All posts by Jennifer Richards

How to write about your own experiences

Editor Jennifer Richards reflects on writing a play where the subject matter’s close to you heart, looking at how to look after yourself when delving into personal experience.

The ‘write what you know’ cliché is often tossed around in articles about learning to be a writer, but sometimes creating a play about a personal experience you went through isn’t as easy as just following the cliché.

When I was writing my play All In Your Head, it was the first time I had written about my own experience, reflecting on the OCD and depression I suffered with as a teenager. I discovered the hard way that reliving negative experiences can take a lot of energy, both physically and emotionally.

If you’re thinking of drawing on personal experience for your next play, here’s what I learnt about looking after yourself in the process:

1. Don’t be in the eye of the storm

There was no way I could have written about my mental health experience if I was still had OCD or depression. I needed to feel enough distance from the subject matter so that my emotions wouldn’t cloud my judgment as a writer.

Even if the story you’re writing is a representation of you, it’s important to remember that you are still writing a story. And you want it to be best story it can be.

That means you have to look at what you’ve written objectively, and decide if each piece of dialogue is really beneficial to the play.

I wrote a very emotional scene that included dialogue lifted straight from a conversation I had years ago with my dad. And though I remember this as a significant conversation in my life, when I read it back, I realised that it didn’t move the plot on and was unlikely to be of any interest to the audience. So I had to cut it.

Remember when you do have to cuts dialogue or even scenes, this doesn’t mean you’re rewriting what you went through.

2. Be as honest as you’re comfortable with

You can write something that’s based on your experience without ever telling anyone it is. Very few people in my life knew the extent to which I suffered with OCD and I was nervous about saying that the play was based on my experience, and opening myself up in this way.

You shouldn’t feel any pressure to share personal information if you don’t want to, it won’t make the story any worse or better if you do.

It was actually only after completing All In Your Head that I decided I wanted to tell people it was a reflection of the mental health conditions I used to have. I realised that, through that play, I want to open up the conversation around mental health and also wanted to be a part of this conversation myself.

That’s why I decided I was comfortable enough to share the truth behind the play, but there may be times in the future when I don’t want to share that something I’ve written is based on things I’ve been through – and both reactions are absolutely fine.

3. Take someone to see it

This point isn’t just about bringing someone you know to see your play as a way to drum up audience numbers (though it all helps!), it’s actually about ensuring you’re taking care of yourself.

Seeing experiences you lived through acted out on stage can be quite emotional, and it can also bring up memories you long thought you’d dealt with and moved on from.

Be prepared for this, and bring a close friend or family member to opening night who is aware that the play is personal to you, and will consider how you feel first and foremost before they talk about whether they liked the play.

Asking the director to come along to a few rehearsals is also a good way of dipping your toe in the water and gradually introducing yourself to seeing such a personal piece.

4.  Reviews don’t invalidate your experience

This is another reason that it’s important to have distance between yourself and what you’re writing about. No matter how much work you put into your show, unfortunately someone is bound to not like it. And if you see a negative review either in a publication or just on Twitter, it can feel like a reflection on you when the story on stage is your own.

Remind yourself that the person is commenting on the fictional account on stage, they are not commenting on what you went through, and they are definitely not invalidating your experiences. No matter what anyone says about your play, that shouldn’t change how you view yourself or what you’ve dealt with.

Ultimately, be kind to yourself. If you’re writing about something personal, you shouldn’t be punishing yourself if you’re struggling to finish a scene, or if you’re perhaps not in the position where you want to share the piece yet.

Taking care of yourself should always be a priority, which is something we’re sadly not taught enough about in the arts. But as long as you do this, writing about something personal can in fact be a cathartic, positive experience.

Though you may be making yourself more vulnerable, that vulnerability translates to authenticity on stage, helping audiences to connect with the piece more, which theatre is all about.

Jennifer Richards’s show ALL IN YOUR HEAD is running at the Faversham Fringe from August 26th to 28th.

 

 

LPB event: How to shape inspiration into an idea

Editor Jennifer Richards is recapping our practical workshop with  Kimberley Andrews at London Writers’ Week! Want to learn how to get your creative inspiration juices flowing? Read on… 

Getting excited about a story, and feeling like you just have to tell it, is a brilliant sensation. Feeling ideas bubbling up inside you, ready to spill onto the page.

But what about those times when you’re just staring at your computer (or typewriter if you’re old school), ready to write, and there’s not even a single spark of inspiration that’s coming to you?

Luckily Kimberley Andrews from London Playwrights’ Blog was on hand to help us all out with our creative inspiration during her workshop at London Writers’ Week.

She explained both how to get that first spark and, importantly, how to then shape it into an idea that can later become a story.

So here’s all her steps to help you banish that blank page and get back that wonderful feeling of having a story to tell:

1. Clear the cobwebs

Sometimes you just don’t feel like writing. Inspiration is refusing to strike, but a looming deadline means you really need to get on with it (*gulp*)

And that deadline is definitely not helping your stress levels. So in these moments, it’s good to get your brain into a different headspace; and doing a quick stream of consciousness scribble is a great way of doing that.

Starting her workshop this way, Kimberley got everyone’s creative juices flowing, with this simple exercise helping you let go of all the stresses that may have stopped you from feeling able to write.

After three minutes of scribbles, you’ll find your brain is in a different space and, hopefully, feeling a lot readier to write! It’s also a good idea to read back over your stream of consciousness and circle any ideas that may be of interest that you could return to later.

2. Let yourself experiment

Remember how you told stories as a child? Inventing crazy worlds and impossible scenarios that were never limited in how wild they could be? Do that again!

Kimberley got everyone to play the Consequences game, where each person in a group writes a different section of the story on one part of the paper, folding it as they go. Then when you open up the paper at the end, you’ve got a pretty bonkers story!

The great thing about doing this game is you feel completely free in what you’re writing, knowing it’s meant to be wacky, rather than worrying about creating an award-winning story.

Also the time pressure in a writing game is really useful, as it forces you to write anything down, not allowing you to procrastinate – which I’m guessing we’ve all been guilty of now and again?

See if you can get some friends, or family or your housemate to do a game of Consequences with you. And, if you’re home alone, why not try out the Headlines game Kimberley played with us next?

This game involves writing a bunch of themes down, like jealously or love, and cutting them all out into strips. Also print out a variety of news headlines, and then, pick one of the themes and one of the headlines (maybe pulling them out of a hat if you’re feeling adventurous!).

So have you got your theme and your headline?

Now try writing a play idea that could link both or, if that feels too difficult, maybe just try writing one line of dialogue or even a title of a play.

From Kimberley’s workshop, it was easy to see that even that smallest spark of an idea can light something much bigger if you give yourself some time to sit with the idea.

The best thing about the Headlines game is that it also pulls you out of your comfort zone as you’re forcing yourself to write about something you normally wouldn’t.

It sounds strange that constrictions could help improve your creativity, but it’s all about making your brain look at things differently.

3. Learn from others

No, this doesn’t mean directly stealing your ideas from others (wait, you’re telling me someone’s already done a film about two lovers aboard the Titanic? What?!).

It’s actually about finding ways to use another person’s creativity as a springboard for your own, without ripping off the Titanic (oops…)

During the workshop, we looked at film premises to see how they’re put together. We then used them to help us expand upon the stories we had already begun creating in the earlier games, by now making them into film premises.

Creating a film premise, or a book blurb, or a play text blurb, is a great step between having the initial idea and then actually writing the body of work. It doesn’t seem quite as daunting, but still helps you suss out the fundamental question of what the central conflict of your piece is about.

A film premise is essentially saying that “someone has to do something in order to…”, so have a go and fill that out for your idea.

Done it? Brilliant – onto the next stage!

4. Get feedback

After everyone had been silent, busy concentrating on creating their film premise, the room soon became full of chattering’s again as Kimberley got us all to pitch our films to each other.

We weren’t expecting to all get major film deals out of this (though how cool would it have been if Steven Spielberg was at our workshop?!), instead, it was just a great way of using feedback to shape our ideas even further.

By pitching to others, you have to zone in on what the heart of your piece is. You’re asking yourself what is the central idea in this story, why does it need to be told and, importantly, why does it need to told by you.

And, as well as helping you get to the heart of your story, chatting to others is a great way to soundboard ideas in general, if you’re not quite ready to do a film premise yet.

Whenever there’s something in one of my ideas that’s niggling away at me, making me feel like I can’t put it to page yet, I call my mum. I try explaining the idea to her, as that forces me to fill in the gaps my brain couldn’t work out. And whenever I finish chatting to her, I’ve always got a much more concrete story on my hands!

So, having started the workshop playing a children’s game, we had all left the session with a premise and a pitch.

Though the idea of waiting for creativity to strike and having your idea suddenly spill out of you sounds lovely, this is a bit of a romanticised idea of writing.

Sometimes you have to really work for the inspiration, and work even further to shape it into an idea. But when you’re playing children’s games, reading about your favourite films, and chatting to your friends, it honestly doesn’t really feel like work. And, best of all, you’re now ready to start writing the story!

LPB Event: How to take your story from stage to screen

Editor Jennifer Richards is recapping our practical workshop with  Freddie Machin at London Writers’ Week! Want to learn how to write for two different media? Read on…

“Nobody knows anything.”

Okay, so your workshop leader saying this is probably not how you want an event at London Writer’s Week to start, but it makes a lot more sense when it’s stage-writer turned screen-writer Freddie Machin quoting two-time Academy Award winner William Goldman.

Because even the people at the top of their field feel like they’re blagging it sometimes.  It’s about not letting ‘the fear’ stop you from trying something new, such as turning your stage play into a film.

And that’s exactly what the topic was of this London Writer’s Week event run by London Playwright’s Blog. And though Freddie may have said he doesn’t feel like the expert, I left the workshop excited to try a new form of writing I wasn’t used to, and knowing I had learnt some brilliant tips and tricks on how to put my best (screen-writer shaped) foot forward….

Wait! Hold up! I’m having major writer’s block!

Does turning your stage play into a film seem like jumping five, or five million, steps ahead? Let’s take a pause and go back to the initial ideas process. If you’re feeling stuck, it’s best to remember it’s all fun and games – quite literally!

At the workshop, Freddie got us to spark our imaginations by playing the ‘Anyone Who’ game. One person stands up in the middle and has to complete the ‘anyone who…’ sentence with something they’ve done, and whoever else in the room has also done it then has to stand up and they all have to swap seats – then it’s the turn of the last person standing and so on! For example, I might say anyone who writes blog posts while in their pyjamas (though *cough* I’m definitely not doing that right now *cough*)

After the game, everyone created a scenario from one of the ‘anyone who…’ sentences that were said, and this then became a scene with a set-up, complication and outcome. Suddenly, the room was buzzing with ideas!

And a lot of the participants found that the idea that came to them was something they never would have thought of if they’d just been staring at a blank page for hours.

Though you probably don’t have a whole room of people to play with when you’re writing, you can still do writing games on your own. Using images, free-writing, or even just picking up objects in your house and creating a scenario from that is a great way to spark that initial idea. Even if you think the idea isn’t that great, just write it down and see where it goes!

As Freddie told us: “You don’t have to have an idea for a story when you begin writing something. You can start from anywhere. And first ideas are always a bit raw and rough around the edges.”

And don’t let that pesky fear we were talking about earlier stop you. Freddie pointed out that: “The most important thing anyone should take away from a workshop is that you can write.”

So, considering that’s the most important thing, I could probably leave the piece here, but I think we should get onto tip number two…

But I don’t know what makes a great film great?

Pick your favourite film. Right now. Got it in your head? Now tell me what makes it a good story.

When Freddie did this with us, we realised how important relatability was – we always connect to the characters or the story in a really brilliant film. But maybe you come up with something different, though it most likely still links in with the idea of dramatic action.

Dramatic action means having conflict in your story; your character has to face obstacles and we get a sense of the character from how they respond to the conflict they face – as well as getting a gripping story!

That’s not too different from playwriting then, is it?

Storytelling is in everything really. Yes, plays and films, but also everyday things. We want to see dramatic action and the three act structure even when we watch a football game. No one wants their team to breeze to victory, we want to be on the edge of our seats, biting our nails as we watch them struggle against a brilliant team (and then we win, of course!)

You can even get dramatic action in the shortest of stories. Freddie got us all to watch the 2017 Waitrose Christmas advert. What initially seemed like your standard advert, once we started analysing it, then became a story full of tension, conflict, a climax, sub plot and character development – all in 90 sections!!

So the principles of storytelling may be similar in plays and films (and everything else), but Freddie noted that there was one distinct difference between writing in these two different media: the importance of structure.

Why does structure have to matter so much?

This is partly practical, as when you go into meetings about making a television series or a film, the big wigs will want to know structure and plot points down to a T, so these have to watertight, whereas you can be a bit more liberal when it comes to playwriting.

Here’s the typical film structure Freddie outlined:

ACT ONE

  • Routine; you see the character go about daily life as normal
  • Inciting incident; something happens that causes the paradigm to shift and the world will never be the same
  • Refuse the call to action; the protagonist refuses to do anything about the inciting incident
  • Point of no return; given circumstance forces the character to do something
  • Hero emerges; we find out which character will save us, usually meaning the protagonist has stepped up to the plate
  • ACT TWO; This act contains the sub-plots that lead to conflict in Act Three. Act Two doesn’t have a standardised structure, but the events in it have to happen for the crisis to take place later in the film

ACT THREE

  • Peak; everything is looking up and we think we’ve won
  • Crisis; the victory is snatched away from the protagonist
  • Climax; showdown, tension
  • Resolution; the payoff. However, some workshop participants pointed out that sometimes we don’t get the resolution, and the payoff comes in a slightly different form, such as the change in character relationships in the film Three Billboards. And Freddie added: “We are programmed to understand this structure of films, which gives us license to experiment with it sometimes, but this structure is the typical one.”

So I’ve written my stage play. But how do I change it into a screenplay?

Unfortunately it’s not a matter of just shifting around some of the dialogue. Freddie explained, “You need to work out what is at the heart of your story, what are you trying to say.” To do this, he gave the practical exercise of describing your play in eight words, then five and then one. A play needs to be broken down before we can build it back up into a film, which leads us onto the next tip…

What’s the biggest difference between playwriting and screenwriting?

It requires a change in thinking. Freddie noted: “If you’re writing for film, it’s predominately about images. Start thinking in pictures and not text.” Not concentrating on the words on the page may sound like an alienating thing for a writer (and it certainly did for me!), but Freddie’s explanation helped clarify it.

He described how the placement of scenes in a film is really the placement of images, which is why filmmaking is visual storytelling. If you look at the idea of the montage, you’re taking a neutral image and placing it next to another neutral image, and it’s only then that it creates meaning.

The example Hitchcock has talked about before is if you see the image of an old man smiling, it doesn’t mean anything; but if you then place it after an image of a girl in a bikini, the old man now becomes sleazy – we’ve learnt something important about our character without any words.

And adapting a play to screen is really about stripping away this dialogue. It’s a real shift in the brain to think in imagery and not verbally.

It was Freddie’s play Chicken that then got made into a film, with him also writing the screen play. And of his experience, he said: “My plays are very wordy and the film has hardly any words, you have to strip all the words away and tell the story visually; that’s the art of film making. Really, in beautiful storytelling, there needn’t be any words.”

This is where his points on structure and writing visually come together. He shared the advice his uncle, who is also a screenwriter, gave to him when he started adapting Chicken: “You have to write it so they can’t make it any other way.” This means your screenplay should be written in such a way that directors and producers can’t chop it up and move scenes around, as you’ve made it so the story needs certain images to be next to each other in to tell the story authentically.

So is it time to start writing my film?

Definitely! At it this workshop, it was fascinating to learn that these two different styles of writing require two very different parts of the brain. For plays, perfecting interesting dialogue is your most important role as a writer, and though structure is a part of the play-writing process, you can definitely take more risks with it.

But for films, you’re working in the world of images and need to look at how they slot and fit together, with the structure being vital – both to your audience, but also in terms of how you pitch it to those big wigs.

Looking back at the two scripts you’ve written, you should feel that your play would only work on stage, and your film needs to be shown at a cinema and in no other form. Use what’s different about the two mediums to your advantage.

Who knows, maybe you’ll soon find yourself blagging your way through the film industry as a two-time Academy Award winner who understands that nobody really does know anything.

7 Playwrights On Why They Write

For National Writing Day, we chatted to some brilliant playwrights and posed the trickiest question of them all: “Why Do You Write?” Here’s what they had to say…

Nicole Acquah

Nicole is a performer-writer currently based in Essex who wrote For a Black Girl that was on at this year’s VAULT Festival,  and her new show N*gger – A One Woman Show is on at Omnibus on 27th June 2018 as part of their Engine Room.

“I write because I like to communicate ideas, thoughts and images. Writing is one of the ways I choose to talk. I’ve always found it easier to tell someone how I feel through written, rather than spoken, word.

I tend not to overthink it. Writing is something I have done since I was a child; I enjoyed hearing stories, reading them and creating my own. I actually use childhood as a motivation for many of my actions. How do children operate? Children do things because…they just do. It’s in their nature to do what makes them happy and their duty to be true to themselves.

When I write I’m being true to myself and who God made me to be. I think we’re all born with a desire to create and a talent with which to create it. I think it’s our duty to follow that – anything other would be silly.”

Lucy Burke

Lucy is a Manchester born playwright currently living in London.  Her new show WEIRD explores the highs and lows of living with obsessive compulsive disorder, and will be showing at Theatre 503 and at Pleasance Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

“When I left drama school I felt like no one was writing the sort of narratives I wanted to hear so I decided I’d just do it myself. Being born and bred in a working class town in Greater Manchester, I was disappointed by the lack of regional voices in theatre, so I decided to do something about this.

Graduating age 22 and coming into the industry as a young woman, I also wanted to write the sort of roles that my fellow female graduates would be excited to play – meaty, strong women rather than the archetypal roles that felt all too common but not necessarily accurate.

Now I write for characters of all ages from different walks of life, but they are still characters that are marginalised in some way, be that because of class, disability, age, gender or all of the above; these are the stories we most need to tell.”

Peter Darney

Peter wrote and directed the award winning 5 Guys Chillin’, which won the Best LGBT Production award at Edinburgh Festival 2017, and he is about to direct Free and Proud, which will run at the Assembly Festival as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2018.

“I started writing 5 Guys Chillin’ when I saw something happening that no-one was talking about, with some people getting drawn into a potentially destructive world without necessarily free choice. I wanted to provoke a community discussion, and am now trying to do the same thing through film with my screenplay Clapham Trashbag.

My new play A Tidy Boy looks at what is to come out in a working class Welsh town, and gender inequalities in our perception of what constitutes abuse. So I think I write because I want to try to give voices to people who might not otherwise be heard, to provoke people to look deep into a person, not just their outward facing aspects; to see, understand and accept.

It’s easy to judge a behaviour, it takes more effort to understand the cause, but stories can really help with that. So ultimately I think I write to try and promote understanding, tolerance and eventual acceptance.”

Nathan Ellis

Nathan’s work has been performed at Theatre503, CPT, The Pleasance Theatre, Theatre N16, and The Cockpit Theatre. His latest play No One Is Coming to Save You is showing at The Bunker Theatre until 7th July 2018 and will run at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“I think about tangled wires a lot. About how people’s experience of the world is knotty and complex. And I think of writing as trying to engage with that complexity.

And the amazing thing about writing for the theatre is that a bunch of people then go to a room to hear those words being embodied and try to untangle the whole thing and you get to sit with them and try to do it too. That’s the incredible privilege of writing.”

Rabiah Hussain

Rabiah was part of the Tamasha Playwrights programme in 2016 and is currently part of the BBC Drama Room. Her show Spun is showing at The Arcola Theatre from the 27th of June until the 28th of July 2018.

“Because I think I write better than I do anything else.

Because I realised a long time ago that it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Because I finally understand that my voice counts.

Because not writing is even harder.”

Hannah Khalil

Hannah has previously been a part of Bush Theatre’s Project 2036, and her show Scenes from 68* Years has been on at The Arcola Theatre, and her show The Scar Test was performed on tour and at Soho Theatre in July 2017.

Photographer: Richard Saker

“I wrote my first play when I was 20 and it was in response to someone telling me I needed to get serious about finding a boyfriend or I’d end up alone forever. I was incensed. I wrote a short play. Basically I write when I’m angry or upset about something.

I’ve a keen sense of injustice (no doubt fuelled by my Palestinian Irish blood) and so use my writing to try and shake myself out of inert rage and encourage empathy in others. But it’s more than that – without sounding pretentious – I kind of have to write, for my mental health. When bad things happen and I’m finding it difficult to cope, escaping to a world of my making on the page is a life-saver for me. I can’t imagine ever not doing it.”

Andrew Muir

Andrew has had plays produced throughout the UK, including Push, which was awarded ‘Critic’s Choice’ when it was on at Union Theatre. He is also a co-creative director of Ardent Theatre, who have an upcoming week-long residency at Soho Theatre.

“I grew up in a pub listening to people tell me their story. For years I listened, not knowing that there would be a time when I would want to start sharing those stories with a wider audience. Not just those stories, many stories; but the pub and its regulars was definitely where it all started for me.

One of my favourite aspects of writing is when you uncover a fresh story – something that you are completely unfamiliar with and yet resonates to the point that it simply won’t leave you alone. For days, then weeks and sometimes months this ‘story’ is whirring until finally you commit.

The story has got you and it won’t let you go. Until you sit down and do something about it. That something may just be a line of dialogue, or a character profile or maybe a scene. But sometimes, it grows into a play. And that’s brilliant.”

Has someone mentioned the reason why you write? Or is it something else entirely? We'd love to know! Share your thoughts with us @LDNPlaywrights.

Five things I wish I’d been told before I started writing

A year on from her first short play being staged, Editor Jennifer Richards reflects on what she’d go back and tell herself (when she gets her hands on a time machine…)

I never studied playwriting. In fact, I’m completely degreeless! I’ve learn through reading plays, Google and, whenever I’m lucky enough to chat to anyone from the theatre industry, asking lots and lots of questions.

And, a year on from when my first short play was staged, I’ve learnt about form, characterisation, dialogue, action and all that good stuff. But there’s other learning curves, outside of actual playwriting techniques and tips, that I’ve just been experiencing as I go.

This includes how to look after my wellbeing and how to find a community within theatre, and also what it means to actually call yourself a writer. Because, as it turns out, playwriting is a lot more than just the words on the page.

So, here are the five things I wish I’d been told before I started writing:

  1. You don’t need to write 24/7 to be a writer

None of the writers I know write full time. Often they’re a writer slash something, whether that’s a teacher, lawyer or actor.

But I used to worry that if I wasn’t constantly working on something new, I’m not allowed to call myself a writer. Like some sort of weird theatre police would appear and snatch the title off me.

I wish I’d just been more gentle with myself, as balancing a job, seeing friends, and looking after my health, all alongside writing, can be tricky at times. I definitely shouldn’t be making myself go to bed at ridiculous times just so to squeeze in writing a few more scenes.

And it’s not just a matter of finding the time. Sometimes I need to take a break from writing to recharge and find something to spark a story again. Turns out it’s counterproductive to glue my hands to my laptop, as I definitely won’t be creating anything interesting if all my creativity’s gone…

2. Don’t be scared to share your work

I’m sure I’m not alone in being scared of people’s judgments. I never wanted  to share my writing with others for fear someone would take one look at it and throw it in the bin.

But feedback is such a vital part of playwriting, which I found when I forced myself to share my writing my joining a writers’ course (which I highly recommend if you have the fear like me!)

Image: Eulanda Shead Photography

Now receiving this feedback is what keeps me going in the re-drafting process. It’s encouraging, rather than scary, to know I’ve discussed and shaped this idea with others, and feedback from them has helped spark new directions for the script.

3. You don’t need to know all the answers when you start writing

My old English teacher ingrained in me the saying: ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’. Though he was talking about essays, I also applied it when it came to playwriting, believing that if I hadn’t worked out exactly what was happening in each scene before I started writing, the script would be a mess.

But I’ve found that writing to a storyboard feels constricting, as I force myself to cover each bullet point, rather than led my characters led my story in a direction that feels more truthful.

Image by Stephen Dan via Flickr CC

Now when I write, I often don’t know what the script’s really about until I finish the first draft. It’s only after having written the script that I then plan, reading back through it to find out what the story is and what I’m really trying to say. Then the script goes through quite a dramatic editing stage!

4. Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary activity

We might picture the writer as a lone wolf, sat alone at their desk, but the brilliant thing about theatre is how many people are needed to bring a script to life.

I’ve got to work with directors, actors, producers, set designers, stage managers, dramaturgs, fellow writers and so many more. And getting to work with a team makes writing feel like a pretty sociable job!

If you’re looking for it to be even more sociable, write in cafes or co-working spaces, or even join a writers’ group!

5- Just because you love writing, doesn’t mean it should take over your life

‘Pursue your passion’ is a cliché that my old Head of Year would have (correctly) told me off for writing in my UCAS application. But by being a part of scratch nights, or taking my plays to fringe shows, or even by joining a theatre group, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

And because writing’s my passion and something I’ve always dreamt of doing, it’s really easy for me to let it take over my whole life. To cancel plans as I’ve got writing deadlines to meet, or to stay up all night stressing as I know people are waiting on me to finish scripts.

But just because something is a passion, it’s not a reason for me to let it be all-consuming. I’ll often find myself committing to more writing opportunities than I can manage as I’m so scared to let an opportunity slip through my fingers and for my dream (more clichés, I’m sorry) to suddenly fade.

And honestly? I’ll hold up my hands and say I’ve not quite managed to find the right balance yet of pursuing writing opportunities while not burning myself yet. But I’m learning that it’s okay to say no. Because even though the dream may be writing, I don’t want to end up hating it while I work to make it a reality.

How I Learnt To Love The Redrafting Process

In this post, Editor Jennifer Richards shares her tips on how she gradually fell in love with the re-drafting process, as editing exercises and tips and tricks helped her realise how vital re-drafting is for playwriting success!

Re-drafting a script used to be the dreaded monster I’d put off at all costs. It got to the point of not even wanting to write the script in the first place, knowing I’d just have to take a sledgehammer to it later. It seemed pointless to pour time and energy into a script knowing that I could end up with only a few lines from that original script making it into my final draft.

Image by Stephen Dan via Flickr CC

Of course that’s a very dramatic editing process, but I’ve always had a flair for drama! And I’ve learnt that it takes real determination to not mind, or even to like, the fact that I could go through 30 drafts with only one line from the very first script making it into the last one.

Now I’ve got to the point where I can actually enjoy getting to cut out characters, or moving where the story takes place, or even changing it from a four-hander to a monologue.

So here’s the tips and tricks I discovered to help make that re-drafting process fun rather than frightening…

1- Start with a blank page

Editing seems a lot more cruel when I’m actively having to cut out lines and move big chunks of text around. I found I’m a lot happier to make bigger changes if I start from a blank page again.

This doesn’t mean I need to re-write everything; I can just copy and paste across the bits I need, but it ultimately means I’m a lot more honest about the bits I definitely don’t need.

2- Get a buddy group

Sometimes when it comes to do what feels like my 30th draft (or, in some cases, my actual 30th draft), I find myself loosing interest in my story.

After having spent so long trying to get it right, it still doesn’t seem to be doing what I want. Often I’ve got so wrapped up in my own head that what I need is an outside perspective to give me a bit more clarity.

I’m lucky enough to be in a buddy group with three other playwrights, which has been incredibly helpful in having peope to offer feedback on bits of the script that I’m struggling with, or just as a way to soundboard ideas off of. It helps ignite that love for the story again and make me feel like maybe, yes, I can give the 51st draft a go.

3- Remember you’re not the story

When I write something more personal, it’s hard to distance myself from the story. And though that can definitely make it very hard when it comes to reading reviews, it can even make it difficult to edit.

When something feels so close to you, it’s a struggle to look at it objectively and decide what is and isn’t necessary for the  narrative. Yes this one detail may be really important to me, but does it actually matter to the story? I constantly have to remind myself I’m not editing out my history or any of the real story I’m basing the play off of, I’m just making the best play that I can.

Image by Barman Farzahd via Flickr CC

4- Take your characters out of the script

I’m someone who has a total fear of wasting time. So the idea of spending time doing writing exercises rather than writing the actual script makes me feel a bit nauseous. But it’s actually a great way of exploring characters.

Whether that’s freewriting an extra scene that maybe the audience don’t see on stage but I’d like to explore, or putting two characters together who don’t interact during the play and making them have a cuppa, it’s a great way of putting life back into the script.

This means redrafting seems like creating something new and exciting rather than a chore, which makes that editing process a whole lot more enjoyable!

And if you want to find out about more tips for the re-drafting process, you can become an LPW member to get access to our new re-drafting toolkit that’ll help you tackle all those editing problems!

How To Put On A Scratch Night: A Chat With The AD of Little Pieces of Gold

You may have seen the opportunity to have your work staged at the Little Pieces of Gold scratch night pop up here on LPB every few months. The AD of that brilliant company is Suzette Coon, who chatted to Editor Jennifer Richards about putting on this new writing night.

Q & A With Suzette Coon

JR: Why did you decide to create the LPOG new writing nights? 

SC: I set up LPOG in 2010 . At that time there weren’t nearly as many new writing nights as there are now so it was a really welcomed platform for emerging writers.

It was and remains a chance for writers to get their plays in front of an audience and develop a network of directors & performers with whom they could continue to collaborate with.

Now of course there are lots of great new writing opportunities ,which is as it should be because, without them, it would be virtually impossible for most emerging writers to get their work staged.  It’s possible for them to stage their own work but the advantage of an established new writing event such as ours is that we have a solid track record and reputation in the industry for discovering talented playwrights from around the UK.

JR: With so many submissions, how do you decide which ones to have performed? Are you looking for certain criteria?

SC: We receive on average about 400 plays per submission window from writers all over the UK. From that we usually make a shortlist of around 20.

Shortlisting can often be tricky. I’ve just run a workshop about writing the short play at the Actors Centre and participants were really keen to know, as most writers are, how we choose which ones to stage.

Mostly it’s my gut reaction to a read that makes me choose. However, I may also see something in a play that I know will appeal to others, which is why I will shortlist it for our directing team to then make the final choices.

Plays that stand out might tackle a topic or theme that we haven’t seen addressed before, or they might address a familiar theme but in a fresh or unusual way.

Good short plays are hard to write. I guess they’re a bit like a poem – there is a powerful core and the playwright has found the perfect form for the content. Crucially I’d advise: never try to second guess what people want. Write about what bothers you, what keeps you awake at night, what would make you desperately sad or angry if you never wrote about it.

JR: With the recent discussion about how playwrights make a living, it was raised about producers profiting off new writing nights where the writers aren’t paid. But you explained on Twitter that this isn’t the case, would you mind expanding on this misconception further?

SC: In my experience it’s impossible to profit from new writing nights.  Venues don’t come cheap, especially a good London fringe venue.  After venue hire, there is the cost of tech, back-stage help, insurance, printing & publicity.  You cover your expenses and that’s it.

However, making a profit isn’t the objective – facilitating new work and giving it a platform is. For emerging writers that’s essential – as it is for more established writers who want to keep getting work in front of an audience.

There will always be people who feel that unless writers, performers, directors, creatives get paid then they shouldn’t make work full stop. This is misguided and perpetuates the already elitist nature of the theatre industry in which only those with money can afford to put on a show.

New creatives are using these events to get noticed and more established creatives still want an outlet for their work even if they’re not making a living from it

JR: Why do you think new writing nights are so important?

SC: Lots of reasons – finding your writer’s voice; tackling self-criticism and lack of confidence by getting your work in front of people; honing writing skills by collaborating with directors and performers and getting in a room with them to play and experiment.

Most importantly, if you don’t come from a writing or theatrical background, and if you don’t have that experience from drama school or university, then you may feel unentitled to your writing ambitions or remote from the industry.

Theatre can feel like a closed shop but it should be an opportunity to get as many worlds on stage as possible. Representation is key and these kinds of events make that feel more doable.

JR: What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about setting up their own scratch night, or just producing new work in general?

SC: Know why you are doing it.  For example, if you’re a group of actors who are setting up an event in order to perform then obviously your long term goal is very different from a producer whose objective is to promote the playwright and perhaps follow on with a producing career.

If it’s your long term goal is to be a producer then decide what type of work you want to be involved with because it’s stressful, a financial risk, and a long, hard slog.

If you’re starting with new writing nights then follow your gut in terms of the writers you want to have a relationship with and have a good network of people whom who you like and trust to work with.

You can catch the next Little Pieces of Gold show at Southwark Playhouse on June 10. 

Why the opportunities you don’t take are just as important as the ones you do

Editor Jennifer Richards looks at what happens when faced with a list of opportunities and deadlines you’re panicking you won’t make…

One of the brilliant things playwriting has over other forms of writing is how much more accessible it is. Being such a community-based media means there are always directors/writers/producers/actors searching for collaborators.  You can see just from quickly scrolling through LPB weekly round-up how many opportunities there are for playwrights.

Of course not all these opportunities are suitable for everyone, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get what you apply for, but there’s an encouragement of new writing in theatre that, to me, feels much stronger than in other media.

But sometimes seeing all these opportunities come up can be pretty overwhelming.  And I’ve definitely found myself staring at the weekly-round up, with the deadlines jumping out at me and making me panic that I’m not going to write something in time to apply. Which stops me from writing anything. Then I don’t go for any of the opportunities.

Deadlines and opportunities should be motivational tools, rather than something we use to beat ourselves up. When I first started applying for new writing nights, what I really needed was for someone to tell me it’s okay to miss an opportunity. In fact, it’s healthy.

Image by Stephen Dan via Flickr CC

As I’m sure is the case with many of you, I have a job outside of playwriting that limits how much time I can spend writing. It doesn’t make me any less of a writer because I don’t apply for every brilliant opportunity that’s posted. Or if I even take a break from writing every now and again when my creativity’s a bit lacking.

I’ve found it’s better to find a few opportunities that really excite me and put more effort focusing on those, producing a script that I’ve taken time over and just given myself some room to breathe when writing it. It’s not good for my writing, or for my mental health, to push myself to meet every deadline and apply for everything.

On LPB, we love listing as many opportunities on here as possible, but not to guilt you into thinking you need to apply for everything, because otherwise you’re just wasting all these great opportunities. We do it to show you what amazing things are out there, and we want to give you the chance to decide what’s most suited to you and your work – which took me a while to figure out!

By all means, find opportunities that excite you and go for those, but don’t burn yourself (and your creativity) out. It’s rare to be told not to go for opportunities, but the importance is in deciding which opportunities to invest your time and your energy in rather than spreading yourself and your work too thin.  Both your writing and your mental health will thank you for it.

Why Do I Make Theatre?

For World Theatre Day, Editor Jennifer Richards reflects on what drew her to playwriting. 

I’m currently on the Writers’ Lab course run by Soho Theatre, where over roughly 9 months you’re taught in groups about structure, character and various other techniques that go into writing a play. And throughout this process, you’re working to complete a full-length script, with the help of your dramaturg and fellow writers on the course.

Back in the very first workshop, with all the writers eagerly gathered in one room, we were asked why we make theatre.

Somehow, I drew a total blank.

I panicked, suddenly aware that I was on a course with 79 other playwrights who were all further along in their writing careers and probably had incredibly in-depth answers to this question.

And when people read their answers out loud (and I very much stayed silent), I kicked myself for not thinking of the amazing answers they had.

Answers about how theatre is one of the few media where you have to be completely invested, you can’t watch with one eye and absently scroll through your phone with the other; or how theatre has a unique relationship between those on stage and the audience; or how theatre is so flexible and encompassing, including anything from a six-hour monologue to a ten-minute performance piece that doesn’t involve any no words at all.

I nodded along, agreeing with all of these brilliant answers, and being incredibly jealous as all I had written down was: “I make theatre because I like it.”

I was trapped in my own head, overthinking my rubbish answer, when I heard someone say that they make theatre because they love how supportive the community is.

How people are so willing to help others theatre makers; the support of new writing that’s out there; how fellow writers go and see fringe shows and tweet about them and help drum up support for writers who may have been struggling to fill seats. How people further along in their careers are happy to offer advice to those like me, who are feeling a bit more nervous and overwhelmed.

And I realised that as intimating as it was being in a room with so many people wanting to do exactly the same thing as me, it was also an incredible opportunity.  And a powerful community.

On a regular basis, I am lucky enough to share ideas with and get feedback on my scripts, from all these brilliant, talented writers. And I’ve got to see some great shows written by my playwriting colleagues.  I’m aware it sounds incredibly cheesy, but it genuinely fills me with pride seeing people do what they love, and do it so well.

Being in the theatre industry can be competitive and frustrating, but it’s also welcoming and supportive and downright brilliant.

Back in that room at the Soho, as the facilitators were about to wrap up this part of the workshop, I saw the hand of the person next to me shoot up, and I turned towards them to hear their answer:

“Because I like it.”

And you know what, so do I.

Why it’s best not to always listen to writing advice columns

Editor Jennifer Richards is happy to hold her hands hands up and start this piece by acknowledging the irony in writing an advice column about why you shouldn’t listen to advice columns… Hopefully, by the end, we’ll have figured our way out of that Catch 22*

I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was five, when I first wrote a short story about best friends living under a tree (riveting I know). Since then, I’ve trolled through all the articles giving all the best advice in how to make this dream come true. In fact, I read so many of these articles, I managed to scare myself off from writing.

Because I didn’t have the time to write every day, or the energy to get up an hour before school/work to write, or the ability to keep a diary, or even to remember to carry a notepad with me wherever I go… And I thought if I can’t even follow these simple tips writers are giving me, what kind of writer am I? It’s better off not to try.

But advice columns aren’t gospel. You could follow every piece of advice ever given on how to be a successful playwright, and still find yourself no further along in your career. It’s unlikely that someone else’s writing rules are going to be the exact fit for you. Because writing is a creative profession, and there’s no one way, and definitely no right way, to ‘be a writer’.

I became so obsessed with the idea of writing every day so I would ‘be a writer’, I started working on a story in my phone notes every morning on the bus ride to work. Then my phone broke.

And because I had been squeezing in writing when I really wasn’t concentrating on it, I hadn’t had the chance to back up what I had been doodling down on my phone.  So the story was gone.

Though, truth be told, the terrible plot I had been writing about an alien with a pet demon dog probably wasn’t worth saving… I produce much better work when I have creativity strike, rather than forcing it into a bus ride and subsequently inducing travel sickness.

But you might be someone who loves writing a bit every day, or maybe you set aside one day a month that you dedicate completely to writing, or perhaps you only write every couple of months. Whatever you do, and whichever way you go about it, you’re still a writer. You don’t need to jump through hoops, particularly hoops someone else has set up, to prove this.

Don’t get me wrong, learning tips and tricks from writers you admire is a brilliant thing. I’ve learnt so much from playwrights I love and have had the fortune to work with, meet, or read their advice, but it’s about how you apply their advice to your own way of writing, rather than just following their advice blindly.

I so desperately wanted to be the writer who gets each scene perfect before moving onto the next, as that’s what one of my favourite playwrights said they did in an advice piece, but I just don’t work that way. And trying to force myself to write like that meant my productivity levels just stopped.

I work best by writing a terrible first draft without letting myself do any edits before going back through it again and basically creating a whole new script. That certain piece of advice just hadn’t been applicable to the way I write, and that didn’t mean my way, or her way, was wrong. Instead of doing it scene-by-scene as she suggested, I moulded the advice to fit my writing style, and used her tips on polishing scenes once I’d finished my whole first draft.

And, the truth is, you can only read so many advice columns before it stops becoming advice, and is just another form of procrastination scaring you off from writing (though, of course, you should definitely finish reading this one…)

Playwrights sharing tips and tricks are a lovely way of offering support, not something you should use to berate yourself, believing that you must be writing ‘wrong’ just because you don’t write every day or keep a diary. Write how you want. Write when you want. Write once a day. Write once a month. Write once a year. Keep a diary. Don’t. Whatever you do or whichever way you do it, you’ll still a writer. Now, stop reading advice columns and get to it.

 

*We didn’t (sorry)