. Like everything else in life, it's only glamorous from the outside. If playwriting is your hobby then you don't need to read further because the arts are a grueling professional arena. And (n.b.) a hobby is completely tedious to anyone except fellow hobbyists. Newsflash: playwriting is almost dead as a viable source of income and creative expression. The pressures on the legitimate theatre in the past 4 decades have been adamantine, and the impact on writers has been irrevocable. The competition is bloodthirsty and the odds are overwhelmingly against everyone. Unless NOTHING ELSE will give you satisfaction in life, run in the opposite direction. See shows, read plays, and donate to your local not-for-profits. Take responsibility for your own success. Only deeply perverse people would pour their lifeblood into something that will be summarily rejected by undergraduate interns who would rather be fetching coffee on a film set.

Typing is not writing. The great trap of writing in the 21st century is that, because the equipment is available to anyone (like the computer you're sitting at right now), that everyone thinks they should give it a whirl. Anyone who's ever set foot in any of the grossly understaffed and underpaid literary departments on the planet will confirm the oceans of dross that get mailed in by well-meaning dabblers who think typing and writing are synonymous. During my own tenure at the Ridiculous, I saw scripts handwritten on legal pads and plays with technical demands that that included burning houses and casting  a role with biological twins. Ask yourself why you want to write. Ask yourself why you want to write scripts. Ask yourself why you want to write scripts for the stage. Be honest. Make sure you have good reasons. Success is not a goal in itself; it's a byproduct of great work. And success involves beating overwhelming odds... Wanting to beat the odds is a recipe for suicidal depression, wanting to fight the odds is a reason to do anything.

Declare war on Clichés. Facile and omnivorous, clichés blunt our language and hobble our vision. They are the enemy. Fight them tooth and nail (...there's one. See? They're ubiquitous) William Goldman once said that Hollywood shows us two things:  truths we already know and lies we wish were true. Skip it. Don't get me wrong: I love genre. But genre writing should not be generic. Our entire culture speaks in quotations, using words chosen to help the advertising industry sell detergent and beer. Which is why we all speak in (…like, you know…) similes, why no one can find the words, and why our stories have grown inbred and inarticulate. The best way to fight clichés is to reinvent them. Fight like hell! Lock and load!

THROW AWAY YOUR TELEVISION. I mean it. At the very least put it in the back of a closet. Or use it only to screen movies. Watching TV eviscerates your imagination. The formulaic dialogue is infectious and banal and especially crippling to young writers still finding their voice. With any script I've ever read, I could tell you in the first 5 pages if the writer watched TV regularly. In case you hadn't noticed, television is a way to sell things. That's all. And for the record, television doesn't sell soap and beer... Network television sells blocks of viewers to advertising companies looking to corner consumer markets. It is designed to herd us into lean demographic blocks (like cattle at slaughter) suitable for targeted hard-sell. Television is insidious and moronic and leeches the vitality out of everyone's imagination and language. Successful TV scripts can never expand or resolve, because viewers need to tune in next week and syndicated reruns are broadcast out of order. In an attempt to be all things to all people, television aspires to be about as challenging as oatmeal. It thrives on clichés. And clichés will be the death of us.

See Plays. As often as possible, if you want to be writing for the stage, you should spend time sitting in front of a stage. Not only will you learn about what works and what doesn't, you'll build relationships with people who are working artists. As an added bonus, you'll be supporting an artform that is arguably dying, and definitely being taken over by the literary equivalent of pod-people: soupy group-hug kitchen-sinkery and "edgy" dramas packed with explosives, expletives, and exploitative topics-of-the-moment. Champion great plays. Anything that helps good theatre writing helps us all. Protest the obsession with revivals! Attend them for your dramaturgical education but encourage your local theatre to do something new by a local writer.

Read Plays. I'm always amazed by people who tell me they're playwrights and immediately confess that they never read plays.  How can you learn anything about theatrical history? How can you keep up with current activity? How can anyone be proud of ignorance? Not so long ago, Americans bought plays for casual reading; in used bookstores, you can still find pocket paperback versions of Streetcar Named Desire and Long Days Journey... That means they were subway reading, folks. Imagine! A play is a blueprint for a production and guess who's the architect? Learn how they're built by reading and re-reading the plans. Read writers you like to see how they did it and read the ones you hate to see why they blew it. What's more: buying plays encourages publishers to print them and sellers to stock them. Get to know other writers and swap work. It's always easier to spot things in other people's writing.

 Work in theatre. There has never been a successful playwright in the history of the world who didn't have a passing familiarity with the hands-on mechanics of stagecraft. It stands to reason: working in a theatre on a production, you learn the problems and absorb the solutions. As an added bonus, by working in a theatre on a show, you'll be getting to know actors, directors, designers, audience members.  One person's floor is another person's ceiling... Plays are the most collaborative of writing forms.

Write every day. There is no such thing as "waiting" for a play to come to you. It's a job. If it wasn't a job, no one would get paid to do it. The excellent trick to writing every day is: if train yourself to get words out with regularity, occasionally inspiration will strike WHILE you're writing. Have you written today? If not, why are you reading this dumb webpage? What are you waiting for? Don't fall into the trap of "gonna." Everyone and their uncle is "gonna" write the great American whatever-the-hell.  If you wait, you'll be waiting in your grave.

Rewrite even more. Revision is the name of the game. You don't have to love it but you have to learn to live with it.  Write first, edit after: these tasks use two completely different areas of your brain. Anecdotally, I've found that I'm way more productive if I overwrite ferociously until a rough draft is on paper, then rewrite with equal ferocity. Cutting a play is the easiest thing in the world to do; anyone can make something shorter. As Mark Twain once said, "I'm sorry I'm writing you such a long letter, but I didn't have time to write you a short one." Waiting to edit keeps my juices flowing during the initial push... and when the time comes, I have so much garbage on the page that I'm DYING to cut stuff. Fact: WAY more of your time and talent will be spent editing yourself than weaving something from scratch out of thin air (Clichés again!). Even plays that were written in 4 days get revised. And anyone who tells you they wrote it perfectly the first time is full of something that comes out of the back end of a horse.

 Know your allies. All criticism is not created equal. Enemies will gleefully torch you and dance in the ashes. Lovers and family sometimes lie to be kind. Just because you love them doesn't mean they're right. Not every note is useful. Amazingly, no one knows how to write a play but everyone knows how to rewrite one. I've discovered that although most people can identify a problem, only a very, very, precious few can actually offer a solution; learn to listen to the identification of a specific problem, NOT to the cockamamie ideas of how to fix it. If anybody can actually solve your problems and fix your work, they should be writing themselves, so they're either insanely generous or extremely lazy.

Be ready. As in, be ready for anything. I've gotten monologue requests from drunken celebrities and done "doctor" calls with UK film-sets at 4 in the morning and once, horribly, a pitch assignment three days before a network meeting. My family always says that Luck is just opportunity plus preparation. Get a good letterhead and a good business card and print a few thousand of both. For each play, be able to pitch it in a single spectacular sentence. For each play, write a synopsis that sells it to even the most unwilling, nosepicking audience. Coordinate your supporting materials: articles, current CV, up-to-date Bio. Have everything ready cause eventually, inevitably, people will ask for it be messengered over in 10 minutes.

Proof your plays. Don't shoot yourself in the foot. A monkey can do this stuff. If you don't care enough to fix it, why should they care enough to slog through it? Not surprisingly, the plays that get sent in handwritten on legal paper tend to suck, as a rule; I can tell you from experience. Presentation always counts. Typos are unacceptable, period. Learn proper play format. We live in the era of cheap, fast, perfect laser-printing. Scripts CANNOT be recycled anymore. No one uses carbons and no one wants to look at a thumbed-through coffee-ringed copy of your masterwork. Move on. Bind plays carefully: I use ACCO screw posts and sturdy report covers.

 Submit every day. What's the point of all this diligence if your scripts just sit on a shelf gathering fluff or linger on your hard drive becoming more and more fragmented and virally exposed? Even if you have an agent, the onus falls on you. You can't expect your agent to do 100% of the work and only collect 10% of the proceeds. You are your own best advocate. If you're approaching someone new, take the time to learn things about them prior. Have a reason to write to people. A reason to write is a powerful tool that can open most any door. Every day you should do at least one thing that moves your career forward: a phone call, an email, an application, a submission. And two is better.

 Know people. Support talented people and they will support you. Don't be a hermit all the time. Say YES to invitations. See readings, shows, openings, closings, and workshops. Smile. Remember: there is no one so stupid in the world that you can't learn something from them. Get to know people you respect. Respect the people with whom you surround yourself. Have opinions. Stand for something or you'll fall for anything. Help people. No one wants to work with a prick. The entire business advances through recommendations and referral. People like to work with their friends, so make sure your friends are talented and trustworthy. Be talented and trustworthy. Don't let schmoozing turn into a way of life; the writing comes first.

Good enough isn't. Take responsibility! No one owes you anything. Being an artist is not a disability. Be professional.  Behave professionally. This is a business before it's a show.  Present yourself well. Follow up. Style counts. Take responsibility for the impression you make. Dress.  A "good excuse" is a mythical creature. There is no such thing as almost. Go a mile further than the extra. Get better. Clean up your own messes and occasionally other people's. As my mother says, there is a creative component to every job, the trick is identifying it. Go to the wall for the things that matter. Take risks. Be nice to folks on the way up and they'll be nice to you on the way down. Take pride in the finished product. Grow. Write the best play you can and then top yourself. Make bold choices, boldly.

Cultivate masochism. Literary masochism, that is... I don't mean dog collars and fur masks, but you'd better learn to love rejections. Embrace them and celebrate them. They are now your oxygen and they are an explosive yet essential component of the air you're choosing to breathe. Don't let them chip away at your confidence. Every once in a while a rejection might open a door, but even if they're complimentary, they're ubiquitous and they suck. Be ready. Think of the flickering moments of success as lonely, battered pennies at the bottom of a deep, greasy fountain... inside a locked mall... somewhere in Ohio... off the interstate... in the wee hours. They are precious and hard-won.

"It is best in the theater to act with confidence no matter how little right you have to it."

Lillian Hellman

A dramatist is one who believes that the pure event, as an action involving human beings, is more arresting than any comment that can be made upon it.

Thornton Wilder

cellular division

Every drama has its rendezvous with madness. If  drama shows extreme situations, the extreme situation for human beings – short of death – is the point where sanity gives out.

 Eric Bentley


Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

Alfred Hitchcock


Lit Manager Lesson

When I was working as the Literary Manager at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Artistic Director Everett Quinton came to me with a script that had been submitted to him through a "friend." Like many artistic directors, Everett had an aversion to reviewing plays on the page, and decided to organize an informal cold reading with company members. No sweat.

Famous last words.

Three pages in, it was clear that the author had never read a play and had possibly never been in a theatre. By the end of the first act, we had discovered that the play had over 25 elaborate sets with interconnected hallways and magic tricks. upwards of 15 characters not counting about 8 single-line-servant-roles, fart jokes and alarming "audience participation opportunities." In just over 3 hours, we plowed through all 157 pages diligently, but Everett never forgot the ordeal and never again accepted a script from that "friend." Make sure what you're sending will stand up to some scrutiny. You're asking a group of people to put in a certain number of hours. You should at least manage the same on your own behalf.


Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.

Madeleine L'Engle

A sense of pride in your work is essential, and if you permit interruptions and interrogation your pride will grow tarnished

 Patricia Highsmith

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