A Peripatetic Writer's Life
by Carol Wolf
When I was in college my ceramic arts instructor, who was renowned for his teapots, told me that most of the artists of his acquaintance have a wide variety of artistic skills, but that they focus on the one for which they are first rewarded. Hence, his specialty in teapots.
So, now, all you artists reading this, how many different art forms have you pursued over the course of your life, and for which were you first rewarded?
I made up stories and acted them out before I knew how to write. I suppose the first reward I received for writing was when I embarked on an epic (15 page!) story in 3rd grade, and my teacher rewarded my efforts by allowing me, for an entire week, to do nothing but write. While everyone else had to do class work, I sat at a table in the back of the room and wrote all day, and no one was allowed to bother me. What a life! I did have to go out for recess. This was a bitter disappointment, especially since, of all the things we did all day in 3rd grade, recess seemed to me the most unimportant. Later, when I spent years as a substitute teacher, I understood that it wasn't I who needed the recess, but my teacher. I read the finished story to the class, and then was asked by the class to read it again. A triumph!
In 6th grade I wrote my first play, and all but two classmates took part in the production. The Five Murders of Cherryville Lane was presented to the school, and there was a second, special assembly for us to present it a second time. Another triumph! So, I was well-rewarded at an impressionable age for writing stories and plays, and kept on ever after.
When I was seventeen, my third play, a 20-minute one-act called Duel, won a playwriting contest and was published in At Rise Magazine the following year. Even more fantastic was the news that a theater in Waterloo, Iowa, planned to produce the play the year after. Thus it was that, on my junior year abroad at the University of Lancaster, in England, I had to fly back to the states for my play opening in the middle of the spring term. The Waterloo Playhouse produced three one-acts; the other two were written by old guys, one in his thirties and one in his forties. We were interviewed on radio and television to promote the production, and I remember giving a talk at a Rotary Club luncheon. Since the theater had paid my plane fare to come, put me up and paid for my meals, I was well and truly rewarded.
So, I was set by that time on being a writer, and thought I'd be a lawyer and write on the side, or a biologist, and write on the side, or a teacher, and write on the side, as I have a broad range of interests. I was accepted to a graduate school to get an MA in education and a teaching credential, but then I got my acceptance, and a Levin Scholarship, to the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, to study playwriting. Playwrights took acting classes with the actors, directing classes with the directors, design classes with the techies, but none of them took playwriting classes with us. I was told by my department head that if I flunked all my other classes, but did well in playwriting, I'd still be in the program. I wrote seventeen plays in three years, and sixty-six drafts of nine of them. I also wrote my fourth novel, but like the other three, written in college, it was very bad.
One thing I did learn in those three years was that you can't -- I can't -- write on the side. The tool for writing is your brain, and what your brain does all day determines your output as a writer. Thus, I've been a temp, or a sub, and had occasional short-term full-time jobs. I write, and work on the side. If I've paid for that, economically, the upside is that no effort of mine was spared to be a better writer. In this culture where worth, and success, are measured by money, that is at times difficult to justify.
Three of my plays were produced at grad school, and upon graduation, The Terrible Experiment of Jonathan Fish, my feminist musical farce, was chosen for a workshop production in New York City the following year. So, I was well and truly hooked into being a playwright. The workshop was sold out, there were standing ovations, I was taken aside by dozens of people who told me that I would lose my integrity -- a sign that people think you're going to be someone, in NYC. But nothing came of it.
Years later, after writing about fifty plays, the notice on the front of the Dramatist Sourcebook, where all contests, grants, and productions are listed each year, penetrated: "Over 857 opportunities for playwrights!" Tens of thousands of us competing for 857 opportunities, and a good third of those for playwrights in New York, while I was living by then in Los Angeles. The light dawned. Did I give up playwriting? No way! The craft of playwriting is, well, it's an addiction. To sit at the back of a dark hall and watch a couple hundred people watch your play, is an experience that I wish on you all. To sit in rehearsal and watch really good actors bring your play to its feet is about as close as a human can be to being a god on this earth. (A general can send soldiers into battle, even to their deaths, but in their minds they call down curses on him. Actors work like fiends and are always wondering if they're good enough, or if they could do better, and if you give them more to do they thank you.)
The real problem, I realized, was in needing someone else's acceptance or permission to have my work produced. The workers should own the means of production! This was the year after the development of the Canon XL2 camera made it possible for low-budget productions to make theater-quality films. Two friends and I founded Paw Print Studios, and I co-produced, wrote and directed two feature films in the next three years, Far From the Sea, and The Valley of Fear. This required a whole new craft of story telling, through the eye of the camera. One result: pages and pages and pages of cut dialogue. Dialogue takes forever to shoot, and is the slowest way to convey story on film.
Summoning actually began as an idea for a film, but due to budget limitations I soon reworked it as a novel, where a girl changing into a wolf requires no special effects. I finished it, and reworked it, did a bit of research and sent it to a publisher, and after a year they sent it back, no, and I sent it to another, and by the time the next year and the next no had passed, I was on to other projects. Some time later, I was introduced to awesome agent Laurie McLean, and she loved it, and sold it to Night Shade Books. Hooray!
Night Shade wants the second book quickly, and here is where this narrative comes together. When writing a novel in a short time, handfulls of playwriting techniques are extremely useful. The need to set and sustain a significant tension level, knowing that the plot legs must be in proportion with the plot points, that everything that is paid off at the end must be set up in the beginning, and the more important the pay off, the earlier the set-up must be, offer short cuts to what would otherwise arise as a whole lot of story problems.
When you write a play, after finishing it, it is customary to get some friends together for a reading in the living room, usually called, the living room reading. If you are blessed by the acquaintance of some actors, you get them to read for you, but having your computer-programmer and insurance specialist friends read can be just as useful. If the words are said consecutively and audibly, the story must be told. If it is a poor story, the roomful of people will be bored, and there will be no disguising it. The number of trips to the bathroom and the snack table, the rustling and shuffling will be a dead giveaway, which you ignore at your peril. If the play works, no one will move, and no one will get up until the act break. Moreover, the strength of the play will be written on the faces of he audience like some stamp of joy and awe. And here's the other thing. The stronger the play, the more the mistakes will stand out. If there's not much play there, everyone will say nice things to you, offer a few small suggestions, and change the subject. But if the play is good, the mistakes will be annoying to the audience. More than annoying, they will just about piss them off. If, after your play reading, many of the people in the room are shouting at you about the things you HAVE to fix or they will come after you, you can know that you've done some good work.
A few really good novelists might benefit from the experience of their readers yelling at them for the small errors they have made, thus marring a terrific piece of work. Endings are often a case in point. If, in a play, the ending is not satisfying, after two hours of sitting in rising expectation, your audience really will lynch you if you disappoint them. The living room reading for Summoning will take place in other peoples' houses. Is it fortunate or unfortunate that I will be out of range if there is any shouting? Of course, thinking it over, now that the book has gone to the printer and it really is too late, this playwright-novelist has to wonder, is the ending of Summoning satisfying enough? The correct response for the writer is to go write the next book.
SummoningMoon Wolf Saga 1
Night Shade Books, April 2012
Trade Paperback, 300 pages
The World Snake is coming, devourer of Thrace and Atlantis... and the only one standing in its way is Amber, a sixteen-year-old runaway, recently arrived in Los Angeles.
Amber is more than just a girl with a stolen ID and an attitude; she is a daughter of the wolf-kind, a shapeshifter able to change forms at will. One night, as Amber prowls the Hollywood Hills in wolf form, she stumbles onto an occult ceremony, interrupting the ritual. As a result, Amber finds herself the unwilling mistress of a handsome demonic servant, Richard.
Appearing as a fair youth of eighteen years, Richard is a demon accidentally summoned, then captured, by Dr. John Dee, court magician to Queen Elizabeth I. Richard has been trying for four centuries to free himself from a succession of masters and mistresses, but finds himself bound to Amber, the only one who can protect him from his greatest fear, the herald of the World Snake, the Eater of Souls.
The last thing a girl of the wolf-kind needs is a boy following her around like a lap-dog, but Amber agrees to help Richard reclaim his soul from two of his old foes, hopings soul from two of his old foes, hoping to grant Richard his freedom. But all hell is about to break loose, and Amber and Richard are going to need some allies to stop the Eater of Souls and avert the World Snake, and the battle has only begun.
From Carol Wolf comes the urban fantasy debut Summoning, a novel of a wolf girl, a demon boy, and a city on the edge of disaster.
Carol Wolf earned a BA in History at Mills College, and an MFA at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, where she was a Levin Scholar. Her plays have been seen on both coasts and on five continents, and include The Terrible Experiment of Jonathan Fish, The Boss's Wife, Day/BlackNight/Morning, Walking on Bones, and The Thousandth Night, which won the London Fringe First, the Bay Area Critic’s Circle Award, and the L.A. Drama Critic’s Circle Award. Wolf taught Master’s classes in Playwriting at Manhattan College and Mills College, and for ten years headed the playwriting program at Foothill College. She wrote the scripts for the blockbuster video games Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, and Legacy of Kain: Defiance. She co-founded the micro-budget film company Paw Print Studios, for which she wrote and directed two feature films, The Valley of Fear, and Far from the Sea, and is currently in production with the documentary, Letters to my Grandchildren. Her playwriting manual, Playwriting: the Merciless Craft, Techniques in Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced Playwriting, has been accepted for publication by AmbushBooks and will be released in April, 2012. She lives in the foothills of the California Sierra Nevadas in with her husband, two border collies, and a varying number of sheep.