Mon. June 18, 2018: Follow Your Dreams — A Personal Story #UpbeatAuthors

Monday, June 18, 2018
Waxing Moon
Jupiter Retrograde
Saturn Retrograde
Pluto Retrograde

I’ve lived my life by that motto.

I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I was six years old. I published in school magazines and newspapers. As a teen, I wrote plays, and I did press releases and other articles for local and regional newspapers about the high school music groups with which I was associated.

In college, I got away from the writing (although I wrote plenty of awful poetry) when I committed to theatre. I graduated high school early, tested my way out of freshman year, and entered Florida State University in Tallahassee mid-year. I took a stage lighting class. I was supposed to put in 20 hours of lab work in the theatre during the semester. I put 20 hours in my first week and never left the building until I transferred to NYU’s film and television program a year later. I got terrific experience at FSU, and even picked up a few side rock and roll gigs.

I transferred to NYU and got into the film department. My first day in film school, I met the guy who still, all these decades later, is one of my closest friends. But, because I was practical and a problem-solver, I wound up more on the production management level than the writing level. I had two brilliant professors, who encouraged me, and with whom I’m still in contact. One was my screenwriting professor, and I wish I’d studied more with him. I still use what I learned from him, in screenwriting, playwrighting, radio writing, and novels.

I picked up theatre jobs here and there. In other words, I started earning my living in the arts when I was 18. Any non-arts job I ever had was only temporary, and in between shows, for the cash. I knew I wasn’t suited to an office job or anything the fearful call “a real job.” Honey — working in the arts is about giving EVERYTHING and leaving it out there. It’s far more real than ANY office job. So shut the eff up.

When I graduated from NYU, I moved to the west coast for three years to work in regional theatre. I knew I needed experiences outside of New York. I loved it, but I also knew that if I was going to realize my dream of working on Broadway, I had to be in New York. While I was west, I spent some time in LA and knew it wasn’t for me.

I came back east, initially to help with a family issue, for two months. I immediately landed a stage management job and worked my way up in the off-off-off-off Broadway community. (I had worked as a stage manager and production manager in San Francisco, and as a props person in Seattle). I switched to wardrobe (as a stage manager in small SF companies, I’d often both stage managed and handled quick changes). I worked my way from off-off-off Broadway to off-off Broadway and then to off-Broadway. I did some work in New York as a stage manager and an associate production manager, for the Pearl Theatre and for Manhattan Class Company. I did wardrobe for the Vineyard, and then spent several seasons at Manhattan Theatre Club, which led to open-ended runs rather than repertory.

While I was still working off-off Broadway, I spent three years working during the day for an art book publisher. I learned an enormous amount that has served my writing career well, working both sides of the table. I worked in the development offices of the Neuberger Museum and the Guggenheim Museum. At the latter, I spent my lunch hour walking the museum, immersing myself in the art. I worked part-time for five years for the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, when it was so small the staff consisted of the Executive Director and me, putting on seminars and support groups and roundtables and award shows. I learned so much.

It was at Manhattan Theatre Club where I had the honor of working with Arthur Miller and Athol Fugard within the same six months. I’d started writing again. Even though I was the wardrobe girl, Athol respected that I wrote, that I was starting to define myself as a writer. He invited me to sit in on rehearsals any time I wanted, to ask any questions I wanted. I did, and I learned an amazing amount from him. He directed what he wrote, but he kept his writing self and his directing self separate.

On the first day of rehearsal, in his opening remarks, he said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the writer is dead in this process. There will be no revisions during rehearsal. The bad news is that I promised him you chaps would speak every line exactly as written.”

I loved it. He demanded respect for the words. No paraphrasing (which American actors tend to do more than any other actors, claiming to be “in the moment” when, in reality, most of them simply haven’t bothered to take the time to memorize).

I worked with Arthur Miller within the same six months (their plays were produced one after the other in the season). I adored him. He was one of the most vibrant, vital, intelligent people I ever met. He used to hang out in the wardrobe room during the show sometimes.

At the time, I was getting back into writing. Monologues for actresses with whom I worked, who couldn’t find good monologues for auditions. Who landed the job every time they used something I wrote for them. I was also working on a short story, for a themed competition.

I wrote the first draft on butcher paper in between cues in the wardrobe room. I typed it up and worked on revisions between cues (there were long periods where I didn’t have any quick changes with my actors). I hid the pages in the room, but Arthur found them one evening when I was on the deck doing quick changes.

I was mortified when I returned to the room and found him reading the pages. He was Arthur Miller! I was, well, me.

He looked up and said, “This is good. What are you doing working backstage?”

“I like it. Plus, you know, I like to do things like eat. I have to pay the rent.”

“You need to write full time. You’ll never be the writer you can be, find your full potential, until you rely on it to pay the bills.”

David Mamet told me something very similar when we worked together.

Arthur gave me some suggestions on the text. He never treated me like “less than” because he was Arthur Miller and I was a wardrobe girl scribbling in a corner. He always treated me like a colleague. We kept in touch until his death, and he always pushed me to do better, be more — and only write.

It was quite a few years before I had the courage to only write — and it was AFTER I’d accomplished my dream of working on Broadway.

The monologues I wrote expanded to plays, the plays that would take me to fringe festivals in both Edinburgh and Australia. I found my work got a much stronger reception in Europe than in the US. It wasn’t angsty enough for the American audiences at the time; there was too much sharp humor.

I landed at the Public Theatre and worked with one of my idols, Hal Prince. Another person at the top of his craft who liked and respected everyone with whom he worked. The assistant designers at the Public were working on Broadway and took me with them when the show at the Public closed.

I found myself learning how to be a swing dresser on Broadway, on the production of MISS SAIGON, and in the union. Each series of cues a dresser performs during the course of the show is called a “track.” If you read my novel PLAYING THE ANGLES, set backstage on a Broadway show, my protagonist Morag is a Broadway dresser.

MISS SAIGON had 13 tracks. I learned them in 26 performances. You follow the dresser once to learn it; the dresser follows you as you do it. Within three months, after swinging every track on the show multiple times, the lead actresses who played Kim requested me when their regular dresser took another job. I stayed with the show for five years, until it closed.

It was an amazing, creative group. We wrote plays, songs, other performances, and all went to each others’ shows. Which took place at midnight, in various venues around the city. We put on our own shows, and hung out with the cast & crew of other shows like SNL at KGB. We did The Easter Bonnet Competition and Gypsy of the Year and Broadway Bares to raise money for AIDs and breast cancer. I worked the Tony Awards once and attended it twice over my years on Broadway.

I think I had four shows I wrote produced during that time, in small venues. Dozens of monologues and short pieces. A few short stories published. MISS SAIGON closed and I worked on other shows at other theatres: RENT, GYPSY (the Bernadette Peters version), FOLLIES, 42ND ST, SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS (with Mark Hamill, who became one of my favorite people ever), URINETOWN, and then as a swing on the first 3 1/2 years of WICKED.

I loved it, but I knew I was aging out. Physically, it was getting tougher and tougher. Mentally, I was struggling to get the writing done and work full time on Broadway. They’re not kidding when they say, “The theatre is a jealous mistress.”

By this point, I was also day-playing on television shows shooting in New York. For the money. I could earn in one day on set when I earned in a week on Broadway. I liked it. I learned so, so much. But I didn’t love it the way I loved Broadway. I’m better suited to theatre production than television production. Which is a shame, from a financial standpoint.

I was also writing about sports for various publications. I covered horse racing and ice hockey. Thirteen years’ worth of Triple Crown races; traveled with a minor league hockey team for eight months as background for a book. Covered America’s Cup races and learned about sailing, although I can’t even swim.

By this point, the first Jain Lazarus Adventures were out, ASSUMPTION OF RIGHT, DIXIE DUST RUMORS, and a bunch of short stories and anthologies. I was writing for calendars and almanacs. I was doing marketing writing for companies. I was writing and teaching and working on novels and trying to build a writing career as the publishing world changed. I hit a point where I had to make a decision. I had to decide if I would stop writing or if I would give up Broadway.

I knew I couldn’t continue physically on Broadway much longer — heavy costumes, raked stages, blowing out my knees running up and down concrete steps carrying stacks of clothes.

I chose writing.

SPRING AWAKENING was my last show as a swing on Broadway. The last event I worked was a staged reading of ALL ABOUT EVE, which had a plethora of people I loved working with involved, AND I got to bow out by working with Jennifer Tilly, Keri Russell, Peter Gallagher, Annette Bening, Angela Lansbury, Zoe Caldwell, and more. It was a great way to leave the business. I’d heard so many stories about how wonderful Peter Gallagher is, and thought, “No one can be that great” — he IS that great, and even better. I’ve never laughed as much with anyone as I did with Jennifer Tilly, and I loved working with Keri Russell (we had five quick changes in a staged reading, which means walking around holding scripts).

I moved away from New York to write. There are challenges. I live in a place that is a prime example of how trickle-down economy does not work. I live in place that, if you’re a working artist who visits, they fall all over you, but if you chose to LIVE here, you’re considered a failure and should get a “real” job. Honey, this is a real job. Granted, most of the clients who pay me well are remote, but I’m working a real job. I’m writing material that helps businesses grow and spread their message. I’m writing books that I love. I’m writing plays and radio plays that invigorate people.

I have always made the choices to do what I love. To fight for what I want, to refuse to compromise and be forced into work I hate. I have made plenty of personal compromises along the way.

Every single one of them has been worth it.

Just because I love what I do does not mean I don’t deserve to be paid for it. Loving my work does not mean I don’t deserve to earn a living at it. I do. And nothing less is acceptable.

Those who don’t have the courage to follow their dreams often try to punish those of us who do.

They are not worth our time or our energy.

Do what you love. Follow your dreams. Make them your reality.

Monday, May 14, 2018: #UpbeatAuthors The Next Step on the Ladder

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Photo courtesy Khimish Sharma, via Pexels.com

Monday, May 14, 2018
Dark of the Moon
Jupiter Retrograde
Saturn Retrograde
Pluto Retrograde

 

My first response to that is, “Which ladder?” I have various limbs on various ladders. I write in different genres, under different names, in a variety of formats: prose, theatre, television, film, radio. Journalism. Essays. Marketing writing. Reviewing.

I do very little editing for private clients now, because the time/money ratio doesn’t work for me, too many would-be writers default on payments (when they’re not trying to lowball me down to a fraction of my rate), and I need the primary focus to be on my own work. When I edit, I am generally hired by the publishing house to work for something under contract that has passed particular gate-keeping standards.

I am with more than one publisher. One of them, who has signed several projects, is small, just starting out. We are taking a risk on each other. Among the reasons I was excited to work with them was that they pay small advances, don’t demand their writers acquiesce to a boiler-plate contract AND, instead of POD, they do small print runs. The print runs are after a certain digital threshhold is reached, but the POD model was not working for me, so I wanted to try this. I am still with another publisher who is doing the POD model, and I have submissions out to several other publishers, who work on a mix of models, so we’ll see what happens. I also liked them because the editor with whom I’m working constantly pushes me to be better. And that is my goal — that every book I write is better, in both craft and art, than the previous books.

About a year ago, I sat down with a lawyer, an agent, an editor, and a marketing advisor, and we came up with a plan. I was unhappy and frustrated with the way things were going in my career. I knew I wasn’t writing what the Big Five wanted; I wanted to explore some things that they are currently giving lip service to, but not following through on, and I wanted to do it in my way. We were not a good fit at the time. I knew I was going to part from an agent I’d been working with for several months, because we were not a good fit. When we got together, she was excited by my work and my voice; but the more we worked together, the more she wanted to dilute it and take out what made it unique. She kept telling me my themes and issues were “too hard for the typical reader.” In other words, she wanted me to dumb things down, and I didn’t want to do that. Also, she only wanted to commit to a book at a time, and I need an agent who is interested in long-term career planning. She has since signed a friend of mine, and they’re doing great together. I’m happy for both of them; they are the right fit. We were not.

As far as the marketing writing went, I wanted to have the confidence to say “No” to the lowballers locally and reach farther afield. The interesting thing is that as soon as I did that, I landed two clients locally with whom I work well, WHILE also reaching beyond the bridge for clients who pay better.

We took four or five days together, and I took about twenty pages of notes. We crafted a plan. Some of that we followed; some of that has fallen by the wayside for various reasons.

I re-stated my commitment not to “niche” — to me, that’s a death toll for a creative life. Far too many people who “advise” freelancers sneer and call what I do a “generalist.” I prefer to call it being a “Renaissance Writer” and I’ve written on this topic for both WOW-Women on Writing and Write Naked!

I wanted to get back into article writing, which fell by the wayside for a bit. I started pitching again, and I did pretty well, but that seems to be one of the things that falls away first. Since I enjoy articles — every part from the pitch through the research through the writing and the polish, especially working with a good editor — I need to get back on track with that.

One of the big changes I made was in the way I do pitch letters. Instead of trying to frame what I do to sound like what they want, I’m more specific in the elements I think will appeal and more specific in where our paths diverge. I’m more myself in the cover letter — while still structuring it the way I find works — hook, one paragraph summary, technical info, bio, why this market. And the results are good.

This year and next, I’m on a brutal contract schedule. I’d spent a couple of years working on different types of material, on working on craft. Now, with a commitment to more than one series, I am sitting down and writing the books.

Last year, PLAYING THE ANGLES was re-released, as the first of the Coventina Circle paranormal romantic suspense novels (in its original incarnation, it was a stand-alone). The second book in the series, THE SPIRIT REPOSITORY, just released, and the third, RELICS & REQUIEM, will come out in October of this year, with the fourth, GRAVE REACH, coming out in May of 2019. So that’s a tight schedule.

Last year, the first Nautical Namaste mystery, SAVASANA AT SEA (as Ava Dunne) released. It’s a not-quite-cozy mystery series, whose protagonist is a yoga instructor on a cruise ship. Only one of those books comes out a year! But the next one, DAVY JONES DHARMA, is due in early December this year.

TRACKING MEDUSA, the first Gwen Finnegan mystery, re-released this past January. As I worked on the second book, THE BALTHAZAAR TREASURE, I realized that there was a chunk of it that slowed down the plot. Yet the information was necessary to where my characters were in their emotional lives and how they’d built their day-to-day relationships. Flashbacks and info-dump conversations wouldn’t work; so my editor and I decided to pull out those chapters, flesh them out into a “between-the-books” novella, now called MYTH & INTERPRETATION, and put that out this summer. BALTHAZAAR is still scheduled to come out in January of 2019, and that is now back on track, the pace and content correct.

In the meantime, I had three terrific opportunities. One was to pitch a serial. Those of you who’ve known me for several years know that I used to write four serials in four genres under two names for 18 months a few years back. A total of 8000 words a month. I love writing serials, and I miss it. I had the chance to pitch to a company that specializes in serials.

I pitched a fantasy/adventure novel. I’d written the first four chapters a couple of years ago and put it aside for scheduling reasons. But, when I had this opportunity, I wrote a few more chapters, and outlined what would be the book-length arc of this serial. I fell in love with it all over again. If it’s picked up, it goes back in the schedule; if not, it will be back-burnered again.

I also had two other ideas, stand-alones, that I played with, on and off for a couple of years, writing my way in the first few chapters, then making notes for my Writers’ Rough. On impulse, I polished pitches and tossed them into a Twitter pitch day for a specific company. Editors liked both; so I’m working on some additional chapters, polishing them, and sending them out by deadline this month. Again, if the editors want the full manuscript, they go back into the schedule sooner rather than later; if not, they are back-burnered until next year, when my contract schedule isn’t quite as demanding.

As I said above, I have a couple of other pieces out on submission; if they are contracted, they will be worked in. I also have a serial novel — which is different than a novel broken down as a serial. This is a set of novels that are all of a piece. It follows the filming of a television series over several seasons. Not a series, in the sense that each stands alone and progresses. These novels all fit together like puzzle pieces. One of my publishers has expressed interest in looking at it when the first five or so puzzle pieces are ready. When will that be? I don’t know.

I also made a commitment to do more script work again. I’m taking this year off from stage plays (I wrote four in three years for 365 Women). But one of my radio plays will be produced later this month, and I want to submit some screenplays I’ve polished.

Along with all this, I will pitch to higher-paying clients and higher-paying article markets. Gotta keep a roof over my head, and if I don’t keep up the writing pace I can’t. This is my profession, not my hobby. I am paid to write. That IS my day job. While my book sales have jumped considerably since I moved webhosts and redesigned my websites, I still need the marketing writing and article writing for income. Plus, I enjoy it.

So, my “next step” is building on the foundation of the series on which I currently write; continuing to expand the publication contracts with other publishers at higher-paying tiers, and book higher-paid marketing and article gigs.

I’ve found a process that works for me as far as the new ideas — because, as we all know, new ideas come in batches. I write my way in for a few chapters, then sit down and do a Writer’s Rough Outline. That way, whenever I can actually sit down and WRITE the book, I can drop into its world. The Writer’s Rough outline captures the initial energy of the idea, and then, as I work, I can develop the structure and the craft.

In the coming weeks, we will sit down again and assess how this last year played out. What worked, what didn’t. Where I lost focus, and what I dropped because it didn’t work. And we will craft a plan for the coming year that will guide me toward the “next step on the ladder.”

I don’t want fame. I worked in theatre and film for too many years and see how it can hurt creativity and general life; that is not what I want. I do want financial stability, and to be paid fairly for my work. There is no reason not to be paid well doing work I love. My profession is writing. I will not let ANYONE decide that it’s a cute lil hobby and I don’t deserve to be paid a living wage. I will dig in and do it, and earn my living. It will be a mix and match of projects and styles and tangents, but writing is my profession. When I decided I wanted to work on Broadway, I didn’t let anything or anyone stand in the way of achieving that goal. Now that I’m writing full-time, I feel the same way.

My next step is increased earnings and visibility for my work. It is also participating in the community of writers who love what they do and are committed to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work across the board, no matter what the profession. It is refusing to “dumb it down” or change what I write because people I don’t respect threaten not to buy what I write. The great thing about writing is that there are plenty of authors writing in plenty of styles and genres, so there’s something for everyone. It’s fine if someone doesn’t connect with my work — there are wonderful authors out there with whom they WILL connect. But threatening me and demanding I change what I write is not going to work.

Artists have a responsibility. I believe that responsibility is to bear witness to the world, to expand people’s vision of the world, but also to create better worlds and help us find ways to reach those better worlds inclusively and fairly. A better world needs social and economic justice. By respecting our own value, our own worth, we set the tone.

For more inspiration on valuing your work, please visit Lori Widmer’s Words on the Page blog. It’s great all the time, but May is Writers Worth Month. It’s especially great now.