Over the past year, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Twitter, playing writer hashtag games. What’s a hashtag game? you may ask.
We all know what a hashtag is. It’s that # sign, followed by a word or phrase that’s used to identify social media messages on a specific topic – #wedding, for example, or #ihatemondays. People interested in that topic can search for the hashtag and see the latest messages.
A hashtag game takes things a step further, by establishing a central theme and then inviting others to use the hashtag to share their own message on the theme. #5WordsToRuinADate is a popular one (typical response: “I don’t think it’s contagious.”) Twitter is the main social media outlet for hashtag games; I haven’t found many elsewhere on the web.
A writer hashtag game establishes a central theme (often a single-word prompt such as “dream” or “fire”) and invites writers to search their WIP (Work In Progress) for lines containing the theme. Participants then share their lines with the online writing community by using the hashtag. Because tweets are limited to 280 characters, the game forces brevity – a useful asset when writing.
Since I’m writing this blog on a Wednesday, I’ll use today’s #1lineWed theme of “secret” and a selection from my just-released book Ragis as an example. Here is how my game entry appeared:
You may notice I’ve stuck some other hashtags on there. This is so the post can be seen not just by fellow participants in the #1linewed game, but by writers in general, writers who write fantasy, and people who like epic fantasy (which is my series’ genre). What you can also see from this screenshot (taken just a minute or two after I posted it) are the reactions to the post – those who liked it my deathless prose, and one person who retweeted it to her followers (in this case, the retweeter is my editor for Ragis).
Ah ha! you may be thinking. So this is not just a game – it’s a promotional tool.
Ah ha – you would be correct in thinking that. It took me a while playing the various writer hashtag games (and reading, liking and retweeting others’ tweets) to come to that realization. And it wasn’t until September of last year, when Twitter increased its post limit from 140 words to 280 characters, that writers were able to share not just a substantive quote from their work, but increase its visibility outside the game.
Once I had this revelation, any guilt I felt over wasting time playing hashtag games was allayed. Not only was I having fun playing the games, I was actually working! I was DOING PROMOTION! I was NETWORKING WITH OTHER WRITERS! So I played even more of the games: the weekly ones like #musemon, #tuesline #thurds, #fridare #SlapDashSat and #sunwip, and the daily ones like #wiptruthordare and #authorconfession. I found some very specific games like #martialmon (fight lines!) and #salacioussun (smexy lines!), #WhoNeedsAHero (antagonists!) and my current favorite, #TrickyTues, which asks you to find unusual words like “paroxysm” in your WIP (to my surprise, I actually had THREE usages of that word). Some of the games have rules, like “no buy links,” but in general they’re run in a pretty relaxed fashion.
And their promotional impact is fleeting. Your post in the game sinks down the page pretty quickly, especially in the more popular games., so unless a fair number of people like/retweet it, it’s largely gone after an hour or so. Reactions to my example post above, about an hour after posting – yes, it takes me that long to write a blog – seem to have stalled out at eleven likes, three retweets and one comment. That’s about average for my posts. There are writers who get a lot more responses to their game entries and end up on the “top” page for that particular hashtag, so their posts will have a little longer Twitter life.
I don’t really care about the reactions – although they’re nice to get. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to attract followers; if people like my work and want to follow me, that’s dandy, and if they seem interesting I’ll give them a follow back. But I don’t play the game to get followers. I just like sharing my stuff and reading other writers’ work.
There is one extra thing I do, particularly when I’m super-focused on the promotional aspect of the games. I often create a graphic to feature my quote – because 1) a picture is more eye-catching than just text, and 2) I get a kick out of designing them, and 3) I always like to zhush things up.* I can usually put an effective graphic together in about 15 minutes. I use Canva to create my graphics; the site has lots of free content and it’s very user-friendly. I made the “paroxysm” graphic above yesterday, not just because it was Tuesday but also because it was Release Day for Ragis, hence the extra language in the text portion of the tweet. (And well…because paroxysm.) It only got 4 likes and 3 retweets, but that’s okay. Occasionally I’ll post the graphic on my Facebook page, although my FB friends tend to be more focused on my theatrical work. And as I said, I do this more for my own enjoyment than for its promotional benefit.
Here’s something weird, though, and what prompted today’s blog. I don’t share material from first drafts, or even second drafts. I always pull my excerpts from completed but unpublished works. With the publication of Ragis yesterday, I am suddenly without a completed work to draw from. And that realization was kind of a kick in the head.
For the past several years, at any given time, I have had at least one novel completed, and at least one in the works. For example, when I signed with my publisher in July 2016, I had completed Kinglet, was polishing up Fiskur and had started work on StoneKing. That pattern continued until the end of last year, when my output began slowing. At that time I was in NYC understudying the Broadway musical War Paint – a stressful and demanding job that sapped much of my writing energy. What little I had left was going into blogs, interviews and other promotional material for Kinglet and Fiskur (which came out in August 2017 and November 2017, respectively). When StoneKing released in February 2018, I was back home and Ragis was waiting in the wings, and but I was only just starting the first draft of the fifth and final book in the series.
I confess I’m having a bit of a timeline issue with Book 5. The action of the Gemeta Stone story has been largely continuous from Kinglet all the way through Ragis, but the fifth book’s plot begins after a considerable passage of time. Events that occur in that timeframe, while not important to the plot per se, have effects that impact the existing characters, so those effects have to be factored in. I’ve also recently re-thought two of the major characters who will be introduced in the fifth book, and those new characterizations also impact the plot. And of course, the time-suck of promoting the existing books, plus some other factors I won’t go into just yet, are contributing to my slowdown.
But never fear. The fifth book IS coming. It’s just coming slower. And there’s another little project sitting on the back burner: a prequel that I wrote a couple of years back. I never intended for it to be published; I wrote it because, prior to starting the StoneKing/Ragis portion of the storyline, I needed to sort out exactly what happened the first time my protagonist (Kristan Gemeta) and my antagonist (Daazna, the Wichelord) actually met. I also wanted to explore how certain events in their youths shaped their personalities. What I wrote ended up being pretty interesting, I think – especially as an insight into how Daazna got to be the way he is.
So here’s a question for those of you who’ve been keeping up with the series: is this something you’d be interested in reading – maybe between Ragis and the fifth book? You can answer in the comments below, or drop me an email at email@example.com.
Do let me know – I’d love to hear your thoughts.
*And, I must confess, because a graphic lets me circumvent Twitter’s 280-character limit. I can share a longer excerpt and use the text portion of my tweet for additional hashtags and other information.
I’ve been having deep thoughts lately on the importance of speaking up. They’ve been triggered by two recent instances, one based in my acting life, and the other in my writing work.
In the first instance, I was performing in a theatrical production and a technical glitch caused an unsafe situation on stage. To be specific, a large, center-stage trapdoor that allowed access to an elevator shaft had jammed in the open position during the transition into the show’s final scene. As a result, there was a gaping hole in the middle of the stage as the final scene began. The actors entering the scene were unaware of this hole.
I happened to be in the stage right wing, waiting for an entrance, when I heard someone – either a crew member or an actor exiting the scene – say “the sun roof is open.” (We called it the sun roof because it worked like one: that section of the stage deck lowered slightly and then slid beneath the deck, clearing the way for the elevator to rise.) I could see the opening in the stage as the lights came up, and both the crew and fellow actors in the wings were hissing to each other about the situation, but no one seemed to be doing anything. I turned to the assistant stage manager and said “We need to hold.” The ASM was on headset and didn’t seem to hear me, so I called her by name and said, “Tell the stage manager to call a hold.” *
Meanwhile, in a fairly dim lighting cue, the actors onstage were moving toward the hole. I repeated that we needed to hold, keeping one anxious eye on the onstage activity. I was ready to call out, but just then the actors noticed the hole and adjusted their staging to move past safely. A moment later, the trap door slid shut.
All told, the trap was open for about one minute, but it seemed like an eternity. At the show’s conclusion, I headed down to the dressing room, stewing about what had happened. Since I was the actors’ union representative (or “deputy”) for the production, I knew I would have to speak up. My opportunity came when the stage manager put his head into my dressing room to give us the next day’s call time. When he was finished, I asked him why he hadn’t called a hold when there was a dangerous situation on stage. He told me he was aware of the situation and was poised to call that hold, and reassured me that no one had been in any real danger.
I disagreed, but rather than pursue the issue with him, I decided to take it to the next level. When I got home, I emailed both the theatre’s artistic director and company manager, apprised them of the situation and asked them to take action. Their response was both prompt and gratifying. The upshot was that when we had further issues with the trap door during the final week of the run, those issues were dealt with in a much more safe and satisfactory manner.
So – long story short – I spoke up. First, it was my job as deputy to look out for the safety of my fellow company members, both union and non-union. Second, I have been involved with productions where people didn’t speak up, and accidents occurred and people got hurt – some seriously. And in those situations, people didn’t speak up for one of two reasons:
- They weren’t thinking proactively. They noticed a potentially dangerous scenario, but didn’t think to take the next step; i.e. letting someone know so the issue could be dealt with. In a stage production, this can be something as minor as not asking a crew member to put glow tape on a protruding set piece, or something more serious, such as the lack of safety rails on escape stairs.
- They were afraid to “rock the boat.”
Reason #2 is the one that’s harder to deal with. Everyone fears repercussions for speaking out, and those fears are sometimes quite real: in another production in which I was deputy, I had to go to the union over a safety issue that the theatre was refusing to address. Under union pressure, the issue was resolved, but I was the unhappy recipient of a pretty nasty email from the director as a result. Did it upset me? You bet it did. In the show biz world, no one wants to be labeled as a “difficult” actor – meaning someone who complains, is high-maintenance or just doesn’t go with the flow. If you’re labeled as “difficult,” that means you might end up on someone’s DO NOT CAST list (and if you in the business think those lists don’t exist, you’d be wrong.) Every actor is always looking ahead to the next potential gig, and if they think speaking up might hurt their employment chances, then they won’t speak.
But in situations like this, deputy or not, you MUST speak. Sometimes you must speak loudly and repeatedly, but you MUST SPEAK.
On the writing side, the situation was a bit different. On Twitter a few days ago, a post about a short story competition was showing up repeatedly in my feed. (It’s a “promoted” post so that’s probably why.) The sponsors of the contest were offering sizeable monetary prizes – from $5,000 to $125 for the top ten winners – and they were getting an enthusiastic response to their Tweet from writers eager to enter, so I took a look at their website.
I was not surprised to see an entry fee of $17. That may sound like chump change to some of you, but for writers (who are often as impoverished as actors are – wonder why I’ve chosen two careers with that attribute?) it’s a fairly sizeable sum.
It’s a fairly sizeable sum for the contest sponsors, too. Take that $17, and multiply it by, oh, let’s say 1000 eager writers, and you’ve got $17,000 – which will cover your prizes with a good bit left over. In other words, your contest is actually a revenue stream – a stream coming from your willing target audience.
This kind of contest is rife in the writing world. It has the same attraction as a multi-million dollar Powerball drawing, with about the same odds of winning. There’s also the added enticement of getting your story published. More experienced (and grumpier) writers generally shrug these things off and go about the real business of writing, which is to write your thing and submit it to a publication, which will then maybe buy it from you and publish it. You don’t pay them, they pay you. But for writers without a lot of publication experience, contests like these can be like a siren call: Money! Publication! Fame! Look, Everybody, I’m A Real Writer! And all for the low, low price of $17!
So – I was cynical already as I read the contest details. But as I dug deeper, I found (in very small print) a link to the contest’s Terms & Conditions. And look what I found there:
The somewhat oddball syntax aside (I believe the contest sponsor is based overseas), this is what this clause means: SIMPLY BY ENTERING THE CONTEST, you are giving the contest’s sponsor the right to use your story, change your story, and generally do whatever they want with your story, for free, in perpetuity.
Think about that. You’re giving this sponsor $17 to TAKE YOUR STORY FROM YOU.
Now, being a grumpy experienced writer, upon this realization I could have just rolled my eyes, closed out the contest website and stepped away. But I kept thinking about all those sweet, naive writers who had responded so eagerly to the Tweeted contest announcement – not only that they were going to enter, but tagging fellow writers so they could enter, too.
So I spoke.
I went back to Twitter, found the contest announcement, and Tweeted this:
And then I went to the sponsor’s Twitter page and posted this:
The individual I tagged in the second Tweet, asking for her opinion, is Victoria Strauss. She runs Writer Beware, an entity sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), a watchdog organization not just for SFF authors, but for writers of every genre. Victoria then had a look at the site, found other warning flags and will be writing a blog about the contest next week. She has a much bigger reach on social media than I do, so I’m glad she’s getting involved.
The other, more unexpected result of the first Tweet is that it’s been getting a lot of retweets by other authors – so the word is getting out that this contest may not be such a great opportunity after all.
Who knows what the upshot of this kerfuffle may be? I don’t have a dog in this race – I certainly wasn’t going to spend $17 to enter the short-story contest, and part of me also feels like people dumb enough to enter without reading the fine print deserve what they get. But I couldn’t stand by and watch others potentially lose their “wonderous hard-worked stories.” I didn’t HAVE to speak up – I’m not a deputy for the writers’ union (even if there was such a thing, and oh, how I wish there was). But I spoke up nonetheless. Because in this instance, speaking up was the right thing to do.
This has been a particularly long blog post (probably what the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin would have called a “bung puller” – I haven’t blogged in a long time and was overdue for one). I may post updates once Victoria’s article comes out, but meantime, I’m going to conclude with this quote from Eckhart Tolle:
To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.
So be brave, y’all. SPEAK UP.
* In stage jargon, to “call a hold” during a performance means the stage manager will make an announcement over the theatre’s PA system to “HOLD.” This announcement is audible to both the onstage company and those backstage, as well as to the audience. The company knows this means to stay where they are and wait for further instructions. Usually these problems are technical in nature, especially in this era of automated sets, but sometimes a hold can occur if someone has been hurt, either onstage or offstage. No one ever likes to hear the word “HOLD.”
ADDENDUM: Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware weighed in on the questionable clause in the contest’s Terms & Conditions (and found another sketchy clause as well): CONTEST CAUTION.
As the run of War Paint continued, I settled deeper into my routine. A week or so after I went on for Ms. LuPone, the company had its first official “put-in” rehearsal – this one for the show’s four offstage understudies. It was a run-through of the show with full tech (although not with full orchestra – just a rehearsal piano). For me it was a bit like shutting the door after the horse had already escaped from the barn, but it was nice to step through the show in a little less stressed atmosphere, and to perform the piece with fellow offstage understudies Patti Cohenour (in the Elizabeth Arden role), Tom Galantich (as Thomas Lewis, Arden’s husband) and Tally Sessions (as Rubinstein’s associate Harry Fleming). The entire company, with the exception of the four leads, was called for this put-in, although they were not required to be in costume as we were.
Here are two photos as a “compare and contrast” exercise. Most of my Rubinstein costumes were finished, or nearly so, for the put-in rehearsal. First is the only photo I have approximating a “production photo” of me in the role; it was taken by our head of wardrobe during the put-in. I’m singing “Forever Beautiful,” Rubinstein’s amazing eleven o’clock number, which the elderly Madame R. sings in her boudoir surrounded by paintings and sculptures of herself. The costume still wasn’t completely finished at this point; in fact, as I was getting into it Lyle and I discovered that it hadn’t been put together properly at the waist. Lyle quickly ripped out a seam and fastened me into the thing with a big safety pin – fortunately this change happened during the Arden eleven o’clock number, so we had a bit more time than usual for the change. The jerry-rigging held during the number and the offending seam fixed afterward.
Next up is a photo taken much later in War Paint’s run. This one is in Ms. LuPone’s dressing room, and I’m wearing the completed costume. As you can see, there’s more embroidery over the bust and shoulders, and the gown has been fitted with a proper waistband. By that point in the run the wig master had also adjusted my wig style so it wasn’t scraped back quite so severely and was bit more flattering.
(NOTE: Included in the company’s contracts with the producers was a rider forbidding us to post photos on social media of ourselves or any company member wearing the show’s costumes. It was a detail either missed or disregarded by some members of the company, but the producers REALLY REALLY didn’t want photos of anyone wearing the Rubinstein or Arden costumes floating around on the internet. My guess is that they worried about losing control of the show’s “brand.” By the same token, any time a lead was out sick, the understudy going on in the part was prohibited from posting on social media that they would be performing the role, the rationale being that this would affect sales. You could post that you were going on if it was a scheduled absence – someone taking vacation or a personal day, for example – but not an unscheduled absence. (You could post after the fact all you wanted, though.) Since neither Ms. LuPone nor Ms. Ebersole had any scheduled absences from the show, Patti Cohenour and I were always flying under the radar when we went on. It was a bit of a disappointment, not to be able to announce when I was performing the role, but I understood. When Ms. LuPone or Ms. Ebersole went out, the producers handled disappointed ticket purchasers well, I thought – attendees who didn’t get to see the two stars were offered vouchers to see the show another time when the ladies were back on. I don’t know how many people actually took advantage of the opportunity to see the show again, but as a good-faith offer it was very smart.)
In addition to those two-a-week understudy rehearsals, I also had to be at the theatre by half-hour prior to every performance (I was usually there at 45 minutes to curtain, which would come in handy – more on that in a bit.) During the performance, I could either watch from the house – in a seat in the mezz or the rear orchestra if one was available; standing in the back if one was not – or watch/listen to the show on the backstage monitor in the ensemble ladies’ dressing room. One night I tried to shadow one of my ensemble tracks backstage, but it was nearly impossible because there was so little room in the wings and you were always in someone’s way. I discovered a third place to watch: the stage right fly space, where I could look down on the stage far below. It was a good place to track traffic patterns in the group numbers.
After the offstage covers had their put-in rehearsal, focus was shifted to getting the onstage covers ready to go on. During understudy rehearsals I was relegated to my ensemble tracks, and I can say now, without fear of reprisal, that it was an unmitigated pain in the ass. I was required to do the staging for one track per rehearsal, but was also called on to step in for the “specialties” (the solos and small speaking roles) for the other two tracks during the same rehearsal. Because of this, I never got a strong sense of each individual track – I was always having to factor in some portion of another track. Keeping the specialty lines and music separate for each track wasn’t hard (after all, I could run that stuff outside of rehearsal), but I had difficulty picking up the individual staging in the big numbers. With three tracks to remember and only three or four bodies to deal with instead of the twelve or so I’d have in performance, getting the traffic right was always a struggle. And because I was alternating the three ensemble tracks along with the Rubinstein track, weeks might pass before I’d have the chance to rehearse a particular ensemble track again. And there was really no place in the building to run the staging outside of rehearsal. Patti C. and I would sometimes step through numbers in the dressing room – Necessity Is The Mother of Invention, a big march number, lent itself most easily to this – but we’d have to squeeze between dressing tables and costume racks to do it.
(NOTE: If you were to look at the program for War Paint or even pull up its page on IBDB.com – the Internet Broadway Database – you’d see that there are only two people listed as ensemble understudies: dance captain Barbara Jo Bednarczuk and me. Everyone else is listed as understudies only for principal parts. This does NOT mean some of those people weren’t also “swinging” ensemble tracks – it just means they chose not to be listed as “ensemble understudies,” and negotiated that as part of their agreement with the producers. Protestations to the contrary, there is a certain “low man on the totem pole” stigma attached to swinging, especially if the actor in question has formerly played featured or principal roles on Broadway. Prior to War Paint, I wasn’t even aware this was a “thing.” Live and learn.)
A couple of weeks later the onstage covers got their put-in rehearsal, and during that rehearsal I covered the ensemble track of Joanna Glushak, Ms. LuPone’s onstage understudy. Not surprisingly, some of my costumes were not completed for that track, and due to a misunderstanding about wigs, my pin-curled head was exposed in several of the scenes. Afterward I spoke to the wardrobe department about the hat/wig issue and thought a speedy solution would be in the offing. Alas, not long after Joanna became ill 45 minutes before a performance, and as I was frantically trying to get prepped to go on for her, Wardrobe was still struggling to solve the exposed pincurls problem. It made for a terrifying experience, both backstage and onstage. It so happened that Patti Cohenour was on for Elizabeth Arden that same weekend (Christine Ebersole was out with a bad head cold, and Patti C. was fighting the same cold herself), so it was a rough time for all concerned.
And things were about to get rougher. Ms. LuPone had been fighting hip pain since tech, and that situation was rapidly deteriorating. There was also that damned company head cold, which would disappear for a week or two and then flare up again, first among the stage crew, then among the dressers, then among the actors and back again. Then the Tony Award nominations came out, with only four nods to War Paint (one each to our leading ladies, one for costume design and one for lighting design). Passed over for Best Musical – you can bet there was no joy in the Nederlander that day. And then the Tonys came and went, with no wins for War Paint and nothing to crow about in the publicity department. Sales began to lag. Spirits, too. In late September we were due for a one-week layoff so the two stars could have some time off; just before that break the producers assembled the company to tell us we’d be closing December 30th. We returned from our layoff with everyone rested but Ms. LuPone’s hip was no better; in fact it was worse still. Adjustments were made to her staging to limit the amount of sitting down and getting up, many of her costume changes were moved into the wings so she didn’t have to walk so far, and she was put into lower heels for certain scenes, but it didn’t help. She needed hip replacement surgery.
I was on twice more for Joanna (her other two absences were scheduled days off, so those performances were less frantic than the first one) but was spared having to go on in the other two ensemble tracks I covered. I ended up going on for Ms. LuPone six more times: another three-show spurt (that damn head cold again) and three single performances as her hip got worse. (And yes, notes and notes and notes afterward, every single time, and so many of the nitpick variety that it made me want to shriek.) It was hard to watch Patti suffer, but she’d throw her shoulders back and limp onto the stage and beat the hell out of her vocals and scenes. She was game, and amazing, but in the end, the pain was too much. The producers finally assembled us again and told us we’d be closing on November 5th.
Those last weeks were hard. Tempers grew short as unemployment loomed, hand-in-hand with the holidays. There had always been a certain amount of competition between the onstage and offstage covers, and that began to ramp up as opportunities to go on in the principal roles got fewer and fewer. (NOTE: Not only is there prestige in going on in a major Broadway role, but there’s financial benefit as well. Under the Equity Production Contract, when an understudy performs a principal role, s/he receives an additional one-eighth of her/his weekly salary for every performance. Or, as my fellow understudies were fond of saying, “Cha-CHING!”) Fortunately, I wasn’t on the receiving end of any of the ill feeling that resulted, but I was constantly on tenterhooks in case I had to go on for Ms. LuPone. One night an assistant stage manager came to me 20 minutes into the first act and told me to get into my Rubinstein prep because Patti wasn’t sure she’d be able to continue (she did). Another time I was walking into the theatre – I started arriving at the theatre an hour before curtain instead of my usual 45 minutes – and was told Patti was in pain and to get ready in case she couldn’t go on (she could, and did). I was struggling with my housing situation as well. I had to give up my 45th Street sublet on November 1st and had initially lined up another place that would take me through the original December 30th closing date, but had to let that go (along with the non-refundable deposit I’d made on it) when the producers moved the closing date to November 5th. I couldn’t find another sublet for just five days, so I ended up staying in the hotel right next to the theatre for the final week of the run. Company management helped me get a less expensive rate – only $250 a night (!), and John came up to spend the final week with me, so it wasn’t so bad. Still, my overriding emotion when the curtain came down on that final show was relief, and gratitude that I was going home.
SO…what was my big takeaway from the War Paint experience? That it was the hardest single theatrical job I’ve ever had. Yes, I made a lot of money, and yes, I have a nice fresh Broadway credit on my resume, and yes, I got to take the final bow in a major Broadway musical nine times – but I feel like I aged five years in those nine months. It was a LOT of pressure, made worse by the fact that I always felt like I was operating blind – that there was stuff going on behind the scenes that influenced actions and decisions affecting me, but I was kept in the dark about them. The constant nitpicking and notes, notes, notes about the most picayune stuff got to me, too. I found it impossible to get out of my own head during performances because any time I was a bit out of position or fluffed a line (said “the” instead of “a,” for example), I’d think oh God, I’m going to get a note about that. And I would.
And I got so tired of being at the bottom of the company heap. The understudies so often got little respect, and so often were an afterthought when it came to company events. (“Oh, and you guys are welcome, too” was the backhanded way we were invited to these things.) I think my lowest moment during the run was when I made a remark about my sciatica flaring up from so much sitting, and having one of the dressers tell me that I could do her job and she’d do mine and “just sit in a chair.” She was young and new at the job, and I know it was supposed to be a joke, but it still stung like hell.
So…would I do it again? In a word: no. Oh, I might understudy again, if it was a major star in a rewarding role, but I’d be damned sure I negotiated standby status, so I’d not only cover just one person, but also be guaranteed that I’d be the first choice to go on in that role. But I would never, EVER swing again. I wasn’t good at it; in fact, I think the people who ARE good at it are actors with a strong dance background – people who are good at picking up movement simply by watching, who can navigate from point A to B to C onstage without the benefit of motivation, who find satisfaction in that kind of work. I am simply not wired that way. Those actors who are can have all those roles…along with my endless admiration.
From the very first day of rehearsal, the company of War Paint had been warned not to get too attached to the generous proportions of our church basement studio space. The production’s home would be the Nederlander Theatre, on 41st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. The Nederlander is one of the oldest theatres on Broadway, dating back to the early 1920s, and was not originally built as an entertainment venue. (Wikipedia states that it was a carpenter shop; War Paint company lore disagrees, claiming it was a stable.) For a show that had its out of town tryout in the much more modern and expansive Goodman Theatre in Chicago, it was going to be a very tight squeeze.
To begin with, the Nederlander is taller than it is wide, and as is frequently the case with all but the most modern Broadway houses, that translates to very narrow wings. War Paint‘s set included a massive staircase, two big restaurant banquettes and a huge bed, as well as desks, glass-fronted department store display cases, rolling salon chairs and a bar. In addition, there were a number of very fast costume changes in the show, which would need to take place in those very same, very crowded wings. As the company moved into the theatre to begin tech, there was understandable apprehension over just how we were going to fit into the space.
Fellow understudy Patti Cohenour and I met up early on our first day in the Nederlander so we could explore our new digs together. On signing in, we discovered we’d be housed on the fifth floor (remember: no elevators). Not only that, we’d be sharing one large dressing room with the female ensemble: eleven women in one space. We trudged and gasped our way up to the fifth floor (the topmost dressing room space – at least the stairs were padded) and got our first view of what was to be our home for the foreseeable future.
A long counter with mirrors and a single shelf overhead ran down each side of the room, and each actress had been allotted a space about 30 inches wide and roughly half as deep. On the right hand counter, at either end, was a mini-fridge. At the far end of the room was a single window, with two sinks located just beneath it, and a pair of showers to the right, with a water cooler in between. (The single toilet for the eleven women was, fortunately, located just outside the dressing room.) The middle of the dressing room was taken up with a long row of rolling racks, stuffed full of costumes.
The “Character Women” (the three older ensemble ladies) occupied the left-hand side of the room; the “Arden Girls” (the five younger ensemble ladies) had the right hand side, and Barbara Jo Bednarczuk, our dance captain and swing for the Arden Girls, had her own counter at the front of the room, which she shared with a video monitor. Patti C. and I were assigned the last spaces on the right-hand side, beyond the Arden Girls, next to the showers. Patti had the farthest station, with a bit more counter space, but with the refrigerator right next to her and a foam fold-out mattress (like this) stowed under the counter just under it. (That was our required “Equity cot.”) My station was just to Patti’s right, and it had a couple of problems right from the start: its shelf space was unusable because a giant, elderly speaker, like a tin lollipop punched full of holes, had been hung there, and the metal support for the counter-top was beneath my station, which meant I either had to sit sideways or straddle it. I had just enough time to register this (and whack my knee on the support) before we were summoned to places – which for the understudies meant the Nederlander’s mezzanine. We descended five flights to the stage door level, dodged through the stage right wing and out the pass door into the house, and then climbed another flight of stairs to the mezz. On the house left side, approximately halfway up, we discovered our table.
It was actually a long, heavy tabletop, parked on trestles that straddled two rows. It was so high that you could barely see over it if you sat in a theatre chair – which you could barely do anyway, since the table had almost no clearance between its edge and the seats themselves. “Are we going to have to sit on the edge of the folded seats?” I complained, but after a few moments of combined outrage and bafflement, a few rows back I found a long vinyl bolster. It fitted down over the folded theatre seats, providing a kind of perch behind the table. There was just enough space for three people to sit (if you could call it that) side by side, with their binders open before them. Patti, Tom Galantich and I sat there most of the time; Tally Sessions usually elected to sit elsewhere in the mezz, along with Barbara Jo.
(In fairness, I should mention that the folks down below in the orchestra seats had the much the same setup and were really no more comfortable than we were. They – the direction team, stage management, creatives and all the designers and their staffs – had a bit more light and were closer to the coffee and snacks, but at least we didn’t have to climb the stairs to access the theatre’s restrooms – which were on the mezzanine level with us. And since the understudies were usually the only people in the mezz, we were able to move around a fair amount without disturbing anyone.)
Throughout tech, the company worked a “10/12” schedule. This meant that our span of day was twelve hours long (from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., for example), with a two-hour meal break somewhere in the middle. Sometimes we’d do a slight variant of this schedule, and work from noon until 11:30 p.m., and take only an hour and a half meal break.
The usual drill during tech was this: generally the entire company, with the exception of the two leading ladies (and often the two leading men) were called for “half hour” at the start of the rehearsal day. “Half hour” is a somewhat fluid period during tech, particularly at the beginning of the process, since actors and crew alike are still learning their backstage prep and timing. “Half hour” can sometimes be an hour long, or longer. During “half hour,” while the onstage company were in their dressing rooms, getting into costumes, mics and wigs, the understudies were given five minutes to get into mics and report to the house. (To save time and avoid both the climb up to the fifth floor and the madness of the ensemble women’s dressing room, Patti and I took to leaving our mic belts and mics in the sound department, located in the Nederlander’s basement. Since this was also headquarters for the entire run crew – wardrobe and wigs especially, and eventually the orchestra – there was not a square foot of space to spare. More on this later.)
Once we were in the house, we could use what remained of “half hour” to incorporate any new material into our binders (yes, the script and score changes continued apace), but more often we were called to the stage, to stand in for the principals while lights were focused, set changes sorted out and new lines and music folded into the mix. This was helpful to the director and designers, as it let them get some of the grunt work out of the way before the cast was called to the stage, but it was also helpful to the understudies. Since we would not be starting understudy rehearsals until well into previews, this gave us an opportunity to run lines and staging on the actual set. These were usually truncated runs, though – much of the time we were working on transitions between scenes – but still, they got us out of the mezz and on our feet. Once the onstage company was in costume and ready to go, the official rehearsal “clock” would be started. (Under Actors Equity rules, the cast must be given either a five minute break after 55 minutes of rehearsal, or a ten minute break after one hour and twenty minutes of rehearsal.) The downside of this schedule for the understudies was that we’d already been “on the clock” for half an hour or more. If we weren’t needed onstage we could usually grab a couple of minutes to pee or get coffee before heading to our table in the mezz, but Patti C. and I were often still needed onstage to rehearse with the company (the two leads were usually not called until later in the afternoon), so it was rare that we got our breaks in a timely fashion, at least during the morning sessions. (The other difficult part of this process was a carryover from the studio: the ensemble’s staging in group numbers was usually being altered and rehearsed while I was standing in for Ms. LuPone, so I didn’t have the chance to write down and work that staging in real time. I don’t think I ever stood in for any of my three ensemble ladies in a musical number – not in the studio, and certainly not once we started tech. There just wasn’t time.)
Of course, there were occasions during tech when we had to stop and sort out some problem, usually having to do with the automation (it’s rare to see a crew member onstage these days; set moves all seem to be automated now) or with trying to sort out how to get one scene’s worth of set pieces out of the way while getting another scene’s set onstage. This involved the crew having to “fly” set pieces up into the rafters of the theatre, fitting them together like some sort of super-sized Tetris game, while knifing the next batch of set pieces into their tracks on the deck so they could be swooshed on during transitions. The cast would be dismissed to their dressing rooms while these changes were mapped out, and it was a welcome opportunity for the understudies to relax: get up, walk around, make a cup of tea or step outside for a breath of lovely fresh midtown Manhattan air. My special spot during these break was in row H of the mezzanine, where I could lay on the floor out of sight, stretch my back and ease the sciatic pain from sitting on that damned vinyl bolster. (I am probably smiling in this picture because I’ve also gotten out of my microphone rig, which could be downright painful to wear for hours at a stretch. I should also point out that I’m wearing black, the de rigueur color choice not just for crew people, but for understudies as well.)
The most heart-stopping moments during tech were when we’d hear a crash backstage. As careful as the crew tried to be, there were times when things didn’t move as they should, or something or someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of the time it was nothing major – maybe someone dropped a prop – but once or twice the situation was more serious. Once a dresser got caught between two moving units and ended up with a badly bruised leg; another time one of the big Arden makeup counters got crunched and its glass front broken. These incidents had a sobering effect, and hammered home just how little margin for error we had, putting this great big show into the little Nederlander space.
Next up: Onward to Opening
Before I continue this narrative, I should tell you a bit about our rehearsal space. War Paint spent its first few weeks of rehearsal in the basement of The Church of St. Paul the Apostle, which is at 9th Avenue and West 59th Street in midtown Manhattan. If the word “basement” brings up visions of a cramped, dingy and dank space, let me assure it was not (unlike our theater, which I’ll get into later). That basement is used to rehearse the Radio City Christmas show, so it’s absolutely enormous. There was not only room for our taped-out playing area, there was space for a long row of tables facing it for the directing team, the choreography team, the creatives, stage management and way over at one end, the understudies. Behind this long row of tables ran a row of cubicle dividers, creating a “hallway” between the rehearsal space and the rear wall so that people could get to the bathrooms without disturbing anyone. Beyond the understudies was space for a grand piano and a table for all the music team. Elsewhere in the space was a separate studio where smaller scenes and music could be rehearsed, and private rooms for the stars and the two leading men (John Dossett and Douglas Sills). A third of the space was taken up by a huge “green room” area with couches, tables and a big kitchen area with microwaves, refrigerators and the all-important coffee maker. Coat racks and tall shelves with cubbyholes for our personal items divided the green room from the work area.
For the first couple of weeks, the two male offstage understudies were not called, so Patti C. and I had the understudy table all to ourselves. And we needed it. Our time in rehearsal was a constant battle with paper: new script pages, new music pages, diagrams of the set and Post-It notes. Stage management set up a big file box with a folder for each company member, and God help you if you didn’t check your folder throughout the day, because the creatives (composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and librettist Doug Wright) were always hard at work improving and tightening the show. I got in the habit of arriving early – sometimes as much as half an hour – to get my pages. Sometimes these changes were big ones, that encompassed multiple pages; more often they were tweaks – deleting a line here, adding another there, changing a lyric, changing it back – but I had to stay on top of each and every one. That meant pulling pages out of my binder, replacing them with the new pages, transferring any staging notes to the new pages (for the Rubinstein track I wrote on the pages in pencil; for the three ensemble tracks I used color-coded Post-Its) and highlighting the lines (again, color-coded) so I’d be ready when rehearsal actually began. After our meal break, and sometimes even after a ten-minute break, there would be still more new pages. I quickly learned that bringing lunch and eating it in the studio gave me extra time to incorporate and review the changes.
I also learned the disadvantages of our understudy table. For some reason it was a popular drop-point for anything anyone didn’t need at the moment: water bottles, discarded script pages, partially eaten food, lozenge wrappers, used Kleenexes. It was also not the best place to observe the show. Director Michael Greif used numbers at the lip of the stage to block the show (for example, an actor might be blocked to cross diagonally from 8 Left to 2 Right), but sitting at extreme “house right,” as we were, made it difficult to see those numbers. We could lug our big binders all the way over to the other side of the playing area, where the rest of the cast had a table, but there wasn’t much real estate available there and the view had the same problem, just in reverse. We couldn’t stand behind the people seated at the long row of tables because of the cubicle dividers. And when music director Larry Yurman got up to conduct a musical number, he usually stood just to right of center, so he, poor man, was always in our way. If we got too frustrated, we could usually consult someone in stage management or our dance captain to get the staging, but the only time to do that was during a break, and those poor people needed time to pee and get coffee just as much as anyone else.
The first couple of rehearsal weeks were devoted to getting the ensemble up to speed: reviewing their material retained from the Chicago production and teaching them their new music and movement. I followed along in my script as best I could, since it was all new to me. Occasionally I’d stand off to one side or behind the company as they worked on the choreography, trying to step through the movement myself, but I was usually in someone’s way and a distraction to those watching. Anyway, most of the time Patti Cohenour and I were standing in for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole.
Until they arrived.
That was a weirdly nervous day in the room, Everyone seemed a little too loud, a little too bright. The two stars were greeted with applause and cheers. I was quickly introduced to them, and then everyone got down to work. Both ladies were cheerful and professional; they cracked jokes and smiled and finally the room seemed to settle down. Patti was a force of nature: one hundred percent committed and at full performance level from the minute she stepped into the playing area; Christine was more reserved, and I got the sense she was carefully calibrating how much energy was necessary in each scene. When they had an issue with the material their approaches were different as well: Patti attacked the problem with gusto and head-on, while Christine’s process was quiet and more circuitous. Either way, most of the time the ladies got what they wanted. If things got too tense during the process, the rest of the company was put on break until things were sorted out. This was especially the case when a new scene was being worked through. Those involved with the scene huddled together with the director, working through any issues, and everyone else made themselves scarce. (I’d been warned that input from the “peanut gallery” was unwelcome at these times.) At first I was asked to leave with everyone else, but since I was getting very good at making myself invisible when not actively involved, I was eventually allowed to stay at my table, eyes on my script and mouth firmly shut.
Just being in that room with those two women was like attending a master class every day – not just the way they handled themselves while rehearsing, but their comportment during the entire process. They knew when to break the tension with a joke and when to be serious; they knew when to withdraw to their private rooms and reserve their energy, and when to spend time engaging with the rest of the company. They knew when to compromise for the good of the show and when to stick to their guns for the sake of their own performances. But oh…those rehearsals. Hearing Patti belt out one of her big numbers made my hair stand on end. And the first time I heard Christine sing “Pink” (Arden’s last solo in the show), I dissolved in helpless tears.
Midway through this part of the process our two male understudies were finally summoned to rehearsal. I already knew Tally Sessions, who understudied Doug Sills, but Tom Galantich, who was John Dossett’s cover, was new to me. We all got very chummy very fast – we had to, since the understudy table was now VERY crowded. Elbow to elbow we worked on our scripts, highlighting and noting, pulling pages out and putting pages in, mouthing lines in the scenes and humming along with the musical numbers. And just as I was starting to get comfortable – just as it was all starting to make sense – it was time to move out of the rehearsal space and into the theatre.
Next up: The Nederlander.
FISKUR, the second book in my fantasy series THE GEMETA STONE, has now been out for a month. Its virtual book tour is complete, so I’m going to do what I did for KINGLET and put all the guest blogs I wrote for the tour here, for your reading pleasure. I wrote a few more of them for this release (my publisher, Fiery Seas, hired a new marketing person and she’s a real fireball), so I’m going to make this blog post a two-parter, so as not to overwhelm you readers. They’re on a variety of topics, and I hope you’ll find them interesting.
#1 – The Perils and Pitfalls of Researching the Fantasy Novel
I’m a fiend for research. In fact, it’s one of the things I like best about writing: learning new stuff which I can then incorporate into my stories.
Even when you write fantasy, as I do, you still have to ground your make-believe world in reality. The setting of my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone is a traditional European, medieval-esque world. My characters ride horses, use bows and arrows, fight with swords and live in and around castles. Fortunately it’s an era I’ve always been interested in, so I had years of reading (and stacks of books) on various aspects of that time.
However, when I was about to write my first one-on-one swordfight, I realized how little I actually knew about swordplay – beyond what I’d seen in movies. Fortunately, we live in the Era of the Internet, where information is yours for the taking if you just look around a bit. I found a number of sword-centric websites and YouTube channels that were extremely helpful, but when you’re trying to write a sword fight from a combatant’s point of view, there’s nothing like hands-on, real-life experience to give real veracity to your writing.
So I started casting around for a swordsmanship class. Fortunately, I live in a major metropolitan area where you can find a class in just about anything. Unfortunately, I’m a Woman of a Certain Age, so I knew I was probably going to be one of the older participants in the class.
I had no idea just how MUCH older.
First day of the course, I dress in yoga pants and a long-sleeved shirt and my new white sneakers and my gloves (the class brochure said to bring your own for hand protection; I’ve purchased an inexpensive pair of golf gloves). I drive to the community center, head to the classroom – and discover that my fellow students are children. And only children. The youngest is about six, the oldest…well, let’s just say I am a full forty years older than the oldest kid in the class. The teacher eyes me warily, the parents dropping their kids off stare as I slink sheepishly into the classroom.
We’re outfitted with masks and lames (chest protectors). Some of the kids didn’t bring gloves and get loaners from the instructor, some wear winter gloves and one bright spark actually has gauntlets. GAUNTLETS.
I line up with the kids. The instructor shows us some basic footwork but the kids are impatient and can’t wait to start slashing around with the array of foils, epees and sabres on display. The instructor hands out foils and we face her as she demonstrates various moves. We try them out, but the kids are getting antsy as hell (to be honest, so am I) and so eventually the instructor pairs us off to practice the moves we’ve just learned. I end up with a gawky twelve year-old who’s the tallest of the kids. As we square off, I’m thinking hard about Kristan Gemeta, the hero of my series: a small, slight young man who’s nonethless an excellent (albeit reluctant) swordsman who relies on his agility and powers of observation to defeat larger, more powerful opponents. I want to see if this actually works, but I tower over the kid, and due to his mask, I can’t read his face for clues. However, his whole being is suffused with embarrassment over being paired with a woman older than his mom, and that makes him awkward. Me, too. We clump through the exercises like a couple of ill-matched plow horses: me the heavy-footed old mare, him the knock-kneed, gangling colt. We’ve only gone a round or two before class is over. I’m sweating like a horse, too, as I slip past the parents.
I go home and tell my husband about my first class and he absolutely HOWLS. He says it reminds him of that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer takes a karate class with a bunch of children. He wants me to go to the following week’s class and TERRORIZE the kids, just like Kramer.
I am too pure-hearted to Kramerize the kids, though, and I return to class the following week resolved to learn regardless of the situation. And I do. Several of the kids have dropped out (no surprise there) so we get a little more individual attention. The instructor corrects our stances, adjusts our grip on the swords. I fight with the littlest kid, who isn’t interested in getting past my guard; he bashes my upraised sword ferociously, forgetting that he’s supposed to be fighting me. I defeat him and file that experience away under INEXPERIENCED OPPONENT, but then I’m paired with the oldest kid in the class, a girl of about fourteen who actually knows what she’s doing and feints past me again and again. She hands me my ass and is gracious about it. I file that away under HEROIC BEHAVIOR.
I absorb other lessons, too, especially once we start working with the heavier epees and sabres: how you forget to breathe when you’re fighting a determined opponent; how your neat, careful braid gets pulled loose by the mask and how the loose hair sticks to your cheeks and forehead; how surprising and painful it is to get jabbed in the shoulder with a weapon, even a blunt one; how your muscles tremble after a long bout and how you ache all over the next day.
After six weeks, the class was over. Am I a good swordsman as a result? No – I’m not even a passable swordsman. But I’m a better writer, at least when writing those swordfight sequences. My experience in that humble little class gave me confidence and allowed me to narrate those scenes with authority and describe them viscerally – and that’s worth a little time and humiliation.
#2 – Deleting a Favorite Scene, or My Writing Bleeds When I Cut It
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a writer is when to acknowledge that a scene isn’t working. I’m not talking about when the scenario doesn’t flesh out properly, or the writing is forced and clumsy. That happens all the time, and I hack that stuff out quickly and without remorse, and start again. No, what I’m talking about is when a scene is good, and the writing so polished that it shines, but the scene just isn’t serving the story as a whole. Sometimes it’s just extraneous material that’s bloating the word count, but more often – at least for me – it’s when the scene isn’t moving the plot forward with vigor.
I remember one instance of this particularly well. In an early draft of Kinglet, the first book in my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone, I opted to start the book with a scene from the point of view of my antagonist, Daazna, as he arrives on the shores of the kingdom of Fandrall. Beginning with the antagonist is a departure from a traditional opening, which introduces the protagonist. I was happy with the opening and it’s how the completed book starts, establishing tension by displaying Daazna’s skill with magic, the ruthlessness of his character and his nefarious motives for being in Fandrall in the first place.
The very next scene introduced Robert, the king of the realm and father of the series’ main character, Kristan Gemeta. It was a beautiful scene, with Robert on the battlements of his castle on a clear spring morning, Robert is admiring the view, and for sheer pleasure, throws out his arms as if to embrace it. He’s interrupted by Maxwell, his senior knight and oldest friend, who ribs Robert about making love to his kingdom. The two chat about Kristan and how well he’s grown up, and together they descend to the council chamber, where the character of Kristan is finally introduced.
It was a nice scene, with solid character-building and good descriptions, and I was in love with the image of the king standing high above his realm with his arms outflung. The problem? It was too nice. All the tension I’d established with Daazna in the first scene had completely dissipated. Yes, there was conflict coming in the scene with Kristan and Robert, but I’d have to rebuild the tension I’d already lost. And with Kristan being introduced by Robert and Maxwell singing his praises before the reader ever met him – well, shades of Mary Sue.**
So I cut that king-on-the-tower scene. It hurt. I’d lavished a lot of descriptive energy on it but it was simply not serving the story as a whole. After a lot of trial and error, I settled on a completely different second scene, which began with Kristan and his horse Malvo and introduced the upcoming conflict with Robert Gemeta in a much more interesting and effective way. I’d been pleased with the original scene, but I was delighted with this one, so much that when it was finished, I said out loud, “Yeah, that’s the stuff!” ***
Still, I mourned the loss of that king-on-the-battlements image. Even though it was cut, it refused to die. It was not until several years later, when I was working on the fourth book in the series, that I finally had the opportunity to use it – in a slightly different and even more interesting way (you’ll have to wait until that book comes out to see how). Not every cut scene gets a chance at resurrection, though – an early draft of Fiskur: Book Two of The Gemeta Stone had a great frolic-in-a-waterfall scene that got cut as well. It’s still breathing, though, and waiting for its chance to be in a story.
Maybe in Book Five.
* Or, in the case of thrillers and mysteries, someone who is about to get killed off.
** For the uninformed, a Mary Sue character is one that’s idealized to the point of nauseating the reader.
*** I talk to myself when I’m writing, but most of the time I say things like “well, that sucks.”
#3 – Where I Write Is How I Write Is What I Write
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head
“White Rabbit” by Grace Slick
I write this sitting on a pair of house slippers.
That’s not entirely correct. I write this sitting on a tall wooden stool at a faux-granite countertop in a teeny-tiny sublet in midtown Manhattan. The house slippers are between me and the stool because the stool is hard and makes my sciatica flare up.
I am writing in this less-than-ideal environment because I’m temporarily in New York working on a Broadway show. I’ve been here for about nine months. Another week left, and the show will be closed and I will be headed back home to Virginia, where I have a proper desk and a proper chair in a proper office.
Do ideal settings make me write more? Or write better?
No. Sometimes the odder the writing environment, the more the ideas flow. I’ve written in coffee shops and restaurants, libraries, parks, trains, buses and airplanes, conference rooms, hotel rooms, laundry rooms, dressing rooms and theatre lobbies. I’ve written in lined notebooks, on scraps of paper, bits of napkin and out loud into a recorder, but I’m happiest if I can use my laptop on a proper surface with a decent chair. (Because sciatica.)
I don’t need silence; as long as the sounds around me aren’t blaringly intrusive, they’re just absorbed into the experience. If things get too loud, I can always put in my earbuds and listen to some music while I write.
Since I write fantasy, I rely heavily on my imagination, and the more I’m stimulated by my surroundings – odd though they may be – the more open I am to new ideas. Sometimes my desk and chair at home are too familiar, too comfortable, so I make a point of getting up and moving around every hour or so. (Also because sciatica.) I look out the window, go out on the deck, head into the garden and pull a few weeds. If I’m really stuck I go for a walk. Sometimes I’ll take a notebook with me, just in case inspiration strikes, but mostly I just walk and breathe and think.
My most productive walks are in nature and in solitude: open fields, forests and deserted beaches are best. I like both an expansive view and minute details: open ocean and grains of sand, towering trees and a chickadee on a twig, wide open spaces and a cricket at my toes.
But sitting on a pair of house slippers will work just as well. It’s all grist for the mill. My discomfort – as far as I can stand it – is another experience that I can use in my writing. It opens my mind, it releases my imagination, it feeds my head – far better than the potions and mushrooms advocated by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.”
#4 – How I Started Writing
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories. I’m the middle child of a big Army family and when I was a kid we moved just about every other year and usually in the middle of the school year. I was always the new kid, and consequently it was hard to break into the pre-existing cliques. I was saved from being a lonely kid by always having siblings to play with, and endless games of pretend with them (and an ever-expanding cast of stuffed animals and dolls) gave me a solid grounding in the world of storytelling.
Later on, I graduated from acting out stories to drawing them. On pads of wide-lined, rough-textured elementary school notepaper, my younger brother John and I scrawled out complicated chambers inhabited by characters we called “Pirits.” Pirits were stick figures, clad in pointed hats and triangular gowns and as far as I can recall, were essentially sexless. Pirits were sucked into these chambers by a giant vacuum and then blown out into little sub-chambers, where the sheer force of the wind activated mechanical contraptions that fed them, put them into shoes, cleaned their hats, and whatever other goings-on our young minds could contrive. Stretched out on the floor on our tummies, with the notebook open between us, John and I would draw on our own page and describe to each other what was happening in our particular Pirit world.
When we’d learned how to read and write, we started creating little books of construction paper with illustrated stories of perhaps four or five lines. I can’t remember any of my mine, but one of John’s involved a little guy eating pizza with extremely stretchy cheese. In its entirety it read:
Would you like to eat a pizza pie? (picture of little guy biting pizza)
And try and try and try and try? (cheese stretches way out)
WHAP! (cheese recoils, hitting the little guy in the face)
You think and think (little guy ponders)
And WHAP again! (little guy punches the pizza maker)
I never said we were brilliant writers. The family thought the stories were great, though, and urged us to write more.
Our tastes and writing abilities expanded and matured. We returned to writing in notebooks again, only this time they were the more grown-up composition books – handy because they had sturdy covers that made a good writing surface. We started drawing comic books together, based on The Lone Ranger cartoons that ran on Saturday morning TV. Initially they were tongue-in-cheek spoofs, but later on we took the characters of the Ranger and Tonto, updated them and made them into contemporary secret agent-types. The stories turned from spoof to serious, with real plots and real villains and (gasp!) even love interests. John wasn’t much for the love interest stuff. Our creative differences meant we started writing our stories separately, on regular notebook paper, and enshrined them in separate ring binders. We’d still read and enjoy each other’s work, though. Even after we stopped writing them, we kept them for a long time. They finally disappeared from our lives, probably during one of our last moves as a military family (my dad was ruthless about throwing out stuff before a move).
Now, decades removed from our Pirits and construction paper books and fan-fic comic strips, my brother and I are both published authors. John’s book is a scholarly work called Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II. And I’ve got my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone. The first book of the series, Kinglet was released last August, followed by Fiskur, now available now from major retailers everywhere. The third book in the series, StoneKing, will be released in early 2018.
It’s funny how far enthusiasm, a little paper and some encouragement can get you.
In the run-up to the August 2017 publication of my debut novel, Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I wrote a half-dozen essays on aspects of the writing process and creating Kinglet’s world. I posted the essays in sequence on the News, Notes & Info page of my website, but since that page changes a few times a month, I thought it would be fun to gather those six essays here. I hope you enjoy them.
How Kinglet Came to Be
It feels both weird and a little pompous to say that the idea for Kinglet came to me in a dream, but that’s absolutely how it happened.
I was a junior in high school, a time when I used to have particularly memorable and vivid dreams (ah, how I miss those days). One morning, just before I woke up, I dreamed about a dark-haired young man on a black horse. In the dream, he and the horse were standing still, on a level road running through green and sunlit countryside. I saw just a flash of him, and at that moment I immediately knew his name: Kristan Gemeta.
I woke up wondering what that was all about. The name rang through my brain as I showered and dressed and gathered my books. I thought about it as I ate my breakfast, on the bus ride to school, and even after the first bell rang. And when I walked into my favorite class – Mrs. Cooper’s Advanced Composition – I was still carrying that image, and that name, in my head.
Our assignment that day – again, weirdly – was to write the beginning of a story. Not the whole thing, just the beginning. And so I started a story about a young man on a black horse who meets a red-headed girl, on an isolated, sunlit road. I named the young man Kristan Gemeta.
I don’t know what kind of grade or commentary Mrs. Cooper gave me (I expect it was favorable; English was always my best subject), but something about that story made me decide to save it. I tore the pages out of the notepad I used for that class. I still remember that pad, plain as day: college-ruled, top bound, with three holes in the left side so you could put it in a binder. I put the beginning of that story away with some other story ideas.
Years later I came across that fragment of story again. I read it, and felt Kristan’s character tug at me once more.
Over time, I’ve rewritten and revised the plot that eventually became Kinglet. I’ve built the world of The Gemeta Stone series, created its landscape, and peopled it with hundreds of characters, all of whom I care about intensely.
While the story and the supporting cast have changed over time, one thing has never altered: the name and character of Kristan Gemeta. It still seems unreal that, nearly 45 years later, a tiny scrap of a teenager’s dream about a gentle young man is now fully fleshed, and out into the world for everyone to see.
Creating Kristan Gemeta
When I started writing The Gemeta Stone series, I knew right away that I wanted a main character who was, first and foremost, human. And I don’t mean human insofar as species – I mean a character who has doubts, fears and flaws in addition to his good qualities.
Kristan Gemeta is the only son of a king – heir to the throne of Fandrall and to the responsibilities and privileges that come with it. But he’s also something of a misfit in his father’s court. Kristan is small, slight, introspective and gentle. Worse, he believes in Wiche, the ancient magical lore which has fallen so far out of favor that it’s been outlawed in neighboring kingdoms. This belief, coupled with his compassionate nature, puts Kristan at odds with both his warrior-king father and the pragmatic, battle-hardened knights of Fandrall.
Once I created this misfit prince, I wondered what would happen if he was suddenly and violently thrust into a position of leadership. Would he rise to the occasion, or falter and fail? I chose the latter.
With his father murdered, his kingdom overtaken, his family’s protective talisman stolen and his courage lost, Kristan flees to the forbidding wilderness of the Exilwald, a forest of outcasts and criminals. It’s there that his story really begins.
All the books in The Gemeta Stone series take their titles from nicknames Kristan is given on his journey. In the case of Kinglet, it’s the name of a small, reclusive Exilwald bird that seems like nothing special until it displays its hidden crown of red feathers. Like the kinglet bird, Kristan’s choice is between the relative safety of a life in the shadows, or the dangers of stepping forward to reclaim both his name and his birthright.
The World and Magic of Kinglet
I’m often asked about the “world” in which Kinglet is set. Let me say at the outset that it’s a familiar world to readers of fantasy: a medieval-esque setting, a largely human population, a male-dominant society, horses for transportation, swords for weapons.
But it’s a world on the brink of change, and that’s brought about by the long-suppressed and much-denigrated magical lore known as Wiche. As Kristan Gemeta, the protagonist of Kinglet explains: “My old teacher Simeon once told me that Wiche is simply a catchall term for anything beyond our power to comprehend or explain. Not everything Wiche is magic, but all magic is Wiche.”
In the world of Kinglet, there are two kinds of magic. The first is Learned, meaning it can be taught and studied and understood. It can be written down and passed on to another. It can be twisted and altered to change its purpose, and its power is limited by the abilities of the one who uses it. Daazna, the main antagonist of Kinglet, is a Wichelord – a master of Learned magic.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is True magic, or Tabi’a. It is magic in its natural form. No spell created it, no spell can master it, and no spell can destroy it. It exists for its own purpose, and no other. The Gemeta Stone, the legendary protective talisman which belongs to Kristan’s family, is one example of Tabi’a.
It’s this clash between Learned magic and Tabi’a that catapults Kristan’s life into chaos, and it’s his struggle to understand the Stone’s Tabi’a that’s an ongoing theme throughout the series.
The Gemeta Stone: Writing a Series
With the publication of Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I’m often asked by people how in the world I was able to write one book, let alone an entire series. My answer is: “I didn’t realize it was going to be a series!”
When I first started work on the series, I didn’t even know it would be a series. I was simply writing scenes about characters who appealed to me. While I don’t outline, I had an idea of a through-line, but letting myself write all the “fun stuff” first – the fight scenes, the exciting dialogue exchanges, the introductions of each character. I’d skip the hard stuff like transitions and exposition, promising myself I’d get back to them later. Eventually I had a ring binder full of scenes, and realized I only had to put them in order and write the missing parts, and I’d have a book. Easier said than done. When I finally finished, my heart sank at the knowledge that the book was too long (like, 350k words of too long).
So I dived back into the story, cutting and tightening. I ended up with a more manageable 225k words – still too long, and I had a lot more story to tell. That’s when I acknowledged that what I was writing was not a single book, but a series. Fortunately there was a logical place to “break” that first massive tome, so voila! I suddenly had not one book, but two. I didn’t know what to call them, so I put them aside and started work on the third book.
This time I made myself write in order, so I wouldn’t have such a scrambled-up mess to deal with later on, and I also edited and polished as I wrote. As the story spooled out, I had two big realizations: 1) the nicknames my protagonist earned along his journey would make great titles for the individual books in the series, and 2) Book Number Three was going to be another whopper.
I had about four months of being semi-blocked while I dealt with a major stumbling block in the plot. During that time I did a fair amount of editing, but barely wrote anything new. Instead, I stewed over solving that plot problem.
At the end of those four months I was visiting my elderly mother in Tennessee. She’s a devout Catholic, and even though I’m not, I accompanied her to church. During that Sunday’s sermon I was sitting quietly, letting my mind wander, when suddenly a potential solution to my plot problem hit me. I confess that I sat there, barely breathing, as a partial idea took shape. I’d had other solutions that hadn’t worked out in the end, so I didn’t rush home to the computer. For a week I just let things percolate. Lo and behold, the following Sunday, again at church, again during the sermon, the rest of the solution came to me. This time I rushed home and started work again. (Thank you, Mom. Thank you, God.)
The place where I’d been blocked turned out to be the very place to break the story into Books Three and Four. It was while I was polishing Book Three for my beta readers that my agent called and told me we had an offer for the series. That was just about a year ago, and I’m still stunned at how fast things moved once I’d signed on the dotted line. Kinglet is out in the world now, with its sequel Fiskur to follow in November, and the third book, StoneKing due for release in early 2018. Meanwhile Book Four, Ragis, waits in the wings while I work on the series’ finale.
The Strong Female Character
I recently joined a Twitter group called #51writers, named for the percentage of women vs. men in the U.S. It’s focused on the creation and development of strong female characters in literature. Even though Kristan Gemeta, the main protagonist of Kinglet (and of the entire The Gemeta Stone series) is male, and his primary antagonist is male, it’s the women in the series who end up being most influential.
Foremost among these female characters is Heather Demitt. Heather is young when we first meet her; barely eighteen, impetuous, bright and outspoken. Originally she was conceived as a love interest for Kristan, but her bold vitality contrasted so well against Kristan’s more cautious and introspective personality that she developed into a co-protagonist. Nearly half of Kinglet is told from her point of view.
Then there’s Ariphele, the mother of Kinglet’s antagonist, the Wichelord Daazna. As powerful and terrifying as Daazna is, Ariphele’s sarcasm and blunt opinions never fail to get under his skin. Theirs is a strange and complicated love-hate relationship that provides some of Kinglet’s most unsettling moments.
At the beginning of Kinglet, Kristan receives a warning of coming catastrophe from two old women he meets while out riding. They were such an interesting pair and I had such fun writing their dialogue. Here’s a sample:
The larger woman looked at him sharply. “The world is full of little splits and cracks and clefts and rifts, boy. You can see them every day – not when you ride a fast horse, mind – but only if you walk slow as we do, with your eyes and your ears open, with your skin feeling and your nose smelling and your tongue tasting the air like a snake.” Suddenly she ran her tongue out and in, and Kristan jumped a little.
“But when the cleft is large, like this one,” said the small woman, “when it runs a long way and spreads as it runs, like this one – it’s a Reaving. Something even a boy on a fast horse can see. For years these Reavings have moved through the mountains north of Hogia, as is right, because the mountains are fearsome things, full of strange and terrible magics. But in the last few seasons, Reavings have wended down the mountains and spread into the Plain of Hogia itself. This is the first time one has crossed the River Mor. It signifies, boy.”
Their words have such a profound impact on Kristan that he tells his father the king of their warning, knowing full well that such magical pronouncements are viewed as nonsense and he’s risking his father’s wrath for even speaking of them. That simple action sets Kristan up for a disaster that will change his entire life.
The funniest thing about that scene is that it was inspired by this photo of my mother, Marge Lillard, and her younger sister Julia deRooy. I took the photo some years ago, when we were strolling in Aunt Julia’s large backyard on a gray winter day. I can’t remember now why Mom and Aunt Julia were pointing at the ground, but the image hung with me for years. In Kinglet the season changed to spring, and the setting is somewhere in the royal fields of Fandrall instead of a suburban yard, but that’s the magic of writing: you can find inspiration in the most familiar faces and the most mundane places.
Creating a Believable Bad Guy
When I was completing the first full draft of Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop – one that I found valuable mostly for the discussions with my fellow author/attendees. One day when we were kicking around the topic of antagonists and how we introduced those characters in our books, I discovered that I was the only one who began my story with my bad guy – the other writers started off with their protagonist. When I revealed that my villain, Daazna, was a powerful magic-worker with a thirst for revenge, one of the other authors got very excited. “Then you have to show just how dangerous he is right away,” he said with a gleam in his eyes. “He needs to do something awful.”
I realized he was right. Originally I just had Daazna arriving by ferryboat on the shores of Fandrall, thinking about how he’d been wronged by the kingdom’s royal family years before. It was interesting, yes, but it wasn’t the kick-ass start I needed. And so I took that author’s advice and rewrote the beginning – and what Daazna ended up doing gave even me the heebie-jeebies.
But an all-powerful, 24-7 bad guy can get dreary. I found that it was equally important to show how deeply Daazna’s anger was rooted in jealousy and hurt. I’m not saying an antagonist has to be sympathetic, but certainly the motivation for his actions should be clear – otherwise he’s just a cartoon villain. It helped that Daazna’s mother Ariphele is a supporting character, and I was able to use her sarcasm to goad Daazna and ramp up not just his anger, but his need to prove himself to her. Their relationship is one of the most intriguing in the book.
And that’s why I really enjoyed writing Daazna’s scenes – even the creepy ones.