Adventures In Freelancing

As I’ve mentioned in a few previous posts, I was hired to write an interactive murder mystery script, and I’d like to say that the auditions have been conducted, and thus my involvement in the process has come to an end.

I’d like to say that, but I’m not counting on it, not just yet.

Part of the reason why I’m not expecting to step away completely is because I know how these things go — by which I mean, unlike many professional plays, which are honed and fine-tuned over time, sometimes after they’ve been workshopped or have undergone staged readings with the playwright in attendance, the scripts I write typically go directly and quickly from the writing stage to the production stage, so any flaws that aren’t obvious at first are revealed once the play gets on its feet.

(Pacing issues, in my experience, and the most likely to arise, and that is usually resolved by tinkering with the dialog; critical lines are tightened up or relocated to another part of the story that could accommodate them, and non-critical lines get cut entirely.)

The other reason is because of the somewhat unusual circumstances surrounding this project. When you serve as a writer-for-hire, there’s always a degree of writing by committee involved; the writer answers to the director and any producers, and thus has to relinquish a degree of creature control over the final product in the name of satisfying the higher-ups.

What’s been interesting with this project is how working with (or around) that outside influence can be no big deal or a pain in the butt, depending on how well the respective parties already understand the nature of this particular beast.

My immediate employer for this gig, Stephen Pasker of Autumn Tree Productions, is a person who “gets it.” Aside from having worked together for many a year on the Connecticut Renaissance Faire writing team, with Stephen again in the producer role and me in the script-jockey seat, Stephen has experience writing scripts as well for his own shows, so he understands the process, the idiosyncrasies, the dos and don’ts of storytelling. etc. He makes a suggestion or offers a critique, I know where he’s coming from, he knows where I’m coming from, so we have ample common ground for finding a way to make things work.

His clients, however, do not have a similar background, and in fact have apparently never seen a murder mystery show, so their suggestions have come from a very different place. Theirs is more of the “You know what would be cool?” school of thought.

(For any non-writers reading this, “You know what would be cool?” is one of those phrases that sets a writer’s teeth on edge, almost as bad as, “You know what would make a great story?” When someone says “You know what would be cool?”, nine times out of ten what follows is a suggestion that utterly ignores plot, characterization, theme, subtext, etc., for the sake of a fleeting moment of dubious amusement. Michael Bay movies are built entirely on the “You know what would be cool?” philosophy. That’s my theory, anyway.)

Throughout the scripting process, I received e-mails from the clients through Stephen with suggestions and requests that in some instances, I was able to integrate. I might not have agreed with them, but they weren’t so wild that they couldn’t be made to work. A few characters not in the original outline were added, for example, and one of them ended up working out quite well (even though my first reaction upon hearing the request was something along the lines of “Are you frickin’ kidding me?”).

Other suggestions? Yeah, they weren’t so doable.

The clients at the outset asked that some roles be included for “guest-stars” — event attendees of some note — and it’s not unusual for a murder mystery to get the guests involved beyond simply helping to solve the murder, but they’re integrated under controlled circumstances. In this case, they had very small parts and minimal dialog that could (and probably will) be read off of cue cards. They had a presence but were not crucial to the rest of the story, and by extension to the rest of the audience’s ability to follow the plot and enjoy the show.

On more than a few occasions it became necessary to impress upon them why these guest-stars — whose exact number was unknown, who would not be attending any rehearsals, and could very well decide at the last minute not to show up to the event — could not have huge, critical parts in the show, and why their lines had to be sequestered to a specific segment so the rest of the play could proceed smoothly.

I don’t know if they completely grokked where I was coming from, since I had no direct interaction with them (good for all involved, methinks), but I can only assume by the fact some of these requests never came to fruition that they understood well enough.

These bumpier moments were eventually addressed, to the mutual satisfaction of all, but the process reminded me why freelancing can sometimes be a challenge. Working collaboratively, to any degree, means being able to the turn the ego control knob down several ticks in order to keep the process moving; you can’t dig your heels in and push back every time someone else might get his or her fingerprints on your precious story because, really, it’s not “your” story — it’s theirs, and they get a say too.


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